Sunday, October 14, 2012


We are now through seven weeks of the college football season and one of the more exciting matchups this season was the pairing of the prolific and aggressive paced offenses of Texas A&M and Louisiana Tech.  Much has been written on this blog about Tech, but A&M has been one of the forerunners of tempo spread since the hiring of Mike Sherman in 2008 and also through his replacement,  new head coach, Kevin Sumlin. What was interesting about this matchup was how A&M, a non-powerhouse of the Big XII and now SEC, has used this style of play to compete when they are routinely outgunned in their conference then faces a team with similar philosophy.  Both defenses were well acquainted with tempo offenses, because naturally, that is what they practice against.

This post, as well as most posts on this blog, will simply articulate a momentum or trend that happens to be current.  I doubt we're breaking much ground here, nor are we attempting to deliver some great truth or provide a how-to coaching guide.  We'll just be documenting a direction or response encountered in today's game.  It can be easy to fixate on singular items, but where we're hoping to go is tie in the relevant connections to see what's at play in the bigger picture.  We could no doubt, review some of the same efficiencies and nuances of Johnny Manziel and the TAMU offense used by Kliff Kingsbury.

Tech (and other spread offenses) has been using a 3-back formation for quite a while, but what they have been using it for in the past 8 months to compliment their base package, is something to take note of.  To accommodate their frantic pacing in games, so much of the playbook has to be trimmed and streamlined to ensure efficiency.  Tech bases out of 2x2 and 3x1, but to provide a radical change-up against the nickel defenses they see, Tech uses tight-ends and versatile backs (extra linemen more recently) to force defensive personnel into non-standard situations, primarily to elicit a coverage response.  This cat-and-mouse game was illustrated throughout the second half of this game.  In this post, we'll take a look at what kind of changes were taking place.  You'll see much of this all goes back to the early one-back philosophies.

Against one-back sets, the defense will typically commit 6 defenders to the box and play nickel with 2-high safeties.  

After pacing through a series with receivers spread the width of the field, Tech will race through substitutions and be set within 10 seconds with 3 backs in the backfield.  The defense, in the given personnel grouping they had from the last play, have to determine how this formation will be played. Typically, the nickel will join the box, but this only provides 7 defenders to 8 offensive players (excluding the quarterback). 

Do you keep the safeties deep to prevent isolation of your corners? 

Do you drop a safety to bolster your front? 

The challenge is that the offensive formation is symmetrical with no declared run strength. The offense can run any play to either side equally well.

TAMU using 7 defenders in the box
TAMU using 8 defenders in the box
TAMU using 9 defenders in the box

Once you even up your numbers in the box, Tech uses their gap-power run to overwhelm the point of attack (with OF lead), forcing a defense to drop both safeties and leave their corners one-on-one with the single-split receivers.

Part of the beauty of this is that most of it fits within what Tech would be doing out of 2x2 or 3x1.  They (used to) run a lot of Rodeo/Lasso and fast and solid screens on the perimeter (which becomes even more effective if you can bunch the defense up in the middle of the field).  So even though they bring in an extra blocker to the formation, they can do all the stuff they would be doing from their base formations.

When the one-on-one matchup is assured on the receiver, they will look to exploit it through play-action (usually a post-dig combo).  From here, the throw will be premised on the leverage the receiver has on the defender;

If outside – hit the post

If in-phase low shoulder - fade

If in-phase high shoulder – drop out

With as much as one-on-one leverage is worked by Tony Franklin and as talented as his receivers are, these become extremely high percentage throws.

** This game is a wonderful study in the current competitive equalizers from both teams (offense and defense).  Down by 27 in the first half, what other program would give license to continue rolling the dice with attack tempo? If Franklin was at any other school what are the odds of the head coach pulling the reins on his method and try to 'hold the ball' on offense (and limit the ability to mount the comeback)?  Facing the explosive running threat of Manziel, watch Tommy Spangler adjust his 'cats'/'shaver' pressures to bring 5 to control the running lanes.

This all plays into a larger theme on determining what is truly important to becoming more efficient, both on offense and defense.  We are well aware that trends in the game ebb and flow and remain cyclical, but its not as if there will be wholesale scheme changes made; merely adaptations.  Playing into Hemlock's point about Saban's method, defenses may need to be measured by new standards as the game of football adapts.   

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

TFS: Lulz

Tony Franklin with a rebuttal

How has Tech won three road games already against three teams that played in bowl games last year? By outscoring almost everyone in the country by running Franklin’s offense somewhere close to perfection.

The Bulldogs are No. 11 in total offense at 523.4 yards a game and No. 3 in scoring offense at 53.2 points a game. Louisiana Tech averages more points a game than Auburn has scored combined in its four losses. The Bulldogs fired off 97 snaps in their 58-31 win over UNLV last weekend.

That’s our No. 1 goal every week,” Franklin said. “To be the fastest team in America.”
Here’s where Franklin’s philosophical differences with Saban get good. Remember what the Alabama coach said last week in the wake of West Virginia 70, Baylor 63?

"I think that the way people are going no-huddle right now, that at some point in time, we should look at how fast we allow the game to go in terms of player safety," Saban said. “That's when guys have a much greater chance of getting hurt when they're not ready to play.”

Franklin’s response: “The most hilarious thing about the timing of those comments is anybody who watched New England play Denver (Sunday).”

Tom Brady and the Patriots, running a hurry-up no-huddle, ran off 89 snaps and set a franchise record with 35 first downs in beating the Broncos 31-21. Oh, and the Patriots are coached by one of Saban’s best buds, Bill Belichick.

