We've spent a fair amount of time talking about the base offense from the Power Sets. One of the themes we have repeatedly touched on is putting the defenders in conflict.
Strategically this is an easy thing to pontificate about but when it comes to designing, installing, and calling an offense; consistently accomplishing the task requires tangible objectives and attention to detail.
Every offense wants to move the ball and score touchdowns, this is not the goal of the offense it is the purpose of the offense, the goals are much more interesting. When you study Boise State, it's abundantly clear that they approach offense with prioritized goals that are unified with their play design, package installation, and play calling during the game. If you focus closely, particularly in the first quarter of games, you will discover that one of the their top priorities is to attack, frustrate, and ultimately compromise the modern defense's most important weapon: the defensive end.
The reasons for this are many and probably fairly obvious but let's expand a bit anyway. Intuitively, anyone who watches a fair amount of football can tell you that if the offense is consistently gaining the corner in the run game and has time to throw the ball then the big plays are going to come. And vice versa, if the offense is getting pressured in the passing game and the runs are getting pushed to the sideline, they are in for a long day. Defensive ends are the key and it's why the some of the most physically gifted athletes in football play the position.
So how does the Boise State offense go about taking away this defensive threat? Meticulously, methodically, and unscrupulously. More specifically they:
(1) Force the defensive end to play in uncomfortable alignments
Most defensive ends are going to be practiced in a number of alignments. But if you spend 70% of your time aligned in a 5 tech, then Boise State is going to make you spend a significant amount of time in a 7 tech or 9 tech. This is a big part of the reason Boise State uses shifts, to force defenders out of the situations where they have the most familiarity. It changes their sense of space in relation to the tailback and the quarterback and changes the angles and timings that they are most used to.
(2) Break the defensive end's rhythm
Playing on the defensive line requires amazing reaction time and defensive ends in particular generally have a great first step. As much as putting a defensive end in mental conflict is key, it is even more important to disrupt their physical response at the snap of the ball. You do this with changing their immediate physical surroundings at the snap. That means that in those first two steps in a play you want to give them a lot of variety: flow outside them, flow inside them, attack them directly, release them, release across their face. The key is to make it difficult for their body to repeat the same get off play after play: you must not give them a stagnant target. Ultimately this comes down to attacking the defensive end with different blockers from different angles, varying the tempo and attack point of running plays, and varying the drop and release point of passing plays.
(3) Confuse the defensive end's reads
Defensive ends are going to be taught to key off of certain offensive players. They may be reading the first man inside them or they may be trying to gain outside leverage on the first man outside them or they may be just trying to control the first blocker who attacks them. They are going to have a predefined action for a certain number of criteria and then they are going to resort to read and react if they get something they haven't specifically prepared for. The key for Boise State's offense is first diagnosing the defensive ends responses and then exploiting them.
(4) Frustrate the defensive end
Defensive ends are not entirely dissimilar to wide receivers, albeit without as much of a reputation as prima donnas. But they have a lot of emotional and schematic pressure to be playmakers for the defense. If you can take a defensive end out of his game and make him feel like he can't get to situations where he can make plays, then you will usually see a pretty rapid deterioration in effort and effectiveness. Boise State does this in a ton of ways but ultimately its the culmination of the 3 previous objectives ad infinitum.
With all of that in mind, I want to take us on a little journey with Kawika Shook, former defensive end for the New Mexico State University Aggies.
Um, I'm getting an
appearance fee for
this crap, right?
Sorry Kawika, it had to be someone's film... think of it as a donation to science. We're going to follow Shook through some of the different looks in the first quarter of his game against Boise State and try to see what the Boise State offense looks like from his perspective.
Pinned from the Outside
Shook is aligned in a 5 tech then shifts to a 7 with the motion. The tight end uses his outside alignment to pin Kawika. Notice that even though the tight end does not physically dominate the block, he still gets what he wants by diverting Shook away from the play. Texas absolutely needs to be able to rely on our tight ends to execute in similar circumstances this year.
