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The Secondary Conflict & Creating Explosive Plays In The Big 12

Breaking down the X’s and O’s of some basic Big 12 offensive principles and how it puts stress on the secondaries.

Getty Images - J Pat Carter

The Big 12 is known for its commitment to throwing the football. With the exception of Kansas State, each conference member utilizes some form of “spread” principle in its offensive construction. As we will see, even Kansas State utilizes the principles found in the innovation and development of the offensive system.

It is only rarely correct to refer to the offense as simply the “spread” since, at its heart, it is an option offense. Many opine that the first form of today’s aerial attacks was the triple option. Most teams employ read option plays and now the dastardly RPO where the QB read is not give or run, but give or pass (dastardly because play action is more effective, safer, and more successful than most RPO’s).

The option is based on conflicting a single defender. The “read” target is forced to choose a player to pursue and his choice dictates the action and generally results in positive yardage when the correct decision is made by the offense.

To effectively defend an option play, the defenders must be disciplined and decisive. The “read” target can cause problems by delaying their pre-designed choice or crashing their responsibility and forcing an early choice by the offense which creates a target and time for the pursuit to shut down the play.

Mr. Obvious here…but, the point of offensive play design is to create space to run and throw in. The more space created, the more yards gained.

Explosive plays are often decisive. There is a strong correlation between achieving an explosive play in the course of a drive and scoring on that same drive. There are different standards for measuring an explosive play, but most will universally agree that a run or pass play of 20 yards or more qualifies. Therefore, the more plays of 20 yards or more that a team is able to achieve, the more points they are able to score — theoretically.

This article is not a treatise on the evolution of offense from Navy to Texas Tech. Nor is it a treatise on ways to create explosive plays. Instead, I want to look at a specific way to create space in the passing game utilizing a specific theorem of route combination.

There are many ways to get receivers open.

  1. Create an athletic mismatch.
  2. Flood a zone.
  3. Play action (or an RPO, if you will).
  4. Run routes in to a hole in the coverage (every coverage has at least one).
  5. Timing routes.
  6. Pick or rub routes.
  7. A great route with an accurate pass.

There are even more than that. But, the list covers the foundational elements of most route designs in some general form. Many offenses will utilize some or all of these methods to shake free open receivers.

The focus of this article is on yet another method of freeing space in the passing game. Creating conflict for the secondary. It is the same principle utilized in the option game. A single defender is targeted and put in conflict by the actions of multiple offensive players. In this instance, a secondary player is force to choose among multiple options and trust that his teammates will make the same choice in order to cover the play.

I am a huge fan of this type of pass play construction and believe it leads to explosive plays with some degree of regularity when executed properly. The reasons I advocate this motif are threefold.

  1. Formation – conflict starts with a formation that provides a hidden or shielded route. They are run from tight or spread sets with an imbalance in the formation. The formation creates an alignment issue which complicates the coverage responsibilities.
  2. Discipline – multiple routes in a zone or attacking the three levels within a zone can easily create confusion. To properly defense the play, the target defender and the balance of the coverage must be well-studied and see/recognize what is happening in the initial diagnosis. Collegiate level defenders are not always skilled or prepared enough to consistently defend these plays.
  3. Choice – choice is the enemy of defense. Get off, aggression, and attack are the lynch pins of tight defense. When a choice is presented, hesitation often follows. When hesitation is introduced, space is created and yards are gained.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so let’s look at some Big 12 offenses creating conflict in the secondary of their opponents.

To the Strength of the Formation

Two plays from one game. When Oklahoma State knocked off Kansas State it was a great game and a big win for the Cowboys. As the teams jockeyed for superiority, they each called plays that led to explosive gains and scores.

Below, we see a play executed almost perfectly by Kansas State. The only flaw was a throw that failed to lead the receiver down the field. A proper throw and this play is a 46 yard touchdown. As it was, it was a 32 yard completion that set up a score. Alert! You will have to watch the loop several times to pick everything out, but there is no harm in watching a great play over and over again!

K-State is set in a trips open formation from the middle of the field. Not only is it a trips formation, it is a tight trips formation. This is important to the play design because it crowds the alignment. As shown here, the defense must play at least one of the defenders in press position and back the other two off at different depths in order to get enough space to drop to their coverage areas.

Oklahoma State is playing a 3-3 stack with a single high safety. They blitz the two outside linebackers to create pressure which defeats any passing scheme. As an aside, Kansas  State’s blitz pick up is superb here. With a single high safety and a blitz called, the priority for the defensive trio is take away the inside routes and force an adjustment until the middle backer and safety can pick up coverage.

