Last year, Whiskey asked me to do a post on the Navy Spread Option attack, how it works and how I thought it should be defended. The post was very detailed and quite long. Whiskey has asked me for another report on this year's Navy attack and how I think Notre Dame should defend against it this coming Saturday. I did not want to edit last year's post to make it appropriate for this 2011 ND-Navy contest because that would actually be more work than one would think, and it would also be cheating to a degree. So, I will try to do a post that is similar to last year's and a little more brief. We'll see if I am able to succeed in that effort.
My report is based on my breakdown of last Saturday's Navy loss to East Carolina which I recorded on my DVR for scouting and analysis on Monday. As I do this, I must remind you readers that I am breaking down this game using a DVR and TV remote, which is not the best equipment for this job, so I may not always be entirely accurate in my account of what I saw. As I write, I will use the terminology that I am familiar with, which I am sure has few similarities to the terminology that Navy actually uses. Terminology varies from coach to coach, team to team and certainly from generation to generation. So, as you ask questions and make comments, I would rather avoid discussions about terminology.
Versus East Carolina, Navy ran 65 plays from scrimmage. Here is the breakdown of what I saw in those 65 plays:Formations:
Spread Formation: This is Navy's base formation. In this set, they have two split ends, split very wide (15 to 17 yards from the tackles). They have two slotbacks aligned close to the line of scrimmage one yard behind and one yard outside the tackles. The fullback is only 3 1/2 to 4 yards from the line of scrimmage. From this formation, they can run all of their running plays, including their base Triple Option Play and still have four quick receivers near the line of scrimmage which keeps opposing secondaries honest. Navy ran this formation 51 times against ECU.
Flex Formation: This formation is just like their Spread Formation except the split ends are aligned much tighter (about 3 yards outside the tackles). Navy ran this formation only 2 times vs. ECU.
Trips: Navy ran a trips set vs. ECU as their second favorite formation. In this set, Navy simply takes a slotback from one side of the formation and lines him up as a split receiver, just inside the split end, on the opposite side of the formation. With the other slotback already aligned on that side of the formation, this gives Navy three quick receivers on that side of the formation. This was Navy's favorite passing formation vs. ECU. Navy ran 10 plays from this formation vs. ECU and 7 of them were passes. Navy only threw 14 passes in the entire game.
Unbalanced Formations: Navy ran three different unbalanced formations. All three sets feature two down linemen on one side of the center and three on the other side with a split end outside of that third guy. I did not take notice of numbers, so I did not see if the "Tight End" on the unbalanced side is actually a tight end or an additional tackle on that side. On the weak side, I did not notice if the "tackle" is actually a tackle or a tight end that they put in the game there as an eligible receiver. In these unbalanced sets, the fullback is always aligned in his regular spot behind the QB. The difference in these sets is where the slotbacks are lined up.
In one unbalanced set, the slotbacks are aligned in their usual slots, as they are in their "Spread" formation. In another unbalanced set, the slotbacks are aligned outside the third down lineman on the "heavy" side of the formation to create a "trips" look with the split end who is also on the "heavy" side. And, in their third unbalanced set, the split end on the "heavy" side of the formation is much tighter, as he is in their "Flex" formation about 3 yards outside the third down lineman on that side of the ball (either a TE or Tackle), and the slotbacks are lined up about a yard behind the split end and about two yards apart. This formation is somewhat of a "bunch" formation.
Navy ran these formations a grand total of 1 time each vs. ECU. I have to note here that although Navy ran these unbalanced formations sparingly against ECU, Notre Dame must still spend time working against them in practice this week. In last year's game, Navy gave ND a heavy dose of unbalanced sets as a way of neutralizing T'eo.
Offensive Plays: 65 Total
Triple Option: Most of you know how this play is run, so I won't give such a detailed description of how it works as I did last year. I will call it the Triple option for simplicity sake, although I am sure Navy, and other teams, call it something else. This is Navy's bread and butter play and they probably spend at least half of their practice time working on it.
