Army: Defending The Option

When the option is run perfectly, it is a thing of beauty. Sure, any football play can be described thusly, but the because the option is designed to make the defense wrong every time (with all eleven players involved  in this purpose directly) and nothing quite approaches the perfect pitch back to a sprinting wingback with green grass ahead of him.

Welcome to Option Week

Otherwise known as Army Week

Head Coach Jeff Monken worked for Triple Option guru Paul Johnson at Georgia Southern, Navy, and Georgia Tech before taking over Georgia Southern and winning FCS titles. He joined Army three seasons ago. He struggled the first two seasons before breaking through (it seems) this year.

Thus Far:

Date Opponent Surface Result Rush Yards Pass Yards Plays Total Yards Yards/Play
09/02/16 @ Temple Grass W 28-13 329 15 72 344 4.78
09/10/16 Rice Turf W 31-14 348 66 75 414 5.52
09/17/16 @ UTEP Turf W 66-14 426 174 81 600 7.41
09/24/16 @ Buffalo Turf L 20-23 396 48 77 444 5.77
10/08/16 @ Duke Grass L 6-13 165 49 54 214 3.96
10/15/16 Lafayette Turf W 62-7 537 134 67 671 10.01
Totals 2201 486 426 2687 6.31

Projections From Advanced Stats Folks

ESPN FPI: North Texas chance of winning 8.9%. NT #116 Army #70
S&P+: North Texas #106 19.1-31.8 Army #66 with an NT chance of winning at 23%
SRS: North Texas #106 Army #79
Sagarin: North Texas #140 13.01 – 38.88 Army #64
Massey Ratings: North Texas #117 17-31 Army #93 with an NT chance of winning at 15%
FEI: North Texas #100 chance of winning 5.1% against Army ranked #41 (Projections aren’t up yet)

How To Defend This Thing

We have known since the schedule was released that North Texas was fortunate to have a bye ahead of this trip to West Point. Because of the relative uniqueness of the option in 2016, more time is required to prepare for it. That is not to say that the option is some magic, unknowable thing. No. Physicality, misdirection, and execution are the heart of a well run option offense. You may notice that those are the heart of any well run offense.

What makes this particular setup so difficult is that it is extreme. Instead of the 40 or so runs NT has seen per game, Army is averaging 62. For the most part NT has seen the same type of runs from Southern Miss to Marshall, with the lone exception of Florida who ran a little more gap runs instead of the zone stuff everyone else runs. This will be different. 

I recommend you read the Defending The Option series by Shakin The Southland. I’ll link to a few things later in this post also. It will help you football nerds really get into it. The great thing about the above series is that Clemson ran the 3-3-5 (like NT) and had to defend Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech. I already told you Jeff Monken is a PJ disciple so you see how valuable this will be in your footballing education.

If you do not read all of that at least remember these keys to stopping the option from STS’s preview of the Georgia Tech offense:

  1. Stop the Dive. Its meant to get 3.0 ypc, once they get more than that, youre dead. They don’t have as great a FB as Dwyer, but if you let them beat you inside it sets up the entire perimeter game and Midline.
  2. Hammer that QB every time he touches the football.
  3. Knock the QB’s facemask off every time he touches the football. Make him eat dirt.
  4. Flatten the QB on every snap.
  5. Rip the QB’s head off on every snap.

The QB is what makes this thing go. He and the Dive.

Hurm. Stop the inside runs and hit the QB. Sounds like good advice in any defensive game plan. Football is really a simple game.

When we are watching North Texas play defense — and given the time of possession for Army this season, that will be a good portion of the game — we should watch the interior lineman. Monken will call a few straight handoffs to see how Mike Ekeler and company are defending the run, and adjust accordingly. Watch for them leaving DL unblocked and attacking the second level. That will mean it is an option play. 

There will be some big gains and some mistakes. That is expected. North Texas has thus far done really well recovering from those and continuing to fight. They will be tested this weekend.

It is all about being disciplined. Linebackers, lineman, safeties and whoever else have to focus on their reads, their keys, and their role and not on their various teammates’ responsibilities and/or failures. If a player is jumping at the chance to make someone else’s play, then NT has played directly into Army’s plans. As with any defense, overplaying, over pursuing, and being out of position mean there will be chunk gains for the offense.

