Thursday, March 26, 2015

Inside the Playbook: Threatening the Width of the Field from Tight Formations

As many people know, a nucleate notion in the modern spread offense is to “spread the field vertically as well as horizontally.” They look at the formations utilized by Rich Rodriguez at Arizona or Art Briles at Baylor and they see at the snap of the ball a team that is spread along the width of the field. But this nefarious knowledge isn’t some cozened concept defined distinctly within spread offenses, this is something that dates back much, much further.

From a passing game standpoint, Jim Harbaugh’s offense derives very much from Bill Walsh’s “West Coast Offense”. Walsh had a trenchant affinity for forcing the defense to cover the width of the field in order to open up interior run lanes for the offense.

Harbaugh differs a bit from the Walsh philosophy in that he still generally prefers to setup the pass with the run. At heart, the soul of Bo Schembechler can still be found with his desire to run the ball first. Some will surely deride “three yards and a cloud of dust”, but if that “cloud of dust” equates to one foot, then getting at least three yards and a cloud of dust every single down will see an offense in the end zone without ever facing a 4th down.

Tressel, probably calling "Dave"
That doesn’t mean, however, that Harbaugh is going to line up in the same set every down and run power after power after power. Former Ohio State Head Coach Jim Tressel is famously known for calling “Dave” something like eight consecutive plays. Why? Because it kept on working. That talks to the preparation and execution that comes from establishing a true base play, that you can run at any time and any place and know you’ll be successful. But it worked for Tressel because the defense had to respect his entire offense. At a 2002 coaching clinic, Tressel talked about the importance of “run-pass balance” and “utilizing different personnel groupings”. Tressel also said:
“We must have the threat of attacking the entire field. You can’t get so caught up with being such an inside-run team that you forget to attack the rest of the field. If you do that, you allow the defense to play only the field you are using. 

“If the inside-run game is going to work, you better have some other plays to get outside with. Our inside power run worked this year because we could get outside with a stretch play or a toss-sweep play. 
“The offense must have the ability to change the launch point of the thrown ball. Defenses today have outstanding pass rushers. If they know exactly where you are going to throw the ball from each time, they will sack you.”

I don’t think Tressel and Harbaugh will agree about a whole lot of things, but at the heart of the philosophy and what it takes to constrain it, they are in absolute agreement. And when the chimera of Power O frightens an opponent, it becomes everything else that destroys them.
In this post we’ll look at how Harbaugh spreads the field horizontally, despite utilizing many tight and constricted formations and splits.

Harbaugh loves tight formations. He loves utilizing 21 and 22 personnel. You get some big bodies on the field that want to block for you, and you can have a lot of blocking variety and ways of leveraging the defense and forcing them to defend a googol of gaps at the point of attack. But he also has a penchant for having very wide WR splits.

Why do this? Because it takes a safety out of the box or leaves a WR in an obvious man-to-man coverage scenario in space. Pick your poison, regain the numbers advantage with a 9th or 10th defender down in the box, or don’t allow the offense to out-flank you or win over the top in clearly defined coverages. Spread offenses utilizing the spread to define coverages, but tight formations with opportune splits can do much the same.

Likewise, this wide split develops a very wide “alley” for safeties to be forced to fill. By simultaneously having tight formations combined with spread out WRs, you condense part of the defense and force them to fight through the wash and risk being leveraged while forcing the remainder of the defense to play isolated in space. You allow yourself the advantages of having more blockers but make it more difficult to make plays coming up from the secondary in run-support or to mask your coverage assignments.

RB Run Game 
There are several plays Harbaugh uses in the RB run game to get leverage outside the defense. Perhaps the most prominent is the lead play (Lead T/Lead G). Harbaugh will utilize a true outside zone stretch concept, but also loves to pin and pull. Furthermore, he utilizes many of his tight splits and excess TEs to crack block and seal DEs and OLBs inside. This forces DBs to “exchange” assignments with the LB and have to make a play at the point of attack, something they aren’t accustomed to doing. Any time a RB goes up against a DB in space, it is a win for the offense. With LB eyes focused on what is in front of them and fearing the interior run game, they become easier to seal inside and allow the RB to get outside.

This will be used both as a handoff and as a sweep.

Outside Zone
As I said, he will utilize a straight forward stretch play as well to reach the edge. The outside zone run rarely gets fully outside the defense though, and is typically forced to cut up and through the defense before bouncing outside. This is part of the reason Harbaugh prefers to pin and pull.

Counter F 
Counter F typically goes inside the DE, but it is designed to bounce more often than not once through the first level. The initial flow of the backfield forces the defense to respect the backside of the play and freezes them – if not moves them – away from the point of attack. In this way, you can seal the defense on the backside and get to the edge with the RB run game.

Option Run Game 
Zone Read Option 
Inside Zone is another important scheme for Harbaugh, and he utilizes it as a part of his option package. But by incorporating reads, he allows the QB to get outside the defense when they over-commit to the RB. Inside zone, which often utilizes a split zone scheme, is often used to provide an arch block for the QB as well, once again sealing the defense inside.

Triple Option 
The first option, again, is an inside zone run. However, with the use of another RB or a WR, a triple option can be used to get to the outside. From the gun, this third option is what is known as a “cheap read”. Much like the speed option, this third read doesn’t take a lot of investment to include into an offense because this read is typically more straight forward (the read, in contrast, takes a bit more dedication). The inside zone, being an essential part of the offense, is still used as a very real threat, but if the defense over commits, the third “option” acts as an additional blocker to get outside the defense.

