TCU’s inverted veer option

daltonyReader Jay Miller passed along some great info from TCU’s victory over Clemson. Clemson’s defense this year has been stout, holding Georgia Tech’s flexbone below their averages and then completely crushing Boston College in one of the best defensive performances in recent memory. (Clemson held BC to 54 yards for the entire game.) Against TCU, however, in an otherwise solid defensive effort the Tigers allowed TCU’s quarterback Andy Dalton to rush 19 times for 86 yards, many of them on key conversions. After the game, Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele appeared flummoxed — or at least very caught off guard — by one spread-option variant in particular that TCU used:

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. When one reporter asked Steele why the zone read was giving his defense so much trouble, Steele explained the difference between a true zone read and what Dalton was running on Saturday.

“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 don’t know if it’s just luck or if they are just that smart, but there were a couple of those calls that we really needed something to happen and we didn’t. The ones that were base defense calls against, we got it stopped. But the ones where we were trying to have some pressure and make something happen, we maybe should have just left those calls alone and just base defended it. “

Clemson linebacker Brandon Maye said the play was causing trouble because of TCU spreading receivers across the field.

“They were spreading us out and forcing us to play one linebacker and forcing that one linebacker to play two gaps,” Maye said. “All you can say is they did a good job scheming us up.”

I’m going to disagree with the description of the play as a variant of the zone-read, though all of these plays fall within the same spread option family. Indeed, this is a play I’ve seen Florida and Urban Meyer use before, though the pulling guard is a nice wrinkle. I call it an “inverted veer.”

In the typical veer play from a spread set, the line blocks down and double-teams the defensive linemen on up to the linebackers. They leave the defensive end unblocked (except when they run midline veer, in which case it is a defensive tackle) and read that man. If he steps down for the runningback, the QB just gives the ball and steps around him. It is just the old first-read of the triple option adapted for spread sets.

veer

But TCU ran a variant, one I’ve seen other teams use. They just “inverted” the runningback and quarterback: The runningback runs a sweep or outside zone action laterally. If the defensive end takes him, then the quarterback shoots up inside the defensive end. If the defensive end sits for the QB, the runner should be able to hit the corner. Remember, the defensive end is often the hardest guy to block, and especially so when you want to “reach” him to seal the corner.

invertedveer

In that way I disagree with the characterization of the play as a fake-zone read where the QB then runs back to the other way. You can see the runner is taking a wide angle. That said, I don’t know what TCU’s read was, but this is a play I’ve seen at least for a few years. And again, Meyer uses it at Florida with his fast runners heading outside and Tebow, the better inside runner, going inside. Below is video of TCU using it against Clemson. (Again, thanks to reader Jay Miller.)

Finally, the one wrinkle TCU has is the pulling guard. I think that was just designed to get better blocking at the point of attack, though TCU had them so crossed up he didn’t even end up blocking anyone. This scheme has a lot of similarities with how teams block the shovel play.

I suppose the reason Steele and Clemson had so much trouble with this hinges on what his linebacker’s reads were. I take it they were reading the quarterback and thinking backside with the zone read. If they read the pulling guard, for example, there wouldn’t be an issue with where the play was going. (This is one reason the veer blocking works so well, because the line steps one way and the play hits the other. The pulling guard can give this away.) It is just like on the famous counter trey play: if the linebackers read the pullers there are no issues with stopping it (though they may be weak to some other play), but if they read the fullback blocking away they can get crossed up.

It’s all a cat-and-mouse game. Point in this one to TCU.

Rich Rodriguez on the spread run game

Nothing revolutionary, but good stuff.

Breaking down the New England Patriots’ pro-spread pass game

You can find it over at the NY Times Fifth Down blog. I discuss three concepts — levels, the drive/shallow, and pivot concepts (y-stick type routes, or a pivot route with a square-in behind it) — and how the Pats use Wes Welker to make it all go and open things up for the other receivers, especially Randy Moss. Read the full thing here.

Smart Football Podcast 8/31/09

I did a post-cast with the brilliant Bill Connelly of Rock M Nation (and Football Outsiders). Wherein we discuss (me incoherently, Bill with great precision) the following:

1. Missouri vs Illinois
2. The future of Missouri’s spread offense moving from Chase Daniel to Blaine Gabbert
3. The role (and limits) of college football analysis and statistics
4. Rich Rodriguez and NCAA practice rules
5. A PTI-style, Big 12-themed rapid fire round

Thanks again to Bill for running the show. The technical kinks are still to be worked out (including my sounding like I’m telecommuting from the Ozarks), but enjoy the foolishness.

