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Adrian Peterson made one of the smoothest transitions to the NFL of any running back in recent memory. He immediately stepped into the league, and rushed for 1,341 yards. He also set the single game rushing record (296 yards) against one of the leagues best defenses, the San Diego Chargers with Shawn Merriman. He was able to do this so easily because he had already learned the skill that keeps most rookie running backs from thriving immediately, patience. Patience is not standing in the backfield until the play develops, it is the ability to figure out, before the play, how the play may develop and then, go through a block reading progression to decide which hole to cut through. Here is a play the Vikings used in 2007 against San Diego, it resulted in a big gain for Peterson (but on that day, most of his runs were big gains):

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This is a common NFL play. It is an all reach stretch read play from a single back formation. Basically, the entire line is going to try and reach the man to their left. The key to run blocking is giving the line easy angles on the defenders, hard angles need to have options to make them easier for the linemen. The hardest reach blocks will be the tight end trying to reach the outside linebacker, and the left tackle trying to get turned on the defensive end. Therefore, these lineman are given a decision to make. They will take their two steps outside and if they are still inside their man and cannot get the reach block, they simply turn their butts inside and drive their men to the sideline. This gives them a great advantage, they simply take the defender wherever the defender wants to go. As soon as the butts turn Peterson can go through his block read progression.

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Here is the play when Peterson makes his cut. The blocks in the blue circles are his first priority reads. If the tight end and tackle can reach the defenders then Peterson will stretch to the sideline, but if the defenders are aggressively pursuing up field, as in this play, Peterson will cut inside his blocks, which are now effectively kick out blocks. As soon as Peterson makes this decision his eyes go inside to the blocks in the green circles. These reach blocks are easier because they have more effective angles (down field, not just straight down the line). The left guard is going to make sure that the defensive tackle lined up over him does not cross his face, then the guard will try to get to the linebacker. By making sure the defensive tackle doesn’t cross his face (forcing the tackle to go behind him) the defensive tackle has run himself out of the play, the Vikings bet that Peterson can outrun a defensive tackle when given a head start. The center is going to get to the second level and decide which linebacker is the biggest threat. Here the backside linebacker came up field first and then started to pursue, allowing the right tackle to tie him up. So, the center will read this and help with a double team on the play side linebacker. Once Peterson cuts through the hole he is in a foot race with the safety, make the safety miss and it is a touchdown (the safety ended up catching him 20+ yards down the field).

Peterson perfected this ability to read blocks by running a similar offense at Oklahoma. Here is a closely related play that Peterson scored on while at Oklahoma:

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This is an I formation with two tight ends left (after the motion) off tackle lead. This play has a couple of combination blocks that Peterson will have to read. The key block here is both of the tight ends on the defensive end. The end does not have contain responsibilities, the outside linebacker will have that responsibility, so the end is a little more unpredictable. If the offense is lucky enough for the defensive end to stunt inside this will be a touchdown. The tight end off the ball will hit the defensive end until the tight end on the ball can turn his butt to the sideline, once this block is locked the outside tight end will come off the block and look for the inside linebacker on the play side.  The tackle and guard will be playing the same game, they are responsible for the defensive tackle and weak side inside linebacker. The center and weak side guard will be doing a cross block, once again because the guard will have a flatter angle and a better chance at cutting off the weak side linebacker. He does this because if the strong side linebacker hesitates and the left tackle thinks he can make it, the left tackle will go after the strong side linebacker since he is a bigger threat to the play. This gives the offense a double team on the biggest obstacle to this play. Finally, the fun block here is the fullback kicking out the outside linebacker. This will be an easy, fun block because the outside linebacker has contain responsibilities so he is going to move up field unblocked. As soon as he crosses the line he will get met by the fullback going full speed, this is an easy angle for the fullback.

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Here is the read progression once again for Peterson. Here he only going to have one initial block to read The fullback will have the outer most defender. Once the fullback hits the defender and makes it obvious that he will kick out the defender Peterson cuts up and starts reading his secondary progression. When Peterson sees that both of these blocks have successfully sealed their defenders to the inside he makes a break through the hole and to the sideline, once again in a foot race with the safety (since it is college, Peterson easily outruns the safety).

