Despite the dominance of the quarterback, rushing is still alive and well in football. Teams need to power their way through short yardage sometimes, and other times they need a wrinkle to gain yardage when the passing attack isn’t working. Ted Nguyen displays the evolution of the counter trey from the Pittsburgh Steelers basic attack to some option and a fly motion offense that implements the play to great effect.
The counter trey is a perfect marriage of deception and physicality. The down blocks on the playside move downhill and hit hard, while a fake in the backfield freezes the defense enough to allow two pulling linemen to charge the playside like cavalry to wipe out the defensive front for the runner. Nearly every team runs some variation of the play. Whether they run it under center or from the shotgun, what type of window dressing or option they want to add is determined by the personnel and personality of the team. The play was popularized by Joe Gibbs and his Washington teams of the 80s, but since then the play has evolved and been weaponized in high-octane spread offenses.
Before getting to the spread version of the counter trey, we have to understand the basics of the play. The offensive linemen on the frontside down block to create a wall, while two blockers from the backside pull to the frontside. The backside guard always pulls and is responsible for kicking out the playside contain player, while either the backside tackle or a back will pull and then lead into the hole for the running back.
This concept, simple as it may be, allows itself for many variations and has been shown to be particularly adaptable to the wrinkles of modern offenses. To see how, we start with the basics and see how it’s uses have expanded and evolved.
- Traditional Under-Center Counter Trey
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The Steelers have a long tradition of being a smash-mouth team, so it should come as no surprise that they are one of the best teams at running counter trey the old fashioned way: under center without much window dressing. The slight deception comes from the running back taking a couple of steps the opposite direction of the play – to hold the backside of the defense – before cutting back to the frontside of the play. It also helps having a back as patient as Le’Veon Bell. In this clip, Bell sets up his blocks, accelerates with great timing, and runs for a touchdown.
2. QB Counter Trey
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The fun part about installing traditional run plays into the spread offense are the countless variations that can be created. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and his offense are leading the pack when it comes to finding unique ways of running counter trey. In this example, they are just running counter trey with their quarterback and using their RB as the lead blocker. By doing this, they don’t have to bring a tight end or H-back in the box. As a result, the defense is spread out by alignment and only have a five-man box. The defensive line attempts to stunt to the playside but the left tackle does a great job of down blocking, which allows the pullers to get to the second and third levels, creating a huge gain.
- Counter Trey Option
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Legendary head coach Tom Osborne is credited for creating the counter trey and, while his best offenses at Nebraska were triple-option teams, his version of the counter trey did not feature any options. I imagine he is proud to see his brainchild being combined with option football in today’s modern offenses. Defenses are simply unable to choose the correct option to attack provided the quarterback responds by making the right choice. Ohio State is one of the first teams that I saw start using the QB counter trey/RB sweep option. Instead of the running back taking a couple of steps toward the opposite direction, the running back runs a path outside in the opposite direction of the play. The quarterback reads the end on the backside of the play. If the end crashes the playside, he would lose contain to his side, so the QB would give the ball to the RB and let him out flank the defense. Usually this action will be enough to freeze the defensive end and allow the quarterback to keep the ball and run the counter trey himself.
In this clip, QB Braxton Miller, sees that the defensive end freezes for a moment and keeps the ball. The pulling guard and H-back do a good job of adjusting to the defense and essentially switch assignments. Miller follows the blocks and accelerates down hill for a long touchdown.
- Run/Pass Option Counter Trey
Another way of adding an option to the counter trey is to tag a pass concept onto it. Personally, I’m not a big fan of tagging dropback concepts with man-blocking concepts because of the lack of protection for the quarterback. Indeed, Jon Gruden himself called RPOs the “ridiculous protection offense” in his QB Camp with the 2016 No. 1 pick, Jared Goff. In the episode, he showed clip after clip of Goff getting demolished by defensive linemen because California’s offense mainly featured five-step concepts with man-blocking schemes. On the other hand, combining man-blocking run schemes with quick passes or bubble screens is a great way of ensuring defenses do not load the box.
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The Clemson offense is in 11 personnel with an H-back and RB in the backfield and twins to the right. Before the snap the RB travel motions toward the twin receivers for a three-man bubble screen. QB Deshaun Watson sees the inside linebacker leave the box with the RB and he decides to keep the ball on the counter trey. The defense is again left with a five-man box and Watson follows his blocks to get an easy first down.The counter trey is hard enough to defend with a loaded box, but when offenses like Clemson find ways to gain the numbers advantage, the play is nearly impossible to stop.
- Fly Motion Counter Trey
Running counter treys out of spread shotgun formations is nice, but having a mobile quarterback like Watson is key to Clemson’s success. What if you have a quarterback whose speed is closer to an offensive linemen than a running back? Lane Kiffin, the offensive coordinator for Alabama, was faced with this problem when he wanted to add more spread concepts to his offense. He used fly motion to freeze the defenses and complemented the play with a fly sweep.
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The Crimson Tide offense has 11 personnel with an H-back and tailback to the left of the formation. The slot receiver is lined up to the right and fly motions to the right. Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry becomes a lead blocker for the slot and helps out flank the defense to that side for a solid gain.
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This formation is interesting because the slot receiver to the right side is actually covered off and ineligible but the defense doesn’t recognize that and covers the slot anyway. The ineligible receiver to the playside means that the Z receiver on the left of the formation can legally motion and fake the fly. The defense has to respect the fly and the threat of Henry outflanking them to that side as a blocker. Henry takes a step to fake as if he is going to block for the fly and then cuts back to the playside, where his pullers do a great job of executing their blocks. From there, Henry turns on the jets and finishes for the long touchdown.
From Osborne and Gibbs to Swinney and Kiffin, the counter trey has evolved and changed. It is run with multiple options, from different formations, and with different players – and it continues to produce because of the physical and deceptive nature of the play. It is hard hitting because of the downhill nature of the blocks, but deceptive because of the trickery in the backfield. It is an adaptable concept that will be a staple of offensive football as long as the game is still being played in pads and helmets.