New England is the best offense in the NFL for one reason,” Franklin said. “They play like colleges do. They play no-huddle, fast-tempo, they change tempos and they do what they have to do to win. I think Belichick would probably disagree with his buddy.”

It’s the great equalizer,” Franklin said. “People say Baylor can’t play defense. You know what? Before Art Briles got there, they couldn’t play offense, either, and they couldn’t win games. Now all of a sudden, Baylor can beat people because they can outscore people.

“Obviously if you can line up and you’ve got better players than everybody else and play great defense and eat clock and win as many games as you can, that’s a great way of playing football, too. The problem is, 95 percent of us don’t have that type of talent to do that.

“So when they fall into that trap of saying, ‘Here’s how Alabama has won championships. Here’s what we should do,’ to me, that’s the trap that Coach Saban would want everybody to fall into because, the reality of it is, he’s going to have better players most of the time.”

Our offensive (players) understand that if they get lined up incredibly fast,” Franklin said, “if they’re ready to snap the ball when the official puts the ball in play, their job is twice as easy.”
This is how the Bulldogs wear opponents down in the WAC and beyond. Like Illinois, which surrendered 31 straight second-half points to Louisiana Tech in a shocking 52-24 blowout in Champaign in September. Or like Virginia a week later, which gave up 34 straight points in a loss in Charlottesville.
You’ve got bigger guys than we do? More depth? Good luck getting on and off the field against our offense.
You could see the fatigue in their players,” Cameron, a senior, said of Illinois and Virginia. “You could see it in their faces and their body language. When we see bad body language, it motivates us to play even faster.”

Thursday, October 4, 2012

"Is this what we want football to be?"

Well, it was bound to happen, I knew it.  One of the coaches in football I respect the most said some truly idiotic things the other day.  As I am sure everybody who keeps tabs on this blog knows, Nick Saban, after cruising to another victory last Saturday against SEC rival Ole Miss, expressed his deep existential concern for the future of football.  Against the backdrop of the Baylor-WVU shootout, the unprecedent success of LaTech, and the slight run that Ole Miss gave the Tide the other night in Tuscaloosa, Saban rhetorically asked whether this was what we want football to be?

We all know the source of Saban's anxiety.  A defensive coach by training, Saban is disurbed by the spike in scoring that has followed the spread, no pun intended, of extreme up-tempo, spread football.  On the surface, Saban's thoughts are covered in a thin slurry about the physical safety of players.  Beneath this gruel, however, rests his real concern: the perceived "unfair" advantage that offenses now have by being able to line up and call plays from the sideline.  I say unfair because Saban's comments remind me of the rational that casinos offer for bouncing card counters.  Because someone has adapted to his environs by developing certain skills that were supposedly not in the minds of the Founders at the beginning of it all it is declared cheating and subsequently banned by the authorities that be. 

I understand why Saban is frustrated.  But it has nothing to do with player safety.  What upsets Saban so much is that the calculus of the game has changed so much so quickly.  In the interview Saban complains about how coaches can now control the game exclusively from the sidelines.  But has not this been the case since Paul Brown took play calling duties away from the quarterback?  What we're seeing now is simply the natural progression of a process that was started over sixty years ago.  

But I would say that what really bothers Saban more than anything else is not the fact that coaches can get their offenses out of bad plays and into good ones with relative ease now.  Teams have been doing that now for over 10 years, so that's old hat.  No, what pisses him off is the speed and efficiency with which teams play right now.  Let's forget Nick's night with Ole Miss because they're not even that good; as improved as they are the Rebels still have a way to go to be as efficient as Hugh Freeze's Red Wolves were last year.  Let's take LaTech, for example.  While Oregon gets all the headlines, LaTech is probably the most advanced up tempo team going today.  As readers of this blog know, we are big fans of what Tony Franklin is doing at Tech.  The reason is concision.  No team has probably dropped more from their package over the past three years than LaTech.  Watch the Virginia game if you want proof.  LaTech goes into every game with a very light package. (Just compare LaTech's package to the one UVA ran the other day and tell us whose offense is simpler)  Each game it seems lighter and lighter as they get faster and faster.  Practically gone from their package are old Air Raid staples like Mesh and Shallow.  Basically all they do is run an increasing amount of IZ tied to key screens and two or threee man games on the flanks.  When they want to get down the field they run Verticals, Sail, and Y-Cross.  What makes them go though is speed and efficiency.  Not only does  LaTech play fast but they do so with very few mistakes.  An offense that does not make mistakes is a difficult one to stop.

relevant source material

 So, why do I make such a big deal about efficiency?  Well, so much of what Saban has done over the years was born out of the need to check increasingly complex and sophisticated offenses.  The trend now is going the other way, making all of the bells and whistles you have in your package moot.  What Saban needs to do, and I'm sure he will at some point or another, is streamline his defensive system ala Tommy Spangler at LaTech.  Again, I do not wish to give the impression that we are in love with these guys, or that we think Spangler is a defensive guru of legendary proportions.  While Spangler is not a genius, he is a very smart coach who clearly has the ability to learn.  Being forced to keep pace with Franklin's offense at LaTech everyday forced Spangler to streamline his defense, making it, in effect, a no-huddle, check-with-me, self-correcting unit that, like the offense it competes against everyday, carries surprisingly little into each game.

I will close by saying that in a strange way the game is coming full circle, and maybe that is what bothers Saban so much.  The best no-huddle teams today really do not check that much any more; they simply go with what they have.  They can do this confidently because more often than not attached to every play is control concept that helps them go where the most grass is on the field.  In this sense, the game today is more like it was before Paul Brown started calling plays.  The players on the field are given a concept and are charged with making it go, leaving the coach with less and less say, something I can see being very problematic for someone like Nick Saban.