Peterson’s  above average acceleration ability gave him a tool to be more successful, sooner, than most backs. However, backs come into the league every year with great acceleration. Peterson’s ability to go through block read progressions made his transition to the NFL much smoother than most back’s.

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Tim Tebow has had outstanding success (including a Heisman trophy) during his career at Florida under Urban Meyer, both through the air and on the ground. The key is the advanced reads he is able to make within the spread option offense. The wide spread formations clear out the middle of the field for Tebow’s middle options and when defenses load the box, Tebow is able to read a run option and pull the ball back to make a throw down the field.

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This play gives Tebow the option to read the outside linebacker on his left. If the outside linebacker comes up field, Tebow pulls the ball down and rolls out to the left. The outside linebacker will have to stop, make sure Tebow still has the ball, then change direction and give chase to Tebow, this gives him plenty of time to read down field and make a throw.

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Here Tebow sees the cornerback on the left follow his receiver in motion to the slot position and knows that he has full man coverage, no safety help anywhere, and both outside linebackers will be blitzing the from the edges. As soon as Tebow receives the snap his eyes will focus on the outside linebacker, he will put the ball in the running back’s gut, then once the linebacker commits to the run option, Tebow yanks the ball back and sprints to the sideline. Once Tebow is outside the linebacker he is looking down field to see which receiver has beaten their man. Since there is no safety help, as soon as a receiver gets a step Tebow is going to fire. He also knows that because there is no safety help his first read is the deepest route and he will check down from deep to middle to shallow. This read is made easy because the receivers are running parallel at varying depths.

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Here is the play as it develops, the outside linebacker is not a concern as a pass rusher despite being left unblocked because he committed inside to the run option, causing Tebow to pull the ball and roll out. In this situation the running back and tight end have both beat their men and are open, but Tebow’s first look is to his wide receiver running a deep out. As soon as Tebow sees the corner playing the receivers inside shoulder, he knows that he will throw deep when the receiver comes out of his break.

Tebow is not just a threat throwing the ball in this spread option offense; he also makes a living as a running threat in the ground option game. Here is a unique double option that Florida runs:
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This play is very unique; the running back to Tebow’s right will take off immediately after the snap and run to the sideline before cutting up field. Meanwhile, the slot receiver that has motioned to just behind Tebow will run even with Tebow right from the snap. Here Tebow will initially read the outside linebacker on the right and decide to pitch to the slot or keep the ball. If the linebacker runs to cover the pitch man Tebow will cut up field, this is basic option football. But, Florida runs a unique variation where once Tebow passes the initial read he immediately focuses on the corner moving up field. If this corner sprints at Tebow, he can pitch to the running back who, because of his wide angle is now even with Tebow after the initial read. In most cases, the cornerback will either be lost if he started chasing the receiver in man coverage, or will react too slowly to force Tebow to pitch the ball.

Florida does an outstanding job of using the option to put the defense in no win situations. They have many plays where Tebow can handoff for a run or pull back for a pass, giving him the ability to take advantage of any look the defense gives him. These multiple threats in this offense are what have lead to Tebow’s outstanding numbers over the past two seasons.

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Graham Harrell outplayed Colt McCoy, plain and simple. Sure, it helps that Harrell had the best receiver in college football to throw to, but even outside of that last play from scrimmage Harrell was showing that he, at least on that night, was far more accurate with his passes than McCoy. Both quarterbacks received pressure, both were sacked, other times, both got great time to deliver a ball; Harrell’s passes, in all situations were better. Harrell showed he had superior accuracy, and arm strength.

Arm Strength

Arm strength for a quarterback is not just the ability to throw a deep ball. Both Harrell and McCoy showed the ability to stretch the defense by throwing the ball downfield, but Harrell showed superior arm strength on what many scouts deem the best test for true game style arm strength, the deep out. This route requires the quarterback to throw the ball only about 12-15 yards down the field in most cases, however throwing the ball to a receiver moving away from the quarterback makes this throw farther, and more challenging. Increasing the significance of this throw is that if the route is undercut and the ball doesn’t get there fast enough, an interception is likely a touchdown going the wrong way for the quarterback. Here is an example of a play from last night where Harrell showed his arm strength:

