Spread-Option Basics, Pt. 2: Revising the Veer

In an earlier post we looked at how Don Faurot not only invented the option in 1941, but designed a series of plays built around the option that set the stage for the advent of the “triple option.”  In the mid-sixties, Houston’s Bill Yeoman put the pieces together and designed the first triple option, where a QB could hand off to a fullback on the mesh, run the ball himself, or pitch to a trailing halfback depending on how two intentionally unblocked play-side defenders reacted.

This play–now called the Split Veer, but then called the Veer by its coaches and the Houston Veer by outsiders–was (and is) a great play that dominated the college ranks, and was the base scheme for Lou Holtz during his horrific stint with the New York Jets.  Perhaps because of the sour NFL experience, the pure Houston Veer and its offshoots gradually fell out of favor in almost every level of play, until during a spell at the turn of the century about the only place you could see it on a national stage was in service academy games.  Even mighty Nebraska had abandoned their I-formation triple-option attack which was based on the Houston Veer.

On the periphery, though, the play was alive and evolving, most importantly with Urban Meyer’s first squads with Bowling Green and then Utah.  While Meyer wasn’t the first to run veer plays from shotgun, he was probably the first college coach to do it exceptionally well.  His Fiesta Bowl win over Pittsburgh got the scheme national attention, and his later work with Florida made veer plays almost as trendy as the zone read.

At Utah, Meyer had three main veer-inspired plays: the Veer, the Triple, and the Shovel.  Utah’s Veer looked a lot like Yeoman’s.  The attack relied on three men in the backfield who all attacked the same side of the defense.  Meyer got a third person into the backfield by pulling a receiver (either a slot, wing, or tight end depending on the formation) down on a rocket motion to either pause in the backfield or take the play on-the-fly.  The basic rules are that the first players on or outside the play-side tackle are optioned:

Utah Veer; optioned defenders in gray circles.

The Triple is almost exactly like the Veer, except that (like the zone read) it attacks both sides of the defense by having the tailback attack the backside of the formation.  This little adjustment punishes defenses for over-pursuing the Veer.  To keep things simple, the linemen are instructed to zone block for the tailback and not worry about the option game behind them; the linemen shown reaching the second level are included as an example, since in reality the rules for combos are fluid:

Utah triple play; optioned defenders in gray circles.

Finally, Meyer takes these concepts, but adds two twists that’re probably his biggest contributions to the veer game, and creates the Shovel play.  In the first twist, instead of motioning, the backside receiver runs inside almost like he’s prepping for a middle screen; this puts him in position for a quick shovel pass.  For the second twist, Meyer pulls the backside guard in a Power-O look to get more bodies play-side.  Meanwhile the QB and tailback sprint out for a speed option:

Utah Shovel play; optioned defenders in gray circles. I’ve shown an arc block here by the play-side slot receiver; Utah’s players had flexibility in how they reached second-level defenders.

Unfortunately, some content restrictions prevent me from simply attaching video clips of these plays in action at the moment.  You can see several of these plays in the Utes’ Fiesta Bowl blowout over Pitt here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41mI1oC_gfI

If you watched Meyer’s Gators beat the Oklahoma Sooners to win a BCS title in 2009, you saw him switch to a shovel-heavy gameplan in the 2nd half, and along the way use lots of power-style pulling to get Tim Tebow running room.  The use of power-style pulls and the rise of bigger, stronger QBs in spread schemes led to the next evolution in veer plays, which we’ll look at next week.

Part 1: The Zone Read:  http://secondlevelfootball.wordpress.com/2012/09/23/spread-option-basics-part-1-the-zone-read/

Odds and Ends

Tom Osborne (left); photo courtesy Huskers.com

Tom Osborne Retires from Nebraska AD Position

His only professional shortcomings were in politics, and even there he had more success than failure.  Osborne will go down as one of the greatest–and perhaps the greatest–college football coaches in history.  He won three national titles at Nebraska, revolutionized the ground game, and coached a 1995 squad some consider to be the greatest team of all time.  All that, and he helped turn the school’s fortunes around after the failed Bill Callahan experiment, too.