Okay, it isn’t  all discipline. It is scheme + discipline. But scheme is involved in every defense. Mike Ekeler hopefully learned some lessons while at Georgia and facing Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech offense. Details –like making sure the right player is the force, and adjusting to offensive changes — help put our guys in position to make the right plays. Still, there is a premium on being disciplined here because it is all run defense and when you cheat up  is when they hit you with the play action, run-and-shoot stuff. It is very easy to get lulled to sleep by a handful of FB dives and then get hit with a go route right behind you if you are not careful.

Speaking of the Dive, here is that dive and a midline example from the Temple game.

Part of being disciplined is tackling well. Tackling well includes getting off blocks (including cut blocks!) and wrapping up every time. Early in the game this is relatively easy. Later when Army is running for the 55th time at you …

The good news is that we’ve done well in short yardage and heavy formations. Against Rice, Florida, even SMU once or twice success was had, y’all. There was the famous 4th down stop against Rice on the 100th defensive play of the game, and a handful of stops against Florida, also. 

This bodes well if you are looking for evidence that North Texas can play tough and execute. It will be hard to do that for 92% of the game, however.

One problem is that NT’s defense this season is a very attacking, make-a-play in nature. This is great generally, but Matt Davis, Tyler Stehling, and even Chase Litton were able to scoot out of tackles for big gains. While we can acknowledge that a pass rush is very different than an option tackle, we still have to mention it. Gambling can pay off but it can hurt you badly. 

When they were “trying to make a play” — as SL mentioned in his post game comments after MTSU — they allowed a big run. Again, NT will need to be disciplined in those specific scenarios. This is especially true if the offense is behind.

Really, the biggest concern for me is the offense. They have not displayed a true ability to get yards and points efficiently. When possessions — SL mentioned today that he expects 8 or 9 — are limited, the ones they have need to be maximized. Army’s defensive totals look great because they limit overall TOP as they chew up clock. Their advanced stats are still good, but tell a slightly different story. Their schedule is not filled with really explosive teams and one game was basically in a hurricane.

Do not misunderstand me. They are good defensively, but they are not unbeatable.

Defense

Date Opponent Surface Result Rush Yards Pass Yards Plays Total Yards Yards/Play
09/02/16 @ Temple Grass W 28-13 83 168 54 251 4.65
09/10/16 Rice Turf W 31-14 92 197 51 289 5.67
09/17/16 @ UTEP Turf W 66-14 88 166 42 254 6.05
09/24/16 @ Buffalo Turf L 20-23 87 178 64 265 4.14
10/08/16 @ Duke Grass L 6-13 145 44 66 189 2.86
10/15/16 Lafayette Turf W 62-7 10 213 55 223 4.05
Totals 505 966 332 1471 4.43

Addendum

If you didn’t read the series by STS, at least read these:

  1. Defensing the Flexbone
    “If you ask most defensive coordinators what type of offense they like to face the least, you’ll get one of two answers, either the Airraid of Mike Leach, or a triple option (veer) team. Lets be clear, the option is as old as football and will always be here.”
  2. Defending the Midline Option
    “How do you defend it? Well the first adjustment is to take away his read. If you play both DTs as a 2 or 2-i technique, he has no side to pick and will usually check to another play … However, in Paul Johnson’s Georgia Southern playbook, he says explicitly to check to another play in the event that the defense aligns with two tackles at 2i.”
  3. The Midline Option from The Birddog
    “A couple of you have sent me notes asking how I can tell when a play is an option play or when it’s designed for a specific runner to carry the ball. Since most examples of the latter in Ivin Jasper’s playbook still show a triple option motion in the backfield, it can be a little confusing. But you don’t need to be in the huddle to know; you just need to look away from the ball. You can tell by watching the offensive line. On an option play, you always leave certain players unblocked for the quarterback to read.”
  4. Defending the Run & Shoot Elements of the Option
    “Most of what you now call a “pro-style” offense contains elements of the R&S. It may not use the standard 1-back, 4-wide or 3-wide/H-back formation that the Houston Oilers or Atlanta Falcons used to run, but its the same concepts and sometimes the same plays.”