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Complementing the Power O: Understanding Basic Defensive Responses

In the previous longwind we discussed the intent of installing the Power O as one of our base plays. Now we're going to start exploring some of the strategic implications of this choice and look at what goes into complementing a base play.

Like every good base play the Power O is not just a play the offense runs well, it is also a vital diagnostic tool. The offense will be paying close attention to how the defense is keying and defending the Power O. More specifically the offense will pay attention to what level of the defense is actually making the stop against the Power play: on the line, at the linebacker level or at the secondary level. This information will help the offense diagnose how to modify their attack to be more successful with the Power and alert them to other areas the defense might be vulnerable to complementing plays. If we are really going to gain an appreciation for how to complement the Power play, we need to examine what the defense is up to. So let’s take a brief trip to the other side of the ball.

Playside Defenders
The primary pressure on the Power O play is on the end man on the line of scrimmage (usually the defensive end, this player is often abbreviated EMOL) and the two/three other key defenders in the box (usually the SAM & Mike and possibly the Strong Safety).
Playside Defenders
I am calling these defenders in red "playside defenders" because they are the players that can attack the kick out blocks and leading guard on the power play rather than being blocked down. These defenders can respond in a variety of ways but the responses usually fall into two categories. They need to either attack the Power O’s blockers from inside out forcing the play toward the sideline and allowing help from the safety/corner (this is usually called a "spill" technique) or they need to attack the hole from the outside in narrowing/collapsing the hole and pushing the play toward backside help ("squeezing" the play). If the playside defenders can’t get the job done, the defense will cheat it’s alignment pre-snap or slant some defensive linemen to the strongside post snap to try to help address the Power play.

Let’s picture the box assignments for Power O in an Offset-I against a typical 4-3 stacked alignment.
4-3 Stack
Here’s one example of how a defense might try to spill the Power O play (although this is going to vary with defensive scheme and technique). This is basically a stunt between the defensive end, outside linebacker, and middle linebacker.
Stack Spill
Things to notice:
-The playside defensive end is going to try to cross the face of the tight end to delay the tight end from his assignment to the second level and to plant himself right in the C gap where the Power play wants to go. Usually the DE is keying off of the first man to his inside and he is going to follow any down block. Once he crosses the tight end, he’s going to look for an offensive player coming to try to kick him out of the hole and he’s going to try to take on that blocker with his outside shoulder (keeping his inside shoulder free). This is often called a "wrong shoulder" technique since usually defenders are taught to take on blocks with their inside shoulder (to maintain outside leverage) but in this case the goal is to take on the block and still be able to maintain inside leverage and ruin the integrity of the hole. A defensive end who executes this technique well can pretty much single handedly take away the Power play because they collapse the hole and free up a defender (the middle linebacker).

-The playside outside linebacker will scrape over the top and attack the line of scrimmage attempting to take on any blocks again using a wrong shoulder technique (a lot of observers will think this is bad technique by the linebacker when they see it live, but it is intended). They will attempt to make a play on the running back as he flattens toward the sideline but their main goal is to make sure the running back can’t get north-south in the off-tackle gap where he wants to.

-Finally the middle linebacker will come over the top (hopefully free of interference from blockers) and have a chance to make a play on the running back. Failing that, the force player (either the corner back or safety) should have time to come up and assist now that the play has been pushed so far outside.

Squeezing isn’t exactly the opposite of spilling. Spilling depends on getting in the hole very early and confusing the blocks. It’s probably the most effective technique to stop the Power alone, but the defense has to sacrifice some of it’s physical outside presence in order to get there. By contrast squeezing keeps the defense’s strongest outside player (the EMOL) in his natural role and puts the onus on the linebackers to take on blocks in the hole using outside leverage, thereby "squeezing" the hole. With a tighter running lane, the defense will have a better chance to make a play on the ball carrier in the hole, especially if the backside defenders can hold their ground.
Stack Squeeze
Things to notice:
-The defensive end is going to attack his blocker with his inside shoulder and maintain outside leverage. If the ball carrier comes his way he’s going to try to shed his block and make the play. He can’t get pushed downfield and he can’t let the play bounce outside.

-The outside linebacker is going to attack the C gap and engage the first blocker he encounters with his inside shoulder (again maintaining outside leverage). His goal is to squeeze the hole and hopefully confuse the assignments by delaying the tight end and congesting the hole.

-The middle linebacker will follow the same rules and attack any blockers with his inside shoulder. The hole should be congested and contained from the outside leaving the running back with a tough read and very narrow running lanes.

Squeezing is desirable to a lot of defensive coordinators because it doesn’t expose the defense to as many constraint plays and it is a less complicated fit out of most base defenses. The downside is that it’s not quite as effective against the Power O unless you’ve got a defensive tackle who can take on that down block (or double team) with authority to keep the hole from widening up from the backside. Also, as the game wears on, taking on that block from the pulling guard is a beating. A middle linebacker who is ready to answer the bell for 10 rounds is a must.

Here’s an example of the second team defense squeezing in the Spring game. The positioning by the defenders is good but they struggle to match the physicality of the blockers at the point of attack and the running back is able to find just enough room. Against the first team defense, this run is probably stopped in the backfield.
That's why you lead with a guard!

Getting Fancy
While the defense is pretty much always going to end up trying to squeeze or spill, the ways they can do it are numerous. They can use stunts to specifically attack the Power play with the players that they want to. For instance, the defense may decide that it wants to bring its big men to bear on the strong side. They could run a stunt like this:
Stronside Stunt
The offense gives up a gap on the weakside of the formation by pulling the guard, so the defense responds by slanting their two defensive tackles to the strong side and covers the B gap with the strongside linebacker. The middle linebacker would probably read this play since technically he is responsible for the backside A gap but the defense is betting on a strongside run here.

When a defensive front stunts they are usually still technically "sound" meaning they still have all the gaps assigned to a defender. However, the stunts usually leave them weakened in certain parts of the front. For instance, in the stunt above the defense has sacrificed some of their outside pursuit on the strong side with their SAM attacking the B gap and they have given up a lot of leverage on the weakside with their Nose slanting toward the strongside and their middle linebacker playing a read on the vacated gap. You will hear defensive coordinators talk about being an attacking front and what they really mean is they are not going to sit in their base defense… they are going to attack with stunts/blitzes and sacrifice giving up some plays for making some plays in the backfield. Maintaining a balanced attack with well-complemented plays enables the offense to catch the defense with its pants down when they guess wrong with a stunt or overplay. Additionally, the Texas Offense’s new liberal use of motion will act as somewhat of a deterrent to a stunt happy defense. Since the offense changes the strength of the formation so often, it requires the defense be able to adjust its alignment and stunt responsibilities on the fly.

In our next installment we will start breaking down how Harsin balances the offense around the Power by pressuring different parts of the defense.