Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Army Football Preview: Sculpting the Offense

It’s Week 3 of the Army Football Preview series, and as promised, we’re getting into actual football this week.  Specifically, we’re gonna talk about Army’s offense and what, if any, changes we ought to expect for 2018.
Let me start by saying that I got a little too into the schematics of the triple-option over the summer.  I don’t normally watch tape because I don’t feel like it’s one of my strengths; rather, I think I have more to add simply by looking at trends using basic statistics.  That’s not complicated, but it has proven to be fairly predictive in terms of identifying key match-ups ahead of specific contests, and this in turn frames how I’ve watched the games themselves.  The games themselves are easier to understand when we know what’s happening and why.  But I got legitimately interested in the specifics of triple-option offensive design through the process of writing the preseason Army-Navy preview, and once I got started, I just sort of kept reading.
This has been my low-key summer project.  Please keep in mind as we go forward, though, that I don’t have some deep personal knowledge of football gained through years of hard-earned experience.  Reading this stuff engaged the tactical part of my brain, and that doesn’t happen every day, but that’s about as much as I can say for myself.
Triple-Option Overview
It turns out that there are basically two ways to run what we commonly call the “triple-option”.  
The more iconic is via some version of the Veer, usually the Inside Veer.  In the Academy context, this is actually a version of the Spread—yes, the same basic concept that gives rise to many pass-happy West Coast-styles.  The Inside Veer uses the Fullback Dive as what we might think of as a Fixing Attack while the Quarterback Keeper and Speed-Option Pitch serve as enveloping Main Efforts.  Especially at Navy, the offense often spreads the field with wide receivers and runs or pitches off-tackle while the Fullback Dive holds the defense in place in the middle of the field.  It’s no coincidence that the Mids run some kind of Quarterback Power play on about 50% of their offensive snaps.  That’s the basic design of their offense.
The other way to do it is with some version of the Midline-Option, which is what we tend to see at Army.  Coach Monken and company often bring in tight ends in lieu of wide receivers and run what tactically we might call a Penetration.  There’s a Fixing element in the sense that the quarterback has an option read; he can either hand off for the Fullback Dive, or he can keep and run off-guard or off-tackle based on the read he gets from the defense.  A lot of times, that’s as far as it goes.  Theoretically, there is also a triple-option pitch to a trailing slotback while the playside slotback becomes a lead blocker, but we don’t see that nearly as often.  The last Midline Triple-Option Pitch I can remember was the pitch to SB John Trainor down near the goal line at Army-Navy last year.  It’s kind of a risky play because the quarterback is pitching the ball well behind the line-of-scrimmage with a defender right in his face.  But hey, that one to Trainor was absolutely crucial.

In both versions of this offense, the Options are a basic part of the blocking scheme.  Instead of blocking everyone, the quarterback has options against unblocked players, allowing freed blockers to get downfield and/or use double-teams in specific spots.  We might think of this through the lens of Mass andEconomy of Force.  The option elements are Economy of Force efforts allowing the offense to Mass blocks at critical times and places.  
Because this is an Army football preview, am I right?
In the Veer, the quarterback options the defensive end first.  If the end commits to the Fullback Dive, the quarterback keeps and generally heads outside.  If the end commits to the Keeper, the ball goes to the fullback for the Dive up the middle.  Either way, the play is going where the unblocked defender isn’t.  The same is true outside.  If the defender commits to the quarterback, the quarterback pitches to the slotback.  More commonly, though, the defender shades outside to prevent the big play, and the quarterback turns upfield for what becomes Quarterback Power off-tackle.  The ball goes where the defender isn’t.  That’s the design.
The Midline-Option is similar but stays mostly between the tackles.  The quarterback options the defensive tackle, and if the tackle attacks the quarterback, the ball goes to the fullback for the Dive.  If the tackle takes the fullback—or the blocking just isn’t good—the quarterback keeps and either runs off-guard or off tackle.  It’s worth noting, though, that Army has a real commitment to the Dive, meaning that they block it as a straight-ahead Midline run a lot of times, allowing them to pound the rock inside regardless.  They also run deliberate Quarterback Follow plays off play-action to the fullback.  Over time, this approach brings eight or even nine defenders down into the box, which is when the Black Knights hit teams with the Rocket Sweep to one of the slotbacks.  We saw more sweeps last season than triple-option pitches in part because the offensive concept is so focused between the tackles.  With nine defenders in the tackle box, the Sweep becomes akin to a play-action pass out into the flat.

For my fellow Armored Cavalry/History buffs, the Midline uses some of the same basic tactical concepts I remember the Russian Army using in various computer simulation exercises back in the day.  I remember learning the theory and thinking, “That shit will never work.”  But it totally works for the same reason that the Midline-Option works.  Because if your Fixing Attack (read: Fullback Dive) is having success, then the defense has to commit the reserve to stop it, and now all Hell is going to break loose via your Main Effort.  Or you can reinforce success via the Dive.  Tactically, we can resolve the issue by reconstituting reserves from minimally unengaged areas, but that’s physically hard to do with a tank brigade spread over a fifteen mile front.  It’s no easier in football.  As noted above, if a defense fully commits to the box, they open up the Rocket Sweep.  This is how San Diego State lost the Armed Forces Bowl.

