Friday, October 30, 2009

The Spread, Arithmetic, and why OSU may have gone back to Multiple Formations

Has Ohio State abandoned an all 'spread' attack to go back to mixing in the I and 1-Back formations ? And if so, why?

Starting with the Illinois game, Ohio State effectively became an all-shotgun spread to run team.  According to Jeff Amey of the O-Zone, Ohio State lined up in the shotgun 87% of the time for the four games from Illinois to Purdue. (They had only done so 41% of the time in the first three games).  Then, against Minnesota, according to Amey, the Buckeyes went back to mixing looks, with 55% of their plays from Shotgun, and 45% from either the I formation or single back (Ace) formation.   

Perhaps, not coincidentally, the Ohio State offense's output improved against Minnesota.  OSU this year has  essentially functioned four games as an all spread team, and four as a multiple formation one.  Here are how the numbers compare:

All "Spread"  Production
"Multiple Formation" Production
Yards Per Game
No. of Plays
Yards Per Play

Moreover, Coach Tressel announced this week that he liked the formational balance from the Minnesota game, indicating that we will likely see multiple under-center formations going forward.  If this is true, the question becomes what happened to the short lived experiment of becoming an all spread team?

In a word, it's arithmetic.  Jeff Amey gives a valid answer that the spread basically made OSU too much of a Terrelle Pryor-centric offense and he wasn't able to sustain it.  But the deeper answer to this question is that the defense was able to gain a numbers advantage on OSU's spread that took away the Buckeyes' inside running game and forced Pryor to beat them both as the primary inside runner and throwing the ball down the field.  This the Buckeyes were unable to do.

To take a step back, the Defense always has a numbers advantage on the offense, because even if the offense blocks 10 men, the offensive ball carrier's counterpart is left free.  The 'spread's' true genius was that by adding the QB as a run threat, it occupied another defender, helping the offense with numbers.  As Rich Rodriguez describes here, when the QB can hold the backside defender that is one less man for the offense to block, creating better numbers. 

When OSU first unveiled an all-spread offense, they were able to take advantage of exactly this. fact  Illinois lined up on each receiver in a 2-deep shell and Pryor was able to hold the outside defenders, creating running lanes.  So, as you'll see in this clip, Illinois plays head up on every receiver with 2-deep safeties, giving OSU a 7 vs. 6 advantage in the box in addition to Pryor able to hold the front side nickel back with the run threat.

As teams have become more accustomed to defending the spread, however, they have developed a myriad of ways to slow teams down.  One is to cheat their outside linebacker/safety types into what Rodriguez calls the "grey area."  In essence, the alley players, rather than covering the inside receiver, cheat down to get involved in the run game.  Starting with the Wisconsin game, Ohio State started seeing this on steroids.  Here are two different clips.  The first is how Wisconsin defensed Ohio State's "trey strong" formation from which they like to run the speed option.  The second is how the defended the more balanced H-Back formation (basically they shifted their LBers over one gap to the strong side in the former).

As you'll see in both, it initially appears that Wisconsin, like Illinois only has six in the box.  But that is really an illusion, as their front and backside alley players are both playing in the 'grey area,' so it is really the equivalent to 8 in the box.  Wisconsin is effectively playing without a deep safety.

So now, rather than give Ohio State a numbers advantage, the spread has actually compounded the problem:  OSU is now playing 8 vs. 6 in the box (8 vs. 7 if you count the QB cancelling out a blocker), as opposed to the I where they would be 8 vs. 7, with a better chance of getting the playside defenders blocked, as described below.

Ohio State thus faced a numbers disadvantage starting with Wisconsin that limited their running game.  In fact, as hinted at earlier, the spread makes a numbers disadvantage in the box even more problematic then running out of the I does, for precisely the reason Homer Smith identifies,and its again because of numbers.  If you have no deep safety the defense will have one additional man to the front (playside) than the offense will have.  The only way to block him is to have a lead FB who can block through the hole.   Out of the spread with one running back there is no way to get to the unblocked playside defender.  As Smith says,

When there is no safety, you have the problem always presented by the man-for-man goalline-type defense: There is a frontal defender that you cannot release on, occupy with a fake, or block. In other words there is a free tackler for the ball-carrier... An I-formation will face two centerline, defenders or none. The center can have a chance to get a playside block, and a bootleg fake has a chance to hold pursuit from the backside. A handoff run has a chance.
So in sum, the spread is even less advantageous to run against stacked fronts then an I formation, and you can end up with situations like this where Purdue has four playside defenders and there are just not enough  people to block them.

