By Nicholas Marcella
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, (NY)
There are few things truly routine about a football game. You have the coin toss. You have the National Anthem. You have a parent yelling the invaluable coaching point, “Hit somebody” on the opening kickoff. The rest is unpredictable, especially when it comes to modern defense. Turn on the TV on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday and you will see more 4i's than 3-techniques and base alignments with three safeties. Defensive coaches have entire clinics on "sim-pressures", they have cornerback athletes playing their overhangs, and what they are presenting pre-snap is vastly different than their post-snap fit. An exception to the chaos and evolution of defensive football is that defenses still predominantly play man coverage in the Red Zone and Goal Line. Man coverage allows the defense to be plus 1 in all run situations and Cover 0 gives them answers for QB pull and run game. Defenses have even added zone aspects to their man structures to combat rub or pick concepts. At RPI we have a three-step game plan progression to exploit coverage in the Red area which we call MLB: Matchups, Levels, and Behind the Line.
The first step in the progression is Matchups. Rick Flair once said, “To be the man, you have to beat the man.” Something all offensive coordinators will agree on is that you need to design plays to get your best players the football. If you have a matchup that you can consistently win, that should be your first option.
Because we call a run play and tag it with "Choice" the QB must be coached on the situations in which you want to go to the matchup. An easy way to control this as a coach is to simply not call choice and run the ball. If you call choice, and he takes the shot, you cannot be angry with him for taking that chance. Additionally, taking a deep dive into a film can help you discover the matchups you want. If your best receiver is a slot, there is no harm in aligning him up as the widest receiver. Formation tags or my favorite, "Hey, you two switch here" are great ways to get the look that you want. To call the Choice route, the QB communicates to the WR via hand signals. They create them on their own, and I do not know what the signals are. It is key that the QB gives the signals on run plays or plays not tagged with a choice. Another crucial element to the success of this play is to specify the protection you want triggered to prepare your offensive line and running backs for the check.
We practice our Choice routes every single day. Where the QBs and WRs get the most reps is during special teams’ periods where they are not on the depth chart. Some days this will mean that they get an entire 20-minute period to work, and other days they may only steal a few reps. At RPI you can see QBs and WRs that get to practice early or stay after for extra reps working on Choice. Even when it is just the QB and WR working, the coaches reinforce that the QB should be triggering the protection of the week that accompanies Choice.
To find matchups we like, we grade the opponent’s secondary in man coverage situations. Each defender in man will receive a (+) grade if they have covered their man, a (-) if their man was open, and a (n) neutral if you cannot determine. We want our best players matched up with the defensive players that have accumulated the most (-) grades.
How we accomplish this at RPI is to present a run-heavy formation from a tendency standpoint. We will call a play, run, or pass, with a “Choice” tag. If the QB likes a matchup, he will call off the initial play, verbally trigger the protection, and exploit the matchup. The QB will give the route to the WR via hand signals that they create independently. Our play communication works in the traditional Formation, Play, Tag format.