Category Archives: Xs and Os

The Tao of Frank Beamer’s Special Teams

Coach Beamer interviewing with Erin Andrews. Photo by Erich Geist (


“I think the kicking game is one of the most important parts of football. I personally believe the kicking game is just as important as offense and defense. I have believed that since my college days.”

That’s a quintessential Frank Beamer quote showing just how important a place special teams hold in the coach’s heart.

Except it isn’t a Frank Beamer quote—the author is Jerry Claiborne, Beamer’s coach at Virginia Tech, a special teams guru in his own right, and a major influence on the winningest active BCS coach in the game.

I grew up in southwestern Virginia and played high school ball at a time when “Beamerball” was becoming a nationally used term. I remember coaches coming back from Hokie clinics with packaged punt rushes and techniques like practicing kick blocks with Nerf balls.

Beamer’s “secret,” though, was never about tactics or coaching techniques. VT’s tremendous special teams run of blocked kicks and returns for touchdowns was the result of Beamer’s managerial skills. He took Claiborne’s emphasis and magnified it to a degree probably not seen before in major football.

First, Beamer invested his coaching staff in the philosophy. If you watch a VT game on television, you’ll hear at some point that Beamer is the squad’s “Special Teams Coach,” and that he takes personal responsibility for the performance of his kick units. This isn’t the easiest responsibility in the world—just ask Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson how his stint with special teams went.

What you don’t hear as much is that each of Beamer’s assistants is responsible for a particular aspect of the kicking game. Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster, for example, coaches the punt- and kick-blocking teams.

Even more important, though, is how he gets buy-in from the players. To give a frame of reference, most teams (at every level of play) don’t pay much attention to the kicking game, with the following habits being pretty common:

• Special teams practices are squeezed into short sessions at the end of practices, or held before or after the main practice block.
• If you have a role on a special teams unit, it likely means you don’t have what it takes to contribute to offense or defense (even at tiny high schools.)
• The kickers wander off into an empty field away from the rest of the team to kick and send text messages.
• Players run through the drills at half speed because they don’t want to be killed in the conditioning sessions that often follow.
• Film sessions ignore kicks that don’t result in points or turnovers.

Add these practices to the fact that special teams wreak havoc on the body and it’s easy to see why they don’t have much allure.

Beamer flipped this trend on its head and put Claiborne’s mantra to work. He schedules special teams work for the middle of the practice day. He often puts his best players on special teams—it’s still a common to see Tech’s best DB, receiver, or tailback returning kicks. Beamer promotes these duties as a way to playing in the NFL, where low-ranked and undrafted rookies often have to play their way from the kicking game to having a shot on offense or defense.

The placekickers also have the importance of their work elevated by a “one-kick” drill. For this drill, held often during the week, the kickers are given a single shot at making a field goal from a given spot on the field. No do-overs or excuses. The entire team stops to watch the kick, which ratchets up the tension and simulates a game day experience.

Beamer also gives out benefits and attention normally lavished on important starters. Units that spend their time running up and down the field are excused from a number of sprints and conditioning drills. After games, Beamer names both a special teams player-of-the-week as well as a “Kahuna” moniker for the special teamer with the biggest hit. During the week, all the units meet regularly and get timely feedback on their practices.

Finally, Beamer sets the same kind of clear and measurable special teams goals that offenses and defenses have been assigned since the game began. For 2011 some of those goals were:

• Average 10 yards per punt return
• Return kickoffs to at least the 28 yard line 60 percent of the time
• Block a punt, field goal or extra point, or force a bad kick at least once a game
• Gain 20 yards of comparative field position in the punting game each game

Goals like these have been met with success. Since Beamer started at Tech in 1987, his special teams have tallied 19 punt returns for TDs, 17 blocked punts for the same, nine kickoff returns for scores, four TDs from blocked kicks, and even returned a fumble for a score. Altogether, that’s 50 special teams touchdowns.

It’s true that other teams have learned from Beamer’s example, and the Hokies no longer hold the undeniable edge they once did. Opponents put better players on the field, and the shield punt has taken away VT’s aggressiveness much the same way the spread and option games have dialed back the ferocity of their defense. Looking at intangible items, it seems the Hokies now endure a counteraction to everything good they do in the special teams game. A strong return team will be balanced by weaker kickers. Odd breaks (such as Michigan’s fake field goal in the Sugar Bowl) feel tilted against the squad.

Even playing their most talented players yields mixed results. Return man Dyrell Roberts nearly saved a Hokies contest versus the Crimson Tide, though playing that same role led him to endure two nasty injuries he never seemed to recover either physically or mentally from. Conversely, a phenomenal talent like David Wilson never consistently lived up to the promise of his athleticism.

Unsurprisingly, Beamer’s reaction has been to redouble his efforts with the special teams, including using more scholarships for stars and recruiting harder for both the blue-chippers and the hidden gems who often walk on to football squads. He’s thrown several tactics at the shield punt, and he’s solidifying his kicking group. While I don’t think Tech’s special teams (or any other school for that matter) will soon reach the same  apex reached during their days in the Big East, I imagine we’ll see marked improvement over the next few seasons. And that will give opposing coaches something to worry about.