But. I suspect that a lot of what Army did last season was predicated on the talent of its personnel.  We had a strong inside runner at quarterback in QB Ahmad Bradshaw, a terrific fullback rotation, and a potential pro prospect at right tackle in Brett Toth.  With that, hammering the Midline made sense.  The fullbacks gained good yardage in the middle, and Bradshaw often found room running behind Toth on the Keeper.
But that was last year.  What about this year?
Sculpting the Offense
We would start a military analysis by laying out terrain and weather, layer in enemy assets and tendencies, and then add friendly assets to develop tactical options and potential courses of action.  But the terrain in this case is flat, and the weather’s going to be all over the place.  More to the point, we cannot develop a coherent operational plan for a twelve-game season when each game is an independent contest against completely different opponents.  This leaves us to analyze friendly assets while trying to read the “tea leaves” of coachspeak to determine future tendencies…  
It’s a fraught process for early August.
Still, we think we know what we have on offense:
  •  A better passer at quarterback
  •  An experienced firstie at center, backed by guards with starting experience
  •  An excellent group of firstie fullbacks
  •  A strong mix of talent and experience at slotback
  •  A good group of big, recruited tight ends
  •  Mostly unproven tackles
  •  Mostly unproven wide-receivers, though it’s worth noting that the receiving corps ought to be bigger and more slightly athletic than they were last year.

This is not nothing.  Add in that the coaching staff has said that they want to get Walker more involved, and some ideas start to take shape despite all the uncertainties.
To start, it’s important to realize that the interior O-Line is probably going to be the best part of the O-Line, at least during early season.  Given that the fullback rotation is probably also the best part of the offense overall and that the team itself has shown a decided commitment to the Midline for the past two-plus years, it’s safe to say that the Fullback Dive isn’t going anywhere.  Which in turn means that 2018’s offense will look more like 2017’s offense than 2017’s offense looked like, say, 2015’s offense with Chris Carter under center.  Or, to put it another way, Army’s not going to suddenly start throwing for 200+ yards per game just because they have a quarterback who could maybe make that work.
Without Brett Toth at right tackle, though, I don’t know that Army runs as many Quarterback Power plays as it did in 2017.  How many times did we see Bradshaw powering down the right side behind Toth late in games in 2017?  That play made sense in critical situations because of the personnel.  It was a low-risk, high reward play.  In 2016, however, Army tended to run the Quarterback Follow in the middle in those same situations, and indeed, I think that’s what we’ll see in 2018 as well.  Why?  Because it gets the team’s best players involved in the most critical plays.

In a lot of ways, I think 2017’s offense was skewed by how well Toth played.  Bradshaw almost never pitched the ball because he flat didn’t have to.  I suspect, too, that the coaching staff wanted to minimize risk as often as it could.  Compare that to the offensive production in 2016, when Army ran plenty of Midline but also more Quarterback Follow and a lot more Speed-Option outside as well.  The highlights from 2016’s Heart of Dallas Bowl actually look different from the way these same players in this same offense ran the same scheme just one year later.  In 2016, they had to get good gains out of the Speed-Option and the Quarterback Follow.
By 2017, though, the Speed-Option was almost gone, and Quarterback Follow had been eclipsed by the success of the Midline-Option.  Army ran right at teams because it could.  That’s not a bad thing, but it’s unlikely to continue, at least in the immediate term.
So what are we going to see in 2018?  It might look something like this.  This clip is from when Coach Monken’s Georgia Southern team ran for more than 300 yards against Alabama, using a ton of Midline Triple-Option and a smattering of successful passing plays.  

Those option pitches to the slotback behind the line of scrimmage are maybe not ideal—they’re definitely not ideal from the standpoint of mitigating risk—but they might work against attacking defenses while Army is breaking in its new tackles.  They’d also serve to get Kell Walker more involved.
One more play that’s worth highlighting is this Quarterback Keeper to the Tight End.  

Army’s run versions of this, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of it, especially considering how much emphasis the team has put on recruiting tight ends.  This is the kind of thing that really plays to Kelvin Hopkins’ strengths, especially while the coaching staff is figuring out how much they want him to personally pound the rock.
* * *
If you want to follow me down the rabbit hole, 18 Stripes got me started, and from there I’ll recommend the NFL Breakdowns’ Beginner Series to go a little deeper.  They have a whole section on Flexbone Option concepts that I found extremely helpful.  I’ve also started following @3PhaseFootball on Twitter, and with what I’ve learned, I’ve started watching recruiting highlights from various Army quarterback commits by way of scouting the future.  Not so much because I have an opinion about who ought to be recruited but because I want to be familiar with the players when they finally hit on the field.
Final note: I usually try to balance discussion of Army’s offense and defense, but not this time.  I’m sure DC Jay Bateman will sculpt the defensive schemesome based on the players he has on the field this season, but full disclosure: I have no idea what that might entail.  So while this article is probably best understood as wild speculation on my part, I don’t even have speculation for defensive scheme adjustments.  Take that for what it’s worth.
Go Army!  Beat Duke!!!

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