Russell Athletic Bowl — Key to Rutgers vs. Virginia Tech: Outside Zone

College football’s bowl season is not much like the single-minded narrative of a one winner-take-all playoff. Instead it’s a shifting, multiple layered story told through an ensemble cast. Some of the stories, like the BCS title game, are triumphant, with maybe even a tinge of poetic folklore — some battle that could as easily be taking place on Mount Olympus as in New Orleans or Pasadena. But other bowls are decidedly middle American, where hope and expectation have been dulled into some more reasonable expectation of just a simple win, maybe a winning season; more Death of a Salesman than Greek myth.

Key to the game -- more of this

Key to the game: more of this

But it’s often the smaller story that carries the most drama.

The Russell Athletic Bowl pits a Virginia Tech team — a consensus preseason top 20 team — that limped its way through the season and had to win its final two games to even get to a bowl games, versus a Rutgers squad that began the year 7-0 but finished 9-3, partially undone by mistakes and inconsistency on offense (yet still having had a good year, overall). The game should be close — Virginia Tech is a slight two-point or so favorite — and both defenses ought to deliver solid performances, something often lacking during bowl season as more teams move to no-huddle spread attacks.

On offense, however, it’s a bit of a different story. Virginia Tech had high hopes for its offense, led by quarterback Logan Thomas, but the Hokies offense — and Thomas in particular — has been a big disappointment. Virginia Tech’s offense has never been known for being explosive, but their average yards per play fell by roughly half a yard, while their turnover margin swung from positive to negative. But despite those struggles I think the game will be won or lost on the other side of the ball, in the matchup between Rutgers’ offense and Virginia Tech’s defense.

Rutgers coach Kyle Flood was promoted from offensive line to head coach following Greg Schiano’s departure to the NFL, and Flood, a no non-sense kind of guy, clearly wants the foundation of his team to be his offensive line and especially his running game. Much of this is by attitude, but it’s also by necessity, as quarterback Gary Nova has been nothing if not inconsistent. Against Temple, Nova completed 63% of his passes and threw for four touchdowns but — one week later, a game I attended in person — he threw a season high 46 times and six interceptions against Kent State, the Scarlet Knights’ first loss of the season.

But the problem for Rutgers wasn’t just Nova’s inconsistency, it was that teams began to be able to take away their running games. Flood’s offense is designed to be essentially a pro-style system; if you go just by formations and a superficial look at plays, the college team they most resemble on offense is Alabama. And the foundation of their attack is nothing fancy: the outside zone play, complete with a tight-end and a fullback.

It’s a play that Flood has lectured on at coaching clinics for years and, when Rutgers’ offense is rolling, you’ll see lots and lots of outside zone.

OZ

Rutgers runs it the same way most NFL teams do, which is essentially the same way the old school Nebraska teams used to run it under Tom Osborne (the diagram above is from Milt Tenopir, Nebraska’ legendary offensive line coach). There are three keys to Flood’s outside zone:

  1. The runningback’s read;
  2. The technique of the “uncovered lineman”; and
  3. Where the fullback “inserts” into the defense.

(more…)

Peyton Manning (and Tom Moore)’s Indianapolis Colts Offense: How a Handful of Plays Led to a Decade of Success

For thirteen seasons — spanning three head coaches, two Super Bowl appearances, one Super Bowl victory, four NFL MVP awards, and countless incredible games — Peyton Manning led the Indianapolis Colts. In eleven of those seasons, the Colts won at least ten games, including for nine straight seasons, not counting 2011’s disastrous Peyton-less year. But now Manning is a Bronco, in a new town, playing for a new team, and in a (somewhat) new scheme. I am not as confident as some that Manning’s injury won’t prevent him from playing at the incredible level he played at for so many years, and I am also not as sure of the Broncos coaching staff as some. As a football fan, however, I want nothing other than for Manning to take the field this fall, clad in Denver orange, and to light up the NFL all over again. But time will tell on all of that.

