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New Research Reveals the Most Effective Defensive Adjustments

Mike Kuchar

Senior Research Manager

X&O Labs mikek@xandolabs.com

Two weeks ago we released a new research report, Pre-Snap Movement to Gain Leverage, detailing how offensive coaches are using pre-snap movements to out-leverage and out-number defenses at the snap.  We featured the schemes, complete with detailed film cut-ups, of the three most prolific offenses in the country: Boise State, Auburn and Oregon to show you exactly why they do what they do.  I learned quite a bit researching that particular report.  As a defensive coach, I was mesmerized by the way in which Chris Petersen and his staff at Boise would manipulate defenses by using pre-snap movement to gain leverage and get them into compromising positions.  Gus Malzahn, the newest offensive prodigy, was baiting defenses to fly to the perimeter with his jet motion, just to gash them inside with Cam Newton on the power read scheme.  Then you have Chip Kelly shredding defenses with his "flash sweep concept" by sending the offensive line opposite the motion of the back and reading the front-side defensive end.  It was in a word…stealing.  They are all simple offensive concepts to teach and implement, it’s just that those three had the guts to run it, and run it at the highest level of college football.

So enough marveling, this report will focus on how defensive coaches are adjusting to these types of motion and more importantly how they are putting their players in the best spot to make plays.

My research staff and I were surprised to find that 57.5 percent of coaches surveyed said they see pre-snap movement on less than half of all offensive snaps.  This was somewhat surprising considering Boise moves on nearly 80 percent of its total offensive snaps.  Truth is, most offensive coaches (the good ones anyway) run their motion for a reason, and not just to "window dress" their playbooks.

For a quick refresher from our last report, the following reasons are why offensive coaches will utilize pre-snap movement:

  • Gain a mismatch in personnel
  • Gain a leverage advantage on the perimeter
  • Gain a numbers advantage
  • Identify coverage rotation
  • Promote a "toe-to-heel" mentality to the defense

So after my staff and I analyzed the data from our survey results (1,724 coaches responded), we were interested in determining which movements give offenses the best opportunity to capitalize on those five indicators above.  We found the following three pre-snap movements to be the most used against defenses:

  • TE Trade (Diagram 1): This is a trade/shift, where you bring your tight end from one side of the offensive formation to the other.  It also can be used in conjunction with an H-back or wing where both will travel together.

  • Jet or Flash Sweep (Diagram 2): The jet sweep motion is a full-speed motion from one side of the formation to the other, mainly utilized by a slot receiver.  It’s been a staple of the Wing T offense, but has integrated itself into more spread schemes recently.

  • Shuffle or Return Motion (Diagram 3):  This motion is a square-shouldered motion by an H-back or Wing who will start on one side of the line of scrimmage and either shuffle across the formation or return to his original location.

Those are the top pre-snap movements that defensive coordinators will see from offenses.  Now let’s take a look at how they adjust.

Case 1: Defending the TE Trade Tight end trade, or as some teams refer to as "Y walk," is used mainly by the offense to dictate the formation strength of the defense.  Most defenses, particularly four down lineman fronts, will call the strength to the tight end or three-man surface.  "Walking" the tight end from one side of the formation to the other can cause various personnel problems for the defense.  A weak side defensive end may end up playing on the strong side once the tight end resets, it’s a position he’s not familiar with.  Also, a nose guard who will line up away from the tight end, may end up playing to the tight end surface on a trade.  This can make the nose guard susceptible to playing double teams, a block he may not be used to seeing because he’s now on the front-side of the play.  In our last report, I detailed how Boise State was able to trade its tight end and get Fresno State to play out of position.

In any movement by the offense, it’s important to note that there are really only three ways in which a defense can respond to offensive pre-snap movement.  They can adjust with their first level players (DL) their second level players (LB’s) or their third level players (DB).  How they adjust these levels could vary in dropping a defender down, moving a defender up, widening defenders or slanting defenders.  In this instance, we found that 61.8 percent of coaches will bump their defensive front against the tight end trade, perhaps creating some of the same personnel mismatches that were mentioned earlier.  

Sam Tavlealea, the former defensive coordinator at the St. Louis School in Hawaii, has seen the evolution of the spread trickle down from former Hawaii coach June Jones.  Jones has been using H-backs and slot backs in his package for years, and now many high school coaches on the west coast have adopted those same principles.  So one of the challenges Tavlealea faces each year is to adjust his personnel/coverage depending on whether or not a wing is a smaller slot receiver or a bigger H-back.  Most smaller slots would signify a pass concept, whereas the H-back would be used as an additional blocker in the run game.

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"We’re seeing a lot of bounce back motion with that wing," said Tavlealea.  "What he’ll do is line up in a wing alignment and either motion full across the formation or stops and bounces back to where he came from.  The coordinator was actually trying to see if anyone was going with him.  If it wasn’t man coverage, he would go across the formation hoping you would bump your front.  They would run the inside zone to the shade technique then trap the three-technique.  It got to a point where we were seeing it 15 times per game."

