The Mailbag (8/19)

What is your take on intrasquad scrimmages? I think they are necessary because it allows our best offense to play full speed against our best defense, but it is rarely against an offense or defense that we will really be up against. If the defense does well, does that mean the offense is bad? And visa versa.

I love to read how so-and-so had a great scrimmage, but what about the guys that he made look bad? Are they really bad?

It’s important to understand what it is you’re looking at when you watch a scrimmage. The coaches aren’t calling plays to win the game as much as they’re calling plays to evaluate both the players and themselves (experimenting with new schemes and plays, for example). That’s why you can’t get too wrapped up in the results. A guy might do his job on a given play, but if the play called isn’t the right one to counter whatever was called on the other side of the ball, it still might flop. What matters is how well each individual player did his job, and that’s something you don’t usually get a feel for from the bleachers. The scrimmage might be fun to watch, but only the coaches know whether it was good or bad. They only really know after watching film and grading each player.

Much of the media reports have focused on QB, slots, and to a lesser degree, receivers.  It seems that the O-line is the group that makes or breaks this offense.  Good O-line makes up for mediocre backfield; conversely a good backfield usually does not seem to make up for a poor O-line. 1) Do you agree with this statement? 2) How do you see this year’s O-line?

I do agree in a lot of ways. It’s hard to quantify the importance of any one position, since the offense won’t work if any of them mail it in. Relative to their impact, though, the offensive line isn’t talked about nearly enough. While Keenan grabbed the headlines for taking over the starting QB position last season, Tanner Fleming establishing himself at center was a huge part of Navy’s turnaround too.  The loss of Matt Molloy was probably the turning point of the 2010 Air Force game. This season we’re hearing a lot of talk about how the offense will take advantage of Keenan’s arm, but their ability to do so will depend primarily on how well the offensive line can protect him.

I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that a good line can make up for a mediocre backfield, but I do believe that the fastest way to improve any team (or make them worse) is through the lines on both sides of the ball. While there’s no magic defensive scheme to shut down the Navy offense, there’s also no adjustment you can make to counter missed blocks.

As for this year’s group, it’s hard not to feel good about them. At least the starters, anyway; other than Thomas Stone, we didn’t see too much from the rest of the guys on the depth chart last year since most of them were plebes. Fortunately, they all got plenty of work this spring as most of the starters sat out. Wags got some great quotes out of Coach Ingram about each of them here. He certainly seems upbeat about the depth he has to work with.

Usually it takes 2-3 games every year to find the right mix of guys to start on the line, so the fact that the starting five is as well established as they are is a good sign in my opinion. The real mind-bender is that there’s only one senior included in that group, so just imagine what it means for 2014. The future is bright.

As always, I’m really looking forward to your commentary this year.  Best insider insight I’ve ever read on any team. Any prognosis for this year?

You know my disdain for making predictions, so forgive me if this response is a bit generic. I really feel good about the team, though. They’re young, but they did a lot of growing up over the course of last season with so many of them playing significant roles. I think they will be better in 2013. Unfortunately, the schedule gets tougher too, so the record might not reflect their improvement. The first 8 games are pretty brutal, with half of them coming against BCS teams, and the other half including 3 bowl teams. Who knows what we’ll get out of Hawaii and San Jose State, although the latter will feature probably the best QB Navy will face all season. Matching last year’s record would be a real accomplishment.

With GeeGee gone, which of the slotbacks are you most excited about?

Didn’t I answer this last time? I don’t know if there’s any one guy I’m excited to see. The depth chart is completely different every time it’s posted too so I don’t know if there’s any one guy the coaches are excited about either. Every time Niumat is asked about the slots, he rattles off a dozen names. I *think* that’s a good thing.

Mike – what aspect of the 2013 team gives you most cause for optimism and what aspect gives you the most cause for concern?

The answer to both is probably the offensive line. I’m optimistic for all the reasons I listed above, but also concerned if the offense ends up throwing the ball as much as it sounds like they’re going to. Pass protection hasn’t exactly been a strength of the Navy offense over the years. I think the defensive line has a chance to be really good, too.

It’s August, which means fans are optimistic about everything and coaches are concerned about everything, so who knows.

So, with the marginally relevant RGIII experience in mind, how does Navy extract the greatest value from Keenan Reynolds each week while preserving his availability for future games?

By not leaving him in the game when his knee is clearly injured?

