Four Plays – Air Force Academy (2017)
Ordinarily this series examines the probable individual matchups Michigan expects to face against particular opponents on one of Michigan’s key running plays and one of its key passing plays, as well as defensively against a couple of the opponent’s key plays, in an upcoming game. It’s mostly a look at some of the basic schematics the two teams will be running, combined with a glimpse at how the personnel differences will manifest. This week, however, Michigan plays the Air Force Academy and will presumably enjoy a rather significant talent advantage at pretty much every position on the field. Therefore, I’ve decided to do something a little different with this Four Plays; instead of the usual two Michigan plays and two opponent plays, I’ve prepared a little Triple Option Primer for you that looks at four basic AFA offensive plays, so we can have a better idea what we’ll be dealing with.
Okay, let's get started with the Academy's backs. Most of the multiple-back offenses we are used to seeing have a running back and a blocking back. The running back may be called “running back,” “halfback,” “tailback,” I-back,” whatever—but typically when that offense runs the ball his job is either going to be to carry the ball or possibly carry the ball (as in an option offense). The blocking back, who (obviously) will typically be serving as a blocker on running plays, may be called a “fullback,” an “H-Back,” or possibly other things. Therefore, running backs are usually smaller, more athletic players, while fullbacks tend to be larger and incredibly physical.
In a triple option offense, however, the two different types of backs (usually called “A-backs” and “B-backs”) both carry the ball—but differ more based on their respective running styles. The A-back is more of an outside runner—he typically receives the ball on outside pitches or toss sweeps. The A-back is typically faster with some open-field wiggle, and should also be a credible pass receiver. Chris Evans and Ty Isaac would likely make good A-backs. AIr Force's 2-deep lists (the most-unfortunately named) Timothy McVey and Malik Miller as its A-backs, along with QB Arion Worthman.
The B-back is more of an inside, power runner. Because the first option is a quick give to the B-back (i.e., the “dive” read), running ability is much more important to a triple option B-back than a fullback in a more mainstream offense. Also ,since the defense will almost always hit the fullback on his dive track whether he actually has the ball or not, a B-back still needs to be tough and durable enough to withstand the contact. Deveon Smith would have been a perfect triple option B-back. For Air Force, the starting B-back's name is Parker Wilson.
Now, AFA is known for running its option plays out of numerous formations (and here is some VIDEO of them doing just that. But in the standard flexbone formation that the triple option is commonly associated with, there are two A-backs who line up just outside the tackles (and may be called “slotbacks” in this formation), while the B-Back aligns two yards directly behind the heels of the quarterback.
Okay, so: the triple option. The base play in the triple option offense is the “inside veer.” That is the core play on which the B-Back threatens the dive (attacking inside the OT), the quarterback threatens off-tackle, and the (an) A-back threatens further outside (the linebackers). Inside veer looks slightly different depending on whether it’s run against a three-man or four-man defensive line, and with Don Brown we really don’t know which one to expect, but for simplicity’s sake let’s just look at it against Brown’s basic 4-2-5:
Before the snap, one of the A-backs will motion behind the B-back. At the snap, the QB will first read his dive key. The dive key is the first defensive lineman outside the playside guard—in this case, the WDE. The QB must read the dive key and hand off to the B-back on the dive unless the WDE attempts to tackle the B-back. The B-back’s job is to aim for the middle of the offensive guard and run full speed into the 3-hole, whether he gets the ball or not.
The dive attacks the “bubble” in the defensive line (between the NT and defensive end). It calls for the center and playside guard to execute a difficult “scoop” block. That means the guard will block down on the NT just momentarily, then pop off to block the MLB—with the center then stepping around the NT to reach block him after the guard leaves. If the scoop is successful, then—according to former Navy B-back Vince Murray—the B-back reads the guard’s block on the linebacker and cuts off of that. But, said Murray, “if the nose crosses the center’s face I’m cutting it back side.”
If the dive key attacks the B-back, then the quarterback pulls the ball and progresses to the pitch phase. Now he reads his “pitch key,” which is the first defender outside the dive key. Here, the quarterback will keep the ball and attack outside the playside tackle unless the pitch key tries to tackle him. In that case, the quarterback will pitch the ball to the trailing A-back, who attacks outside the pitch key.
What makes the inside veer can difficult to stop is that the play gives a numerical advantage to the offense, as it essentially enables the QB to “block” two playside defenders by optioning them off. The defense may therefore be inclined to counter this advantage schematically, such as by committing defensive backs to run defense, or overplaying the dive. Naturally, the triple option has counters for these various strategies.