Power Read 
The Power Read utilizes standard Power O blocking, but uses a read to kick block the DE. If the DE stays home, a RB (or in some cases, a jet sweep WR) can get to the edge on the defense. Utilizing a FB as a lead blocker to fill the alley filling defender further allows the RB to get outside.

WR Run Game 
Another advantage of tight sets is the ability to utilize receivers in the run game. Many offenses prefer to use jet sweeps, which allow the WR to have the advantage of a running start before they receive the ball. A restricted split, however, provides the receiver the addition of deception. The jet motion isn’t tipping the run and still allows the receiver to threaten vertically at the snap. Furthermore, it puts the receiver closer to the “wash” and the counter flow provided by the blockers and the “fake” run play. This allows for an end around to be very effective and not be tipped pre-snap. Furthermore, many defenses must respect the vertical threat from a corner route or the bench route from the constricted WR, meaning they often times begin the play with outside leverage on the formation. This actually puts them further behind the play than they would be if they were following the receiver across the formation or if the far-side safety was moving forward at the snap to leverage the ball back inside.

Quick Screens 
Flare Screen
A flare screen is a quick throw to the RB out of the backfield. This is a quick forming play that works much like a sweep, but threatens the pass first and allows the RB to get outside the first line of defense before turning upfield. 

You'll note that Harbaugh actually cuts with his interior OL and it is the H-back that acts as "Support #1". This is different than how many spread teams run it, but the concept remains the same.

Bubble Screen
A bubble screen is a lot like a flare screen, except it is thrown to the WR. In this way, the offense is able to immediately get outside the box laterally and attack the defense in space. This can be attached to a run play or can be run on its own.

Bench Screen
Rather than bubbling back and looping to the outside, a bench screen initially threatens vertically before the receiver quickly breaks to the sideline, running a bench route. The difference between this play and what is a concept that includes a bench route is that the outside WR will collapse the gap between himself and the defender, and then immediately start blocking the defender. No other receivers run routes with the intention of receiving a pass, they only run routes to sell the pass to the defensive backfield before beginning to block.

Play Action and Boots 
Spider 2 Y Banana 
I bring up Spider 2 Y Banana because it utilizes to important concepts for stretching the defense. It utilizes a bench route from the TE/FB and a corner route (“Banana”) from another TE. The offense and show either Power O or Inside Zone (and can either pull a OL or not, though with “Spider” it is merely a slide protection) action, but either sucks the defense inside and downhill. The boot action and the routes work from inside to out, away from the defense. This quickly gets the receivers with the ball in space.

But the bench route works in more ways than just off of Spider 2 Y Banana. Furthermore, the bench route begins opening up routes back toward the middle of the field, including “Stick” concepts and shallow crosses.

We know you never throw the “Venus” on Spider 2 Y Banana, but the Venus is there for a reason. “Venus” is an alert call for man-to-man coverage. We talked previously about the advantage of having a wide split for a single WR.

More often than not, Harbaugh does something I really like in his formations, in that he utilizes a “knob” (A single TE without a flanker outside of him or a TE and Wing without a WR outside of him) paired with a WR split wide on the opposite side of the formation. This provides these “alert” situations to become obvious and puts a lot of pressure on the safeties. These alert calls can be slants, but they can also be hitches and go routes (along with the aforementioned Venus) that threaten the edge of the field away from the multiple run game gaps provided by the knob side of the formation.

 This is simply faking the RB run and utilizing the QB's legs to get outside the defense. You start to get so good at selling Power that defenses over-compensate, leaving the edge wide open for the QB.

Despite the tight formations and the multiple TEs and FBs and the Power O and inside zone run base, Harbaugh utilizes plenty of ways to force a defense to have to defend the width of the field. All the methods above force a defense to play in space while also playing in congested areas. In this way, the offense is able to dictate terms to best serve their purpose: moving the football up and down the field.

49ers Read Option


  1. Amazing article. I've been wondering how "prostyle" offenses create explosive runs without spreading the formation with wrs.

    I just found your site I hope you continue to write.

  2. Do you believe that the spacing in the spread offense is better or just different?

    From this article it makes me think that spacing is just as good but just shifted to a different part of the field. Would this be an accurate assessment?

    1. I agree with your final assessment. I think you can spread the field with both, and attack all parts of the field with both. That said, the spread as certain numbers advantages to the outside that allow for things like bubble screens to more easily threaten the width of the field, where as heavier personnel has more flexibility with blocking schemes and such. So lateral spacing is a bit better out of the spread, but it comes with some trade offs.

    2. Looking back on this article it seems to me that outside concepts(run and pass) in general are better from compressed formations(more space to attack with less defenders outside). Is this true?

      If so, would that mean inside concepts(run and pass) are better in general from spread formations?

    3. There is some give an take here. For one, from compressed formations, generally you can't attack the outside as quickly. You don't have receivers immediately available, you don't have blockers immediately out there. So from that sense, it can make it more difficult. On the counter side, obviously you have more space to work in. Both have their advantages for attacking inside and outside.

      To your second question, yes and no (and I think you recently commented on something similar). It can be easier to attack in the middle with a spread formation because the defense is providing you more space, and likely getting smaller bodies on the field. On the flip side, you have fewer options on how to attack, so again, you've limited yourself in some ways by leaving guys outside. So a give and take.