This is a basic example of Mike Leach wanting to stretch the field with a middle cross and deep routes to the outside. Micheal Crabtree was the receiver lined up wide to the right, he will garner special attention from the defense. The defense is in a cover 3 over the top, and 5 players in zone coverage (really 4 in zones with the cornerback’s eyes glued to Crabtree). This means that the cornerback on the left knows he has the deep 1/3 of the field on his side, meaning no safety is helping him over the top, he is the last line of defense. Harrell knows that this will leave the the deep portion of the field on that side susceptible to the out. The corner will honor the vertical passing game and stay in his backpedal until he is convinced that the route is not an out and up (the route Crabtree is running on the other side). Here is the play a few seconds later:

Here you can see that because the out route is at about 14 yards, the linebackers, playing the hook-to-curl zones, have dismissed Eric Morris (the receiver running the deep out) to the safeties. The outer most linebacker moves inside to pick up the underneath route of the crossing pattern, this helps to clear out Harrell’s passing lane. As soon as Morris comes out of his break, and Harrell sees the safety sitting back 3 yards behind Morris, he lets loose a pass that goes only 14 yards down the field but about 31 yards horizontally toward the sideline. He not only get the ball there, he gets the ball there in a hurry and on a rope. The ball gets very little elevation off the ground (minimal arcing motion) and gets to Morris before the safety has a chance to undercut the route. The safety tries to jump in front of Morris but the ball gets there faster than he anticipated causing the safety to not only miss the breakup, but he puts himself out of position to make the tackle after the catch leading to a second quarter touchdown.

Accuracy

My favorite play to point to from last night, from all season actually, for Graham Harrell’s Heisman campaign came late in the third quarter.

Here the outside receiver is running a simple fade route and the defense is in a cover 2. Harrell is going to time his throw to hit this receiver during the transition period from the cornerback to the safety. The corner will follow the receiver for about 6 yards then leave him for the safety as the corner moves back toward the line to refill his zone. The safety will start with a backpedal because he has deep responsibilities but when he sees the corner abandon the receiver he knows that receiver is now his to cover. The safety comes running up field in unison with the corner leaving him and Harrell hits the receiver moments before the safety can get there to break up the pass. Not only was it great timing, without pinpoint accuracy, the throw would have been picked off. Harrell saw the defense pre-snap and knew he would have this tiny seem in the zones. When he saw the safety fly towards the receiver Harrell threw the ball right above the receivers inside shoulder. Generally, the rule for a fade is to throw over the receivers outside shoulder, but Harrell’s throw to the inside shoulder gave the receiver, and only the receiver, a chance to catch the ball.

Here you can see that if Harrell leads the receiver (the blue target) as you would generally do on a fade route the safety would come up field and either intercept or break up the pass. If Harrell were to throw the ball behind the receiver and low (the red target) it would put the ball in an area that would give the cornerback a chance to make a diving deflection and even if the receiver makes the spinning catch the safety coming up field would deliver a big blow to the receivers back probably breaking up the pass. Instead, Harrell throws just above the back shoulder (the green target). This is a place that gives the receiver a chance to jump and protect himself from a big hit, it puts the ball in a place where the safety cannot get it, and makes the recovering cornerback a non-factor.

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Both Steve Spurrier and Mike Leach have been refered to throughout their careers are mad scientists because of their ability to engineer explosive pass offenses and exploit almost any weakness of a defense (Spurrier was able to do this much more effectively at Florida when he consistently had better caliber quarterbacks). By creating unfavorable matchups or stretching zone defenses both coaches are able to move the ball seemingly at will.

Mike Leach

Leach runs an offense that emphasizes the ability to put the ball anywhere on the field at anytime. He likes to go deep early and often and make 3rd and 8 conversions look easy. Here is a simple example of Mike Leach giving the quarterback the ability to read the defense and overload zones:

This is a play that Texas Tech ran against Iowa state last year. The quarterback approaches the line and is able to read pretty quickly that the defense is going to be playing a cover 2 zone defense but they are using man coverage on the widest receivers on both sides. The quarterback is then able to immediately know that he will only have to watch two players on the defense to decide where he is going with the ball and within a second of the snap, he should know exactly where he is going to throw. The quarterback will be reading the outside linebacker and safety on the left side of the field.

