Disclaimer: I'm not an expert. Rely on the following analysis at your own risk.
So one of the new wrinkles to the Cal offense in 2011 has been the addition of Check-With-Me ("CWM") plays. This are the plays were the offense will line up at the line of scrimmage, give a hard count, and then look to the sidelines to see if the coaches want to run the original play or call a second play.
Before I break down one of these plays, I suppose it's prudent to explain why a team might want to run a CWM. The purpose of a CWM is to better counter what the defense is doing. When the offense lines up at the line of scrimmage, the defense will line up in response to the offense's formation. The offense will be looking at how the defense is aligned and will attempt to read the defense (guess the defensive play) based on the formation.
However, defenses will often "mask" their defense. In other words, they'll pretend to show one defense before the snap, but as soon as the ball is snapped they'll switch into a different formation. And this is where the hard count of a CWM comes into play. The offense, after lining up at the line of scrimmage will hard count. This is done deliberately to try and trick the defense into believing that a play is going to be run, and thus the defense will unmask their defense.
After the hard count, the offense will look to the sidelines. There, they will wait for a signal from the coaches on the sidelines. That signal will either tell the team to run the original play or run a different play. The play that is called is a play that the coaches feel will best counter what the defense appeared to be showing based on their formation and after the hard count. In other words, by using a CWM, it's as if the offense basically knows beforehand what play the defense is going to run, and thus the offense can run a play which counters that defensive play.
So let's get to the play I want to break down.
The play is from the Utah game. Cal is facing a 1st and 10 from their own 30 yard line in the 3rd quarter.
Cal has 11 personnel on the field (3 WRs, 1 RB, 1 TE). The formation is a pistol formation (QB in shotgun with the RB behind the QB), and the receivers in a 2 x 2 set.
The offense, after lining up at the line of scrimmage, gives a brief hard count, and then looks to the sidelines to see what the coaches want to do. And here's where the "chessmatch" between the offensive coordinator and the opposing defensive coordinator occurs.
So let's pretend we are Cal's offensive coordinator (Kiseau). What does he see the defense showing? We see the defense basically showing a Man Free (aka Cover 1) defense. As you can see from the picture above, the defense only has one high safety. The defense also has lined up defenders directly across from Cal's receivers, and close to the line of scrimmage in bump and run. This is clear man defense.
What are the Utah Linebackers doing? I don't know. I put a question mark behind them. They could be in zone, or they could be in man coverage with one basically covering the QB and the other covering the RB. But you know what? It doesn't really matter what they are doing.
Why doesn't it matter? Because regardless of what they are doing, Cal has a play which will beat them regardless of whether they are in man or zone.
So what is this play? It's an option to the offense's left. Maynard (Cal's QB) gets the playcall from the coaches on the sidelines. Maynard relays the playcall to the offense (he doesn't actually yell "option left" because then the defense will know the play too, Maynard relays the playcall in Cal's playcall language).
Maynard settles back into the pistol to take the snap. You'll note that the defense still hasn't changed their defense. They are still showing a Man Free (aka Cover 1) defense.
Here's a picture of the play just after the snap. You can see the option starting to form. The playside WRs (the WRs to the side that the run is being run to -- the offense's left) block down (inside) on their defenders. The QB and the RB then start running to the left.
When running an option, the QB and RB should try and keep, at the closest, a 4x4 yard pitch relation. Some coaches might like a little more space, and thus a 5x5 pitch relation, but either can work. As you can see Cal is more or less in a good pitch relation.
Now, before we get to the end of the play, let's look at how Cal wants to block this option play. So let's go to the endzone cam view. Here's the pre-snap look.
Here's how Cal will block this option. First of all, let's remember that the playcall is an option left. Cal has five offensive linemen. The Utah defense has six defender committed to stopping the run. Cal immediately wins this matchup.
Huh??? Yes, you heard me right. Despite Cal only having FIVE blockers, and the defense having SIX defenders dedicated to stopping the run, Cal will WIN this matchup.