Versus a base 3-4 front like ND runs, the first option for the QB is whether to give the ball to the FB or keep it and continue down the line. On this play, the Center blocks the Nose Tackle and gets a little help from the play side guard who "combos" the Nose on his way to block the back side ILB. The play side Tackle blocks the play side ILB. The slotback and the split end block the play side corner and safety.
This play can be blocked in other ways as well, but I am avoiding those discussions for the sake of brevity. The bottom line is that the play side DE and OLB are unblocked. In the first option the QB gives to the diving fullback or keeps depending on what the unblocked DE decides to do. If the DE takes the FB, the QB keeps. If the DE doesn't come to the FB right away, the QB will give to the FB. Navy wants to give the ball to the FB. Navy's fullback, Alexander Teich had more than 200 yards rushing vs. ND last year. That was the story of the game.
If the QB decides to keep the ball on the first option, he continues down the line, attacking the edge, and options off the unblocked OLB. This is The Second Option of the Triple Option play. If the OLB comes to take the QB, then the QB pitches to the trailing slotback, who is the "pitchman". If the OLB slowplays, or goes to the pitchman, then the QB turns the ball up and runs with it.
The Third Option in the Triple Option play does not really exist. It is the pass option. But...it is not an option, but a play that is called on the sideline and in the huddle. The pass is predetermined. It is not an option. So, the term "Triple Option" is really a misnomer.
Navy ran the Triple option 21 times vs. ECU. That is a little surprising. I thought they would have run it much more. When they ran it, the breakdown of ball carriers went like this: Fullback - 7 times. Quarterback - 6 times. Pitchman - 4 times. Navy threw the option pass 3 times and ran a reverse to the split end 1 time.
Counter Option: This play differs from the Triple Option play in that the Quarterback fakes the dive to the Fullback in one direction and then reverses and runs the option in the opposite direction from the Fullback dive. Navy ran this play 7 times vs. ECU. The QB actually gave the ball to the Fullback 2 times on this play, the Quarterback kept it and ran 3 times, and the Quarterback pitched the ball 2 times.
Speed Option (or lead option): On this play, the QB takes the ball and attacks the edge with the option to pitch. There is no dive fake to the FB on this play, as the FB is a lead blocker for the QB. Navy ran this play 6 times vs. ECU with pretty good success and the QB kept the ball on this play 5 times.
Pitch Sweep: On this play, the QB reverses out and just pitches the ball to the motion slotback on a sweep. No fakes or options here, just reverse out and pitch the ball with the FB and play side slotback as lead blockers. They also run a variation of this play that is somewhat of a counter sweep where the fullback dives one way and the toss sweep is run back in the opposite direction of the fullback dive. Navy ran these two forms of the toss sweep 11 times vs. ECU with good success.
Counter Sweep Option: On this play, the QB fakes the counter sweep one direction and then runs the option play in the opposite direction. This is the same awkward play that Air Force ran with great success against Navy in their game a few weeks ago. Navy makes the play look a lot less awkward than Air Force does. Navy ran this play 3 times vs. ECU
Fullback G: On this play, the QB simply hands the ball to the fullback off tackle. This play hits wider than the fullback dive in the Triple option. Navy likes to run this play out of their "heavy" unbalanced sets and they run it to the "heavy" side of the formation. On this play, the play side tackle and tight end block down and the play side guard pulls to kick out the OLB. This is called a "G" block. Navy ran this play only 2 times vs. ECU, but once for a touchdown.
Fullback Lead: I have never seen this play before and certainly do not remember Navy running it last year. On the play, the motion slot back goes in motion as if to become the pitchman on the option. However, his path is a little closer to the line of scrimmage, and on the snap of the ball, he turns up in the hole to become a lead blocker for the Fullback, who is the ball carrier. The fullback hits in about the same place that he would on the Triple Option, but with a lead blocker. I'm sure that Navy developed this play as another way to get the ball to their fullback, Teich. Navy ran this play 4 times vs. ECU.