The Rich Ellerson era started promisingly with an Armed Forces Bowl victory in his second season as head coach. Performance nose dived in the last two seasons and other than noteworthy and gutsy play against their service rivals in 2012, the season brought no joy to the Army faithful. With Steelman gone, no Army QB has any real playing time. Maples, Dixon and Baggett should continue to excel, but does the fleet-footed Angel Santiago make more sense than the better throwing AJ Schurr? Perhaps ball control & possession control is EVERYTHING to this Army team as Army’s defense is their Achilles heel.

You said it yourself: neither has much playing time. I haven’t seen enough of either of them to have an opinion on who should start. The winner between the two will probably be whoever is best between the ears rather than who’s faster or who throws better, though.

Army’s “different” 3-3-5 defense is truly undersized with apparently no bigger underclassmen ready to step up.  What changes can Army make on defense to turn the team around?

Army doesn’t actually run a 3-3-5. They lined up that way against Navy in the past, but their base defense is the double eagle flex, which is sort of Army’s way to find a defensive equivalent to the triple option. Without going nuts into details, the defense uses a few different hybrid positions. What looks like a small defensive lineman might actually be a hybrid DL/LB position. By design, size is sometimes sacrificed in favor of versatility. Even on the 2010 bowl team, Mike Gann was the only defender that anyone would have called “big.” Army was indeed small last season, but they almost always are.

What they haven’t always been is really young. Retention has been a problem at West Point. Against Navy they started 8 players on defense that were freshmen or sophomores. Why are people so quick (get it?) to assume that Army’s size was their problem more than their experience? Losing guys like A.J. Mackey didn’t help with either one. Army won’t be much bigger this year, but I don’t think that means they’ll be a pushover. If their offense is close to last year’s form, the Army defense only needs to be mediocre for them to have a shot at a bowl game.  Navy’s defense made similar strides between 2007 and 2008. I don’t think Army’s is as good, but stranger things have happened for teams with that many returning starters.

Army lists 17 players on their roster at 260 lbs or heavier. All but three are freshmen or sophomores (and most are on the OL). The smaller player that knows what he’s doing will beat out the bigger player that doesn’t almost every time.

Can you do a post (if [you] haven’t already) on how Navy (or any team) uses formations to manipulate defenses and gain numbers advantages? For example trips against 33 stack to break their stack.

Maybe someday. That’s a bit much for a simple Q&A.

At a high level, the goal of the base spread formation is to stretch the field and create balance. Being balanced on both sides of the formation should in theory force the defense to match that symmetry in its own alignment. By sending a slotback into tail motion, the offense gains a numbers advantage on the motion side of the field, since the offense can go in motion faster than the defense can react.

As you pointed out, the 3-3 stack is one way that defenses can negate that advantage. It does so by employing three safeties “stacked” behind the linebackers. Instead of more conventional defenses where one safety plays run support while one plays deep, now two can play run support while still leaving one to cover the middle of the field for a pass play:

It’s the playside slot’s responsibility to block the secondary run support, but he can’t block them both. That leaves one free to make the tackle, which means there’s no more numbers advantage.

One way to counter this is to use different formations that force the safeties to line up away from the middle of the field. It keeps them from having their cake and eating it too; if one of the strong safeties is forced wide to cover a receiver, he can’t rotate to the middle of the field fast enough to be able to cover the pass. That means the free safety has to stay put in the middle of the field instead of following the tail motion, once again giving the offense its numbers advantage. Against FAU, Coach Jasper used both trips formations and 4 WR looks:

(I know that last clip wasn’t either of those formations, but I originally made that video to show the midline triple, not a different formation. Just roll with it.)

Occasionally the coaches will notice something on film and will come out of the gate in a different formation to see how the defense reacts. They might come out in a heavy formation, for example, to see if the defense will overcompensate to account for the unbalanced line. If they do, it might lead to a numbers advantage on the other side.

In series football if someone is overplaying or being over aggressive in their responsibility how soon do you attack that defender?

Example: a linebacker from the weak side aggressively scraping to the play side following wing motion? I would assume counter option/dive would be a play to run but how soon. If he stopped you for a short gain do try to immediately attack him or wait to the next drive or set of downs?

I’m not a coach. I’m just a guy. So if you want to know what you should do, I’m probably not the best person to ask. What I can tell you is what I’ve seen from Navy coaches in the past.