Officially a Problem

If there is a deal imminent between the NFL and the referees (and sources are still disagreeing as to how close the two sides are to a deal), then it’s to the league’s great fortune that their game of chicken got upended by a dramatic finish and not a devastating injury.  Out-of-position and in-over-their-heads refs are primed to miss late-hit and roughing calls even more than other calls, simply because the action of the ball is more likely to draw them away from infractions.  This is especially true on passing plays, where the flurried dispersal of action can be dauntingly wide in scope.  We’ve already seen players and coaches trying to psychologically rough-up the replacement crews: if this wears on and teams sense that unnecessary roughness is going unpenalized, the game’s current bush league qualities will be worsened when unprotected pocket passers and crossing receivers get thrown into the teeth of today’s defenses.  If it comes to that, the results won’t be pretty.

The Schiano Gambit

The adages of playing to the whistle and playing to the bitter end are just that: adages.  No one gives a 100% on every play (much less 110% as a few coaches still demand of their players), and almost no one thinks the benefits of attacking the victory formation are worth the potential problems of unnecessary risk to your own players in the moment, and to them again when opposing squads begin self-policing.  I get that Schiano is trying to instill in his players an attitude that would lead them to at least strive for the old clichés on effort.  But this is the pro game, played by grown men with families, debts, and multi-million dollar careers with extremely short windows of success.  If any Tampa defender sprains a shoulder or breaks a wrist lunging for a kneeling quarterback at the end of a hopeless game, Schiano’s aggressive response to opposing kneel downs will blow up in his face.

At first, I was reminded of Lou Holtz trying to drag the veer into the pro game, or Rick Pitino’s full-court defense flopping in the NBA.  But at least those were honest strategies.  Crashing the kneel down is more akin to Jack Del Rio’s infamous ax and stump props; at their best, they were never more than a motivational gimmick imploring his players to “keep chopping wood,” and at their worst led to accident-prone punter Chris Hanson slicing his leg open.


Spread-Option Basics, Pt. 1: The Zone Read

Rich Rodriguez is probably the godfather of the spread-option football team.  Sure, spread teams have been around for as long as football’s existed, and the option game is nearly as old, but no one had combined the two like he did in the ’90s.  His thinking for the various factors that make a team a “spread” team were simple.  Having three or four receivers on the field stretched the defense in all directions and forced them to make open-field tackles.  Putting the QB in the shotgun full-time gave him more protection than that afforded to an an under-center QB, such as in a run-and-shoot offense.  Fast tempos and balanced formations kept the defense honest and prevented them from disguising their intentions.  What the spread game lacked was a punch in the running game: Rodriguez’s zone read play solved this dilemma and changed the modern game.

The zone read is the quintessential spread-option play that’s been adopted by colleges and high schools across the country, and even shows up in the pros on occasion.  Strangely enough, it was was born by error back in 1991 when  Glenville State QB Jed Drenning bobbled a shotgun snap for a planned inside zone play.  As he regained control of the ball, he saw the backside defensive end crash down on the play, completely ignoring the quarterback in the process.  Drenning took what the defense gave him and ran the play to the backside for a short gain.  Head Coach Rich Rodriguez noticed the odd play and decided to turn it into a purposeful scheme, where instead of a bobbled snap, the QB meshed with the tailback on an inside zone and read the backside end.

Basic zone read with backside end in gray.

For this play, the linemen block like they’re running an inside zone; in the image above, they all step to the right and try to move the defense downfield and towards the right sideline.  If the end pinches down in anticipation of the regular inside zone, the QB keeps the ball during the mesh and run to the backside, where hopefully not only the end is out of the picture, but so are the flowing linebackers.  On the other hand, if the end respects the QB as a run threat, the inside zone should have five blockers on five defenders in the box.

A few other things made the zone read special.  The use of a spread formation and against-the-grain movement by the QB meant it could be effective with only one read; against the compressed defenses usually found against pro-style offenses, it’s harder to be effective without having a second read/third potential runner on the play.  This makes the zone read a very easy play to learn.  The mesh is also simpler than pitch and pass options, which reduces turnovers.  Finally, the play does a good job of protecting the quarterback; zone read QBs never have to tempt hits on pitches, and when they keep they’re often running against an off-balance defense and versus the smallest defenders on the field.


