Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Inside the Playbook: Northwestern's Offense With Two Different QB Types


There are many odd and unique things about Northwestern. They're the only team in the Big Ten that is private. They wear purple. Their home games are every other teams Chicago home game. These guys have been the most annoying team that hasn't been that good but somehow has been good over the past decade. They have two quarterbacks capable of starting... and they're nothing alike. I introduce to you: Kain Colter aka The Runner and Trevor Siemian aka The Passer. In the words of Vince Lombardi, "What the hell's goin' on out there?" Well, I guess I can at least try to explain some of their spread offense and how it starts to differ with their two QBs. The rest, well, not so much.

The Run Game
Bear with me, I just spent an hour thinking up bad section title puns from classic movies (‘Citizen Kain' anyone?) then spent the next hour trying to convince myself that they weren't as stupid as they seemed. They were as stupid as they seemed.

Anyway. The biggest change in the run game when Colter is in the game is that there is a run game. OK, that may be a stretch, but against Michigan with Kain Colter in the game, the play ended up being a designed run or a scramble over 80% of the time. The favorite style of play by far was the option; the specific play: the speed option.

Here, at the snap of the ball, both the QB and RB are going to sprint to the outside of the field. The offensive line zone blocks, but leaves the playside EMOL free. The QB will attack the outside shoulder of the EMOL and read him. If the EMOL gets flat footed or attacks the QB, the QB pitches. If the EMOL starts cheating out, the QB will cut up between that man and the zone blocking of the offensive line. For the RB's part, he must maintain correct pitch relation to the QB. For the speed option this is about 1 yard deeper and 5 yards outside.

Another play that was featured with Colter only was the veer triple option, almost always run from the same exact formation out of a pistol set, and almost always with the ball going on the dive. In fact, I'm not exactly sure it was even a read, as several times keeping it would have been the correct read. Still, he did actually run through the progression at least once.
Here, I show the whole option so you get the concept.

Triple option video

Let's assume that the read progression is being made for now. Now let's number the box players, essentially the players lined up inside 8 yards off the LOS and not covering a WR. So typically, your DE, OLB, and SS. We will number these players 1, 2, and 3 from the inside out. #1 is the "read defender", #2 is the "pitch defender", and #3 is blocked. The QB will receive the snap and his first step will actually be away from the play and up. With his next two steps he will square himself to the sideline and read the #1. If #1 stays home, he gives the veer, or dive back. If #1 crashes, the QB pulls the ball from the belly and attacks the outside shoulder of #2. From there the play is much like the speed option. A difference is that Northwestern tends to inside zone block away from the option look.

These types of option plays are exclusive to Colter because of his legs. Siemian can execute the rest of the run game as well, which includes outside and inside zone reads and a true veer play.

The key is, with Colter in the game, the run sets up easy passes and makes defenses commit to the varied running attack. When Siemian is in the game, the run is used to keep the defense honest, with the RB and screens being used to attack the field from sideline-to-sideline, rather than the legs of the QB.

The Pass Game
Much like how the whole run playbook is open to Colter in the run game, and a portion of that playbook is available to Siemian, the opposite is true for the pass game. While the QBs are very different, the playbook doesn't suddenly get overhauled. The play selection, yes, but the actual plays and concepts are pretty much the same.

Check these out:



Note that I believe this was the only time Colter even attempted to throw a pass in the middle of the field.

But this is the concept:
The play is picking on a single defender, the LB. The dip route (dipping into the middle before breaking back out into the flat) keeps the LB flat footed and respecting the shallow cross. The WR likely being quicker and having better acceleration, then gets an even better jump when he breaks back outside. Behind that play, a WR is running a dig route. The QB is simply reading that LB. If the window opens up between LBs, hit the dig. If the LB stays in his zone, look for the dip. Note here that if the SS begins cheating up on the dig route, the go route by the #1 WR can be adjusted to more of a post/seam route, and the QB can just move his progression down field to the deep receiver.

With Colter in the game, much like when Denard was in the game for Michigan, the pass game is mostly focused on the outside. This is because Colter doesn't really have the arm strength that's desired to throw the ball in the smaller windows. He also doesn't have the vision or height to see well over the middle. Instead, it's a lot of safe throws. Smash routes are used constantly because it utilizes corner routes that don't need to be thrown with a lot of velocity and hitch routes that can be shortened a little by half roll outs. Things that give Colter easy passes.

One thing Northwestern does is run a ton of rub routes to beat man coverage and then a lot of short and intermediate routes combined with quick, three step drop passes, to pick on zone defenders. Diagramed below is a simple hitch route.

