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It’s a classic case of the tail wagging the dog.  With the advent of four receiver spread formations infiltrating the collegiate and prep landscapes, defenses have been forced to adjust.  Commonly referred to as "sub" personnel, our researchers at X&O Labs have found that many four-down (defensive line) teams have shifted to three-down structures just to match speed with speed.  What started out as nickel packages has grown more into an every down occurrence.   Coordinators are replacing one of their defensive linemen with linebacker/safety hybrids in order to combat the speed and defend the width of the field.

After surveying 2,000 college and prep coaches, we’ve found that the most difficult challenge when facing odd front teams is finding a way to occupy the alley defender (usually an outside linebacker or drop safety).  Often taught to be the force player, it’s this overhang player that can cause problems for offenses wishing to push the ball to the perimeter.  Sure, it’s offensive pedagogy to attack the B gap bubbles vs. odd front teams, but it’s only a matter of time until defenses try to take that away by slanting or stemming to a four-down front pre-snap.  Eventually you’ll need to get to the perimeter, so why not save time by getting there immediately?  Our researchers at X&O Labs have sifted through your feedback, and we’ll show you how to do just that below.

Case 1: Using Tight End Structures, Particularly 12 or 11 Personnel Even if you don’t have a tight end in the program, start to develop one.  Over 80% of coaches polled by X&O Labs attack odd defenses by using various tight end formations. Whether by using 12 personnel (two tight ends, one backs) 11 personnel (one tight end, one back) or 21 personnel (one tight end, two backs), the implementation of the tight end seems to be a pivotal tool in the run game.

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We’ve all seen how productive spread offenses like Oregon, Boise State and Florida have been within the last three years.  What separates those teams from traditional spread teams is the implementation and execution of the tight end on normal downs.  According to our research, using a tight end in spread personnel accounts for two valuable advantages:

  • It changes the structure of the defense: No longer can that safety/linebacker play in space, which is exactly what he wants to do.  Now he’s forced to cover down on a bigger, stronger opponent, giving you leverage to get to the alley.
  • It provides for an instant mismatch in the run game: Many of these hybrids don’t like to get their hands dirty.  These types, who usually weigh in the 180-210 pound range, are forced to balance up and fit in the framework against bigger tight ends.

Mike Canales, associate head coach and offensive coordinator at the University of North Texas, contributed heavily to this Coaching Research Report.   Canales has modeled his spread scheme after studying the details of what Oregon does to attack the perimeter with their speed-sweep and option series.  "Anytime we’re going to get odd fronts, like we do when we play Louisiana-Monroe, we need to make some adjustments to our scheme," said Canales.  "Teams are going to give you a six-man box, regardless of what you’re putting on the line of scrimmage.  Handling that overhang player with a six box is a bitch.  You can’t stay in 10 personnel with no tight ends because those slot receivers aren’t big or strong enough to handle those safety types one-on-one, so you need to get into 11 or 12 personnel to force the defensive coordinator’s hand."

By forcing defenses’ hands, Canales will run a set comprised of 12 personnel that is similar to what Boise State runs on offense.  Having one tight end on the ball (Y) and one tight end off the ball (U) (a typical tight/wing alignment) (Diagram 1) gives you the versatility to go either way with your scheme by simply moving or motioning the tight end.  It doesn’t matter which tight end is the Y, or which is the U, as long as you keep the scheme simple.  It makes the defense declare where they are going to drop the deep safety to the original tight end side or if they are going to stay in a two deep structure.   According to Canales, many teams will drop that safety to the tight end side declaring their strength.  Now, all you need to do is move the U back and your picture is clear.  You’re ready to attack the alley.

Case 2: The Read Zone/Bubble Concept What spread offense would be complete without the zone read scheme?  We all know that the beauty of the read zone concept is that it essentially combines two dynamic offensive schemes – the inside zone and the option.  While the inside zone is a quick hitting, cutback play that attacks the tackle box, it’s the read complement that makes its money with spread teams – dissecting odd defenses.  According to our survey, it’s also the go-to-call for high school and college programs when trying to get to the perimeter.  Thirty-eight percent of coaches polled believe the read zone concept is the most advantageous way to get to the alley.

