As the days dwindle down in the final approach to the most joyous time of the year, many Husker fans are curious about how the Huskers will force defenses to play 11 on 11 football without the added luxury of a mobile QB. Some fans have even gone so far as to suggest that the lack of a fleet-footed signal caller will allow defenses to choke the life out of the Nebraska offense, when coupled with the lack of success upfront in the traditional tailback run game NU has had the past two seasons.
However, there is more than one way to skin a cat, as the expression goes. The real threat that designed QB runs provide an offense with is the dimension of an added gap and an added blocker, disallowing the defense from having two unblocked defenders.
The lack of a designed QB run game does not preclude the 2017 Husker offense from forcing a defense to play 11 on 11. Rather, the lack just requires offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf to implement a few more moving parts to accomplish this; by motioning and formationing defenses to exert leverage and then run what many football purists believe to be something of a four letter word, Run-Pass Options (RPO’s). Before we delve into the nuts and bolts of exerting leverage and running RPO’s, it is imperative to have a conceptual understanding of an RPO. An RPO is two plays, a run and a pass, married together into one play, where the QB reads a conflict defender, typically a linebacker/2nd level player who has to relate to both the run and pass; and taking the football elsewhere based on this Conflict Player’s reaction. For example, last season Nebraska’s most efficient play, the QB Lead Draw was the run action of an RPO, paired with a stick route to the TE from a Trip formation. If the MIKE widened to defend the stick route, Tommy Armstrong would follow the tailback’s lead block and run the Lead Draw. However, if the MIKE did not widen or relate to the stick route, Armstrong would zip a pass to tight ends Cethan Carter or Sam Cotton.
So bereft of a runner like Armstrong QB’ing the Husker offense, where does that leave Nebraska? It leaves the Huskers to replace the QB run game dimension of the RPO with the traditional tailback run game, which we displayed on many occasions last season, both with Armstrong, but more so during the Ryker Fyfe Experience™ against Maryland on November 18th when the threat of the QB run game was drastically minimized. Motions can also be utilized to exert leverage on defenders.
Against Maryland, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf utilized the base Inside Zone (IZ) run play with a bubble screen on the perimeter out of Trips formations. Many times you will see this RPO, IZ-Bubble, ran with the bubble screen on the backside of the play to act in the similar fashion as the traditional zone read. Against Maryland, Langsdorf opted to off-set the tailback away from the Trips in a Far set (Gun Trips Far) and have the bubble screen on the frontside of the play to account for overhang defenders that have run and pass responsibilities on the play.
Against 3x1 sets like Trips, overhang players must align in an apex position between their run fit and their assignment in pass coverage. Typically, the MIKE is responsible for defending the plus B gap against the run, while also relating to the #3 receiver in 3x1 sets. He is not a Cover Down, a player who is solely in pass coverage against the slot in combat RPO’s and pre-snap leverage throws, and has no culpability in maintaining defensive integrity in run fits.
Against Maryland, Nebraska came out in the aforementioned Gun Trips Far with the Trips set to the field a myriad of times, leaving the Nub side set to the boundary. This was done to force the MIKE to cover even more ground in relating to both of his assignments than if Trips was set to the boundary, a drastically condensed area.
As you can see from the diagram, the MIKE is the overhang player attached to the box, while the SAM is completely emancipated from the box, therefore the MIKE is the read-conflict player that the QB is reading much like he would read a backside defensive end on zone read.
On the first series against Maryland, Nebraska ran IZ-Bubble out of this formation to account for the MIKE overhang and force him to declare his intentions on the play. Ultimately, the MIKE hesitated just enough against the run by widening to #3 and Ryker Fyfe simply handed the ball off to Terrell Newby on the IZ portion of the play. It is important to note that the decision to not throw the bubble is a pre-snap decision, as Maryland has four defenders aligned over the trips (4 over 3).
However, taking the MIKE out of the box, even for just a moment’s worth of hesitation, allows the offense to gain a numbers advantage and create an open B gap by exerting pre and post-snap leverage on the MIKE. From an offensive line standpoint, the hesitation from the MIKE allows just enough time for the FSG to help the center secure the first level before coming off of the combo for the late against the run MIKE.
The CB and the Strong Safety switch assignments in a Robber coverage, with the CB capping the top of what they are anticipating is a slant route from the #1 strong, while the Strong Safety looks to undercut, “rob,” the route underneath.
Ultimately, Terrell Newby tried to ‘Bend’ back to the backside A gap, as the backside combo between Tanner Farmer & Cole Conrad washed the DT down to the inside. However, the backside A gap was closed off by Cethan Carter’s backside cutoff block on the DE, leaving Newby to ‘Bounce’ the play back to the strongside.
By forcing the MIKE to relate to the #3 strong, the Husker offense gained a 7 on 5 numbers advantage inside the box, with the OL, TE, and tailback outnumbering the defense at the point of attack.
Later in the second quarter, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf breaks out the same formation on 3rd & 2, but with a fly sweep motion tag to induce defensive movement by motioning the Z receiver, Brandon Reilly. Because a defense needs to defend the formation that is created by the motion and the original motion itself, the Huskers force Maryland to avoid being out-leveraged toward the direction of the motion. This time, Maryland keeps the WILL inside the box, but forces their Nickel Back, the Cover Down defender, aligned over #2 to adjust back towards #3. The CB aligned over DPE also adjusts in accordance to rotating coverage toward the motion, thus exposing the wide flank of the defense to being out-leveraged by the Bubble Screen to Jordan Westerkamp.
Maryland made an adjustment from the last time Nebraska threw this formation at the Terps. This time, Maryland aligns in an ‘interior control’ front, with two 4i (inside shoulder of the offensive tackle) DE’s in order to clog the interior run lanes. It’s all for naught for Maryland, as the coverage rotation toward the motion allows NU to get the edge on the screen; functioning similar to an option or toss sweep that gains the corner and outflanks the defense.
Ah, the Comet series. Anytime I see plays with this flare motion, ‘Push’ or ‘Bounce’ in the nomenclature of coaches around the country*, I think back to the very first Decoding Langsdorf from last September after the huge win against Oregon. Although this time Comet is attached with a slip screen going back the other way, the same metrics apply. If a 2nd level defender adjusts out to the motion, don’t throw the flare route. To simplify it even further, if the conflict defender does anything other than trigger down hard on the run or fail to adjust, don’t throw the route. This time, the SAM aligned over Sam Cotton adjusts to defend the formation created and prevent being out-leveraged on the perimeter, while the MIKE widens after the snap. For those keeping score at home, that’s two defenders that were effectively “blocked” by the Comet action.
The rest of the play unfolds as a standard-issue slip screen. Fyfe does an excellent job of drawing in defenders by holding onto the ball and waiting for the blocking to set up for Tre Bryant, who then scoots for a nice 12 yard gain. I suspect Nebraska will utilize Comet F Slip out of 20 personnel this season to mitigate the loss of the QB run threat and to maximize touches and playing time for the tailbacks.
Against Maryland, Nebraska threw a vast array of formations at Maryland, forcing them to adjust, and then readjust when the Husker offense utilized motion. Doing so allowed the offense to account for defenders without actually blocking them, providing a numbers advantage that afforded a stifled running game some breathing room. Even color commentator Dan Hawkins noted this after Newby’s first touchdown run of the day, marveling at the vast array of formations, concepts, and motions Nebraska had utilized even at that early juncture of the game.
Without the QB run game, I look for Nebraska to utilize formations and motions to manipulate defenses into giving up the numbers advantage, along with RPO’s and packaged concepts; of which the last two are a discussion for another time.