Reading Is Fundamental

It’s a weird sort of pseudo-bye week for the Mids. Navy doesn’t play tomorrow. They do play a game next Wednesday, however, so the team’s regular routine was just bumped over a few days while the coaching staff went out recruiting. As the team’s schedule has moved over a bit, so has mine. The Wednesday game has left a gap in my regular rotation of recaps and previews. To fill that void, I thought that maybe we could take a look at some of the basics of Paul Johnson’s spread option.

How often do we hear Coach Johnson critique a quarterback after practice, saying something along the lines of, “He needs to learn to make the right reads?” Or when fielding a question about why electric runners like Karlos Whittaker or Shun White aren’t getting more playing time, how many times have you heard, “He’s a great runner, but he needs to learn where to go when he doesn’t have the ball?” In his press briefings on the Monday after a game, it’s not unusual to hear Coach Johnson talk about the defensive alignment that Navy’s opponent used, followed up with a comment about how the players should have known where to go since they’ve seen it before.

We hear things like this all the time. And while it’s easy to grasp the concept of carrying out an assignment, understanding the details of these assignments isn’t exactly intuitive for the fan. So let’s take a look at our bread & butter play– the triple option– as we run it in our base spread formation, and talk about what our players need to read from the defense that lines up across from them.

We’ll start by talking about the formation itself:

This is our base formation in an offense that PJ simply calls the “spread.”  It has two receivers split wide, two slot receivers (A-backs), and a fullback (B-back) lined up behind the quarterback with his feet 5 yards from the line of scrimmage.

While the base formations look the same, Paul Johnson’s offense is not a true “flexbone” offense. “Breaking the bone” is something wishbone offenses have done for decades by moving one or two running backs closer to the line of scrimmage. The “flexbone” term itself was born in the late 70s. Ken Hatfield devised his version of the wishbone offense, which he called the “Flexible Wishbone,” while serving as Florida’s offensive coordinator under Doug Dickey. By moving one or both running backs closer to the line of scrimmage, those players could be more effective in the passing game than they would be coming out of the backfield. The added threat of the pass also kept defenders from overpursuing, since that could lead to disaster by way of play action. Even as the formation evolved, though, the “flexbone” offense was still rooted in wishbone principles. That meant power running: frequently bringing in a tight end, using a fullback that was as much of a lead blocker as a runner, and running halfbacks between the tackles.

Paul Johnson’s offense is different. His goal is not to overpower the defense, but to stretch it out. The tight end is virtually nonexistant in his offense, and the slotbacks almost never run between the tackles. His plays are designed to make a defense respect both inside and outside running possibilities equally in addition to the same passing threat that comes with having two slot receivers.  To that end, the ideal fullback in this spread offense is not the same kind of player as a wishbone fullback. Instead, he should be more like a traditional tailback– a perimeter threat as well as an inside runner. Navy fans are used to the bruiser types lining up behind the quarterback the last few years, but this has been the exception rather than the norm in Paul Johnson’s career. Gerald Harris from PJ’s first stint at Georgia Southern, Roderick Russell and Adrian Peterson from PJ’s second time around at GSU, Travis Sims and Jamal Farmer at Hawaii, and Omar Nelson and Tim Cannada from his Navy OC days– none of these guys were prototypical wishbone fullbacks.  Even Kyle Eckel was used as a tailback by the Patriots on Monday night. If you have a B-back that is a true inside-outside threat, then defenses can’t stop him by clogging the middle of the field. And that’s what is at the heart of the Paul Johnson running game: opening up running space by spreading out the defense.

The base formation in the spread is balanced, which is the first step in stretching the defense. The balanced formation forces the defense to line up with a balanced look as well. By sending a slotback into tail motion just before the snap, the formation becomes unbalanced faster than the defense can adjust. This creates a numbers advantage on the side of the ball to which the play is being run. We hear that a lot– “numbers advantage.” This is the quarterback’s first read at the line of scrimmage when running the triple option.

To make the read, the quarterback assigns numbers to defenders aligned on each side of the ball. The numbers are assigned based on their position relative to the B gap. “Gaps” simply refer to the space between the offensive linemen; the A gap is between the center and guards, and the B gap is between the guard and tackle.

Numbering begins at the B gap, progressing to the outside and back. The count is to three to account for the three potential ball carriers in the triple option. Everyone else either has a blocker assigned to them or is lined up beyond 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. The first down lineman lined up on or outside the B gap is #1. The next closest player lined up outside or stacked behind #1 is #2. If there is another player outside or behind #2 and within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, that player is #3. To illustrate this, let’s look at how Air Force frequently lined up against the Navy offense last week:


Air Force runs a base 3-4 defense. Against Navy, they brought their outside linebackers up to the line of scrimmage to present a 5-man front. On the left side of the ball in the illustration, the defensive end is the first player lined up on or outside the B gap. The outside linebacker is #2, and the cornerback, who is within 5 yards of the LOS here, is #3. On the right side of the ball, the DE and LB are #1 and #2 as well, but the safety creeping down in run support is #3. There is a 3-count to both sides. Because there is no numbers advantage, the quarterback would move on to his next read, which would be to run the play to the wide side of the field.

Numbers dictate more than just which side of the field to run the play. They also determine blocking assignments and who the quarterback’s keys are. Because of this, every player– not just the quarterback– needs to recognize the numbers. Whoever is #1 becomes the quarterback’s read key, determining whether the QB keeps the ball or gives it to the B-back. #2 becomes the quarterback’s pitch key. Those two players go unblocked. The playside A-back blocks #3.

Now, let’s take that and apply it to what we saw on Kaipo’s 78-yard TD run.

Kaipo's run

On that play, #1 played the fullback dive. Kaipo made his read, kept the ball, and moved on to his pitch key, the outside linebacker (#2). As the pitch key, #2 was also left unblocked. Instead of playing the quarterback, though, #2 went to play the fullback as well, leaving the quarterback uncovered. Kaipo read this and turned upfield. The free safety read the option and began to move forward in run support. But by the time he saw that Kaipo had the ball, it was too late. When a runner as fast as Kaipo gets a full head of steam, there’s no way that a safety will be able to see him, stop, turn around, and accelerate fast enough to catch him. 78 yards later and the crowd gets an Anchors Aweigh serenade.

Now, take a look at the way that Army is lined up in the first photograph:


Army has used a 4-4 defense against Navy every year since Paul Johnson arrived, and they’re lined up that way here. On this particular play, the corners are lined up beyond 5 yards from the line of scrimmage, and are therefore unnumbered. The middle linebacker on the left is also unnumbered because he is lined up over the guard, and therefore inside the B gap. Here, the quarterback reads a 3-count to the right and a 2-count to the left. This is a numbers advantage, and the play should be run to the left side.

Runthe play

#1 and #2 are again left unblocked as the quarterback’s keys. The playside A-back, though, does not have a #3 to block. His responsibility on this play is to carry out a “load” block. This means that he heads straight upfield and looks for the first unnumbered playside linebacker. If that linebacker is moving in the direction of the play, the A-back will block him. If that linebacker is moving away from the play or is playing the fullback dive, then the A-back will move on to block the safety. The wide receiver is responsible for blocking the corner.

These are the basic reads for the triple option out of our base formation. This only addressed how players evaluate the defensive alignment; once the ball is snapped, the quarterback has a whole new set of reads on his keys that he must carry out to know where the ball should go. The blocking schemes that the offensive line uses are different on plays that are run to a 2-count side than plays run to a 3-count side, which adds to the importance of the quarterback making the right call before the snap. While these are the basic blocking assignments, the coaches can tinker with them. Blocking schemes are usually at the heart of Paul Johnson’s halftime adjustments.

Teaching in progress.

Confused yet? Keep in mind that this entire post was only about one play as it is run out of one formation. This barely scratched the surface. Players have a lot to learn if they want to be effective in this offense. It’s funny sometimes to hear some people call the offense simple, while others describe it as complex. They’re both right. It’s simple in the sense that on any given play, each player has a very specific job to do based on his read. It’s complicated because there are a lot of different reads to make in a lot of different situations. Either way, players need to master the mental game before they can use their physical ability.

29 thoughts on “Reading Is Fundamental

  1. jgish

    Given your AF and Army examples, how does the QB let the rest of the team know whether the play is going right or left. Audible? Over the course of a game, wouldn’t the defense be able to “break the code” of audibles and guess that the play is going right or left? Also, how does the QB make his counts if LBs and DBs are moving around prior to snap count?

  2. thebirddog

    The play is called to go in a particular direction in the huddle. The quarterback will call an audible if he wants to change the direction. You know when it happens because you can see the slotbacks pat their heads to signal to the wide receivers. The defense doesn’t know if it’s going left or right, only that it isn’t going in the direction called in the huddle. But since they don’t know what direction that is, they can’t really get an advantage out of it.

    I don’t know if you remember the first play of the UConn game last year, but PJ had the slots make that signal to the wide receivers as a decoy. That made UConn think it was going to be a run. PJ ran play action, and Reggie got behind everyone for a long TD pass.

    As for defenders moving around… Back when Rice and Air Force were strictly “option teams,” we used to try to time their snap count and shift our defensive linemen at the last second before the snap. I’m not entirely sure how the coaches deal with it. If you watch, though, you’ll see that defenses really don’t move around that much against us. They have their own assignments to carry out and don’t want to be caught out of position. Keep in mind also that this is only one play. Bouncing around might help confuse the offense on triple option reads, but it probably puts you at a disadvantage on a lot of other plays.

  3. Gary

    Ok this is some interesting stuff…but

    What do we have to do to beat Pitt ? and will any of this matter if Kaipo gets “deer eyes” again against someone other than another service academy or MAC team?

  4. Justin

    That is the beauty of this Spread scheme. You can play a more “athletic” team and still beat them at their own game. This Pitt game excites me. I think we have a real shot at this one. Kaipo will be fine. I have been watching PJ for a long time and I kind of get the feeling they will go deep first play…Well I could be wrong but at any rate, this is going to be a great game.

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  7. Chris B

    Out of curiousity, why do you say Army has a 2 count side and a 3 count side. They playing a 4-4, which is a balanced defense. Am I missing something?

  8. Any defense can have the same number on both sides.

    You only count from the B gap out, within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. If you’re in the middle of the field or further than 5 yards deep, you don’t count. Look at the numbers in the diagram.

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