November 29, 2012

Tape Breakdown: Georgia Tech's offense

When facing off with Paul Johnson's Georgia Tech, especially the 2012 version, one side of the ball generates unique concerns above the other. The Yellow Jacket offense employs the historically-rooted yet enigmatic triple-option attack, a scheme that will frustrate defenses with the basic concept of a two-on-one isolation. This week in our Tape Breakdown series, let's look at the principles of the Paul Johnson offense from the foundation upward in order to make sense of what FSU will face this weekend.

The Flexbone

When talking option football - if you've ever taken the time to entertain conversations regarding option football, that is - you've likely heard about the wishbone formation. Well, that formation is not exactly what Georgia Tech uses to attack opposing defenses. You'll know this formation when you see it below, but here is the "flexbone" formation in a pre-snap look.

Notice the two backs noted as "A" backs. These players are treated as combo receivers/backs that can release into routes as easily as they're used in the triple option attack. Paul Johnson takes exception to the notion that he runs option schemes, noting that the "A" back can provide problems in the passing game just as easily as in the ground game. However, Johnson is really trying to mask his affinity to call a run-first offense the best he can to members of the press.

Essentially what Johnson has done is move two slot-receivers in a balanced four-wide look a few steps closer to the quarterback (and also behind the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle) to generate a symmetrical, unreadable base formation. Where he goes from this base look with motion and blocking schemes can be determined in his gameplan for or mid-game adjustment to the defense.

The Midline vs. Veer option

Two oft-used plays in this offense are the midline and veer options. Since every coach adds wrinkles and variations to these plays as needed, we'll break down the very basic principles of each play in this breakdown.

To be clear for the purpose of this discussion, the term "play-side" means the side of the field which the play is attacking. It can be either a short-side or field-side play.

Midline option

First and foremost, the midline option depends heavily on a split-second read made by the quarterback. The decision comes quick, and in this case, it comes against a defensive tackle. Should FSU run the defense it has all season long - that is, utilizing a traditional four-man front - the quarterback will look a play-side defensive tackle right in the face before making his decision. The play-side guard (can be either on strong or weak side) will not even be block the corresponding defensive tackle in front of him, so the quarterback has to make this decision almost instantly: if he sees the defensive tackle crash, or turn his shoulders, towards the B-back (the back directly behind the QB at snap), then the quarterback keeps the ball and makes a simple speed option pitch/keep decision steps later.

Conversely, if he sees that the defensive tackle is forgoing the B-back and attacking the quarterback himself, he hands the ball off.

The play-side offensive tackle will take out the play-side defensive end in this option look, meaning that if the quarterback keeps the ball, the onus is on either an outside linebacker or corner to hold the edge, remain patient, and wait for support.

Veer option

This is the more traditional look seen from a triple-option offense. In this play, the offensive line crashes down or cuts on every defensive lineman except the play-side defensive end when facing a 4-3 defense. This means that the quarterback reads the defensive end's shoulders and has a half-second more to do so than if he were running the midline option.

Does the DE turn his shoulders and attack the B-back, or does he square and commit to the quarterback? This read must be made by the quarterback to determine what to do with the football. Should the DE turn towards the B-back, he keeps and breaks outside with his motioned pitch-back (the A-back). Should the DE square, the quarterback has a second decision to make: can he tackle me if I hold onto the football? If the answer is yes, then pitch away. If the answer is no, burst up the field and look for blocking against second-level defenders.

How to counter these looks

Based upon all the literature I've reviewed, whether at Smart Football or Gridiron Notes or The Bird Dog blog (all wonderful resources) or others, the consensus against Paul Johnson is this: do not defend Georgia Tech the same way two or three plays in a row. If the Seminoles mix up their attack patterns against the Jackets, then quite simply, Stoops' defense is just as unpredictable as Johnson's offense. If Johnson can get a beat on ends, 'backers and corners going the same way each play, he will break off a big play quickly.

With the loss of Tank Carradine for the year, it will be quite interesting to see how the Seminoles utilize Bjoern Werner. Do they put the junior - who has an elite blend of instincts and burst - on the wide side of the field for each play? Do they leave him up against the right tackle for each snap? Werner is a big part of the success or failure of the Seminole defense this weekend, but as we've noted above, it's only if he's working in communication with his corresponding cornerback and linebacker. The triple option neutralizes one half of the field completely and one player on the other half of the field if run correctly. Plain and simple, Werner might be asked to be as disruptive a pawn as possible this weekend.

Just when you think…

The part of an offense like Georgia Tech's that goes under-discussed is the wrinkles used after a team reacts to the option. For example, one may ask "Why not walk up another safety into the box?" Well, the counter to that tactic is to use the two A-backs as slot receivers. If pre-snap, a defense gives away that a safety will be involved against the run, the quarterback can check to a four-vertical passing play and try to take advantage of a one-on-one matchup. In past seasons, this is a big reason why Georgia Tech's yards-per-completion average was so high. Single coverage can be deadly.

Another play to use is a rocket sweep - noted above. If the line and linebackers are keying in and selling out to the B-back's side, look how this play can catch a defense off guard. The motioning A-back will receive a toss to the quarterback's right side while the B-back dives to the gap to the left of the QB. Meanwhile, the stationary A-back and right tackle make their way into space to lead block on a sweep play that gets on a defense very quickly. If the root of the option offense is successful, then the branch-out plays are numerous and potentially lethal.


In the end, this offense all starts with a quarterback that can make quick reads on defensive linemen and also have the ability to run in space. Former Tech quarterback Joshua Nesbitt was a master of these two keys and thus the offense flourished when he was healthy. But the good news for Florida State is that the Tech offense isn't quite running at that efficiency in 2012.

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