As a former high school football coach I always enjoyed devising a game plan for an upcoming opponent. In the initial stage of game planning I would watch film and try to get a sense of the strengths and weakness of the next opponent. Through this initial analysis, I would formulate a tentative game plan. I would then go back to the film and review in greater detail so I could refine the game plan. This week I'll be looking through the lens of a coach preparing to play Notre Dame. I'm going to provide an initial analysis explaining how I might attack the Notre Dame offense and defense. Keep in mind this is an initial analysis. In the real world a full game plan would require significant refining and much greater detail. That's where you come in. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section to build upon the framework I've presented or tell me I've gone insane after suffering through eleven and a half months of Canadian winter.
Larz's Canadian Grizzlies vs. Notre Dame Defense
Normally coaches are obsessed with production on 1st down. If I was playing Notre Dame I wouldn't worry about production on 1st down. Based on what I've seen so far this year, I would be pretty confident that I can get production on 2nd down. Therefore, play calling on first down would be designed to keep the defense honest and force them to pursue across the field in hopes of tiring them out. I would try to accomplish this two ways:
- Run the ball. I know Notre Dame is very stout against the run. I would still run on 1st down to keep them honest. I don't want a hyper aggressive, attacking Notre Dame defense. I want a defense that plays fairly conservative and tries to defend everything instead of zeroing in on my passing game. I want to encourage Notre Dame's linebackers to play run first, because I can use that to my advantage on 2nd down. I want the Irish defensive line engaging my offensive linemen to stop the run instead of pinning their ears back and attacking. If Notre Dame thinks I'm going to run the ball, they are less likely to unleash their front four and that's a good thing for my team, especially on 2nd down. The other benefit is that if I can get through the front 7 there is a good chance for a big play. So far, the Notre Dame secondary has yet to demonstrate it can be much of a force in the run game.
- Screens to the perimeter. Throwing to the perimeter does a few things. First of all, Notre Dame's secondary isn't overly aggressive against wide receiver screens. It is rare that Notre Dame sells out and blows up a screen to the outside, as a result I can be pretty confident this will be a safe play on first down. As well, Notre Dame's secondary isn't great pursuing and tackling in the open field, so a big play is possible. More importantly, I like the idea of forcing Notre Dame's big front 7 to run to the sidelines as much as possible. They aren't an overly deep group so this is a great way to tire them out and get some of their studs off the field on later downs.
1st down is all about creating a foundation for success in later downs. I might be tempted to take some shots deep or try a trick play, otherwise as long as I'm not losing yards I'm a happy camper. Forcing Notre Dame to continue to honour the run and pursue sideline to sideline would be a win for my team, even if we're not gaining a whole bunch of yards.
This is the money down when playing Notre Dame. If I was game planning against the Irish I would be pretty confident that I could consistently gain positive yardage on 2nd down. This is the time to attack the soft underbelly of the Fighting Irish defense. I would look to throw short to medium passes over the middle using play action (this is why it is nice to run the ball on first down at least some of the time) and quick passes. In fact, until Notre Dame proved that they could stop it, I'm not sure I would do anything else on 2nd down. Notre Dame basically has two distinct techniques for pass coverage, and here's how I would attack them:
- Zone coverage. Notre Dame still plays a fair amount of zone coverage. When they play zone there are two places to attack, in front of the linebackers or in between the safeties and the linebackers. Notre Dame's Achilles heel in zone coverage is that they don't break on the ball particularly well. The Irish defenders are pretty disciplined in their drops and get good depth, however they break up very few passes. In fact, I don't recall many examples of a Notre Dame linebacker or safety breaking up a pass so far this year. As an opposing offensive coordinator I would run route combinations that have a receiver in front of the linebackers and in behind them. From there the read is pretty simple. If the linebacker drops deep, throw it in front of him, if the linebacker stays shallow, throw it behind him. I would be pretty confident that I am going to pick up at least 5 - 7 yards almost every time with this approach (and possibly more). If I throw it underneath, Notre Dame will likely come up and make a tackle, but I should still get a decent gain. Throw in some play action passes to further confuse the Notre Dame linebackers and safeties and I should be able to keep the Irish defenders off balance all game.