You know what I'm callin'

Yet what Manning accomplished during his time with the Colts cannot be undersold. The yards, the touchdowns, the records, and, most of all, the wins are testament to that. Yet what really interested me was how they did it. Specifically, how Manning and the Colts — for thirteen years — ran the same tiny little cluster of plays, from the same tiny little cluster of formations, with the most consistent personnel in the league, and brutalized NFL defenses year-in and year-out. The obvious answer was they had some pretty good skill players during that time, from Edgerrin James to Marvin Harrison to Reggie Wayne, Brandon Stokely, Dallas Clark, and Joseph Addai. And even more obvious is simply that the triggerman, who was constantly checking and audibling and gyrating at the line to get exactly what he wanted, was simply so good. But that alone doesn’t answer the question of why they were so good yet so simple; one could make a pretty good case that if you have the best, most experienced, and most in-tuned quarterback in the league you could out-complicate defenses.

That’s not the route the Colts went, however, and much of it had to do with the ornery fixture on the Colts sidelines who called Manning’s plays (though what they did was more of a conversation than traditional “play-calling”), Tom Moore. Moore, whose coaching experience goes back to the early 1960s, became a Colt the same year Manning did, and the two shared a symbiotic relationship until Moore semi-retired in 2009 and then fully left the team sometime later. And together, using the simplest tools around, Moore and Manning made great music.

“I can give the playbook,” [said former Colts backup quarterback, Jim] Sorgi. “There is not that many teams they’re going to play who don’t know what they’re going to do. It’s all about execution. Their coaches are like, ‘We’ll tell the other team what we’re doing. They got to stop us.’ That’s what they do. That’s what they’re all about. And not many teams have been able to stop them yet.” Sorgi said he knows the strengths and weaknesses of the Colts’ offensive personnel. He was on the Colts longer than all but nine players on their current roster. He worked with Manning and former offensive coordinator Tom Moore, who installed the system that perennially keeps the Colts among the top teams in the league.

“Being there six years, I helped put in a lot of the information that they use,” Sorgi said. “But sometimes, how much you know doesn’t really matter. It’s about executing against him.
“I can give the defense all the information that I can, and it’s, ‘Can we get to Peyton? Can we knock him down? Can we get to him before the ball’s out?’ You can know what route’s coming and still not cover it.”

Jim Sorgi was not kidding.
(more…)

Fantastic inside zone and “pin-and-pull” outside zone cut-ups

Under former coach Glen Mason, Minnesota, while not a great team, was one of the best rushing teams in the entire country during that time. And while they had some very good backs — including both Lawrence Maroney and Marion Barber III at the same time — they did it by being extremely simple: the inside zone and the outside zone, primarily with “pin and pull” blocking. Below are some great game film cut-ups of both:

Inside Zone:

Outside Zone:
(more…)

New Grantland: Alabama’s Run Game — Simple and Deadly, But Is It Good Enough to Beat LSU?

It’s up over at Grantland:

That said, we should never count out Nick Saban. Alabama’s defense is arguably even better than LSU’s based on statistics (though I favor LSU owing to stronger competition and general fearsomeness). Alabama also boasts perhaps the best player on either team: running back and Heisman finalist Trent Richardson. Perhaps more than any other player in the country, Richardson has the ability to personally shred defenses, even those geared to stop him.

But can Alabama get Richardson loose? In the first matchup (or hadn’t you heard that this game was a rematch?), Richardson led the Crimson Tide in rushing and receiving but never really got free. Because we know what we will get from Richardson — primarily, if you’re an LSU defender, a face full of the kneepad-covered pistons he calls legs — Alabama’s success on offense Monday night will depend on offensive coordinator Jim McElwain and tight end Brad Smelley.

Read the whole thing.

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:

(more…)

More on the zone read (or midline read) of the defensive tackle

The classic zone read, where the runningback runs the zone play to one side while the quarterback reads the backside defensive end, is a great play. But if you use it enough, two problems emerge.