A situation almost identical to the one you describe happened against Air Force in 1996. Air Force was using the squeeze & scrape pretty consistently, with the DE squeezing the tackle, the OLB playing the pitch, and the MLB scraping outside to take the quarterback. Paul Johnson was the offensive coordinator at the time, and his solution was to run the fullback off tackle. Charlie Weatherbie wanted to do it right away. Coach Johnson disagreed, and instead wanted to save it for when he needed it. That’s what Navy did, and it worked. On their last drive, Johnson ran Omar Nelson off tackle. He ran inside the scraping MLB, cut back to the now-empty middle of the field, and ran 51 yards to set up the game-winning field goal.

It worked for that game. In others, the coaches decided to make their adjustment sooner. Against Notre Dame in 2009, Navy ran several plays in a twins formation, where the inside receiver was ineligible. The Irish DB covered that receiver at first, but eventually figured out that he didn’t have to:

On the next drive, the coaches did a bit of sleight of hand with the formation. The slot receiver was still lined up on the line of scrimmage, but so was the slotback on the other side of the formation. This meant that the wide receiver could be lined up off the LOS and was no longer covering the slot receiver, making the latter eligible. The DB didn’t notice and left the slot receiver uncovered:

So to answer your question, I think Navy’s coaches have a gut feeling as to how the game is going to go, and calls plays accordingly. If it’s a pretty even matchup that you feel is going to be nip-and-tuck all the way, then it’s nice to have a play in your back pocket that you know will work when you need it. On the other hand, if you think it’s going to be a back-and forth shootout, maybe you use it right away just to hold serve. Having that feel for the game and knowing when to pull the trigger is just part of the art of coaching.

How does the offense adjust to teams continuously switching the actions of the players the offense keys on?

I’m not sure what you mean. The quarterback reads the dive and pitch keys and acts accordingly. As long as the quarterback is making the right read, it doesn’t really matter what the keys do. They might run some different stunts that open up other plays. Sometimes the offense changes its blocking assignments. This is way too broad of a question for me to be able to answer with any detail, though.

How do you handle quarters coverage and Robber when they have 9 in the box (assuming against the normal 2 wide formation) and they out number you in the box? Do you just pass until they get out of it or do not care and the option keeps those extra men far enough away that positive yards can still be made.

Again, I’m not a coach, so I can’t answer how to handle it. I can only answer how I’ve seen it handled.

Having 9 in the box doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t run the option:

That wasn’t the exact situation you described, but you get the point.

The game I pulled that clip from (2009 Louisiana Tech) also happened to be one of Ricky Dobbs’ biggest passing days (219 yards). If the defense is daring you to throw, then you have to take your shots. The offense is designed to open up running lanes for the option by spreading the field with the threat of four verticals. If you aren’t willing to make good on that threat, it sort of defeats the whole point.

Depending on how in the box the safeties are, the toss sweep might also be a possibility. The toss is a favorite play for whenever the safeties are lined up over or inside the tackles:

It’s hard for me to visualize exactly what you’re looking for, though.

Last people talk about constraint plays all the time can you go over the constraint plays Navy uses and how they affect different defensive movements?

If you define “constraint plays” as plays you run when defenders start cheating, there’s way too many to list. There’s the reverse, the WR screen, the A-pop and all sorts of other play action… More than I can possibly get into in a Q&A. You could argue that the entire offense revolves around calling plays to take advantage of adjustments the defense makes to stop the triple option. For example, calling the FB trap when the dive key starts to squat:

Is that a “constraint play?” It’s taking advantage of a “cheating” defender, but the FB trap is a staple play in this offense.  I don’t know if it really fits the definition.

If I had to pick a favorite, it’s when the secondary over-pursues toss sweep motion, and the offense runs crossing patterns in the other direction:

Again, though, there are too many for me to go into here. Maybe in a later post.

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8 Responses

  1. As always, superb breakdown! Well done.

    • Thanks for answering all my questions and look forward your breakdowns this year

  2. Nice. Whetted my appetite! Come on, FB season!

  3. Thanks, Mike. Well done as always.

  4. I never get tired of watching that Dobbs-to-Jones TD pass from the ’09 game in South Bend. Best part is ND’s d-back protesting the whole thing before Jones crosses the goal line.

  5. “It seems that the O-line is the group that makes or breaks this offense.”
    While true, IMO this is true of every offense, not just the TO. Universally the OL is the most important part that rarely gets enough attention.

  6. We are not worthy…

  7. Ah, yes–my favorite class is back in session. Thanks, Mike!

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