A 4-3 team by nature, Tavlealea would designate the Sam linebacker to recognize the tight end or wing trade.  He would often line up in an Over front, then once there was a trade, the Sam linebacker would give an alert call in which he would follow the tight end.  The defense would end up in an Under front (with sky force), and the strong side safety would drop into the box (Diagram 4).   He would play some form of cover three where the drop safety would be the force player.  "The only one adjusting in this case is the strong side defensive end, who would go from a 9-techinue to a 5-technqiue," says Tavlealea.  "I prefer ending up in an under front versus tight end trade because you get that extra defender (Sam) on the line of scrimmage to get a jam on the tight end."

In order to prevent personnel mismatches on the tight end trade, Russell Rothar, the former defensive coordinator at Harmony High School (FL) would line up his front with two 2i techniques against teams that would often trade the tight end (Diagram 5).  Rothar, who also worked under former Louisiana Tech head coach Derek Dooley, would have to line up against Boise State every season.  It seemed the Broncos would trade nearly every series to get his defense out of position, but with two A-gap tackles, it didn’t matter which player was towards the tight end.  "It helped us big time, you’re balanced no matter how they line up.  There are no adjustments," said Rothar.  "You don’t have to worry about players who normally play a three technique.  You don’t have to shift your front.   Unless you get a veteran front it’s tough for them to do that (shift) even at that level.  We would rather have the guys that can see the movements (like second and third level players) to adjust."

In order to alleviate the many adjustments a defense may need to make against a squad like Boise, Rothar and the rest of the defensive staff that worked under defensive coordinator Tommy Spangler, simply classified each adjustment into a 2x2 check or a 3x1 check.  Against any 2x2 set such as a twin receiver and tight end wing alignment, Rothar would stay in some form of quarters or two-high coverage for threat of the play action pass game.  "We just tried to keep the defensive line intact," said Rothar.  "Anytime the offense shifts, you do have time to react because they need to reset.  If we saw it was a whole sale trade with the tight end and H-back we would walk our linebacker down into the D gap just to set the edge (Diagram 6).  We would either have the corner be in run support on a 2x2 alignment off the wing."

Once Boise would get into a 3x1 alignment, Spangler and his staff would now drop the safety to the trade side to 8 yards, from his normal alignment of 10 yards (Diagram 7).  Because there are three vertical threats, both safeties would read the tight end/wing (or four man) surface side.  Because Boise ran a ton of split zone schemes (inside zone with the wing blocking the back-side C gap), Rothar said it was imperative that both safeties be tied to the wing.  "If the back-side safety saw that pre or post-snap that wing was going to come back for split zone, he knew he was the D gap player to his side and the flat player on bootleg," said Rothar.  "If the DE crashes, there is no D gap defender on the zone, and that is where Boise made a living in their run game. Our walk-up backer is lined up to the tight end side.  The safety to the back-side fits off the defensive end."

Case 2: Defending the TE/Trade From a Three-Down Structure Although the majority of coaches we spoke with were more four-down front in nature, we were curious in discovering a point of view from odd-front coordinators.  Being that most odd front teams are balanced in nature; we wanted to see how much of an adjustment these coaches would make to a tight end or tight end/wing trade.

Michael Broussard, the secondary coach at Lumberton High School (TX) has an automatic "switch" call that he uses when he sees the tight end flip.  Lumberton’s scheme is based out of a 50, balanced front, with a cover two principle in the back end.  He’ll line up with a zero technique at nose, two four techniques at defensive end and a nine technique outside linebacker to the tight end surface.  Once the tight end flips, the safety to that side will roll up on the line of scrimmage and bump the end further outside (Diagram 8).  The end becomes the force player, and Broussard will lock the safety to the tight end man-to-man.  The corner will play man-to-man on the wing.

"We play teams that like to move around so we play man a lot because it keeps things simple for our kids," said Broussard.  "Most teams that move the tight end like to block down at the point of attack and run power.  Now we can get in his face so he can’t block down.  Regardless of what they’re doing they have to kick an end out in a gap scheme and because the safety is there, the play side inside linebacker is free.   The safety is in the tight end’s face, we don’t want to be too far inside.  We’re man-to-man no matter what.  Our eyes are on him we don’t leave him even in passing situations.  It’s a man concept regardless until we know it’s run, then we’ll commit to the ball carrier."

