Thursday, November 08, 2007

Simple Complexity | by Jay

Instead of breaking down the Irish units from Saturday, we figured we'd look at something that actually worked: the Navy offense. Brian P. sends us this review of the Middies' triple-option attack, and shows us plenty of examples of why Paul Johnson is such a terrific offensive mind. We also invited Mike James of the Navy blog The Birddog to add his thoughts and analysis, which he graciously shared with us. His thoughts are in blue, below.

A couple of years ago, during the preparation for a bowl game against Colorado State, Paul Johnson was asked by a reporter to describe the Navy offense:
To better understand the concepts behind the Navy football team's top-ranked rushing offense, a newspaper reporter recently asked Navy head coach Paul Johnson how many plays were in his team's playbook.

Johnson, 48, might have told him – if he had one.

"We don't have a playbook," Johnson said. "I found that if you have playbooks, they end up on eBay and everywhere else."

Johnson instead said he gives his players empty notebooks and lets them write down plays in their terms. In tonight's 7:30 San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl game against Colorado State, the game plan won't even take up more than a few sheets: Navy probably won't use more than five or six different plays, Johnson said.

It's all part of a system that's so simple, it's complicated – at least for opposing defenses. Conceptually, the offense builds around one basic play – the triple option, a system unto itself that's worked so well that New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick called it "one of the best running offenses of the last decade."...

"We probably run the same play over 3,000 times, and our whole offense is based off of one play," fullback Adam Ballard said. "We rep it every day, so we know what's going on."
This disciplined simplicity was alive and well on Saturday, as Navy's offense rolled down the field en route to an incredible, streak-breaking win over Notre Dame. By my count, Navy ran a total of 10 different plays during the game. They used 3 different formations to run these plays, and they had what looked like 3 different blocking schemes. That's pretty much it.

These five plays were run more than twice:
  • Triple Option
  • Toss Sweep
  • FB Blast (which is the Delaware Wing T play)
  • QB designed keeper behind the lead FB / midline option
  • Reverse Pivot - Counter Option. (The FB option is to one side but the QB and HB option are back to the other side.)
And these five plays appeared just once or twice:
  • HB option pass. (Play action pass from Triple Option look)
  • FB waggle pass
  • 1-yard Hitch/quick pass
  • Double Option - blocking all players
  • Screen pass (used once late in the second half)
Mike's notes: QB keeper usually isn't a designed keeper, except around the goal line or in really short-yardage situations. This is actually the midline option, where the quarterback has the choice of giving to the fullback or keeping the ball. The slotback that goes in tail motion on the play usually becomes a lead blocker for the quarterback if he reads to keep, although he didn’t have to in this game because the linebackers followed him outside. The first man lined up outside of the playside guard is the quarterback's read -- usually a 3 technique, sometimes a 4i or 5 tech. Usually he crashes down on the fullback, which is why it seems like it’s a designed QB keeper.

On the counter option, the fullback is only a decoy and is not an option on this play.

Sometimes when you run the triple option, the backside DE will cheat a little bit on the snap and play the fullback dive. One of the ways that Navy’s coaches take advantage of that is through the counter option. On the counter option, the playside slotback goes into tail motion. This gives the DE lined up across from him the impression that the play will be going the other way. When the ball is snapped, the motion slotback reverses direction and becomes a lead blocker. The quarterback fakes to the fullback in one direction to make it look like a regular triple option play. He then reverses direction and follows the motion slotback. The backside guard pulls to seal off the cheating DE from pursuing outside and stringing out the play. If the formation is balanced and the middle linebacker hesitates at all on the fake to the fullback, this should leave one man to cover both the quarterback and the pitch.

The thing about the counter option is that it allows the offense to attack the outside without reading its way there. On triple option plays, the ball won’t get outside it the quarterback reads to give to the fullback.

So it's basically a 5-play offense, with just a handful of wrinkles. The power of this simplified approach comes in the precise execution, and the sequencing of plays to set up surprises later in the game. Johnson is as wily as any playcaller in mixing and matching and keeping a defense off balance. Let's take a look.

Drive 1:

1. A 1-yard quick hitch pass. ND is geared up for the option but the CB were playing off the WR, so Navy took the easy catch for a 14 yard gain.
2. Triple Option - Blocking Scheme 1 (lineman block down inside). ND has practiced and stop the play easily.
3. Toss Sweep - Blocking Scheme 2 (the lineman loop around the outside of the DE and OLB). The play works but ND causes a fumble.

