A Step Backwards but an Opportunity for Growth

One of the bright spots this young season has been the excellent performance by the offensive line. I was thrilled with their execution and noticeably improved fundamentals. My one reservation was the matchups. Alabama has an elite, very athletic front, but their system requires their defensive line to engage blockers, allowing their linebackers to make plays. Western Carolina was completely out manned. Both teams used a relatively static concept up front designed to occupy blockers.

East Carolina presented a very different challenge. Could the Hokies offensive line be effective against a quick defensive front that is focused more on attacking the gaps and stunting than maintaining gap fits? The Pirates used a 3-man defensive front that they flexed over to the strong side of the offensive line. To the weak side, the "jack" linebacker aligned as a stand-up defensive end. The inside linebackers aligned well off the line of scrimmage. The added distance gave the linebackers a distinct quickness advantage over the offensive linemen trying to get to the second level. To the strong side, the Pirates completed the 3-4 look with an outside linebacker who usually aligned well off the line of scrimmage, almost in a nickel alignment.

The Pirates philosophy was focused on stopping the running game. The Pirates used 8-man fronts late in the game. However, for three quarters their scheme devised to stop the inside zone with their front-six, and then bringing the strong side outside linebacker and a safety up on the edge to clean up any cutback lanes and take away runs outside the tackles. The front-six completely ignored the threat of either the outside stretch or a bootleg. Instead, their front was clearly instructed to resist being moved laterally, and to plant their outside leg and cross the face of their blocker, while their middle linebackers attacked cutback lanes rather than moving laterally to avoid being reached by blockers going to the second level. Let's take a look at an example of how these techniques caused problems for the Hokie blockers.

On this play, the Hokies run the basic inside zone from the I-formation with a fullback lead. As previously discussed, each offensive lineman steps hard to the play side in an effort to drive the defensive line parallel to the line of scrimmage while creating a small cutback bubble for Trey Edmunds to hit.

00:03:32–00:03:37

David Wang takes a terrific initial step, driving the nose tackle a yard to the right and getting his head on the left side of the defender to create a cut lane back side. Fullback Sam Rogers sees the bubble, and leads through on the linebacker. But, at this critical moment, the play loses steam.

The defensive tackle, 6-1, 322-pound junior Terry Williams, plants his outside leg and crosses back across Wang's face. This is an incredibly athletic play (one of many Williams made throughout the game), made easier by Wang's inability to capitalize on the initial push and continue to drive him to the sideline. On the other side, Jonathan McLaughlin (who struggled both sealing the back side on zone runs and pass protection) is beaten inside by jack linebacker Derrell Johnson. He has to either get inside of Johnson and seal him outside, or drive him across the hole. McLaughlin gets caught in between, and makes the tackle with Williams closing in from the other side.

Now, rewind and watch both middle linebackers. Andrew Miller takes a hard outside step designed to reach the inside linebacker on the outside. Normally, that linebacker would sprint to the outside to protect against being sealed inside on an outside stretch, but here (and many other plays) the linebacker takes one step and ignores the threat of outside stretch and shoots the interior gaps. This leaves Miller (who did everything correctly) looking somewhat silly with nobody to block. The Pirates also brought a corner blitz from the boundary to account for bootleg.

Miller hinted at the linebacker's technique after the game.

"We weren't creating enough space on the zone, getting to our aiming points right and climbing to the linebackers," Miller said. "They were backdooring us a lot of times, so we've just got to be better at that, creating space down the line with this wide zone."

This scenario, with ECU's linebackers reading and attacking the inside zone, the defensive line bouncing off blocks back to the inside, and an 8th man coming into the box late from the secondary, was ongoing throughout the afternoon. I thought that perhaps Scot Loeffler could have made the inside zone more effective by mixing in more outside stretch to force those inside linebackers and interior linemen to respect the possibility of a reach block. Looking at the formation, if the tight end could seal the edge, the wide side of the field appears to be very susceptible to the stretch play.

While an outside stretch can be cut up quickly to the inside, the run is designed to attack the edge and then look for a cutback lane. On film, I try to look at the aiming points of the offensive line to determine if the call is an inside zone or outside zone. On inside zones, I expect the guards to get their heads on the inside shoulder of the defender and drive them to the sideline. On outside zones, I look for more of a reach block, with the guards attempting to get their heads on the outside shoulder of a defender.