In the clip above, Darron Thomas uses the play to grind away against Stanford.  You can also see some of the cat-and-mouse games used to stop the play, and some of the counters to enhance it.  Stanford ends slow-play in order to confuse the read, and the outside ‘backers exchange gaps to jump the QB.  Meanwhile, Oregon moves the tailback around before the snap to catch defenders off guard.

You probably noticed that the wide, looping path by the QB requires some fleet feet, and all of the really successful zone-read QBs ranged from pretty mobile fellows to guys who could play wide receiver.  Just looking at Rodruguez’s QBs, Woody Dantzler returned some kicks in the NFL, and Pat White was considered a wideout by most teams.  White ended up with the Dolphins as a jack-of-all-trades who made the most impact running the Wildcat.

With that in mind, you can use the zone-read play in ways that take advantage of a slower runner; Baylor, for instance, runs a variation where they read the front-side end and have the QB run straight ahead.  Still, if you have a bruisng QB in the mold of a Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, or Logan Thomas, the zone read isn’t the best fit.  And if you’re primarily a gap-scheme offense, the zone-style plays won’t be a seamless addition.  We’ll look at a play built to fit these needs in the next installment.

Steve Sabol (1942 – 2012)

Image courtesy NFL Films.

Ed Sabol, cofounder of NFL Films, turned a lowly, ramshackle sport into something of a film equivalent to Greek drama.  His company didn’t necessarily bring a realistic depiction of the game into the living room, but rather a stylized spectacle where lowly mortals wrangled with tragedy and triumph in a slow-motion battle while coaches lorded over the sidelines.  There was John Facenda’s gravelly chorus and a booming soundtrack of horns and timpani fit for sword-and-sandals epics; when the elements intervened they weren’t complications to the plot, but framed instead as a deus ex machina.  While there were also the “follies” films and other bits, it was the NFL Films’ most dramatic repackagings of the game that helped that resounded most with audiences.  This focus wasn’t accidental: Sabol’s original production company was purchased by the NFL in 1964 to serve as a PR division.  Much of the filming, writing, and production for this focus came from Ed’s son Steve, who passed away this week.

I grew up watching the second iteration of NFL Films, which was led by Steve.  If Ed’s tenure presented the game as heightened spectacle, the strongest trend seen during the years of Steve’s greatest influence (which culminated with Steve becoming President and Chairman in ’95 and continuing in this role until his death) was the outfit’s role as both documenter and partner in the NFL’s transformation from a sport for purists and locals into a popular entertainment behemoth. 

Slow motion shots from fixed angles became rapid fire smash cuts from multiple perspectives.  Coaches and players—who before were portrayed with the same narrative and visual stylings as a John Wayne cowboy—became international celebrities. NFL films footage became the beating heart for everything from ESPN programming to ads for Sports Illustrated, and as their recent Hard Knocks partnership shows, they were also the lead element in keeping the NFL a modern vehicle for entertainment. 

Steve was uniquely suited for this role, not just because of his being essentially born into the business or because of his background as a small college fullback, but because he understood the power of celebrity.  As a young man at Colorado College he essentially reinvented himself with a half-serious PR campaign ostensibly designed to get him noticed by the coaching staff.  Among other things, he rebranded himself “Sudden Death” Sabol; told people he was from memorable locales such as the fictional Coaltown Township, Pennsylvania, and the real Possum Trot, Missouri; and ran fictional ads in which the team’s head coach praised Steve for a great season.  The shenanigans continued even after Steve added 40 pounds and became an all-conference player for the tiny school, with a real foray into bodybuilding and a less-real career in Hollywood. 

In 1965, this young man told a Sports Illustrated reporter the following:  “Football is such a great game, but football players are so dull. I remember this one pregame film showing Mike Ditka demolishing some guy. Now, this is a great player. He’s brutal. So do you know what he says when the commentator asks him to say something about the play? He sort of paws the ground, drops his head and says, ‘Ah, I was lucky.’ Now, surely after a guy makes a great play like Ditka did he can come up with something more colorful than that. Maybe they’ll let me write stuff for the players and get them to say it on the shows. You know what I’d have Ditka say? ‘Look at him. He’s still breathing!’ or something real colorful like that.”

