Howdy, Barkers - welcome to the first in-depth post of our Crowdsourcing the Longhorns series. A few ground rules as we get rolling:
- The heart of this series is going to be give-and-take, coming up with ideas, discussing and debating them and (hopefully) arriving at conclusions. Asking questions, sharing thoughts and being involved is what's going to make this a cool process.
- The SBNation platform lets you do some really cool and collaborative things, some of which I'm still learning about. Definitely share thoughts in Comments, but if you want to create a FanPost on a particular topic I'll try to merge it into the ongoing Story Stream to make our collective train of thought easy to reference as we go. If there's a play or concept you want to communicate visually but you're lacking in graphics-creation capability, describe it and I'll put something together to share with the class.
- I'm aiming to provide enough content in each initial post to get the ball rolling while having the comments serve as the real meat of the thing. As we go, let me know if more or less content in the intital post works best - I may also go back and update the initial posts if we come up with some good things that should be included.
- Keep the "Mack Sucks" stuff to the absolute minimum that your emotional state allows. Legitimate discussion of how the strengths and weaknesses of the staff as a whole impact the feasibility of what we want to do is fine - if our planned offense revolves around MJ McFarland, Presumed Sophomore All-American, it's fair to wonder if his position coaching will hinder his ability to reach that level of play. But let's eschew the pure spleen-venting - the Longhorn Interwebs do not lack for opportunities to blow off steam if you're in that kind of mood.
Out of many possible starting points for this series, I'm kicking things off with an over-arching look at what our strategy has been - and should be - on each side of the ball. The downside to starting here is that you can't intelligently plan your strategy without understanding your resources and capabilities (here, most importantly your players) which is a big discussion in and of itself. But a meaningful discussion of players' capabilities, strengths and weaknesses is well-informed by an understanding of how well they'd mesh with certain strategic approaches, and trying to do both in a single post was destined to be mad wordy.
So my thought is to use this post for us to discuss and come to some consensus on how we'll talk about strategy (offensive strategy, here), some of the key strategic choices a team can make, and the strategy our offense seemed to follow in 2012. Then, we'll take a look at what our likely 2013 contributors bring to the table in terms of realized and (realistic) potential skills before looping back to define a strategy for next season that encompasses what we WANT to do and is informed by what we'll realistically be ABLE to do.
Like many concepts, strategy has a dictionary definition but is used, thought about and discussed in a myriad of different ways. My personal definition is a living plan that prescribes the optimal approach for using scarce resources to accomplish a goal.
Sometimes strategy gets conflated with the goal itself. My goal for my offense is very simple - I want to score a touchdown every time we take the field. My strategy isn't that goal, but rather the plan and overall approach I'll use to achieve it.
Sometimes strategy gets conflated with tactics. Although there are times when the border between the two can get fuzzy, strategy tends to be (fairly) broad and prescriptive while tactics tend to be specific, descriptive and actionable - tactics are the more concrete means by which strategy comes to life in the real world.
With that said, how should we talk about strategy as it relates to football? I decided to take a bottoms-up approach to building a strategic definition. Specifically, I'm going to describe an offense's neutral-down philosophy and the choices it makes to achieve certain favorable situations that favor offensive success. Using those choices, I'm going to build a concise description of their strategy.
I wrestled for a while about how to reflect and describe these choices - while a good strategy makes tough decisions on the allocation of scarce resources, it shouldn't force false choices and leave viable options on the table. The various options you have for blocking, for stressing a defense, or for creating mismatches aren't necessarily mutually exclusive and many can be mutually reinforcing. But when you're choosing your emphasis/emphases, it should be done with an eye to what you can achieve with your resources - the talents and skills of your players, as well as the finite practice and film room time you have to bring your strategies to life. Teams with better talent and more efficient staff skills in running practices and teaching concepts can be better at more things, but they still have to be smart about what they do and how they do it.
Let's take a look at what good offenses are able to do.
A good offense enjoys consistent blocking success.
There's nothing more fundamental to good offensive football than controlling the line of scrimmage well enough for your designed play to work. While a lot of offensive innovation in the last decade or two has centered around ways to mitigate a talent disadvantage on your OL - typically through finding ways to reduce the duration of the blocks they need to make - if you're not blocking well enough for long enough your skill players have a tough row to hoe. Your main choices for achieving blocking success are:
Angle Advantage - Whether through pre-snap alignment, line calls, skill player motion or some combo thereof, your offensive scheme is devoted to making sure your blockers are always engaging their targets at a favorable angle to stay between the target and the ball. Crunching down blocks and zone blocks that 'take the defender where he wants to go' are good examples of using angle advantage to win.
