Word of Muth: Outside Adjustments

Word of Muth: Outside Adjustments

by Ben Muth

I really enjoyed re-watching the Texans-Bengals game from Saturday. Watching it live was okay, but certainly not anything memorable. Upon further review, it was one of my favorite games I've ever watched on NFL Rewind with an eye towards a write-up. Line play, which is always difficult to really get a handle on during a first viewing, was excellent in this game. Both fronts are talented and well-coached, and I enjoyed how they played off of each other.

Each line had one player that really stood out to me. For Houston it was Duane Brown. He looked solid as always in pass protection, but really stepped up his game on running plays. He made a couple of really nice blocks that sprang some plays. Eric Winston was also good, including a few awesome (or borderline if you’re a defensive-line enthusiast) cut blocks.

For Cincinnati, I felt Geno Atkins really jumped off the tape. I’m a big fan of Houston’s interior line, and felt they all played pretty good ... except when they had to block Atkins. It didn’t matter who was blocking him, Atkins was physically overwhelming. He made a couple of plays in the backfield, and came damn close to making many more. Atkins was, in football coaching terms, a "War Daddy."

It wasn’t just players that stood out though. I felt Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer had a nice game plan to try to stifle the Texans running game. One thing they were trying to do early is spill the Texans run game. The Texans may call their running game an outside zone scheme, but ideally most of their plays will cut up inside the tight end. They want to stretch the defense with the threat of the outside run, and then cut it up inside. Cincinnati tried to take that away with how they ran their run fits.

The Bengals started the game by having their defensive ends play the C-gap (between the tackle and tight end). That means their linebackers had to scrape over the top to be force players. If you watch the first quarter, you’ll see Cincinnati’s defensive ends really anchoring down inside while their linebackers go flying over the top to get outside of the box. It was effective. The defensive linemen were allowed to be very physical because they weren’t worried about being hooked (which allowed for some nice penetration), and the guards were having a tough time getting to the linebackers, since they were going outside so fast. Really, the only big play in the running game for Houston early came when one backside defensive end flowed a little too much and allowed Arian Foster to take it all the way out the backside. That wasn’t a schematic issue as much as it was an execution issue.

After a couple of drives, it was clear that Houston needed to get outside against the Bengals. Now, all outside zones have the chance to bounce outside, but the Houston guards were having trouble getting to Cincy’s linebackers. So, Houston needed to get different blocking angles, and the best way to do that is through formation. Houston had the ball on first-and-goal from the 8 when they called their first clearly-designed outside run of the day (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Seal Andre

Houston came out in a basic single-back formation with the tight end right, and the slot receiver, Andre Johnson, to the left. They motioned the tight end across the formation to form a trips left. Cincinnati’s linebackers widened to deal with the three receivers to their right. At the snap, the tight end and left tackle Brown worked in combination from the defensive end to the Mike linebacker. This is one of two key blocks on the play. Since the defensive ends had been playing inside all day, the tight end just gives the defensive end a quick hand check before moving onto the linebacker. Because the tight end could get outside so quickly, he has a great angle on Rey Maualuga and blocks him fairly easily. Brown does a great job of hooking the defensive end without giving up too much penetration and allows Foster to get the edge.

Now, most teams would not be able to run this play out of this formation and personnel grouping. That’s because you end up with a slot receiver on a linebacker. So usually teams end up sticking another tight end to flex out there, basically holding up a sign that says "we’re running over here." However, since Houston has Andre Johnson, a big, physical, and (most importantly) willing blocker outside, they can get away with running it out of 11 personnel (one back, one tight end). Johnson has a good angle and does a great job of sealing the outside linebacker, allowing Foster to score. It was only an eight-yard play, but being able to run it in a goal-to-go situation relieves so much of the pressure on a rookie quarterback. The scoring play was the result of great execution on a perfect play call.

After Houston had that success outside, they altered their blocking schemes to take advantage of how Cincinnati was playing them. They started to call more designed bounce plays, ones that strayed from a traditional zone scheme. Instead of using combination blocks on everything, Houston started pulling the uncovered man (either the guard or tackle) outside to intercept the scraping linebackers. The Texans continued to have success outside against the Bengals all day.

One thing Houston did a great job of was not running the designed outside bounce plays to death. They made sure to keep mixing in traditional outside zones (where the play is really designed to cut inside) to keep the Bengals guessing. They even mixed in a couple of zones where the backside cutback is actually the goal, and those worked perfectly. Take this slice play they ran late in the second quarter (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Red Slice

Houston came out in the exact same formation (including the motion) as they did on their touchdown run. Everyone did the exact same thing except for the tight end. He came back across the formation and cut blocked the backside defensive end, as opposed to working in combination with the left tackle.