Steve no doubt knew he’d be a driving force at NFL Films whenever he began taking his life seriously.  He also began taking the NFL seriously: I think Hard Knocks, as much as it represents a kowtow to reality television, also documents the non-glamorous aspects of the sport as well as anything right now.   In at least the past ten years or so, Steve was quoted on his concerns about concussions and the league’s policy on these issues, on the NFL’s poor support of retired players, and on the growing public personas of star players.  Though never pressed on it, I’d have to think he wrestled with how his work may have fostered these very issues, and how the thousands of hours of footage he and his crews have recorded may find their most important use not in archiving the NFL, but in deciding damages in current and future court cases.

Blocking the Modern Man/Zone Run Game

In the run game it doesn’t make much sense to call some plays “man” plays and others “zone” plays, since in both styles the majority of plays involve most of the blockers going after predetermined defenders, i.e., what sounds to most people like man blocking, before moving on to more flexible assignments to take on potential players in a given area, i.e., what seems more like a blocking a guy in a particular zone on the field.

I think it’s more helpful to define football schemes by what they’re trying to achieve.  A fair number of coaches agree with me on this and use slightly different terminology.  In their parlance, they use either zone-scheme plays or “gap-scheme” plays.*  The zone plays try to weaken a wide area of a defense, while their gap plays are designed to open up a single gap for a back to run through.  These schemes work different ways that you can pick up in from the stands or from watching the television.

Let’s look at two outside runs to help illustrate the difference.  I’ll start with a generic Power-O play, where a backside guard (or offside guard, hence the “O” designation) pulls and leads through the hole.

Typical Power-O play.

Notice that players to the left of the hole block down, while the players who end up on the hole’s right side block out.  I recall at least one coach likening it to “parting the Red Sea.”  The idea is to first open the hole, and then seal off the defense on either side.  It’s almost like a set of double doors swinging outward and pushing aside anything in their way.  If the defense moves to close in on the runner, they’ll meet a wall of defenders.  The play’s biggest advantage, to use an old cliché, is that it “outnumbers the defense at the point of attack.”  By pulling the guard, the offense suddenly has extra blockers.

Here’s how the Chargers run it:

The slide-and-peel motion by the backside tackle in this clip is pretty common; I’ve illustrated it above.  The idea is to prevent the backside DT from blowing up the play from behind, and then to screen the defensive end so that he can’t make a play if the hole gets plugged.  It’s also a common and legitimate choice to leave a backside end unblocked in order to reach the nearest linebacker, or to engage the DE straight up if he’s a playmaker.

Now let’s compare the Power-O to a generic outside zone play from the same formation; this is from the Denver Broncos’ teams that made the play so famous, but its basic tenets are pretty similar to everyone elses’:

Broncos' outside zone; note the cutback option for the ball carrier.

If the power play is parting the sea, the outside zone is creating a wave that moves the entire ocean in one direction.  Instead of stepping around a hole, every blocker essentially takes a step towards the side the ball is being run to.  Most teams coach their linemen to move as much as (or more) laterally as they do downfield.  The zone play makes it easier to stop those defensive tackles by doubling them, and it also positions linemen better to stop crashing linebackers since they’re always facing the play and can easily peel off to block them.  This is all aided by the fact that going after the running back can actually be the defense’s wrong decision, since they can inadvertently open a cutback lane.

Rather than forcing defenders out of the way or sealing them off from a specific hole, this movement tries to stretch out a defense so that a hole naturally occurs.  This is possible because linebackers and safeties have to slide towards the run to fill their gaps or leverage outside runs.  The wide run stretches the defense laterally.  If the defense doesn’t react aggressively enough or attacks/slants against the grain of the play, the running back can pick up yards without altering course.  On the other hand, if the defense over pursues or slants with the flow of the play, the play has a read element to it: depending on which way his key (usually the play-side DE or DT), he can cut back against the grain to areas vacated by the defense.  Even if there are defenders in the area, their momentum is carrying them in the wrong direction, and the play-side steps by the offensive linemen put them in position to pick them up when they go to stop the cutback.

