Thursday, March 13, 2014

Defending 3x1 Formations Part II

As we read in the first part of this segment on defending 3x1 formations, there are many ways for an offense to be "3x1".  Once you've got the formations broken down and the play data stored, and have gone through the set of questions that should be asked you now have a mode of removing what plays/concepts don't need to be defended.  I'm going to go back through the "standard set of questions" you should be asking yourself once the film data has been compiled and give generic answers to these questions.  After that, I will follow up with some more specific answers on what I would do vs. these looks.

Question #1: What is their running game out of 3x1?

Many offenses are going back to the good old staple of gap schemes in their spread run game (think Gus Malzahn here).  The power read, inverted veer, flash, dash, whatever in the hell you want to call it has become quite vogue here out of spread formations.  Some common gap schemes are power, iso, and counter.  These can either be run by the back or by the QB, which leads us into question two about the QB being a part  of the running game.

A lot of these offenses, however are still very zone heavy, utilizing both inside and outside zone.  The outside zone even has a wrinkle off of it with the jet sweep being zone blocked.  I've also seen QB inside zone and QB outside zone as well, that utilize a good running QB with a zone blocking scheme.

Some teams you may face may attempt to do ALL of these.  Your job as a defensive coordinator (DC) is to eliminate the types of plays they run very little and find those top three to five runs that you are going to have to stop to make the offense play "left-handed".

What doing these plays out of 3x1 does, is add one gap to the trips side and removes another from the single receiver side (as shown below).  In the illustration below, I'm using the simple math that for every offensive player, excluding the ball carrier, their are two gaps created.  As we can see below, 3x1 formations have a six gap to four gap ratio when compared to the standard 2x2 formation having an even five gap to five gap ratio.  Defending these gaps requires some sort of adjustment.  If you are one who doesn't like to move his box players, then some sort of secondary rotation is needed (think Saban's Mable adjustment).  If you are like myself, and don't want the offense dictating the coverage, then you might do more of a Poach, or Solo technique.  Even better if you're a nickel guy, you can utilize a strong side X-out concept such as TCU's Special coverage.  Any of these work, but somehow, someway you HAVE to adjust to get the extra defender over there to make up the extra gap.

Speaking of each player creating an extra gap, how are you handling the back and his ability to lead block being a factor as an extra gap?  This is an item that needs to be accounted for when handling 3x1 formations.  If the team you are facing moves the position of the back, this may cause need for an adjustment in the front due to the ability of the offense to now create an extra seam with the lead blocker.

All of the above are things that good solid film scouting can trim down.  Most zone teams don't use the RB as a lead blocker.  With the back being offset to one side, the defense can somewhat "cheat" vs. gap and zone schemes because the offense has dealt its hand.  The advent of the Pistol backfield doesn't really constitute so much of a lead blocker threat as it does an option effect (think veer or triple option).  Very good film study is needed to eliminate items you DON'T need to defend and stick to defending the very nuts and bolts of your opponent's running game.

Question #2: Is their QB a part of their running game?

This one scenario in-and-of-itself has single handily turned the spread run game on its ear.  Before the advent of the QB run out of spread, it was sort of a "ho-hum" offense.  You knew what you were about to see, some sort of passing game and as a defense you could pin your ears back and go.  Not so much any more.  With the QB being a focal part of the offense in both zone schemes and gap schemes you now have to account for all six of the skill positions to be able to carry the football.  Also, the real nuisance in all of the new spread run game is the rebirth of the option.  Not just the double option either, the good old triple option, with veer, arc and load schemes to bound!  As DC's we are facing a resurgence of the modern day wishbone triple option, just packaged differently.  No longer are halfbacks split in the backfield in three-point stances, but they are split out at wideout and can block, catch passes and run with the football in their hands as pitch backs.

As with any offensive scheme, it's only as good as the guy calling it, and many of these OC's had ingrained in their heads years ago the dangers of running their QB.  So you see plays that "look" like option, or are blocked like option, yet the QB really isn't reading anything.  This plays into your hands as a DC, and you need to seriously evaluate whether or not the QB is reading anything at all.  A good tell, is the eyes of the QB.  Sometimes hard to tell on film, but look when the QB is handing the ball off, is he looking at the back, or is he looking at a defender.  This "tell", will let you know whether or not the QB is reading one of your defenders or not.

