Teams install new schemes and formations all the time, but rarely are they as successful as this example during the first ACC game of the 2016 season. Sean Cottrell breaks down the Louisville Cardinals double wing formation after they used it to dismantle Syracuse’s defense.
It was hot and humid inside the Carrier Dome (notorious for its lack of air conditioning) for the ACC’s first inter-conference matchup between Syracuse Orange and the Louisville Cardinals. The temperature, however, did not stop quarterback Lamar Jackson or the rest of the Louisville Cardinals’ offense from lighting the turf on fire on their way to laying 62 points on the Orange and racking up a whopping 845 yards of offense. Jackson, the Cardinal’s sophomore quarterback and first-year starter, accounted for 610 of those yards including 199 yards on the ground. To say it was a big night for the Louisville offense would be a major understatement.
One of the primary reasons for their success throughout the night was through their option running game. Jackson, being such an elite running threat, challenged the Syracuse defense all night, not allowing them to commit to the direction of the play for fear that he would burn them around the backside edge. Even when Syracuse played it straight, Jackson still would beat them often with his elite athletic ability.
One of the more interesting wrinkles that the Cardinals used as a catalyst for their option running game was their double wing pistol formation. In this formation, Louisville would align 12 personnel on the field with two receivers split wide, two tight ends in wing alignment, and one running back in pistol formation behind the QB:
The crucial part of this formation are the two TEs in wing alignment who provide the offense with a ton of flexibility in how they attack the defense. They could release out into routes, stay home in pass protection, run block to the playside, or come back across the formation to trap or kick out a backside defender. This flexibility allowed the Cardinals to find consistent success, gaining over 160 yards, three first downs and a touchdown out of this formation. Let’s explore some of the different ways they used this formation to exploit the Syracuse defense.
The first play in which they utilized the formation was Louisville’s fifth offensive play of the game but resulted in its third touchdown. Syracuse lines up with seven men in the box and two deep safeties. Just prior to the snap, Cardinals TE Cole Hikutini (#18) motions across the formation pulling the Syracuse linebackers across with him. Jackson receives the snap and the Cardinals run an inside zone read. The offensive line blocks for an inside zone run and leaves the backside defensive end unblocked while Hikutini and TE Keith Towbridge (#89) pull down the backside of the line of scrimmage to lead block for Jackson should he decide to keep the ball:
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As he receives the snap, Jackson reads the unblocked DE to the backside while putting the ball in the belly of RB Brandon Radcliff (#23). The DE actually plays this well and stays home to stop the QB keeper but with his elite athletic ability, Jackson still opts to keep the ball and take it around the edge. Once he gets the edge both TEs are able to make key blocks in space that help spring Jackson for a 72 yard touchdown.
On this play, Louisville ran the inside zone read to the wide side of the field and used motion to draw defenders over to the other side, but Louisville often ran the same play without motion as well. One of the beautiful aspects of this formation is its perfect balance. The formation keeps defenses from guessing which side they are running to, while also giving the offense the ability to run it either side as well. On this next play later in the 1st quarter, the Cardinals run the same play out of the formation but this time run it to the boundary side of the field
Notice the pre-snap alignment of the linebackers shaded slightly towards the wide side of the field perhaps anticipating that the Cardinals would want to run Jackson to space. With the LBs already shaded to its left, Louisville does not put Towbridge in motion:
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Jackson then calls for the snap, reads the backside DE who this time bites down on the inside zone, and pulls the ball out around the edge. The two TEs are out in space again lead blocking for Jackson but Syracuse safety Kielan Whitner (#25) takes a great angle to the ball, snaking his way through traffic and right behind Hikutini to make the tackle and limit Jackson to a three-yard gain.
After running the read option from this formation several times in the first half, the Cardinals preference to run from this formation became clear to the Orange. As Syracuse began to adjust, however, Louisville threw them a changeup. It’s now early in the 3rd quarter and Louisville has the ball on the Syracuse 41 yard line up 35-21. The Cardinals again get into the double wing pistol formation and the Orange put seven men in the box with both high safeties cheating down towards the box:
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At the snap, Jackson fakes the read option and rolls out to his right. As he rolls out, Whitner flies downhill from his safety position as he did on the previous play but this time, Jackson wasn’t looking to run the ball. When he gets to the far hash, he pulls up and sees WR Jamari Staples coming across the field from the backside and into the space vacated by Whitner and hits him for a 20 yard gain. Jackson makes a poor throw on the play but Staples makes a great adjustment to the ball and secures the catch. This small variation to the play served as a constraint to the Syracuse defense, discouraging them from trying to play the read option over-aggressively.
On this final play, Louisville switches it up again from the same formation. It’s now early in the 4th quarter and Louisville has a 45-28 lead and trying to put the Orange away for good. This time the Cardinals put Radcliff in a classic shotgun alignment rather than the pistol. The Syracuse defense stays consistent with its seven-man front with both safeties cheating down. Before the snap, Towbridge goes into motion to his left moving Syracuse LBs and safeties along with him.
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Jackson calls for the snap and the RB and OL run a speed sweep to the wide side of the field with both TEs out to lead block for Radcliff. When he receives the snap, Jackson reads the backside DE, who is a little out of position, but also sees the backside LB and safety also both coming downhill at the QB so he gives the ball to Radcliff. This time, Hikutini and Towbridge can’t quite seal off both the playside LB and safety for another long run, but Radcliff is still able to defeat the angles of the defender and get the edge to pick up a first down on the play.
The double wing formation played a huge role throughout the night for the Louisville offense. Despite throwing the ball once, the Cardinals still displayed a strong tendency to run out of this formation, a tendency that other defensive coordinators will certainly pick up on. Even with defenses knowing this tendency, though, the Cardinals’ offense should still find success. They may not have the huge advantage of unpredictability, but with a QB as talented and athletically gifted as Lamar Jackson, only a slight schematic edge is necessary for success. The double wing formation, with its perfect balance and versatility may provide the needed edge for the Cardinals to continue their offensive success throughout the year.
Follow Sean on Twitter @PhllyDraft. Check out more of Sean’s work here, such as on what Dorian Green-Beckham can do for the Philadelphia Eagles, how coach Bronco Mendenhall gets to the quarterback, how Carson Wentz did in his first preseason game,what Justin Fuente brings to the Virginia Tech Hokies offense, and on Mark Richt and the triangle offense in Miami.
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All film courtesy of ESPN.
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