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Film Study: Analysis of The Empty Set in The 2009 Big Game (Part II)

This is the second post in a two part series examining the "chess match" between Cal's offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, and Stanford's defensive coordinator Ron Lynn.  For the first part of the post, click here

When we last left off, it was halftime of the 2009 Big Game.  Cal's offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig had called offensive plays out of the empty formation four times in the first half.  All four times, Stanfurd's defensive coordinator Ron Lynn decided to defend the empty formation with a four-man rush quarters coverage with zones underneath.  Ludwig was able to exploit the defense on all the plays, and especially the second, third, and fourth time because the Stanfurd defense did not adjust to: (i) the player mismatches; and (ii) the offensive playcall.  Specifically, Ludwig had put an RB and TE as the outer-most receivers in the empty formation and put WRs on the inside so the WRs would be lined up against Stanfurd LBs.  That's the player mismatch.  Ludwig was also calling plays that attacked the weaknesses of the quarters coverage, by calling the same play (twice) that sent Lagemann and Ross on out short out routes. 

Coming back from halftime, Ludwig is wondering whether his "money play" is still going to work, or if Lynn will adjust the Stanfurd defense to take the play away.  Let's find out what happens!




The next time Ludwig called up the empty set was after halftime on the 8th play in the third quarter with 11:10 on the clock.  This is pretty early on in the second half of the game.  Ludwig is clearly wondering whether Stanfurd defensive coordinator Ron Lynn is going to make adjustments to Cal's empty set.  Cal is facing a 2nd and 7 in the opponent's territory.


Again, as Ludwig had done in some of the previous empty set plays, Ludwig places the Cal RB and TE as the outer most receivers, thus leaving the slot WRs lined up against the Stanfurd LBs in an obvious mismatch.


Remember, the reasoning for putting the TE and RB as the outer-most receivers is that most defenses, when playing man coverage, have their CBs defend the outer-most receiver.  Thus, if the defense is playing man coverage, then the defense is putting their best pass defenders (their CBs) on the offense's worst pass threats (the TEs and RBs); and the offense has their best pass threats (their WRs) on the defense's worst pass defenders (the LBs). 

And what do you know?  Ludwig has lucked out!  Stanfurd's defensive coordinator Ron Lynn has switched to man coverage!  In the picture above, I've shown the man coverage with the straight yellow lines.  Ron Lynn has tired of seeing his quarters defense get shredded by Ludwig's empty set so he's decided to try something new!  Well, trying man coverage rather than a zone defense still doesn't solve the problem of the offense getting a superior match-up against Stanfurd's LBs. 

But wait...


Stanfurd's CBs notice that the men they are supposed to be covering aren't WRs, but are instead the RB and TE.  They give a signal to the rest of the defense.  Alert!  Alert!  Alert!


Stanfurd's defense makes a quick pre-snap adjustment.  On the bottom part of the picture, one of the Stanfurd LBs moves outside, and the Stanfurd safety and CB move inwards. On the top part of the picture, the Stanfurd CB moves inwards, and the Stanfurd safety moves outwards.  The result?


The result is that the defense has now resolved the mismatch.  They have put their best pass defenders (their CBs and safeties) on the offense's best pass threats (the WRs), and have put their worst pass defenders (their LB) against the offense's worst receiving threat (the TE).  Now the defense is more evenly matched against the offense in terms of skill, speed, and size. 


At this point, Ludwig has seen this and has realized that Ron Lynn did notice what was going on in the first half.  Ron Lynn, in the Stanfurd coaches' box is probably thinking something along the lines of "Yeah, screw you, LudwigYour money play ain't gonna work this time!"  Clearly, Ron Lynn told his players about this adjustment during halftime. 


