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Conversations With the Coach: ND vs. the Navy Spread Option

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The Coach is back with another X's and O's discussion that addresses a question near and dear to all Notre Dame Fans this week. How do you stop the Navy Spread Option?

Enjoy the post, and don't hesitate to jump into the comments to ask a question or otherwise join in the conversation. The Coach will be checking back with us over the course of the next couple of days to continue the discussion. If you enjoy this post you might also enjoy some of the other discussions we have had with him over the last few weeks. Without further adieu....

The Coach

As Whiskey promised, here is this week’s discussion on Defending Navy’s Spread Option. As always, I will try to keep this discussion as basic as possible, which will be a challenge. The Spread Option Offense is very simple in that it involves few plays and few formations, but preparing a defensive game plan vs. the Spread Option is a complicated matter. Option plays in this offense evolve as they are being executed and that creates big headaches for defenses trying to stop this attack. Let’s have a look at what they do.

Navy calls their attack the Spread Option because they are trying to spread the field and make the defense cover the entire field. Their base spread formation is the one that Whiskey has drawn at the top of this article. They like to play two split ends split 17 yards from the Offensive Tackles. They line up two slotbacks, each one yard behind and one yard outside of the Offensive Tackles.

Their fullback is aligned directly behind the QB only 2 1/2 yards behind him. The fullback is only 3 1/2 yards from the line of scrimmage. The QB is under center. The obvious difference between this Spread Option formation and a regular Wishbone formation is the two slotbacks. With the slotbacks so close to the line of scrimmage, this gives Navy four quick receivers, two on each side. Opposing secondaries cannot become so concerned with defending the option that they begin to disregard the four quick receivers. Although they don’t do it much, Navy is always a threat to throw the football and defenses must honor this threat. When Navy does throw the ball, it is usually with disastrous consequences for the defense.

About 20% of the time, Navy will also run what they call their "Flex" formation. In the Flex, they simply close their Split End’s splits to about 3 yards. It gives them a tighter formation. Running this formation gives defenses another look to work on during the week and gives them the ability to run some different blocking schemes on the edge of the formation. I have seen Navy run three other odd formations a very limited number of times.

I was fortunate to be able to record last week’s Navy - SMU game and I scouted it for Navy’s formations, their offensive plays and their Wide Side - Short Side tendencies. Here are the numbers:

Total Plays: 67

Formations:

Spread Formation - 48 times.

Flex Formation - 12 times.

Three assorted other formations - 7 times.

Running Plays:

Midline Option (their base option play) - 32 times.

Crazy Option (QB fakes FB dive one direction and then reverses and goes to his second option opposite the FB dive fake) - 7 times.

Lead Option (No dive fake here. QB sprints right to the edge with the FB as lead blocker) - 7 times.

Fullback Dive( no option here, just a straight dive by the FB) - 3 times.

Assorted other running plays - 7 times.

Total Running Plays - 57. Total Option Plays - 46.

Passing Plays:

Drop back pass - 9 times.

Option Pass (QB fakes to the FB on the Midline Option and then drops off the line and passes) - 1 time.

Total Passes - 10.

Navy ran the Midline Option 32 times and gave the ball to the FB on that option 19 times. The Navy FB carried the ball a total of 21 times for 95 yards and 2 Touchdowns and was named Player of the Game. His two touchdowns and most of his yardage production was in the second half.

Wide Side - Short Side Tendencies: Passed or Ran to the Wide side of the field - 21 times. Passed or ran to the middle of the field - 10 times. Passed or ran to the short side of the field - 36 times.

So, what did we learn from scouting Navy’s offense vs. SMU?: 1.) ND better defend the option, especially the Midline Option. 2.) ND better shut down their fullback. 3.) Navy will run their base Spread formation 75% of the time. I believe that Navy’s tendency to run plays to the short side of the field was due to SMU aligning their Strong Safety on the Wide Side of the Field. Whether they show that tendency against ND will depend on how ND aligns their secondary on defense. We better start working on defending the Midline Option and shutting down the fullback vs. their Spread Option Formation.

Here is how the Midline Option works: Navy calls this play The Midline option. We all know this play by its former name, The Triple Option. Obviously, the play consists of three options: 1. The Dive Option - This is the Quarterback’s option to give the ball to the Fullback on the Dive or keep the ball and continue down the line. 2. The Pitch Option - If the Quarterback keeps the ball on Option #1 and proceeds down the line, then he has the option of pitching the ball to the trailing pitchman or keeping the ball and turning up the field. 3. The Pass Option - If the QB elects to keep the ball in Option #2, then he has the option of running up the field or dropping off the line and passing the ball (This never happens. I will explain later.) Let’s examine these options more closely. It will be difficult to do with no Xs and Os to work with but I will do my best to make it understandable. You readers might print your own copy of Whiskey’s diagram at the top of this article to follow as you read.

