The Fed Spread Offense – Red Zone Challenges

In last week’s post, I broke down the basics of the Fedora offense. The two buzzwords about the Fed Spread, as I’m calling it, are “matchups” and “spacing.” In short, by spreading the field with skill players, the defense is forced to tip its hand before the snap or risk giving up a big play; unless the defense goes to a nickel or dime package, there is then a resultant mismatch pairing a slower linebacker on a faster wide receiver. If the defense goes small, then the run game can dominate.

Now, the spread offense depends on a few things to succeed, the first of which is space. A common struggle of a typical spread offense is that scoring tends to drop off in the red zone, more so than conventional offenses accustomed to operating in a short space anyway. Because the field is much shorter inside the opponent’s 20 yard line, the defense is able to hide its intentions a bit better, since it has less space to cover when making up for lost ground. Spacing becomes less of an advantage as the goal line gets closer, because the vertical game becomes progressively less of a threat. Even the primary goal of the spread, to create mismatches, becomes less attainable since even an out-of-position safety can usually recover on a short field – even Houston’s #24, who had a bad game for the ages against Southern Miss. Hehe.

The screenshot evidence this week is both lacking and of poor quality; for that, blame both the difficulty in ferreting out hard-to-find online video of Conference USA games (go ahead, you try, and highlight YouTube videos don’t count) and the awful video quality of the one USM game I could find on ESPN3, their September 24 contest with Virginia. Southern Miss won the game 30-24, but only scored one touchdown in the red zone.

Let’s first quickly review the basic concepts of the spread in the red zone. In the following play, Southern Miss is on Virginia’s 20-yard line, trying to score in one gulp:

I told you the quality sucked. USM is represented by the smudges in white; the Cavaliers are the nondescript blobs in what I think is navy. Austin Davis, the Southern Miss QB, is about to take the snap in an extremely typical spread formation (and hey, I didn’t call him Anthony Davis this time!). He’s going to read the playside linebacker, circled in red, but he also has to contend with the safety, who’s off the screen standing on the ten yard line. You can sort of see a smudge of him, right at the point where the #2 WR’s arrow ends. More on him in a second. The linebacker is matched up in what looks like 1-on-1 coverage against an athletic tight end. Mismatch.

The linebacker runs with the tight end, while the safety (off-screen) leaks wide to worry about the two receivers running the same route. This is a typical spread offense passing play that attacks seams in a zone or exposes a mismatch in man coverage.

Davis is now a little stuck. He needs to throw to the tight end, since the other players on the field are appropriately matched up by the defense. But he can’t just bomb it out there and let the faster TE run under it because there isn’t enough space. He also can’t soft-lob it for a Calvin Johnson-style jump ball, because the safety’s not THAT far away. So he has to zing it and hope his TE can make a play.

Actually not a bad play. As you probably (can’t) tell, the white blob has the blue blob on him pretty closely, and the pass sails long. Incomplete.

The 20 is probably the minimum distance needed to run a play like this. Any closer and all seam routes can be covered by just the two safeties with a minimum of damage.

For the second set of screenshots, let’s look closely at a full set of downs close to the goal line. After a long completion, Southern Miss has the ball on Virginia’s seven yard line.


First Down. Zone Read Attempt. 

What you’ll see below is how the lack of space allows linebackers to be much more aggressive in playing the run, because the safety help is always much closer in case of a pass.

As you can (possibly) see from my wonderful arrows, the backside guard is actually going to pull across the line to meet the linebacker that flows over to stop the run. This will, in fact, create a nice little lane for the tailback, though it’s hard to see below:

Classic zone read. The lane is created between the left tackle and the left guard, as the tackle rides the defensive end out wide. The playside linebacker (the black guy standing on the hash mark), for now, is just watching to see where the play goes.

You can see the backside defensive end is left totally unblocked. Davis, the quarterback, is watching him. When he crashes down hard (instead of staying wide), Davis’ own running lane is gone, so he hands off. There are a couple of things to focus on above. First, look at the three wide receivers at the top of the screen – away from the play. One linebacker, a corner and a safety, all in zone, is normally a disaster for a defense defending three wideouts. But close to the goal line, a linebacker can handle the short zone while the safeties split the deep field. Interestingly, look at the backside linebacker – the white guy. He’s actually looking away from the play, in case the receivers run a pick to create an opening underneath with room to run. If that outside receiver crosses in to catch a slant, he’s going to end up being evaluated.

