Brian Kelly's Finest Constraint Plays: Messing With Alley Defenders

[front-paged for obvious reasons - B2]

I'm not a football coach by any stretch, I'm merely an obsessed fan.  To wit: I watched the M-WMU game 3 times before Labor Day with constant rewinding and slow-motioning to obsess and analyze.  On top of that I'm pretty sure I've read every Smart Football post there is.  So that's where I'm coming from.  If you've got any objections/better interpretations, feel free to let me know.  Just learnin' the game like the rest of y'all.

BlueSeoul did a nice scouting report, but I thought it'd be fun to do a Smart Football-style focus on the Brian Kelly offense.  I'll try to avoid too much redundancy and maintain interest, seeing as Chris from SF has in fact already done one and didn't think there was much to see.  It may be that none of this is special to Kelly, but hopefully it will at least be representative of what Michigan will see on the field Saturday night.

As Chris says, Kelly bases out of a 4 wide set and his base passes take those receivers vertical out of their breaks:

The basic things you notice are that a) The receivers divide the field into fourths, thus making it difficult for either one or even two deep safeties to defend all four; b) The receivers burst off the line immediately with no fakes or stutter-steps, which forces the defensive backs immediately into retreat position to respect the deep pass; and, most importantly, c) The receivers give away no information -- they might go deep or break short, or break inside or outside. (Also the running back serves as a nice checkdown as he has an option route and can basically find the open grass.)


Kelly combos this base 4 verts passing game with an abiding commitment to the running game.  That is to say he's definitely not an Airraid type who'll throw it 40-50 times per game by design.  Which is just as well, given that ND has a very talented back in Cierre Wood.  Without disparaging M's backs or aping Fred Jackson, I'd say he's a bigger/stronger Mike Shaw and a serious challenge for scraping linebackers.  

BK's approach doesn't seem to be that different from other spread attacks in terms of how he selects plays.  The spread helps him count who's in the box and figure out whether to run or pass from there.  Given his typical four wide set, he'll see some number of defenders aligned with the primary responsibility of stopping the run.  In a vanilla defensive set, all the offensive coordinator has to do is count the number of defenders and compare that to his number of blockers.  

If his QB isn't a running threat, the defense needs a minimum of 6 defenders to account for each blocker and the running back in a 4-wide set.  Fewer than that and the OC can give the go-ahead to run the ball knowing he's got a serious advantage in the box: the defensive coordinator does not have a player to fit in each gap to stop the run.  But 6 or more means he needs to give serious consideration to passing the ball.

Of course it's not at all in the defense's interest to supply such an easy read.  In the college game it's very common to see a safety "screw down" into the run fit just as the snap comes.  Alternatively, a defense can supply an additional run stopper from what's called the alley:


Alley defenders in particular are vulnerable to Kelly's attack because of the 4 Verts scheme.  Often one or more are responsible for both playing in the run fit and for walling off a potential vertical route until the receiver can be passed off to a safety.  If the dual priority alley defender can't get a clean run/pass read, he could very well end up defending neither.  On top of that, playing right over or just inside the receiver to cover the vertical threat makes it difficult to cover the run even if he does get a clean read.  Getting back in time to beat Cierre Wood to his gap is a tall order indeed.  They can however help themselves by alignment:


Both USF alley defenders are right in position to wall off any vertical threat and play the run if necessary simply by alignment.  They each have enough depth to provide the angle necessary to play pass defense, but are not much wider than the far hip of the defensive end.  Just outside the box is maybe not as good as actually in it, but given their dual responsibilities both are covered as well as possible from this alignment.

Kelly--and most if not all spread-types for that matter--employ constraint plays in order to push these defenders farther from the box so as to open holes in the run game.  The most common (and certainly to Michigan fans) is pairing a bubble read with any hand-off from the shotgun:


The diagram is nice, but I'd point out that Kelly's alignment here is even more effective.  Assuming no counter type action from the running back, the play in this case would be run toward the nearside alley defender's gap that puts him in a serious bind given bubble action from his receiver.  Attack the run, get burned on the bubble.  Sit on the bubble, open a gap for Wood to run through.  Admiral Ackbar would know just how to describe this.

But wait, there's more.  Kelly also really likes to open up running lanes with draw and draw-read action:


Side note: this play (hilariously) got waived off thanks to a totally unnecessary Michael Floyd holding penalty...and this wasn't even close to the biggest gaffe of the evening.  Truly this was one of the Yakety Saxiest performances in recent ND history.  Definitely up there with anything Charlie Weis managed: a pick thrown in the endzone, a fumble returned for TD, a missed field goal, a muffed punt and Brian Kelly's face redefining crimson for the folks at Pantone made for the schadenfreudiest of evenings.  God bless, BK.

Anywho.  In this instance, it isn't technically an alley player being picked on thanks to TE Tyler Eifert's very narrow split off the tackle.  The linebacker in the box to the trips will however be in a run/pass bind as the play design nails his feet to the ground and leaves ND with effectively 5 in the box to block with their 5 run blockers:


As you can hopefully see (apologies for the screencap quality), the tackle to the trips has set for pass protect along with (as best I can tell) 3 of his linefriends.  One however has pulled from the trips-side to the boundary.  Meanwhile our buddy the trips-side backer seems confused indeed.  His feet and knees are locked, his torso is angled toward the TE while his head is watching the QB/RB interaction.  He very possibly has noticed that the guard to his side has pulled, perhaps with nefarious intent.

The problem is that the TE is going to take a vertical release.  Any fake or read on the backer means he'll be responsible for the TE unless he wants a TD pass over his head.  As a result, he goes nowhere and it's 5-on-5 in the box with only a defeated block or the safety coming up hard between Cierre Wood and 6 points:


As it happens, the right tackle did in fact get burned and Wood was forced to bounce the play outside.  But the pulling guard still got up through the initial hole with a solid angle on the playside linebacker.  The farside linebacker as expected has no chance to make any impact on the play.  At least he managed to hop backward a few steps to maintain his position with the vertical route of the TE, who even now is not blocking on the play.  Michael Floyd is blocking all the way and is about to initiate his very silly hold:


The G cuts the LB, Floyd (illegally) walls off the CB and it's Wood v. Safety.


Fake touchdown Notre Dame.  And look who's there to meet Wood in the end zone.  None other than the frozen not-caveman linebacker.  

Now, I'm not putting the blame on him for the defense's breakdown.  They lost the numbers game by play design and the playside safety did a poor job of reading and filling the run.  Whether or not Kelly has added a pass-run read of that linebacker a la Holgorsen I'm not entirely sure.  Given the effect of the fake off the draw, perhaps it's not even necessary.   This is one example of many variations that to me constitute a well designed offense that fits its base plays very effectively with numerous constraints that prevent the defense from getting numbers where they need them.  

Sure, there's nothing especially mind-blowingly cool about the set up without the draw-read, but the constraint theory of offense says that may be beside the point.  Which is: be as simple as you can without sacrificing the counters you need to keep running your base offense.  Kelly does as much and at ND he has a weapon at nearly every position.  It'll be interesting to see how Mattison counters given the youth of his defense.  Scheme and a talent advantage hid a lot of mistakes last week and they'll be without the latter in the Big House on Saturday.  

Any opinions expressed in Fanposts or Fanshots are not the opinions of Maize n Brew. Peruse at your own risk.

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