What is a “Gap-Sound” Defense? Pt. 3

For the first two parts of this series, we looked only at static gap defenses that alternated between various amounts of single- and two-gap assignments.  The final variation is a flexible gap defense where the assignments are situational.  We’ll use Jimmy Johnson’s 4-3 under (called “Eagle” in his terminology) from his days with the Miami Hurricanes, though its tenets are pretty much the hallmark of all advanced 4-3 defenses.

The idea behind flexible gap assignments is pretty simple.  First, there’s no point defending a gap that isn’t threatened.  Second, it’s more effective to cover gaps in a way that has the defense flowing to the ball carrier.

Unlike vaguer pursuit rules such as force and contain, flexible assignments require players to determine their specific gap assignment after the snap.  We see this in action with the Miami linebackers, whose assignments are determined by which way the ball is being run.  Here’s a strong-side run being defended:

Miami's base Eagle versus a strong-side lead; click to enlarge.

I’ve identified the Will, Mike, and Sam to help keep things clear.  In this situation, the Sam reads run and flies upfield to defend the alley.  The Mike defends the B-gap, while the Will streaks across the formation in pursuit of sweeps and option plays.  Notice that having the Will ‘backer cut across leaves the weak-side A-gap without a designated man.  This doesn’t pose much of a problem, mainly because the Will is heading in the direction of the gap to begin with, but also because Johnson’s system was built around having extremely fast players at the linebacker spots who could recover from bad reads.  Technically, the backside linemen don’t even have gaps—they’re simply assigned to pursue the run.

Even though the front is asymmetrical, the gap assignments are roughly flipped for a weak-side run:

Hurricanes D versus a weak lead; click to enlarge.

Now the Will is at the point of attack, while the Mike fills in behind him.  Again there are uncovered gaps, but they’re either away from the play or indirectly covered by virtue of a pursuing linebacker.

Of course, a defense like this can be vulnerable to trap, counter, and power plays that change gaps or the apparent direction of a run.  The solution harkens back to the fact that no defenders (especially the linebackers) ignore on-field action when they make run fits.  Linebackers and safeties in general read the backs, the outside backers and strong safeties read tight end releases, and inside backers watch the guards and center for clues about a play’s actual intent.  Johnson did it so well that not only did this scheme nearly render the option obsolete, but it dominated the professional ranks when he moved to the NFL.

Part 1:

Part 2:


What is a “Gap-Sound” Defense? Pt. 2

As we saw in Part 1, assigning every needed defender to a single gap can stress a defense.  One way to rectify the problem is to change the math by assigning one or more players to simultaneously cover two gaps.

You can baby-step your way into this approach.   Using the 4-4 again as an example, here’s a look at how 4-4 guru Bud Foster shifted his eight man front from the 90’s (which looked much like our example front in Part 1) into a variation on the “TNT” or “Eagle” look he called the “Tuff” front, which will look familiar to defenses NFL fans saw in the 80s.  Here’s how Foster drew it up for the Hokies:


Virginia Tech "Tuff" front; click to enlarge.

To achieve this front, the down linemen shift to the strong side, while a hybrid LB/DB called a “whip” takes the vacated weak-side end’s spot and a linebacker steps up to the line.  The result is a de facto attack-oriented 6-2 defense.  If you look in front of the “backer” position (roughly equivalent to a 4-3 SLB and labeled with a ‘B’), the defensive tackle (‘T’), nose tackle (‘N’) and right-side defensive end (‘E’) you’ll notice they have angled brackets drawn in front of them.  These represent gap assignments.  The backer, DT, and DE have single gap assignments—the C and two B gaps, respectively.  (Though it’s not shown here, the DT and DE are actually in shaded 3-techniques to help them hit their gaps.)

While these three are assigned single gaps, the nose tackle has responsibility for both A gaps, as the double bracket indicates.  This is the safest place to two-gap a defender: the center is handicapped by having to snap the ball before blocking, and teams rarely run to the A gaps because it leads them into the teeth of the defense.  Unlike a slashing single-gap defender, a two-gap defender essentially reverse blocks the man in front of him by exploding off the ball, gaining leverage, identifying the play, and then chucking the would-be blocker in order to chase down the ball carrier.

This front is great against running teams because it puts eight guys in the box while keeping the interior linebackers relatively free from contact.  Here, the rover (basically a strong safety) and mike key on the running backs nearest to them without worrying about blockers coming at them.  The scheme doesn’t, however, do as good a job with pass defense.  Walking the whip and backer down has pulled intermediate-level defenders out of pass defense, while pulling the rover down (a strong safety-type position) has made the secondary vulnerable.

One solution here is just to make more players two-gappers.  At the opposite end of the two-gap spectrum from the Tuff front are all-in defenses like the 3-4.  In this front, each down lineman is responsible for two gaps.  This gives the interior linebackers a great deal of freedom in chasing down plays, while also allowing for a balanced secondary.  Here’s a slide from a Baltimore Ravens presentation showing their base 3-4 defense.