Remember, this is an OPTION. The QB is a runner. And the RB is a threat to be a runner too. In other words, the defense CANNOT discount the QB and the RB. In other words, Cal has SEVEN players which must be accounted for on a run play (5 OL, 1 QB, 1 RB). The defense only has SIX defenders to stop SEVEN Cal players. Defense loses.
So going back to that above picture, you'll see how Cal wants to block this play. The Cal left tackle will block the playside defensive end. The left guard will combo block the playside defensive tackle with the center, then the left guard will break off to block the middle linebacker. The center will scoop block and block the playside defensive tackle (who has been momentarily blocked by the Cal left guard). Cal's right guard will block the backside defensive tackle, and the Cal right tackle will block the u[right backside linebacker.
Now, Cal could have blocked this play another way. For example, they could have had the left guard block the playside defensive tackle, and have the center just block the middle linebacker. This is probably a simpler way to block this play than how Cal actually blocked the play (shown above). Why did Cal choose a harder blocking scheme to block this play? I'll get to that in the next picture.
Also, I've drawn a circle around the playside linebacker. He's the guy that the offense is going to option. He's the target.
Here's the play after the snap. As you can see, the Cal LG has combo blocked the playside DT (with the Cal center scooping to block the playside defensive tackle), and the LG is now moving to block that Utah middle linebacker.
Now, here is why Cal blocks this option play with a combo/scoop block between the LG and Center, as opposed to just a straight man block; it's because then the LG has a better angle to block that middle linebacker.
Why is that middle linebacker so important? Because he's basically the only guy that has a chance at stopping this play for little to no gain. Why is he the only guy that has a chance to stop this play for little to no gain? We'll get to that next.
So here's the entire concept behind an option play. An option play basically pits one defender against two offensive players. It doesn't take a genius to know that the defense (should) always lose this matchup.
If that defender attacks the QB, then the QB will pitch the ball to the RB.
If the defender takes the RB, then the QB keeps the ball and runs upfield.
Now, which guy should the defender choose? Should he go after the RB or the QB?
Take a moment to think about it. I'm betting some of you are probably thinking there is no right answer. Wrong. There is a right answer.
Think about it for a moment before scrolling down.
Give up? The correct answer is that the defender should take the outside threat -- in other words, he should take the RB.
Why is that? It's because of a few things. First, the offense is trying to get the play to the outside. Why is that important? Because that's where the big gain is. Note how the WRs are blocking INWARDS on those defensive cornerbacks. That's because they want the ball carrier to get behind them, and outside. Secondly, the option defender needs to take the RB to force the QB back inside towards his help. Who is his help? The lone safety, who I've circled above.
And so the defender correctly does his job. He goes for Cal's runningback. Smart defender! And of course, he knows he's going to be wrong. And he is. Maynard sees the option defender take the RB, so Maynard keeps the ball and runs inside for a big gain.
So there you have it. That's how a Check With Me works, as well as how an option works.
Cal isn't the only team that runs CWMs. In fact, we certainly aren't the first. I'm not sure who might be the first to do this stuff, but some notable teams which do CWMs are Oklahoma and Oregon.
I personally don't like CMWs because I'd rather see the QB making the adjustments rather than the coaches. But, the unfortunate reality of the situation is that a lot of QBs may not have the intelligence or coaches' trust to do their own playcalling, and thus why teams run CWMs. Does Maynard have the ability to call his own plays? I don't know. He certainly hasn't done it yet this year. All of Cal's pre-snap playcall changing has been done through CWMs.
I'm pretty sure Tedford probably doesn't like CWMs. They're not "pro style". Tedford would probably prefer having his QB doing his own playcalling (it looks better for the team, the QB, and for scouts who are scouting the QB). But Tedford certainly must recognize the benefit of CWMs -- the ability to perfectly counter what the defense is doing.
Special thanks to TouchedTheAxeIn82 for making this torrent, and everyone who helps seed them. Without all ya'll's effort, I wouldn't be able to make these analysis posts.