Unless you’re a diehard football tactics junkie or Josh McDaniels, you probably think of the spread as Mike Leach, 45 points a game, and a fast running quarterback. In fact, let’s do a quick test: when I say, “spread offense,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? If you’re like most people, you probably thought of one of the following:
- 60 passes a game
- 5 wide receivers every play
- A correspondingly bad defense
- “System” offenses
- Colt Brennan.
When UNC hired spread offense disciple Larry Fedora last week, a lot of UNC fans started to dissect the relative merits of the spread against what we’re used to here in Chapel Hill – a pro-style offense using a lot of motion and multiple packages. Fedora’s offense is decidedly not pro-style. Technically, it’s probably best categorized as a one-back balanced spread offense. The big question for most fans, though, is “what exactly IS this spread offense I keep hearing about?”
In this post, I’ll try to provide an overall framework for what Fedora is going to try to do here in Chapel Hill. I broke down the game tape of Southern Miss’ victory over the heavily favored Houston Cougars to illustrate some of the central concepts, so be forewarned: this gets pretty technical at times, though I’ve tried to coach the explanations in everyday language.
If you could sum up the spread offense in one word, it would be “matchups.” The central premise of the spread – any spread, whether you’re talking Urban Meyer’s read-option or Hawaii’s throw-every-play version – is to create bad matchups for the defense. In an ideal world, this is getting a playmaking wide receiver like Dwight Jones in one-on-one coverage with a slower linebacker or a fast tailback like Gio Bernard hitting a seam against a flat-footed safety. But in reality, a good matchup for the spread is any pairing where the defensive player is significantly slower than the offensive guy. I’ll show you numerous examples of this in practice; in particular, USM repeatedly torched Houston because they insisted on keeping a linebacker 1-on-1 against their much faster tailback.
The second central premise of the spread offense, unsurprisingly, is spacing. Some spread offenses don’t pay as much attention to spacing as others; in the Fedora spread, it’s critical. When you have inferior football talent, teaching kids how to find space helps make up for the difference, and no one is arguing that Fedora had Alabama-caliber players at USM. Football is not basketball – playing one-on-one coverage for more than a couple of seconds is damn near impossible, so most teams play a lot of zone. By placing eligible receivers literally from sideline to sideline, the spread maximizes the field in order to find seams in those zones. Of course, all offenses try to take advantage of spacing; it’s just that the spread does it especially well.
A nice side perk of the spread is that it’s really easy to run it quickly, like Fedora will sometimes do. When the offense goes no-huddle and picks up the pace, it’s extremely challenging for a defense to adopt anything other than a base zone coverage – and a good quarterback will pick that apart. Fedora in particular likes to somewhat randomly go no-huddle and pick up the pace just to throw off a defense. It works.
Let’s get to a few examples, since it’s the best way to really explain these concepts.
Case #1: Reading the Safety.
A huge advantage of the spread over more complicated systems (like, say, UNC’s system under John Shoop) is that reads are often simple, especially early in the game when the defense’s gameplan is unknown. In this first-quarter drive, quarterback Austin Davis reads the free safety:
Here, Davis is presnap reading the center-field safety (the solid yellow arrow indicates that the short-side linebacker will ultimately end up responsible for the running back). If the safety goes deep to play a “center field,” one of the underneath routes will involve a wide receiver against a linebacker, which is usually a good thing. So what happens? The safety jumps the short route run by the slot receiver, which I’ve indicated above in red:
The guy with the yellow arrow headed downfield is the tailback, Desmond Johnson. He’s really fast. He’s about to blow by the linebacker (the guy standing flat-footed with the short yellow arrow). Now, because of a bad throw by quarterback Anthony Davis this play was actually incomplete, but the principle is well-illustrated: a RB with a full head of steam is a great matchup against a linebacker still slow-playing a short route. Another point: this is USM’s first drive of the game, and Fedora takes a shot forty-five yards downfield to a running back. Excited yet?
Case #2: The Devastating Backside Slant or Skinny Post.
In almost all non-spread systems, the backside receiver plays a totally inconsequential role. The odds of the lone wideout on the “away-side” of a play being a part of the quarterback’s progression is low; the odds of this receiver getting the ball when he’s on the short side is zero. In the Fedora spread, though, the backside receiver is always a threat.
The yellow triangle is illustrated to show you what the quarterback is looking for – his throwing window. From watching Davis in real time, it’s quite clear that this receiver was the #1 read, because there’s a wide open receiver on the other side of the field. USM was banking on the defense paying more attention to the wide side of the field with three wideouts on it, which is usually a good decision.
