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Matty’s Mid-Monday Mailbag: Pic’s progress and the spread offense unmasked

August 31, 2009

Every Monday, I’ll take a minute to respond to you — Lions’ Nation — answering questions, and offering my predictions and insight surrounding the team’s 2009 campaign. Here’s this week’s installment of Matty’s Monday Morning Mailbag.

Friday night’s Albright scrimmage certainly poses a few questions regarding the offense’s continuity and the progress of some of its impact players. Moving forward, I’ll explain what you can expect against Buffalo State and for the rest of the season, regarding a few offensive departments.

  • Matty, you said that Bill Picatagi’s switch to “Y,” the team’s spliced tight end/wide receiver spot was the “big move” of the preseason. Well, how’d he look the other night?

In his words, “he’s not there yet. But he will be.” Mine would sound similar, as well.

He did show signs of inexperience at the position — which he should, considering he’s been there for merely days. His one catch wasn’t the only time the ball came his way, since he did drop a well-thrown ball and he wasn’t ready for another. Both of those problems are easily explained.

Friday night, Reading, PA much resembled Alan Parrish’s flash-flooded living room in Jumanji, and when I shook his hand after it felt like a wet washcloth. His parents both promised me that he’d be wearing gloves in the future. As far as the miscommunication between him and his quarterback, that’s something that will fix itself over time.

Aside from some trivial preseason jitters, he did show a lot of football intelligence and savvy play on Friday — a clear indication that he’s getting what’s thrown at him in meetings and film sessions. One of the ways he’s shown he’s ahead of the game is the way he navigates through zones in a defensive secondary. And receivers will tell you it’s not always as easy as “just get open” might sound.

When a wide receiver runs across the field, scanning the coverage for openings between these blanketed areas, it’s important that he gets where he’s going efficiently as possible, getting the ball out of his quarterback’s hand quickly. That includes minimizing — not necessarily avoiding — contact as much as possible. Being bumped off of a route disrupts timing and, often times, can throw the whole network of routes for a given play completely out of whack. Considering how accustomed he is to identifying defensive coverages early — sometimes pre-snap — he’s made his job as easy as possible for himself. Plus, he’s a big boy. He’s not going to get tossed around by undersized DBs.

Another way his experience helps him is how he runs those routes, based on what other guys in the play are doing and what the defense shows. On a given play, there’s a certain progression of decisions for a quarterback, in decreasing order of priority of the play’s intended point-of-attack. In simpler terms, it’s often embedded in the quarterback’s mind I need to look here, then here, then here, and so on. On plays that he knows he’s likely not getting the ball, Pic tends to do whatever he can to make himself as much a focus of the defense’s attention as possible, drawing coverage away from the other receivers in the designed scheme.

One of the ways he’s done this, and done this well, is running shorter crossing routes in front of linebackers — rather than behind them. Seeing Pic cross their face, linebackers are likely to maintain their depth, or creep up toward the LOS. This helps in two ways: 1.) they’re off the linebackers’ radar, so they can’t anticipate defensing a pass and 2.) it vacates room for them to catch the ball in space and get yards after the catch (YAC). Whether or not he even knows he’s doing itis irrelevant. He’s helping the offense jell every time he’s on the field.

  • I’m surprised that Pic and so many other former quarterbacks — guys like NYJ’s Brad Smith (QB at Mizzou), Pittsburgh’s Hines Ward (QB at Georgia) and Washington’s Antwaan Randle El (QB at Indiana) are able to make the switch so easily. How does that work?

People find it difficult to understand why so many quarterbacks are able to make this transition with so much success, but — aside from their knowledge of the game — if you watch them in practice, it’s not hard to figure out why.

Next chance you get, watch the quarterbacks on the sidelines. I’ll be damned if you find them participate in a football activity without ever playing catch. They play catch before practices, in between drills and segments, before games, on the sideline. ALL THEY DO IS PLAY CATCH. As a result, they’ve got some of the best hands on the team. Especially when the guys throwing the ball back are wide receivers, who, are wide receivers — not quarterbacks. “Necessity breeds innovation” ring a bell? If they don’t figure out this otherwise extraneous skill, and figure it out quick, they’re more likely to spend time playing “fetch” rather than “catch.”

It’s also a must-note that if there’s one guaranteed pet-peeve amongst quarterbacks its lazy route-running, and there’s a number of reasons why.

Lazy route-runninng happens because of two reasons: fatigue and uninvolvement in a play. When receivers don’t fly off of the line, this can tip a safety to slide away from that receiver’s side of the field — who’s sent the clear signal to the entire stadium that he’s not getting the ball. Sometimes, as a result of obvious fatigue from running 40 yards at a time, receivers will even dawdle when they’re viable targets on a given play. Rounding off breaks, rather than punching and driving out of them, doesn’t create separation. No separation equals no completion, and sometimes — the absolute worst-case scenario — an interception. Even for a guy who’s not the most seasoned route-runner, a quarterback that’s made the switch is likely to give his best effort, which sometimes works just as well.

  • Also, what’s this “spread offense” I’m always hearing so much about? Why do I hear that word so much?

For the remainder of the season, this term is going to become a pretty casually tossed around phrase, considering nearly all of the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) teams have installed some adaptation of it. But don’t worry if you don’t understand the spread offense, don’t worry. It is exactly what it sounds like.

