By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager
It's official. We've begun our journey into the hallowed halls of football by presenting the first of what will be many reports on the double/triple option series.
We've always had a great deal of respect for the true option scheme. We feel like it is the cornerstone or foundation of all football concepts that have derived since. Think about it. Where would Urban Meyer be without the triple option? Would Rich Rodriquez still be at Glenville State? Many of these spread coaches developed their schemes off the structure of the midline or veer option where you read off one defender and pitch off another.
What we also respect is the camaraderie of the coaches that teach this scheme. Similar to the Wing T, these guys are a clan; a gang of football purists who travel the country and preach the world of the triple. You can find them everywhere, but once a year they gather at the Mecca of option football - Annapolis, Maryland - to watch The Naval Academy work through spring drills.
When X&O Labs started to piece together this report, we decided to focus on one specific area to research and study. Anytime you explore a topic that is close to 100 years old, you will find pages and pages of information and some terrific coaches who will tell you everything you want to know. But as we started to unravel all of this information, one common thread kept appearing...many coaches (even the veterans) wanted to know the best ways to run their midline schemes against an odd stack or 3-3-5 defense.
It seemed the odd stack presented some concerns offensively against double or triple option schemes.
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For clarification purposes, the midline option is presented in two distinct ways in this report:
- Midline Option: This is the true double option play where either the B-back (fullback) or QB will carry the ball. This is the traditional midline scheme.
- Midline Triple: This is the midline triple option scheme where a QB will give the ball to the fullback, or keep or pitch the ball to the slot back (A back). This is becoming more common among coaches who feel they need to get to the perimeter vs. odd-stack teams. Theoretically, the ball can be pitched on midline triple, even though over 40 percent of coaches surveyed say the ball gets pitched on midline triple LESS THAN 25 percent of the time.
Researcher's Note: Because these two schemes are so similar in nature, we will be referring to both in this report.
Problems an Odd Stack presents to midline option:
- A Dominant Nose Guard: Chances are defenses wouldn't be playing an odd front if they didn't have a nose guard that could handle the double A gaps. Well, this might not be exactly true. According to coaches, in many cases the odd front became the "flavor of the week" for defenses that would change their entire scheme that week when defending the option. But our research has found that most teams who shift to an odd front will usually slant their nose in either direction - just like true odd stack teams.
- A Protected Mike LB: With that middle linebacker in the odd stack protected, it's difficult to get the play side guard to climb to him. If the nose slants to the play side, chances are your guard will get picked. It's a reoccurring issue that will be discussed later in the report.
- Up to 8 Defenders in Tackle Box: The structure of the odd stack can distribute a total of eight defenders from A-back to A-back. The nose, both defensive ends, the middle line backer, both outside linebackers and both safeties are all within two yards of the offensive tackles. If you run a traditional Navy style flex bone offensive formation - which the majority, 31.7 percent of the coaches polled do (Diagram 1) -you're outnumbered by one player. Now, that's where option football comes in - reading defenders instead of blocking them.
- Readily Available Twists and Pressures: By nature, the odd stack provides a plethora of blitzes and pressures designed to destruct option football. Since most option teams use a count system to designated who will be the dive player, the pitch player, etc. these players can often change post-snap with movement. What we've found is that 64.8 percent of coaches now employ an area read system (which we will discuss later) when playing odd front teams. Now, the QB is asked to read an area, as opposed to a player. If he sees grass, he gives. If he sees color, he pulls. It can be as simple as that. In fact, Navy's head coach, Ken Niumatalo, tells his QB that every time he sees a stack, to read the area not a player because he can anticipate some sort of gap exchange. It's a system that 64.8 percent of coaches polled now use instead of reading individual players. Can't see the diagrams? Click here.
With all of these problems, one would think that the midline scheme isn't a suitable call against odd stack defenses, but we found otherwise. Sure, there were some purists this weekend at the clinic that felt there are too many likely circumstances (like the ones mentioned above) that would prevent success. But when we researched the topic thoroughly, we found that those who "run their stuff," "run their stuff," regardless of what a defense does. Now, there are some aspects of the play that may be tweaked - which is the purpose of this report.