The PST (playside offensive tackle) is stepping to the inside off the snap. Shook is initially left unblocked so he has a decision to make because he is responsible for the C gap (which is the Gap just outside the offensive tackle). The C gap is on the move to the inside so one option the defensive end has is to follow the offensive tackle (this is often referred to as crashing inside). Another option is for the defensive end to stay put and try to attack any runs inside of him so that he doesn't give the offense an easy edge on a cutback run. Finally, he could abandon his responsibility and try to get upfield as quickly as possible and disrupt the play in the backfield.
No matter what the defender chooses, the offense learns something. If he crashes, they know they can work plays like the Jet Sweep or the Weakside Option that take advantage of the weakened edge and Bootleg passing should be available. If he attacks the backfield they know they can gash the C gap with plays like the weakside kick or the counter gap weak. If he stays put then the offense knows he's playing read and react and they should be able to attack him with pulling blockers and they have bought time for the QB in the play-action game.
Quick Pass Pro
Here Boise State runs a quick pass from the shotgun. This is the first opportunity the defensive end has really gotten to attack.
The guard picks him up and the running back is available to help in the protection if need be. In this case, the quarterback releases the ball before the end has any chance of pressuring. Varying the tempo of the pass will be crucial but starting the pass rusher off on a play where they don't have enough time to affect the play is never a bad idea.
Play Action Cut
The offensive line blocks for inside zone and again the defensive end is playing read and react on the backside edge. Its a quick throw off the play action and the end doesn't have time to pressure the quarterback but he does get cut by the tailback for his effort.
Ask any defensive end, they absolutely love getting cut blocked.
So funny. Come here, LHS... There's
a secret football strategy I can only explain
when you're standing right next to my fist.
The offensive tackle sits back into a pass blocking stance and the tight end crosses inside of the defensive end. Even if Shook had gotten an aggressive first step here, the tight end would have disrupted him. As it is, he is a hesitant pass rusher on this play and there's no chance of Kellen Moore feeling any pressure from his blind side any time soon.
Pinned & Doubled
Shook is lined up in 4 tech. Here the offensive line steps to the outside initially and Shook follows their blocks. The OT pins Shook and then the FB doubles him and forces him downfield. Notice how Boise State uses the combos & pin blocks and gets vertical with their outside zone which keeps the backside defenders from being able to get to the play.
Read & Logged
This play is a great example of how the Boise State offense uses alignment to create favorable match-ups and how attention to detail in play design makes a big difference. Boise State is in Big personnel (with 3 TE/H-backs) but in a spread formation (shogun with offset back) and #7 senior QB Mike Coughlin is on the field. If you want an example of Boise State's willingness to use all the weapons available to them, look no further than Mike Coughlin. They had one of the highest performing QBs in the nation last year in Kellen Moore and yet Mike Coughlin still had specialized option based packages installed for him throughout the year. The scouting report on Coughlin was there for everyone, but he still averaged 7 yards per carry. The defense has been playing split safety coverage all game long and their lack of diversity on defense is easy picking for Bryan Harsin. Here the presnap alignment has 8 in the box against essentially 8 blockers and 2 backs (Coughlin had only thrown 3 passes up to this point in the year). Worst of all for the defense (as we will see shortly) is that in this 8 on 10 matchup, the bench force player for the defense is a 180 lb cornerback.
Back to main storyline, Shook is in a 5 tech here and he is not the force. When the ball is snapped the offensive line blocks for inside zone toward the field. Shook is unblocked and he initially follows the blockers inside and then realizes he's being read and holds his ground. Just as the handoff is occurring though, the h-back comes in late to attack Shook and he must turn his attention to taking on the blocker. Remember that Boise State always brings a blocker to pick up the back side of the inside zone and open up the cutback. Here that blocker essentially turns into a lead blocker for the keeper on the zone read as well.
