The series has been on a bit of a break. Intermittence is just part of my nature. If you are just jumping in now, you've got some make up work to do:
Basic Defensive Responses
Strong Outside Runs
We've laid the groundwork, now it's time for the sexy stuff.
Remember the basic theme that runs through Boise State's offensive philosophy: numbers, leverage, and space. Create an advantage in one of more of these areas on every offensive play. But the more Boise State film I watch the more I realize that the theme runs deeper than that. There is the blunt use of these three tactics that the defense is constantly fighting to marginalize, but Boise's real success lies in the implied threat of all three on any given play. They use that threat to accentuate their advantage in one of the other areas. This is never more obvious than in studying their passing game out of the power sets.
As with the running game, Harsin's offense is going to vary the tempo and location of the attack in the passing game. And once again there is a very specific intent with the areas of the field where Harsin attacks the most. The passing game out of the power sets is designed to divert the pass rush and then create a numbers or field advantage against a defender in coverage. We're going to look at the passing game in three categories which can be easily identified by the quarterback drops 3-Step, 5-Step, and 5+ Step. The Quick Game (3-step) and the 5-step drops are timed drop back passes while the 5+ step drops are usually a play action pass in the power sets.
The Quick Game
When you think of complementing the running game, the quick passing game might not immediately come to mind. Or if it does, you may think of it more as a substitute for the running game. However, as more teams have settled into the spread offenses most of them have learned to play the quick game and the running game off each other to force the defense's hand in alignment. If the defense is spreading out to marginalize the passing game, take the numbers advantage in the box. If the defense is aligned tight to take away the run, use quick throws to the outside for easy yardage pickups.
The Texas offense will also include this concept in the Power Sets but the intent is the same: take advantage of alignment mismatches and punish the defense for overloading the box. I actually prefer this specific application of the Quick Game in the Power Sets because it gives the outside skill players more room to operate than in the spread. In the Spring Game, Harsin and Applewhite showcased something I haven't seen in my film review of Boise State, a Quick Slant packaged with the Power O on a 3-Step drop:
When I say that this play is packaged with the Power O what I mean is that we are actually running two plays at once (it's a run play with a quick pass option). The X-receiver is looking for this pass every play and then progressing on to block downfield if it doesn't come his way. The read is a very simple one, check the alignment of the flat defender (in this case the weakside linebacker), if he's too far inside to disrupt the slant then you have an easy pass and catch with the ball headed upfield. Since we normally will shift before the ball is snapped, the QB is watching for the advantage as the defense adjusts its alignment.
This particular play packaging is nice because it complements the strongside pressure of the run with the weakside pressure of the quick pass. Both plays require an immediate response from the defense and that makes it difficult for the defense to cheat defenders to either side of the formation. I'm also a big fan of the less obvious benefit to the offense: it significantly helps the pass protection in these formations by acting as a deterrent to the weakside blitz. That's a crucial piece to opening up the slower developing pass plays.
Another thing to watch out for from the Power Sets is a twins alignment with a quick screen option to the Z receiver. It's the same theme, introduce quick outside pressure to take advantage of defensive alignment and make the defense defend wide:
The 5-step Passing
The drop back passing game is not really a direct complement to the Power O in the sense that the gig is up as soon as the ball is snapped. However, the aim of the dropback passing in the Power Sets is to take advantage of the alignment/matchup opportunities available as a result of the running threat. And although the defensive front will be in pass rushing mode as soon as they read the pass blocking from the line, the offense still has some run/pass dichotomy available with the draw (which Harsin will utilize and also play fake off of). The number one goal of most of these plays is to give the wide receivers an opportunity to play 1-on-1 ball with a defender and give them a whole lot of real estate to operate in.