Dive Option - This is the bread and butter of the Spread Option offense. The QB takes the ball and steps playside and back toward the fullback with the ball extended to the FB. He wants to make contact with the FB at the "mesh point" (point where the exchange is made) as soon as possible. The QB is not looking at the FB as he does this. He is looking at the "Dive Read" which is the first down defensive lineman from the guard out. Against ND, his dive read will be the Defensive End (he is the first down defensive lineman from the guard out). The FB will clamp down on the ball with both arms and take the ball. The FB is preparing for a possible collision while barreling straight up the guard’s butt and cannot be trying to make a decision about whether to take the ball or not. He’s taking it. If the QB decides to keep the ball, it is his job to pull it out of the FB’s belly.

The playside Offensive guard is going to "Combo Block" the Noseman and the backside ILB. He will come off the ball and double the Nose with the Center to help the Center get control of the Nose, then he will slide off and continue on to the backside ILB to cut him off from pursuing. The QB "rides" the FB up into the hole (B gap) as he reads the DE. As the QB reads the DE, both QB and FB are holding the ball tightly. No one will block the DE. The Offensive Tackle that the DE is lined-up on will try to release around the DE and go block the playside ILB cutting him off from the play. The DE is unblocked and free to take the FB on the dive or let him go and take the QB. The QB makes his decision based on what the DE does. If the DE crashes down into B gap to take the FB dive, the QB pulls the ball out of the FB’s belly and continues down the line, with the ball, to his pitch option. If the DE steps up the field to take the QB, the QB will let the FB have the football on the dive. Theoretically, the DE cannot do the right thing here and takes himself out of the play by taking the wrong man.

Pitch Option - If the QB keeps the ball on the Dive Option, he proceeds to the next phase of the play, which is the Pitch Option. The next defender on the line of scrimmage, outside the DE, is the OLB. He is lined up on the line of scrimmage on the outside eye of the slot back. The OLB is the QB’s "Pitch Read". No one will block the OLB. The OLB is unblocked and free to take either the QB or the trailing slotback who is called "the pitchman". This read is a little easier for the QB to see than the Dive Read. If the OLB comes at the QB to take him, the QB will pitch the ball to the trailing pitch man. If the OLB proceeds up the field to take the pitch man, then the QB keeps the ball and turns it up field inside the OLB through C gap. Like the DE on the FB dive, the OLB cannot do the right thing here. He takes himself out of the play by taking the wrong man.

Navy employs a variety of blocking schemes on the edge to provide running lanes for the QB or the Pitchman. On one scheme, the playside slotback "arcs" out to block the corner who is lined up on the split end and the split end cracks down inside to block the playside safety. On another scheme, the Split End sprints off the line and "stalk" blocks the corner and the slotback releases up field to block the safety. I have even seen them release the playside slotback inside the OLB to block the playside ILB while the playside OT releases up field to block the safety. They do it a number of ways.

Pass Option - This option doesn’t really exist. The QB cannot exercise the option to pass or run out of the midline option. For one thing, his receivers have been assigned to block on the play and if he decides, on the field, to pass the ball, Navy will probably have offensive linemen downfield on the play. If the QB starts the midline option, keeps the ball and pulls off the line and passes, it is a play that is called from the sideline and not an option decision that the QB makes on the field. However, Navy does call this play occasionally when opposing secondaries become preoccupied with stopping the Midline Option. As I said, I only saw them run the Option Pass one time against SMU, but it went for a touchdown. So, they don’t run this play often, but it is very effective when they do.

The Midline Option accounts for half the offensive plays that Navy runs in the course of a ball game. It is their offense! If ND shuts down this play, Navy has no offense. How should ND defend this play? After the Western Michigan game, Brian Kelly said that ND had been working on defending the Navy attack a little bit each week during the entire season. I’m sure that ND has a sound game plan for Navy, so I am not going to be so presumptuous as to suggest my own game plan here. I will, however, state some coaching points and suggest some things that Coach Diaco and his staff probably considered when formulating their game plan. Here are those points and suggestions and you might look for them come game time this Saturday:

Noseman - The Nose has to defeat the Center and get his head in the playside A gap to force a double team between the Center and playside Guard. He could do this by flexing (backing off the ball a bit) and reading the QB’s feet and getting playside of the Center before the Center cuts him off from the play or.....I think it suits ND’s Noseman a little better to just smack the Center in the mouth and then read the flow of the ball to get into the playside A gap. It is important that the Nose force the double team with the playside Guard because it keeps the guard from combo blocking him and slipping off to block the backside ILB. The backside ILB has to be able to run to the pitchman against the Midline Option.