Note the late shift on the trips side by the defense and that each defensive back checks with each other. This is a good sign for the defense, but is also a sign of trepidation. Each defender, in addition to taking the inside away is tasked with certain coverage rules in order to pick up the possible route combinations.

The outside corner is playing the second level and is likely tasked with cutting off an inside route and to lock on to a receiver pushing vertically or crossing his face. The middle defender is playing press and is responsible for the flat progressing to the second level. The K-State formation is common for the receiver pop pass and he is positioned to defend the glorified sweep that is that play. The inside nickel back is there to cover an inside release from the inside slot receiver and to cover the curl zone.

The route combo is a double slant with a wheel route. It is aimed at creating conflict for the middle defender. Whether he is in press or drop alignment, the slants attack his zone and his primary target steps away from his zone of responsibility.

As the play develops we see the outside corner and the inside nickel jump the slant routes because they push inside where the defense is vulnerable. The middle defender is in conflict. The lateral step by the middle receiver and the immediate inside release of the inside receiver cause a false step forward and a moment of hesitation as he processes what has just happened.

The result is a free release with space to complete a 32-yard pass to the wheel route. Formation, discipline, and choice all played a role in executing this route combination.

Oklahoma State needed to strike back and turned to a similar play concept to take the lead.

Kansas State is playing a 2-deep zone, cover 4 from a 4-2-5 personnel package. Oklahoma State employs quads open to the wide side of the field. Kansas State rolls their safety over and aligns the strong side backer to cover the inside slot receiver.

The formation dictates a flooded zone and congestion in coverage. There is space between the receivers which stresses the space that must be covered. The other safety and the middle linebacker are left in no man’s land and have to wait for the routes to develop before choosing a role in the play.

The thing that jumps out on this play is that three of the four defenders step to the wide receiver pop route by the 2nd receiver, leaving Jarwin to run free down the seam. Why does that happen?

The outside corner locks on to the outside receiver who runs a 10 yard dig. It is well covered. The nickel corner jumps up on the wide receiver pop for two reasons. First, Jarwin takes three stalk block steps to sell the throw to the pop receiver. Second, Jarwin releases vertically and the nickel corner turns that route over to the safety in order to cover the curl and flat zones. Based on the initial read, his coverage was correct.

The linebacker jumps the pop route for two reasons as well. The inside slot receiver takes the same three stalk block steps to sell the pop pass. Second, when the inside receiver releases vertically, he is also turning that route over to the safeties behind him. His mistake was jumping too aggressively to the line and creating a quick seam throw, but he was supposed to have help deep and to the inside.

The mistake here is made by the safety who is the target player for the conflict. The safety sees two players take stalk block steps and a wide receiver pop route. His initial read is forward to stop the ball carrier. His responsibility is to cover anything deep on his half of the field, which, as the play develops, is Jarwin’s vertical seam route. As the routes break vertically, he not only has to recover, he has to choose which direction and layer he must recover to. His eyes are drawn to the inside seam due to the pop pass action and this is the wrong choice.

An easy 25 yard feathered throw and the other safety is unable to make up the space created by the choice made by the conflicted defender. A 53 yard touchdown and a truly brilliant play design that conflicts the coverage responsibilities and creates multiple options to complete the pass in space.

If the defense had jumped on the vertical action and vacated the underneath, then there is a receiver there for an easy throw and 5 yard gain. If the outside corner runs deep, then there is a dig route available in space for a first down. If the coverage jumps Jarwin, then there is space created by the formation to hit the running back up the inside seam. Rudolph read the target defender and made a great throw.

Crossed Up

Two plays from the NCAA route tree. This is common nomenclature for the route combination in the two clips below. This is a common play utilized in various ways by most teams. It is essentially the equivalent of a reverse in the running game where defenders are crossed up and the play goes against the flow.

The route combination is a vertical route on the outside, two drag routes at different depths, and a drag in the opposite direction that splits the two opposite drag routes. These two plays are a bit different in alignment, but the concept is the same.

The play utilizes a pick (illegal), or a rub (legal), but the cross action creates an unnatural conundrum for the defenders.

I am not picking on Oklahoma State. This is just a great example of the concept being explored here. Central Michigan was trying to gain some momentum and hang around in their upset bid. They faced a 3rd and 5 and needed a first down. I refuse to acknowledge their victory in the game, but they played well and this play led to a game tying score.

Oklahoma State blitzes here with six men. They are playing zone behind the blitz. It looks as if they are playing man because number 4 runs with the drag from the weak side receiver. But, if you watch the middle linebacker and safeties, they are playing zone. In particular, pay attention to number 7 for OSU. He finds the TE route in his zone, locks on while he is in the zone, then pulls off as the outside drag comes in to his zone. This is the proper way to play crossing routes that threaten your zone.