This clip is a classic deep pass play: the 989 route combo. That's two 9 routes on the outside (go/streak/fly whatever you want to call it) from the wide receivers and a post route from the tight end (although I think it's actually an option route for the tight end). We will run this play against just about any coverage, and if we don't get what we want deep initially we will attack the flats instead. We ran this play in the spring game off of play action:
Obviously some execution miscues there but you have to like the vertical pressure this play applies. We absolutely need our tight ends to be able to pressure the middle of the field to make this play work. Make no mistake, this is a full throttle gut check play on the deep coverage. The goal here is to get the ball deep on the outsides and let your wide receivers make a play.
The 5+ Step Passing
These are slow developing plays whose main goal is to stretch the defense vertically. The key thing for these passes is the protection. By default these plays are usually max protects but the backs will release on their routes if the extra defenders don't pass rush, usually to attack the flats. On every 5+ step drop play I've reviewed for Boise State, they are challenging the defense with at least one deep route. The off tackle and outside runs that are prevalent in these formations force the defense to respect the immediate threat of the run. So even if the defense is defending the run well, the front, force, and alley players have to be ready to attack the run as the ball is snapped. Boise State parlays that threat into three critical things in the passing game: time, initiative, and alignment opportunities.
When you have a reputation on film, it can help you set the tone for important games right from the start. Here Boise State fakes the power run and goes deep on their first offensive play of the game against Fresno State.
Fresno State had an aggressive defensive gameplan to try to take away the run and Boise State made them pay for it repeatedly. Here, FSU went with a zero coverage to try to get a big play against the run on first down.
The simple truth is that when you can give your quarterback time and create 1 on 1 match ups down the field, good things are going to happen for the offense.
Let's focus on giving the quarterback time because it's the most fundamental requirement of the passing game from these sets. In the following clip you can see how the play fake does wonders for Kellen Moore against Virginia Tech's pass rush. Also notice how Boise State always has one extra blocker to act as a stop gap when they bootleg. The entire Virginia Tech front runs themselves right out of the play because the offensive line sells it… you don't have to win every one on one battle if you can define where the battle takes place.
Consider this play from our spring game. There isn't one single battle that the second team offensive line should win against the pass rush but the conflicting responsibilities for the front give the offense just enough room to get the play off:
Take a deep breath and look back at another important play from the spring game, some of it good some of it bad. In this play Texas has a Big personnel on the field and they have run both Power and Sweeps out of this alignment already. The coverage starts in a 2-high look:
but Bryant Jackson walks up his alignment to give the defense a 1-high pre-snap alignment.
The offense play fakes here and keeps 7 blockers at home to protect. While it might seem ludicrous to keep 7 at home when the defense is only rushing 4, look at how the play fake has locked up 8 defenders near the line of scrimmage at the time when the handoff would occur.
The offense is getting all the benefit here: they are getting 2 on 1 match ups on 3 of the 4 pass rushers, they are getting a 3 on 2 match up on the deep routes which means they are guaranteed a 1 on 1, and they are getting plenty of time and space for the quarterback to operate. That's whats frustrating about this play: Gilbert just locked in on Ahmard Howard and misses the read, he goes to the 2 on 1 matchup instead of the 1 on 1 with Mike Davis and A.J. White.
This was probably a result of him reading an odd coverage pre-snap but the defense actually playing a 2-deep coverage post snap.
Overall this play shows the offense doing a ton of things right and it may be the best example of the effectiveness of play action from the Spring Game. It also shows that even if everything else falls into place, unforced errors from the quarterback position simply cannot be overcome. Let's move on though, shall we?
Next up, a flashy two-play special from Boise State's 2010 game against Hawaii. On this first play watch how the play action gets the safety to bite hard and frees up the big play. Boise State is willing to turn just about any backfield motion into a protection. In this case the two pulling linemen create and irresistible lure for Hawaii's safety. The safety is playing run, the corner thinks he has deep help. They'll both get some time on the sideline to discuss it afterwards.