Case 1: Proper Mesh of the QB/FB (B-Back)
Contrary to the veer scheme, the midline veer scheme hits tighter and faster. The QB will usually have to open up on the midline of the center (thus the name of the play) and seat the ball to the fullback or B-back as option guys call him. If you're playing an odd front, like an odd stack, many times the five-technique would be the dive read because he's the next defensive lineman past the center. Because he's closing from the C gap, (or B gap if he's a 4i technique), chances are a give can be at least a three yard gain before the B-back is touched.
According to our research, 44.8 percent of coaches use the defender's jersey number to determine whether to give or keep the ball, a higher percentage than a shoulder level or head level read. "We love playing against an odd stack because the read key is so far removed," said Greg Lusardi, the head coach at Morris Catholic High School (NJ). "It's a long way for the 4-tech to close, so it's a greater likelihood for a give."
Lusardi teaches his QB to "pull unless" against odd schemes. In other words, the QB should pull the ball unless he feels the dive player can't tackle the full back in which case he would give it. He teaches this by using a one-two-five finger read drill to make sure the QB's eyes are up and on the read key. He'll flash a number at the QB, in which he will have to recite just to make sure his eyes are up. "When we first put in the read, we will make him hand the ball off every time, but still have him reading my fingers," said Lusardi. "We do this just to keep him honest, because when teams start to twist, his reads will change. But we want to get him in the mindset of giving the football because that is where the bubble is."
The first thing Lusardi will do is have the QB check the play to the largest (or widest) technique. His first step will be a drop step with the foot opposite the play - seven o'clock when going right and five o'clock when going left. His play side foot should come slightly off the ground to allow his hips to open. This is to make sure the cylinder is cleared for the B-back.
Lusardi teaches his QB NOT to seat the ball (meaning keep the ball in front of him without moving it, much like spread option teams do, mainly because those teams teach the running back to be responsible for the mesh), and this differed from some other coaches we spoke with. Instead, he'll force the ball back as far as possible with the weight on the back foot and chin on the front shoulder. As the QB rides the fullback, he must transfer his weight to his front foot and cannot allow the read to go beyond the front foot.
Lou Cella, the founder of the Flex Bone Association, an organization devoted to option fanatics,has a different approach when teaching the the QB/FB mesh. He teaches the QB to seat the ball. Cella, who tutors thousands of players every year on the intricacies of the Navy offense at his clinics across the country, teaches a "point method" to identify whether to give or pull the ball on midline option. Cella tells his QBs that once he takes the ball from center, his feet better go back fast. The opposite foot pushes away, and the ball must be on the mid-point of the center - in other words, right up his crack. The play side foot pushes back into the back-side A gap, and the opposite foot steps with it. Essentially, the ball is pointed at the mid-point of the center while the QB ends up in the back-side A gap.
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"It's the easiest way to get the ball from QB to B-back," says Cella. "All you do is take the snap, seat the ball six inches from chest and fully extend arms. The body is limp. The B-back runs his path. If the QB believes the read key can make the tackle, he can reseat the ball, replaces the read, and runs. It's a mesh and a soft squeeze on the ball. By nature, it's a far superior method. It's a much simpler way of teaching it, but many guys who have been running the ride-and-decide just don't want to change."
Our report wouldn't be complete without addressing some of the shotgun spread midline schemes that are slowly infiltrating the football landscape. We didn't want to spend too much time on this topic because we are currently conducting the largest ever study on the zone read principle (results of this study will be released this summer), in which the gun midline will be addressed. Primarily because old school option guys like Cella, feel this version of the midline can be considered a minor form of option Communism. Despite what Cella and some other coaches at the clinic this week thought (61.2 percent of coaches feel that under center is the best way to run the midline) we are about appeasing our readers, so we spoke with Brian Sheehan, the offensive coordinator of Thomas Moore College (KY) who has had two straight undefeated regular seasons. Sheehan runs the midline scheme out of the pistol, because it helps his quick passing game.