Baltimore's base 3-4 in 2004; click to enlarge.
Note how each of the three d-linemen are lined head-up on an offensive player.  The nose tackle is in the same 0-technique from the Tuff front above, while the ends are in 4-techs over the offensive tackles.  All three players are responsible for stopping runs to their immediate left and right.  When done right, this relieves the linebackers of their immediate interior gap responsibilities.  In theory, the backers can react quicker to passes, either by dropping into coverage with greater purpose, or by tracking down flat runners and screens.

Like all things in football, however, there are tradeoffs.  The first is that it’s hard finding two-gap players.  “Truck and shuck” requires a controlled mentality, while beating offensive linemen head-up and then chasing down runners requires a freakish mix of size and athleticism. This can be a pretty apparent weakness when you see 4-3 teams in college switch to an odd front to help stop the option—the smaller DTs and DEs often get overwhelmed at the point of attack.  Second, even the best 3-4 linemen can’t consistently create a pass rush by themselves—they’re always outnumbered.  Blitzing is the obvious answer, though anytime you blitz from a 3-4, you’re essentially reverting back to a mixed or single-gap defense.  The 3-4 can make up for this by being so confusing, though it’s not a perfect solution.  Finally, in a pure 3-4 there are always two offensive linemen who are “uncovered,” i.e., they don’t have a d-lineman setting up shop in front of them.  If these guys aren’t required to help with double-teams, they essentially have a free shot on the linebackers.

In between these extremes are split-scheme defenses, which are often run as much to tailor schemes to personnel strength as they are to gain a chalkboard advantage.  Bill Belichick has been a master of this; in recent years, his squads have been combinations of 3-4 and 4-3 defenders.  To make the best of both worlds, he will split his defense down the middle and make the players on one side (say, the weak side) two-gappers, while the strong-side players are single-gap.  Perhaps the biggest weakness of this method is depth, since it’s pretty much impossible to have adequate reserves for two distinct styles of defense.

Pure two-gapping is a brute force solution to the numbers game of gap assignments, and it’s as old as the infancy of football, much the same as the pure single-gap approach. Today’s even-front teams generally prefer a more situational scheme that we’ll look at in the final post.


What is a “Gap-Sound” Defense? Pt. 1

Pretty early in football’s evolution, coaches realized that even the simplest, most repetitive run game could be devastating if a defense wasn’t “gap-sound.”  Gaps—the spaces between offensive players—are the high ground of football: whoever controls them usually controls the game. If a defense leaves a gap open at the snap, any decent tailback will see the vacancy and run for a gain. Even if the defense initially covers a gap, leaving too soon invites cutbacks, counters, and misdirection plays.

Defenders are now assigned gaps to cover. These assignments can change based on play-call and what the offense does. In a 4-4 defense, the gap assignments might look like this:

A simple single-gap 4-4 front versus an Ace set; notice how every defender covers an initial gap.

Notice how each gap (or hole, if you’re looking at it from the offense’s perspective) has an initial defender, making this a purely one- or single-gap defense. In the base scheme above, defenders are aligned close to the gap they’re supposed to control: the linemen are shaded to make it easier to defeat blocks, while the linebackers are standing directly over their gaps so that they can rush in and make a play with minimal impedance. Being positioned over your assigned gap also makes reading and reacting to plays easier. If a ball-carrier runs into one of these gaps, the assigned defender should make the tackle for a loss or minimal gain.

How the defense defends these gaps depends on a lot of factors. Players on the line of scrimmage generally either attack the nearest blocker in order to gain leverage, or try to beat the blocker off the snap by exploding into the gap itself. Players off the line of scrimmage (the four linebackers in this case) might try to meet any blockers or runners in the hole, creating a pile-up in the first case and notching a tackle in the second.

Knowing when and how to abandon an assigned gap is a critical skill. Defenders are taught how to recognize if their gap is threatened, and if no one is coming to vacate the gap and help in pursuit or to defend against cutbacks and misdirection plays. They do this not just by watching the running backs, but by watching where and how the linemen are blocking. Middle linebackers, for example, are often assigned to read the center and both guards, while also being aware of the backs. If one guard pulls while the center and second guard aggressively block down, for instance, the Mike is probably worrying about a Power play. On the other hand, if all three take bucket steps in the same direction as the back is running, then he might be more worried about a zone run.

An offense can scheme to take advantage of a defense’s gaps assignments. Isolations and pulls are common ways of complicating gap assignments, as are option plays. When it’s clear which gap (or gaps) is actually threatened (or threatening to appear), defenders away from the play switch to defending against the runner or lead blockers. Defenders with assignments like “force,” “spill,” and “contain” try to either corral the runner back to the strength of the defense or towards the sideline by aggressively meeting blockers and option men. “Fill,” “cutback,” and “insurance” assignments make clean-up tackles against lead plays or provide backup when the defense breaks down. (You’ll see “contain” used in this context, too.)

