Spread-Option Basics, Pt. 7: How Defenses Fight Back

Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M vs. Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard in 2012; photo by Texas A&M Athletics.

The easiest way to beat a spread-option teams is to out-talent them at every position across the board.  Of course, that’s pretty hard to do if you’re not an LSU or Alabama, and even for these guys beating spread-option teams isn’t a guaranteed thing—I’m pretty sure Les Miles and Nick Saban are happy to see Urban Meyer gone…and sad to see Kevin Sumlin arrive.

So how can defenses slow these teams down without a talent advantage?  There are a few things we see teams across the country doing, some reactionary and some tried-and-true.

Streamlining the Gameplan

Just as the up-tempo offenses are slashing their playbooks and simplifying their situational rules and schemes as much as possible, defenses are moving in the same direction.  Watch a typical defensive effort against a fast-paced squad and you’ll likely see a coach lean heavily either on basic zone shells or on lots of straightforward man looks.  This puts pass-defenders in situations where they’re less likely to get confused by keys or hurt by play-action.  Blitzes are often rule-based, with linebackers rushing based not on a signal but rather a formation or a backfield look, which essentially cedes play-calling to the players; not having to check with the sideline allows these defenses to line up and diagnose formations more quickly.

Better Preparation

This streamlining is carrying over to practice.  Teams talk about preparing for the tempo of these teams, which is important, but perhaps not as important as preparing for the raw fundamentals of football.  Ten years ago, a swarming defense could overcome mistakes by individual players; one missed tackle could be offset by two or three follow-up defenders.  Today, full-field play and the option game allow offenses to single out and isolate individual defenders as never before, with the result being that plays have a greater probability of going long than they did before.  Overcoming this requires an unimpeded focus on the fundamentals of football, particularly defeating blocks and making open field tackles.

Preparation also requires that defenses get as realistic a look as possible from their scout teams.  This means that high school quarterbacks from option-heavy teams are becoming a bit of a commodity even for pro-style teams, and not just for the purpose of turning them into receivers and safeties.

Dominating Defensive Fronts

Before the spread formation returned to prominence, defenses overcame subpar line play with aggressive eight-man fronts.  When spread offenses began nullifying the eight-man fronts, teams began relying on nickel and dime packages, since early spread teams didn’t have much in the way of a run game.  Now, though, with the advent of zone blocking and the resurgence of the option, defensive linemen are more valuable than they’ve ever been.

Spread teams often run plays based on the number of defenders in the box; a defensive lineman who can’t regularly be stopped by one blocker essentially throws-off the math.  More specifically, two solid defensive tackles who each demand double-teams can keep their linebackers clean, and two agile defensive ends can confuse veer and zone reads, letting linebackers play “assignment ball.”  At the same time, down linemen who can rush the passer can help keep linebackers in coverage and let secondaries focus on the pass.  Just as important is that these down linemen are savvy enough to understand the nuances of option play, and flexible enough in their technique to disrupt blocking schemes.  If there is a place for increased defensive complexity versus spread-option squads, it’s probably with defensive linemen.

Enhancing Vision

Two old tricks from the early days of playing the option have returned to prominence, and both are in the service of improving defenses’ ability to see plays develop.  The first is the return of the stand-up defensive end, which we last saw mostly with old five-man lines.  These days, we’re seeing teams with four-man lines put their ends in two-point stances in order to better see mesh options and rocket/jet motions develop.

We’re also seeing linebackers set up further and further away from the line of scrimmage.  Again, this allows linebackers to more easily identify the actual ball-carrier.  Option plays take more time to develop than straightforward runs, so linebackers can make up the difference even if they’re placing themselves farther away from the play.

Stressing the Quarterback

Another old-time option defense, though more difficult now with the proliferation of spread/shotgun-based mesh-options.  Getting licks in on the quarterback is always a good thing, and with many spread quarterbacks being on the sprightly side and more prone to taking hits defenses often have a multiplier in their favor if they get a few jarring blows in.  Beyond simply playing solid schemes that lead to conventional pressures and tackles, defenses often react to option plays in order to force the quarterback to hang on to the ball or even make a bad read and run right into pressure; when it works, it exposes the quarterback to extra hits (and has the added advantage of keeping the ball away from running backs, who’re usually more dangerous runners.)  I think this going to create some tension in the pro-levels, since NFL squads are becoming intrigued by zone-reads and veers in the middle of escalating concussion concerns, and the quarterbacks having success with these plays—Griffin, Luck, Newton, etc.—are mainly bright young stars that the league doesn’t want to see injured and owners and GMs can’t afford to have injured.

Putting Time on Their Side

Everything thing today’s spread-option teams are doing is fundamentally sound, and hearkens back to excellent football techniques that fell by the wayside not because they were inherently faulty, but because the game changed around them.  We aren’t seeing a “gimmick” offense, but rather an offense that might be better suited for today’s game and rules than previous iterations.  Coaches recognize this, and are adopting spread-option systems and various components of these schemes at every level of play.  This conversely means that defensive players are now getting a heavy-dose of spread-option prep from JV all the way into the pros.  This experience will ease learning curves, and coupled with coaches’ increasing familiarity with spread-option concepts, probably force a new round of evolution in offense.

It also takes time for defensive coaches to develop and teach the counter-punches to the spread-option game.  Coaches might have a dozen different coverage schemes just to stop a pro-style passing attack, but only one or two approaches to an option team.  You see this with inexperienced schools playing Georgia Tech or the service academies: they’ll have the flexbone bottled up for a quarter or two, and then Paul Johnson or Ken Niumatalolo throws in a tweak like a midline read or an arc release and suddenly an opposing D is helpless.  Oklahoma fans saw their title hopes dashed when Florida moved to the Shovel play in the second half of the BCS championship game.  Teams are developing responses to the entire suite now, though, and even coming up with ways to attack, rather than react.


There’s one final point I want to cover about rules.  Today’s spread teams take advantage of what have been tremendous rules changes aimed at enlivening the game and protecting players.  For now, I don’t think we’ll see many more rules designed to increase scoring and quicken games, e.g., I don’t expect it to become completely illegal to touch receivers during the route or for the play clock to be shortened any more.  On the other hand, I don’t think we’ll see any rules changes made just to give defenses a break, such as easing substitution rules.

To me, though, there seems to be several ways the rules of the game could be changed to increase safety, and my belief is that the changes left on the table could immediately make or break the spread-option team.  Just to give an example, imagine if below-the-waist blocking were banned.  It’s not too hard to imagine: low blocks lead to a fair number of injured defenders, and perhaps more importantly, they’re viewed by some as antithetical in spirit to “real” football.  Take these blocks out of the game, and three things happen to spread-option teams: the zone running game gets hampered, the screen game gets busted, and pass protection gets trickier for undersized players like backs and tight ends.  That’s trouble for any team that likes to pass, teams that favor athletic linemen, and teams that run the zone-read…or basically, most spread-option teams.

All said, this series offers just a sliver of the ever-changing spread-option game and its consequences, which itself is just a sliver of the ever-changing landscape of football.  We’re already seeing the spread-option game evolving; Nevada’s pistol formation and Louisiana Tech’s revamped cadence rules are probably the two best-known examples.  It’ll be interesting to see what the next few years bring.

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