So Ludwig now knows that his empty set is probably going to see man coverage, but what is the rest of the defensive coverage?  Just prior to the snap, Stanfurd's other two LBs, creep up to the line of scrimmage (LOS).  They're showing blitz!  If those two LBs blitz, and assuming that Stanfurd also rushes their four defensive linemen, then Stanfurd will be sending six pass rushers at the QB.  Cal, only has five pass blockers!  Cal will have one less blocker than there are pass rushers and Stanfurd will be able to get quick pressure on Riley. 


Here's a picture of the play after the snap!  Stanfurd does rush their four defensive linemen as well as the two LBs.  Stanfurd is playing a Cover Zero defense!  A Cover Zero defense has no deep safety!  Instead, the defense is playing man coverage on all the offensive receivers, and any remaining defenders are pass rushing the QB.  As you can see, the middle of the field is void of any Stanfurd defender.  This is the weakness of the Cover Zero defense.  If Riley has enough time, perhaps he can exploit that weakness by getting off a deep pass to one of the receivers running the "go/streak/fly" routes (different names for the same route).


But unfortunately, because the offense has one less blocker than the defense, Riley is rushed and cannot get the pass off. 


Riley then scrambles to his right, and throws an off balanced pass that falls incomplete to Lagemann who again was running an out route.  Lagemann actually broke upfield after seeing that Riley was flushed from the pocket.  The defender covering Lagemann got caught peeking at Riley and didn't realize that Lagemann was headed upfield.  The result was that Lagemann was wide open.  Riley couldn't make the throw though do to the pressure and could not take advantage of a great ad lib by Lagemann and the mistake by the Stanfurd CB. 

Although we can't see all the receivers on the field, I believe this the very same play that Ludwig has called the past two times Cal has been in the empty set.  This is the "money play!"  Ludwig has called the same pass play three times within two quarters! 

At this point, Ludwig has to be thinking that he can't call this play again as since he knows he'll probably see a six man rush Cover Zero defense from Stanfurd and Riley won't have enough time to pass.  Ludwig has pushed his luck long enough and he can't call this play again. 

Here's the video of Play #5 (special thanks to ieeebear for making this video):


Quick recap:
*Cal in empty set formation.
*Cal puts WRs in slots, and the TE and RB outside.
*Stanfurd rushes six!
*Stanfurd plays Cover Zero!
*In a chess analogy: Lynn has parried Ludwig's check, and simultaneously threatened Ludwig elsewhere on the chess board.  Lynn is now on offense and Ludwig is on defense.




But Ludwig is not done.  In the fourth quarter, with the Cal offense facing a crucial 2nd and 12 in their own territory nursing a three point lead, Ludwig decides to call the empty set formation one more time!  What the heck could he be doing here?  Is Ludwig really going to call the same play again?!?!  For the fourth straight time?!?!  Doesn't he remember that Stanfurd defensive coordinator Ron Lynn countered his money play last time with the six man rush Cover Zero defense?


Well, it turns out that Ludwig has done something slightly different.  There is no TE on the field.  Instead, four WRs are on the field and one RB (Vereen) is on the field.  Vereen is in the middle slot on the offense's right.   Stanfurd, again, shows that it will be defending with its six man rush Cover Zero defense.  Note that the Stanfurd LB covering Lagemann (the inner-slot WR on the offense's right side) has already placed himself far outside of Lagemann playing outside leverage in anticipation for that out route!  Ludwig is walking the Cal offense into a trap! 


The Stanfurd defense looks primed to stopping this play cold.  However, the Stanfurd safety realizes that Lagemann is lined up against a LB, and that there is a mismatch (WR on LB).  He alerts the Stanfurd LB who is covering Lagemann. 


The two players switch their assignments.  The result is that Stanfurd has now resolved the mismatch again.  The defense's fastest players and best pass defenders (the CBs and safeties) are lined up against the offense's best pass threats (the WRs); and the defense's worst pass defenders (the LB) is lined up against the offense's worst pass threat (the RB). 


Stanfurd is still showing that they're going to play Cover Zero with six pass rushers as since their other two LBs creep closer to the LOS prior to the snap.