Rather than threatening over top of the safeties or attacking the field vertically with well timed throws put into small windows, Colter is really only asked to throw vertically with plays that are designed to get the defense out of position. Because they throw the ball short so frequently, defenses begin to undercut the flat routes and cheat on other short passes, what that tends to mean is you get hit with the wheel route.

But with Siemian in the game, the whole field is open. The LBs are much more threatened to make correct drops and gain depth. The safeties need to gain correct leverage on receivers. Here, you see a LB put in a bad position, still have pretty good coverage, and still get beat.

Here, the WRs are getting deeper than the LBs and picking on the safety. Motioning the RB out of the backfield essentially forces either a safety out of center field or a LB to cover a RB in space. To the play, the QB is reading the SS as the two posts split the safety. One attacks the middle of the field, the other the seam. Either way, in any sort of man coverage a WR will break open behind coverage. And, even if the defense backs into a zone look, the WRs will have cleared out the middle of the field for the #1 WR to run his dig route and settle in a void.

Siemian can also put velocity on the outside pass, giving him the ability to hit out routes and back shoulder fades. This is a very different way of spreading the field.

And even when the two run the same play, one thing you notice is that Colter is making one, maybe two reads, and then being told to scramble. He is often tasked with only looking to one side of the field, typically the side with the simplified coverage. In fact, the Siemian TD pass play above was also run by Colter in the game. But rather than look the safety off and then come back to the double post, Colter only read the opposite side before scrambling. The reason for this is three-fold: 1) because Colter doesn't have the vision to make good reads over the middle of the field; 2) he doesn't have the arm strength or accuracy to make the throw at a high enough success rate, without a just as likely turnover rate, to justify even attempting the pass; and 3) because he is a true threat with his legs.

These simple adjustments are interesting when taken over the course of a season, let alone a single game. Both QBs, perfectly capable of starting and having success at Northwestern, are working from the same playbook, but both with limitations. The whole run game is free-game for Colter, while the pass playbook is partially closed. For Siemian, the opposite can be said. Watching Northwestern has always been interesting, but watching how Northwestern molds their offense to fit their strengths of their two very good QBs should make for another odd and unique thing to look for from Northwestern this year.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Inside the Playbook: Defending the Speed Option with a Two-High Defense (BDS Exclusive)

Last time we looked at how Michigan attempted to stop Nebraska’s speed option attack with a Cover 1. Not finding much success, the very next week, facing Northwestern, they turned to more two-high coverages in the face of the Kain Colter lead spread attack. In this post, we’ll look at how Michigan utilized a two-high man under and Cover 4 to defend the speed option.

How the Speed Option is Run
Be it under center or from the shotgun, the speed option is essentially the same. The offensive line, in the case of most modern day offenses, will run their standard outside zone blocking scheme. The one difference is that the offense will bypass the defense’s EMOL toward the play and instead work to the 2nd level. The defender left free with be the option defender, the player that the QB will read to determine if he will keep the ball and run it himself or pitch the ball to his RB.

Here is how it looks:

Northwestern will also occasionally run a true triple option from the pistol. To the pitch side, it is run similarly to the speed option, with the “dive” portion of the triple option acting as the seal block to the pitch side. Here’s how it looks:

Defending the Speed Option with a Two-High Defense
While the man under defense and a cover 4 defense have their differences in coverage, they are very similar in terms of how they are used to defend the option. In both cases, the defensive EMOL, who will also be the pitch read defender, will have QB responsibility. Often times the rest of the DL and likely a backside LB will also flow to the QB. The safeties, meanwhile, will be responsible to sprint down the alley and take the RB. The frontside LB and likely any coverage defender will also support the effort.

So, responsibility goes to
RB: Safety, frontside LB, coverage
QB: EMOL, DL, backside LB.

The EMOL, typically a DE, has QB responsibility. Because the rest of the team is in pursuit, a cut back against the grain is potentially disastrous. At the snap he must square up to the QB and squeeze as tight as he can into the player next to him, making sure to leave no run lane inside of him. He doesn’t want to gain depth or width, but let the QB come to him in a good, fundamental, break down position. As the QB approaches, you must keep proper relation so that you are even with his playside (outer most) number by strafing. If he finds it useful to close the gap before pitching the football, make him not want to do that.

The responsibility of the safety and outside LB will depend on the coverage, formation, and checks within the coverage. Ideally, however, you will always have a force defender preventing the play from escaping outside, and an alley fill defender responsible for the RB from inside to outside.

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Hit the jump to look at specific defensive examples

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Inside the Playbook: Michigan State's Cover 4 Defense


Last time we discussed MSU's front 7 scheme. Their front 7 sets up a lot of their success, but that success is also tied to their favorite coverage: a variation of the Cover 4. State is pretty much aggressive at every defensive position on the field, and this steps from how the back 7 play together in coverage. In this part, we are going to look at how MSU's cover 4 differs from most, how they run their cover 4, and how it all ties together to make one of the better defensive units in the nation.

