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Emerald Bowl Review: Part V: Setting Up the Flea Flicker

In this fifth part of a twelve post analysis, we're going to look at how Cal baits the defense by running plays which look similar but in fact are different.  In case you missed the previous installments, here is Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV

Also, I would like to give a very special thanks to Ken Crawford from Excuse Me For My Voice, for volunteering to create youtube videos for the plays I am dissecting.  Many people have suggested that I use videos but I do not have the software on my computer to splice up the video.  Please give Ken some thanks as since he's a very busy family man who also has many other social responsibilities but made the time to make the videos.  Be sure to also stop by his blog: Excuse Me For My Voice


In football, the offense will often bait the defense.  In other words, the offense will set up the defense.  In even more words, the offense will run one play, and then later run a second play that looks like the first play, but it's not.  Instead, that second play is meant to counter how the defense will likely respond to the same stimulus. I covered this before in the 2007 Cal vs. Tennessee game.  Cal used the same approach in the 2008 Emerald Bowl against the Miami Hurricanes.

First we'll look at the set-up play.  Here is the pre-snap picture below:


Cal is facing a 1st and 10 and has 12 personnel on the field (2 WRs, 2 TEs, 1 RB).  Cal is in its ace formation with one tight end on each side of the offensive line.


Cal moves the right wide receiver, Ross, in motion towards the offensive line.


After the snap the quarterback, Longshore, fakes the handoff (playaction), and then passes the ball (yellow trail). 


Here is the youtube video of the play.  This is the set-up play.  Now let's go over the second play which is designed to take advantage of the defense who is expecting a similar play.

Below is the pre-snap look of the second play.


Again, Cal has the same personnel on the field in the same formation.  Cal has 12 personnel on the field (2 WRs, 2 TEs, 1 RB), and as in its Ace formation with one TE on each side of the offensive line. 



Again, Cal moves its right wide receiver, Boateng, in motion towards the offensive line.


Thus far, everything has been the same.  But now things change.  Cal's quarterback, Longshore, pitches the ball to the runningback Jahvid Best.  This gives the illusion of the play being a run play.  Two of Miami's linebackers have blitzed (the two left orange arrows).  I think these linebackers were blitzing rather than responding to the play-fake because they were already stepping towards the line of scrimmage before the snap. 

Most importantly, Miami's strong safety has bit on the pitch, has stepped towards the box, and is focused on the backfield (the right-most orange arrow).  Cal wide receiver, Boateng, is in prime position to run his deep route right behind the Miami strong safety (blue arrow).


Cal then executes the flea flicker by having the runningback, Best, pitch the ball back to the quarterback, Longshore.  Unfortunately, because Miami's defense appeared to be blitzing two of its linebackers, the defense has penetrated the offensive line and is forcing Longshore out of the pocket.  If the pass protection had been better, Longshore might have had a chance to throw the ball.  Unfortunately, it appears as if the Miami free safety (the lower right orange dot on the far right of the picture above), did not fall for the fake and is backpedaling into deep coverage.  Furthermore, Miami's cornerback (defender in the bottom right corner) who is covering Boateng did not fall for the play fake either and is contining his man-coverage on Boateng.  Longshore, and the offense as a whole, really doesn't have a chance at successful completing the pass due to the quick penetration from the blitzers, and because the Miami free safety and cornerback were not faked by the toss to Best.


Longshore scrambles out of the pocket and throws the ball away.


Here is the youtube video of the second play.



Perhaps some of you are wondering why this is a set-up when the first play was a pass and the second play was also a pass.  Well, the first play was really like a trick, and the second play (the flea flicker) was even more of a trick.  In my previous post where I dissected the Cal vs. Tennessee game, I used the phrase "set-up" for the first play (the run), the phrase "the add-on" for the second play (the play action), and the phrase "the trick" for the ultimate third play (the reverse).  So applying these terms to these plays: the first play in this post was like "the add-on," and the second play of this post was "the trick."  Cal did not run the "set-up" prior to these plays.

If you think about it, Cal merely jumped to "the add-on."  Instead of going #1-run play; #2-playaction play; #3-flea flicker, Cal just started at #2.  The effect is still the same.  When the defense sees Cal run a playaction play, the defense knows the offense will probably run the ball out of the same formation.  The defense can make this assumption because this assumption is the whole premise behind playaction.  Playaction is designed to look like a run play, but is really a pass.  So if an offense play actions although never before running the ball, the defense can still assume a run will be called up some time in the future. 

Did you happen to catch the down and distance that these plays occurred on?  Both were 1st and 10.  Cal is very conscious to set up the defense on similar down and distances to help the defense see the pattern.

Did you happen to catch the area of the field where these plays were called?  Both were called around mid-field.  Playcalling differs when the offense is backed against its own goalline or is up against the opponent's goalline.  So if the offense is going to set up the defense, it's best to do it by calling both of the plays when the offense is at mid-field, or both of the plays when the offense is in the red zone, or both of the plays when they are backed against their own goalline.  In other words, the defense would have a harder time seeing the pattern if the offense ran "the setup" or the "add-on" at mid-field, and then ran "the trick" somewhere other than mid-field.

Also note that the ball location between the hashes are similar.  This aspect of football is widely ignored by most football fans but the location of the ball within the hashes has a huge effect on what plays are called and what direction the plays are run.

Although I didn't give you this information, do you know how long after the offense set-up the defense with the initial play that the offense ran the flea flicker?  Only 13 offensive plays later.  In fact, the initial play that the offense ran was the very first play of the game.  So in other words, Cal was already aiming to set up the defense from the very start.  And why is 13 plays later relevant?  Well, any sooner and the defense might suspect that the second play is some sort of deception or trick.  Any later, and the defense might not really remember that first play and thus won't bite on the bait.  Oh, and Cal didn't use its 12 personnel in Ace formation between these two plays to possibly confuse the defense, thus helping increase the chances that the defense remembered the first play.

While this play wasn't successful, it wasn't necessarily because of bad playcalling but because the Miami free safety was disciplined enough to not bite on the fake run.  Sometimes the deception works, sometimes it doesn't.  You win some and you lose some.  C'est la vie.