Talent Advantage - Your mens are bigger, stronger and better than their mens, and you're by-God going to whip their ass! Your blocking schemes are predicated on most or all of your blockers winning one-on-one against the opposing DL or LB whether or not they have an angle advantage or any kind of combo block help.
Numbers Advantage - Outnumbering the defense at the point of attack - or at least making relevant defenders face an equal number of blockers - is your plan for springing big plays. Pulling linemen, moving defenders out of the box through alignment and making a defensive lineman irrelevant through a post-snap read are all methods of getting more blockers to the point than the defense can handle.
I'd argue that the 2012 Longhorns' Strategic Map for achieving blocking success looked something like this:
All in all, a fairly balanced approach from a pretty diverse run scheme. Harsin's usage of multiple alignments and frequent shifting was largely done in order to influence defensive alignment and create advantageous blocking angles. Our frequent use of multiple pulling linemen - particularly on our variants of the Pin n' Pull play - helped us to get a numbers advantage in the alley. For all that, we still relied quite a bit on guys winning individual one-on-one matchups to make things go. Blocking defeats here - which were most epidemic in TE vs. DE matchups and on the interior OL against plus DTs - were the biggest impediments to our run game.
A good offense makes the defense consistently wrong.
Going strength on strength into the teeth of a prepared defense is no way to win the war. A high-functioning offense is consistently making the defense defend the wrong thing, react the wrong way and generally have its resources poorly deployed to arrive at the ball and stop it. The choices an offense can make to achieve this happy circumstance include:
Probe and Punish - Your offensive coordinator is pulling the strings, and opposing defenders are his marionettes. He observes how a defense aligns itself and reacts to certain stimuli - both on film and in the first quarter of live action - and spends the rest of the game calling plays to punish their choices without mercy.
Pre-Snap Reads- Your quarterback is your field general, and he's going to make sure you hit the defense where it hurts. Depending on how the align, their box numbers and their pressure look, it's his job to audible into the best play. Peyton Manning putting on his one-man Broadway show for 20 seconds pre-snap is the apex of this approach.
Post-Snap Reads - While smart pre-snap decisions give you a shot at making the defense wrong based on what they MIGHT do, well-run post-snap reads can guarantee it based on what the defense is DOING. Some post-snap reading always takes place during a QB's progressions in the pass game, but things like the read option and packaged runs/passes that key on an edge defender are the crux of some of today's deadliest offenses.
An accurate Strategic Map of the 2012 Longhorn offense in this respect might look like:
Harsin and the Boise offense were famous for the Probe and Punish approach, and when it worked well you'd see defenses giving up big yardage on Inside Zone when they overreacted to jet sweep action or getting torched outside by Daje when they didn't react strongly enough. David Ash seemed to have a reasonable amount of pre-snap latitude for a sophomore QB and did a fairly good job of getting us into good plays, but pre-snap reads certainly weren't the hallmark of the offense. Outside of passing game progressions, post-snap reading occured at roughly the Dexter Manley level - Ash made very few keep/give decisions with the RB (until the Alamo Bowl), and I couldn't see evidence that he was making any reads on jet sweep action. Gray running Wildcat was probably our most intensive usage of post-snap reading, and since he handed the ball off roughly three times all season you could argue that there wasn't much happening there, either.
A good offense places stress on the defense.
When you're facing a good offense, it often seems like you need at least twelve men to stop what they do best. Your defense is pulled in too many directions, has to defend too many things, and the consequences of not having enough guys in the right spot are disastrous. Keeping a defense stressed is one of the most effective set-ups for making them consistently wrong. The three main places an offense can choose to stress a defense are:
Point of Attack (POA) Stress - Whether it's through an offense's ability to outnumber, nullify or just plain whip your interior defenders, there's a constant threat of a ballcarrier bursting out of the backfield on his way to big yardage. The typical defensive response is to bring an extra defender 'into the box' to nullify this advantage through simple math - but you still only get eleven guys, and this choice can make things hairy elsewhere.
Edge Stress - Whether it's three on two, two on one or one on none, this style of offense gets a quick guy on the edge with the ball in his hands and a matchup that makes him a threat to go the distance. Inabiity to properly defend the flats can flatline your defense.
Downfield Stress - This style of offense takes advantage of the simplest way to score a TD - just throw the damn ball over everyone's head. Whether it's through the simple presence of a Randy Moss-style downfield dominator or the skillful use of play-action, this one-shot-one-kill style can scare a defensive coordinator right into his (2-deep) shell.