Practice makes perfect

First, just because you’re reading the defensive end doesn’t mean you’ve made your blocks on everyone else — a stud defensive tackle you can’t block can still blow up the play. Second, the defense can simply play games on the backside; the zone read is no longer new. A common response is the “scrape exchange,” where the defensive end crashes down for the runningback, thus forcing the quarterback to pull the ball, only to run right into a “scraping” linebacker waiting on him.

An increasingly frequent solution to both of these problems is to read defenders other than the defensive end. One, you can read, instead of trying to block, the most dangerous defensive lineman on the other team. Two, this makes the “scrape exchange,” at least where it involves the backside defensive end and weakside linebacker, irrelevant, as you just block both of them.

DT

Oregon and Florida were the first teams I saw use this, but last week’s game between Purdue and Northwestern — Purdue being quite desperate and with a new mobile quarterback — went to this technique to try to manufacture some offense. As reported in the Journal & Courier:

[The Purdue quarterback, Robert Henry,] keyed on Northwestern’s interior linemen on the zone read plays, either keeping the ball or handing off to Dierking or Antavian Edison. Five consecutive running plays produced 34 yards and brought the Boilermakers to Northwestern’s 21-yard line. . . .

“We did some research, calling a bunch of buddies of mine that have made their living doing the different reads of the interior linemen,” Nord said. “I’ve always been involved in the drop back passing game, the misdirection and the play-action. I never did a lot of veer, option stuff.

“We have a guy that can execute it very well. He’s reading down linemen and doing what they’re not doing. If they’re biting on the ball carrier, he’s pulling it. If they’re biting on him, he’s giving it.”

. . . . The Boilermakers faced fourth-and-1 from the Wildcat 7 and called timeout.

“We wanted to make sure we had a chance to either hand it off or have Rob Henry keep it so we called a play where if the hole is there, we hand it off and if it wasn’t, Rob Henry would keep it,” coach Danny Hope said. “It gave us two options to score and win the game.” The hole was definitely there.

“I couldn’t have written up a better script,” said Dierking, who had five carries for 22 yards on the last drive. “I saw the hole open up so I jerked it from him.” . . .

“We knew they were going to run the quarterback; how they were going to run him we had to adjust to,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They changed up their scheme a little bit, and were reading our tackles as opposed to our defensive ends. There were times when we fit it very well, and there were times when we didn’t.”

When I wrote about this play yesterday I had only seen some of the game and spotted the tactic; the above article (courtesy of reader Brad), confirms my analysis. Video of the fourth down play is below:

This tactic has been adopted by other teams as well, including Nebraska. The question is whether it will provide a sustained advantage or if only work to catch defenses off guard for a little while — time will tell. Certainly teams like Oregon have made a living on the play. And the rules for how you might teach the play are quite simple too: On the frontside, your defenders keep their normal zone rules. Your center and backside guard leave unblocked the first man heads up or backside of the center, while the backside guard and tackle block the backside defensive end and weakside linebacker. Thus the zone read where the defensive tackle, instead of the defensive end, is the read.

But wait, say option coaches. Why call this the zone read, instead of what it is: the midline option from gun? They have a point. You end up blocking the same people and using the same read. That said, I think both get you to the same place, however, and the primary difference is whether you began with zone running and the zone read, or you began as a traditional option guy. See how similar the midline from gun is to what I’ve been discussing, as shown in the video below:

(more…)

A very simple explanation of the zone runs, and the difference between inside zone and outside zone

I wrote this up in abbreviated form originally for my breakdown of the OU-Texas game for Yahoo!’s Dr Saturday, but this is something I’ve been thinking about for awhile. There is still way too much confusion about inside zones and outside zones. Part of this is that there are a lot of coaching points on these plays. Indeed, many NFL teams run nothing but inside and outside zone and maybe “power” and “counter,” and therefore spend hours every week coaching the finer points of these plays. But that’s not a reason why the basics have to be so confusing. So here is an imperfect but very basic explanation for what zone runs are, and the difference between inside and outside zones.