Once I break down some of the individual plays, we'll take a look at how when the offense reads one of your players, you must now "cheat" one of your defenders to account for this.  We'll also look at stunts to confuse the option QB that will keep him guessing.  The problem with all of this out of 3x1 looks is that if you don't set the defense up properly you can have a weak side force issue, or a "soft edge" as I call it, or you can easily be a defender short on the "trips" side.

Who's got pitch?

Question #3: Who is their best runner?

When the QB is involved in the run game you have to ask yourself, who is the better runner, the back or the QB?  Obviously you want to set your scheme up to have the least of these two dangers carrying the ball the bulk of the time.  However, don't be afraid to "flip the script", because remember for the most of us, these are 16-18 year olds who haven't been doing this but for maybe a year or two at best.  By utilizing some good stunts and blitzes to confuse the reads in an option offense you can dictate who carries the ball, thereby negating one of the offenses best weapons.  Once frustrated they will go to loaded schemes or schemes that are meant to look like option, but aren't to simply try to get the ball in the hands of their best runner.  When this happens, you have them because the threat of now having two potential ball carriers is eliminated.  Again, the idea is to force the offense to play "left-handed" (for all my left-handed folks out there, no offense).

Question #4 Do they use a tight end?

Tight ends (TE's) are being added to the spread more and more these days.  11 personnel creates and interesting match up for several reasons.  First off, tight ends, by nature can be dangerous weapons for defenses because of their size and speed.  Most offenses that employ a tight end do so not only to create an extra run gap along the line of scrimmage (LOS), but to create mismatches in both the run and the pass game.

Hopefully you're not defending this

In high school, however, you see usually one or the other, a good run blocking tight end, that's really an athletic, or under sized tackle, or the very athletic tight end that is an over sized wide receiver.  Either way, these guys can still create some interesting match up problems for your defense.

The advent and use of the H-back has also become a prevalent way to get those fullback (FB)/TE players involved in the offense.  Just look back to Urban Meyer in 2006 and his use of Billy Latsko on the Florida National Championship team.  Fast forward to today and what Gus Malzahn has been doing over the past few years with guys like Jay Prosch and you've seen a resurgence in the use of these TE type players.

As you can see, there are two distinct ways to use a TE, and some teams employ both the "on the LOS" TE, and the H-back, sometimes utilizing the same player to play both.  What this does is it creates an extra gap within the offense that the defense must account for.  Whether the TE is on the LOS or in the backfield does not matter, that extra gap is there.  In the case of a pro twins formation, you still have the threat of having four receivers running vertically down the field, so you can't just automatically see a TE and roll to an eight man front.  Breaking down what your opponent does with the TE is very critical to the success of your defense.

Are they different, or the same, or similar?
In the illustration above, you have both formations being a 3x1 set, however they can have very different ways of attacking the offense.  With a good blocking TE, the offense can motion him to the backfield, or even pull him, like a lineman to the weak side on counters and traps, so over playing the trips side could be a dangerous decision for the DC in this case.  Again, we come back to the factor of excellent film study defining just what your opponent likes to do with TE that will help the DC decide on how he plans to play such 3x1 formations.

Question #5: Do they use an H-back type player to make up the third receiver in trips?

This is really part of question four, because as you can see it leads to the same set of issues.  Having the number three receiver be an H-back can be a blessing or it can be a double edged sword.  If this guy is an athlete, then it can be dangerous because he can easily stress the defense in the passing game.  Having this guy be a blocker is no picnic either, because he can motion and be used in gap schemes, or to block the overhang on zone read type plays etc.  Where they put this "type" of player is and always should be on the mind of DC's when breaking down 3x1 formations.

GY QB counter out of 3x1

Question #6: What is their passing game?

In other words, what concepts to they hang their hat on?  Some of these teams that are so run oriented may not have much of a trips passing game.  I faced a team last season that went from 54% run tendency out of 2x2 sets to a 88% run tendency out of 3x1 sets.  This OC was simply using 3x1 to gain an extra blocker at the point of attack, and seeing how you as a DC would set your defense up as to where to go.