Fullback Toss: This is simply a toss sweep with the Fullback as the ball carrier. Navy only ran this play 1 time vs. ECU but it went for a touchdown. I believe that Navy scored their final touchdown in regulation play vs. Air force with this same play. Against ECU, Navy ran this play out of their unbalanced "bunch" formation and ran it to the "heavy" side.
Navy threw only 14 passes vs. ECU in 65 offensive plays. The breakdown is as follows:
Play Action Passes: Navy threw 3 passes after faking the Triple option. They also threw 3 passes after faking the pitch sweep.
Dropback passes: Navy threw eight drop back passes. Of the drop back passes they threw, 4 of them were screen passes.
Navy runs simple passing routes and they don't like to throw the ball much, but they always seem to be very effective when they do throw. Versus ECU, Navy seemed to have receivers wide open on several of the plays that they threw the ball. On their last possession of the game, Navy missed two chances to take the lead in the final seconds with touchdown passes. On one play, Navy had a receiver wide open in the middle of the field and the QB overthrew him. On another play, Navy scored an apparent go-ahead touchdown on a pass that was ruled incomplete after review (I thought that was a terrible call by the replay officials). Anyway, as usual, Navy can hurt people when they do throw the ball.
Navy vs. ECU Breakdown Summary:
Total Plays - 65
Total Running Plays - 51
Option Plays - 34
Triple Option - 18 Times
Counter Option - 7 times
Speed Option - 6 times
Counter Sweep option - 3 times
Other Running Plays - 17
Pitch Sweep - 8 times
Assorted other Fullback plays - 7
QB sacks and draws - 2
Distribution of Carries
Fullback - 16 carries
Quarterback - 17 carries (including 1 sack and 1 QB draw)
Slotbacks - 17 carries
Split end - 1 carry
Total Passing Plays - 14
Play Action Passes - 6
Drop Back Passes - 8 (four of these were screen passes)
What Do All These Numbers Mean?
Last year, I scouted the Navy - SMU game and based my post on what I saw in that game. Last year, vs. SMU, Navy ran a total of 57 plays. 47 of those plays were running plays and 32 of those were the Triple Option. Navy gave the ball to their fullback on that play 19 times. Alexander Teich had a total of 22 carries on the day for 95 yards. This year, vs. ECU, Navy ran the Triple Option 18 times and gave the ball to Teich only 7 times on that play. The point here is one that the CSN commentators emphasized several times: in 2011, Navy's opponents have learned that they have to take away the Fullback threat in the Triple Option.
People are finally starting to figure that out. I preached that last year and I am preaching it again this year. When defending the Triple option, you must neutralize the fullback before you do anything else or Triple option teams will have a field day with you. You cannot allow the FB to tear off big chunks of yardage through the heart of your defense. This is exactly what Alexander Teich did vs. ND last year. I forget Teich's numbers, but it was a lot of carries for about 200 yards rushing. Against ECU, Teich scored two touchdowns from short yardage, but wasn't much of a factor otherwise.
So, in 2011, Navy opponents are shutting down the FB dive threat in the Triple Option play. As a result, we are seeing a more even distribution of carries among all potential ball carriers. Look at the numbers from the ECU game - FB - 16, QB - 17, Slot backs - 17. Navy also seems to be running the Triple Option play less times per game than they did last year. This is for a reason: If the Full Back isn't a threat in the Triple Option, the effectiveness of the Triple Option is seriously diminished. This year, Navy seems to be running a bigger variety of running plays including other types of options. They have also invented a couple of creative ways to get the ball to their best ball carrier, Teich, such as with the Fullback sweep and Fullback lead play.