The very next play for Boise State's offense Hawaii aligns in a more conservative coverage, a quarters look. They may be losing badly but they are not going to just give up passes over the top of the defense. Boise State shifts its strength to the wide side of the field and the safety walks up his alignment since he will be the force player against the run in this coverage. When the ball is snapped the offensive line again sells the play action and causes hesitation which compromises the coverage despite the defense's attempt at a safe play.
Hawaii's defensive coordinator is muttering "quarters" softly as he ties a slipknot into his lei. The other thing to notice about that play is how the run fake, bootleg, and route combo are all in synch with each other. The run fake pulls the front to the wide side of the field, the bootleg gives the quarterback plenty of room to operate and the hitch, post, post develop right in his line of sight in time 1,2,3. In this case it's the fullback coming across the formation to protect the bootleg that ironically leaves one of Hawaii's safeties running in circles because he was reading inside zone counter all the way.
So we can see one of the big benefits of the play fake when you focus on off-tackle running is that you can suck in the deep coverage and that's why the big plays in the passing game emerge. However, the time and space for the passing game earned in these sets can also be translated into another advantage: separation between the deep coverage and the shallow coverage.
Here the Fresno State defense plays soft cover 2 and the flat is well defended (most teams attack the flats versus this look) but the length of the play allows the wide receiver to push the deep coverage so deep that the positioning of the flat defender no longer can deny the passing lane to the tight end on the deep out.
Same idea against Cover 3 from Virginia Tech. The coverage is good but again the play action pass holds the underneath coverage and opens up the passing lanes for Moore. There's just too much separation between the deep and underneath zone to defend this play.
Here's another example of Boise State exploiting the flat off of the time allotted by play action. Again the coverage has been drawn so deep that this play gains a lot more yards than a dump off to the fullback ever should.
I know you get the idea but let's just make it explicit. Here again Boise State is exacerbating the strategic weak spot and then forcing the defense to give up more than it should. New Mexico State is giving Titus Young a big cushion.
The offense shifts the strength of the formation to the opposite side of the field.
Look at the cushion and space that Young has after the shift. In many "take what the defense is giving you" paradigms you would throw a quick pass here and pick up an easy 5-7 yards on first down. Instead Boise State pushes the issue.
The play action holds the outside linebacker in the box and prevents him from getting any coverage of the short side of the field. This creates an easy, low risk pass and catch for a 15 yard pick up.
Yes. There is an aggressive way to approach soft coverage.
Perhaps most beneficial is the effectiveness of the power sets in the red zone. The defense benefits from having to defend less field depth so forcing the defense to bunch is crucial to successful passing in the red zone. The offense doesn't need as much time to operate but they need the passing windows. Watch how the offense uses alignment and play action to ensure that they get 1 on 1 match-ups for both of their receivers in their twins look. With the double posts, its just a matter of the quarterback getting the right passing window and executing.
Harsin is simply applying direct pressure to more of the field than the defense can cover.
"Take what the defense gives you" can mean a whole lot of different things depending on what your strategic approach is, that's why it's coachspeak 101. Harsin knows that the defense tends to give up more than it bargained for when you give them more to think about. Most defenses are going to want to play the power sets by being aggressive against the run and taking away the deep ball so they resort to cover 3, quarters, or cover 2 with generous cushion. Boise State responds by using the play action to hold the linebackers in the box and then attacking the huge vacancies in the underneath outside zones at 10-15 yards a pop. If you instead decide that you are willing to take your chances deep because you feel like it's a low percentage play, Harsin will not hesitate to go over the top with impunity all the while feeding your defense false keys over and over again.
The beauty of the Power Sets is that they specifically target the defense's most active disruptors: the defensive ends, the linebackers, and the safeties while ensuring the offense has diversity in the run game, space for it's play makers, and protection options for its quarterback. This isn't schematic wizardry. It's due diligence and it's ubiquitous in what Harsin does: apply opposing pressures to the defense over and over, be willing to attack the entire field, and never give the defense a static target.