Defenses that become too predictable in their gap assignments can make themselves vulnerable. Offensive coordinators can recognize the scheme and either throw shifts and formations that force the defense into tough positions by scheme, or they can single out weak links on the offense to attack. In addition to simply changing formations and assignments to vary the defense, blitzes, shifts, and exchanges are great ways to keep offenses off-balance. Blitzes, especially from unexpected defenders, can confuse blockers and bait running backs into traps. Last second shifts of the front (or “stems”) force blockers on gap-scheme runs to pick new assignments. Exchanges, where defenders move after the snap to cover more distant gaps, are subtler ways of getting to an offense.

Probably the biggest disadvantage of the purely single-gap scheme is its deficit versus the passing game. In today’s game, it’s nearly impossible to run a single-gap 4-4—there are just not enough people in the secondary. Moving one guy back to give you two safeties while still having him directly responsible for a gap is doable but requires a special player. This defender has to be smart enough to not only play the pass while watching a gap, but have the physical tools to do both. Undersized safeties without a nose for tackling will get targeted by opposing offenses, while stiffer, slower run-stuffers are prone to giving up deep balls.

Even with an excellent player, though, advanced passing schemes can create tremendous problems for a pure single-gap front. An answer to this dilemma is to have players who are in some way responsible for two gaps, though as we’ll see in the next installment this isn’t a perfect solution.

The Isolation Play

The Isolation run, or “Iso,” is about as direct as football gets.  A classic I-formation play, it has everybody on the line manhandle the nearest defender, while the receivers shoot inside to pick-up force and fill players.  The fullback takes a running charge at an intentionally unblocked or “isolated” linebacker; the tailback takes the handoff at a full sprint and follows this human battering ram through the hole:


Isolation play run to the strong side; SLB is the isolated defender.

“Inserting” the fullback through the line of scrimmage like this creates an extra gap for the defense (especially linebackers) to worry about. And because the tailback can cut to the left or the right of the lead block, deeper defenders on both sides of the formation have to make the right reads.  Since Iso’s run into the teeth of the defense, they’re usually short-gainers, though this is compensated for by their playaction potential–it’s hard for linebackers to not creep up when they’ve got two backs making a beeline for them.

I’m a child of the 90’s, so for a long time I considered the Iso play to be football at its purest.  It was the greatest common denominator among the top-level teams.  The NFL was still largely familiarizing itself with zone schemes, spill defenses, post-steroid era physiques, and spread offenses, an environment that favored the straight-forward Iso and teams like the Redskins and Cowboys, who took advantage of the play.  Meanwhile, running-based college programs like Nebraska leaned on the Iso to bludgeon lesser teams into submission, especially at the end of games when the option was an unnecessary risk.  (A close cousin of the Iso would be the interior Lead play, which generally asks the fullback to hit the first man he sees, as opposed to seeking out a specific player; note that you’ll sometimes see “Iso” and “Lead” used interchangeably.)

Emmitt Smith cuts off a block by Daryl Johnston.

Most high schools, meanwhile, played the same I-formation schemes.  Prior to the public adoption of the Internet, it was extremely hard to use new football concepts even if you subscribed to all the latest magazines and regularly attended coaching clinics.  Of the two best-publicized schemes of the time—I-formation, passing-tree ball that borrowed from Coryell, and split-back, route-concept schemes associated with Walsh—the I-formation was easier to teach and easier to match talent-wise, so it was either what most coaches knew, or what they could easily pick up.

Iso and Lead plays are more common the further down the ranks you go. To be honest, the only play I remember from JV is “Pro-right, 24 Ice,”  which was just a strong-side Iso out of the I.  Up by twenty? Run the Iso.  Down by twenty (admittedly more likely with waifs like young me blocking)?  Run the Iso.  It’s easy to see why: the Iso has everyone pretty much blocking straight ahead, so it reduces screw-ups when there’s a lead to protect, and at least lets your team worry about getting their heads straight when things have gotten out of hand.

The Iso (and more general interior Lead plays) had to evolve in order to offset the play’s biggest shortcomings.  First, the Iso was vulnerable to slants and stunts because it didn’t put blockers in a position to consistently create favorable angles.  Second, the Iso created a relatively small hole for the running back, so if a linebacker was quick he could gum the play up either by jamming the fullback near the line or by slipping the center-guard combo block.  For this reason, the classic Iso is now mainly used as a change of pace or as a clock-killer at higher levels of play; if you watched the Ravens wrap-up the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl, they broke out an Iso/Lead play when closing out both games.

Though better known for “student body right,” John McKay’s USC squads, which were coordinated by Don Coryell among others, might’ve been the first to figure out a way to keep lead plays like the Iso working even against eight-man fronts.  Coryell and McKay (both I-formation gurus) simply added elements of the draw play.  This twist combatted both of the traditional Iso’s weak points.  A deeper, delayed handoff meant the running back could read developing blocks at the line of scrimmage and run to daylight; the linemen knew this, so they could pass set and react to the defense, essentially letting the DTs and DEs go wherever they wanted to and take themselves out of the play.  Meanwhile, the linebackers had to respect the QB’s deep drop (and the backs’ slight hesitation) by maintaining their depth, which gave the fullback plenty of room to make his block.

