Sunday, February 14, 2010

Next Generation of Football

New Direction for Play Calling

It is important to acknowledge the play developments that have radically changed over the past year now that the NFL and NCAA football seasons are behind. Football has shifted significantly in terms of strategy and play-calling; The traditional form of balanced offenses have been abandoned as coaches have turned to more radically aggressive or passive offenses which in turn change player demands and scheming on defense.

Offensive strategy has turned to the extremes in order to create space and mismatches. Teams are using densely packed (goal-line resembling formations) or lose (single-back and empty backfield) formations to open up holes and lanes. In addition to opening up running room, these new formation also permit more frequent man-to man coverage which allows passers to create and expose man-to-man mismatches.

Spread

The first type of next generation offense that has become an omnipotent force in football is the Spread offense. On the NFL level, Super Bowl XLIV featured two offenses that have executed the spread offense to near perfection in two fairly different ways. The Indianapolis Colts' spread takes advantage of mismatches and man-to-man coverage when Peyton Manning makes adjustment at line in his pre-snap routine. By reading the defensive formation in attempting to identify what the safeties' duties are, whether a blitz is forthcoming, and whether the defense is lined up in zone or man are a few of the considerations that Manning attempts to read in order to set up one-on-ones and mismatches for him to expose. 

On the other hand, the New Orleans Saints relied on nifty play designs (by Sean Payton) in order to open up spaces for talented runners. However, before a team can capitalize on open spaces the offense must create them by having a successful passing game which causes defenses to drop back and more defensive backs to stop the pass which in turn creates more room at the line of scrimmage. Once there is more room, the Saints use trickery and QB-draw-reads to either open up draws for the RB or add another element of play action to the offense.

On the college level the spread offense have been well executed by the Missouri Tigers with the Spaceship formation and by Mike Leach during his reign at Texas Tech. The Spaceship formation in Missouri is an empty backfield with the RB lined up as a receiver. The QB usually sets the RB in motion in which he either reads a draw or holds back and surveys his five options. Texas Tech's Spread Offense has been one of the most dominant in recent years as Taylor Potts and Graham Harrell were at the top of almost all QB statistics for the past few years.

Triple Option / Wildcat

The other offense that has become ever more successful in football is a bunch based formation. More frequently seen as the triple option on the college level and the Wildcat on the pro level, each of these two takes advantage of tightly packed players to open up lanes and one on one situations for favorable open field situations. The theory behind these offenses are to utilize the quarterback as a runner which turns a would be running back into an additional blocker. This helps to even out the offensive defensive numbers and forces defenses to bring a safety into the box in order to stop the run. Packed formations also utilize setting players in motion in order to diagnosis defensive coverage, defensive assignments, create running lanes by moving defenders in man-to-man.
 
Two of the most successful college teams which use the option are Navy and Georgia Tech. Along with excelling at the running and blocking portions of the triple option, each team has a capable passer in Ricky Dobbs (for Navy) and Josh Nesbitt (for GT) who makes defenses weary about dropping a safety into the box because that would open up one-on-one coverage for at least one wide receiver. This scheme is practically unstoppable when a team can successful pass out of the option. In the case of GT, the entire field must be accounted for by defensive coordinators when a high-caliber receiver as DeMaryius Thomas is at your disposal.

Defense

In essence these new offenses force defenses to line up in man-to-man to make sure all players are accounted for and possibly disrupt any type of trickery that can be derived by allowing a player to stand freely in an uncounted area in the zone. The man-to-man setup up ultimately favors whoever of the offensive and defensive player is better. Factors such as athleticism, speed, strength, and tactics all come in to this offensive-defensive standoff. Ideally a defense is supposed to have the upper hand if everyone plays man to man and first tackle is made on the player (i.e. all receivers are running backs are covered and each line man is facing a rusher leaving one free player to go after the QB). However, it cannot be guaranteed that the lone player will make the tackle (let alone actually reach the player with the ball) since no game is ever ideal which is why the games are played. 

The increase of man-to-man situations and open field situations call for defenders who can make the first tackle and have the versatility to cover multiple positions so that a traditional RB/DE (speed advantage) or TE/DB (strength advantage) can be diminished or altogether eliminated. This calls for a new breed of unheralded athleticism so realism approaches idealism as close as possible and the defensive players can make the first tackle or eliminate a runner's advantage. Examples of these upper level athletes include defensive backs such as Bob Saunders and Troy Polamalu who have great speed and incredible tackling ability as well as lineman such as Adelius Thomas and Shawne Merriman who have great size, yet gap closing speed (granted the two latter examples haven't played to their potential recently). Ideally, all players will need to have at least two of three dimensions in order to be successful: pocket pursuit (DL), play development stoppers (LB), coverage (DB).
Additionally, defenses will need to develop their own "defensive quarterback" with the development of intensive pre-snap routines of offenses. A MLB or Safety will have to scout what the offense shows and will then have to counter. Such requirements would include calling audibles, calling blitzes, shifting coverages, and showing fake plays/intentions (such as move defender to fake man to man while actually playing in zone or showing a fake blitz to confuse the QB).

Let's see if this trend continues, reverses, or is nullified by a new development.

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