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Decoding Langsdorf: The Formation Chess Match For Nebraska

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The Huskers love to dictate formation to what they want to do on offense, but what happens when it doesn’t work?

Northern Illinois v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Diverging slightly from other editions of Decoding Langsdorf, this week I’ve opted to focus on the chess match of ‘formationing’ a defense into giving the offense a favorable look that allows the Husker offense to out-leverage the defense and exploit their structural weaknesses.

Right out of the gate, the Huskers utilized two tight ends set into the boundary to force a defense to declare their gap integrity pre-snap. On the first drive of the game against Northern Illinois, the Husker offense was particularly interested in finding out how NIU was going to set their front.

This particular interest stems from the fact that most offenses want to run Inside Zone at a 1 technique, to get two double team blocks on the play, rather than at the 3 technique. In the context of the 2017 Husker offense, Nebraska likes to package Inside Zone together with a Bubble screen with 12 personnel (1 back, 2 tight ends) from under center, unlike last year’s packaging of the plays out of 10 (1 back, 0 tight ends) or 11 personnel (1 back, 1 tight end) from the shotgun formation. 12 personnel is used to gain a better understanding of a particular defense’s gap integrity and to exert pressure on defensive structure.

Through the use of a single in-line tight end or an in-line tight end and H-Back aligned in a ‘Brother’ alignment set to the boundary, the defense must set the 3 technique defensive tackle to the run strength or risk getting out-leveraged to the boundary against the run. Conversely, the defense must account for the wide open piece of real estate to the field. In covering the field, the defense has two options: maintain defensive integrity with 2 high safeties and concede underneath throws; or spin into a 1 high safety alignment and cover down on underneath throws like Bubble screens, but become susceptible to downfield throws.

NIU originally elected to defend the ‘Brother’ alignment set into the boundary by setting their front to the boundary with a 2-high alignment. On Nebraska’s first play from scrimmage NIU aligns like this, inviting a throw to JD Spielman on the Bubble screen.

On the second play from scrimmage, the formation strength is set to the field, but NIU keeps their 3 tech set to the boundary. However, the Huskies spin their safeties to cover down on the 3x1 set to the field.

Although the Huskies keep their 3 tech set to the boundary, this defensive alignment invites the Huskers to run to the weakside because there is no secondary fit defender to correct the fit of the primary force defender if the primary force defender, in this case the defensive end, takes a poor angle or is effectively blocked. This weakside Mid-Zone run is trying to take advantage of the over-extension of the NIU defense. The absence of the Bubble screen is noteworthy on this play, but the 3x1 set forced NIU to declare their coverage through pre-snap alignment, rather than post-snap assignment.

On the pick-six heard ‘round the world, Nebraska utilized a TE trade after setting the TE’s to the boundary and seeing that NIU had yes, once again set their front to the boundary as well. Ketter’s trade to the field is to create an extra gap for the defense to defend, further stressing defensive coverage. Although the Inside Zone portion of Inside Zone-Bubble is not ran, I am curious to see if defenses reset their front in the future.

On the play, Shuwan Lurry is pressing Stanley Morgan as a ‘Cloud’ corner in Cover 2 (Cloud denotes the CB as the force player). Because corners have over the top safety help in Cover 2 Lurry makes a break on the ball knowing that he has help over the top in the condensed area of the redzone. Contrary to popular belief, Nebraska had not shown Inside Zone-Bubble out of this EXACT look at any previous point this season. Lurry simple read the width step by DPE and drove on any out-breaking route by the #2 receiver, DPE on the bubble route in this case.

Nebraska’s formationing of NIU is an exercise in formulating a plan for situational football late in games, as it provides offensive coordinators with valuable insight into what a defensive coordinator is most and least likely to concede. On this drive, the Huskers’ offensive coaching staff gleaned some valuable insight, as they learned what would induce over-extension of the NIU defense (3x1 set) to expose a soft edge to the boundary, and what (‘Brother’ TE’s) would constitute setting a hard edge into the boundary.

So there you have it, Nebraska’s tactical maneuvers all the way up to the point that things headed south and became kinda-sorta FUBAR, before making another southward turn after Lee’s second pick-six, making the game plan completely FUBAR.