Smart Football/RockMNation podcast 8/31/09

(Note that I was having issues with the embedded audio. If it’s not working I’ll work on it, but the download link should work.)

Defending the zone-read: athleticism and the “scrape-exchange”

Much of what is new in defending the spread involves giving different looks on the backside of all those “zone-read” and other read plays that spread teams are so fond of. For example, on the typical zone-read play, the line is responsible for blocking everyone but the backside defensive end; the quarterback “reads” him. If he crashes to take the runningback (or at least to eliminate the runningback’s cutback lane), the quarterback keeps it; if the defensive end is not in position to tackle the runner (either because he stays put or takes the quarterback, the QB simply hands the ball off to the runner.

zoneread

Defenses began reacting by using a technique called a “scrape exchange” to mess up the read. With this defensive adjustment, the defensive end always crashes for the runningback, while the linebacker “scrapes” over to take the quarterback. If the quarterback doesn’t see this, he will pull the ball, thinking he will have an easy lane on the backside, and instead runs straight into the linebacker.

scrapeexchange

If the offense knows that the defense is shifting to this (a big if), what is the adjustment? Tell the tackle to block the defensive end, and the quarterback to read the linebacker. Often the linebacker will take himself out of the play, and with good blocking, the offense should be able to get a good run play, or a big play if the runner can cut back.

But let’s step back from scheme: what else can a defense do? One answer, is just to get more athletic. As TCU’s excellent coach Garry Patterson recently told the NY Times’s Pete Thamel:

Patterson’s base defense consists of four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. Many teams have gone away from four-man defensive lines and have added a linebacker for a 3-4 alignment, but Patterson chooses to keep the front stout and the back end of the defense flexible.

It is a simple concept for a complicated challenge.

“You’ve got to spread out with them,” he said. “We try to coach defense like coaches coach offense.”

Patterson’s theories on slowing down the spread quickly come back to speed.

“If the defensive end is fast enough to be able to play the running back or the quarterback instead of some other person on your defense, that frees up a guy,” he said. “If nine guys out of your 11 can run somebody down, it always helps.”

This last quote is the most important. Reconsider the diagrams above. Now, let’s say (a) that the defensive end (or linebacker in a “scrape-exchange” scheme) is a real stud, and (b) that the quarterback is nothing special — not a Pat White or Vince Young. In that case, when the defense sees the zone read the defender being “read” can pretty much just wait until he knows whether the QB or RB is keeping it, and then attack accordingly. Unless the quarterback is a real athletic threat (think of Michigan’s motley quarterbacking crew from last season), that defender can play both the zone-read and not fear having the quarterback run by him; if the QB runs, he’ll get ‘em.

The obvious answer for the offense is to get more athletic at quarterback (like Michigan is trying to do), but there are other things, like amping up the options on the backside reads for the QB if he doesn’t give it to the back. But, as always, the chess match goes on and on . . . .

NFL Coaches still fussing about the wildcat

ronniebrownJon Gruden will one day run the spread in the NFL. Either that, or he will die trying. People may not realize it, but Gruden coached the run and shoot under Walt Harris at Pacific, and gave some thought to committing to that offense full time. Instead he made a career choice to focus on the west coast offense. From that perspective (two NFL coaching gigs and a Super Bowl), it worked out. But he is not averse to being wide open, and he clearly is enamored with the wildcat and what the spread guys are doing in college. (Keep in mind that his brother Jay was an Arena league player and coach for a long time.) Gruden has spent the whole offseason focusing on the spread, including attending Urban Meyer’s coaching clinic at Florida this past spring (with Bill Belichick, who raved about Gruden’s clinic lecture). Anyway Gruden is back at it now that Vick has been signed:

Gruden is bullish on the limitless NFL possibilities of the spread offense and its baby brother, the Wildcat formation. It’s become all the rage in college football, and Gruden thinks the time is ripe to bring it in a big way to the pros. . . .

“I wanted to use it last year, but we had some injuries and shied away from it a little bit,” Gruden said. “But it’s been something I’ve been studying.

“When you pick up a college tape, 90 percent of those guys, you never see them under center. Ever. All you’re seeing is spread-read options. There are guys like Tim Tebow, who is going to be coming out next year, somebody is going to take him, and somebody is going to have a plan for him. Vince Young has struggled the last couple of years. But he was wicked in that Rose Bowl game against USC. He ran for 200 and threw for 200.

“Then there’s Vick. He’s certainly a candidate to run the spread. Everybody’s got a guy [who can run it]. Brad Smith with the Jets. Michael Robinson in San Francisco. Isaiah Stanback in Dallas. Everybody’s got a guy that can throw a little bit. I think there’s a wave coming.”

I’m inclined to agree.

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