The trick to making the play work was that both the fullback and the tailback read the defense.  The fullback went to wherever the onside defensive tackle had vacated to meet the linebacker, while the tailback read the entire front for creases and cutbacks; if it happened to be the middle that was open, he read his fullback’s block to determine which direction to cut after clearing the line of scrimmage.  It’s easy to see how these reads fed into the evolution of the formal zone run game.

Norv Turner and Ernie Zampese, both Coryell disciples, ran the play with regularity when they served as offensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys in the 90’s.  It might not be a stretch to say that Emmitt Smith earned his HoF credentials with two versions of this hybridized play called “Iso” and “Lead Draw.”  The Cowboys “Iso” was a direct descendant of the classic Isolation play, as it had the fullback draw a bead on an isolated middle ‘backer.

The Iso-Draw play, as described by the Dallas Cowboys in the 90's; the hatch marks on the TB's path indicate a deep handoff.

The fullback in this case was the 6’2 Daryl “Moose” Johnston, who routinely served as clean-up man for missed blocks on Iso plays.  He was such an effective blocker that it was often advantageous for linemen to miss blocks, because Johnston would pick up loose DTs and free the linemen to occupy the ‘backers, creating a de facto Wham play (back-on-lineman.)  Smith, meanwhile, was a savant at reading fronts, and could often cut plays to the backside by three or even four gaps for big gains.


The Pro Pistol at Work


Alfred Morris' counter-pistol run.

On the stat sheet, it’s a ten-yard touchdown for the Redskins over NFC East rival Philadelphia.  In action, it’s a look at how the pro game is incorporating the best parts of college ball.

‘Skins Head Coach Mike Shanahan is no stranger to cutting-edge offense–his Broncos team made zone blocking schemes the tactic dujour at all levels of the game.  Melded with Shanahan’s West Coast background, the resulting offense earned John Elway his first two Super Bowls.  It was the perfect combination of old and new.  Neither Shanahan nor his staff have much in the way of recent college experience, unlike the 49er’s combination of Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman, for example.  This hasn’t stopped Washington from adopting all manner of spread-option plays and tweaks (particularly from Baylor’s playbook) to put rookie star Robert Griffin III in a position to maximize his talents.  The emphasis has been on using spread-option plays and the Pistol.  It seems to be working–at the time of writing, Washington is the league’s top rushing team and they’re a win away from claiming the East title.

Alfred Morris’ touchdown exemplifies the old-meets-new attitude of today’s run game, with college influences coming more and more to the forefront.  The play starts with a bunch-pistol look with the run-strength to the left and the line showing a pass-protection look.  The Eagles are aligned to match the run threat to the left, and as the play unfolds, it’s obvious they’re expecting pass.  Combined, the Eagles are poorly positioned to take what Washington throws at them.

Morris and RGIII make a reverse pivot/jab-step hand-off combo that gets the defense looking in the wrong direction, while the backside tackle pulls around to lead block.  This is a classic counter play and evocative of a Joe Gibbs squad at its finest: Morris runs to daylight almost unthreatened.  Of course, the classic counter plays all came from the I-formation, and usually had a backside duo pulling behind a mass of linemen looking to mow down anyone in its path.   While it doesn’t have any option aspects, this Pistol-formation play has the playside tackle pass-set while only the backside tackle pulls to hit an isolated linebacker feels like a pistol/pro adaptation of Rich Rodriguez’s Dart play.  Sharper eyes will notice that Morris is aligned a yard deeper than is standard in the Pistol; this is probably to give him more room to sell the counter and get to full speed.

However you peg its influences, the Eagles didn’t know how to handle the play.  The playside defensive end is best positioned at the snap to gum things up, and even better positioned (by default) an instant later when his colleagues get washed away from the play.  The DE reads the pass-set of the guy in front of him, though, and runs himself out of the play.  The backside ‘backer plays the pass, the Mike wanders into the line of scrimmage, and the playside ‘backer reacts too slowly to have an impact.  Out of the entire secondary, only the safety recognizes run, though even if he had a chance of playing force versus a pulling, full-steam tackle, there’s no one to fill in around him.

If it makes Eagles fans feel better, you aren’t alone.  Teams across the league are struggling to stop all manner of college imports and their resulting hybridizations.

Remembering the Immaculate Reception

Pittsburgh's Franco Harris wards off Raiders DB Jimmy Warren on his way to the endzone.
Called by some the greatest play in the history of the NFL, the Immaculate Reception is nearing its 40th anniversary.  While Franco Harris’ improbable touchdown catch had no major impact on the playoffs that year (the Steelers later lost to Shula’s perfect Dolphins in the AFC championship), it was the highlight of a game that signaled the start of four consecutive playoff matches between the two teams, and in retrospect heralded the imminent Steeler’s dynasty.  Forty years later, the play still stands as one of the most dramatic moments in American sports.

It was an exciting play by anyone’s standards, especially for television audiences.  The game was already a classic 7-6 slugfest featuring John Madden and Chuck Noll on the sidelines, and Terry Bradshaw, Kenny Stabler, George Blanda, Fred Biletnikoff, Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, Joe Greene, Jim Otto, Jack Ham, and Mel Blount on the field.  It was 4th and 10, 22 seconds left on the clock, with the Steelers down by a single point and stalling on their own 40 yard line.  Folks at home saw Terry Bradshaw elude two rushers and heave a desperation pass to John “Frenchy” Fuqua, only to have feared-hitter Jack Tatum level the intended receiver.  The ball was knocked out of view.

