I'm not sure if Spencer Hall meant to do this, but his Curious Index last Tuesday contained a nice point-counterpoint on the subject of football strategy. The point was a terrific piece from The Only Colors, a Michigan State blog, about the Spartans' heavy use of the double A-gap blitz. Tim Layden devoted an entire chapter of Blood, Sweat and Chalk to this particular defensive innovation, which he credits to the late Jim Johnson, who devoured NFL offenses with that blitz when he was the defensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Only Colors starts with quotes from Michigan State defenders about how much their coaches love that blitz, then uses Layden to describe how the blitz works, and then finally provides a host of clips showing the blitz in its various forms. Most of the clips come from the Michigan-Michigan State game, the match-up that decided one of the participants in the first Big Ten title game. Michigan State stopped the Michigan offense - an offense that finished the year tenth in the country according to Football Outsiders' metrics - cold in a 28-14 win. The Spartans forced one pick-six with the double A-gap blitz and would have forced another if not for a high throw by Denard Robinson. In the course of describing the pick-six, The Only Colors shows that the blitz is not as simple as sending two linebackers up the middle, leaving the shallow zones over the middle wide open:
Ready for a bit of Sun Tzu style 'no duh' war advice?
Your greatest weakness can become a powerful strength, as long as you're aware of just what that weakness is.
In the course of gnashing his teeth in frustration over the fact that MSU football's highly paid team of cryptologists cracked the Wolverine's snap count codes (which were basically the equivalent of having a password called 'password'), MGoBrian wrote this:
This is not a toughness issue... It's an inability for Michigan to deal with a simple, grandiosely unsound defense that leaves simple throws in the middle of the field wide open.
And he's right about the first part. And he's sort of right about the second part, in that the double A-gaps will have the one, maybe two defenders, who would normally be in the middle of the field be flying into the line of scrimmage, leaving a big hole in the middle of the field. But the way MSU commonly runs this blitz makes the gut reaction of, "C'mon, just throw the slant or hook route to your slot receiver or tight end, it'll be wide open!" wrong.
See MSU, clearly knowing that every QB worth his salt is going to first look to his checkdown when under a heavy blitz like this, and, knowing that a QB who's not worth his salt can be near guaranteed to lock on and throw to that check route under a heavy blitz, gives its defenders, in particular one of it's safeties (the 'Robber'), the freedom to read the QB and jump passing routes. This is Cover-1 Robber, some real Saban-type shit.
In other words, Michigan State might like sending two linebackers up the middle, but they have a variety of ways to deploy five defenders in coverage behind the blitz. Thus, it is not as simple as calling quick routes into the areas vacated by the blitzing linebackers because there might be a safety arriving in the vacated area.
The counterpoint to the piece on the double A-gap blitz is this outstanding effort from Chris Brown at Grantland on packaged plays. Brown's point is that Oklahoma State ran up ridiculous offensive numbers running one play that contained within it three different concepts. The Cowboys would run a wide receiver screen to one side, a regular pass route to Justin Blackmon on the other, and then the running back and offensive line would execute a run play. Brandon Weeden would read the defense and decide which of the three options to take. Moreover, this presents impossible choices for defenders because they are looking at three plays at once. Brown explains:
It's understandable that most fans (and even many coaches) think of football plays in terms of the strict run-pass dichotomy of the Tecmo Bowl model. Fantasy football is founded on the difference between passes and rushes, and even recent scholarly articles about football are built upon the distinction. And, at least on some level, the idea of "packaging" multiple options for the quarterback based on the movements of defenders is not entirely new. But the trend of combining entirely different categories of plays - runs and passes, screens and passes, runs and screens - is new, and these ideas are at the forefront of thinking about football. The challenge is undoing what we think a football play is without entirely disregarding fundamental, classic football thinking.
"The basic premise is to make a key defender be in two places at the same time," Keith Grabowski, the cutting-edge offensive coordinator at Baldwin Wallace University, explained to me in a recent conversation. "This is an area of offense where we're only scratching the surface of what's possible."