Here's the post-snap picture.  Stanfurd rushes six again.  As for Ludwig, he didn't go to his money play!  Instead, he goes with a RB slip screen!  Note Vereen at the bottom of the picture running his little hitch route and preparing for the pass.  The other WRs set up to block the Stanfurd defenders upfield.


Riley passes the ball, but the ball is thrown low and Vereen drops it.  The ball is incomplete.  The play fails.

Despite the play failing due to a bad pass and dropped ball, do you see the genius of the playcall?  Ludwig knew that Lynn would probably defend the empty set with the six man rush Cover Zero defense again - just like Lynn did in Play #5.  This shows Ludwig was carefully paying attention to how the defense was responding to his offensive playcalls on a detailed play-by-play basis.  Ludwig called a screen play that is designed to take advantage of a blitzing and aggressive defense Ludwig was baiting Lynn!  Ludwig had Lynn too!  Lynn lucked out due to a bad throw.  This type of play was like some cool Aikido move (the martial arts style that uses the opponent's momentum against them).  Ludwig was using Lynn's attack against Lynn.  Genius!

Ironically, even if Riley's pass hadn't been low and Vereen had made the catch, the play still might have not succeeded.  Why?  Look at the Stanfurd pass rushers.  They hadn't penetrated very much at all to create the void that Vereen would need to safely catch the ball and head upfield.  The reason why the pass rushers hadn't penetrated upfield enough was because (ironically) the offensive line did too good of a job blocking.  On this type of slip screen play, the offensive line has to feign a poor block, and allow the defensive linemen to penetrate quickly.  But when you watch the video of the play, Cal's LG, RG, and RT all heavily engage their assignments disallowing them to penetrate.  Cal center, Guarnero, is the only offensive lineman that sells the screen (what Tepper does doesn't matter all that much since the play is going away from him).  The result of the (normally) good blocking, but bad blocking in this instance, is that the Stanfurd pass rushers are in prime position to stop Vereen.

Here's the video of Play #6 (special thanks to ieeebear for making this video):


Quick recap:
*Cal in empty set formation.
*Cal puts puts four WRs and one RB on the field with the RB in the middle slot. 
*Stanfurd rushes six!
*Stanfurd plays Cover Zero!
*In a chess analogy: Ludwig baited Lynn into checking Ludwig.  Ludwig had the perfect move set up to counter Lynn and put Lynn in check, but then Ludwig moved his piece into the wrong square thus foiling the setup (execution error!)



Originally, this post started off in my mind as a small post dissecting how Ludwig was putting the TEs and RBs as the outer-most receivers to gain advantage over the defense via a mismatch.  But after charting this game, and breaking down all these plays, I realized much more was going on in these plays than I had originally thought. 

These plays are a great example of the "chess match" that goes on between offensive coordinators and defensive coordinators.  These "chess matches" are always talked about in the media, but so rarely are they actually illustrated by anyone.  I suspect the reason is because so few people actually can see or realize what is going on.  If my suspicion is correct, then the situation becomes quite ironic when fans criticize coaches for playcalling.  After all, if fans cannot see the latent "chess match" going on, they hardly seem qualified to criticize and critique the coaches as since they have no idea what's going on.  Even I, have fallen prey to this irony.  I have often made criticisms of playcalling without detailed examination of the entire game chart and film.  So I am left with the feeling that some level of knowledge, insight, and perception is required to fans to intelligently criticize playcalling.  Because what may seem like just another stupid screen play really might be backed by incredible intelligence, awareness, creativity, and anticipation. 

I believe that all these plays demonstrate Ludwig's intelligence, awareness, creativity, and anticipation within the empty set formation.  With his awareness, he quickly identified the defense that he was presented with.  He identified the weaknesses of the defense.  He then took advantage of the defense.  He even adapted to defensive changes made by the defensive coordinator.  That's all you can really hope for from your offensive coordinator.  The rest is up to the football players, the football gods, and Lady Luck.