Drive 2:

First play: Triple Option, but with blocking scheme 2. So now Johnson is mixing together the 2nd play call with the 3rd play's blocking scheme to mess with the defense.

Mike's notes: Acutally, this isn’t the same blocking scheme as the toss sweep, although it looks similar. The sweep is more or less a screen play, with the playside linemen releasing to the outside. On this play, notice how the playside guard actually blocks up the middle, and does not release to the outside? The blocking here is really just a scoop block. The defensive end is lined up over the B gap and becomes the quarterback’s first read. He goes after the fullback. The tackle’s responsibility is to chip the next man lined up outside of the DE (who is the QB’s pitch key), then release to block defenders flowing to the play.

On defense, it looks like getting the MLBs to flow was crucial to Corwin Brown's scheme for getting to the pitchman. He wanted to play cat and mouse with the DE and OLB, and buy time for Crum and/or Brockington to come make the play. That is what looked to be the plan for Notre Dame on defense. Johnson quickly adjusts to this, using the new blocking scheme to make sure he can get the block on the flowing MLB by the 3rd or 4th play of the game. He loops a Guard around the end because Crum could easily beat the OT trying to block down inside on him...that is a very difficult block. No significant adjustment was made by Notre Dame in response. (Also of note: Kuntz is hurt on this first play of the second drive, and will not return for the rest of the game.)

This is correct about the Notre Dame gameplan, but the adjustment is different. The guard does not go around the end; he blocks pretty much north-south. The adjustment that Paul Johnson made was simply to bring the wide receivers in close to the rest of the formation. This allowed them to make crackback blocks on the linebacker covering the pitch. Notre Dame left their corners 6-7 yards off of the line of scrimmage, so the playside slotback had enough time to get upfield and block him. Essentially, the slotbacks and wide receivers switched blocking responsibilities. The wide receiver could take a better angle in blocking the linebacker this way. Notre Dame did adjust to this eventually, but that adjustment led to their demise.

Johnson likes this scheme and sticks with it for much of the first half. The key is that Navy is able to block the NT with just the Center. No double team is required in the middle of the field which frees up the Guard to loop around and block the LB flowing to the play. The Notre Dame DE and OLB are standing very close together and pretty much just standing still. Navy's QB is not getting hit hard. The defense is not committing to any particular option consistently so Navy has a nice mix of FB, QB and HB carries on the option plays.

Also of note, normally the option gets run to the wide side of the field unless the defense commits an extra player to one side. Johnson was faithful to this "field" side convention but added a wrinkle on Navy's first touchdown. Navy had a first and goal from the 5 yard line. Navy ran the Reverse Pivot - Split option. The FB dive option went to the boundary side and the QB reversed direction and ran the rest of the option to the field. This was the first time Navy used that look in the game and it allowed the slower Navy HB to outrun the faster Notre Dame CB to the corner of the end zone. Just a half-second delay that gets induced by getting the defense to flow one way and then coming back the other way. The timing of when that half-second could be used to the maximum effect was brilliant anticipation by Johnson.

Drive 3:

New wrinkle. On the second play of this drive, Navy lines up in a new formation. The WRs are tucked in very close to the OT's in the formation. The WBs are a little deeper in the backfield behind the WRs. Navy runs the reverse pivot - split option again, but with a new blocking scheme on this drive. This time the OT blocks the DE. This is the first time the DE has been blocked all game long, now deep into the 2nd quarter. The WR runs deep taking the CB with him. The far side OG pulls and loops around and blocks the MLB...a rather long run but he makes his block perfectly. The OLB is left unblocked for the option. The FB fake is to the right, the QB and WB reverse and come back to the left. It's a 12 yard gain even though the pitch man read his block wrong and went outside when he should have cut in.

This is a great example of the backside DE (or at least he thinks he is) biting on the FB fake on the counter option. The DE here wasn’t blocked as much as he just took himself out of the play.

The very next play, from the same formation, Navy fakes the toss sweep to the right and give to the FB also to the right. Something looks weird. I watch the play 4 times in slow motion before I see it. There it is. This was just a regular running play. Everybody was blocked by the man in front of them. So on two consecutive plays, Johnson runs at a DE while blocking him for the first time all game long. The DE is so used to standing up and watching the play as nobody touches him. Now he gets blocked straight up by a Navy lineman who weighs 50 lbs less than him, all because of a well-timed use of the play.

Next play, same look, Triple option boundary side.

Next play, same look, fake triple option, drop back pass - dropped in the end zone by the WR. ND actually had this play covered fairly well which is encouraging.