- Blitz. Notre Dame blitzes a lot more this year. The blitzes are pretty obvious so my quarterback will know they are coming. The quarterback has to recognize them and go to his hot read (usually a quick pattern over the middle). I can basically tell my QB, that he can throw it with his eyes closed as long as he gets it off in time. Throwing to the middle against an Irish blitz is a pretty safe bet for a few key reasons:
- Notre Dame rarely if ever shows blitz and then drops into coverage. What you see pre-snap is what you get.
- The Notre Dame secondary usually gives up the inside and stays behind the receiver, so they are pretty easy to box out.
- The defensive backs rarely undercut routes so a pick is unlikely (Bennett Jackson is the exception to this).
2nd down is key when planning against the Notre Dame defense. This is the time to pick the low hanging fruit in the middle of the pass defense. Quick throws or play action passes are high percentage, relatively safe plays against the 2013 Irish defense and almost guarantee a 1st down or very manageable 3rd down.
I would use the same template as second down. The only thing is that I would expect more blitz from Notre Dame on 3rd down, which is fine. As long as I've had success on 2nd down and gained positive yards I can continue to throw short to medium passes, which makes it difficult for blitzes to get to the quarterback.
How does Notre Dame defeat this game plan?
So there you have it. The foundational elements of a game plan against Notre Dame's defense. We have seen this basic plan three weeks in a row and until the Irish change, we will continue to see it. Of course this is a Notre Dame blog so now we'll talk a little bit about how we can defeat this type of game plan. Here are some suggestions
- Unleash the defensive line. Stop having these guys play so disciplined. I know we are playing against mobile quarterbacks and I know if we engage the offensive linemen first we are more sound against the run, but the conservative approach to defensive line play is hurting us. Our defensive lineman are our best players. It's time to take some chances with them. Let them shoot some gaps and run more stunts. Yes a QB might break contain from time to time, but that's already happening. I guarantee if we let the big fellas up front attack, they will wreak some havoc.
- Show blitz and back out of it. Everyone knows when Notre Dame is blitzing before the ball is snapped and the hot read (usually a quick pass over the middle) is almost always open when they blitz. If the quarterback is allowed to throw hot reads against the blitz, the Irish won't be able to sack him. Notre Dame must show blitz and then drop a player into the hot read a few times early in the game. This will give opposing quarterbacks reason to pause, making blitz packages more effective as the game progresses.
- Take away the inside in man coverage. I've almost given up on this one. Notre Dame either needs to align their DB's more inside (especially in the slot) or take a chance and undercut the inside release in a blitz situation. I worry that our guys simply aren't experienced enough in man coverage to do this. Farley, Russell, Shumate, Luke and Collinsworth all need to improve in this area big time.
- Use a robber technique. When playing zone, have the strong safety cover the area between the linebackers and the deep safety. This will allow the linebackers to be more aggressive against underneath throws and mask some of their weaknesses in pass coverage (they have a tough time coming off the deep receiver and making a play on an underneath route). The goal would be to have more contested throws underneath when in zone coverage, which should lead to more passes being broken up.
- Tackle better in the open field. Pretty obvious, pretty important. Needs to improve.
Larz's Canadian Grizzlies vs. Notre Dame Offense
I was tempted to go back and watch a bunch of film and breakdown some tendencies for the Notre Dame offense, but I resisted that temptation. I believe the Irish have been a little too simple on the offensive side of ball, particularly the last two games. To help prove this point, I'm going to do this analysis off the top of my head. If some guy in Canada can figure out the weaknesses in the Notre Dame offensive game plan without reviewing any film, imagine what a full time defensive staff can do. Let's see how accurate I am.
Larz's Canadian Grizzlies vs. Notre Dame Ground Game
Maybe I'm getting cocky here, but I wouldn't be overly worried about Notre Dame's run game. I think there is plenty of talent there. They have good backs, a good line, their tight ends and receivers block well and keep busy down the field. However, their run game is very vanilla. I'm a former linebacker, and I would love to play against this Notre Dame running attack. I could play downhill all game! If I was coaching a group of linebackers playing against Notre Dame I would work on mirroring the running back's initial steps and ATTACKING!!! Rarely does Notre Dame use misdirection of any kind in the run game. They run a bit of play action and that's pretty much it (I do recall one sprint draw against Temple, can anyone think of other examples?). Therefore, the first few steps a running back takes tells you with almost 100% certainty where he is going. If the running play starts up the middle, it goes up the middle. If it starts to the outside, it goes outside. There really is nothing to keep linebackers honest in the Notre Dame running game. As well, Notre Dame doesn't have a mobile quarterback so that makes it even easier, one less guy to keep defenses honest. Basically the entire front 7 can attack any running play with very little fear of getting tricked. Release the hounds, attack the run. I purposely haven't gone back and looked at the film to see if this hypothesis is correct, but I know many of our readers have. So tell me in the comments, is my initial impression correct? Is there very little misdirection in the Irish running game?
