Friday, July 31, 2009

Impound It - The Sprint | by Michael

Next up for dissection in the BGS lab is the collection of runs known as the Sprint series. These are outside runs that utilize zone blocking, and they are commonly referred to as "stretch" plays because of the way they stretch a defense horizontally. There are three different runs in this series: one back strongside outside zone, one back weakside outside zone, and a two back strongside outside zone. Need a zone blocking primer? Let a former Irish coach be your tutor.

Back in December, Tom Thayer launched an attack on the zone blocking schemes in Charlie Weis's playbook. In many ways, his criticisms were directed toward these Sprint plays, where the linemen move laterally before they start moving downhill. Jay already responded to Thayer's comments, and new offensive line coach Frank Verducci somewhat addressed the question back in the spring when he answered, "Blocking is blocking" and emphasized effort and fundamentals. With this series being the second most popular set of runs (ahead of the Toss, Jab, and Draw), Verducci's coaching will be keenly scrutinized in 2009.

Sprint 38/39
The first outside zone play is a one back strongside run. The Irish predominantly run this play with three different personnel groupings: Half (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 HB), Detroit (2 WR, 2 TE, 1 HB), and New York (1 WR, 3 TE, 1 HB). To the right is an example when it's run with two tight ends. As Thayer brought up in his criticisms, you should notice the first step, which is lateral. The easiest way to determine whether the play is an outside zone run is to watch the line move en masse. Sometimes uncovered linemen will pull, and other times they will block down on a defensive tackle, but the lateral movement of the line is too obvious to miss.

In Weis's first year, the Sprint plays weren't called as often as one would think. It's anyone's guess why that occurred. A second surprise is the huge disparity between running left and right in Half given that left tackle Ryan Harris was considered that offensive line's most athletic and consistent blocker. The chart below details more. (First number is the rushing attempts, second number is yards per carry average.)

2005 Half Detroit New York Totals
Sprint 38
15 - 4.9
4 - 1.8
3 - 5.7
22 - 4.5
Sprint 39
3 - 6.7
8 - 2.6
2 - 0.5
13 - 3.2

The following season saw use of the play increase by 50% in Half, due in large part to the injury to John Carlson and the vanilla offense run by the Irish against weak opponents (Navy, Air Force, Army) leading up to the USC game. The Irish ran 14 of the 27 Half carries in 2006 against the service academies. Additionally, Sprint 39 was called more often, as one would expect with the more mobile Dan Santucci playing left guard and freshman Sam Young at right tackle. Not surprisingly, production going left behind Harris and Santucci was phenomenal.

2006 Half Detroit New York 3 Wides Total
Sprint 38
10 - 5.2
7 - 2.7
1 - 1.0
2 - 4.5
20 - 4.1
Sprint 39
17 - 9.2
4 - 6.5
6 - 8. 5
27 - 8. 7

The inclusion of 3 Wides was a mid-season experiment against UCLA and Stanford that likely resulted on account of Asaph Schwapp's injury. Against Stanford and its 3-4 defense, John Carlson lined up in the backfield as a fullback with Walker. The strategy paid off, as it resulted in the longest touchdown run in the Weis era. Finally, it's important to note that despite the fact that although many of the rushing yards came against bad teams like the Cardinal and the service academies, it's unfair to say that the play wasn't successful against quality defenses. Take a look for yourself.

Last year saw Sprint 38/39 be called nearly exclusively from Half as a result of injuries and suspensions to Irish tight ends. All five of the plays not run from Half came against San Diego State. It would seem that Weis and Haywood wanted to run this play from as many formations and groupings as possible, but that opportunity quickly vanished. The biggest question mark has to be why the Irish couldn't run this play left behind Mike Turkovich and Eric Olsen, two of the best linemen on last year's squad. Also defying logic is the fact that Weis and Haywood continued to call Sprint 39, as though they expected a different result.

2008 Half Detroit New York Total
Sprint 38
28 - 4.3
2 - 4.5
30 - 4.3
Sprint 39
17 - 1.7
2 - 0.5
1 - 2.0
21 - 1.8

It's beyond belief that a run averaging less than two yards per carry was called as often or more than it was in previous years, when it was three to four times as productive. For all the talk of Weis and his self-scouting, this one boggles the mind. Consider that at the bye week juncture, Sprint 39 had been called 11 times in games. Four of those carries were stuffed for no gain or behind the line of scrimmage. The longest run was just six yards, and only two other times did it pick up more than three yards. Quite simply, the staff needed to delete this play during the bye week, but yet they stubbornly ran it ten more times, picking up 18 yards in the process (15 on three attempts versus Navy). Here are some of those lowlights.