The drive ends in a touchdown to make it 14-14.

Second Half, Drive 1:

1st Play (didn't make it into the reel for some reason; sorry about that): Triple option, give to the FB. For once, the MLB comes up strong to meet this play at the line of scrimmage. This is a good correction by Corwin Brown at halftime, but really, this should have been the plan all along. Still goes for seven yards.

2nd Play. FB Blast. No option, just a regular running play. The Navy OG crushes Trevor Laws who is nearly twice his size. Again Laws is used to standing up and watching as nobody blocks him. On this play the Guard takes two steps forward like he is blocking down on the LB like he normally does, and then he makes a right turn and basically trap blocks Laws. Again, the blocking scheme is very clever when put into the contect of what has been happening all game long.

3rd play: Toss Sweep

4th Play: Triple Option

5th Play: QB keeps and follows the FB into the dive hole. This was not an option but a designed play. The OT uses a kick out block on the OLB, the first time the OLB has been blocked all game long, and the WB blocks down on the DE, the first time he has been blocked from this angle all game long. Just a simple cross blocking scheme but it is so effective since those players have been so used to not getting blocked and they had not yet been blocked by those players from those angles before.

As I mentioned above, this was that midline option. The first man lined up over the B-gap is the DE; notice how he goes unblocked and crashes down on the fullback. The quarterback read this and just ran into the space that the DE left behind. The playside OT does block the OLB, but the slotback is blocking a middle linebacker here, not the DE.

6th play: FB Blast - everyone blocked

7th play: Triple Option - give to FB

8th play: 4th and 2 Navy gives a weird look. WB motions into backfield like an I formation and stops...normally on the option this is fluid and the ball is snapped while he is moving. Then the other WB motions into the backfield and stops forming a true wishbone. Navy is just trying to draw ND offside with a weird look. ND doesn't fall for it and Navy calls timeout.

This actually serves two purposes. One is to try to draw the defense offside. The other is to show Paul Johnson how the defense is going to line up on the next play.

9th play: 4th and 2. Fake the reverse pivot triple option and the QB keeps the ball. Everyone was blocked. The Guard kicks out the DE. The Tackle kicks out the OLB and the WB loops inside and lead blocks on the isolated MLB. This is the first look at this blocking scheme so far for the defense.

Actually, I think this was just a regular triple option play. It looks like the quarterback made the wrong read on the fullback dive, and when you do that you’re taught to just follow the fullback through the hole.

10th play: Triple option to the boundary instead of the field side for a change of pace.

There’s a numbers advantage here on the right side. To give an idea of what I mean by "numbers advantage," complete with very crude illustrations, take a look at a post from last month, here.

11th play: FB Blast. #74 of Navy takes out Trevor Laws again.

12th play: Toss Sweep. Should have been called for a block in the back but Navy got away with it. Notre Dame defense has not blown up a single play all game.

13th play: 3rd and 1 from the 5. New look. Navy goes unbalanced line with a 3rd lineman covering the tackle on the field side. The defense doesn't respond quite right but the safety sort of cheats over a bit to the formation. FB Blast look but the QB keeps and follows the FB through the hole.

14th play: 1st and goal from the 4. FB Blast. Navy uses the Guard and Tackle to double team the DE. This is the first double team of the game on a player that has been left unblocked most of the time. Dwight Stephenson is plowed back into the end zone ending up on his back. Navy gets to the 1 inch line.

15th play: FB Blast - for a touchdown. Navy misses the kick and it is 21-20.

Drive 2:

See if you can notice how Johnson picks his moments to decide to block the Irish DE and OLB. He knows that they usually aren't expecting a block, so he was able to get 2-3 valuable yards when he needed them inside the tackles by springing this trap. The option is sometimes a risky play: it can get stuffed in the backfield when you really need that 3rd and 3. But the FB wing-T play inside the tackles are much lower risk, and combined with the surprise of blocking the DE and OLB, are actually high probability plays.

1st Play: FB Blast - holding penalty making it 1st and 20

2nd Play: 1 yard hitch pass - minimal gain

3rd play: Triple Option Play Action - deep pass. Pass Interference leads to a 1st down.

4th play: FB Blast

5th play: Triple Option- FB give. This is the first option play in the last 10 plays. Navy has been beating Notre Dame using straight-up Wing T plays from 1950.

6th play: 3rd and 5. FB waggle pass for a 1st down. Great design. The WR runs a seam route. The WB motions to the other side of the field. They give the reverse pivot - split option look but the FB flares out into the empty flat.