Case 3: Defending Jet Sweep Motion The presence of jet motion has kept defensive coordinators on their toes.  Because it requires a motion man to run full speed across a formation, it often draws a frenzy of attention from second and third level players on the defensive side of the ball.  What was once a staple of Wing T teams now has become the norm for spread offenses that use the jet or flash motion consistently. While at Florida, Urban Meyer would run track star and slot back Johnny Demps on the jet countless amounts of times just to get defenses off balance.  In fact, Malzahn would only run #23 Ontario McCalebb in his speed sweep package because he was the most explosive in doing so.  The methodology of jet motion is simple: get your fastest kid running full speed across the formation before the ball is snapped.  The deception alone would cause defenses to shutter.

We’ve found it’s the deception itself that makes offensive coordinators run the jet motion.  The true jet sweep teams run it as a package as to not draw a tendency.  It’s not so much the threat of the jet sweep, but the plays that can be run off of it.  But the threat of the jet sweep play still does carry that "fear factor" that causes defenses to adjust, and the majority of coaches, 42.3 percent, adjust by bringing a third level player, like a safety, down in coverage.  

Since there is an element of deception to the scheme, it’s important that you instruct your players to decipher whether or not you are getting some form of jet motion or just a full-field motion by the receiver.  While 47.1 percent of coaches will use the receiver crossing the center as an indicator that it is NOT jet motion, we’ve also heard some coaches talk about the "bowing" of the slot back to insure it is.   In order to get the depth needed to run the scheme effectively, most ball carriers will bow or hump once they get the ball on the jet sweep, allowing the play side guard or fullback to lead the play.  Sometimes it’s this indicator that alerts the defensive that the motion man has the ball.

To James McCleary, the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame High School (LA) it doesn’t matter whether or not the ball carrier has the ball, he still instructs a defender to collision him.  McCleary runs a 4-3 base scheme and almost always will spin his near side safety when identifying jet sweep motion.  He’ll make sure his force player collisions him whether or not he has the ball.   "We always check the depth of the motion," says McCleary.  "If he’s deep, he’s getting the ball.  If it’s closer to the center, than it’s a fake jet motion and he will run to the flat.  Once the QB fakes the jet sweep on the mesh, we will collision him with our outside linebacker or strong safety and not let him go out on a route.  We collision the outside shoulder and take him out of the equation."

McCleary sees more of the spread teams utilizing the jet motion to get a numbers advantage on the perimeter.  Once the ball is snapped, the jet motion player becomes an active receiver, blocker or runner to the play side.  Even if you’re not playing some form of man coverage by bringing a defender to the party, you still need to account for him.  Which is why McCleary bases his coverage on a quarter, quarter/half principle to the jet motion, but he does so in an unorthodox manner.

Once the jet motion occurs, he’ll play a quarter principle to that side of the formation leaving the back-side corner to play a half-field technique on the single receiver side.  The safety to the side of the jet motion will drop to collision the motion man and play the flat (Diagram 9).  "We actually end up with a five on three advantage to the jet motion side," said McCleary.  "Our safety to the jet motion walks down from eight yards to five yards and he’ll apex between the motion man and number two or the tight end.  If the motion continues across the formation, he’ll just back up and play his regular depth.  We have the free safety rotate on top of the number two receiver pre-snap to get an extra man to the motion side.  We have our strong outside linebacker (Hank) stacked over the tackle.  We have three under, two deep to the side of the motion and we play our Will linebacker to the flat with the corner over the top of the single receiver.  Any run action away, the Will is responsible for force.  It’s a simple adjustment that works."

Seeing that jet motion out of spread sets is one of the main reasons why Phillip Sanders, the defensive coordinator from Boling High School (TX) changed from a 4-3 to more of a 4-2-5 structure.  The added hybrid safety/linebacker type helps with adjusting to motion and, more importantly, keeps his two interior linebackers in the core.  "We’re not going to move our second level players on jet motion," said Sanders.  "When we see jet motion it’s more of a decoy, teams will try to hurt us in the tackle box.  We’ll often get a power scheme with a sniffer (like Florida has done), QB dart or something of the sort.  It’s mainly just eye candy to get our players undisciplined in reading our keys."

In order for his players not to be fooled on their keys, Sanders tells his outside linebacker to key through the EMLOS to the near back. As mentioned earlier, the near back will often lead the play on jet sweep.  The secondary will roll to a quarter, quarter/half principle, similar to what McCleary has his players do, but it’s his Rover that will play the deep half while his corner to the weak side will handle the flat and be the force player (Diagram 10).  "The key for us is just forcing the ball right away on the perimeter," said Sanders.  "We just need to keep six in the box to protect the interior gaps."

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

We realize its early summer and really the only time in which coaches can catch a break before pre-season camp begins.  So we truly appreciate all your contributions to our surveys and encourage you to voice your opinions on everything football on our new website, www.xandolabs.com.  Football is the essential learning community and it continues to be our desire to provide you a platform to do so.

If you have any questions or comments please post in the comments section below and I’ll respond quickly.

Copyright 2011 X&O Labs



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