Larz's Canadian Grizzlies vs Notre Dame Passing Attack
Usually defensive coordinators search for ways to throw the timing of the passing game off as part of their game planning. This can be done by jamming receivers, blitzing, switching coverages, etc. Against Notre Dame, one of the first things I would try and do is get in Tommy Rees's head. Notre Dame asks Rees to check into plays based on the defensive alignment pre-snap. I would have my defense give a very early look (especially blitz) get him to change the play and then switch back into something else. This is a good way to get the offense out of rhythm. Force multiple audibles with multiple looks. Try to get Tommy and the rest of the offense to think too much.
The next thing I would do is try to force Tommy Rees to create on the run. Rees is not a great scrambler and when you flush him out of the pocket he is reluctant to run the ball and has a tendency to force passes into coverage instead of throwing it away. Some well timed blitzes with zone to the opposite side creates the potential for mistakes from Tommy Rees.
Finally, I would do as much as I can to take away Notre Dame's wide receivers. They are very dangerous weapons and Tommy Rees absolutely has the ability to hit them deep. However, the Irish don't throw much to their other receivers (slots, tight ends, running backs) so you can really focus on stopping the wideouts. While Troy Niklas has made a few nice plays, has another tight end made a catch, or even been targeted more than once? The slot receiver is also rarely targeted. Even if he is, does Notre Dame have any playmakers to worry about at that position? As for the running backs catching passes, I would take that match up all day. Until they prove they can catch the ball consistently I wouldn't worry much about them. In fact, I would try and force Notre Dame to go to their slot receivers or running backs as much as possible. Take away the wide receivers and the Notre Dame passing game is in trouble. As an aside, I wouldn't worry too much about the screen game to the receivers. Although it was effective against Temple, Notre Dame tips the play based on formation so it's become a pretty easy read. Essentially if Niklas or Daniel Smith are split out wide in a stack formation, you are probably going to see a wide receiver screen.
How does Notre Dame defeat this game plan?
In the run game the answers are pretty simple. Notre Dame needs to add an element of misdirection. It could be as simple as mixing in the odd counter to compliment the downhill running game. But I'm going to propose something more radical. Scrap the experiment at slot receiver. Put Carlisle and Atkinson in that position. You can run them on sweeps and fake sweeps out of the pistol or shotgun to add an element of misdirection to the offense. As well, you could motion them into the backfield and run out of some two back sets, which adds potential diversity to your running game and provides more opportunities for misdirection. In certain situations you could put in a true "slot receiver" but I don't think Notre Dame is currently getting much value out of that position. You have some potential studs at the running back position, more of them need to get on the field.
Get vertical early! Force your opponent to respect your wide receivers and double cover them. Teams are often loading the box on first down and second down. This leaves Daniels and Jones one on one with a corner. Attack that weakness. Deep passes to the wide receivers on 1st and 2nd down, must happen. The OFD community demands nothing less.
Are we at Defcon 1? No. This is closer to the Canadian version of Defcoun 1, which means Tim Horton's is running low on coffee. Not a great situation, but it's not time to panic either. Right now there are some pretty obvious trends on both sides of the ball for Notre Dame that make them relatively easy to game plan for. If the Irish can break some of these trends, I believe we'll see an immediate improvement. Typically as the year progresses we see schemes in all phases of the game become more complex. At the same time, I think it's fair to be concerned. There is little question the coaching staff needs to make some adjustments sooner rather than later. Purdue will not be the stiffest challenge we face all year. What are your thoughts, OFD readers, how would you game plan for the Irish and what should Notre Dame do to counter this game plan ?