In last week’s defensive primer, we discussed Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense and how the Irish run it. This week, we take a look at how that same defense works against an option team like Navy.
Spoiler alert: The defense is completely different.
Before we get too far into this, let’s first examine the type of offense we are defending. Navy’s triple option attack lines up in a modified version of the Wishbone, called the Flexbone:
In this formation, the running backs line up close to the line instead of behind the fullback as they would in the Wishbone. While Navy does run some differing variations of the Flexbone (like an unbalanced line or Flex “Spread” with 3 WR and 1 RB), the above is the base formation for Navy’s triple option offense.
Now let’s look at a basic triple option play:
As shown above, the QB has three different options to pick from:
- FB Dive
- QB Keeper
- Pitch to RB
The choice of which option to pick is completely dependent on what the QB reads. It is completely dependent on the actions of the defender and it’s success is directly related to the QB’s ability to read these actions and/or mistakes by the defenders.
To combat this particular offense, Diaco throws out his usual 3-4 for a more “traditional” 4-3 look:
While the above does seem similar to some of the diagrams last week, there are some subtle differences. The safeties have creeped closer to the line. The Will and Dog LBs function as traditional outside linebackers (although Diaco is known to spice things up here, namely putting a safety in one of those slots as he did last year with Jamoris Slaughter). The biggest difference though is that the usual “hybrid” roles that I took such pains to describe last week find themselves replaced by specific assignments. Those assignments though aren’t gaps–they’re players.
The color-coded chart above defines these responsibilities and each has a specific role to snuff out each potential play of the option.
- FB Dive (Blue) – The DE and NG function as true interior DTs and attack the A gaps that they line up over to stuff the dive.
- QB Keeper (Red) – The Cat and DE get to the outside of the tackle and either make a play on the QB, force him back inside to the waiting safeties in second level support, or force a pitch.
- Pitch to RB (Yellow) – The outside Will and Dog LBs contain the RB (or “pitch-man”), ensuring they are never beaten to the outside. As soon as they see the pitch, they attack the RB. The CBs serve as additional outside containment.
The Mike LB (Orange) has a completely different assignment: read the play. It should be no surprise that Diaco relies on Manti Te’o to trust his instincts and allows his best defender to simply make plays. Te’o provides crucial second-level support to the first two options (dive and keeper) of the offense as well as attacking the play directly.
Should everyone stay on their assignments properly, as well as reading the play correctly, potential yardage gains will remain minimal.
Let’s take a look at what happens when everything is executed properly:
In this play, the QB has just faked the dive as the blue defenders have clogged up the A gap, rendering the FB dive useless. Unfortunately, Shembo, playing Cat/DE on this play has been sucked to the inside. Te’o (orange) reads this and moves to fill in the new hole with Zeke Motta (red) moving down to provide the second level support. Meanwhile, Carlo Calabrese (yellow) locks in on the potential pitch-man.
Te’o takes a very aggressive angle to try and stop the play; however, as everyone else has stayed at home, the following results:
Despite Te’o (orange) now being out of the play, the QB has found himself trapped. Carlo has rendered any potential pitch usless (yellow), and Motta (red) is in perfect position to make the play and does so.
Of course, not everything goes according to plan. In fact, although the Irish had a superb defensive effort, there was one play that did give them a few fits. This play was a wrinkle in the triple option game that I like to call a “power” option:
This wrinkle in this play is that the “play-side” RB turns into a lead blocker, making the RB opposite him the pitch man. The danger here is that the defense can be lulled into thinking that the blocking RB is actually the pitch-man, sucking defenders into blocks that they’d rather avoid. This can allow for a block to spring the QB loose for a big gain, or leave the actual RB with only a CB to beat on the outside.
The Irish fell into such a trap on one of the largest gains that Navy had in 2011:
Once again, the D-line has rendered a FB dive useless (blue). Unlike the last play, the DE (red) actually has a good shot at containing the QB. Te’o (orange) moves in to support the QB keeper option, and the outside LB (yellow) locks in to who he thinks is the pitch-man; however, he will be dead wrong as the actual pitch-man is the RB coming form the other side of the field.
Now the Irish are in trouble.
The DE (red circle, middle) no longer has an angle on the play and Te’o (orange) has been sucked into a block. This leaves the outside LB (yellow) stuck by a blocker and having to now defend both the QB and the pitch-man. Even his second level support (red circle, right) is stuck in a similar awful situation.
Now having to defend two players at once, each player now must hesitate instead of attack. These hesitations are costly as the outside contain is completely lost and the pitch becomes the easy choice:
The Navy RB has a clear lane down the sideline. The outside LB (yellow circle) is now helpless to prevent the first down. The two safeties (red circles) are now forced to scramble to try to prevent the big gain, but are unable to. In fact, the tackle is eventually made by a CB, Gary Gray, who is out of this current frame.
A combination of solid blocking and good reads by Navy, plus some unfortunate reads by the Irish, resulted in a big 16 yard gain on 3rd and long–a third down conversion that you never want to give up to an option team.
In fact, the final important point to understand in defending the option is to realize that the main goal is to “win” the drive (basically, don’t give up a TD) and not necessarily just a play or two. This is a point that I examined last season against Air Force and Navy. By limiting the damage done overall on a drive, and by scoring TDs on your own offensive drives, the clock and score become extra defenders that force option teams off their gameplan, leading to far more pass plays than they’d ever want to call.
So, yes, a good offense is a great defense against an option team; however, don’t expect the Irish to rely solely on their offense to win the day against Navy.
After 2010 ended in complete disaster, Diaco made some great adjustments within just a year’s time to make sure his defense would never suffer such a humiliating defeat again. 2011’s contest against Navy turned into an option defense clinic.
Here’s hoping for a similar result out in Dublin.