Here is the same play with the receivers in their routes. As you can see, the outside receivers had man coverage from the cornerbacks, so they simply ran streak routes down the sidelines to clear out the zones underneath. As soon as the wide receiver on the right side begins to fly down the sideline the safety on the right side has to start to move towards the sideline to keep his cornerback from being stranded one-on-one with the offense’s number 1 receiver. When the safety on the left side sees his fellow safety vacating the middle he knows that he will have to cheat over and take the slot receiver on the left if he runs a vertical seem. Therefore, the safety on the left will begin to backpedal anticipating the slot receiver running vertically since that is how his comeback route initially looks. The outside linebacker on the left side will also see the start of the comeback and read it as a vertical which tells him the safety should have the slot and he has to move towards the line to cover the drag route coming from the right side.

The quarterback is now able to read the outside linebacker on his left side moving toward the the underneath drag route and he can see the safety on his left slowly stepping backwards to honor the possiblity of the vertical route from the slot receiver. The quarterback now knows after the first two steps the defenders make that he is going to throw the ball to the slot as soon as he begins to make his cut to comeback. You can see in the diagram exactly how the offense is able to cause defenders vacate their zones and open up holes. The beauty of this play is that if the safety on the quarterback’s left reads this play correctly the second time this play is run and moves toward the slot the offense is at even more of an advantage. The slot receiver has the ability to read the safety and run the vertical route if the safety reads the comeback:

Here the safety on the offense’s left reads the comeback and comes flying up field to undercut the route, the slot receiver reads this and fakes the comeback and then turns his route into a skinny post. At this point the quarterback sees that his receiver will be wide open running down the middle of the field unless the safety on the right moves to the middle of the field to cover him. This then leaves both his wide receivers in single man coverage with no help over the top, the ideal makings for a big play. Mike Leach gives his quarterback the ability to throw a deep ball to the sideline and give his receivers a chance to make a big play. The worst case scenario here is that all downfield receivers are covered and the quarterback will check down to the running back and toss the swing route out to the side, this gives the running back the ability to get the ball in the open field and try to make the first linebacker miss.

Steve Spurrier

Steve Spurrier’s offense is predicated on loosening up zones and tricking certain players into making incorrect reads, thereby leaving holes in the zones for quick passes.

In this example, from South Carolina’s spring game a few years back (seen here, Spurrier calls it “5 semi”), the defense is in a very traditional 4-3 defense running a conventional cover 2 with a 4 man rush. The quarterback sees the cornerbacks apporaching the line right before the snap and knows that he has a cover 2 with the cornerbacks playing the flat areas. He also knows that the safety is responsible for any thing deep on his half of the field so the safety will be very cautious to come up the field unless he is sure that the receiver is commiting to an underneath route. In this case the quarterback knows that the gap in the zone will occur between the linebackers and the safety on the left side.

Here you can see that the slot receiver running the quick out draws the cornerback outside. The outside linebacker on the offense’s left does not see the wide receiver on the outside once the receiver starts downfield and immediately focuses on the running back coming out of the backfield to the flats, as the running back crosses the linebacker’s face the linebacker moves upfield vacating his hook-to-curl zone. The wide receiver locates this vacancy as soon as he comes out of his break and moves at the vacancy then immediately looks for the ball, knowing it will have to be delivered quickly before the safety can realize there is no deep threat on this play and move up to cover the receiver.

Another staple of the Spurrier offense is trick plays. Here is an example of a trick play Spurrier ran against Mississippi State. He had set up this play by running wide receiver screen successfully a few times earlier in the game.

Here the defense is in man to man coverage with one safety over the top. The offense knows this as soon as the wide out on the right side goes in motion to left and is followed by the cornerback. The quarterback is going to throw a wide receiver screen to the widest receiver on the left side and the motion man and tight end are in charge of picking up the cornerbacks as they read the screen and fly up field. The running back is going to come to the line and pretend to pick up the defensive end but he will slip off this block and run a fly route down the right sideline. The wide receiver that caught the screen is going to turn and throw the ball to a wide open running back. This works because the entire secondary reacts to the screen and the safety is tricked into thinking the running back is actually blocking the defensive end in a pass protection scheme. The result looks like this:

Both of these coaches are great offensive minds and have their own area of specialty. Leach has the ability to score from almost any area of the field by exploiting whatever the defense gives him. Spurrier has the consistantly hit on short passes and then catch the defense sleeping or being overly aggressive and score at crucial points in the game.

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