Now, imagine the Oklahoma State packaged play up against the Michigan State double A-gap blitz. Oklahoma State is in the shotgun, so their quarterback has a little extra time to deal with the immediate pressure in his face. There is a screen element to the play to get the ball to the perimeter quickly. There is a running action that causes indecision on the blitzers. And there is a pass pattern to the Pokes' best receiver on the backside that can work against some of the coverage concepts that the Spartans put behind their blitz. Instead of having to guess what Mart Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi are going to call in terms of a coverage, the offense has an answer to each of the questions posed by the defense.*
* - Brown's piece makes Texas-Oklahoma State one of the must-watch games of the year because it will pit the Cowboys' packaged plays against Manny Diaz and a stacked Texas defense. One can make the same point for Texas-West Virginia.
The query that comes to mind now is when packaged plays will come to the SEC and which teams will be the ones to first exploit them. SEC offenses have been going backwards in recent years as coaches mimic Nick Saban, not quite understanding what makes Saban's teams so successful. Gary Danielson has taken Auburn's and Florida's decisions to move from the spread to a pro-style approach as the occasion to do a victory dance for his prediction that the spread would recede in the SEC. After all, we are a whopping one season removed from Auburn winning the national title with an unstoppable spread and a mediocre, Ted Roof-coached defense (a pair of redundant adjectives, I know), so why wouldn't Gary claim victory now? And Auburn and Florida only combined to win three of the last six national titles using the spread, so the offense is clearly never going to work against SEC defenses.
One of the joys of packaged plays is that Danielson's Luddite views on offense do not justify the SEC ignoring this trend. The SEC can combine its traditional strengths in recruiting and defense alongside a cutting edge offensive approach. If Danielson is right that SEC teams should not use the spread because it is harder to recruit when you run an offense that is not common in the NFL, then there is no reason why they cannot use a concept that can be run out of any formation. In fact, as Brown points out in his piece, NFL teams also run packaged plays. What better way is there to prepare a quarterback for the NFL than to say "we trained him to run the same plays and make the same decisions as Aaron Rodgers?"
So, the question becomes "who in the SEC is going to take the first plunge into packaged plays?" Given Brent Pease's background with the Air Raid offense and the fact that packaged plays have come out of that family, Florida seems like a good bet, although probably not in Pease's first year in Gainesville. He has enough challenges deprogramming a pair of young quarterbacks after a year under the tutelage of Charlie Weis. Mississippi State is a possibility because packed plays seem like the sort of concept that would interest Dan Mullen.
From a local perspective, do any of us have faith that Mark Richt and Mike Bobo are going to start using packaged plays? The easy answer is to say "no" and then to break out laughing. However, there are a couple reasons why packaged plays would make sense for the Dawgs. First, Brown points out that the concept works best with a no-huddle approach:
The rise of "packaged plays" is important on its own, but it becomes essential when combined with the other trend in football - the up-tempo no-huddle. The no-huddle, especially when operated by quarterbacks like Rodgers or Tom Brady, is an invaluable weapon when combating modern defenses that rely on constant movement to maximize confusion. "In the no-huddle context, the advantage of packaged plays becomes particularly acute," says Grabowski, adding, "An offense that can run these packaged plays at the fastest tempos can get a vanilla look that further simplifies the read on a key defender." If you're going to go fast-paced no-huddle to prevent defenses from substituting or setting up in something exotic, you have to do it, well, fast, and slow audibles with lots of words and gyrations at the line are not that.
Georgia is the best-equipped team in the conference to implement this part of the strategy. Second, Richt and Bobo have an experienced quarterback this year. If anyone in the league can be trusted to be a point guard on grass, it ought to be Aaron Murray. The logic will be even stronger next year when Georgia has the benefit of a four-year starter under center. Richt and Bobo managed to stick to their guns during the spread craze. Now, offensive innovation has come around in a form that jibes with their preferred style. Will they take advantage?