The Unrepentant Individual

...just hanging around until Dec 21, 2012

January 10, 2006

The Spread Option: Next Big Thing in College Football?

In the past, I’ve discussed some of the changes taking place over the years of the role of the quarterback in football. In that discussion, I talked quite a bit about how the interplay between offense and defense has changed the entire style of the game, and how it is a constant battle between the two.

In college football, about 15-20 years ago, the option offense basically disappeared from most programs. The option is called such because there is in essence, one basic play called, but based on the decision of the quarterback, the play can develop along several different “options”. For a short description of how it works, the offense lines up in a normal set, the quarterback takes the snap, and starts down the line as in a quarterback sweep. At the same time, the running back is running the same direction, a few yard farther behind the quarterback (but ahead of him laterally), waiting for the quarterback to pitch him the ball. The quarterback has a decision to make based upon the defensive end. The defensive end can choose to move to tackle the QB or float out to be ready to tackle the running back, but he can’t do both. So if the defensive end comes after the QB, the QB pitches to the running back, who now has open field to run. If the defensive back moves to cover the running back, the QB keeps the ball and turns upfield for a several yard gain.

The basic goal of any offensive scheme is to neutralize advantages inherent in a defense. Because typically only a few offensive players on a team will ever recieve the ball, yet all defenders tackle, it is necessary to beat defenses in a numbers game in which they hold a distinct advantage. The goal for any offense is to get a ball-carrier or receiver into one-on-one matchups, forcing a defender to react to the actions of your offensive player, a situation in which they can make mistakes allowing big plays. Defenses are based on assignments, of finding a specific area of the field that is their responsibility to defend. Against running plays, a defensive end’s job is to be the “contain” man on plays heading outside, forcing plays inside where the rest of the defense is waiting. Brian Urlacher, linebacker in the Chicago Bears very formidable defense, said recently in an interview that the strength of the defense is that everyone knows and executes their assignment. Essentially, defenders know where to be to stop plays, and as long as they make it to their assignment, they will either stop the play or disrupt it enough to allow other defenders to support them.

The option forces the defenders not to perform their assignment, but to make decisions. This puts them at a disadvantage, because whatever decision the defensive end makes defending the option will be the wrong one. Whichever player he defends, if the quarterback reads him correctly, won’t end up with the ball. For a very long time, the option was prominent in college football. But no longer. The speed and talent of defenders has ensured that they can beat the option. If the defensive end defends the quarterback, the outside linebacker will move into position to defend the running back. If the defensive end defends the running back, the outside linebacker will plug the hole the quarterback intends to run through, stopping the play for no gain.

College offenses left the option, and soon started running the spread offense (sometimes called the West Coast Offense). The idea of the spread offense is that with the speed of defenders, your optimal strategy for beating defenses is to move those defenders far away from each other. When you run a spread offense, you’ll commonly have anywhere from 3-5 receivers across the entire width of the field. You get one-on-one matchups, and those matchups are commonly between a wide receiver vs. a linebacker or safety, which heavily favor the wide receiver. In addition, if you run the ball from the spread, the linebackers and defensive backs sitting back for pass support are farther away from the play, giving you a greater chance to make good yardage.

The spread offense is a good offense, but it has a problem. It requires players to execute nearly flawlessly to be able to beat a defense. First, the offensive line is crucial. On many pass plays, you will only have 5 blockers, and if the offensive line breaks down, it makes for an easy sack. Second, the quarterback needs to be exceptional at reading defenses and reading his progressions. The offenses’ best receivers will still be usually covered by cornerbacks (the defense’s best players at pass coverage), and the quarterback needs to quickly read which receiver is open and get him the ball quickly and accurately. Third, if you’re unable to establish the run, the defense can keep linebackers back in pass coverage to ensure there is nobody to throw the ball to. Last, the spread is based upon high-percentage short passes and yards gained after the catch. It is easy to end up in 3rd-down and long situations which hamper your playcalling ability, and thus very easy for drives to be stalled. The spread, just as it is starting to gain widespread acceptance, is starting to look more and more like the Run & Shoot looked in the pros: a good offense against weaker competition, but not capable enough to be dominant when it counts.

So we’ve started to see a resurgence of the option. Not the standard option, mind you, because that is an offense that has been shown in past years to be unable work in modern times. Defenses are simply too fast. Now, however, the spread-option has started to come into favor. Mainly developed by Urban Meyer, former coach of the Utah Ute’s and current coach of the Florida Gators, and has been picked up as the primary offense for the Purdue Boilermakers. At the same time, I’ve seen it used somewhat by the Ohio State Buckeyes and the West Virginia Mountaineers. The spread option is based upon the same principles as the standard option, but utilizes the spread formations found in the spread offense.

The downfall of the option run from a tight formation is that you have fast defenders in the middle of the field, with the speed to beat your running back to the corner and stop the play before it develops. One of the downfalls of the spread formation is that the run threat can be less effective, because you’re relying on a small number of blockers to open a hole for your running back. The spread option attempts to develop a running game strong enough to slow down the pass rush and force linebackers to defend the run, which then makes the spread passing game more effective.

