The Strength in Space
I’ve studied and opined on just about everything, from split field coverage to the value of draft picks. One tenet I’ve maintained throughout my time as a blogger, is that the truth becomes clear as you trim away the ‘fat’, or the inefficiencies in our processes and hypotheses about what makes for success at the varying levels of football. Owners and Athletic Directors gum up the process by buying high on overvalued assets and staff members. General Managers and Recruiting Coordinators can often have eyes bigger than their pocketbooks. Coaches lose themselves trying to replicate the men they admire within the profession, and players plateau by trying to ‘round out’ their skill set to avoid the scrutiny of being a one-trick pony. This is a matter of everyday life, as people read books and replicate philosophies and strategies that were borne of the circumstances in someone else’s life, and discourage their practical skills and potential ingenuity by chasing the shadows and ghosts of present and past success stories.
What I am setting out to do, in a multi-part series on Inside The Pylon, is stepping away from just marveling, defining, and contextualizing the football I watch, and I want to try to captivate you as a reader or fellow blogger by stripping the game to its much simpler philosophies, and through diagramming and showing examples, try to build out a modern offensive attack that does not necessarily seek out to accomplish everything, but to maximize on the elements of the game that widen the margins for possible success.
Know Thy Opponent: Why Run the Spread?
Teams run a spread offense because the “truth” in football can be found in space. In the most straightforward sense, the discrepancies in athleticism are exposed the wider the field of play becomes. In a philosophical and schematic sense, the ability to disguise and change on the fly becomes less tenable when players are out on an island. The openings in coverages and the running lanes are theoretically larger in a spread system.
The average watcher can become familiar with these truths by picking up on simple mathematical tendencies in alignment.
The ultimate necessity of a successful defense works in two interwoven parts, that usually becomes apparent before the ball is ever snapped.
The first half exists in ‘the box’ – a term most everyone has become familiar with by now – which is the space between each end of the offensive line.
For any defense to be sound in the box, it must have a body available to fill every possible gap.
Before I present the defense, if you take a look and count from the outside of one OT to the outside of the other, you’ll count out six gaps for a defensive front to account for in order to create an ‘even’ box.
This is a diagram of said even box. For the purposes of this series, I’ll diagram the offense against an even front unless the video example is against an odd front defense (Think 4-3 vs. 3-4 defenses). For every added TE or Back, the defense would require another body to maintain the neutral (or even) box. Note, an even front and even box are two different things, as an even box simply means the offense and defense have the same number of players aligned there to start the play.
I’ve done some light research on what happens under different box machinations, and the numbers bear out that the bare minimum for a sustainable run defense is to work on your defense from an alignment that allows for an even box. Before the snap, accomplish just this task gives a defense no worse than a 50/50 chance to contain any run play within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage.
The second half of the necessary geometry for a defense happens on the perimeter.
Pass defense, not unlike the box, is predicated on a defenses ability to match numbers, or better.
Just like playing from a minus box places undue stress on linemen and linebackers, playing without a numbers advantage in coverage puts undue stress on coverage players to lock onto the men they’re responsible for. As you can see, the defense has a solid advantage to one half, and an even numbers game opposite.
This space in the field is the ‘alley’ to the defense, and the ‘seam’ to the offense. I like to consider this space on the field as the conflict zone. Against the best spread offenses, defenses have to constantly adjust how they handle this area of the field.
This is where the key to the game exists. In fact, no factor means more to the success of a spread offense than the understanding of the box and the conflict zone. Spread offenses that pay the fringe of the box no mind are doomed to be blitzed and will face safeties rolling into the box play after play, killing the run game. Defenses that assume it can play the box and the alley the same every down are susceptible to being attacked in the soft spaces in between the coverage and the run fits of the front. Teams have a myriad of ways to gather information on these spaces on the field, and often times that info becomes valuable to finding the creases to make teams pay.
Expose the Alley: Extreme Spacing
One of the easiest methods to gather information in the alley is to expand it to extreme degrees. Even if defenses are skeptical that an offense would even try to attack that wide, a defense will usually default to respecting it.
I’ve been able to take advantage of this at the high school JV level. Spacing is a real issue no matter the level of competition.
At Baylor’s peak, no team could manipulate the continuity of a defense the way BU could, because of their spacing and speed. As is apparent here, TCU is rightfully fearful of being burned deep, and makes a sacrifice in the box. Baylor was a crisp power run team, and using gap/man schemes against a light box is a punch in the gut for TCU.
Even when Baylor went to 11 personnel, their horizontal spacing made TCU play wider and further than they’d like. TCU tries for a 5 man zone pressure with a slant to add the 7th man to the box and cause confusion while he rolls down, but the spacing makes the pressure develop later than the run action, and Baylor finds the crease anyway.
If Baylor caught your alley players leaning or cheating and sacrificing the numbers advantage on the perimeter, they can always punish the player by hitting the screen right behind the guessing player.
If a defense makes a hard decision on how far it will expand itself, Baylor always had their “Stick/Snag” RPO variation to stress the alley that much more. Kansas State is very clearly uncomfortable with the prospects of covering every blade of grass on the field, and Baylor finds ‘layups’ in their RPO game.
Extreme Spacing: Money Play
The play side read (The Weak side LB in this Diagram) on this concept cancels out the backside LB. If that player becomes an issue, the TE will simply leave the end and cut off the LB. QB is looking for backside safety to roll down pre snap, and play side to roll down post snap. On alignment alone, the QB in this scenario is taking the switch screen until the defense walks out onto that stacked WR alignment.
This is a good place to wrap part I of this series. Next up, I’ll take a look at how extreme spacing creates problems in the passing game for a defense.