"We're in pistol the entire time," says Sheehan. "We tell the QB to step off the midline. Our B-back's aiming point is the front side leg of the center. The QB pivots. He's at 4 yards but he cheats up half a step. Our deep back is always heels at 6 yards. He steps off the midline, snaps the ball back and rides him through. We call it stab, ride and replace the outside number of the dive key. He stabs the ball into the belly of the B-back while riding and deciding. If the dive key crashes, he replaces him with his feet.
Case 2: Controlling the Entry Point - the A Gap
Of course, the nose guard could present a problem against the midline scheme, which is why Rick Coles, the offensive coordinator at Ripon College (WI), makes sure his best lineman every year is his center. "Our best offensive lineman is always the center, mainly because we know that we will see a ton of odd fronts during the course of the season for what we do," said Coles. "We're the only college program in our area of the Midwest that runs the scheme. The center has to be able to handle that nose and the FB cuts off of the center's block."
We've found that option teams handle the nose in one of two ways - a slanting nose (or one gap nose) or a two gap nose. When facing a slanting center, you would need to train the FB how to cut off the center's block. The center will take the nose where he wants to go. "When the nose beats the center across the face you have to make the adjustment with the fullback," says Sheehan. "The B-back has to cut it back. When the nose stunts hard and Mike LB fills the back-side A, you're a guy short on the back-side so the fullback should be able to split them. We tell our fullback that it's a first level read - we just jump cut it back-side (Diagram 2). We usually stay on our track of staying in the front side A gap against four down fronts, but against odd structures, the fullback has the green light to always cut it back. Can't see the diagrams? Click here.
According to our research, 62.1 percent of coaches have their B-back run at the butt of the center. A disciple of Navy's schemes, it used to be the same way that Lusardi taught it to his kids, but now he tells his fullback to run at the play side hip of the center. "It gives the FB better vision," says Lusardi. "If something crosses his face he cuts it back. In an odd stack, the nose usually beats our center, so it's a natural thing for the fullback to do. His rule in all our triple options is to zone run off the first DL inside the read key - which would be the center."
Cella said he wouldn't run the midline scheme against a two-gap nose. It's too difficult for the center to block. "If you got a slanting center, then you've got a play," says Cella. "If you have a nose who two gaps, you need to make sure your center can rip though his outside pad to get him out of the front side A gap so it clears way for the fullback. But in the odd stack, the backers can come from two different ways." Cella teaches his tackle to "high pressure control" the 5-technique out. This means that the tackle blocks the five out and works vertical. As soon as his heels can get to the heels of the 5-tech he turns his hips out and walls that out defender. It's a block that he learned from Navy.
Now, the front side A gap may be accounted for, but what about the back-side A gap? There are so many games an odd stack front can play, mainly by swapping responsibilities with the Nose and the Mike linebacker. If the nose slants back-side, Sheehan will have the back-side guard be what he calls a "control player" to make sure that nose can't blow up the back-side A gap. He'll tell his center to get his hat on the play side number of the nose. Coles, however, tells his back-side guard to come off the ball with his inside foot, and eye the Mike LB to see if he blitzes the back-side A gap. If he does, he's got him. If not, he works to pick up the stacked linebacker. Lusardi coaches a traditional double team. "Normally, the guard on midline will block the play side backer to back-side backer in a 3-4 or okie front," said Lusardi. "Verses a stack front, the center and guard must double team nose guard to the middle backer."
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Case 3: Front Side Blocking at the Point of Attack
Because there are different blitz varieties in the odd stack, it's important for players to recognize their assignment post-snap. Defenses can cloud the line of scrimmage and send the outside backer and safety through the B and C gaps. Lusardi teaches his play side tackle to never release inside the read key in midline. If he gets a 4i, he will release outside for the safety (Diagram 3). He's not worried about any B gap run-through, he feels the QB has plenty of time to get the read right. "If that outside backer stunts into the B gap, he has a long way to go. The assignment of the tackle is to block the first guy outside the read key. We will double team the nose guard into the Mike with the front side guard and center. If the nose goes away from play, the center handles him. If he comes play side the guard picks him up. The play side tackle will turn out on the strong safety. The hip backer in an odd stack has too far to play the B gap to make the play. But once Lusardi sees that outside linebacker cheating tight into the B gap pre-snap, he will often check to the midline triple option. Can't see the diagrams? Click here.
