Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Last season, Arizona State was, at least in terms of wins and losses, a very average team. After all, ASU won on six games, two of which against FCS teams. But for anybody who watched ASU play last year, it was clear that they were, perhaps, the best 6-6 team in the land. I saw them play live at Camp Randall against the Badgers and remember walking away from the game with two thoughts: 1) This team will get better as the year goes on and they will peak in November; 2) Their offense is really neat and will undoubtedly be the subject of much scrutiny in the offseason, assuming, of course, that they get it down.

Undoubtedly, ASU improved, and without question, it was due primarily to the great strides they made mastering Noel Mazzone’s new offensive scheme. In the ensuing series of posts leading up the start of the new season I will discuss in some depth the nuances of ASU’s offense. While one of my aims is clearly to shed some light on what I believe are exciting advances in the passing game, another one of my goals is to discuss the offensive thought of one of the game’s most innovative, but frequently overlooked, offensive thinkers, a coach, who, if things bounce the way they should this year, could very well end up the next HC of the University of New Mexico – Noel Mazzone. So while I will definitely talk about what Coach Mazzone is doing at ASU now, I will also provide a detailed sketch of the evolution of his offensive thought over the years, from his years at TCU of the old Southwest Conference to the Jets of the NFL.

First, I think it would be helpful to provide a little immediate background to his current position. Dennis Erickson hired Noel Mazzone after the conclusion of the 2009 season. He replaced Erickson’s longtime friend, Rich Olson. Erickson’s decision to hire Mazzone represented a change in his offensive thinking, for while Erickson has always been a spread one-back coach, he was always more of a vertical stem, option route guy who, by and large, never invested much in the type of layered, over-under schemes for which Mazzone made his reputation.

Why Mazzone?

I guess the first question that needs to be asked is: What is so special about Mazzone’s offense that it merits such close scrutiny. I mean, sure, it was extremely effective last year, put up tons a points, even more yardage, and was, overall, very exciting, but isn’t it just another spread offense? Undoubtedly, all of this is true, but there are some differences in Mazzone’s approach that are clearly worth studying, not because they are necessarily better than those practiced by other coaches, such as Mike Leach, Tony Franklin, or June Jones, to name only three, but because it shows how spread football is progressing by returning to its origins.

In general, most pass-heavy spread offenses employ man protection schemes. This is not something unique only to Air Raid teams, but the vast majority of single / empty spread offenses. There are many reasons for this, but one of the main reasons, I believe, is that the rise of single and empty environments coincided with that of the fire zone. To appreciate this we need to have a little history in regards the development of slide protection. Generally speaking, sliding as a means of protecting the quarterback came into vogue during the early 1980s as a way of dealing with inside and outside pressure to the quarterback’s blindside with a single move. In a sense, sliding away from the call was a way of narrowing the quarterback’s field of vision, making it so that he would not have to worry about unexpected pressure by an inside backer through the “B” gap or number 4 flying off the edge.

By and large, sliding was how most one-back teams protected during this period. But there have always been some issues related to stunts and games along the front that posed some real problems for slide teams. In particular, any type of stunt that crosses the face of the center, regardless of direction, threatens the integrity of the protection, in part, because of the kick-slide technique upon which the protection is predicated. (Matt, I’m thinking here of dogs, but of specific stunts, like the “t-chain” in which the 3 and the 4I or 5 slant the A and B gaps respectively with the shade ripping off their backsides into the opposite C) This type of movement exposes the twin problems of “depth” and “center” of the scheme; for unlike vertical set man teams, and I’m not just talking here about Air Raid programs, units that slide gain very little depth and separation from the defensive front after the snap. Consequently, any quick horizontal movement across the line’s fulcrum, the center, takes advantage of center’s compromised base, that is, the side to which he steps in order to combo on the shade with the adjacent guard or post on the one technique while keeping an eye on the stacked backer. While on paper that step may seem inconsequential, it places the center in a compromised position from which it is difficult to play catch up with any type of hard crossing action. For this reason, many one-back teams began to rely more on vertical set man schemes that enables the line to gain depth in order to “sort” and dissect the pressure as it comes.

Without question, I think we can see why coaches, especially in recent years, chose to pursue man schemes, that while requiring more tweaking on a week to week basis, nevertheless, at least until recently, offered more tactical leeway for the players themselves, as well as more strategic flexibility for the coaches in terms of maximizing the number of people they could release on any given play. I bring this up because with the advent and development of fire zone packages, sliding became increasingly costly in the sense that in order to protect the QB teams were forced to limit the number of receivers they could release on a given route, which, if we pause to think for a second, simply plays into strengths of any fire zone coverage by eliminating the very receivers for which any five man pressure scheme fails to account.

And this is what makes what Noel Mazzone is doing so interesting, because unlike everybody else, ASU is very much a slide team, and one, mind you, that has hardly any issues with protection. Now, before getting into the nitty-gritty of his protections packages, let’s briefly consider why Mazzone chooses to slide. Mazzone’s reasons for sliding are simple and can be traced back to his days at Auburn. In a word, Mazzone wants the QB to focus on one thing and one thing only: THROWING TO VOIDS. That is to say, Mazzone does not want, in no uncertain terms, for the QB to be concerned with what the defense is doing; the QB’s sole job is to focus on delivering the ball. And what’s interesting about this is that because his goal to get five players out as much as possible, Mazzone, in a sense, seems to want to make it schematically impossible for the QB to bring another blocker back into the formation, and his way of doing so is to make the QB feel protected by securing the side of the field to where there is no grass.