On the bright side, only once was one of these plays called in the Hawaii Bowl, and it wasn't Sprint 39. Perhaps the extra prep time allowed Weis to sit back and finally see its flaws.

Sprint 36/37 Gut
Whereas the previous play is run to the strongside, this outside zone play is run to the weakside of the formation. It has been run with three wide receivers every single time except once, with James Aldridge in 2006 (which makes me wonder if the freshman erred), and it has been run both toward and away from the slot receiver. Most of the time, though, it's run away from the slot receiver. The numbers suggest that it could be the most productive run in the Irish playbook.

Play 2005 2006 2008
Sprint 36 Gut
1 - 4.0
7 - 7.0
9 - 5.9
Sprint 37 Gut
4 - 7.5
19 - 5.5
18 - 5.6
5 - 6.8
26 - 5.8
27 - 5.7

Oddly enough, back in 2005 Sprint 36/37 Gut was called three times against Michigan, one of the better defenses faced all year. Despite its effectiveness, it showed up just twice more that season and never after the Purdue contest. However, it has been a staple of the offense ever since the 2006 season.

Looking in the rear view mirror, one of the few times it didn't work in 2008 was one of the costliest-- 2nd and Goal from the Pitt 3-yard line in overtime. Prior to that play, the Irish had run three straight strongside stretch plays, and then Weis tried to trick Pitt by calling the weakside version. That play and other highlights are below. Notice, too, that most of the unsuccessful plays in these clips occur when the weakside run is also called to the boundary side.

Sprint 38/39 Boss
The last outside zone play used by the Irish is a strongside outside zone with a fullback, whose responsibility is to block whomever is out on the perimeter; in the diagram to the right, the safety. Meanwhile, the halfback does not have to follow him around the edge; he is free to find the daylight in the zone blocking and cut up inside. The play's heyday came in 2005, when it was run 25 times from three different personnel groupings, including Two Tites (2 TEs, WR, HB, FB) and Goal Line (3 TEs, HB, FB). Although it is used in normal situations, it is a staple of the goal line rushing attack.

2005 Regular Two Tites Goal Line
Sprint 38 Boss
2 - 4.0
4 - 2.5
Sprint 39 Boss
10 - 4.5
4 - 4.0
5 - 0.8

To put the Goal Line carries in perspective, twice the Irish scored a touchdown and a third time they picked up the first down. Rather than focus on the yards per carry average, it's probably more accurate to say that 60% of the time were the Irish successful.
The play's usage was cut drastically in 2006, likely on account of Asaph Schwapp's knee injury. That year it was used five times in short yardage situations, where it worked only twice, and a sixth carry inside the redzone on first and ten was stuffed for no gain.

In 2008, the Irish began the season by using the play twice a game against San Diego State, Michigan, and Michigan State. After the staff traded in "pound it" for "spread it" against Purdue, Stanford, and North Carolina, the Irish tried it twice more against Washington before shelving it. It returned one last time for the USC game, where it ironically picked up its longest gain of the year against the nation's best defense. That run, in addition to a few others, can be seen below. For the season, it averaged 5.2 yards per carry (with a median of 3.5 yards) on eight carries with Regular personnel and was perfect (two tries, two touchdowns) with Goal Line personnel (both against Michigan).

Despite the desire to understand the problems of this play, I'd be out of my element to analyze the specific fundamentals of outside zone blocking and critique how the halfbacks have been coached to read the blocking and pick a hole. I'd rather defer to those who have played and coached offensive line to read their insights. Nonetheless, the research has left me with some additional thoughts and questions heading into 2009.
  • Before he was working for the Irish, Jon Tenuta once said that one of his goals in designing and practicing defensive gameplans was to take away first the opponent's favorite running plays. Because the Irish couldn't run Sprint 38/39 from a variety of formations (due to their tight end issues), did that make it easier for defenses to prepare during the week to defend it?
  • Last year James Aldridge typically played halfback in Regular instead of Armando Allen or Robert Hughes; was his lack of vision or footspeed (or something else) a reason why we didn't call Sprint 38/39 Boss more often? Did its scarcity also contribute to the perception that playcalling was often predictable based on personnel?
  • Zone blocking requires so much communication, and the Irish are likely entering 2009 with only Young returning at the same spot. Can Verducci get the line to gel quickly enough?
  • Two words: play action. Where was it in 2008? (More on this later...)
It would appear logical to expect improvement given the returning talent and Verducci's background as a "technician." But why does it seem like a matter of faith rather than logic?