After a 5-game stretch that included games against two teams currently ranked in the top 25, three BCS teams, and a service academy rival (with 4 of those 5 games being on the road ), to be sitting at 4-2 right now is a pretty great feeling. That feeling is made even greater when you consider how banged up the Mids are. With more concussions and hamstring problems than we know what to do with, plus the emotional cyclone of a string of intense games, the bye week probably couldn’t come at a better time. That’s good for the team, but bad for bloggers. Bye weeks are pretty quiet, and even next week’s opponent, Pitt, is off on Saturday. Finding something to write about can be a challenge. “OMG LOOK AT THE AWESOME HEALING” probably wouldn’t be a very entertaining bye week blog post. So to fill the void, I thought I’d do the same thing I did before last year’s Pitt game and take a look at a particular element of the Navy offense. This time around, we’ll look at the midline option, with a couple of examples.
A couple of you have sent me notes asking how I can tell when a play is an option play or when it’s designed for a specific runner to carry the ball. Since most examples of the latter in Ivin Jasper’s playbook still show a triple option motion in the backfield, it can be a little confusing. But you don’t need to be in the huddle to know; you just need to look away from the ball. You can tell by watching the offensive line. On an option play, you always leave certain players unblocked for the quarterback to read. When you see linemen running past their counterparts in the trenches in order to lay a block on a linebacker, you know it’s an option play. On the other hand, if you see the offensive linemen pushing straight ahead and simply blocking whoever is lined up in front of them, then you know that the player carrying the ball is doing so by design. (In fact, in games where film on an opponent’s defense might be scarce, it’s common for Paul Johnson or Ivin Jasper to call a designed handoff to the fullback on the first play while showing option motion in the backfield. They use that play to see how the linebackers and secondary will be playing the option. Once the coaches see that, they have a better idea of how they will want to call their game.) On “regular” triple option plays, it’s the playside offensive tackle leaving a 4, 4i, or 5 technique (usually a defensive end) unblocked to make a play for the quarterback to read.
OK, so what’s the “midline” option, then? All the midline option means is that the quarterback reads an interior lineman instead– the first down lineman from the guard out, usually a defensive tackle. Let’s take a look at one of my favorite midline option plays of the last few years, from the Emerald Bowl after the 2004 season:
This is the most common midline option that we see Navy run. It’s a QB-FB option, with the tail motion slotback becoming a blocker after the snap. You can see the defensive tackle being unblocked by the guard and going for the fullback. The guard makes sure he releases inside the read key, then proceeds to block the closest linebacker to the play. Or in this case, he gets blown up by the linebacker. (It may be a fine in kangaroo court, but it’s still enough to get the job done.) The playside tackle blocks the first defender outside the quarterback’s read; here it’s the outside linebacker in New Mexico’s 3-3-5 scheme. The two slotbacks become lead blockers for the quarterback and take on the defensive backs coming up to play run support; you won’t find many examples of slotback blocking quite as good as this.
So how does the midline compliment the rest of the playbook? The spread formation stretches the defense from sideline to sideline, and having four potential downfield receiving threats stretches the defense vertically. The central theme of any spread offense is to force the other team to defend the whole field. The triple option is such a great play in part because it attacks three different areas at once, putting pressure on the defense. But what it doesn’t attack is the middle of the field, right up the gut. That’s where the midline fits in. Defenses that are a little too aggressive in flowing outside to stop the triple can find themselves a little soft up the middle. By optioning off of, say, a 3 tech instead of a 4 or 5 tech, you force the defense to cover different gaps.
The midline brings some other things to the table too. One of the advantages that you get from running the option is the somewhat counterintuitive ability to neutralize a defense’s best player by not blocking him. If you execute properly, the play goes wherever the read doesn’t. It’s kind of like sending the defender on a wild goose chase; no matter who he chooses to cover, he’ll never make a play on the ball carrier if the QB makes the right read. By adding the midline option on top of existing triple option plays, the offensive coordinator has the ability to option off of any down lineman.
Against Rutgers, the midline option was the offense’s most effective play. But in that game, we saw a different wrinkle– the midline triple option. Instead of the tail motion slotback becoming a blocker, he becomes the pitch man. In the “heavy” formation, the wide receiver filled in for the extra tackle that was moved to one side of the formation. The defensive line shifted to match the new alignment, lining the DE up across from the guard in a 3 technique. The midline would option off of him. The DB “covering” the wide receiver became the first player lined up outside the read, making him the WR-turned-tackle’s responsibility. Even though personnel are shifted around, the play is run the same way you’d run any other midline option:
One thing about the midline is that it’s a very fast read for the quarterback. The good news, though, is that the defender has to commit just as quickly. The sooner a defender commits on an option play, the easier it usually is to read. On this play, the read turned his shoulders to the fullback, so Kaipo kept the ball.
Ivin Jasper called the exact same thing on the next play. The read didn’t want to get fooled again, so he stepped upfield and played the quarterback:
(If you want to see the midline triple where Kaipo pitches to the slotback, go back to the clips in the Rutgers recap post. Just ignore the arrows this time.)
Craig Candeto used to call the QB-FB midline his favorite play because he only had one read, and the DT tends to take the fullback most of the time. In fact, you’ll frequently hear this play mistakenly called a designed QB keeper by TV analysts, since the quarterback usually does end up keeping the ball. Sometimes you do see designed keepers, especially in short yardage situations. But more often than not, it’s the midline option. Hopefully now you know how to tell the difference!