Other 3x1 guys get in this look to flood zones, which can be a real pain in the neck, if you "under play" the trips side of the formation.  Having a scheme that allows you to be flexible in "pushing" defenders over to the trips side, without sacrificing your defensive leverage on the weak side is essential in being sound vs. these looks.

Ah, the dreaded flood...

A lot of OC's utilize the trips formation to single up their best receiver in one-on-one coverage.  Most OC's know that DC's utilize some sort of loaded zone scheme with man on the backside, so they put their best receiver as the single receiver and let him see if he can beat your corner.  If you're good in the secondary, and that corner can handle it, you should be fine, however this is not always the case and you need to be ready to answer the call.  What if this guy is a TE, how would you handle that?  Having the flexibility built into your defense to have more than one way to handle a good weak side receiver is something any good defense must have when defending 3x1 formations.

Question #7 What pass protection do they utilize?

This is a big question when breaking down how to defend any passing offense.  This is where you are setting yourself up for big plays by pressuring the offense where it's at its weakest.  Knowing the protection scheme whether it's slide, cup, big-on-big, half man, half zone etc. will allow you to bring pressures that are meant to stress these types of looks.

One key element to look at is how is the back involved in protection.  Is he the "clean up" guy in big-on-big (BOB) protection?  Is he forced to block and LOS defender in slide, or half slide protection?  Is he released immediately, not asked to block anybody?  These questions must all be answered when breaking down how you plan on defending a passing game.

Another consideration is that many of the 3x1 teams I face get in this look to flood zones off sprintout.  Sprintout can change the entire composition of your secondary by forcing players to roll to the edges of their zones, having LB's come out of coverage and now contain the QB, etc.  You must have a plan for sprintout and boot looks as well when facing any offense, but in my experience, especially one that employs 3x1 sets on a regular basis.

Question #8: If they are gun, where do they like to set the back, and what do they do with him?

This ties into some of the other questions, but offset gun teams can have some protection tendencies that can tip you off as a play caller as to what's fixing to happen.  For instance, just last season we faced a team that always set the back weak to throw the ball, or to run zone read.  When the back was set to the trips side it was speed option 89% of the time.  That's a HUGE tendency and led to us putting in an automatic pressure coming in the face of the speed option.

Automatic dog blitz into zone option

Obviously pistol creates an issue because now the back's intentions cannot be discerned so easily pre-snap, however don't let this fool you.  Some teams, that are not exclusively pistol, do have tendencies with what they do out of this look.  Another example from this past season is that we faced a team that ran gun strong, weak and pistol out of 3x1.  However, when they were in the pistol, it was veer over 75% of the time.  These sorts of tidbits of information (thank you Hudl), are great when you are setting up how you want to attack an opponent's offense.  Looking at how to attack the positioning of the running back in the gun, or pistol is essential in defending any spread offense.

Question #9: Who is their best receiver?

I know to the collegiate coach, this question probably should be higher up, but in high school football I want to stop the run, so I put this down towards the bottom.  Anyhow, in your study of your opponent, you will want to find their best receiver.  In 2x2 sets, most receivers work in a tandem, however in 3x1 sets the whole ball game changes.  Do they use this receiver as the X receiver, or single receiver, trying to get you into a one-on-one situation, or do they put him to the trips side and run combinations with him, trying to get him to "sit down" in holes in the zones?  Is he a "scat back" type of receiver they align in the slot and throw screens to, or align at Y and throw screens to?  Again, the answers to these questions will dictate how you decide to defend your opponent's 3x1 formations, and what they do out of them.

The Beginnings of a Game Plan
Once the above questions have been answered, you now will have a better picture of what your opponent is doing to attack defenses.  Obviously some overall tendencies such as run/pass and down/distance tendencies need to be established for the overall game plan.  I like to also break my opponent down by formation, because for the most part, OC's like to run certain things out of certain sets.  This is where having a plan on what to do vs. 3x1 comes into play.

The first thing I like to do is be sound in alignment, from there, we will look at how to "cheat" players based on what your opponent is doing, and how to disguise your intentions.  For the next installment, we'll look at alignment, and defending the "common" run game out of the 3x1.  Stay tuned!

Man...I think they're on to us...