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Football Concepts, Schemes, Formations: TDG Football Seminar Week 1

We discuss how everything new in football is really old concepts with new wrinkles.

Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Welcome to the first week of the TDG football seminar. We started last week with reading through Chris B. Brown's Essential Smart Football (ESF). Our first four readings were about Urban Meyer's offensive evolution, the 3-3-5 stack defense, Virginia Tech's defensive evolution, and the evolution of offensive schemes. Like I mentioned last week, this is fairly collaborative. I'm going to give my thoughts in the post, and we can talk about them as well as your thoughts in the comments.

Everything Old is New Again

Let's start with the most basic observation about the game of football. As John Madden might have said, the goal of the game is to score points than the other team. TDG asked Jerry Kill what his favorite play was at last year's Media days. His response? A successful one.

How does one go about scoring points? If there's one constant in offense, it's that every coach attempts to put his athletes in space to make plays. Football is played on a rectangle, and space is a premium. In ESF, Brown notes that novelty does not an offense make. Urban Meyer's offenses at Florida, and then at Ohio State last year under Tom Herman, have been successful because they make use of their best athletes. Meyer runs a different offense at Ohio State than he did at Florida. At Florida, Meyer worked on a power offense led by Tim Tebow. At Ohio State, Meyer and Herman changed to make the inside zone as their primary method of attack. Meyer thought of the inside zone as a finesse play, but came around because it did the primary job of an offense, move the chains and score points.

What is an inside zone? In short, it's a running play designed to get a running back straight ahead with speed through the 'A' gap, or the gap between the center and the guard. When it works, it looks something like this

Watch the blocking on this play before savoring yet another destructive run against the Wisconsin Badgers. When the offensive line zone blocks, each lineman asks himself a question. (Well not literally because this whole play is over in about 3 seconds for the offensive line). The question is "Is there a guy directly across from me?" If yes, the lineman's responsibility is simple, block that guy. If the answer is no, the lineman then follows the rules that he's been taught. We will discuss offensive line blocking in much greater detail in a later segment.

The inside zone from the shotgun may be somewhat new in football, but the play itself is very old. Indeed, the great Vince Lombardi had zone blocking schemes while coaching the Packers back in the 1950s. Lombardi devoted several paragraphs in Vince Lombardi on Football to describing the scheme. Lombardi would not have run it from the shotgun, but he would recognize the blocking. As we go through this seminar, remember that every concept we talk about has likely already been done before in a different context.

Defensive Evolution

It's not just the offense that evolves. Defense is largely reactive in sports, and football is no exception. Since the point of a defense is to not let the offense score, change on defense happens when the offense comes up with a play or an offense that seems unstoppable. Every offense was a Wing-T offense until defensive coordinators figured out how to mitigate its effects. Every team ran the option until the 4-3 (four lineman and three linebackers) and assignment defense came about. The next three chapters we looked at explore this concept in different ways.

The 3-3-5 stack is a great example of a consistent problem in college football. How do you field a successful defense if you don't have Alabama's talent. Charlie Strong's, the current coach at Texas, and the defensive coordinator at South Carolina and Florida, brought in the 3-3-5 for a simple reason, athletes. South Carolina did not have excellent tackling at linebacker, but the Gamecocks did have talent in the secondary. If the first rule of football is to score more points than the other team, the second must be to get your best athletes in positions to be successful.

The 3-3-5 means three down lineman, three linebackers, and five defensive backs. Two of those defensive backs are hybrid strong safety/outside linebackers that patrol the flats. The flat is is the area of the field from the hash marks to the sideline and from the line of scrimmage to ten yards downfield. Here's an example from Cal.

The 3-3-5 was itself an evolution of a defense designed to solve a different problem. How do you stop a team that puts four wide receivers on the field at all times. If you have a traditional lineup of four lineman and three linebackers, there will always be a mismatch. Strong recognized that with a different configuration of players, he could create chaos from aggressive blitzes while still maintaining a coherent defensive formation. This would help defuse mismatches in talent, and give his defense chances to make plays.

Countering and defusing mismatches is the entirety of defensive strategy. The Evolution of Defense from ESF talks about this in the context of the zone blitz. When we watch the Gophers this year, zone blitzes will be the primary kind of blitz Claeys sends. From Smart Football here is an example of a zone blitz.

We won't go into detail on the zone blitz in the first seminar, but I want to highlight the very basics in the context of the evolution of defense. Blitzes used to be done in man coverage. Offenses, and anyone who has played Madden, recognized that they could call "hot routes" to tell a receiver to run a specific route. Now look at this diagram. There is still a numbers advantage from the defense on the right side of the formation. Behind the blitzers, each defender is responsible for a zone.

The 3-3-5 is not the only way to create confusion. Regardless of the what the defense is actually playing--be it a 4-3, 3-4, 4-2-5, 3-3-5, or some other configuration--the goal is to prevent the offense from knowing. Playing multiple coverages, and bringing in hybrid players that can cover running backs while also being able to take on and shed an offensive lineman's block have become increasingly valuable because it gives the defense options.

When watching a football game, pay attention first to the formations from the offense and the defense. Then look at what the goal of the offense is, and how the defense counters. Almost all of this occurs before the ball is even snapped. Much of it may have been decided during coaches meetings during the week.

Readings for Next Week

We will continue reading through ESF for next week. Chapters for discussion are below

  • Nick Saban's Defense School
  • Guz Malzahn's Multiple Attack
  • The Constraint Theory of Offense

Obviously feel free to read all the chapters that I'm skipping. In addition to our book chapters, I also recommend reading the following Jerry Kill speech on Building a Program with Fundamentals.