Then Harris flashed into the frame, a defender trailing him.  He had made a shoestring catch of the deflection and was running down the sideline.  The only player capable of stopping him–Jimmy Warren–was caught so off-guard that he was two steps late in taking what would’ve been a makeable tackling angle.  Harris stiff-armed Warren and stepped into the endzone to win the game.

The play’s controversy came from a now-stricken rule: at the time, receivers couldn’t catch mid-air balls that had deflected off a teammate.  If the ball had touched Fuqua before Harris’ catch, the play would be dead by rule; if it had instead bounced off Tatum, it would’ve been a live ball.  The refs ruled on the side of the Steelers and history was made.

Not surprisingly, there’s debate to this day as to who the ball actually hit.  A woozy Fuqua told listeners after the game that the ball had struck his chest.  John Madden says he still can’t figure out what happened, and has sworn off making comments about the play.  While today’s high-speed/hi-def cameras and instant replay might’ve made a conclusive statement, the grainy footage of yesteryear doesn’t clearly show who caused the deflection, and never shows if Harris caught the ball without it touching the turf.  Some have likened NBC’s footage of the play to a sports version of the Zapruder film.

The deflection has been the biggest source of contention–not even the Raiders argue much that Harris failed to make a clean catch.  The clearest indicator of who caused the deflection is the speed at which the ball bounced away.  Carnegie Mellon physicist John Fetkovich determined that only Tatum, who was rushing full-speed towards the in-flight ball, could’ve deflected it so forcefully.  That’s good enough for me, though I imagine even decades after the fact more than a few Raiders fans unconvinced.

When Cornerbacks Weren’t Cornerbacks

You might recognize the still below.  It comes from the same presentation by Don Faurot that I used in my post on how he developed the concept of the option (found here:

For the Faurot piece, I chose a pic that obscured an old convention of the game. Here’s a clearer view:

Missouri Coach Don Faurot lectures on option plays.

That’s a classic 5-2 front, which is historical in its own right, with a nose tackle designated as a “center,” which is old, too.

For my money, though, the biggest eye-catchers are the “H” defenders lined up on each side of the defense.  As you probably guessed, those defenders are “halfbacks,” though we’d call them cornerbacks today.  Halfback was actually a common name for the position well into the 1960’s, which is when cornerback began taking hold.

Like many of football’s rules and conventions, this old use of halfback is owed to the fact that rugby football played a great role in shaping the game.  This is especially true with position names.  Center, wing, flanker, halfback, and fullback are all rugby positions that made their way onto the gridiron.

Being a continuous game without separate offenses and defenses, rugby players kept the same positional title regardless of which team had the ball. This trend carried over to the original, rugby-like versions of football.  As football evolved, the names became more specialized or were changed entirely.  Halfback was one of the last to change, probably because it was still a fairly useful descriptor, since one such defender would be found on each half of the field.  My guess is that “cornerback” became the favored replacement as the position began aligning closer to the line of scrimmage.

Canadian football deserves the last note here.  Like the American game, the Canadian version saw the same evolution in position names, though in contrast to their neighbors, Canadian coaches kept “halfback” with the defense.

This was likely because Canadian rules allow an offense only three downs to advance the ball.  The rule demands such an emphasis on the forward pass that it made little sense to have more than one running back and just as much sense to call the position anything but “running back.”  This defensive halfback is a secondary player roughly analogous to a nickel or dime back in the American game who lines up around the edges of the tackle box.

Spread-Option Basics, Pt. 7: How Defenses Fight Back

Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M vs. Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard in 2012; photo by Texas A&M Athletics.

The easiest way to beat a spread-option teams is to out-talent them at every position across the board.  Of course, that’s pretty hard to do if you’re not an LSU or Alabama, and even for these guys beating spread-option teams isn’t a guaranteed thing—I’m pretty sure Les Miles and Nick Saban are happy to see Urban Meyer gone…and sad to see Kevin Sumlin arrive.

So how can defenses slow these teams down without a talent advantage?  There are a few things we see teams across the country doing, some reactionary and some tried-and-true.

Streamlining the Gameplan

Just as the up-tempo offenses are slashing their playbooks and simplifying their situational rules and schemes as much as possible, defenses are moving in the same direction.  Watch a typical defensive effort against a fast-paced squad and you’ll likely see a coach lean heavily either on basic zone shells or on lots of straightforward man looks.  This puts pass-defenders in situations where they’re less likely to get confused by keys or hurt by play-action.  Blitzes are often rule-based, with linebackers rushing based not on a signal but rather a formation or a backfield look, which essentially cedes play-calling to the players; not having to check with the sideline allows these defenses to line up and diagnose formations more quickly.