Cover 4

By looking at this play diagrammed, it looks like it's some sort of soft, prevent defense. The way MSU plays it is anything but. Still, most teams that run a cover 4 play a little softer on the outside, but still is far from a cover 4. In fact, the cover 4 plays more like a man coverage than a zone coverage, how so and why, well let's look at a table that describes some of the defensive responsibilities.

Position Depth Width Key Responsibility
FS 10 yards off LOS 2 yards outside EMOL EMOL
#2 if he releases deep
Deep zone otherwise
SS 10 yards off LOS 2 yards outside EMOL EMOL
#2 if he releases deep
Deep zone otherwise
CB 10 yards off #1 Outside foot of #1 QB to #2 to #1 Match up on #1
OLB 4-5 yards Formation dependent RBs and OGs
Match up on #2 underneath
Work to flat
MLB 4-5 yards Formation dependent QB #3 to Middle Zone

Here's a diagram of how many cover 4 teams will align


The safeties (cover 4 safety play) will both be keying through the EMOL to read run/pass. Pre-snap, the cover 4 looks a lot like a cover 2 shell. Maybe the safeties are a little closer to the LOS, but that's difficult for the QB to really see. The first key difference will be right at the snap. In cover 2, the safeties will begin to retreat, but in cover 4 they will play down field rather than soft peddling. This difference is one of the big reasons the cover 4 sets up well to play the run.

Bringing two safeties down potentially brings 9 into the box. Both safeties will play to fit outside the EMOL in the D gap if the play is run toward them. They will attack and fit with their inside shoulder, keeping their outside arm free to prevent anything from escaping outside. Away from them they will take care of the cutback, dropping down to about 5 yards depth into the backside middle of the field. He will clean up any ball carrier trying to sneak out the back.

In pass coverage, they are looking for a deep release by the #2 receiver (eligible receiver counted from the outside inward to the center). If the #2 releases deep, deeper than about 8 yards, the safety will typically run with him and play essentially man coverage on him. This sort of match up zone is why the cover 4 plays very much like a man coverage, and makes it so many big miss matches, like 4 verts, are negated. If no #2 releases deep, the safety will likely either continue his drop into his zone, or slide over to double #1, preventing any post routes. He must also keep his eyes running deep crosses from the other side, as the LBs likely won't be able to get enough depth to cover this route and the WR will run off the CB.

The CBs, in most cover 4s, will be a bit softer. They will play a hang coverage and keep their eye on the QB, reading the drop to hint at the route. There are several pattern read schemes that some teams run, but for now, let's assume that the CB will stick on the #1 receiver, deep or short, unless the initial release is a shallow cross, in which case they will release to the LBs, quickly gain ground backwards in anticipation of a corner route coming behind them. An example of this can be seen here. watch the corner at the top of the screen:

We discussed run fits last time, so we'll focus on the pass responsibilities. The OLBs will read the QB, and if he opens his hips the OLBs will find the #2. The goal will be to play #2 reciever to the flat if #2 goes deep. The exception is when #2 quickly crosses, at which point, once the OLB determines it isn't a slant, they will release to the MIKE and look for the #3, either leaking out of the backfield or coming back toward him from the inside/other side.

When covering the #2, the key is to stay on top and outside of him, sticking to his upfield shoulder. You play outside because your help is inside; the flats are a weakness of this coverage. If the #2 goes downfield, the OLB will continue onto the flat.

The MIKE will take the #3, and if there is no #3 will zone drop and wall off any shallow crosses. The MIKE won't break the hashes until the QB does, at which point the MIKE will ensure to get in front of the QB to prevent the scramble and apply pressure.

Hit the jump for how MSU does things a bit differently than your standard Cover 4, including how they adjust to certain offensive alignments.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Inside the Playbook: Defending the Speed Option in Cover 1 (Preview)

Leaving the offense for a minute, perhaps the most aggravating thing from the Nebraska game was Michigan's inability to defend the speed option. Unfortunately, this has seemed to be a common trend for the Mattison defenses since his arrival back in Ann Arbor. But why? Is Michigan doing something inherently too difficult to accomplish? What are they really asking their defense to do? In this post, we will look at how Michigan has tried to defend the speed option in the past, what went wrong against Nebraska, and how Michigan will look to fix this issue this year.

How the Speed Option is Run
Be it under center or from the shotgun, the speed option is essentially the same. The offensive line, in the case of most modern day offenses, will run their standard outside zone blocking scheme. The one difference is that the offense will bypass the defense's EMOL toward the play and instead work to the 2nd level. The defender left free with be the option defender, the player that the QB will read to determine if he will keep the ball and run it himself or pitch the ball to his RB.