Here’s Notre Dame using it to good effect in the red zone versus Michigan:

The Wolverines completely clog the first running lane. The back sees this and takes the ball inside.  The two players responsible for stopping the cutback—the middle linebacker and the backside DT—get picked up by a downhill lineman and a cut block, respectively, resulting in the score.

The strengths and weaknesses of these plays balance each other, which is why most teams run both zone and gap plays.  The power play is hampered when talented DTs beat single blocks and blow the play up; this is especially true of fast 4-3 DTs who are almost always faster and more agile than the guys across from them.  The power play also suffers when linebackers read the play and essentially beat the pulling guard to the hole, creating a tremendous pile-up in the running back’s only possible path.  I spent a good deal of my youth screaming at teams for running power-style plays on the goal line.

Modern gap plays are also much more complicated to draw up and teach than similar zone runs.  Teams running the Power-O, for example, often will have a distinct blocking rule for every possible alignment of the play-side defensive end, and a similar set of rules for wherever the play-side ‘backer lines up.  For this reason, most teams treat the Power-O as a subset of similar plays when they teach it.

On the other hand, zone runs require a lot of physical learning to get good at starting and leaving double-team blocks.  It requires much more awareness of how the immediate defender is reacting to the block, how the linebackers behind him are moving, and who in the double-team block needs to leave or further engage the down lineman (or if both guys need to keep on blocking).  Most zone runs fail because something in this process fails.

More specifically, outside zone plays put a lot of stress on the tight end to make a difficult block (this is why spread teams that don’t use a tight end and speed option teams that leave the defensive end unblocked like zone schemes.)  It can also require a little more athleticism from offensive linemen, since they have to be agile enough to regularly engage successive defenders from awkward positions and reach people with cut blocks, as opposed to running at full steam towards one guy and not worrying about anything else (though this probably overly dramatized in the media.)

Finally, it’s vital to have backs with good vision.  Runners who can’t read their keys and then see secondary stretches develop along the line of scrimmage will fail since they can’t take advantage of the play’s best features.  In fact, good vision can turn even man plays into semblances of zone runs.  The Dallas Cowboys squad of the early ‘90s was a gap-scheme team that used lots of double-team plays, though Emmitt Smith’s vision was so good it let him find creases away from the play almost as if he was running zone plays (occasionally to his line’s frustration.)  He essentially could hide behind his big line and pick holes and creases to the point that their game looked like a zone system even to folks like Chris Brown at SmartFootball:  http://smartfootball.blogspot.com/2009_04_01_archive.html

The good news for offenses is that since these plays achieve similar goals with very distinct visual differences, they’re an excellent balance for each other.    Even if you’re a slightly slower team across the line, a steady diet of down-blocking power plays will open up zone runs, and vice versa for teams that are agile but might struggle in moving DTs one-on-one.  We see this reflected in the fact that you can still define most teams’ running games as either “pro-style” or “option” depending on how often they pitch/mesh, but it’s much harder to define teams as zone or man these days. These schemes are now simply part of an almost universal “run game.”

We see this at nearly every level, as the principles for both styles have been disseminated well through middle schools and high schools.  Most young players are familiar with the concepts going into college, where they’re again exposed to these plays.  The truth of the matter is that a player who’s talented at one scheme should be able to be at least adequate with the other, and we see this in effect at every level of football with nearly every pro team, and with college teams as diverse offensively as Wisconsin and Oregon.  If you can pull, you should be able to reach a play-side ‘backer, and if you can down-block you should be able to feel through a double-team.

*I suppose they should technically be called “hole-scheme plays,” though I’ve never come across it myself.  I’m guessing the reason is to avoid unwanted innuendos.