Better Preparation

This streamlining is carrying over to practice.  Teams talk about preparing for the tempo of these teams, which is important, but perhaps not as important as preparing for the raw fundamentals of football.  Ten years ago, a swarming defense could overcome mistakes by individual players; one missed tackle could be offset by two or three follow-up defenders.  Today, full-field play and the option game allow offenses to single out and isolate individual defenders as never before, with the result being that plays have a greater probability of going long than they did before.  Overcoming this requires an unimpeded focus on the fundamentals of football, particularly defeating blocks and making open field tackles.

Preparation also requires that defenses get as realistic a look as possible from their scout teams.  This means that high school quarterbacks from option-heavy teams are becoming a bit of a commodity even for pro-style teams, and not just for the purpose of turning them into receivers and safeties.

Dominating Defensive Fronts

Before the spread formation returned to prominence, defenses overcame subpar line play with aggressive eight-man fronts.  When spread offenses began nullifying the eight-man fronts, teams began relying on nickel and dime packages, since early spread teams didn’t have much in the way of a run game.  Now, though, with the advent of zone blocking and the resurgence of the option, defensive linemen are more valuable than they’ve ever been.

Spread teams often run plays based on the number of defenders in the box; a defensive lineman who can’t regularly be stopped by one blocker essentially throws-off the math.  More specifically, two solid defensive tackles who each demand double-teams can keep their linebackers clean, and two agile defensive ends can confuse veer and zone reads, letting linebackers play “assignment ball.”  At the same time, down linemen who can rush the passer can help keep linebackers in coverage and let secondaries focus on the pass.  Just as important is that these down linemen are savvy enough to understand the nuances of option play, and flexible enough in their technique to disrupt blocking schemes.  If there is a place for increased defensive complexity versus spread-option squads, it’s probably with defensive linemen.

Enhancing Vision

Two old tricks from the early days of playing the option have returned to prominence, and both are in the service of improving defenses’ ability to see plays develop.  The first is the return of the stand-up defensive end, which we last saw mostly with old five-man lines.  These days, we’re seeing teams with four-man lines put their ends in two-point stances in order to better see mesh options and rocket/jet motions develop.

We’re also seeing linebackers set up further and further away from the line of scrimmage.  Again, this allows linebackers to more easily identify the actual ball-carrier.  Option plays take more time to develop than straightforward runs, so linebackers can make up the difference even if they’re placing themselves farther away from the play.

Stressing the Quarterback

Another old-time option defense, though more difficult now with the proliferation of spread/shotgun-based mesh-options.  Getting licks in on the quarterback is always a good thing, and with many spread quarterbacks being on the sprightly side and more prone to taking hits defenses often have a multiplier in their favor if they get a few jarring blows in.  Beyond simply playing solid schemes that lead to conventional pressures and tackles, defenses often react to option plays in order to force the quarterback to hang on to the ball or even make a bad read and run right into pressure; when it works, it exposes the quarterback to extra hits (and has the added advantage of keeping the ball away from running backs, who’re usually more dangerous runners.)  I think this going to create some tension in the pro-levels, since NFL squads are becoming intrigued by zone-reads and veers in the middle of escalating concussion concerns, and the quarterbacks having success with these plays—Griffin, Luck, Newton, etc.—are mainly bright young stars that the league doesn’t want to see injured and owners and GMs can’t afford to have injured.

Putting Time on Their Side

Everything thing today’s spread-option teams are doing is fundamentally sound, and hearkens back to excellent football techniques that fell by the wayside not because they were inherently faulty, but because the game changed around them.  We aren’t seeing a “gimmick” offense, but rather an offense that might be better suited for today’s game and rules than previous iterations.  Coaches recognize this, and are adopting spread-option systems and various components of these schemes at every level of play.  This conversely means that defensive players are now getting a heavy-dose of spread-option prep from JV all the way into the pros.  This experience will ease learning curves, and coupled with coaches’ increasing familiarity with spread-option concepts, probably force a new round of evolution in offense.

It also takes time for defensive coaches to develop and teach the counter-punches to the spread-option game.  Coaches might have a dozen different coverage schemes just to stop a pro-style passing attack, but only one or two approaches to an option team.  You see this with inexperienced schools playing Georgia Tech or the service academies: they’ll have the flexbone bottled up for a quarter or two, and then Paul Johnson or Ken Niumatalolo throws in a tweak like a midline read or an arc release and suddenly an opposing D is helpless.  Oklahoma fans saw their title hopes dashed when Florida moved to the Shovel play in the second half of the BCS championship game.  Teams are developing responses to the entire suite now, though, and even coming up with ways to attack, rather than react.


There’s one final point I want to cover about rules.  Today’s spread teams take advantage of what have been tremendous rules changes aimed at enlivening the game and protecting players.  For now, I don’t think we’ll see many more rules designed to increase scoring and quicken games, e.g., I don’t expect it to become completely illegal to touch receivers during the route or for the play clock to be shortened any more.  On the other hand, I don’t think we’ll see any rules changes made just to give defenses a break, such as easing substitution rules.

