Word of Muth: Off the Counter
by Ben Muth
For three quarters of Sunday’s game against Carolina, it remained Groundhog Day for Tennessee’s offensive linemen. They were very solid in pass protection, allowing Matt Hasselbeck plenty of time to throw. In the running game they were engaged with defenders, but not getting a ton of movement, and they probably looked worse than they should have because of who was the running the ball behind them. It was pretty much like every other Titans game this year. In fact, I was getting ready to make this my final column about Tennessee because they just weren’t very interesting. But early in the second half they started doing some different things, and in the fourth quarter they ran a nice series of plays that showed a team identity for the first time all year.
I guess my biggest problem with Tennessee’s offense this year is that total lack of identity. Sure, they want to run the ball, but it doesn’t seem like they have a coherent plan to accomplish that. It’s ten weeks into the season and I’m not sure what their bread-and-butter running play is (or is supposed to be). In the second half, that seemed to change. Tennessee ran a counter scheme on the first play of the second half for nine yards. From there they stuck with it, and ran some things off of it later in the quarter.
|Figure 1: Titans Counter|
Carolina lined up in a basic 4-3 over to start the second half (Figure 1). The over defense means there is a three-technique to the strong side, as well as a walked up Sam linebacker. Tennessee motioned into an offset-I Formation, with two tight ends to the right.
The basic concept of this counter is that the backside guard pulls to kick out and get the last man on the line of scrimmage, and the fullback leads through the hole. On the front side, everyone just blocks down or back. (For some reason, when you block a down lineman that’s behind you in the play, it is called "blocking down," and when you block a linebacker it is "blocking back." Don't ask me why: I don't make the rules here.) In this case, Craig Stevens goes back to the Mike linebacker, and Jared Cook blocks down on the defensive end. David Stewart (RT) blocked down on the three-technique, Jake Scott (RG) (who played another mediocre game) blocked back to the Will linebacker, and Eugene Amano (C) blocked down on the nose tackle. Michael Roos (who once again played very well) just seals off the most dangerous edge rusher on the backside, in this case it is the defensive end. That leaves the walked-up Sam linebacker for Leroy Harris (LG), and an unsuspecting defensive back for fullback Ahmard Hall.
It’s a pretty simple play that has been around forever: The concept of down, down, kick goes back to the single wing. The Titans executed it well though, and that opened things up for other plays off of it. The most interesting being a fake counter that included an off-pull.
|Figure 2: Titans Off-Pull|
Early in the fourth quarter (14:13) Tennessee motioned into the exact same formation and pulled the guard and fullback just like they did on the counter, but this time Chris Johnson didn’t follow them (Figure 2). This is called an off-pull, and it’s designed to take advantage of the defense’s coaching. Linebackers always have "keys" at the snap of the ball. It’s usually a guard, fullback, or tight end. At the snap, the linebackers are keyed onto one of these players, and the get their initial reads from them. If you are reading a guard, for example, you’ll look to see if he pass blocks, tries to reach someone, or pulls. That should give you a much better idea of what the offense is doing than what the tailback does.
Here, the linebackers see the both the fullback and backside guard pull to the right. They naturally assume the counter is coming again, and flow hard to that side. But when Chris Johnson gets the ball, he doesn’t cut it back, like he would on the counter. Instead, he runs straight ahead, right where the Will linebacker was at the snap.
This fake pull is called an off-pull. It’s pretty common in high school Wing-T offenses, but you don’t see it a ton in the NFL. The main reason is that if one of Carolina’s playside linebackers blitzed, Tennessee would’ve likely taken a big loss. With a veteran quarterback like Hasselbeck, I assume that offensive coordinator Chris Palmer had faith that they could get out of the play if it seemed like a blitz was possible.
As great as the off-pull worked, the rest of Tennessee’s line still had to block some people. Roos basically blocked this like a draw play. He took a short pass set, and tried to throw the defensive end upfield so CJ could just run underneath him. The hardest block on the play probably belonged to Amano, who had to reach the backside nose, something that he’s had trouble doing on his own this year. He did a nice job here.
Scott had to release inside and get the Will linebacker. This seems a lot tougher than it is when you see it drawn up, but because the Will bites of the off-pull so hard, it actually becomes pretty easy. Scott has the advantage of knowing exactly where the ball should hit, so he just lets the linebacker flow past him initially, and then gathers the Will up once he tries to put his foot in the ground.
The scariest block -- not the toughest, but the one that goes against everything you’ve ever been taught as an offensive lineman -- is reserved for Stewart. He has to down-block the three-technique seemingly right into the play. But, since Tennessee had already ran the counter a couple of times before, this defensive tackle was used to getting pushed down all game and seeing CJ hit the hole where he was. So right when it looks like the three-technique is about to make the play in the backfield, he swims back to the right side to try and stop a counter that never comes. That’s another example of why you don’t see a lot of off-pulls in the NFL: if the defensive tackle sniffs it out at all, or if he’s slanting, Stewart doesn’t really have a chance to block him.
It’s a play that takes some guts to call, even as a changeup, because it’s so easy to wind up in second-and-13 off of it. Here, it worked for 16 yards. It wasn’t the only play Tennessee called that took guts: Later in the quarter they called a naked bootleg off of the same counter that resulted in a 21-yard gain for Matt Hasselbeck. Everyone on the team does exactly what they do on the regular counter except Hasselbeck, who just kept the ball and booted to the left side. I guarantee that this was a kind of read option, where Hasselbeck had the option of handing it off, and only kept it when the pre-snap read was just right. It’s pretty clear that everyone else on Tennessee is expecting the handoff, but the veteran got his read and his Steve Bono moment.
The key to this series was the ability to execute the counter initially. Because of that, whenever Carolina saw that double tight end set with the fullback motion, they locked in on the counter. When Carolina started to do that, Tennessee threw a couple of changeups off the same look, and the result was a huge fourth quarter for Tennessee and CJ’s best game of the year.
That does it for this week. I want to do another Q and A for next week’s column, but to do that, I need questions. So if you have any offensive line questions that you'd like answered, please send them to wordofmuth-at-gmail.com. Please remember to avoid questions about individual teams and players that I’m not covering, as I don’t closely watch all 32 teams’ offensive lines. If you have a specific play you'd like to see, I might do it if you give me the time and game in which it occurred. But, it’s best to keep the questions about general offensive line play if you want them answered. Also, there’s a better chance I’ll answer your question if you follow me on Twitter*.
*-Probably not true.