The formation, with the tight end in motion, hides a receiver. Not that he can’t be seen, but his release is caught up in traffic early causing the defense to have to find him after his path has been established. The continuation of his route is against the flow and is also caught in the mid-field traffic created by the route combination.

The outside corner, number 4, locks on to the drag from the isolated receiver on the weak side. Some teams play man on the open receiver against a trips formation. Given that he vacated his zone and ran with the route, that is a possibility. However, it is not intended that his zone should be vacated entirely. The middle linebacker has to stretch to cover that zone if threatened or a safety has to be ready to lock on a route in to the vacated area. I don’t know the coverage call here behind the blitz, but it is likely that number 4 had the flat responsibility to his side and should have played it like number 7 did on the other side.

Number 4 and the middle linebacker are the conflicted players. To properly cover the route they have to work in combination to release and lock on to the tight end drag route. The play is designed to screen one or both players with the crossing action. In fact, the middle linebacker is not picked, but is influenced and effectively screened from moving to the vacated zone. Number 4 allows the cross and the middle linebacker brackets the receivers drag. Neither covers the tight end.

It is an easy option read for the QB. Even with pressure. The tight end is free in space with the safety occupied by the deep drag and trips side seam route. The result is a 5 yard pass that results in a 23 yard gain. An explosive play in space created by the lack of discipline and conflict created by the route combination.

Below, Iowa State runs the same route combination from the opposite side of the field. The Central Michigan play freed up the trips side low drag because of the defensive reaction and the zone coverage behind the blitz. Iowa State frees up the open, isolated receiver due in large part to the man coverage deployed by West Virginia.

West Virginia is known for their pressure defense and utilizes the 3-3 stack with 8-3 principles to slow down the spread option offenses they face. They are not afraid to play aggressive man coverage and leave the deep zone open due to the versatility of their 8 stand up players.

Here, they bring six players in the blitz package. Pay attention to the free safety, number 2. The free safety comes down in to the box aggressively to either clean up a run play, shadow the quarter back, or cover a quick route. He is an unexpected fly in the ointment and almost makes the play here as he correctly moves out to cover the vacated flat area.

As the play develops, you see the man coverage. Lazard’s man is rubbed by the traffic created by the two-level drags from trips side. There is no easy path for him to take. He is not conflicted, just placed in an impossible coverage scenario by the route combination. Number 2 instinctively feels the flow, follows the quarterbacks eyes, and moves to the open zone. The only problem is that it is a step too late.

The quarterback option read here is to the two crossing drag routes. He has to read which side misreads the route and where the space is. Number 19 for Iowa State pulls off his route in an illegal pick position leaving the quarterback one option. Though there is pressure on the quarterback, if number 19 continues clean through his route, he is actually more open than Lazard and has more space to run.

The previous examples showed an easy throw and catch en route to a large gain. This is a difficult throw in to a tight window and excellent catch on a ball that is high and behind the receiver. Number 2’s late reaction tightened the window for completing the pass. If he had picked up the cross action a split second earlier, this is a pick 6. As it was, he created enough space to allow a catch and run of 67 yards.

Something to Watch For

As you watch the Big 12 this fall, look for the ways that the offenses utilize option principles in the passing game. It is a common thread among the varied offenses in the conference. Even Baylor and Kansas State will utilize the concept of conflicting a defender to create space.

I will be watching how the defenses in the league continue to evolve in order to slow down these concepts. I believe West Virginia’s approach is the most sound way to combat the option offenses in the league. The versatility of scheme allows the defense to dictate the offensive reads and force offenses to make choices they don’t want to make. They are able to dictate a read in the running game and disguise an 8 man drop in to coverage.

Other teams, Kansas State in particular, design their defense to stymie the run. This creates predictability and favorable down and distance advantages. The Big 12 is a running league. Yes, a controversial statement, but five of the ten teams in the conference finished 2016 in the top 25 nationally in yards per game and total rushing yards. You will see more defenses geared to stopping the run in the future.

Those defensive trends will create more opportunities to conflict defenders in the passing game. Watch for these type of route combinations and how defenses seek to compensate. I will be watching for explosive plays and how the plays were created. Often it will be an outstanding individual effort, but there will be a fair amount of plays that result in big gains based on mistakes by the defense that were dictated by the formation and play design.

To win in the Big 12, you have to create explosive plays and teams that do so will be hard to beat. Conflict the defense and you have a chance.

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