To me, though, there seems to be several ways the rules of the game could be changed to increase safety, and my belief is that the changes left on the table could immediately make or break the spread-option team.  Just to give an example, imagine if below-the-waist blocking were banned.  It’s not too hard to imagine: low blocks lead to a fair number of injured defenders, and perhaps more importantly, they’re viewed by some as antithetical in spirit to “real” football.  Take these blocks out of the game, and three things happen to spread-option teams: the zone running game gets hampered, the screen game gets busted, and pass protection gets trickier for undersized players like backs and tight ends.  That’s trouble for any team that likes to pass, teams that favor athletic linemen, and teams that run the zone-read…or basically, most spread-option teams.

All said, this series offers just a sliver of the ever-changing spread-option game and its consequences, which itself is just a sliver of the ever-changing landscape of football.  We’re already seeing the spread-option game evolving; Nevada’s pistol formation and Louisiana Tech’s revamped cadence rules are probably the two best-known examples.  It’ll be interesting to see what the next few years bring.

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Spread-Option Basics, Pt. 6: Speed and Simplicity

Louisiana Tech's Ray Holley vs Utah State; image by Louisiana Tech.

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

Like most famous football quotes, this gem is attributed to Vince Lombardi, and like most things attributed to Lombardi, it’s got more than a measure of truth to it.  Many spread-option coaches have taken this dictum to heart by driving their offenses as fast as possible on the field, and along the way have blown open scoring records.*  Where you’ll often see pro and pro-style teams bleed the play clock down to its final seconds, up-tempo teams will run consecutive series where the ball’s snapped only seconds after being set.

Football is a game of alternating possession, and if fast tempos were driving up scores but not wins, it’d be forgotten as an unsound novelty.  What we’re seeing, though, are these up-tempo teams being incredibly effective when it comes to making every possession count.  Here, College Football by the Numbers breaks down points-per-possession as of November 5 (third column, data ranked from best to worst):

Top 25 teams by points per possession; data by

Of the top 15, only Florida State and Alabama could be said to run pro-style offenses.  Almost all the rest are spread-option teams, and many of them are up-tempo.

There are some temporal reasons for why up-tempo teams are having this success.  There’s enough offensive variety in the college game to prevent defensive coordinators from zeroing in on these attacks, and strength and conditioning coaches are relearning how to prepare their players for the energetic and neural demands of enduring so many plays during a game.  Also important is that defensive coordinators right now are largely restricting the mental aspects of the game to the sidelines, which means there’s rarely enough time for defenses to get in signals versus a very fast offense.  As defenses catch up to fast spread teams, much of it will be because linebackers and safeties are calling the defenses, and not their coaches; right now, though, up-tempo teams often see two kinds of fronts: simple and confused.  Finally, since up-tempo teams can prevent defensive substitutions with their speed, defenses need to find more high-level athletes who can stay on the field regardless of situation.

There are some unavoidable advantages to an up-tempo system that won’t go away without fundamental changes in the way football is played.  First, playing defense is more exhausting than playing offense, which means fatigue affects defenses far more than offenses.  A fundamentally sound defense has to pursue ball-carriers.  If an offense followed every play with the same tenacity as a flowing defense, it would at best needlessly tire its own players, and at worst turn the game into a festival of illegal blocks in the back.

Second, because up-tempo teams practice with the same rapidity with which they play, they essentially get more practice reps than a pro-style squad.  This rehearsal can’t be discounted.  Chip Kelly’s squads can hit thirty plays in ten minutes of practice.

Because of these factors (especially the last two), I think the concept of a full-time, up-tempo team is going to be a long-term factor in modern football.  It’s also why pro teams like the New England Patriots are stressing speed.  This isn’t to say that fast-tempo offenses don’t have their drawbacks.  It’s difficult to learn multiple sets of dozens of plays while practicing at a furious pace, so faster teams usually have simpler playbooks.  Here’s football afficianado “Hemlock” over at Matthew Brophy’s site commenting on Louisiana Tech:

“While Oregon gets all the headlines, LaTech is probably the most advanced up tempo team going today.  As readers of this blog know, we are big fans of what Tony Franklin is doing at Tech.  The reason is concision.  No team has probably dropped more from their package over the past three years than LaTech.  Watch the Virginia game if you want proof.  LaTech goes into every game with a very light package. (Just compare LaTech’s package to the one UVA ran the other day and tell us whose offense is simpler)  Each game it seems lighter and lighter as they get faster and faster.  Practically gone from their package are old Air Raid staples like Mesh and Shallow.  Basically all they do is run an increasing amount of [inside zone] tied to key screens and two or three man games on the flanks.  When they want to get down the field they run Verticals, Sail, and Y-Cross.  What makes them go though is speed and efficiency.  Not only does LaTech play fast but they do so with very few mistakes.  An offense that does not make mistakes is a difficult one to stop.” (

In fact, Louisiana Tech’s most “complicated” plays are their run/pass option series, where extremely simple staples like quick screens and zone runs are melded into the same play.  Using spread sets lets the quarterback quickly identify where defenses are weak numerically, and using the option game (often on several defenders in succession) lets him attack weak points and essentially make the defense perpetually wrong.  Of course, having multiple plays rolled into one also makes calling audibles unnecessary, which helps keep the attack speed up.

So what can defenses do to catch up?  We’ll close out this series with a look at what has worked (and might work) to slow these teams down.

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