When you keep the play structure the same, it’s easy to manipulate defenses by getting into various formations.   By definition, the odd front is a balanced front with two inside linebackers, two outside linebackers and two high safeties.  Even with one high safety, the odd-stack structure is still balanced.   In order to manipulate that balance, we’ve found that many coaches will often shift, trade or motion into 3x1 trips sets in order to get odd fronts off-kilter.

One of Canales’ favorite ways to do this is to step the U off the line of scrimmage and motion him across the formation to show a trips set, usually to the field side of the formation.  After he does that, he’ll run the zone scheme back into the boundary with the read coming back out the other end.  He’ll have different ways to influence the overhang or alley player, depending on whether he feels that he’s a run or pass first defender.

"We tell our QB’s to look to check the alley player’s horizontal width.  If he’s inside the safety, we know that he’s a run defender because he’s closer to the core (tackle box).  If he’s truly a pass defender, like a curl/flat defender, chances are his alignment is going to be closer to number two."  If Canales is getting an indicator that the alley player is inside the safety (with the number two receiver out leveraged) he’ll run the zone away and wrap the U around to occupy the alley player (Diagram 2). 

If Canales is getting the indicator that the alley player is fitting outside the safety, he’ll run the bubble fake off of the zone (Diagram 3)  forcing the alley player to expand, opening up the alley wider for the run game.

According to Canales, it’s a simple adjustment.  Either way, the alley player is caught in a tough predicament.  "If we run the zone and the defensive end chases, who’s the QB player?  If that inside linebacker is late on his read, we’re out the gate with the QB.  He’ll ‘run-the-ladder’ as we call it – from hash to numbers to sideline.  The overhang player will usually get caught between playing the bubble or holding his option responsibility. If teams start to declare or roll their strength to the field side of formations you can always go back and keep the zone play to the boundary – they’ll be a gap short."

Case 3:  The Bunch Toss Scheme Over 15% of coaches feel the best way to get to the alley is to attack it downhill with some sort of toss scheme.  Ben Coates will use this scheme as the offensive coordinator at Central State University (OH).   Coates teaches the benefits of blocking angles, to attack the alley defender in his Gator scheme (Diagram 4).  Coates will use the bunch formation, with the number two receiver (usually the Y/tight end) up on the line of scrimmage, to block that force player.  The number one receiver gets his hat on the deep safety, while the most inside receiver arc releases to block the corner, as opposed to using the pulling tackle. "We don’t feel that the tackle on the corner is a good match-up," says Coates.  "We’ll just have the tackle pull with his eyes inside for a second level player."

Our research found another variation of the bunch toss or crack scheme is to have number one block the alley player (Diagram 5).  Here, the number one receiver will block the next "Most Dangerous Man" (MDM) on or inside of him that’s not the defensive end or EMLOS.  The number two receiver will crack the defensive end while the number three receiver will pull or arc block the first defender supporting outside (usually the corner) aiming at the outside armpit.  The play side tackle will again block inside/out on any pursuit.  It’s even possible to get the play side guard out against odd fronts, because chances are he will be uncovered.  If the center can handle the nose, you’re in good shape.

Researchers’ Note: You are reading the summary version of this Research Report. To access the full version of this report – including the corresponding Statistical Analysis Report featuring the raw coaching data from our research – please CLICK HERE.

Concluding Report

For the last three seasons we’ve found that the top scoring defenses in the FBS have seen a decrease of 24% in their season average.  At this point, defenses are playing "catch-up" with the various offensive schemes.  However, according to our research, by using a tight end in spread schemes, offenses should be maintaining that advantage over defenses.  Not only does it create an extra blocking surface, but coaches are able to manipulate the defense, making them declare where they are going to bring the extra player.  Offensive football is all about numbers, leverage and grass – and detecting a numbers advantage pre-snap is priceless when scheming against an opponent.

By Mike Kuchar Senior Research Manager X&O Labs mikek@xandolabs.com

Questions? Post your questions or comments below and Mike Kuchar will respond.

Copyright 2011 X&O Labs



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