Trend #3

Unbalanced Formations in Tempo Offenses

Packaging Unbalanced Formation Structures in Tempo Offenses

As if no-huddle offenses are not difficult enough to defend, 2017 will add another variable. Now tempo offenses are shifting from more conventional spread formations like 2x2 and 3x1 sets in order to put a premium on stressing defenses and they are doing so with constant pre-snap motion and shifting. While the pre-snap movement is nothing new, Boise State mastered these principles during their Fiesta Bowl run with head coach Chris Petersen. The Broncos mainly used them without tempo, giving defenses ample time to adjust. Now we’ve found that adding the multiple shift and motion package to a tempo offense, throws another challenge in defending it. 

“The multiple shift and motion philosophy is a lot like the defense bluffing blitz and coverage looks to force the QB to check out, force a bad throw, or adjust protection,” said Devin Gates, the offensive coordinator at Fitchburg State University (MA) who is experimenting with these schemes this spring. “The offense is going to show you multiple movements and formations before the snap of the play and the defense has to decide quickly how they want to play it. Do they stay vanilla front and cover? Do they shift numbers to run strength or stack the box leaving favorable matchups for other skill players? This means the defense will have to communicate adjustments, maybe multiple times, which will create an opportunity for blown assignments due to miscommunication. These are the things that the quarterback is looking for while the motions are going on. The offense is forcing the defense to react creating an opportunity for athletes in space or more blockers than defenders at the point of attack.”

Why It’s Trending

Sure, defenses have their base checks to 3x1 and 2x2 formations and can get adjusted pretty quickly to them. Conversely, lining up quickly to unbalanced sets produces hesitation in the defense and if just for a second can open up gaps in the run game or miscommunication in the pass game. These are reasons why coaches, like Scott Girolmo, the head coach at Lee High School (VA) is experimenting with using these formations. “I have been attacking this discipline because I believe it is a scheme and a thought process that not only can help me to hide a terrible offensive lineman, but also lets me still be creative in the way I mix and match my backfield and perimeter tags,” he told us. “It is an ‘outside the box’ type of scheming formations.”

Kevin Wallace, the offensive coordinator at Glenn High School (NC) is tinkering with these sets also this spring with the purpose of creating extra gaps in the run game. “Unbalanced formations in an up tempo offense can quickly create extra gaps before defenses can align properly,” said Coach Wallace. “Going fast or using a huddle with a sprint to the line can help disguise fronts and slow the defenders down as they try to identify alignments and possible receivers. When you add motion to it, it causes the defenders to truly question what gaps they have in run fits and if possible receivers are eligible or not.” 

How It’s Being Implemented

For the most part, unbalanced formations are creating space in two ways:

  1. Creates extra gaps at the line of scrimmage
  2. Creates extra space on the perimeter 

Perhaps no other offensive coordinator this season has been as synonymous with his unbalanced package than former University of Pittsburgh O.C. Matt Canada. Pitt averaged a program record 40 points per game on offense this season, propelling Coach Canada to a job in the SEC, coordinating LSU’s offense. As Coach Canada told a host of high school coaches at LSU’s spring clinic, “Speed is our advantage and we want to change tempo to keep the defense uncomfortable. We’ll use various formations and motions that will be used to put players in the best position to make plays.”

Creating Extra Gaps at the Line of Scrimmage

Four years ago, we heard former Stanford offensive line coach Mike Bloomgren talk about his “Balco” personnel grouping, which pit five offensive linemen to one side of the formation. Coach Canada takes it one step further to add a six-man surface (see Diagram 13) creating seven gaps along the line of scrimmage. Because the defense has a hard time getting aligned, a simple toss play is effective.

Diagram 13

At Ithaca High School (MI) head coach Terry Hessbrook is 139-19 the last five seasons and utilizes a spread, tackle over, unbalanced line structure. He does this not only by exploiting a numbers advantage, but also by masking his personnel deficiencies as a small school program.” “It takes advantage of the type of kids that we have,” said Coach Hessbrook. “We do not have big physical kids, so we have to use our unusual scheme to have an opportunity to be successful.” A by-product of the single wing offense, the lone back (or sniffer) will line up next to the quarterback on the weak side of the formation. “If the defense balances up, we run power to the power tackle and if the defense over shifts to the strength, we have an entire package to the weak side such as speed option and sprint out.” 

For example, most coaches understand that using trips to the field presents the opportunity to get speed in space quickly with the quick screen and pass game. 

Coach Hessbrook, as seen in the picture below, has tagged his unbalanced surface away from the trips, and put his H Back in the hip position there as well (see Diagram 14). This essentially creates five gaps into the boundary. “I believe the magic of this alignment is that the defense likely needs to adjust the front to account for those five gaps into the boundary, which naturally shortens the edge to the field,” said one offensive coordinator we asked to break down the complexities of Coach Hessbrook’s offense. “With an athlete at the quarterback position, this opens yardage for him to get into space quickly out to the field. Setting the strength of the front is always difficult for the defense when the run strength does not match the pass strength of the formation, and this is a great example of how the unbalanced surface can accentuate that. Plus the addition of a jet motion creates major run fit conflicts with a two-high safety defense, as they attempt to rotate to regain an extra force defender and are unable to account for the H Back on the seam. Because the front never balanced up with the ‘new’ center of the surface, the secondary had to try to balance to account for the formation, and was unable to rotate coverage effectively.” 

Diagram 14

Creating Extra Space on the Perimeter

Gaining an entry point on the perimeter becomes more accessible when there is more space. In the diagram below, the defense outnumbers the offense on the flank, potentially eliminating any run lanes (see Diagram 15)

Diagram 15

Using pre-snap movement, Coach Canada is able to motion the slot, creating a voided alley on the perimeter (see Diagram 16).

Diagram 16

And when the motion causes the field side defensive end to reduce to a C gap defender (see Diagram 17) a fast flow perimeter check such as jet sweep becomes difficult to defend. 

Diagram 17

In the formation below, Coach Hessbrook places trips to the field again with the H set with width. Here the front shifts towards the unbalanced surface, and it leaves a 2-technique defensive lineman as the edge setter, with no overhang defender (see Diagram 18). “This is such an effective formation because it conflicts the alley defender, who in this instance is locked in loose man coverage out on the number two receiver,” this offensive coordinator told us. “With no overhang present, the Mike linebacker is the only defender in position to support the tight alley run. Because of this, the H back is able to lead out on Mike and spring the QB in the alley for a nice gain. The threat of a mobile quarterback [which most spread teams have] who can cover ground makes this set extremely difficult to defend. Playing man coverage against the receivers at Ithaca is like picking your own poison.”

Diagram 18

Continue to trend #4: Block Destruction

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X&O Labs 2017 Football Trends