In this twelfth part of a twelve part analysis, we're going to look at two consecutive plays to see how the offense can manipulate defensive players. In case you missed the previous installments, here is Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII, Part IX, Part X, and Part XI.
Above is the YouTube video of the plays (special thanks to Ken Crawford from Excuse Me For My Voice for creating this video).
The First Play
Miami has the ball on Cal's 28 yardline. They have 21 personnel grouping on the field (2 backs; 1 TE; 2 WRs). Cal has its 3-4 defense on the field. Prior to this play, Miami had run two running plays in a row that gained 11 and 17 yards respectively. Miami's run game clearly had the Cal defense's attention. What better way to take advantage of this attention than by running some playaction and passing the ball? Miami does exactly this. Please watch the first play in the YouTube video above.
As you can see, Miami runs a playaction run to the open side of the field (the offense's right), with the QB booting to the short side of the field. The fullback runs a line route left, and receives the short pass for a modest 6 yard gain - a very easy gain. In fact, that gain came too easily. Why did it come so easily? Well, as I said earlier, Miami had just run for 11 and 17 yard gains right before this play and had the Cal defense's attention. Most of the Cal players on defense were keying in on the run. Specifically, Cal linebacker Zack Follett.
Zack Follett (#56) is on the short side of the field playing the weak side of the offense. Watch the play again, and this time watch Follett. He keys in on the runningback, pinches in towards the direction of the run -obviously anticipating a run- and gives up his coverage on the fulback which leads to the easy pass and 6 yard gain. Miami's offensive coordinator probably knew that this play had an extremely high probability of success based on the previous two plays, and because Zack Follett is extremely aggressive when it comes to attacking the ball carrier and quarterback - as opposed to dropping into coverage.
It's sort of hard to blame Follett. I mean, most linebackers in his shoes might have made the same mistake too. The way Miami was running the rock down Cal's throat for the past few plays, I would have figured Miami to keep on doing it.
So after this play, what is the defense thinking? Specifically, what is Follett thinking? He's thinking, "oh yeah, I can't get too aggressive and forget about my coverage assignment."
What is the Miami offensive coordinator thinking? He's thinking, "I know Follett is thinking 'oh yeah, I can't get too aggressive and forget about my coverage assignment,' so I can now call a play that moves the ballcarrier, or passer, towards the weakside of the offense and I know there will be an opening there because Follett will be tied up in coverage against a receiver rather than focusing on the ballcarrier or passer."
So now, watch the second play.
The Second Play
Miami comes out of the huddle on this next play with 20 personnel grouping on the field (2 backs; 0 TEs; 3 WRs), and lines up in the I-Formation again. The offense runs a playaction to the open side of the field again and completes a pass to a wide receiver.
Did you happen to notice Zack Follett on this second play? Predictably, he's more cautious about reading the play and doesn't bite on the playaction. He maintains his coverage on the fullback, who again runs a line left to the flat. Miami's QB completes the pass to the wide receiver with no pressure on him and with a clear lane to pass and perhaps run too if he chosen to.
What was going on during Miami QB Jacory Harris' mind just before the snap on this play? Probably something like: sell the fake, boot, read the defense, and no need to worry about Follett pressuring me because he's going to be covering the fullback.
In other words, Harris knows that Follett isn't going to be pressuring him if Follett has a coverage assignment (If Follett was blitzing then clearly he would be pressuring Harris - but Zack Follett let it slip during the pre-game Emerald Bowl luncheon that he would be mostly playing containment during the game). Harris knows this because Follett got burned on the previous play for being too aggressive, so of course Follett is going to learn from that mistake and not get burned. So in essence, the offense pretty much knew how some of the Cal defenders would react to these two plays based on the results of the previous plays. The chess game is at work here.
This post probably best highlights the effects that a strong run game can have on a defense (or even just an offense that is able to string together a few successful runs back to back even though the offense itself might not be that powerful). When an offense can run the rock successfully, it gets the defense to key in on the run, and can open up the passing game by use of playaction. But additionally, the offense can essentially "know" where the defenders will be on the next play. If the offense has been very successfully running the ball the past few plays, the offense can expect defenders to be diving into the box on the next play. Alternatively, the offense can run a playaction play which attacks the flat defenders (usually linebackers, and sometimes cornerbacks), or the safeties downfield, and can reasonably expect the defenders to be quick to dive into the box to stop the run. Of course, as soon as the offense runs that playaction play, then on the next play after the playaction, the offense can be reasonably sure that the defense will be back to its neutral "honest" self (not defending against the run or pass more than the other) due to the fact that the defense was just exploited by playaction. It's when the defense is playing completely honest that it is most difficult to exploit because they're reading and reacting as opposed to anticipating. As the venerable California Pete so often says whenever I discuss the theory of playcalling: you don't want to be overly predictable but you do want to be somewhat predictable so that you can set up the defense.