While some of the early Virginia Tech runs may have been outside stretch plays that Edmunds and Mangus cut back inside, I could not clearly identify a true outside stretch until the fourth quarter.

00:17:21–00:17:28

While this run resulted in a relatively short gain (3 yards), it forces the defense to respect the threat to the outside. If the stretch was called, the backs need to recognize that there are more soft spots than just cutting right off the center. Running the outside stretch and attacking the edge forces those linebackers to move laterally rather than attack the line, and when the Pirate linebackers moved laterally against inside zone, Edmunds had three nice runs. Here is one example.

00:10:37–00:10:44

On this play, the right inside linebacker moves laterally towards the sidelines. Fullback Sam Rogers leads into the hole, and reads the linebacker moving to the outside. Rogers attacks the inside shoulder and turns him out, and Edmunds reads the cutback perfectly.

Still, despite all the struggles, the Hokies were able to scrape together just enough rushing yards to put the passing attack in serviceable down and distance situations. Despite losing some battles, the compete level was high. Jonathan McLaughlin had some struggles dealing with the bull rush off the edge, but he battled right to the whistle. He was also tremendous getting out in front of screens (as was the rest of the line). Give him a year in the strength and conditioning program and he won't lose his ground to a defender attacking him fullsteam straight ahead. David Wang had a tough day too, but that nose tackle played much better than his counterpart for Alabama. Unlike last year, I didn't see Wang losing contact and then watching his back get hit. He stayed engaged even after losing leverage. Pass protection besides McLaughlin was excellent. It wasn't as bad as the numbers would indicate, but there is room for improvement.

Again, I think every game will be a bit of a struggle on offense. Inexperience at the skill positions puts even more pressure on the offensive line to be perfect, and they are new to this system as well. They have to get better, and I expect they will.

Contact the editor about this post anytime by phone: (703) 646-1931 or mail: 3057 Nutley St Suite 633, Fairfax, Virginia 22031.

Comments

Awesome stuff, thanks.
It seemed that the RB was caught from the backside frequently.
Any comments on Logan's keep/hand-off reads? Seemed like Tech could have had some more gains sometimes.

The read plays and inverted veers more come from the spread. They didn't do much of it, and when they did the DE crashed the dive and Logan gave it to him anyway.

I still think these basic zone runs from a pro formation are critical. Logan has a role to play there as well by running out his bootleg fakes on the stretch. At the same time, Loeffler has to call bootleg a few times for the defense to respect the threat. The Hokies didn't run a single boot against ECU after running bunches against the Catamounts. If Logan hits a couple of chunk gains either running or hitting a little pass in the flat, the outside pursuit slows down considerably.

Viva El Guapo

Thanks for another excellent article, French. Always enjoy reading your stuff.

Question: Do you have any explanation for the almost total lack of misdirection plays called by Scot Loeffler in this game? I kept waiting for a designed cutback run against the grain, a QB bootleg with the TE dragging across the middle, or a reverse, but none ever came.

It really seemed to my untrained eye that the ECU defensive front was totally selling out on the first movement of our OL and RBs with the backside pursuit often cheating aggressively up the line play-side. So I was thinking that some misdirection plays could both a) go for big yardage, and b) help keep the ECU defenders at home for just a fraction of a second longer, since they would have to respect the possibility of something coming back at them heading the other way.

Thoughts? Was Loeffler possibly sandbagging the playbook until the Georgia Tech game?

I don't. I would like to see a wham counter or back side seal counter, and the bootleg can be an effective misdirection.

My one caveat vs ECU is that their inside backers were taking away the inside, but the safeties were coming in on run support outside in. If Loeffler had used boot or a counter, that safety would be unaccounted for IF they can get in position in time.

8 man front or not, if the Hokies had controller the nose and jack linebacker, the numbers would have been much better. Those two guys had outstanding games. The other uniform kids are on scholarship too.

