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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Why you can't just play "assignment football" against the flexbone/triple-option

The Navy blog "The Birddog" has a great post breaking down elements of Paul Johnson's flexbone offense. The videos he culls exhibit something I've tried to explain about defending Johnson's offense: you can't just play "assignment football." That term gets thrown around by announcers a lot, with the implication being that all you have to do is "assign" one guy to the dive back, one to the quarterback, and one to the pitch back. The problem is that Johnson will figure out your assignments and change his blocking schemes accordingly. For example, compare the two videos below, again, both courtesy of The Birddog.

Okay, so the safety ends up making the tackle on the pitch back, while the cornerback forced the pitch by taking on the quarterback. Johnson saw that, and on the very next play, called the same play to the other side, but with one important difference: the near slotback blocked the safety -- i.e. the guy responsible for the pitch back. So who now has the pitch back? Let's find out:

Answer: No one. That Paul Johnson, he's crafty. This is basically what happened when those Georgia Tech teams put it together last season and whupped up on teams. Indeed, his offense had a rather high degree of variance, considering that in some games against weak opponents it did little but in others, including against Miami and Georgia, the second half was defensive armageddon. I think the Miami game in particular was an example of a defense that had a plan for the flexbone going into the game, a decent one, but Johnson figured it out about halfway through and Miami lacked the ever important counter-to-his-counter. And once Johnson started messing with UM's defensive assignments, the defense got stretched out, and then plays like these happened:

(Ht Dr Saturday.) I will have more to say about Johnson's flexbone before the season begins, including some thoughts on defending it.(Preview question: how do you deal with the flexbone's triple scheme -- which can easily outflank the defense to one side of the field -- with the flexbone's immediate pre-snap threat of four-verticals? Keep in mind that adding another defender to the box tends to force you into a single-safety defense, which is precisely what four verticals is designed for. More on this later.)

But for now, savor last season's mutlifarious brilliance of option football writ BCS. The flexbone-triple:

End note: As a final bonus, it appears the good people at EA Sports have added more passing to the flexbone. In the video below, the old run and shoot "choice" route is shown. (Ht EDSBS.)

I'd like to think they got this from me, but all of us like to tout our self-importance, no?


Winfield Featherston said...

I love this post.

Razzle Dazzle said...

Watching the UGA/MIA clips just got me even more excited for Tech football! Can't get here soon enough!

MeatyBob said...

Yes, that is a great post. Funny how important a great blocking tight end is to the triple option.

Anonymous said...

Chris, as an avid NCAA/Madden Football player, I think they took a lot of your stuff and put it in the playbooks last year.

Every team is running Mesh, FL Drive, and other concepts that have made it on your site. You're not a game developer are you??

Brad said...

Isn't one of the keys against the triple option to pursue a "mixed strategy" similar to one that you have spoken about in the past refering to run pass defense.

The key is to play "assignment football" in that you always have a guy assigned to each man QB, Dive, pitch but who those guys are changes. One play the safety in on the pitch the next the LB etc.

Brad said...

Another question.

Why on earth is is Geogia covering the covered up wide end that can't go out for a pass?

I have seen Paul J run that formation over and over going back to his Navy days and I just don't get why the defense covers that guy. He is not a passing threat unless the offense shifts in which case the defense can shift as well to cover him. And if they do shift they can only run the option one way.

What am I missing?

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I love how T.I. is hanging out on the sidelines in his gold coat and gives Dwyer a high five at the 0:41 mark in that first Miami video.

Matt Waters said...


A couple of reasons if I understand correctly. One, the receiver can shift and become eligible. Two, leaving the ineligible receiver alone to cover another area of the field leaves the defense vulnerable to a numbers mismatch since the offense will have one more blocker than defender.

It's just that the UGA guy was dumb enough to cover him.

Anonymous said...

The reason you have to cover the ineligible man is because if you don’t the will move SB up and pull the ineligible receiver off the ball at the last second.

Anonymous said...

Great write up.

I've tried to explain the reasons for success in the Flexbone for a while, and the videos certainly support the comments!

PJ is a magician!

Beat Army.

Scott said...

Chris -

What did LSU do in the Peach Bowl that appeared substantially different from Tech's other opponents later in the season? My brief recollection was that they were able to dominate the LOS with the front 4 and thus Johnson's second level blocking schemes were irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

Against the following:

LSU 40 carries, 164 yards, 4.1 ypc
BC 40,162,4.1
UVA 41,156,3.8
Gardner-Webb!!! 47,79,1.7

The question isnt what LSU did special, it is what did G-W do? :)

Okay, the answer there is "play only against the 3rd and 4th string QBs".