So the quarterback in this case is reading the short-side linebacker. If he drops hard to the outside, collapsing that window, Davis will flip his attention to the other side (and probably see the wide-open screening receiver). But Mr. LB stays home, and creates a throwing lane:
I forgot to mention that the receiver, now just a blur, is one of USM’s top playmakers. Again, creating mismatches. Upon catching the skinny post, the safety, Kent Brooks (#24; he had a truly awful game, and you’ll see his number a lot) is caught out of position because, you know, he’s paying attention to the bulk of receivers on the other side. The playside corner misses an arm tackle. Touchdown.
Again, and I can’t stress this enough, the spread puts the ball in the hands of the playmakers in space, even though in this case it was probably not the best read. One more passing TD example:
Case #3: Confusion in the Defense.
As the game runs on against a fast-paced offense, it’s incredibly easy for a defense to wind up out of position, opening itself for a big play. While Davis throws a bad pass for what should have been an easy touchdown, this neatly illustrates the concept:
You don’t need to be Archimedes to see the problem here. The deep safety, worried because Southern Miss already has twenty-eight points, is playing more than TWENTY YARDS OFF THE BALL (guess who that deep safety is? I’ll give you one guess). Seeing nothing more than a base defense with a huge mismatch to the wide side of the field – best for spacing – QB Anthony Davis probably got, ever so slightly, moist. Mmm. Mismatches.
Below, the linebacker with the red arrow flies out to cover the flat, which I nicely and uselessly boxed for you, while the cornerback takes off backwards to protect the end zone. Mr. Deep Safety (you guessed it! #24 again!) is still picking his butt out there somewhere.
See the question mark? That’s the “why is one big slow white guy covering two fast receivers?” question mark. One receiver continues downfield, setting a barely-legal pick, while the other breaks off his route. If Davis were better, this is an easy six points. Here’s a better angle of how much space the cutting-in receiver actually has:
WHAT IS THE SAFETY DOING!? There’s no way he can cover that ground in time. For #80, Ryan Balentine (another top playmaker), this is an easy conversion. Too bad Davis’ pass hit the dirt at Balentine’s feet.
A lot of people have asked about the future of Gio Bernard and, most loudly, about Bryn Renner as a runner. After watching every running play in this game, I can say with relative confidence that everyone, and Bernard in particular, is going to absolutely love this system. It maximizes what he’s best at, which is getting into the secondary and making people miss. The zone blocking scheme, which UNC used at times this year to great effect, is the bulwark of the spread running game. The basic premise of the run game in the spread is to win the individual battle; everything follows from there. This has the great advantage of being simple, almost in the extreme: great news for UNC’s offensive line, which often struggled with missed assignments in the complicated Shoop system.
Some of the plays USM ran against Houston were of the zone-read variety, where the quarterback makes a decision on whether to keep it or hand it off, but most of the run calls were designed handoffs (which should make those of you nervous about Renner’s future happy). Here’s a couple examples:
Case #4: Man-on-Man Zone Blocking.
In this example, you’ll see a very simplistic blocking scheme: put a man on a man and let the RB make a cut.
As you can see from my high-quality blocking arrows, everyone except the playside guard has a defender right in his face. So the guard simply moves up one level and goes for the MLB.
By the way, for those of you afraid about the future of UNC’s tight ends – I spy one! (Seriously, don’t worry about tight ends. If there’s anything you should be learning about the spread, it’s that playmakers play.)
The key blocks here are the awesome push by the playside tackle, plus the chip block the guard lays on the backer. Even though a D-lineman, #97, sheds his block, he’s too far behind the play to catch the tailback (#97 actually obscures the tailback perfectly in the above screenshot). The backside tackle and guards aren’t doing anything special, just letting the defensive linemen run themselves out of the play. I didn’t screencap the result, but it was a 12-yard pickup for a first down. Straight ahead, no BS, first down. I like.
Here’s another example of how the zone blocking scheme creates easy lanes for a quick RB like Gio:
As far as I can tell, this play appears to be “run in the general leftward direction.” I think the idea was just to give the ball to the playmaker with an idea of where to go. Noticing a pattern yet?
By the way, note down and distance. This is a conservative play call. The safety, anticipating pass, flies out deep – guess who! – while the DE goes wide in a pass rush; the middle linebacker blitzes. Except, it’s not a pass:
Are you kidding me?! LOOK AT THAT LANE!!! The safety is practically back in the locker room. USM’s running back is pretty good, but he’s no Gio – and he easily converts for the first down. For those of you that are Roy Williams fans, Wanda could have made this first down. Gio would have taken this to the house without breaking a sweat.