I know that the above statement seems somewhat strange, but it really is keeping completely with the old Hal Mumme maxim of throwing the ball to the grass. But in order to appreciate this point and its import to how Mazzone slides today, let’s say a word or two about basic slide protection.

Below is basic slide protection, or what ASU today calls “ACT,” versus what I like to call “country stack,” or your garden variety 42 or 44 look.

So, working from right to left, this is what we have:

RT: Man on
RG: Man on
C: Linda call to the Mike stacked over the shade; post on the shade with the guard
LG: Set with the Center on the shade
LG: Man outside; key Will backer for possible Joker call.
RB: Key Sam to Adjuster/Strong Safety; responsible for most inside threat.
QB: Throw the Void (this is not Hot; more on this in future posts)

Now, I think the fundamentals of this protection are all fairly self evident. If the tackle senses that number four is going to come, he will make a Joker call, which will, depending on whether it’s an even or odd front, trigger either a three or four man slide to that side beginning with the first uncovered lineman.

Generally speaking, this scheme is fairly stable in that the line slides opposite the back in order to secure the QB’s backside thus making the side to which the back is checked to the call side, regardless of how many receivers are deployed there.

But what happens if the scheme, regardless of whether there is a back behind the line or not, is essentially an empty one with no check release? For all intent purposes, this nothing really changes for the line, with the exception that now the front side tackle has what amounts to a duel read in that he must eye the Sam backer and be ready to pick up the nearest inside threat, thus making the adjuster backer the sole responsibility of the QB.

As noted earlier, one of the strengths of this approach is its stability, the fact that the QB know from the very beginning that his backside is, at least in principle, secure, thus placing everything else firmly within his immediate line of vision. But this has also been one of the scheme’s greatest drawbacks, especially in the wake of the fire zone craze, because DC’s could always set their fronts, stunts, games, and fire packages to the back’s call, making moot, in effect, the very purpose of the slide itself.

Herein lies the beauty of Mazzone’s innovation, one that I believe, at some level or another, reflects the influence of the Hal Mumme, Mike Leach, and other Air Raid coaches: rather than simply slide away from the back, Mazzone freed his line to slide to where the defense was on the field, which is another way of saying, away from the grass and towards where the defense had the potential to deploy the most people.

On the surface this sounds odd, but it really makes quite a bit of sense, because across the football field there are really only three generic types of zone pressure: boundary, middle, field. Moreover, most teams, as well as conferences, for that matter, especially at the college level, usually have signature pressure packages and preferences. For example, both the Pac 12 and Big 12 are heavy field pressure conferences. Despite the fact that boundary pressure is easier to disguise, most programs in these conferences prefer to fire it up from the field, so this is where their defensive numbers are going to be. Below are two diagrams, the first offering a global perspective, the second illustrating how ASU slides to the numbers.

This is your standard field blitz from a three man front. There are different ways to package this concept, but the nuts and bolts of it are pretty simple. For the same reasons, it should be easy to see where the defense is putting its numbers. If we count the nose, we get six players to the field, leaving only five to the boundary. Yet if we were to employ a standard slide here away from the back, it immediately becomes evident that we would, in effect, be protecting away from the threat. But as the diagram below illustrates, ASU’s answer enables them to account for this with no difficulty.

So, rather than have his line slide into the boundary away from the pressure, Mazzone has his guys slide into it with a four man slide that not only seals off the interior paths of pursuit to the quarterback, but the edge as well, leaving the boundary tackle to ride the end out with the back checking inside out from Mike to Sam.

The one question that remains, however, is whether or not the frontside is now where the back ends up or his original position? Simply put, the frontside remains the side of the back’s original alignment. Now, I recognize that some may say, and rightfully so, that doesn’t this defeat the purpose of slide protection; after all, the reason coaches slide is to secure the backside, right? My answer to this is that that the secure side needs to be the side from wherever the pressure is coming from; it is senseless to protect the QB’s backside if there’s more grass there than there are jerseys with numbers on them.

Concluding Remarks:

In closing, I think it’s necessary to note that a vertical set man scheme is just as up to the task as sliding. Why, then, does Mazzone slide? In addition to the reasons outlined at the beginning of this piece, we should consider the place of the drop-back game within the whole of his offense. One reason Mazzone continues to slide is because of the extent to which his quick, screen, and zone games are integrated into a near seamless whole with his dropback package. In essence, Mazzone views these not as separate aspects of the offense, but as protective extensions of his core passing game. And by “protective” I mean that they tie so well into his slide protection scheme not only tactically, that is, how they appear to the defense, but also, and perhaps more importantly, pedagogically for his offense’s players. So, from a global perspective, provides Mazzone with a flexible way of protecting the QB that also enables the other central components of his relatively simple, if not reductionist, yet incredibly dynamic offensive system.


No comments: