Smart Football: The Urban Meyer Offense
PUBLISHER'S NOTE: Chris Brown of Smart Football graciously gave us permission to reprint his excellent analysis of the spread offense as it pertains to Coach Meyer and the Florida Gators. This story remains copyrighted by Mr. Brown.
The book “Spread Formation Football,” written by Coach Meyer, begins with the line: “Spread formations are not new to football.” Very true.
Wait, I should have been more specific. ”Spread Formation Football” was written in 1952 by Coach Dutch Meyer of TCU. Yet that Meyer’s edict applies with as much force to today’s Coach Meyer as it did then, if not more so, because it highlights a simple truth. Urban Meyer, and his offensive coordinator, Dan Mullen, are not geniuses, nor are they innovators. Indeed, Florida’s offense is not new; it is not novel; it is not even that unique. Urban Meyer would agree and say, that’s okay. His offense may not be new; it is merely very, very good.
The Gators have a legitimate shot at another national title, and I can’t think of many coaching matchups more fun than Nick Saban’s defense pitted against the the Meyer/Mullen/Tebow run ‘n gun.
In this post I will briefly overview the philosophy behind Meyer’s offense and then some of the core run game concepts, though I can do neither full justice here. But it’s worth discussing to dispel some misnomers that get floated (especially by announcers and ESPN-types). Meyer does not run the wing-t from shotgun (his offense is not based around “series football” as those offenses are), he does not run the run and shoot with more running, and the option is only one part of Meyer’s offense. Strangely enough, I would say that the inspirational fathers of Florida’s offense have to be Joe Gibbs and Dennis Erickson, who helped establish and pioneer the one-back offense. Indeed, as will be discussed below, Florida’s main run plays are basically the same ones both guys made popular in the ‘80s, though from the shotgun and a bit more option sprinkled in.
Surprised to hear these roots? Meyer is not shy; he admits that he was a late-mover to the spread offense, though as the years pass he looks more and more likely to be the last man standing. In the year of the rise of the terrible spread, we still have Meyer’s flying Circus, complete with his rhinoceros of a quarterback.
Meyer bounced around as an assistant coach, finally as receivers coach at Notre Dame under the schematically brilliant but instinctively cro-magnon Bob Davie. Meyer has recalled losing to Nebraska in 2001, and being struck when, after they lost, he found one of his best players, David Givens, crying at his locker because he was unable to help his team win: he hadn’t touched the ball the entire game. He swore to run an offense that got his playmakers the ball. While at Notre Dame, he began meeting with his intellectual mentor (his actual mentors were guys like Lou Holtz), Scott Linehan. (Yes, that Scott Linehan.) He was hired as Head Coach of Bowling Green, and decided that—in years that just happened to be the rather formative ones for the spread—he would have his staff learn at the masters’ feet.
So, eschewing typical coaching visit hotspots like Ohio State, Michigan, Florida, and the like, Meyer directed his staff to make a midwest pilgrammage to learn from the likes of: John L. Smith and Scott Linehan at Louisville; Joe Tiller and Jim Chaney (now St. Louis Rams) at Purdue; Randy Walker and Kevin Wilson (now at Oklahoma) at Northwestern; and, of course, with Rich Rod at West Virginia. What all these guys had in common was they were one-back or spread coaches, they had the ability to run the ball (though Meyer focused more on passing with a team like Purdue), and they had an organized, conceptual way of thinking about football. Before Meyer’s first season at Bowling Green:
Mullen and three assistants joined Meyer to visit Louisville and then Northwestern, Purdue and West Virginia, looking to blend ideas from each program after Meyer became Bowling Green’s head coach in 2001. When all the coaches returned to Bowling Green, Ohio, they gathered in an office at Doyt Perry Stadium for a series of meetings over two weeks, diagramming concepts on a grease board and then converting it to computer.
“Obviously it was a very small foundation at that time,” Mullen said, “that has grown into a very big house now, all the people that are running our style of offense.”
(Compare this complete commitment to becoming a spread offense with some other programs you may have heard of.) Nevertheless, I don’t want to overvalue Meyer’s clairvoyance here, and neither would he. While back in 2000 the average fan and sportswriter did not exactly anticipate that schools like Northwestern, Louisville, Purdue, and West Virginia were the cradles of the greatest offensive revolution in thirty years, many in among the football cognoscenti did. (Self-plug: Like me. No seriously.)
But this is not a story solely about schemes. Meyer has always won football games, wherever he has been. When he arrived at Bowling Green he engineered one of the great turnarounds in football history, and I have known many great schemers who failed to win football games (Hal Mumme). In any event, later, Meyer and Mullen spent time with Navy and Georgia Southern (you know, with some obscure coach named Paul Johnson) to continue learning about option football.