Defensive End - He has to crash down into B gap and take out the fullback on every play. He should force the issue and not allow the QB the option of giving the ball to the FB. The FB must be contained! Navy’s FB killed ND last year and he killed SMU last week. On the Midline Option play, Navy wants to give the ball to the fullback. As I have said before, Navy’s offense will really start to click if the fullback is tearing off big chunks of yardage right through the heart of ND’s defense. We know from past posts that the playside ILB normally has B gap, but against the Navy’s Spread Option, the DE should take B gap, pinch it down hard, with authority and allow the ILB to run to the pitchman. ND has to erase the fullback dive option with the Nose and Defensive Ends.

OLB - In my opinion, the OLB has to crash down hard, through C gap, and smack Ricky Dobbs in the mouth every time he shows up on the edge with the ball. I have seen teams successfully thwart Navy’s pitch option by nailing Dobbs quickly, behind the playside Tackle, immediately after he pulls the ball out of the FB’s belly. He should make him pitch the ball quickly and not let him get out on the edge to read the play. Some teams like to "slow play" their pitch read man and string the option out down the line allowing time for secondary personnel to get free of their blocks and run to the pitch man.

This technique can be effective when used occasionally, but I don’t like the idea of Dobbs being out on the edge, with a little space and time to exercise his read. He can be dangerous in that situation. Again, I prefer to force the issue and make him pitch the ball as soon as possible. At that point, all the guesswork has been eliminated from the play for the defense. Nothing left to do but run to the pitch man. Also, by taking out the FB and QB as forcefully and quickly as possible, ND has forced Navy to take two chances to fumble the ball with the fullback exchange and the pitch.

ILB - Both ILBs have to run to the pitch vs. the Midline Option. As I have already stated, I believe that they have to relinquish B gap responsibility to the Defensive Ends. As the playside ILB runs to the pitch, he has to be aware of the playside OT who has released around the DE and is coming to cut him off from pursuing. If the Noseman can defeat the Center and force a double team with the playside OG, then the backside ILB should be able to run to the pitch unimpeded. ILBs have to be able to run to the pitch vs. the Midline Option.

Occasionally, to confuse the QB’s dive read, the playside ILB might fill B gap aggressively and take the fullback. If he does this, however, the playside DE has to play his Offensive Tackle aggressively to keep him from blocking inside on the ILB. If the ILB takes B gap and the OT can get to him and block him before the ILB gets to the ball, then Navy will have a big play.

Corners - Corners have to respect the Split End as a receiver on every snap, or risk giving up a big play. Once they read that the play is the Midline Option, the corners must escape whoever is blocking them (slotback or split end) and run to the pitch. They can’t get hung up being stalk blocked by the SE or have their knees cut out from under them by the SB. They have to be able to get free and run to the pitch.

Safeties - Safeties have to respect the slotbacks as receivers on every snap or risk giving up a big play. They are also the last line of defense against the fullback if, Heaven forbid, things breakdown on the defensive front. Otherwise, they have to run to the pitchman vs. the Midline Option. Like the corners, the safeties have to escape whoever is blocking them (slotback, split end, or maybe even an occasional Offensive Tackle) and get to the pitchman.

So there you have it. ND had to shut down the Midline Option to stop Navy. The Midline Option is their offensive bread and butter and without it they are lost. ND’s nose has to force double team blocks all day to free up the backside ILB. The Defensive Ends have to squeeze down B gap hard and make Navy’s FB a non factor. I can’t stress that enough, Navy’s fullback has to be shut down! The OLB’s have got to hammer Ricky Dobbs all day and make him pitch the ball quickly. If the OLBs are effective, Dobbs might get a little gun shy about the middle of the 3rd quarter. ILBs, Corners and Safeties must get off their blocks and run to the football. And.....All secondary personnel must respect the pass and not give up big pass plays.

ND’s defensive game plan will be sound and consistent, but ND may vary their gap assignments and alignments on some plays to confuse Dobbs’s reads. ND will want to play Navy’s option game effectively to force them into 3rd and long situations, forcing Navy to do what it doesn’t want to do........pass the football.

Navy’s kids are smart and tough. They won’t lie down or give up. They run an offense that is suited to their personnel. ND has superior athletes at every position. ND will come in with a solid game plan, whatever it is. If the ND kids execute the plan the way they were coached, play sound defensive technique, think on their feet and run to the football, ND will shut down the Midline Option and beat Navy on Saturday.

That’s this week’s discussion. I hope you enjoyed it and could understand it. Like I said last week, it is difficult to make written sense of the chaos that is happening on a football field. I tried to be simple and basic as usual, but the Triple Option makes it difficult to do. I hope you now have some things that you can look for as you watch the game on Saturday.