By the way, the spread run game isn’t JUST hat-on-hat, run-straight-ahead business. Fedora will still use pulling guards at times on slower-hitting plays, and you can still attack the edges when you want. Watch the backside guard on this touchdown run:
I’ve conveniently added an arrow for emphasis. Also note that now, in the third quarter, Houston is in the basest of base defenses and looks really tired – USM is in the middle of one of its no-huddle high-tempo spurts. On the snap, the guard, Joe Duhon, pulls playside:
With the middle backer tied up in a vicious block, Desmond Johnson takes the handoff and heads for the sideline. Duhon is basically going to plow the way versus either a safety or a corner, depending on how good the WR is at blocking. Total mismatch. This is an offensive lineman’s wet dream, and, well…
WHAM! Duhon absolutely obliterates the safety – #24 again, poor bastard. God I love football. All that’s left is for the wideout to make a seal, Johnson cuts inside, easy touchdown.
I have oodles of these, but I’ll bet you’re getting sick of them. Here’s one more, just to give us a nice number: a truly stellar example of how the Fedora spread in particular maximizes spacing, not just matchups.
Case #5: The Spread vs. The Tampa-2.
The Tampa-2, or soft cover-2 defense, is the annoying, evil thorn in the side of almost every prolific passing offense in existence. By basically conceding the run game, the defense makes it hard to throw almost anything except comeback routes. As an example, when the Ravens first drafted Joe Flacco, defenses would stack nine in the box, dare the Ravens to run, then drop to a Tampa-2 if Flacco dropped back to pass. It’s no secret that the Ravens’ best pass play was a comeback route to Derrick Mason. Anyway, behold:
All right, so the arrows aren’t perfect. Preview on Mac is limited, so cut me some slack. On the top of the screen you’ll see the receivers running a hitch-seam combination, which is designed to beat the Cover 3 (for reasons I won’t get into here). Won’t work here. On the bottom, you see a hitch-corner combination, which will usually work against a cover 2. Unfortunately, the Tampa 2 is soft enough that the safety can recover to usually break up the corner route. So the top safety covers the seam and the bottom safety flies to the corner, leaving the middle of the field wide open:
What to look for above: first, Davis recognizes that a three-man rush means a soft zone, so his primary reads are likely covered. The blur on the left side is tailback/receiver David Lampley, who crushed Houston all day. You can see the linebacker trying to drop deep enough to cover him, but he can’t – he has responsibility for short middle. Also, Lampley’s just faster.
See how wide the safeties are? If this were a better throw, there’s no one in the world that could catch Lampley, save for Usain Bolt. The closest guy to him, the linebacker that was trying to drop, probably runs a whole second slower in the 40-yd-dash than Lampley. As it is, Lampley makes a leaping catch for a first down. This is textbook how-to-beat-the-Tampa-2. It happens to be phenomenally difficult to execute from a pro-style offense, since you have to cover a lot of lateral distance; all that it requires in the spread is a decent tailback. Which UNC happens to have.
If you take nothing else away from this article, remember that the spread is all about matchups – a faster player on a slower player – and spacing. Fedora does this well, with a minimum of confusion. His gameplan isn’t to create matchups by motion, crazy line shifts, and end-arounds like UNC’s previous offensive coordinator. The spread offense puts the matchups right in your face and dares you to guess right. Most of the time, the defense is playing a losing game, back on their heels in a base defense because of the pace, and ends up picked apart.
I want to close by mentioning something about QB Bryn Renner. Anthony Davis, USM’s quarterback, is a good athlete and a strong runner. He is not a particularly stellar quarterback. Renner, while not as big or strong, is a far superior quarterback. He has a better arm, is more accurate, and is a better play diagnostician. Fedora happens to be inheriting a really good stable of players to execute his system.
Yes, the quarterback runs some in the Fedora system, but it is by no means a central part of the offense. Quarterback draws and keepers exist primarily to keep the defense honest; it’s entirely possible that Fedora removes them from the gameplan next year. As an alternative, he can bring in backup quarterback Marquise Williams or tailback A.J. Blue – who is more of a Davis-type player than Davis himself – for a small set of plays designed to achieve that defensive honesty.
Anyone who says Renner isn’t going to be “the guy” next year isn’t paying attention.
Follow the author, Nate Friedman, on Twitter at @nate_friedman.