While he was doing that, backside guard Mike Brisiel and right tackle Winston were working from the backside three-technique to the backside linebacker. Since Houston had ran this action and got outside earlier, all the linebackers were flying that way. That makes it real easy for Brisiel to pick up his man. Winston throws a great cut block and gets the defensive tackle on the ground, leaving a huge hole on the backside.

Foster reads it perfectly, puts his foot in the ground, and cuts it back to tons of green grass. Unfortunately, he trips over the defensive tackle that is on the ground and only gains six, leaving at least ten yards on the field. Even really good running backs can sometimes leave yards out there though -- it was a great play call that built off of an earlier one.

That does it for this week. Follow me on Twitter, and tune in next week for a Saints-49ers breakdown.


4 comments, Last at 12 Jan 2012, 10:17pm

1 Re: Word of Muth: Outside Adjustments

Ben, a question about playcalling & game-planning:

These "counter" plays to work off of other plays are obviously in the playbook, and are probably in the game plan. Do teams practice these plays during the week, and then not use them if they need them? For example, if inside zone continued to work, would they use the two plays you diagrammed?
I have to believe that anyone qualified to be an OC on an NFL level has multiple plays that are based off of the same basic formation and/or motion, but why does it seem that some teams DON'T do this stuff? I mean, I thought that part of what makes (made with PM back there) the Colts so hard to defend was that they ran so many plays from just a couple of formations with practically the same personnel--and on the other side of the coin, the Saints have so many different formations with similar flexible personnel (Colston, Graham, & Sproles) that they are so difficult to prepare for. What gives?

2 Re: Word of Muth: Outside Adjustments

Difference in philosophy? There's more than one way to skin a cat. (My preferred method is to have someone else do it)

The Oregon Ducks, as a 3rd wrinkle, runs the same small group of plays using largely the same personnel, out of a vast array of formations. Option teams leave formations and blocking assignments fairly bland, and leave it up to the backs to respond to changes in defending style. Triple-option teams especially so. Some teams live on superior schematic success, others on superior execution success, others on superior formation success. Whether you run a lot of plays, a lot of matchups, or just dare the defense to stop what they know is coming, there's a lot of ways to win on offense.

3 Re: Word of Muth: Outside Adjustments

Yeah, you'll game plan formations and motions where you have a good idea on the look you are going to get. In this case, if the Bengals are in base personnel and the Texans motion to trips, they can probably force them to check, because there are only so many coverages they can run from base personnel that can cover trips. Now, if Houston motioned to TE trips 6 times in the first half, Cincy would adjust and give them something else. But Houston waited to a long goal to go situation to bust it out the first time, and then ran the counter action the second time. They used the base play that they had a good idea would work in a key situation and it worked. They ran a change up off it the next time and almost busted one. They ran the same motion again in the third quarter and called a quick pass, it was probably more to see if Cincy had adjusted and sure enough they had. Instead of bumping their LBs across they rolled their safeties. Houston probably didn't like that look so they got away from that package. The great thing about the running plays package is that only Owen Daniels had to change what he did, everyone else was the exact same.

As far as the same plays multiple formations vs multiple plays from the same formation it comes down to preference and personnel. The NFL seems to be moving into the multiple formation/shifts line of thinking (49ers vs Saints is a great example of this line of thinking) and I generally prefer that, but there are certainly advantages to running a ton of stuff from a few base formations.

4 Re: Word of Muth: Outside Adjustments

Thanks for the answer, Ben.

I think I like multiple formations & personnel. IMO, the one thing about muliple personnel that can do the same things is that you aren't so limited by injuries.
Every week, after each Saints game, Jeff Duncan of the Times-Picayune (NO) does a "film study" breakdown. At the end, he breaks down the number of snaps from each formation, as well as how many snaps each WR, RB/FB, & TE see. The top 2 WR and RB each see almost the exact same number of snaps, and usually the #3 & #4 WR see about 20/25 less than the first 2. To me, the it allows Coach Payton to keep everybody fresh. In fact, I think the only offensive player on IR is Mark Ingram--but I don't think he would have gone on IR if his injury had happened in the first part of the season. [TE David Thomas might be too--but I don't think he even played a game this year.] I said all this to note that the Saints haven't had to change anything because their personnel can adjust to many packages and situations.