So what did the 2012 Longhorns' Strategic Map look like for defensive stress? I'd say something like:
There was a reasonable amount of balance in evidence, but the majority of our offensive approach was premised on winning the battle in the box. We mixed in jet sweep action and some quick work to backs and receivers outside, but given our skill talent this angle was probably under-emphasized to a degree. Play action was a key component in a lot of our downfield strikes, and while Ash had largely good results on deep balls we were far from an air-it-out attack.
A good offense creates and punishes personnel mismatches.
While this point may seem to overlap with a couple of those previous, the emphasis here is on exploiting a particular defender's weakness in pass coverage, tackling or the ability to take on blocks. One of the biggest benefits to an up-tempo/no-huddle offense is the ability to pick on one of these mismatches all the way down the field without allowing the defense the chance to substitute. Offenses can beat these guys up by using:
Specialty Players and Packages - Whether it's bringing in a punishing blocker, a speedy slot player or a waterbug third-down back, the offense hopes to put a guy or set of guys out there that the defense can't match up with. The obvious downside is that the simple act of substitution gives the defense the chance to do the same, potentially nullifying your advangate - or worse, tipping your hand.
Multi-Talented Players - The flip side of the coin is having players that can do it all - or at least do a lot of it. Consider the plight of the strongside linebacker who's asked to both cover Rob Gronkowski downfield and take him on in the run game - there ain't many guys who can do both.
Formation, Motion and Alignment - The right alignment or motion can force a defense to tip its hand, and can also get certain players out of their comfort zone. Whether you've forced a box safety to match up with a speedy slot receiver, a linebacker to split wide on a running back or simply dictated one-on-one coverage for your stud wideout by lining up in trips on the other side, you might have the defense right where you want them.
How did the 2012 Longhorns create mismatches? Something like:
Harsin was a big fan of specialty players and packages, sometimes subbing out three or four players in between each snap. While this bore some fruit, it was somewhat stymied by defenses' ability to react. We were also pretty big fans of pre-snap motion, shifting our TE/H-Back/F-Back personnel into a range of different alignments to force reactions from the defense. We really lacked when it came to exploiting multi-talented players. To be sure, some of this was due to personnel deficiencies - both our utter lack of a two-way tight end and DJ Monroe's stone hands nullified a couple of potential matchup advantages. But we barely scratched the surface of what guys like Jonathan Gray or Daje Johnson could do to a defense from the slot or out wide, and Joe Bergeron's potential as a blocker was also undeveloped.
Finally, a strategic definition needs some insight into how an offense approaches neutral down-and-distance situations like first and ten or second and six. Really advantageous or disadvantageous down and distances tend to dictate certain approaches, but what does an offense do when everything is on the table? A coordinator's preference tends to come in one of three primary flavors:
Stay Ahead of the Chains - Whether borne of a purely conservative nature or a tacit acknowledgement that his bunch isn't built to handle third and nine, this OC's priority is keeping the down and distance favorable so all options can stay on the table.
Run-Pass Balance - An approach used by OC's who want to keep their counterpart off balance, to allow a developing QB to benefit from "off schedule" passing or simply to take advantage of the fact that they're able to do both things well.
Attack At All Times - More aggressive than a meth-addled pit bull, this playcaller wants to keep the defense defending the whole field at all times with a constant fear of the big play hanging over their heads. If the risk doesn't pay off, he's confident that his bunch can convert long yardage on the next down anyway.
The 2012 Longhorns' philosophical approach to neutral down and distance looked something like:
There was a pretty strong preference for managing down and distance - and our struggles when we found ourselves consistently behind the chains helped illustrate the thought process behind that approach. We threw a decent bit and mixed in some attacking edge runs, but a lot of our aggression came on more advantageous downs and distances with play action working to free guys deep. Speedsters like Marquise Goodwin got a little bit of run downfield, but potential jumpball threats like Cayleb Jones had to wait their turn.
So, what does all that mean? Can we use the above to create a reasonably concise definition of the 2012 Longhorns' offensive strategy? Let's take a crack:
The 2012 Longhorn Offense employed a balanced blocking approach to stress defenses at the point of attack with an emphasis on staying ahead of the chains. Our coordinator-centric plan for punishing defenses centered on probing tendencies to punish overplay and creating advantages through personnel packages and alignment.
What do you think? Is this a solid framework for talking about strategy on each side of the ball? Any major areas of emphasis that we'd need to add for a comprehensive strategy, or any areas above where you drew different conclusions?
NEXT UP: We can either keep the offensive conversation going by discussing our players and 2013 strategy on that side of the ball, or shift over to defense and alternate between the two. I can see advantages to eitehr approach, so if you've got a preference let me know.