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Football Concepts, Schemes, Formations: TDG Football Seminar Week 2

This week we consider what makes an offense, how to install one, and what to defend.

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Welcome to the scond week of the TDG football seminar. We started last week with reading through Chris B. Brown's Essential Smart Football (ESF). For this week, we looked at Nick Saban's defensive scheme, Guz Malzahn's multiple attack, and a theory post about the constraint theory of offense. Like last week, I'll give my thoughts and then we can talk about them and other concepts of interest in the comments.

What is an Offense?

Last week, the primary theme was that everything concept we see is an old concept with a new wrinkle. That begged a question, what is a concept? In other words, what is the philosophy that drives what happens on a football field. When a coach says "I liked our offense today" what did they mean? Explaining this requires some definitional clarity. In the Constraint Theory of Football chapter, Brown lays out definitions that we will use to drive our discussion.

For Brown, an offense is a set of base plays that are expected to always work against a certain defense. For example, a pass play will be specifically designed to beat man coverage, while another may be designed to beat zone coverage. Art Briles would agree with this definition. He gave one of my favorite answers to the question of offensive philosophy

"Score. We’re trying to score every play. That’s it. We’re not trying to make first downs. We’re trying to score touchdowns. We’re simple."

Ideally, every offense would like to run its base offense every single play. Unfortunately, there are eleven players on the other side of the ball. To deal with the fact that a football game is adaptive, the second part of an offense is the constraint play. These are plays like bubble screens, play action passes, and draws. These plays look like base offense (especially if they are play action), but are called only when the defense takes an action to take away your base play.

Regardless of what a coach picks as its base offense, the team must be able to execute. Vince Lombardi put it best

Every team eventually arrives at a lead play, a number 1 play, a bread and butter play. It is the play that the team knows it must make go, and its opponents know they must stop.

Unsurprisingly, Jerry Kill's bread and butter play is a running play. While his offensive coordinator insists on having multiple different looks, almost assuredly at some point the Gophers will run an inside zone or HB power. Two years ago at media days, Kill specifically mentioned power as his favorite running play.

Power can be run from a variety of formations. Below is a cut-up video showing the play from different formations.

Here is a diagram courtesy of Black Shoe Diaries that show how the Gophers run Power.

Power is a simple play that is ubiquitous throughout all levels of football. Unlike a zone play, where lineman have adaptive rules for blocking "zones", power is straightforward. The linemen on the playside, in this case the left side, block the man that is inside of them. For the center and the guard, that means blocking any player that is directly across from them. This diagram is a little off because it shows the playside tackle blocking a man heads up.

Classically speaking, the playside tackle leaves that man to the fullback who will "kick out" this defender. Kick out means to come from the inside and block the defender towards the sideline. On the other side of the line of scrimmage, linemen seal off the backside linebackers and defenders.The most important part of power is the play of the backside guard. He is responsible for pulling (taking one step back, cutting off the fullback's block and heading into the hole created by the playside action to find a man to block) and blowing up whatever defender is silly enough to get in his way.From there, all the running back is to run fast towards the opening and follow the guard's block.

There's nothing fancy to power, but if the offense executes correctly the defense will be forced to bring in more defenders to cut off the run. At that point, the offense breaks out a constraint play. For the Gophers, that constraint play last year was play action to Maxx Williams.

The Hurry Up No Huddle

Minnesota plays at what would charitably be described as a deliberate pace. In that way, for all the adornments of their formations, the Gophers are an old school offense. The new school is about tempo, and no current college football coach better exemplifies that than Guz Malzahn of Auburn. Malzahn literally wrote the book on the Hurry Up No Huddle offense, and he has had tremendous success at the college level. Still, there is much overlap between Kill and Malzahn. Not only do the two coaches have a preference for running the ball, they also like to run the same kind of plays.

As mentioned, your offense is the base set of plays that always work. In Auburn's current scheme, those are power runs from the shotgun. The two most famous "Auburn" looks are the inverted veer and the Buck Sweep. For each play, Auburn's line blocks like a power run play. The inverted veer's twist is that the running back runs laterally, and the offense leaves the playside defensive end unblocked and "reads" him. That is, the QB makes a decision about what to do based on what the defensive end does. If the defensive end stays home, the QB hands the ball to the running back. If the defensive end goes for the running back, the QB keeps the ball. Cam Newton more or less won the Heisman trophy from this play. Smart Football's diagram of this play from back in 2010 is below.

An in depth explanation of the Buck Sweep is available at College and Magnolia.

What then makes Malzahn's offense special? I would argue that Malzahn's major innovation was to add a constant constraint to the defense, that of tempo. Playing Hurry Up No Huddle (HUNH) means that the defense will likely not have much or any time to substitute into different personnel. The defense will not be able to get very fancy in coverage because they might miss an assignment. As a result, Auburn sees base looks the majority of the time. If the whole point of a constraint play is to force the defense to play honest, Auburn accomplishes this goal without necessarily ever having to run a single actual play. The Tigers' passing tree is simple, and I would be shocked if their playbook was more than 20 pages.

I have been on record that the Gophers should move to a faster paced offense for this reason. Nick Marshall was an awful quarterback, who looked like a world beater because he saw simple coverages and could follow a simple script.

Nick Saban's Defense School

We've spent a lot of time so far talking about the offense, but the defense also has a philosophy. Nick Saban has made his legacy at LSU and Alabama on defense. (Also terribly shady recruiting and exploitation of players). Brown gives a long explanation of Saban's defensive philosophy. For Saban, defense boils down to the following:

  1. Do not allow the offense to run the ball on first and second down.
  2. Do not allow the offense to run the ball inside.
  3. Blitz almost every down.
  4. Get turnovers.

Saban had adjusted his coverages since Brown wrote the Essential Smart Football chapter, almost entirely because of the spread offense. Indeed, Saban is a noted critic of the spread because it takes away what he sees as the most fun part of the game, slowly sucking the life out of our opponent. Saban and a boa constrictor would get along well. Nevertheless, these principles remain steadfast. For me, they also provide an excellent theoretical explanation of good defense. Each one of Saban's principles is designed to take an offense out of its comfort zone and put it off schedule. By schedule, I mean the number of yards the offense plans to get every play. If the offense needs to get six yards or more on 3rd down, they are almost always going to pass because running plays tend to average fewer than six yards. Now the defense has eliminated the offense's primary advantage-the offense knows what play is coming.

Saban wants to funnel run plays to the outside because running backs do not make yardage moving laterally. Additionally, more options appear if the offense can run the ball up the middle. He wants to blitz, almost always via some kind of zone blitz, often to rattle the quarterback and force hasty decisions. That makes it easier to achieve principle number 4.

Alabama has a deluge of talent, but they also have great coaching. Like most coaches, Saban prefers to zone blitz, a technique we briefly covered last week. There are two additional differences in the secondary for Alabama. First, Saban will have his cornerbacks adjust their leverage-their position at the line of scrimmage that dictates what routes will be most successful-based on the split (position) of the receiver to the sideline. Second, Alabama teaches pattern matching, which is much like a match-up zone in basketball. Defenders are responsible for a zone, but play tight man coverage on any player entering that zone. This allows the defense to seamlessly defend players across the field, preventing the quarterback from having any good options.

For a visual of what this looks like, here is a video of Saban himself explaining his concept.

Readings for Next Week

We only have two chapters out of ESF next week before we transition to the Art of Smart Football. They are Football and Decision Making and Tom Brady and the Patriots Show How (and Why) the No-Huddle Works.