BC and UVA did as good a job as LSU shutting down the GT run game, and better against the pass. LSU was a blowout due to special teams, while UVA was a close loss and BC was a close win for GT.

Brad Luthman said...

I believe though Chris that the beginning of your article may be flawed. You contribute the success of the second clip as compared to the first clip to the brilliance of Paul Johnson changing the blocking assignments (mainly that GT blocked the force/pitch support football player), however what you fail to point out in the second clip is that the SAM backer to the field side ends up getting blocked by no one, and makes a rather poor play assignment wise. He gets caught up in the wash instead of playing where he should.

This being said, I am still a fan of anything contrarian. So I do enjoy the Flexbone on Saturday afternoons...

Mr.Murder said...

Miami it so an end is screaming right for the mesh point and see how long the offense can try the pitch under that kind of pressure.

Invert the safety so he has pitch and corner can read the wing's release. Safety rolls down uncounted end collapses on the FB when he steps with the down block.

Option teams go by a rule when in doubt, depending on who runs best, for the give, pitch or keeper. Take away the best one every down and the best of the other two for a given situation. Now the odds are back your way.

Stan said...

The need to change assignments on defense vs. triple option was understood 3 decades ago. Remember that the original wishbone left the playside DT and DE unblocked and allowed the off linemen to wear out the LBs. That only works for the offense, if the defense is dumb enough to stay at home in its base defense.

When Watson Brown was at Vandy in 87, they used to throw playaction out of the wishbone with 2 WRs. WR would read the CB/S to see which had pitch man when backfield action showed option, then slant or break out to the open area.

If secondary went man coverage and tried to use the safety on the pitch, they'd run triple option and the WR would slant and block S. Since CB was running with him inside on coverage, pitch man was off to the races.

Markus said...

Georgia Tech: 20 lost fumbles in 2008 over 13 games.

Not too shabby considering so many risky exchanges.

Chris said...

I will have more to add later, but one basic note: It's not that hard for PJ to adjust his blocking schemes. (This is something that wishbone/flexbone teams have done since they have existed. It was a big part of those old Oklahoma teams' offenses.) From early on they learn basic "calls" which can adjust the basic blocking of that slot-man/tight-end type, along with others. One call can send him to the DB, another to the inside backer, outside backer, etc. He can swap with the wide-receiver (i.e. the WR could crack on a linebacker while the slot blocks the safety and the QB options off the cornerback, etc.) Lots of variations and they begin learning these calls early on.

Second, Brad Luthman, the fact that Johnson switched the blocking schemes and then the outside linebacker for Georgia just ended up being worthless on the play is sort of the point. Now it would have been more dramatic had he actually done his job and then forced the quarterback to option off of him, but that's one of the effects of Johnson switching the schemes. If he realized that he was in effect "doubling up" on watching for the dive back (Dwyer), then Johnson switched his blocking to take advantage of that. Maybe he made a poor play but that's part of the strategy. It's not different than in the NFL when they say they are looking for "matchups" for the TE or WR or whatever. You want to isolate or force the D to rely on someone inferior, either by athleticism or smarts or instincts. Johnson did that on that play.

Ted Seay said...

Chris: The clip of the GT QB keep off of midline action is a thing of beauty -- and it's enlightening to see the Miami 4-3, created to dismantle the wishbone, struggling so hard against the flexbone.

(Of course, personnel ain't what it used to be at The U, either...)

Brad Luthman said...

Nah, what I'm saying Chris is that maybe it wasn't some great play call but rather just a good bit of luck that the sam didn't key well that play, and we are just over analyzing it and wanting to attribute the success to the coach. I guess just using two play cutups is a little subjective when trying to decipher Johnson's play calling.

In the same isn't that what you talk about in your Edgar Allen Poe and Play calling and how it is possible that to some degree random play calling would be just as effective as "planned play calling"...

NDalum said...


If I remember correctly from an ND/Navy game a couple of years ago, there was at least one player intentionally left unblocked because the offense knew he would be in no-man's land. It was infuriating to us because it always seemed like the ball went right by that player and if he had just done one thing differently he could have made a play. I think this is by design and that it's not a simple matter of making the right read at that point. I also know from reading the Navy blog that certain players are unable to make a play because no matter what they do the offense does the opposite. Also by design. So I see your point but feel that perhaps you're supposed to think that way. It's all mind games, haha.

Another idea is that the player you refer to was perhaps assigned the dive guy knowing that his safety was responsible for the pitch man. If the ball gets strung out he knows he'll get blocked. Then, when he doesn't get blocked he realizes too late that he could have made a play. I dunno, just guessing here. I do know that this offense is extremely difficult to defend even though it is painfully simple (Johnson only has about 8 plays that he uses, and doesn't even bother with a play call sheet).