Many, many "zone gurus" learned from longtime NFL coach Alex Gibbs,

Many, many "zone gurus" learned from longtime NFL coach Alex Gibbs

Think of this as Newtonian physics for the run game. Yes, Einsteinian physics is more precise and is necessary if you want to understand certain extreme events, but Newtonian physics is extremely useful, easy to understand, and will explain pretty much all you need to know unless you’re currently an offensive line coach (and even if you are, my hope is that this is a pretty good reminder of some things.) Here goes:

On zone plays, the linemen keep the same blocking schemes, regardless of how many tight-ends or wide receivers they use. The aiming point for the runningbacks remain about the same. Many zone teams begin by focusing on the outside zone. Once that is established and the defense is flowing fast to the sideline, the offense comes back with the inside zone.

Yet there is much discussion of what “zone runs” even are. First, there is only so much “zoning” in a zone — much of it is still just blocking the guy in front of you. On all zone runs, the linemen must ask, “Am I ‘covered’ (is there a guy directly in front of me, aside from a linebacker set back a few years)? Or am I ‘uncovered’ (there is no one directly in front of me)?”

If “covered,” there is very little “zoning” at all: The lineman’s job is to block the guy in front of them. Fans, commentators, and even coaches often overcomplicate things. The “zone” aspect comes in with “uncovered” linemen. If “uncovered,” the lineman must step “playside” — i.e. the side the run is going to — and help double-team the defensive linemen along with his “covered” cohort. Once the two of them control that down defensive lineman, one of the offensive linemen slides off to hit a linebacker. It’s not that complicated. Indeed, let’s say the five offensive linemen are covered by five defensive linemen. In that case, each guy (save for maybe the backside offensive tackle) will just block the guy in front of them — there is no “zoning” at all.

It gets a little trickier regarding the difference between inside and outside zones, though this involves technique, not assignment. (And this is where the rabbit hole begins, as there are a zillion coaching points to doing this well, but that is better discussed in a coaching DVD rather than this overview.)

On outside zone plays, the offensive linemen take a bit more of a lateral first step and try to reach the defender across from them. He wants to get his body between the defender and the sideline. It’s important to note, however, that the very act of trying to reach the defender often gets him flying to the sideline, at which time the offensive lineman can then switch to driving the defender to the sideline. The runningback aims for a point outside the tight-end, though he can cut it upfield wherever a seam appears.

OutsideZone

Once the defense begins flowing too fast to the sideline, coaches typically dial-up the inside zone. The rules are the same — covered and uncovered — except this is more of a drive block as the aiming point for the runningback is inside. The play often results in a cutback if the defense is flowing fast for the outside zone, but the difference between the outside zone is one of technique, not assignment. And, again, it does not make a difference to the linemen (or at least not much of one) if OU runs this from a four wide set or a two-back one.

IZ-run

On the inside zone the runner aims for the outside hip of the offensive guard. Now, his read can vary by team. Some teams have him read that three technique defensive tackle, while others have him read the middle or “Mike” linebacker. In both cases the idea is for him to find the “vertical” crease — either straight playside off the guard’s hip or backside on a cutback.

A few concluding thoughts. There’s obviously more to it than this. The biggest thing offensive line coaches work on is the initial steps for their linemen (often called a “lateral” or even slightly backwards “bucket step”), and later they work diligently on the proper technique for double-teaming a lineman and then getting up to the “second-level” to block a linebacker. But again, if a defensive “covered” all the linemen, there is no zone. It still comes down to blocking the guy in front of you.

Finally, there are variances. One is the “pin-and-pull” variant of the outside zone or stretch play run by the Indianapolis Colts. Also, for additional reading check out these posts from Trojan Football Analysis on (old-school) Nebraska’s inside and outside zone plays.