So a spread team must find a way to address players cheating  play the grey area.  For years it was namely the bubble screen.  But teams have gotten adapt at defending the bubble screen this year, specifically by having their deep safety fly up at the first sign of a bubble screen, as Michigan, among others, are finding out.  (Not to dig too far into the weeds, but one effective counter I have seen to this this year is having the inside receiver fake the bubble screen and the outside receiver run a slant behind the safety, as we have seen both Ohio State, and teams facing Ohio State, do).

So if this play is taken away a spread team basically has two choices when teams want to stack the box a) use your QB as your runner so your halfback can block for him and essentially run I type plays, and gain the benefits Smith describes for having two backs or b) force them out of it by successfully moving the ball through the air.  Against Purdue, OSU tried both but neither were successful.

In the clip, OSU is essentially running their 'Dave' play with Pryor as the runner.  But the problem, as you see, is that Pryor is not a consistent inside runner.  He misses the hole and tries to string this outside...

Nor was Ohio State consistent enough in the pass game against either Wisconsin or Purdue to consistently move the football.

So in my estimation, this stark arithimetic drove Ohio State to abandon being an entirely 'spread' team to being in multiple looks.  What does mixing in the I formation and other pro-sets get you?  Homer Smith and Chris Brown have provided a series of benefits and drawbacks to each formation, but here are I think a few beneficial factors for this OSU team:

  •  As seen from these clips, teams cannot get many more guys in the box against OSU then they already were against the spread.  They have to still at least defend the outside receivers.  So at being in the I gives OSU a chance to get more hats on hats in the box
  • Relatedly, as discussed earlier, having a lead FB provides the opportunity to get more blockers playside then is available from the spread.
  • Play action from under center can create better dropback and bootleg faking off of a vertical run game.  To the extent that OSU wants to get Pryor on the edge, the bootleg and rollouts have been a great way to do so, as can be seen with the fake Dave play rollout.  Further, by using this type of play action, it gives more time for deep passing routes to develop, a problem OSU was having from the spread: 

  • It can enhance pass protection, particularly off of sprint draw action, by getting more blockers playside.
  • Preparation time.  Teams can no longer spend their entire week working on defending OSU's spread.   They instead have to split time between working against a spread and the I formation This makes them less able to unveil entire new defenses such as Wisconsin did against OSU.
  • At the same time, Ohio State runs largely the same plays from both formations, so for the line and WRs they do not need to practice double-it only changes the backs footwork.
  • Along these lines, by going back and forth, you can catch defenses in mismatches, such as having their nickel back in the game against the I.

  • Finally, it takes pressure off of Pryor.  By taking away the inside running game, teams were making the offense entirely Pryor dependent--by Jeff Amey's count, 90% of the plays against Purdue were put in his hands.  This hopefully provides Pryor a steadier run game and, perhaps more importantly, play action and bootleg and rollout game to put him in better opportunities to succeed.
Ohio State will not abandon the 'spread' game, nor should they.  It will remain a primary staple of their offense.  And they are not the only team to have problems out of the spread this year.  But mixing in the I and other pro style formations does make OSU more versatile and allow them to better counter defenses who want to stack the box against the spread.  That is why I expect to see Ohio State continue to mix and match between the two different styles for the remainder of the year. 


  1. Boulder, Great read! Keep the analysis flowing! Nick Favret

  2. Easily the best compilation of the "why" I have read. Very thorough & Accurate. Thanks! Hope to read more as time goes.

  3. Hi Boulderbuck,
    I am a new reader of your blog and I must say I am quite impressed. I hope you continue to put in the time and effort it takes to produce the blog. I hope to be able to read this blog for many seasons down the road ;). Great work!

    Go Buckeyes!