Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Future of Football - Making the Game Safer

Concussions, CTE, and head injuries have been hot button issues for football in recent years. I don’t expect the conversation surrounding those issues to disappear as we start 2018. Everyone associated with football is trying to answer the same question. How can we make the game safer?

College and high school teams have adopted protocols for handling a player with a concussion or concussion symptoms. Teams have made major adjustments to both pre-season and in-season practice schedules. Some of those changes include reducing the hitting that goes on in each practice and though out each week cumulatively. Coaches try to navigate the equipment purchasing jungle to buy and equip players with the best and safest helmets. The rules of the game have been adjusted to help protect a defenseless player while others were added to punish a player who hits with his helmet or hits his opponent in the head or neck. The targeting rule is flawed but it was implemented to protect players.

Most of the on the field focus on player safety and specifically head injury prevention has fallen on defensive coaches. Specifically on how is tackling being taught. Many teams have adopted the Hawk Tackle technique popularized by Coach Pete Carroll and his staff with the Seattle Seahawks. The emphasis of the hawk tackle is on changing the strike zone (where the defender strikes the ball carrier) and keeping the head out the tackle. Both points of emphasis are intended to protect players’ head health. Other programs have adopted the Heads Up Tackling teaching program from USA Football. Defensive coaches cannot simply say we have solved player safety. We must continue to innovate and teach current techniques more effectively or develop new and safer techniques. Is focusing on defensive coaching all football coaches can do? The answer is no, but we also have to expand the conversation about player safety.

What he said is not wrong and reflects the attitudes of many defensive coaches and players. What if me keeping that offensive player out of danger increases the danger for me? Why is his safety more important than mine? Why does the responsibility not also fall on the offensive players and coaches? In short, it should.

Offensive players do get thrown into danger. QB’s are human, they make the wrong read and throw the ball into areas where defenders can make big hits. QB’s also throw the ball late or high exposing receivers to danger. Many defenseless receivers were thrown in to that position. WR’s make mistakes too. They run their route at the wrong depth, take the wrong release ending up in the wrong place, or fail to throttle on a route running themselves into defenders. WR’s also throw crack blocks against defenseless defenders. Some of those blocks are targeting and pose a danger to both the WR and the defender. RB’s want extra yardage on runs and will especially in short yardage and goal line runs lower their head in an attempt to run through defenders. This puts the ball carrier in a situation where he is leading with his head. The ball carrier is also making his head the most likely point of contact for a defender. How do OL use their head when blocking? Not just on a big hit with the helmet but also repetitive contacts with the helmet. Offenses continue to break new ground with RPO concepts. Bottom line on an RPO, there is a run play being blocked with the possibility of a pass. The blocking is not a pass protection scheme. Some RPO concepts include an unblocked defender. The results is there are RPO plays where the QB is exposed to immense pressure. A QB can end up defenseless or be pressured into throwing a WR into a defenseless position.

None of these situations happened because the offensive coaches or players wanted to make a mistake or don’t care about player safety. However, how do offensive coaches react to the last paragraph? Some will say that is just a defensive coach whining. That couldn’t be further from the truth. A few years ago when the targeting rules was added, my thoughts were the rule was idiotic and offensively biased. I felt the whole conversation was a bunch of offensive sissy nonsense and was going to ruin the game. My views have evolved. When I shake hands with a player’s parent at the beginning of the season I am signing an unwritten contract. A contract that says I will look after their son, I will do everything I can to keep him safe. It might help us defensively to be able to hit like defensive players hit in the past. There is no doubt it would affect the game. It isn’t safe to hit helmet to helmet. It isn’t safe to launch at an exposed receiver. Targeting situations aren’t safe for the ball carrier or the defender. I have a responsibility to the players and their families including the ones who play for our opponent. My responsibility is to make the game as safe as possible. So my hope for 2018 is offensive coaches take to heart what was written in the earlier paragraph.

How do offenses coach a QB in 7 on 7, practice, or a game when he throws a receiver into danger? How does that reaction compare to when the QB throws an INT? 7 on 7 allows for bad habits to develop. QB’s can throw with impunity. There is no risk of pass rush or big hits on a WR. A QB will most likely take more throwing reps in 7 on 7 than anywhere else. Are those reps developing safe habits? Are offensive coaches approaching those situations as opportunities to increase player safety or simply coaching completions vs. incompletions? How much emphasis is the WR coach placing on strike zone and keeping the head out of the block on a crack block? Does the RB coach get amped about a RB using the truck stick even when it wasn’t a safe thing to be doing? How is physical running being taught? Can it be done better? How can OL be taught to reduce the number of times there is helmet contact? RPO’s are becoming a major part of offensive football. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. How much exposure is there on a play with an unblocked defender? How will the play hold up to blitzes, cloudy reads, or unfamiliar defensive looks? It doesn’t mean those plays shouldn’t exist. I’ve heard many offensive coaches talk about how this RPO or that RPO stresses the defense. I rarely hear about how the RPO stresses the offense or the risk exposure to offensive players when running that scheme.