You can see that the defense is in trouble just by numbers (above). There are two defenders for 2 blockers and 2 potential ball carriers. Yikes. As you watch this play unfold at full speed pay attention to a couple details:
(1) Shook does a great job of absorbing the block and tackling the running back
(2) H-back Dan Paul executes a beautifully technical block on Shook by allowing Shook to go where he wants and just changing his kick-out block into a log block. That little detail in this play design adds an element of flexibility to the play that means no matter how well Shook plays on this one, the offense is going to exploit him.
(3) When you have a corner playing force who isn't mentally or physically up to the task, it shows.
Here Shook is lined up in a 7 tech with the strongside linebacker as the force. Boise State uses flash motion and New Mexico's defense responds with the strongside linebacker rotating in and the corner back having to play force at the last second. This again gives Boise State an ideal matchup on the bench force player and it allows them to zone Shook with the TE and T. Kawika is driven 5 yards straight back off the snap, although he does eventually make the tackle.
Lured & Pinned
Bryan Harsin takes the stress he sees in the defense and stretches it even further. Here the offense aligns in a triangle trips really wide to the field with the running back offset to the same side. That's 4 receiving threats to the wide side of the defense in a formation that Boise State primarily passes from. The alignment leaves the left side of the defense with no force player meaning that Shook is going to be playing double duty on this play (EMOL and Force). At the snap of the ball, the tackle inside of Shook blocks down and he is attacked by the tight end, should Shook follow the tackle down? Is it inside zone? Is it power? This time it's the flex zone again (or Tight End Down in BSU's vernacular). Shook desperately needs to get outside but there's really nothing he can do but give up ground and try to run around the tight end's block.
Note that the 11 personnel sets provide an important bridge between the Power sets and the Spread sets. The offense still has the blockers to run their staple run plays from the power sets (Power/Counter/IZ/OZ/TED/Sweep) but they can also present 4 immediate passing threats.
The next play Boise State breaks tendency. They run Inside Zone toward Shook (who's just been pinned inside on two runs outside of him) but then exploit the cut back. Shook is desperately trying to get penetration on what he thinks is a run headed outside of him. Offensive tackle Matt Slater gives him a little pep talk away from this play as he rides him into the dirt.
Boise State finishes the drive on the next play and then Shook sat out the next offensive drive for Boise State. We revisit the action toward the end of the 1st quarter when Shook comes back on the field.
Diamond Bunch formation to Shook's side. Shook has to attack the pass protection and watch for the quick screen but the QB goes for the keeper on this run/pass option play instead.
Next play Kellen Moore comes back in and the offense goes spread again. This time Jeremy Avery motions into the backfield to give them a pistol split backs look. This play is a triple option out of their fly option package. Shook is left unblocked and must attack the QB on the option but that leaves Avery (the fastest offensive player on the team) with quite a bit of real estate. Give Shook credit, even though he has been physically and mentally exploited in this quarter he is still playing with effort.
I could go on but at this point the outcome of the game has already been decided and you get the picture here. Boise State throws an incredible variety of plays at their opponents but it is not variety for variety's sake. There is a very clear intent and very tangible benefits to their style: they want to make the football game a living hell for the defensive end. Kawika Shook's experience with that may be extreme but if you watch other Boise State games from last year, you will see the same theme repeated over and over again… defenses that struggle on the edge and aren't able to pressure Moore. I'm sure each week the defensive ends came into the game with confidence in their ability to play aggressive but Boise State just overloads them.
This season when you watch Texas' scripted plays in the first few drives and the subsequent adjustments, pay attention to what's happening to the defensive ends. Dr. Harsin is probing them and prescribing a treatment. If he gets that domino to fall then the chain reaction is lethal for the defense. A hesitant defensive end who has to play read/react against this offense leads to:
(1) additional stress on the force and alley defenders from the secondary who are relying on the end to aggressively hold the edge and spill runs outside
(2) a defense that is especially susceptible to the big play action pass because of the threat of off-tackle runs and lack of pressure on the QB
As we've detailed in the past, those are exactly the circumstances in which this offense becomes the most dangerous.