The offensive philosophy has evolved over the years, loosely based upon the good, old-fashioned Wing-T conjured up by all-time coaching great Pop-Warner in the early 1900s. Over time, with the development of the shotgun — Dallas Cowboys’ coaching namesake Tom Landry’s answer to Roger Staubach’s sad excuse for mobility — the offense became popularized for its ability to, well, “spread” out defenses. Today, there’s about 100 different variations of the offense.

Most formations in a spread package include three or four wide receiver sets, typically run out of the shotgun (although, Georgia Tech considers its triple-option running attack a spread). Some spread schemes, like at Texas, base most plays off of a play fake to the running back, holding the linebackers and safeties — responsible for run support — in place. Sometimes the back gets the ball, sometimes the quarterback keeps the ball, and sometimes he’ll take a quick drop and look downfield for one of his receivers. Others, like at Texas Tech and Hawaii, use the horizontal passing game (screens and five-yard patterns) in place of a running game. Attacking the defense at a variety of distances down the field makes anticipating where the ball’s going on a given play next to impossible. In spite of all the differences in strategy, they all have common advantages.

First and foremost, spread offenses make a quarterback’s life easy. Think about how difficult it would be to try and read this sentence if all of the words were on top of one another and at varying depths on the page. That’s kind of what it’s like for quarterbacks that — in traditional pro-style offenses — have to deal with from play to play. Most receiving options are often staggered at five to seven-yard increments in a much closer space, so passing windows are more difficult to find and — even if you find them — they close quickly. By stretching the field and widening your receiving options, you do the same to the defensive secondary. It’s the difference between that cheat sheet you hold on the inside of a Snapple bottle and text on a large poster board.

  • So, aside from all of these D3 schools, what are some big-name football programs that run the spread, and why don’t they just do it like they used to?

For smaller schools and non-football schools, it also helps keep them competitive.

Smaller schools — Hawaii, SMU, Houston, and pretty much the entire Mountain West Conference — can’t get their hands on the bigger, stronger, and more talented prosepects that the more prominent schools — USC, Florida, Ohio State — can. In turn, they’ll focus on “athletes” — guys with of a lack of resounding talent at a specific position, but have all of the on-paper credentials — and develop them at skill positions, most likely wide receiver.

Because of the inherent structure of the spread, when these guys catch the ball in space, they have room to turn upfield and pick up yardage. Think about how Dante Hall (KC, STL) absolutely dominated on special teams, though he’s been a ho-hum receiver for the entirety of his career. The same thing goes for the smaller spread schools. Though it doesn’t happen very often, there’s plenty of examples of the spread leveling the playing field (kind of like, you know, the biggest upset in NCAA history? Appalachian State vs. Michigan?).

Now think about how dangerous that can be when you’ve got four blue chip WRs, five mid-western farmer boys on your offensive line, and a quarterback that likely could have been the Gatorade Player of the Year in high school.

Yeah. Problems is right.

  • Okay, that’s fine and nice in theory. But how does that translate to the scoreboard and the win column?

The philosophy has a number of advantages, some of which I’ve talked about already. But, by in large, to sum up why defenses get burned so often is by — in a word — “more.”

Present in nearly all adaptations of the offensive philosophy is a no-huddle element. This is designed to keep defenses fatigued (team’s can’t substitute), disorganized (difficult to call plays/audible) and — hopefully — out of alignment whenever possible (watch DBs run chaotically dart across the field the next time Cincinnati is on television). Teams don’t necessarily run a hurry-up, though they’re likely to chew up fewer seconds on the game clock from play to play. Under the assumption that a vast majority of plays are drawn up under the premise that the intended target is going to score — more plays equals more points. Statistically speaking, that’s 100% accurate.

Last year, in Divison I FBS (formerly known as Division IA) the nation’s No.1  ranked team under “total offense” happened to be Tulsa, one of the many faces of the new-age offensive attack. It ran 1,097 plays-from-scrimmage last year (78.3 per game) — nearly three game’s worth more total offensive snaps than Pete Carroll’s USC Trojans, that ran only 891 (68.5 per game). In addition to giving your playmakers more opportunities to shine, it gives a defense equally many chances to screw up. Screw up a coverage, fall down on a double-move, miss a tackle. All can equate to points. All are made possible by the spread.

Though 10 plays — about the number present in the average touchdown drive — doesn’t sound like a whole lot, think about how many times your team lost by seven or fewer points.

And the numbers support the idealogy.

A year ago, all but one of the nation’s top-10 scoring offenses (Nick Saban’s conventional pro-style attack at Alabama) ran the spread, or an adaptation of it. And the difference it makes ‘t anything to scoff at. Heisman winner Sam Bradford’s Oklahoma — No. 1 in the land in scoring — scored 90 touchdowns in ’08. Saban’s Tide scored only 52. And don’t give me any of that bull about “soft Big XII defenses.” The conference’s 4-3 record in the 2008-09 post-season was run of the mill, but it wasn’t bad as the ACC (4-6) or the Big Ten (1-6). Neither are spread-heavy groups.

Overall, the Big XII Conference — nearly synonymous with the term “spread” — ran more plays from scrimmage than any other conference in the nation. I rest my case.

…I know I just threw a lot at you, so I hope that you’ve got means to access the answers — should they come up.

***

That’s it for this week’s edition of 4M.’

To see your questions answered, fill out the form below:

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