The biggest threat to football going forward is participation. Right now there are parents who don’t know much about concussions. What many parents do believe is football causes concussions and that makes football too dangerous. No matter how under-informed parents may be the core issue is they want their children to be safe. If the perception continues that football isn’t safe enough, parents will hold their children out of playing. Social media does not help this issue. In the past when you read the newspaper you read primarily about the events happening in your city and some stories from your region, your state, and the nation. Now with the internet and social media the stories of concussions in football in every city and state are at your fingertips. Remember what happens in your program now has a much bigger effect on the image of football around the nation. The internet and social media has made a world’s worth of news available on your phone. When you add in the fact that sports like lacrosse are growing exponentially all across the country the challenge becomes even more daunting. High school athletes have more and more options. It isn’t simply football, basketball, baseball anymore. Every HS coach has also seen kids who chose to specialize and won’t be multi-sport athletes. These challenges further reduce the pool of future players. Another factor is the US population growth rate is slowing. Families are having fewer children. The result is the future will have fewer HS aged students. Fewer athletes and more competition to get them to play football will be a big challenge going forward.

Football is a great game and I feel blessed to have played and to be a coach. I hope that in 2018, all coaches in the game commit to focusing on how we can make the game as safe as possible regardless of what position you coach. We are all in this together. Let's keep the great game of football thriving. Best of luck to you and your team in 2018!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Defending Read Power/Inverted Zone Read

We are seeing more and more of both the read power and inverted zone read plays. As there is no universal terminology in football, lets come together on some terms first.

Read Power

The offense is blocking power with down blocks front side working to the back side ILB. The back side pulling guard is wrapping for the play side ILB. The play side DE is being read (Read Key). If the DE stays on the LOS or squeezes down with the down block of the OT, the QB hands the ball to the RB on the sweep. If the DE runs up the field to the sweep, the QB keeps the ball running QB power. The QB will hit downhill running behind the pulling guard.

Inverted Zone Read

In a similar concept the offense may block inside zone away from the sweep action. The read is the same. If the DE is on the LOS the ball is handed and turns into sweep. If the DE is up the field the play turns into QB inside zone. 

If you want more info about both plays here is a good article about them from Smart Football Link

Both are option plays which allows the defense to dictate where the ball goes. Our philosophy is pretty simple. Who do/don't we want to carry the ball? What are our perimeter numbers? Based on our perimeter defense, do we want sweep or keep?

Perimeter Advantage

Take this example of being in a quarters or 2 read to the strong side. Back side the coverage is man concept. Some teams call this Solo or Poach. We have a numbers advantage to the strong side.

Because we have 4 defenders (Mike, SS, FS, & Corner) for 3 perimeter blockers, we will force the give to the sweep. The Mike will scrape over the top and the offense is running into an extra defender.

Similarly if we are in Cover 1 (Man Free) we feel we have the  perimeter advantage (4 vs 3)

Regardless of if the offense is running read power or inverted veer our perimeter numbers advantage leads us to force the sweep.

Box Advantage
We won't have a perimeter advantage in every call defensively. In some calls the advantage is in the box. 

Take for example a 7 man box with a cover 3 concept. 

The offense has 3 blockers for 3 defenders (Sam, SS, & Corner) on the perimeter. In this case the plan is to force the keep by the QB. The Sam and Mike can bracket the pulling guard creating a numbers advantage in the box for the defense. This does require the Sam to avoid being cut off by the #3 WR. 

On the inverted zone read play the box numbers again give the advantage to the defense. The Mike and Will fill the open interior gaps while the Sam plays the C gap replacing the DE who is up the field. Again the Sam cannot be cutoff by the #3.

Mesh Charge
One element we have added to our arsenal recently is a mesh charge concept. The idea has been around for way longer than I have been coaching. It is simple, run the read key defender directly to the mesh point. The QB has trouble making the read because the defender doesn't clearly define his intentions. Give or keep? Decide quick because there is a full speed defender running right at you. 

In this example the DE is running up the field to the mesh point. The DE being up the field reads like the QB should keep the ball. However, the DE bends late and tackles the QB. Simple concept, force the keep and tackle the QB for a loss. Depth of the mesh makes this technique extremely effective. A read key getting depth feels like a give read. Here is shot of the mesh charge concept against inverted zone read.