Viva El Guapo

Near the end he talks about how they should have run more outside stretch plays, but the game plan was to go inside because of all the corner blitzes they were sending. French even noted this. I'm not smart enough to know how to beat that though.

I would think that the way to beat it would be a play-action fake to draw in the safety a step or two and then a deep fly, or skinny post pattern in the hopes that you can catch the CB on a blitz and the safety will be unable to get over in time to cover for him.

The way to beat it was to bust a big play in the running game. It didn't work. Second best was to make them pay for playing soft coverage behind the blitzes, and that was exactly what they did.

Viva El Guapo

Something's telling me that Loeffler might have Thomas in "give it unless it's blatantly obvious the defender has zero interest in respecting your run" mode. Like LT3 said in an interview this week, he didn't have many/any designed runs and there's really no point in him getting hit more than he needs to, especially this early in the season and against OOC opponents.

Yeah I would imagine that something to this extent is going on too because there were a few times last week where Logan should have kept it . If this is true, though, why even run the read option? The foundation for success on this play is indecision by the defensive players, which isn't happening if they don't have to respect the QB as a runner.

If they're even running an option (it may just be a designed keeper disguised as an option, although I did see Logan keep at least 1), it's probably just to remind DC's that they do in fact have to account for the QB as a runner and it might help to open up play-action. I think once we get into ACC play, we'll see Logan keeping a lot more of them.

We can't have a repeat of this. Sam Rogers also needs to step up his intimidation factor.

I support Coach Frank Beamer.

VT '10, Born & Raised in the 804. Hokies, Keydets, Army Black Knights, NY Giants, NY Rangers, and ATL Braves.

French -- I remember in the Orange Bowl vs. Cincy we had a lot of success doing the zone-block scheme with Darren Evans, in which the FB (or maybe it was the TE) kicked back and took out the back-side pursuit DE. I don't remember us doing this that much (or at all) this year. Thoughts?

Actually, they have bent back the fullback against back side pursuit a bunch, mostly against WCU. ECU ran a 3-4, meaning the DE's cover the tackles, so Rogers would kick out the OLB. But, if McLaughlin can't scoop the DE or drive him across the cutback lane, Rogers block is pretty meaningless.

Expect him to be blocking the back side DE's this week, and if he is successful it will look similar to a trap block.

Viva El Guapo

Thanks French, glad to hear your optimism.

Do you think JC would have had more success on the edge against the strong-side OL and Safety?

Great piece French as usual. Question....how do the fronts of GT, Miami, and UNC compare to that of ECU? Are they more like Bama or ECU?

I have not watched GT on D yet, so I will have to pass there. UNC uses a four man front with two linebackers and five DBs, so Marshall will give us a look there.

Miami runs a 3-4 with both OLBs on the line like the LT era Giants. Assignment wise, they are very similar to Alabama in that their DL tries to tie up blockers, the ILBs take inside gaps, and the OLBs are the playmakers in space. Miami looks smaller than Bama.

Also, it is really weird to see the Hurricanes playing anything other than 4-3.

Viva El Guapo

What I want to see is the direct snap to Sam Rogers, or the 'Wild Norris' set.
Once the ball is snapped, the opposing team will drop to the ground in fear.

Hmmmm....Now I'm wondering if Loefler kept one particular play from the Stienspring playbook. The Wild Turkey throw from Greg Boone to Tyrod Taylor. Couldn't find the play on Youtube, but Rogers was a HS QB and Logan already has a TD reception under his belt. I'm not sure about Roger's arm strength, but I'm assuming he could hit a quick go route.

Even though the offense were making progress, small ones, mind you, they did hit a snag. Credit Loeffler and S. Beamer for admitting they didn't do a good job of in-game adjustment. How refreshing! I remember that blog post Bitter did last summer where Stiney said, "I don't second guess myself." No wonder he sucked as an OC. Loeffler lamented that they didn't do enough to win the game against ECU. So I expect to see some improvements against Marshall.

#BeatMarshall

I support Logan Thomas and make no apologies for it.

I'd like to see some huge knock-down blocks

I support Coach Frank Beamer.

VT '10, Born & Raised in the 804. Hokies, Keydets, Army Black Knights, NY Giants, NY Rangers, and ATL Braves.