So what did Meyer actually learn from these programs and coaches? We can see it from what he eventually did and now does. Broadly, Meyer and his offensive coordinator, Mullen, wanted to be shotgun focused, to spread the field, to be able to throw effectively, and run the ball and run the option. That hardly narrows it down, but that’s sort of the beauty. The simplicity comes in how few schemes there actually are, and how almost cliche they are in practice: the inside and outside zones and zone-read, the counter, the trap, quarterback power, and the option game (with jet sweeps sprinkled over top, though I won’t address that much here). This is the same spread playbook high school teams are running; indeed, there’s little that Meyer runs now that Northwestern and West Virginia weren’t running back then. Most differences are simply cosmetic.
I will only summarize his passing game. Meyer learned his passing offense primarily from what Purdue and Louisville were doing in their spread heydays. (Though it is important to note that both Purdue and Louisville at the time were traditional “one-back” spread offenses—derivative of Dennis Erickson’s one-back offense—so although he focused on their passing games their running games were consistent with the inside zone and counter game Meyer was installing with advice from Rich Rodriguez and the Northwestern folks.) Meyer developed a system based from spread formations, with focuses on quick passes, lots of quick shallows, pivots, and other quick moves. (The biggest evolution in the Meyer/Mullen offense at Florida has been the attempt to improve their play-action game, which has always been tough for shotgun-spread teams to convincingly do.)
I turn next to the Meyer/Mullen approach to offense, followed by some of the primary run game concepts.
Meyer and Mullen’s Philosophy
More important than the actual concepts Meyer uses is his approach. Meyer’s offense is not like the wing-t (despite what commentators say), nor is it exactly analogous to traditional option offenses, like Paul Johnson’s at Georgia Tech. This is because Meyer’s offense—like most other spreads—is not entirely based around “series football,” or a set play followed by its counter followed by the counter to the counter. Instead it is a more conceptual, more pro-style approach.
As mentioned above, the real sea-change for Meyer occurred when he visited Louisville and met with Scott Linehan, who at the time was coaching under John L. Smith. It was then that Meyer began thinking about the spread as more than just a formation, but a comprehensive approach to the game.
The entire theory can be summarized briefly: If the defense plays with two safeties back—so long as the offense forces the defense to cover its receivers by employing constraint plays—the offense has a numbers advantage in the box to run the ball against.
If the defense plays with a single-high defense—again so long as it employs its constraint plays (which are not limited to bubble screens, but include play action passes and draws to be used when defenders begin looking too heavily for the run or pass) --there is no advantage in the box but the offense should be able to pass, as it does have enough numbers to protect the quarterback. So a team like Florida will look to throw. Against soft coverage, the offense will look to throw underneath; against press man, the offense will play around with receiver splits to free guys against man and will employ more routes good against man to man, like corners, option routes, and whip routes (begin like a shallow cross, stop and pivot back out to the sideline at five yards).
Finally, if there is no deep safety then the offense knows the defense is in cover zero and it expects the defense to blitz. The defense is saying, either we’re going to get you, or you’re going to get a big play; we’re betting on us. Florida has a lot of responses, but at some point you have to be willing to go deep against cover 0.
And that’s really it. From there, the coaches will look to individual matchups to exploit, slight structural or leverage advantages, and especially for when guys get themselves out of position. So long as the defense stays in its base coverage, Meyer and Mullen run their base stuff and it’s just about execution. As soon as guys get out of position or the defense tries to get cute, they go to their constraint plays.
The Run Game
So let’s look at some specifics of their run game. I can’t cover everything (trust me, it would get boring quicker than you think), and the nuances change from year to year and week to week depending on personnel and defensive adjustment. But at core, Meyer still runs the same major concepts he ran all the way back at Bowling Green, which are run plays that go back as long as teams have run the ball. The major runs are the inside zone (with the ubiquitous QB read attached to it), the counter, the trap, the quarterback power and iso(lation), and various forms of option football. No matter what the defense does, Florida is going to practice and run these plays.
I will not really address the zone-read, though it is still the base of their offense. That play has been addressed extensively, and I discussed the play years ago.
The base form of Florida’s counter play is quite simple. The playside line slow plays (or even pass sets) and then fires out and blocks the man down and double teams to the linebacker; the backside tackle pulls and leads; and the running back takes a counter step and then folds over the ball, looking to follow the pulling tackle’s block. The quarterback reads the backside end (there’s that zone read again), and if he crashes down the quarterback will take off and run.
Meyer and Mullen keep this same basic structure but do play around with the specifics: instead of the running back, they can have the running back cross in front of the QB and have the quarterback run the ball behind the pulling tackle; they can have the running back line up to the play side and take his counter steps there and circle back; and they can use two backs (or one back and another player faking a jet sweep) to show the counter fake. They can do all this because it is one simple blocking scheme and the backfield actions and ball carriers are the easy part to change, as are what motions or formations you want to use with it.
More recently, Florida has begun running more of the traditional “counter-trey” play so popular in the pros. The difference here is that it involves two pulling players: one who traps the defensive end and the other who pulls and leads. Indeed, this is another play showing how Florida’s offense is just the translation of traditional concepts to new sets. Compare Meyer’s the version of the counter trey that Meyer ran against South Carolina:
With the traditional I-formation version of that play:
It is also worth noting that Meyer has used more and more “H-back” types in his offense recently, which give him more versatility in his blocking schemes, but still is a micro strategy designed to affects the front and create leverage rather than effect some large change on the style of offense. But, as nice as schemes are, they do not really do the play justice. The Gators ran the counter-trey twice against South Carolina: both times for long (long!) Harvin touchdowns.
The trap is one of the oldest plays in football. Against penetrating defensive tackles, the line initially does not block those guys, then the backside guard pulls and destroys the tackle. Florida runs this play both as a trap to the running back and with the quarterback alone.
Obviously, it is in Florida’s interest to use their quarterback in the run game. The power play is a team that every I formation team and every NFL team has in their playbook. The fullback kicks out the defensive end, the line blocks down and double teams the defensive line up to the linebackers (coaches often use the term OIL—“on, inside, linebacker”—to teach the blocking on this play), and the backside guard or tackle pulls and lead blocks into the hole. From the I, the quarterback hands it off to the tailback. In Florida’s offense, the quarterback is the tailback. And this has obvious advantages: as indicated from the discussion above, the offense has a distinct numerical advantage when the quarterback is a threat that necessitates a defender’s attention on run plays rather than just a statue who hands it off and gets out of the way, as NFL quarterbacks do. In any event, the play is diagrammed below.
During coaching clinics, Meyer often mentions that he likes to ask defensive coaches what they hate to defend, and he says their answer is always option football. (I’d wager that most of Georgia Tech’s opponents this season would tell you the same thing.) I am not going to spend much time on the zone-read-triple option, which to me is a nice but ultimately unsatisfactory play. It’s a nice wrinkle on the base zone-read, but unlike the traditional triple option, it is not designed in such a way that the offense is correct every time. (That is because the initial read is of the backside defensive end; but even if he stays put, the success of the playside inside zone play still depends on however the blocks turn out, as opposed to the true triple, where you know it will be a success because you have double teamed everyone and the only threat is the man you’re optioning off of.)
But Florida has increasingly used a form of the true triple—the “veer”—in its gun-run game. Had I written this article earlier this season, this would have been my focus, but as it stands this is still but one tool in Meyer and Mullen’s arsenal.
In the traditional veer, the line ignores several of the playside defenders, instead crashing down and crushing the defensive tackle and linebackers. The offense can do this because it “options” off a series of defenders: when done correctly, the offense is always right and the defense always wrong. So the offense gets a good deal: it gets double teams it would not have otherwise gotten by “blocking” defenders through optioning off of them. While option football is not easy, you have a better chance of success optioning off a great defensive end to make him wrong rather than sending overmatched tight ends and fullbacks to try to block them. So this is the advantage. The traditional veer looks like this (hat tip: Hugh Wyatt):
Florida’s looks largely similar (though Florida gets into this set through a variety of motions, shifts, and the “pitch man” is often a wide receiver).
More clips below, including some pass game clips. (As a hint, the trick to watching these, particularly the first, is to watch the line/defensive line and linebackers and not to just follow the ball; you can always tell where the ball is going):
A Word on Defending the Spread
This is a topic for another time, but it’s worth a word on how you defend the spread offense. It’s not difficult—in theory. And clearly, teams have gotten better at it. But defending a team like Florida, with all their talent, is quite the chore. Defending a spread team where the quarterback is not a threat to run, whether by design or talent (ahem, Michigan) is the simpler task. But if the quarterback can run, the offense gains the advantage of an extra blocker when it can spread receivers and the quarterback can run.
Against the old option attacks, the quarterback’s counterpart had to line up on the line of scrimmage and hit the quarterback on the line, and the defense basically had to play without a safety (are you listening, Georgia?). Against the I formation attacks so popular in the ‘90s (and earlier), the quarterback’s counterpart—the free safety—could stand back in the middle of the field and keep the quarterback from throwing against single coverage. Indeed, the rage in the ‘90s was the rise of the “eight-man front” defense, and this was the defense the spread developed to counter.
But against the spread where the quarterback is a legitimate dual threat, like Florida has with their Heisman winner, the defense must do both of the above. The quarterback’s counterpart has to be on the line of scrimmage to hit the quarterback on runs (as with the option attacks), and back in the middle against passes (as against traditional formations). This is not a debatable point; as Homer Smith said, “this is arithmetic, not theory.”
The answer is that you have to have safety-type players who can play the quarterback but also can, if it is a pass play, race back and play as either a robber or as a safety. The defense simply must be able to play man, and it must have the ability to blitz and attack both the quarterback and any other backfield player. (Though this is not easy; faking is better than ever, partially because it involved reading and not faking.) Finally, you must have the ability to zone-blitz to put pressure on the quarterback but still take away the short slants and quicks (or at least threaten to be able to do so).
In other words, you have to play defense like Nick Saban does. But there is no foolproof system; speed is king; and players win games. And there is no doubt that a spread like Florida’s is a beautiful thing to watch because it forces the defense to play perfect and to succeed it must be able to multi-task like defenses have never been asked to do before.
To understand why Florida’s offense is successful—for reasons other than because it merely unleashes a bunch of great players, though that cannot be understated and Meyer never fails to credit his players—I think it is helpful to compare Meyer’s “spread option” with another “spread option”: Paul Johnson’s flexbone. The mechanics of Johnson’s flexbone has been described in great detail elsewhere, but the comparison is useful.
Some have derided the labeling of Johnson’s offense a “spread option” at all. The charge is that it doesn’t look like other “spread” teams. But all this view does is highlight the meaninglessness of the term “spread.” The bone itself began as an option offense, and became the “spread option”—i.e. the flexbone—when coaches began flexing the tight-ends out to become split ends. The purpose was to provide more of a horizontal stretch to create the lanes and the leverage for the offense.
And that is exactly what Meyer does. His offense is “spread option” in the sense that it was spread before it was ever option (and you may go an entire game without seeing any actual option; the zone-read excluded). But Meyer and Mullen are trying to simplify what defenses can do, to make them show their hand. And wants to find the creases, in whatever form and wherever they are.
Woody Hayes built his defenses around his understanding of the converse of this principle.. An autodidact of military history and strategy, Hayes understood that the best and simplest way to stop an offensive assault was to corral it into a controllable space, as small as possible, to limit its available strategies. Having done that, you could then predict your opponent’s points and methods of attack and close them off. Johnson’s triple-option, in Mark Richt’s rueful words, “stretches you from sideline to sideline.” Meyer’s offense does the same.
But let’s go one step further. Why does that work, particularly with regard to the run game? You hear about the benefits of spreading all the time from sportscasters but with little explanation of why (other than vague generalizations or incorrect statements about “one on one matchups.") To answer that question, let’s look at another similarity between Meyer’s and Johnson’s offenses, which is one reason why in a spread offense the run game is often more important than the pass game.
While, from a passing perspective, the “spread” merely gets you one-on-one matchups that your receivers may or may not win, spreading your formation to run gives you something far more valuable: leverage. Meyer’s schemes are not tricky, nor and they are original. But they are sound. When you block a front, you do not send your linemen—however big, and however talented—to just fly out to hit a guy to try and hopelessly make him go where he does not want to. Instead, you put your kids in position to win. You use double teams. You “trap” defenders who rush hard upfield. You use lead-blockers in a way to give your runner a two-way go that he can win every time. And you option off defenders to make them wrong, every time. Football is still a game about power, strength, and quickness, but it’s always better to be smart about how to focus that power, strength, and quickness where it is most likely to be successful.
If the old running offenses of yesteryear, in reflecting earlier times, were like punishing boxers who engaged in matches where the biggest and strongest won, then offenses like Johnson’s and Meyer’s, in reflecting their times, are like martial arts: without sacrificing either strength or power, they punish you but also use speed, quickness, and cleverness to hit you where you do not expect and probe to find your weak spots, and to exploit them, without mercy.
(As a disclaimer: I am not responsible for any of the musical suggestions accompanying the video clips. I just find clips that seem to do the trick. My site works best without sound, much like a library full of leatherbound books and rich mahogany.)
For more, visit Chris’ Smart Football—Analysis, strategy, and details upon details.
4 Comments so far
a very detailed, thoughtful analysis that explains the workings of UF’s offense and why it’s working…
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