Notre Dame Game Plan vs. Navy:
1. Take away the fullback in the Triple Option. This cannot be done by Inside Linebackers playing 5 yards off the ball. It has to be done with the Noseman and Defensive Ends. If it was me, I would pinch my Defensive Ends into B gap and take away that threat. I have seen teams, vs. Navy and Air Force this year, squeezing down B gaps by going through the offensive tackles outside ear hole and pushing the OT into B gap. Another option is to slant the Nose into one A gap and stunt an inside linebacker into the other A gap. Another option is to slide the down linemen over to create a 4-3 look up front. There are a number of things that can be done, but heavy responsibility for the Fullback dive must fall to the Defensive Ends and the Noseman.
2. Don't let the QB beat you on the edge. The quarterback must be eliminated, as a triple option threat, as quickly as possible. If it was me, I would have OLBs coming hard off the edge looking to blow somebody up at a point right behind the OT, if not further in. If the play is a speed option, a toss sweep or a fullback G play, and the OLB can't get to the ball carrier, then blow up the lead blocker and force the ball carrier deeper into the backfield until support troops arrive. On the Triple option, the QB threat must be eliminated quickly or bad things will happen if he is not. As long as the QB has the ball on the edge, the issue is in doubt because he can still run it, pitch it, or even pass it. If the QB is made to pitch the ball quickly, then all doubt is erased. There is only one thing left to do and that is to run to the pitch man. If ND OLBs "slow play" the QB option and stand around on the edge not doing much, they will be extending the doubt and questions in the minds of safeties, corners and ILBs. I hope we don't see much of that on Saturday.
Last year, after crushing Notre Dame, Navy went and played Duke. Duke beat Navy that day and shut down their Triple Option offense. Duke did it by pinching their Defensive Ends into B gap and shutting down the Fullback dive threat. Duke's OLBs were attacking from the edge hard and fast and often times they tackled the QB before he could pitch the ball. A couple of times, Duke's OLB got the QB before the QB finished his fake to the FB. Duke's OLBs really jammed things up in the backfield and shut Navy down that day.
With the FB and QB quickly eliminated from the Triple option play, then the only thing left to do is run to the pitch. Inside linebackers and safeties have to do this. They will have to fend off blockers as they pursue at an intelligent angle inside-out. They cannot over pursue.
If Notre Dame takes away the Triple option, and especially the Fullback threat, as other teams have done vs. Navy this year, then they will have gone a long way toward successfully defending Navy's ground game. If ND can take away Navy's triple option, then ND will see a large variety of other running plays, like the toss sweep, the fullback G play and other options. If ND will just play sound, fundamental, gap control defense, they should be successful against this variety of other running plays.
Navy's passing game is somewhat of a football paradox. They don't throw the ball very much. Their pass routes are very simple, their quarterbacks really don't throw the ball very well and their play action fakes are not very convincing. On top of that, they are somewhat predictable about when they are going to throw and what formations they are going to throw from. However, when they do throw the ball they usually seem to have receivers wide open and hit a lot of big plays and key 3rd downs in clutch situations. This should not happen.
If the safeties will just be sure there is no pass threat before running to the football, then ND should be fine here. Navy just kind of puts safeties to sleep and gets them so concerned about the pitch and other threats that safeties seem to forget that Navy will occasionally throw the ball. Safeties should not have a problem if they will just play sound, read their keys, keep their head on a swivel and run to the ball (whether it is in the air or on the ground). Note: Navy's starting Quarterback, Proctor, left the ECU game in the 2nd quarter with an injury to his throwing arm. He did not return. This is the third injury to his throwing arm.
That's my report on Navy for 2011. Navy is not as good a team as they were last year and ND is better. ND should not have a problem handling Navy. ND has much better athletes and a little experience now at defending option teams. Despite last week's disappointing loss to USC, I think ND will rebound successfully this week.
I hope you enjoyed the post. As it turned out, this one is longer than the 2010 version.