We all saw the play. The play that will forever live in College Football lore. Six seconds remained on the clock in the 2017 National Championship Game and the fate of two very good football teams hung in the balance. Clemson rolled right into a Trey set with a strong back alignment and ran another pick route combination against Alabama's man-to-man defense and Hunter Renfro, the game's smallest star on the biggest stage, made an easy catch near the front pylon of the endzone to forever seal history, as well as Alabama's fate. However, was it really what Clemson did, or what Alabama failed to do. Now, I know what you're saying, "Duece, if you know so much, then why the hell aren't you on Nick Saban's staff?". I get it, and yes in some ways you're right. Second guessing, or playing the armchair quarterback (QB) is easy. Yet in this case, it's so easy, anyone could see what was wrong with Alabama's defense schematically, and it had even been shown to them earlier in the game. It game with 14 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, when Mike Williams caught a four yard touchdown (TD) pass from Deshaun Watson. The formation was different, as was the play (somewhat), but the results were similar. Below is a recreation of the TD pass to Renfro followed by the variation used to get Mike Williams into the endzone.
Yes, different plays, but the same results, and the same methodology to get guys open. "Pick", or "rub" routes have been around in football since Moby Dick was a minnow (i.e. a long time). These pick routes take advantage of over aggressive defenses that employ tight man-to-man coverage. Out in the open field they are not as deadly as they are down inside the goalline and the reason is, sheer spacing. Out in the open field a defender can recover and a five yard gain by the wide receiver (WR) isn't really that devastating a blow to the defense. However, do that on the two yard line, and you have serious issues. Really, inside the ten yard line, the defender is put at a severe disadvantage to the offensive player in that even though he may recover, the yardage he's giving up is just that much more precious once in this area of the field.
What really surprises me, is that Alabama Defensive Coordinator (DC) Jeremy Pruitt didn't adjust from his first mistake. The first route combination that Clemson ran was a version of Smash, just reduced in route stem due to location on the field. The other item of interest was that the outside receiver stemmed inside, in order to pick the defender, on his hitch route. Mike Williams did not stem vertical, yet widened, in order to bring the defender assigned to cover him, into the stem of the outside receiver. This created a natural "pick" or rub, that allowed Williams to come free into the corner of the endzone for an easy touchdown.
The final play, was a bit different, in that it was run into sprintout action instead of drop back. It was also run into a Trey set, that featured both outside WR's off the line of scrimmage (LOS). The route combination was also a bit different, yet featured the underlying theme of a "pick" route. The combination is known to many as slant/arrow, and while Clemson's slant, looked more like a crack block, it was effective nonetheless in fooling the officials that a route was being run instead of a block being thrown. Again, the outside receiver drives into the defender aligned inside of him, in order to create space for the inside receiver. Both receiver drive off and attempt to get both Alabama defensive backs (DB's) on the same plane (this makes the pick or rub more effective). The safety inside did a good job of cushioning back, while the corner on the outside actually is the one that gets run into by the outside WR. However, the number one receiver creates enough of a "hump", that Tony Brown has to run over in order to keep up with Renfro, that he simply cannot make up the ground to cover the route. The other thing is with Watson rolling to that side, it reduced the length of the throw and added the impact of perhaps Watson being able to tuck the ball and easily run for the score. All-in-all the two plays were drawn up and executed very well by Clemson.
Now, when I say Pruitt made a mistake, I honestly believe that. Number one, I'm not a huge fan of playing man on the goalline for two major reasons. First the obvious reason that I've written about above. In my opinion, there's not enough space to play man down in that end of the field. The DB is always at a disadvantage, even if they press. The reason is, the WR has a two way go almost automatically down here, because the DB doesn't have time to catch up. Inside the ten yard line things happen almost too quickly for defenders to react. So, with the sped up throws down here, that means the pass rush can be largely ineffective, which leads to un-harassed QB's that easily set their feet and make easy throws.
The second reason I don't like man on the goalline, especially against a QB that can pull it down and run it like Watson from Clemson, is that not all 11 eyes are on the ball. When you're facing a QB who is a threat to run, you need as many eyes on him as possible. I'm not saying you cannot play man-to-man against running QB's, but it's best to have a plan where you can get eyes on him, and keep him contained. Going all-out Cover Zero man, in my opinion, does not do this.
