September 20, 2021

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Summer Study: Tweaking the option game

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Summer Study: Tweaking the option game


The summer study series into the flexbone formation and option offenses rolls on here at Touchdown Wire. In the first piece, we dove into how these systems incorporate both “orbit” motion and “orbit-return” motion into their designs, with a focus on the running game.

In this piece we’ll dive into a twist on the core component of these systems: The option play. When you think of these offenses you probably envision the standard “triple option,” with the quarterback either handing the ball to the fullback — or “B back” — or keeping it and then reading an unblocked defender and deciding whether to pitch or keep based on that player’s movements.

On paper, that looks generally like this:

As you can see, the end man on the line of scrimmage (the linebacker, shaded in red) will be the player the quarterback eventually reads when deciding between keeping it himself or pitching to the A back coming from the left wing. That linebacker is left unblocked, and in essence the QB’s decision is what blocks him on the play.

Here is Army running this design against Middle Tennessee State:

Now, in terms of the quarterback’s decision making you can listen to a failed flexbone QB or a master. Paul Johnson, the retired coach who was most recently with Georgia Tech, ran flexbone option offenses for decades. In his 2002 Georgia Southern playbook, which you can find online, he dove into the QB’s thought process in detail:

Regardless of how complex double or triple option decisions appear those decisions aren’t complex when a simple, logical decision-making process is coached, practiced and applied in a game. In an option offense the quarterback must have the decision-making tools to minimize the risks in an option offense. An option quarterback to consistently make the proper decisions must be coached to:

  1. Make one way decisions,
  2. Pre-snap read the defense, and
  3. Understand the perimeter of the defense.

The key to consistently making correct decisions in an option offense is for the quarterback to make one way decisions. One way decisions are predetermined in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage.

In a double option play the quarterback can’t come down the line of scrimmage to option number three, hesitate and then decide whether to pitch the ball to the tailback or not to pitch the ball. The decision can be predetermined for the quarterback with a one way decision-making process. The one way decision-making process removes any hesitancy because the process instructs the quarterback exactly what to do when he reaches number three. The one way decision-making process instructs the quarterback to pitch the ball off number three, until number three won’t allow him to pitch the ball.

With some of the basics installed, now we can expand the playbook a bit. As we have already seen, option offenses are using orbit-return motion to add a little “eye candy” to these traditional option designs:

Motion is just one way that option offenses can dress up their core design. Formation is another. Even teams that are historically flexbone offenses have begun to branch out, running their core staples out of different alignments. On this play against Boise State, the Air Force Falcons run the option out of a “pro” formation, using the H-Back/Sniffer as the pitch player:

This design employs a bit of misdirection, as the H-Back starts to work away from the play, showing the defense a bit of counter option, before doubling back to the right edge. The run action on the interior sucks up the inside linebackers, and the Falcons are able to get to the edge. The QB makes the decision to pitch, and Air Force has a big gain.

Another formational tweak we have seen option offenses employ is the use of the shotgun. As Ted Nguyen stated in his deep dive into the Coastal Carolina offense, the use of the shotgun formation has a two-fold impact on these offenses. First, it allows for more in the passing game. Second, it helps to attract recruits:

A commitment to a two-back option offense with a heavy emphasis on pitching the ball was more commonplace with traditional under-center option teams. By running his offense from the shotgun, Chadwell got the edge of the option but also didn’t hamper his passing game. Also, the marketability of a shotgun offense matters to recruits. It’s a hard sell for recruits to go to a school running an under-center option offense.

Of course, Coastal Carolina is not the only team looking to entice recruits to campus, so here is Navy running their option out of a shotgun look:

Of course, with the Coastal Carolina reference we need to include an example of their pistol option design. Here is that look against the Kansas Jayhawks:

This play goes for a minimal gain, but allow Nguyen to outline the problems this formation poses for the defense pre-snap:

Here, the Chanticleers were in a pistol formation with a tailback directly behind the quarterback and a halfback offset to his right. This look presents a triple-option threat to the defense. The opponent knows it has to defend a running back dive, quarterback keep and pitch. But before the snap, the defense doesn’t know yet which back will carry out which phase of the option.

And that is exactly what the Chanticleers can do with this formation, because while the above example had the deep back run the dive to the left side, with the upback becoming the pitch player moving to the left, here is Coastal Carolina running a different play out of the same formation later in the game:

On this play, the upback is not the pitch player but rather a blocker, as he aims directly for the edge. The quarterback and the deep back run the speed option to the left side, with the QB making a late pitch off the read defender for a big gain.

So now as a defense facing these offenses, there are even more variations you have to account for. And that’s before we start getting into blocking variations, as well as the passing game.

All of which is coming next in this series.

Summer Study: Tweaking the option game