As far as what actually happens, the playside linebacker flows over as expected. But because no one has to worry about the play-action – the far side of the field is taken care of, and the playside receiver is tied up – the defense is able to commit and clog the lane enough to stop the run.

I know it’s hard to see. Take my word for it. He gained two yards, which all told is still pretty respectable.


Second Down: Trips Formation. 

The classic adaptation many spread coaches try in the red zone is to use a trips formation. This is supposed to create opportunities for picking and crosses in the passing game and tailback-vs-defensive-backs in the run game. In practice, things are a little trickier.

No arrows necessary here. This is a straight handoff, heading away from the trips formation over the right tackle. But because trips creates the ability for a zone defense to undercover the receivers with just two defenders, the defense can blitz. The “SAM” linebacker – the same black guy, already moving forward slightly in the above snapshot – goes straight upfield at the snap. The offensive line isn’t ready:

Now, you can actually see a seam has been created by the right tackle. Because the linebacking corps are bumped over to the short side of the field due to the heavy receiver set to the left, this would normally work well in space. But down on the goal line, the defense can bring pressure and hurry the play. The LB, unblocked, gets to the spot before the running back, blowing up the play:

WHAM! Peace out. Try again next time. I would highlight the LB’s play more and tell you his name, but his number is too blurry to even read. But he had a good game.


Third Down: Tight Formation. 

In this formation, the goal is to create space by starting from a compressed formation – usually the opposite of the spread’s goal. In fact, this style of play emulates a traditional offense, which should serve to highlight the difficulty the spread has in scoring close to the goal line. In fact, the next screenshot should remind UNC fans of a certain offensive coordinator…

MOTION! Holy sh*t, John Shoop is moonlighting for Southern Miss! David Lampley, #1 in your program (and in your heart, if you read last week’s article) goes in motion. The goal is to see if a linebacker is going to try and follow him outside, which would be a mismatch; however, because Davis is inexperienced in this kind of read, he doesn’t even give the coverage a second glance before snapping the ball. It ends up not being important, because the defense is in zone. Lucky break.

Instead, Davis makes his usual read on the playside linebacker. If he sits, Davis will loft the ball to the #1 receiver on a deep “in” route along the back line. If he drops quickly, the dragging tight end will be open. As it happens, the linebacker not only sits, but the safety screws up, leaving that #1 WR wide open for an easy score:

Jeez. The closest person to him is the freaking sixty-seven year old referee. Even on ESPN3’s poor quality video, this is a huge, glaring mistake. Defensive-minded people like myself watch this and think, “how the HELL does this happen?” To be totally honest, if this play was defended with a modicum of competency, Southern Miss probably kicks a field goal here. It probably wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the game, a 30-24 victory that USM mostly controlled, but it certainly would have made a big difference in the momentum of the game.

The point I’ve tried to illustrate here, and I think successfully (aren’t I modest), is that the spread offense does indeed struggle in the red zone. There are many misconceptions about the spread – I addressed some of them last week – but this belief is one that happens to be true. In order to try to mitigate these struggles, the Fed Spread uses multiple formations, changes of pace, and even motion (which you rarely see otherwise). It is only sometimes successful.

On the season, Southern Miss scored a TD only 54% of the time in the red zone. In fact, they only scored anything 80% of the time, an abnormally low number for a high-octane offense. Most troubling, as Southern Miss entered the meat of its schedule in November, the TD percentage dropped to 36%!

That number sucks. If Fedora is to excel at UNC – and I think I’ve established myself firmly in the optimistic camp – those numbers will have to improve.

Follow the author, Nate Friedman, on Twitter at @nate_friedman, or contact him.

About Nate

I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2010. I've written about the UNC-Duke rivalry since my best friend from high school took his talents to Durham the same year I went to Carolina. Astoundingly, we remain friends in part due to a moratorium on talking around Duke-Carolina games. Though capable of rationally approaching the rivalry, I generally prefer low-intellect vitriol, because it makes me feel better about myself. Visit my blog at
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