One of the most basic counters is the midline option. Since the dive play normally attacks the B-gap (outside the playside guard), an opposing defense may be inclined to overplay the B-gap and neglect the A-gap. Or, if the inside veer has been hitting outside, an inside linebacker assigned to that A-gap may be neglecting it so as to get outside more quickly to defend the QB pull. This opens up the opportunity for the offense to hit the midline option.
The midline looks very similar to the inside veer, except for a few things. Probably the most obvious difference is that the playside tackle will cut-block the DE instead of leaving him for the QB to option off. That’s because the QB is not reading the DE; instead, he is reading the first defender outside the center—the 3T here—and will give the ball to the B-back on the dive unless that defender attacks the B-back. Note that here, the B-back attacks through the 2-hole (or A-gap, to the defense) between the center and guard. If the dive key attacks the b-back, then the QB pulls the ball and runs outside the guard (the 4-hole or B-gap), this making the dive key wrong. Click HERE for an example of Navy running the midline against South Carolina.
Another important counter is the “rocket toss.” If the defense commits extra defenders to stop the dive, then the offense can trap those defenders inside by getting the ball swiftly to the edge. This is the point of rocket toss, a quick-hitting outside run that resembles inside veer at the outset. The A-back receives the pitch at full speed, which enables the offensive line to ignore any defensive linemen at the 5-technique or inside. The playside guard pulls, the playside A-back “arc blocks” on a LB or safety, and the playside tackle executes a “dip & rip” technique—going around the DE to block a playside linebacker.
Okay, now let’s say the defense decides to attack the option game by bringing a safety down into run support. One key advantage of flexbone personnel is that it simultaneously gives you both four capable running backs and four wide receivers. So if a safety cheats up to play the run, the offense should gain an advantage in the passing game.
Here we see four verticals run out of the flexbone against a Cover 1 defense. If the strong safety has cheated up to stop the veer, then this play could be very dangerous indeed, as one A-back will have single coverage against a linebacker (or HSP) and the other A-back will have single coverage against a safety cheating run. The free safety will only be able to help over the top on one of those inside routes—and thus the other should* break open deep. With an effective play-action fake, the offense hopes to freeze or suck up the defenders responsible for coverage on the A-backs. Then the QB will use his eyes to try and draw the free safety to one A-back before throwing to the other.
*Of course, this might not work so well against safeties who can cover like cornerbacks…
Certainly Air Force has many more tricks up its triple option sleeve than we have seen here, but hopefully the above is enough to give you a good basic understanding. Now, let’s look at what Michigan needs to do to defend against it.
Naturally, the first threat the defense must account for against the triple option is the dive threat. Remember that on inside veer, the dive attacks the B-gap, but on the midline option the dive will attack the A-gap. This means the A-gap and B-gap defenders are the dive defenders.
Next, the defense needs to defend the C-gap against the QB keeper.
By taking away the C-gap, the defender “spills” the run toward the sideline. This threatens to put the QB and trailing A-back in a 2-on-1 against the strong safety. Therefore, the defense needs to commit the free safety, who plays the QB on an outside keep, while the strong safety is assigned to the pitch man. When the broadcast crew inevitably brings up “assignment football” on Saturday, this is what they are talking about.
The remaining assignments for the defense are as follows. The cornerbacks need to play primary pass defense. The backside safety (viper) needs to first check for any reverse possibilities, then pursue the ball. And the backside DE uses a “heel-line-trail” technique, meaning he runs the QB down from behind.
I tend to think Michigan’s monster defensive front ought to be able to swallow these guys whole, but it doesn’t always work that way against the triple option. The last time Michigan faced Air Force, back in 2012, the defense couldn’t solve AFA’s attack until late in the fourth quarter. It’s a good thing Denard ran for over 200 yards that day and Devin Funchess caught four passes for 106 yards and a TD, because Air Force put up over 400 yards of total offense, including 290 yards on the ground, scored 28 points, and put a pretty serious scare into the Big House.
Michigan seemed to be in real danger of losing that game when a ten-play Air Force drive reached the end zone to cut Michigan’s big early lead to just 28-25 with 12:01 to go. Fortunately Michigan added a field goal and the defense stopped AFA on fourth downs on both of the Academy’s final two possessions to preserve the 31-28 victory. But the game was too close for comfort—and now the Falcons are coming back to the Big House to try it again. Hopefully Michigan will do better this time around, though with an opponent like this you’ll take the win any way you can get it. So there could be some nervous moments on Saturday, but hopefully with Don Brown and 110,000+ fully united behind the team, the Wolverines will notch the W once again. Go Blue!