Here is how it looks:
Who Is the Danger?
How the defense plays the speed option will depend on who they believe is the most dangerous player with the ball in their hands. For Northwestern, Michigan thought Colter was more dangerous than their random assortment of backup QBs. Against Nebraska, the highly skilled Ameer Abdullah was the person Michigan didn't want to see the ball go to. How they scouted and prepared show in how they defended the zone against these teams.

Against the spread, there are really three primary defenses teams will play: Cover 1, Cover 3, and Cover 4. We will discuss how Michigan will use these coverages (this post will focus on Cover 1) and how they'll plan to defend the speed option from these coverages.

Defending Speed Option in Cover 1
Michigan went primarily to a cover 1 defense for several reasons against Nebraska: 1) they didn't believe the Nebraska QBs - mostly Armstrong, but also Kellogg - could throw the ball on their defensive backs playing a relatively tight man coverage; 2) this allowed them to commit all but one safety and the remaining man-to-man match ups to Nebraska's run game; 3) it allowed them to run a scheme intended to keep the ball out of Ameer Abdullah's hands on the edge.

Point 1 and 2 went a-ok. But 3, well, it went less so.

Responsibility in this case goes:

RB: DE and slot defender/box safety
QB: Inside pursuit LBs and DTs

Here's how it is intended to look:

So what's going on here?

Defensive End
The defensive end is tasked with getting up field and keeping some initial relation with the RB. Of course, he can't just mirror the playside shoulder of the RB because that would give the QB a clear and quick lane to cut up field in, before the pursuit could get to him. So the DE will tend to work upfield approximately at the same angle as the pitch relation. You'll hear a wide range of what offensive coaches believe is the proper pitch relation, but it tends to be something about 4 yards deeper than the QB and 2 yards in front of the QB (depending on scheme, formation, it could be 4x4 or 1x4, it really depends).

Once his upfield shoulder gets even with the QB's downfield shoulder, the DE can focus on collapsing down on the QB. That is because by this point, the QB has been forced off his track (he ideally wants to attack right outside the offensive EMOL, but because the DE gains depth, he must flatten out) and to flatten out. This disrupts the proper pitch relationship, and with the DE aiming at the QB's pitch shoulder, any pitch is dangerous and perhaps forced to go through the body of the DE.

This sort of technique also slows the QB down, as he's forced to attack the DE who initially is giving a little bit of space, but is still threatening to crash down. On top of that, the QB is forced to think rather than being able to make a quick, crisp read. All this should allow pursuit to get to the QB.

Slot Defender/Box Safety
The slot defender or box safety will be required to keep everything inside of them. This means that this defender, who is responsible for the alley, must keep his outside shoulder free at all times. That's not exactly extremely difficult in this case, though not exactly easy either.

For a slot defender aligned toward the hash, in Cover 1 he will maintain initial outside leverage (his help is inside, from the LBs). He cannot allow the receiver's initial release to easily cross his face, both for pass coverage reasons and for run support reasons. His off man position allows him to get a good read of the receiver's stem, and lets him judge if the receiver is going into a route or blocking him. Once he sees the QB attacking his side of the field and feels the WR preparing to block, he must shoot upfield and attempt to constrict the alley. This means he cannot gain width and cannot afford to get washed down. He must anchor and hold his position. While the DE is stretching the play horizontally, that combined with the slot defender will constrict any running lanes for the RB (any late pitch to the RB should either put him in a position where the alley defender has outside arm free and support from the sideline, if not that, then any late pitch or pitch relationship that actually allows the RB to get the football will force him to cut back to the pursuing DE along with other pursuing defenders).

As for the box safety, the theory is similar. While he isn't split out as wide (typically the box safety will come up from the boundary) he is in a position to beat blocks to the spot and maintain outside leverage. In this way, it's easier to constrict the alley.

The hard part here, obviously, is maintaining both run and pass responsibility. It is up to properly reading keys to allow this to happen.

Inside LBs
The ILBs in this case are pursuing the play from inside out. Their first responsibility is to make sure the QB can't shoot directly up field to gain yardage. To do so, they must come underneath (upfield) of their blockers. By attempting to go over the top they can easily be washed outside, you combine momentum with the addition of large bodies blocking and it's easy to see how they can easily get sealed outside and allow for a big play to arise from a QB cutting back.

So the LBs must consistently work to get upfield of their block and pursue from through the QB to the RB (after the pitch).

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To watch examples of how Michigan struggled defending Nebraska's speed option out of their Cover 1, and how they successfully ran it as well, check out the full article at Maize n Brew