"Our QB reads man on tackle," says Lusardi. "If the LB is closer to make the play we would check out and run the midline triple so the play side tackle can area block. We don't area block the midline, we man block it. The play side halfback will have a hard time coming off the hip of the tackle's block. He never comes inside the read key. The FB runs off the play side hip of the center. It becomes an arm tackle by that defensive end which we'll take every time. Our play side half back comes off the tail of tackle. He blocks for the QB on the pull and not the fullback. Our guard blocks for the fullback."
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If Cole's gets an A and B gap stunt he handles it by angle blocking the play side guard and tackle (Diagram 4). "If we get an A gap and B gap stunt, our play side guard will go directly to whoever is blitzing in the A gap - whether it be the Mike or outside linebacker. Our play side tackle will find a way to get to the B gap blitzer. It becomes an automatic give read for the QB because the five-technique is taking the C gap. We tell our FB to split both those guys. Again, we have three foot splits across the board and a 4.5 foot split for the tackle, so it makes it a bit easier to read." Of the coaches we surveyed, 44.8 percent average at least three yard splits across their offensive line. Now if Cole gets a 4i, he'll run what he calls a "slip release." "If they reduce to give us a 4i-technique, we assume he's playing the fullback so we do what we call a 'slip release' which is a vertical C gap release by the tackle. The tackle runs for the free safety immediately and the QB pulls and runs free." Can't see the diagrams? Click here.
Case 4: Using the Midline Triple to Keep the Perimeter Off-Balanced
It's important to realize that the major difference in the midline and the midline triple is that you don't have to block the force player in odd stack fronts, which would usually be the strong safety - you would pitch off him. As stated earlier, the midline scheme is a double option with the QB and fullback. Because this may not always be accomplished due to having an overload in the box, a more viable option is the midline triple. The coaches we spoke with use it as changeup to keep defenses off-balance. In order to compartmentalize, we detailed the rules for the midline triple below:
Thomas Moore Midline Triple Assignments (Diagram 5)
- Play Side Tackle: Identify nearest safety. Drive through inside shoulder of C gap defender (don't be concerned with contact) and run to the safety
- Play Side Guard: Veer release through A gap for back-side LB
- Center: Man block the nose, get to outside armpit
- Back-side Guard/Tackle: drive block through back side gap
- Play Side Slot (A-back): Seal strong safety- block for pitch (could switch assignments with receiver). May use twirl motion.
- QB: Read the stack (nose and Mike LB) - hand off every time unless the stack fills the B gap then pitch outside.
- Back-side Slot (A-back): Leave at the snap and get to pitch phase immediately. Can't see the diagrams? Click here.
Coles run the midline triple similar to Sheehan, the difference is because of the constant exterior pressure that the odd stack presents, he'll twirl motion the play side slot black (A-back) to provide for instant misdirection and to buy time to see who the force player is (Diagram 6). This is also contrary to our research, where 67.8 percent of coaches feel that no motion is the best way to block with the A-back. "The play side slot takes the strong safety or stack backer (whoever is closest) and we just pitch off the other guy. If they bring the strong safety or stack linebacker to the QB, either way the edge is blocked," says Coles. Even the QB play is different for Coles. "Nowthe QB kick steps out and reads the first guy past the guard. We tell him to mesh into more of the line of scrimmage, which is, I think, where we are different. He kicks laterally the opposite foot and opens at 90 degrees. The FB runs right up the QB but his aiming point is the play side butt cheek of the center. Our QB will mesh with the FB and read the dive key. If he thinks he can get around the dive then we tell him to pull it - it's as simple as that." Can't see the diagrams? Click here.
So our first installment of option football is complete. We realize there is a whole other world of football coaches who teach the option. The way that was presented here is really just a small microcosm of the different ways coaches are teaching the midline and midline triple.
If you want to continue the discussion, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And don't forget to check out Lou Cella's Flex Bone Association.
We'll see you next Tuesday at 7 am EST. We're releasing our latest research report on the Shade Nose Guard.
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