Noel Mazzone’s Offensive Philosophy and Inside Zone with Built In Quick Screens

Good stuff from former NC State, New York Jets and Arizona State assistant and current UCLA offensive coordinator, Noel Mazzone. Particularly good stuff on practice philosophy and how to have base plays and how to solve problems (i.e. with constraint plays). Says he goes into a game with no more than about 32-35 plays, total. Also, make sure to watch the eighth and last video, as it covers Mazzone’s packaged concept where he combines a quick three-step pass combo with a slow screen to the other side, which I’ve discussed previously.

Update: The videos have been taken down. There’s a comment that the clinic asked the person who uploaded them to take them down; if so, I didn’t know they were uploaded without any permission. I will try to address some of Noel’s stuff in the future on here.

Get Smart about Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Spread

One of the best recent developments in the blogosphere has been the addition of my friend Ross Fulton to what was already one of the best blogs around, the Ohio State site Eleven Warriors. Ross has been a perfect fit, not least of all because he’s got great material to analyze in the form of Urban Meyer’s offense (along with offensive coordinator Tom Herman) are installing at Ohio State. Check out the links below for a learned preview of what we can expect from the Buckeye offense this fall.

Combining the shovel option with a sprint-out pass

One of my favorite recent evolutions in offenses has come from the rise of “combined” or “packaged” concepts, which might combine both a run and a quick pass play or a quick shovel screen and a quick pass into the same play. Part of the motivation behind such concepts is that they are simply good ones: You can take things you are already good at, combine them, and make the defense wrong every time while executing simple ideas. But the other reason is that in the age of the no-huddle, they avoid the need for complex pre-snap audibles or convoluted calls in the huddle of multiple plays. With these “packaged concepts” you get both the quick call-it-and-go of a fast paced no-huddle without sacrificing the quarterback’s key role in putting the offense in position to succeed.

One of the most intriguing new concepts that I’ve been told teams have run this past season — if you have any film, please feel free to send it — is to combine the “shovel option” play that Urban Meyer made famous at Florida with a true sprint-out or roll-out pass concept. The “shovel option” or “crazy option” is a great play in and of itself: The line blocks the “power” concept, pulling the backside guard, while leaving the defensive end unblocked so the quarterback can option off of him. Typically, the defensive end cannot help himself but attack upfield for the quarterback, allowing the quarterback to shovel pass it upfield to the runningback who has slipped underneath and who has a lead blocker. Below is a clip of Tim Tebow tosses the shovel option to current Patriots stand-out Aaron Hernandez.

It’s a great play — and it certainly pre-dates Meyer, as I’ve even seen clips of Alabama coach Bear Bryant running the play back in 1976 — but teams have gotten better at defending it recently. And the defensive ends that have gotten better at defending it are able to squeeze and take away the shovel pass and to force the quarterback to extend the play to the outside. Sometimes, teams run the play as a true triple option, combining the inside shovel with a speed option to the outside. But the timing on this never seems to work out well, as the speed option isn’t particularly well complemented by the slower developing shovel to the inside. And even if it is a good play, it becomes significantly more expensive to convert it from a cheap way to run the shovel and not have to block some stud defensive end and to instead turn it into a true triple option. There must be some other way to run this.

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Dana Holgorsen’s West Virginia “Airraid” offense

Dana Holgorsen came to West Virginia to install his own brand of the Airraid offense, which was invented and developed by Hal Mumme and Mike Leach. Their offense had been somewhat inconsistent all year, but 70 points — in the Orange Bowl — is pretty much how you draw it up. Below are some links giving a primer to an offense — and a coach, and a system – I’ve long been studying.

- I explained in detail the history, evolution, and development of Holgorsen’s own unique brand of the Airraid — with added emphasis on the run game and play-action — over at Grantland earlier this season.

- Holgorsen often says that the key to the offense is less about the schemes than how they practice. As explained here, he says his offense can be explained in three days (with obviously some refinement later on).

- Further, see here for a primer on how Texas Tech set up their practices under Mike Leach. Holgorsen used this same framework at West Virginia.

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Adapting the Rocket Toss Sweep to Spread and Pro-style Offenses

The top four rushing teams in college football this past season — Navy, Air Force, Army, and Georgia Tech — each ran the flexbone offense or some variation of it. “Well,” you say, “those offenses run the ball a lot, so that inflates the yardage.”