When you spread the field, have the cornerbacks, safeties, and a linebacker or two worried about a passing play, because you have 3-4 receivers spread wide. If your quarterback runs option, you now have 5 blocking offensive linemen on maybe 3 defensive lineman and 2 LB’s. You don’t block the defensive end, as he’s the guy you’re forcing to make a decision. He has to account for either the running back or the quarterback, and if you run the option correctly, whoever he bites on won’t get the ball.

With the field spread, you’re creating a difficult matchup for the defensive end, and the people who would normally be in position to give him help (linebackers and defensive backs) are spread too far from the point of attack to stop the play. All the speed at linebacker doesn’t matter if they’re still worried about defending the pass. The defensive end makes his decision, and either the quarterback takes the ball inside the defensive end for 5 easy yards, or he pitches the ball to the running back in the open field, who can break a big play.

The triple option is similar. In the triple option, you have an additional running back that starts by making a dive towards the interior of the line. Again, the decision is dependent on what the defensive end does. If the defensive end, who you don’t block, stays put, waiting to defend the outside play, hand the ball off to the dive back and have 5-6 offensive linemen blocking 3 defensive linemen and 2 linebackers, giving the running back a good chance to make some strong yards. If the defensive end goes inside to defend the dive, you don’t hand the ball off to the dive back; and your quarterback and running back have the entire side of the field open to run the option normally, giving you a good chance at a big play.

This is made even more difficult to defend with the addition of the spread-option-pass. The spread-option pass, much like a standard play-action pass in football, is when you show the defense the option (a running play), but the quarterback pulls back and passes the ball. When you are known for showing option, pulling back from it and passing, you freeze the linebackers and defensive backs that have to support the defensive end in run defense, making the option more effective when you actually run option instead of passing.

The spread option is a whole new wrinkle on college football, and is effective if you have the following:

1. A quarterback with decent mobility who consistently reads the defensive players properly and makes the right decisions.
2. An elusive running back, able to make plays in the open field.
3. The ability to mix the pass in often enough to keep linebackers and defensive backs from leaving their pass coverage assignments to defend the run.

In football, the offense has the advantage of initiative, but usually the disadvantage of numbers and angles. To succeed, an offense has to not only execute plays well, but plays need to be designed to force defenses into making mistakes. The option is excellent at forcing defenses to make decisions, and once decisions are required, mistakes are inevitable. It is also designed so that when defended properly, it will still result in some positive yardage. The balance had swung to the defense, in that defenses were able to stop the option, not giving up yardage even when making slight mistakes in their defense. The spread changes that balance, by punishing those defenses for their mistakes, and slowing them down just enough when defending it well to gain positive yardage.

It remains to be seen what will occur next, and just how far the spread option will pervade college football. If a few teams become successful running the spread option attack, defenses will need to develop new schemes to defend it, and it is unclear how they can successfully defend both the spread and the option simultaneously. Combining the advantages of the spread and the option gets offenses what they’re looking for: one-on-one matchups in both the run and the pass. All it then takes is decent execution, and you’re going to put up yards and points. For defenses to stop this attack, they need to recruit exceptional athletes capable of beating offensive players in one-on-one matchups, or they need to find entirely new defensive schemes. Since it’s nearly impossible to recruit that many phenomenal athletes on any one team in college football, it’s going to come down to coaching and schemes. For those of us who appreciated the strategic intricacies of football in general, it will be quite interesting to see how this one plays out.

Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 8:15 pm || Permalink || Comments (1) || Trackback URL || Categories: Uncategorized

1 Comment

  1. And NONE of this works, without excellent tackles, guards, and center.

    I played three years of ball in europe (Dublin Rebels – All Ireland and UK champion three years , all european Charleroi tropy winner three years), and in that time, as an excellent (for that league – and the biggest tackle in the league at 6′2″ and 325-345lbs) tackle I broke defensive plays and opened offensive plays (along with my guards and center) as my stock in trade. Kill the linebackers, kill the d-ends, stop the penetration, force the play up five yards.

    My most frequent error? I would move my defenders back a step too far and get called for ineligible downfield (and no, I wasnt leaving holes in protection; the center and guard would pull and sweep back to protect the pocket in a pass or to wedge the D line and short screen for the rush with backs and ends coming in as forward and side blockers)

    As usual, the analysis of how the ball moves is spot on, but again as usual (with almost all footbal commentators), there is almost no reference to what allows those plays to occur at all; how the play gets protected, and the defense get’s broken.

    To my mind the offensive tackle is the most underappreciated position in the game; and not just because I was one. You can see it in the offensive performance of teams when their starting tackles are injured (which if frequently, the tackle is among the most injured player in the game. They also tend to have the shortest pro careers). A major hole in the O line completely throws off the rhythm of the offense as a whole, and the QB in particular.

    Comment by Chris Byrne — January 11, 2006 @ 6:38 pm

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