Last, I was actually burned by something very similar early on in my coaching career. It was in a district game, that was against a very big rival. We had beaten this rival the year before, and NEVER in the 38 years these schools had played had the school I was coaching for beaten them in back-to-back seasons. We had them on the ropes early in a 21-6 game, but they roared back on big plays, due in part, to the legs of a scrambling QB. Being young, I cared nothing about playing zone on the goalline and so when the opponent got inside the ten yard line, we manned up. All game long they had converted third downs at will with the bootleg. The opponent's QB was a lefty, and they were rolling him out to the left every time. They liked to run what I call "Ace Double Pro" (seen below) and the route combos they ran off the boot is shown below. We were struggling with keeping him contained as he was such a good athlete. By the time the game ended in a 24-24 tie, he had racked up over 100 yards rushing on us, mainly on scrambles. Anyhow, we get into overtime and we have the ball first and score, but they block our extra point (you know where this is going don't you). So they get the ball, and we have them at fourth and goal from the seven. I decided to bring the OLB off the edge from the QB's right side. This was also from the field, I just knew they were going to boot him out and give him the run/pass option like they had so many times that evening. We had run this blitz on their last drive of the game and sacked him for a five yard loss. Well, low-and-behold. they booted alright, but it was a boot keeper, in the direction of the fake. They even ran the routes, like they were booting to the offense's left, but instead of the QB rolling to his left with them, he followed his running back (RB), into the endzone for a TD. They made the extra point and the rest is history. Now, one reason this worked, was of course, it was a brilliant play call (hell, it could've been improvised for all I know), but we didn't have enough people on that side of the football to stop the QB keeper because we were in man. He ran off both my corner and my safety (they even had the tight end that dragged chip my OLB) because they were chasing routes. After that a guy we had on staff, who was a very good coach came up to me and explained to me about the goalline mirrored zone he'd run at a few schools prior to his stop with us. So, after the long awaited build-up, here's what we installed with great success after man-to-man cost us that game.
The Basics-AlignmentThe basic concept for the mirrored zone lies in what formations you are defending based on personnel groupings. For me, I based out of the 4-2 or the 4-3, but the concept is the same regardless of the defense. The examples here are from the 4-3.
Since we are in the short end of the field, typically I used to let the amount of tight ends (TE's) dictate the alignment. Since most of us see a lot of spread offenses, and many of which will even choose to stay in the spread, I'll start with 10 personnel. With no TE's in the game, the defense will align with four down linemen in our traditional "Gap 4" concept. Gap 4 is basically two 2I techniques and two 5 techniques. The defensive line (DL) will align this way when in the goalline package. The linebackers will take their traditional alignments with the Mike being in a 00, and the outside linebackers being in wide 50 techniques. Assuming a two-by-two set, the safeties will align in hard inside leverage on the number two receivers and the corners will shade the outside receivers ever so slightly. If the offense utilizes a three-by-one concept, then the defense simply slides over to adjust with the extra receiver.
If the offense chooses to add a TE to the mix, whether it be 11 personnel, or 21 personnel this doesn't change the alignment. Now, the LB to the TE side will walk up and play a nine technique. The remaining LB's slide to the walked up OLB and play a modified version of the Under Front. The safety to the open side, if he has a receiver, treats it like a standard two-by-two set (see above). If it's an open set, the the safety must align in a manner to take away both the slant, and set the edge of the defense. The safety to the TE side of the formation must also take this same alignment.
If the offense adds another TE to the alignment, choosing to use 12, or 22 personnel, then both the outside linebackers will walk up on the LOS in nine techniques. If the number two receiver is the second TE, then the MLB will align in a 00 technique over the center with both safeties treating their respective sides like that of a pro set (see above). If the number two receiver is in the backfield then the safety will align in the first open gap as a LB.
|Mirrored zone vs 22 personnel|
|Mirrored zone vs 12 personnel|
Against three back sets, no matter the amount of TE's, both outside linebackers will walk up on the LOS. Both corners will base their alignment on the that of the number one receiver. The safeties will align in the box with outside leverage on the number two receivers (running backs) to their respective side, or align stacked behind the defensive end if there is no definitive number two receiver.
The Basics- AssignmentsSince we are talking coverage, I won't elaborate on the DL in this article. The mirrored zones are divided up as shown below. The term mirrored is not something that is cliche or "catchy" either. Defenders are to mirror the eyes of the QB on passing downs. Here is a breakdown of each positions assignment within the mirrored zone system.
|The mirrored zones of each defender|
CornersCorners are to do what their name says. They are to protect the corner of the endzone to their respective sides. They are to play the corner aggressively and passively rally to any inside throws. When coaching the corners, have them be conscious of the fade and post corner routes. Corners have secondary contain in the run game.
SafetiesAgainst the run, or if the QB boots to their side, the safeties are responsible for the QB on boot. The only time this isn't true is when the safety is aligned inside of an outside linebacker. The safety and outside linebacker to each side must communicate who is force. Against the pass, the safeties have their mirrored zone. They will eye the QB, reroute any vertical stems by a receiver they are aligned over (if this receiver is detached) and will look to break on any inside cut by the number one receiver. Should the QB boot at any time when the safety is force, he is to yell boot and contain the QB. Making this call alerts the other defenders to slide their zones in the direction of the QB's boot.