Rocket: Just get it to the fast guy

To a point, yes, but even if you simply look at them on a yards per rushing attempt basis they were each in the top 10, with Navy last at 5.40 yards per attempt at 10th and Air Force and Georgia Tech tied for 3rd at 5.75 yards per attempt. And maybe the most impressive (or at least surprising) statistics of the season is that FCS power Georgia Southern hung over 300 yards rushing at over 7.7 yards per carryversus Nick Saban’s vaunted Alabama defense, a solid 230 yards more than the average for ‘Bama’s opponents. (It should be noted that the game was not close.) So it pays to study what plays and principles give them so much success.**

Obviously these flexbone teams use a lot of option principles, which may or may not be adaptable to what a given team currently does. This is especially so for spread-to-pass or pro-style teams that simply don’t have the time to work on a complex set of quarterback reads for option; it’s great stuff, it’s just a different offense and would require certain trade-offs. I am a big believer that many teams simply try to do too much and end up bad at a lot of things instead of very good at a couple of them.

But one play — really a series, rather than a play — that is criminally underutilized is the “Rocket Toss Sweep” or simply the “Rocket” series. See below for an example of the base rocket play.

The rocket similar in concept to a jet sweep, but with some notable differences. Specifically, because the sweeper takes a deeper path:

  • the play actually happens faster than the jet, because the pitch can occurs outside of the box rather than via a jet which usually takes place where the quarterback is standing;
  • this depth actually allows the offense to get additional lead blockers in front of the rocket sweeper — it’s the ultimate “numbers to the perimeter” play; and
  • because so much action is flowing to the playside, counters are even better off of the rocket action than they are from the jet sweep, as shown in the video clip below.

This last point is the real reason why I think the rocket sweep is a must include for any spread or even multiple pro-style offense, especially if they don’t use the quarterback in the run game. The difficult part in designing and executing any run game is controlling for two defenders: the counterpart for the quarterback and the runningback. In the traditional pro-style defense against a run play, it is the runningback’s defensive counterpart that causes problems: when a quarterback hands off and watches the play, a deep safety stays back to watch out for play-action, but some unblocked linebacker or defensive end can cause problems by taking away the cutback or simply causing confusion in running assignments. By using the quarterback in the run game with reads and options you can control that defender, but for many pass-first teams that’s not necessarily an option. You’re either Oregon or you’re not.

But the rocket series gives you some of that — it is a series — without necessarily requiring that you spend all the additional time required to use your quarterback in the run game. As one coach recently put it:

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Attacking “Psycho” fronts and other blitz heavy defensive looks

When asked earlier this season how he would describe the current trend in modern defenses, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton summed it up in one word: “confusion.” While there are few truly “new” ideas in football, there is a near infinite number of ways to hide, disguise, or slightly vary those ideas. One increasingly popular idea in the NFL is the “psycho front“, which simply refers to a defense that has two, one or maybe even zero defensive linemen with their hands on the ground and tends to stack the line of scrimmage. This may mean the defense is bringing a heavy blitz — or it might not. Often, the defense will show this look and then back out of it into some kind of coverage.

The advantages of the pyscho are many, but the biggest key is that confusion Payton talked about: it’s difficult for the quarterback and offensive line to determine which of the potential rushers will blitz — other than through mind reading — and with so many of them there is a high likelihood that there will be an assignment bust. Further, although the defense might give away what deep coverage it is playing, it’s not clear what kind of underneath coverage it will be — man, zone, and if zone how many underneath? Two? Three? Four? These are real issues.

Of course, the psycho itself is just a spin on some scheme done before; the fact that a defensive lineman takes his hand off the ground doesn’t, by itself, change the defensive structure. Indeed, these same issues have been presented by NFL-style heavy blitz teams in the past. The problem presented in the image below is the same one as in the image above, as the defense shows a seven man defensive front while the offense has only the five linemen and one running back as pass protectors. If the offense uses some spread run game they can tilt the numbers slightly back to their favor, but it’s still a big issue.

So how do you attack these looks? Ultimately the offense will need the ability to protect and complete some passes downfield, but that’s not where I would begin. Below is a short list of ideas (in no particular order) to defeat these heavy or “psycho” fronts where the defense simultaneously threatens all-out man blitz, confusing zone blitz, and no blitz, all at once. Note that this is from the perspective of either a pro-style team or some kind of pass-first or pass-balanced spread team.

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What is the Inverted Veer / Dash Read?

In fall 2009, a reader emailed me about a spread run scheme TCU used to close out a tight victory against Clemson. The scheme featured a runningback and the quarterback running to the same side — as opposed to the traditional zone read, where the two ran in opposite directions, along with playside blocking from the line. I’d seen something similar before, possibly from Urban Meyer’s team at Florida, but apparently Clemson’s excellent defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele had not seen it, or at least not from TCU. Indeed, since he hadn’t yet seen the tape Steele wasn’t even certain of how to label the concept, but he noted that it had been a significant factor in TCU’s victory:

Inverted veer works better when this is your QB

TCU quarterback Andy Dalton found almost all of his success on the ground on Saturday by employing a new play that the Clemson coaching staff had not seen on film, and Dalton seemed to run almost at will through the line of scrimmage and beyond. . . . Steele said that the play with Dalton carrying was really the only play the Tigers had not seen on film as they studied the Horned Frogs last week.“They ran just one play that we hadn’t seen on film – but it was a good one,” he said. . . .