Actually, this isn’t the counter option-look, it’s toss sweep-look. The middle linebackers bite on the fake sweep and leave the FB wide open.

7th play: Toss Sweep

9th Play: FB Blast

10th Play: FB Blast

11th play: 2nd and 9. Triple Option - give to the FB. For the first time all game long, the NT beats the single block from the Center and stuffs this play.

12th play: 3rd and 8. Triple option but with no motion by the WB this time for a new look. The give is to the FB which was a poor choice on 3rd and 8. This may be the first bad read Kaipo-Noa has made all game long.

I don't think this was a bad read; it looked like the correct one. The DE on this play is Kaipo’s give key. He kept his shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage and didn’t go for the fullback. Maybe the play call wasn’t the best, but the read was correct. Although in all honesty, the play wasn’t a bad one. Navy is a very effective passing offense when it passes on its own terms. When a defense is expecting it on 3rd & long is not usually one of those times, and passing when the defense knows it’s coming results in a turnover for Navy way too often.

The FG attempt misses, but on the ensuing drive Navy sacks Sharpley and returns the fumble for a TD.

The two-point conversion play is interesting (sorry, no clip). Navy lines up trips right. They pull a guard away from the formation to kick out the OLB and run a double option with the FB as the pitch man. But the players are blocked at the point of attack. This looks like the Lou Holtz option.

Drive 3:

1st play: Triple Option, FB handoff.

2nd play: Finally, we blow one up. Walls come flying in on a run blitz, kills a toss sweep and forces a fumble which Navy was lucky to recover. You sort of wonder where plays like this were earlier in the game.

Remember when I said that Notre Dame did eventually make an adjustment to Paul Johnson’s new formation? This is the adjustment. Since the WRs are in tight and not blocking the cornerbacks anymore, Corwin Brown finally decided to shoot the corner. Doing so usually means that the CB will get to the ball carrier before the slotback can block him. But Paul Johnson will make an adjustment of his own that will take care of this...

3rd play: Looks like a straight dropback and a screen pass which gains a few yards. Well-covered. Navy has to punt.

Overtime. 1st OT:

FB Waggle Pass
Triple Option - Pitch
FB Blast
FB Blast, but out of a wide formation - for a touchdown.

2nd OT:

Triple Option - QB keep
Triple option - QB keep

Then a very interesting series of events. On the previous play, the CB crashed the pitch man very hard. This was only the second or third time all game that Walls played the option this way. On the very next play, Navy changed up the blocking scheme. They came triple option but had the Guard kick out the OLB and had the WB loop inside of this block and lead up through the hole. The QB kept the ball and ran up inside of the kicked out OLB. So as soon as ND decided to be aggressive on the perimeter, Johnson simply changed the perimeter and ran the option in between the DE and the OLB. So for those who thought that Brown should have the defense be more aggressive, Johnson already thought about that and had his answer ready.

On the next play, the Triple Option - pitch was stopped for a loss. For the first time all game long, the DE prevented the OT from getting off the line of scrimmage cleanly and it screwed the whole play up. This is what we should have had our ends doing the whole game: don't let Navy get away clean, leaving you unblocked, and getting their blocks on other players. Intercept them and disrupt the play.

It wasn’t the end that blew up this play as much as it was the corner. The slotback whiffed on his cut block and the corner was able to string the pitch man out to the sideline. The OT’s assignment is the one who eventually made the tackle, but if the slotback had made his block then the pitch man would have cut upfield. The safety who made the tackle would have been blocked by the OT on the outside and unable to get back inside to make the play.

3rd OT:

Drop Back Pass - Touchdown to Campbell on a fake toss that's wide open. Navy converts the two pointer, and that's all they needed.

And here’s where firing the corner killed Notre Dame. The corner played the fake toss. The WR ran a post pattern to occupy the safety. That left the right side of the field wide open for a wheel route. No linebacker is going to cover Reggie Campbell one on one, and he ended up wide open with the corner chasing the play 10 yards behind.

When your offense is this streamlined, not only can the players practice their execution to perfection, but the coach already knows what adjustments he is going to make based on how the defense reacts. It's interesting to note that Johnson doesn't use a call sheet during the game; he's able to keep the entire selection of plays in his head, and that frees him up to call the game by intuition as much as by calculation. Charlie Weis could probably learn something from Paul Johnson's approach, and take to heart the advantages of doing just a few simple things, but doing them very, very well.