The mesh charge technique can be very effective with edge rushers especially a blitzing OLB or DB. The blitz naturally takes the momentum of the defender up the field. The QB sees the edge pressure and the feel of the read is to keep. Because we are seeing more of these concepts we have to have more answers. Also coaching all of our pressures with built in rules for handling these plays is a must. We would never want to be caught in a pressure without the ability to handle these concepts. By changing up how we fit these plays we give our defense answers and force the ball to our numbers advantage. We also force QB's to actually make a real read every time they run these plays.  

Thursday, December 14, 2017

TCU Cover 1 Dog

Here is an inovative 5 man pressure from Gary Patterson and the Horned Frogs. TCU is in a 4-2-5 personnel

The Rush:
This is an interesting variation on America's Blitz. The DE twists to the side of the dog an takes on the inside rusher role in the America's Blitz concept. 

The Coverage:
Cover 1 man free. 

The OL to the side of the edge rush LB do a good job of picking up the LB and passing the long stick DE. The RB is responsible for blocking the late inside rush threat but doesn't see the DE looping. The RB was looking at the Mike and Will. When the Mike doesn't blitz the RB looks to check release. The only other way for the offense to pick this up is to have the OL travel back and exchange all the DL as the twist action happens. The likelihood of communicating and executing that type of pick up is very low. This is a creative way to attack pass protection with a tried and true pressure concept but executed in a whole new way. Really good stuff. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Alabama Cover 1 Dog

Here is a effective 5 man cover 1 pressure from Alabama defensive coordinator and new Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt. The Tide are in Dime personnel group with 2 rush linebackers at DE. 

The Rush:
The Dime blitzes off the edge. Inside the Rush backer and DT are running a twist with the DT penetrating and the Rush looping inside. The weak side Rush backer is playing man coverage on the running back. 

The Coverage:
Initially the coverage is a two high shell that rolls late to a 1 high man free concept. Corners are playing aggressive press technique.

Alabama manipulates the protection really well. The usage of Dime personnel causes the OL to be less likely to treat the Dime as a rush threat. The coverage disguise adds to the effect. The Dime shows an alignment and demeanor that indicate he is going to pass drop to the #3 receiver. The back end also holds the 2 high safety shell until late to further sell the Dime as a coverage player. 

The Mike pressuring in the A gap adds to the success. The Center sets to the Mike because he is a bigger pass rush threat than the Dime. That gives the Dime the run off the edge. If the Center did pass set to the Dime's side, the Mike would have a run through on the RB. In that case the defense would get an overload with the Mike and man cover rush backer on the RB.

Good stuff from Bama.  

Georgia Zone Dog

Nice 5 man pass rush zone dog from Georgia and Kirby Smart.

The Rush:
The interior twist by the DT's forces the guards and center to squeeze together to pick up the twist. When the OG to the Nose squeezes, it creates the interior rush opportunity for the DE on the inside move. The OT is forced to pass set the inside move DE with no help from the guard. The OT's block also shortens the edge for the Will backer as he wraps to a contain rush from depth.

The Coverage:
Aggressive 3 under 3 deep with press corners and the MOF safety aggressively playing the inside vertical threat. The field side seam dropper denies the hot throw to the slant by the #2 WR which forces the QB to hold the ball. 

Simple effective 5 man pass rush from the Bulldogs. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Michigan Pressure

Really interesting and effective pressure concept from Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown. The Wolverines are in a 3-3 nickel personnel package.

The Rush:
The front slides the 3 down linemen to the strong side and has all 3 LB's walked up to the weak side. The Mike is initially in a 3 point stance. 

The effect is a 4 man version of America's Blitz. The Will wraps around to the fill the role of the inside rusher in the America's blitz concept. Because the defense bluffs the weak side overload the protection doesn't identify the concept as America's blitz and pass it off. The RB is forced into a really difficult block, scanning all the way back across the formation to pick up the Will as he wraps around. 

The Coverage:
Strong side is a soft cover 2 and weak side is a hard cover 2. 

Good stuff from the Michigan defense!

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Vikings Green Dog

Here is a good example of a green dog concept for Head Coach Mike Zimmer and the Vikings. Minnesota is in a nickel personnel group.

The concept is a 5 man pressure concept with the 4 defensive lineman and 1 ILB rushing. There seems to be some miscommunication between the 3 tech DT and the Mike LB on where to rush.

The Coverage: 
Man Free with a green dog concept. The idea is if your man responsibility in coverage blocks you add to the pressure and rush the QB.

The offense has the 5 OL to block the 5 rushers. When the offense adds the TE into the protection the safety who had the the TE in man adds to the pressure. The challenge this creates is the OL identified the safety as part of the coverage not part of the pass rush. The OL is working to the 5 most immediate threats (2 DT's, DE, 2 ILB's) and the TE is on the DE. When the Safety adds the offense does not have an efficient way to communicate and pick up the pressure. 

Good Stuff.