“Not to get too technical, but on the zone read, the quarterback fakes to the running back going this way and the quarterback goes the other way,” Steele said. “What they were doing was faking zone read one way, the quarterback would step like he was going this way but they would pull the guard and chase it the other way. It was a new look. We got over there and drew it up, got it adjusted out, but we were doing it on the fly and adjusting it on every call.

I couldn’t tell you if TCU got the play from somewhere else or dreamed it up themselves, but in our increasingly interconnected world, that play — which I dubbed the “inverted veer” because it had the same read as the traditional veer but “inverted” the option with the quarterback now the inside man and the runner the outside man — has spread across all levels of football. By the end of the 2009 season, several teams had begun using it, but it’s real significance would come last season: The play was everywhere. Big 10 teams like Ohio State and Purdue (to use two on the opposite end of the spectrum) used it; it spread across conferences like the WAC and Conference USA; in the first part of the season, Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez racked up tons of yards with this play, most notably going for 240 yards against Kansas State on primetime; and, finally, Cam Newton rode the play to over 1,400 yards rushing, a Heisman trophy, and a national championship. And it goes without saying that, given the play’s popularity at the college level, countless high schools across the country installed it in the spring and fall.

But with the play’s popularity has come complexity and variation; we’ve evolved past the days of Kevin Steele diagramming the play and the defensive response on a greaseboard on the sideline. Let’s walk through the elements of the play, some of the choices available for blocking, and some of the defensive responses.

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The crack toss sweep and the double crack screen against an overloaded defense

No matter what offense you run, it’s important to have counters. In the video clip below, legendary offensive line coach Alex Gibbs shows his “crack toss sweep” counter to an overloaded defense. The idea is that, if you’re successful running to the power side of the formation, defenses will often overload that side, specifically by playing man coverage and flopping their cornerbacks to cover your two split receivers, thus keeping both the numbers as well as the better run support defenders to the strong side. One possible counter is the old counter trey play, which has the advantage of getting extra linemen at the point of attack but has the disadvantage of being slow. Gibbs shows (flip to the end for the film cut-ups) a “crack” toss where one of the wide receivers cracks down on the defensive end while the playside linemen pull and lead to the outside. It’s a great, easy to install changeup.

But as Coach Gibbs notes, it’s not quite as good against zone, a primary reason being that it doesn’t necessarily account for the linebackers as opposed to just the defensive end to the pitch side. Moreover, as fast as the toss is it’s not that quick. That’s why I prefer, instead of the crack toss, a “crack screen” play. This play is faster, which then has the added benefit of better numbers at the point of attack because the offense shouldn’t need to block the defensive end as he will be outflanked.

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The original one-back spread offense

Before the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach Airraid or the Urban Meyer spread-to-run, there was the old, original “one-back” offense. The man who is considered the father of the one-back and did the most to popularize it is Dennis Erickson, who doesn’t even run it anymore at Arizona State, having given the reins of his offense over to Noel Mazzone, who runs a kind of hybrid with the Airraid offense filtered through a former NFL assistant’s viewpoint. But the one-back has a storied legacy in football, both in that it paved the way for the 2000s, the decade of the spread, but also as an incredible offense in its own right. Erickson has explained the origins of the offense:

The one-back worked for me

“The ingenuity [Jack Elway] had offensively has spread throughout the country and has certainly had an influence on my strategy and my coaching,” Erickson said. “Obviously, he (Elway) was a pioneer of all that stuff, and used it before a lot of others.”Erickson said the first to use the spread offense was Jack Neumeier at Granada Hills, where John Elway played his high school football. Jack Elway then used it at Cal State Northridge and brought it to San Jose State.

Neumeier was a high school coach who wanted to open up his offense back in the 1970s and began splitting out extra receivers to do so. Both Jack and John Elway, then a young high schooler, wanted John to play somewhere that would showcase his talents as a quarterback in an age when everyone wanted to out-muscle everyone and so John enrolled at Granada. Granada’s offense got rolling as it was based on three excellent concepts:

  1. One-back formations with extra split receivers to open up passing and running holes in the defense.
  2. Option routes where receivers had the freedom to alter their route depending on the coverage.
  3. Having John freaking Elway as your high school quarterback.
Although undoubtedly already convinced of the wisdom of #3, Jack Elway saw the wisdom of #1 and #2 and realized that maybe the most advanced offensive mind in the game that he knew in 1976-78 was a high school coach in Granada. So Jack began spreading guys out and using what became the “one-back.”
Dennis Erickson served as Jack Elway’s offensive coordinator for three years at San Jose State, before later becoming a head coach at Idaho, Wyoming, Washington State and later Miami. During that time he coached with a number of other one-back gurus, including future head coaches John L. Smith, Mike Price and Joe Tiller (not to mention future NFL head coach/offensive coordinator Scott Linehan). It was during this time that Erickson solidifed the one-back’s offensive package, based on several important principles:
  1. One-back formations, with the base being three wide-receivers, one tight-end and one runningback. (Other coaches would put different spins on it, whether with four receivers or two tight-ends.)
  2. A running game consisting of inside and outside zone, Power-O and the counter trey.
  3. A heavy emphasis on the three-step drop passing game.
  4. “Option routes” as the base of the five-step drop passing game.
  5. A systematic or “constraint play” approach to playcalling.