Outside LinebackersThe outside linebackers have a mixed role when it comes to what they are asked to do in the mirrored zone defense. If the outside linebacker is off the ball, then they are automatically a part of the coverage. Their zones, begin inside the safeties' zones and extend to the edge of their alignment. The assignment is similar to that of the safeties, but the inside cuts they look to protect are made by the number two receiver. If a safety's alignment puts him inside that of an outside linebacker's, then the OLB must become the force/contain player. This call is communicated from the safety to the linebacker and now the linebacker has no pass responsibility.
Middle LinebackerThe MLB, will adjust based on the alignment of the outside linebackers. If both are off the ball, or both are on the ball, then the MLB will align in a 00 alignment over the center. If one LB walks up on the ball, or leaves their traditional 50 technique alignment, then the MLB will move over in the direction of the OLB that moved (either up or out) to the first open gap he comes to. The MLB's zone is the middle of all the zones created, and he is to protect for the QB draw.
Situational Analysis-How would this have helped Alabama?Clemson had already shown that it was willing to run rub routes in the endzone to get their guys open. This was evidenced on the Mike Williams TD catch prior to the Renfro TD. Alabama is caught playing man-to-man (m2m) coverage in both situations. The latter one, even looked as though they might even be trying to play some sort of banjo technique, but you can see on the snap, the defender's eyes immediately fixate on their respective receivers. In the mirrored zone, receivers are only looked at to line up on, not to relate to. Since the defense is at an advantage because it's working with condensed space, the defender's eyes must be on their main key, the QB. If the QB takes the ball off the LOS in an attempt to pass, the defender will relate to the QB's front shoulder, and his eyes. The QB cannot throw the ball where he's not looking, and where is front shoulder is not pointed. Therefore, as the QB drops and his eyes scan, the coverage players, will react to the eyes first, and has the arm cocks to throw, will react to the turn of the shoulders. If the QB's shoulders stay looking down the middle of the field, the defenders have no need to move from the presnap alignment. They simply wait to break on the ball. If the QB turns, to throw the ball more outside, then the zone defenders will begin a lateral shuffle in the direction of the upfield shoulder of the QB. To the side the QB is throwing to, this will put defenders into throwing windows and away from this shoulder, it will keep defenders in a position to rally to the ball, but also be there if the QB reverse rolls back away to scramble. If at any time the QB boots, the force/contain player must alert the defense to the boot, and attack the QB outside-in immediately. Any hesitation allows for receivers to get open, and the QB to make an unimpeded throw. As the QB boots out, the remaining defenders will turn and work to the middle of the next zone in the direction of the boot.
An example of defending the boot is shown below. The weak side safety sees the boot, alerts the defense and attacks the QB now! The corner, to the side the boot is on, protects the corner of the endzone. He can squeeze this route, but must always play it with outside leverage. The LB's will hear the boot call, and sprint to work to the middle of the next zone in the direction of the boot call. The safety opposite of the boot call works in much the same way as the other LB's. The backside corner squeezes the dig route, keeping outside leverage at all times and thinking "throw back".
|Mirrored zone vs the bootleg|
Back to the final play of the National Championship Game (NCG). When the ball is snapped, the outside receiver drives off into the defender. This is because the defender is up in a press technique. Corners in the mirrored zone never press, they always play off, even if the ball is on the one yard line. Inside zone defenders will align with their heels on the goalline once the ball travels inside the five yard line, but they never press. Renfro's catch was from the two yard line. The corner in the mirrored zone would've been at least five yards off the ball in this case, with the safety to the inside having his heels at the goalline. As the number one receiver drives off looking to pick the inside DB, this leaves the corner standing there with both the ball and the receiver coming to him. It is much easier to defend and out cut from outside-in than inside-out because everything is coming to you instead of away from you. Even though the corner is taught to protect the corner of the endzone, they are football players and are taught to break on the ball as well. At the very least the throw would've been much more contested than if the defense were in m2m.
Another key to note here is that Clemson sprinted into this scenario, whereas on the earlier Mike Williams TD pass they dropped back. Now, the play was pretty quick, but here's where the goalline zone really wins in this situation. The corner is basically sitting and waiting for the ball to come to him. Upon seeing the QB roll to him, the safety to the side of the sprintout would immediately attack, leaving a receiver looking to set a pick with nowhere to go. I know what you're thinking, but no, the outside receiver would not be open because the linebacker would've sprinted over to replace the safety. Now, the QB has a hot defender coming off his outside. Clemson utilized turn back protection so this would mean the running back had to make a choice, either block the DE, or block the blitzer, either way the defense has a two-for-one scenario here. I know he who has the chalk last always wins, but let's be honest, what defense would you have rather been in?
|Mirrored zone vs Clemson's final play|