Signals, Revisited

“It makes our job as coaches so much easier when (MSU linebacker) Cam Lawrence is signaling over his head every time they were calling a pass,” MSU co-defensive  coordinator/linebackers coach Geoff Collins

Taking the reportage on MSU’s win over Auburn at face value, it seems a little more likely that Gene Chizik got a national title the same way Barry Switzer got a Super Bowl: by inheriting (and perhaps hiring) a massively talented team and then not screwing it up too badly: http://www.cdispatch.com/sports/article.asp?aid=18887

In my prior post about stealing signals, I assumed coaches rotated their signals and kept their various indicators separate in order to frustrate opponents in the booth and on the field.  But if Auburn’s system was not only this barebones, but repeated over the course of several games in a way that an MSU linebacker essentially knows the plays, then something is very awry.

The Lost Art of Stealing a Signal

Dana Holgorsen; image courtesy West Virginia University

Earlier this week a concerned Mountaineer fan e-mailed WVU coach Dana Holgorsen’s radio show.  The reason for his concern?  He’d heard stories of an upcoming opponent’s players bragging about how they had figured out WVU’s hand signals.  Although his more flippant comments got the media’s attention, there were some practical insights on the game, too.  Holgorsen noted how he’ll occasionally mislead with his signals from the sideline and that the speed of the game (the college game, that is) made signal stealing a hindrance for practitioners.  For these reasons, Holgo himself doesn’t care for stealing play calls.  You can listen to the exchange here:  http://soundcloud.com/patricksouthern/dana-holgorsen-on-hand-signals

I don’t think there was much false bravado in his response.   Versus a fast-tempo offense, in the time it takes to recognize an opposing sideline’s play call, relay it to your defensive players, and have it recognized and acknowledged, you could have half your squad watching your hands when the ball’s being snapped.  You might as well be showing off your jazz-hand skills, because it’d be just as useful.  The speed of the game has even caused the usual play-signal route of lining your quarterbacks up on the sideline and have them point, jab, and wriggle in unison to be supplemented by the abstract grid art of teams like Oregon and Oklahoma State.

Oklahoma State sideline signals; image courtesy ESPN

The pro game, on the other hand, has used helmet-mounted radios to relay offensive plays since 1994, and the same technology to relay defensive signals since 2008.  When there are stolen “signals,” it’s from breaking down the code words for under-center modifiers like audibles and snap-count designators.  (I’ll assume no one dabbles in electronic eavesdropping.) 

I’d say the glory years of sign-stealing came in the NFL of the 70’s and 80’s, when coaching staffs and film study provided the eyes and data needed to steal signals, yet playbooks hadn’t grown into Melville texts and quarterbacks rarely called plays while under center.

In his book Arnsparger’s Coaching Defensive Football, defensive guru Bill Arnsparger recounts how the offensive and defensive staffs during his tenure with the Baltimore Colts would take turns hawking signals when their respective squads were on the sideline.  The signals given were subtle, so to make sure he knew when a signal was being given, Arnsparger would watch the coach giving the call, while a colleague would watch the player receiving the signal (the quarterback on offense, usually the middle ‘backer on defense.)  The colleague would watch the player’s eyes and say “he’s looking…he’s looking…he’s looking” because whenever he looked to his coach, a signal was being given; when the player turned away, the colleague would shout “stop,” and Arnsparger would at least have the full signal.

The cover of Arnsparger’s Coaching Defensive Football; image courtesy Amazon.com

He watched until he could figure out what signal called for a blitz—the blitz calls were the only thing his fellow coaches on offense were interested in—and then kept his colleagues informed.  The more often a team blitzed, the faster Arnsparger figured out the signals.  Arnsparger worked from the booth: he’d tell the guy next to him, who’d tell a coach on the field, who’d signal the left tackle, who’d tell the quarterback.

No surprise that this espionage game escalated endlessly, with false signals, tells, camera-wielding scouts, quarterbacks spying opposing coaches while in the huddle, and even spies inserted into chain gangs.  Arnsparger coached into the mid-nineties, so I’m sure his technique evolved to counter this evolution. 

In a way, it strikes me as unfortunate that swiping hand signals will probably become a lost art in football: as much as I admire changing signal techniques, playing the pictogram game (or the number jumble I’ve seen other schools use) just doesn’t carry the same drama.