Probably the best exemplar of the one-back in its prime was the 1997 Washington State squad led by then coach Mike Price and quarterback Ryan Leaf. History was not particularly kind to either man (though nicer to Price as after his Alabama debacle he’s been the coach at UTEP since 2004), but for that season the results speak for themselves: PAC-10 champ, 42 points per game and over 500 yards of offense per game. And let me say it again: They did this at Washington State.

That season Price employed a lot of formations but he used the “double slot” the most: two receivers to either side of the quarterback along with one running back. Many now will recognize this as the basic spread formation (though Leaf was usually under center rather than in the shotgun), but back then it was somewhat of a novelty. Price used it because of its then relative rarity, but also for practical reasons: Washington State’s fourth wide receiver was better than its tight-end.

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Study up: John Jenkins’ Houston run and shoot

Before Mike Leach or Dana Holgorsen, there was John Jenkins of run-and-shoot fame as maybe the original air-it-out southwest mad scientist (other than Dutch Meyer of TCU, of course). Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, what Houston was doing on offense was heresy, particularly the way they did it: by slaughtering foes with outrageous scores and stats whenever possible. Indeed, Jenkins was putting up “video game statistics” — 700 yard passing games, 80 or 90 points — before football video games could even keep those kinds of statistics. And then of course, aside from his outrageous offense, there was simply the outrageous man. From a famous SI profile at the time:

“Hey, Hoss, the main reason people play football is for fun, and this offense is fun,” [former Houston Cougars coach John] Jenkins says. “All it is, is throwing and catching. Our guys are out there all summer practicing throwing and catching. Can you imagine players in the wishbone wanting to go out and practice in 100-degree heat? What do they say, ‘Hey, Hoss, let’s go out and block each other. You hurt me, then I’ll bust you!’ ”

. . . Last December, when Houston ended its 10-1 season by devastating Arizona State 62-45 in the Tokyo Dome, Cougar quarterback David Klingler set an NCAA single-game record by passing for 716 yards. Only he didn’t know he was nearing the record until somebody on the sideline mentioned it. “It was Jenkins,” Klingler said later. “He kept trying to find out what [yardage] I had.” In the postseason Blue-Gray game, Jenkins installed the run-and-shoot for the Gray team and then used a megaphone to shout out the plays. “That wasn’t right,” said an opposing coach. “In games like that you should run offenses…that both teams will understand.”

It is the numbers—especially the outrageously lopsided scores that his offense has engendered — that have bathed Jenkins in so much scalding acid. Scores like 60-0, 82-28, 66-15, 69-0, 65-7, 66-10 and 64-0 have become commonplace in the Houston record book since 1987, when Jenkins became the offensive coordinator under coach Jack Pardee….

Jenkins does not claim to have invented the offense, by the way, only to have expanded it…. “Everything’s similar, but different,” Jenkins says. “We’re more advanced, more complex. Tinkering with this deal, messing with it in my head, the possibilities through the avenues in the air are so unlimited it’s scary.”

Jenkins actually converses in this hip-poetic, mad-scientist fashion, and he really does believe he has come upon the secret of the football universe—”like NASA discovering some new solar system,” he says. “Other teams are crawling, we’re flying.”

Paranoid — isn’t every coach? — about revealing the intimate details of his offense, Jenkins lectures at clinics only on fundamentals, prohibits other college coaches from watching his practices and keeps a shredder over his office wastebasket, the better to keep the eyes of spies from the 350-page workbooks he issues to Houston’s skill-position players every week. “Do IBM and Xerox share their policies so some competitor can come in later and kick their butts?” says Jenkins.

Tony Fitzpatrick, a Houston assistant coach who played for the Gamblers when both Davis and Jenkins were assistant coaches there, says, “Jenks is so far ahead of everybody else, it’s a joke. Mouse comes in here now, looks at our films and even he doesn’t understand them. Spreading the field? Mouse had [the Gamblers'] slot guys split arm’s length from the tackles. Jenks would have them start their routes over by the Gatorade carts if he could.”

As the video clips above and below show, what Jenkins was doing in 1992 looks a lot like what teams are doing only now, almost twenty years later.

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