Does Rich Ellerson’s job hang in the balance on Saturday?
I’ve always thought that the idea of a coach’s job coming down to one game was a bit silly. A team is either headed in the right direction or it isn’t, and it takes a lot more than one game to make that determination. If questions are being asked about a coach’s job security based on the outcome of the next game, then chances are we already know where things stand. The question at that point is whether or not the athletic director believes that the coach will be able to turn the program around.
Whether Army AD Boo Corrigan still has that faith in Rich Ellerson, I don’t know. Saying that Ellerson is a “perfect fit at West Point” certainly makes it sound like he does, but that vote of confidence doesn’t mean too much. No athletic director that knows what he’s doing is going to paint himself into a corner. He’ll always say nice things about the current coach while also saying that he’s “evaluating.” Service academies tend to breed a certain type of fan who thinks that all problems are solved with stern words and some vague notion of “leadership,” and that’s what they want to see out of their coaches and ADs when things aren’t going well. In the real world, for coaches and ADs that still have games they want to win this season, it does more harm than good for the program’s issues to be aired in public.
If Corrigan does complete this evaluation and decide that it’s time to move on, I don’t think anyone would blame him. Things looked so promising for Army in Ellerson’s first two seasons, improving to 5-7 in year one and breaking through for a bowl win in year two. Then the wheels fell off the wagon. Since their 2010 Armed Forces Bowl win, Army is 8-27. Some of that was to be expected; Army had 3 head coaches in the 4 years from 2006-2009, and that kind of turnover kills recruiting. You really feel the effects 3-4 years down the road when you’re looking for juniors and seniors to carry your team. Eventually, though, one would expect things to turn around. In theory, Army’s recruiting should have been better than ever after Ellerson’s breakthrough 2010 season, and those juniors and USMAPS sophomores would be leading a turnaround 3 years later. Yet here we are, with Army coming to Philadelphia owning a 3-8 record that includes losses to 2-10 Temple and 1-11 Hawaii, and a way-too-close-for-comfort win over Morgan State. If this is a turnaround, it’s wearing a very convincing disguise. Corrigan has to determine what factors led to this season’s disappointment and decide whether they can be overcome with Ellerson at the helm.
The bottom line for a football coach is and always will be winning games, so if Ellerson is held accountable for not doing so, it’s hard to argue against it. It’s all somewhat fascinating to watch as an outside observer and Navy fan, though, because from my perspective there is no question that Ellerson and his staff know what they’re doing in terms of Xs & Os. Army’s offense has evolved under coordinator Ian Shields from a Delaware-style Wing-T to a hybrid that incorporates both Wing-T and spread option elements. It’s a unique scheme that gives the Army team an identity while also being very effective. Army is consistently ranked at or near the top of the nation’s best rushing offenses; at 323 ypg, they’re #2 going into Saturday’s game. They ran for 284 yards against Stanford, 351 against Boston College, and 363 against a good Ball State team. Defensively, Army clearly is not as successful now as they were during Ellerson’s first Army campaign, when the unit ranked 16th nationally. However, no team is as consistently effective at slowing down the Navy offense; the Mids were held to a mere 167 yards on the ground in 2012. What were once Navy blowouts have become close, competitive games. Army might not be good enough relative to where they want to be as a program, but compared to what they were before Ellerson’s arrival, they are definitely better-coached from a Navy fan’s point of view.
That’s the reason why there have been so many “Army is closing the gap on Navy” stories over the last few years. People saw the closer games and assumed it was a testament to Army’s improving talent. It’s really just that Rich Ellerson knows what he’s doing against Navy a lot better than his predecessors did. So much so, in fact, that Navy opponents have begun trying to emulate Army’s defense.
Army likes to line up against the Mids in what is essentially a 2-4-5:
It’s an atypical look, with 2 down linemen and 5 defensive backs. We’ve seen both of those elements from different Navy opponents all season. South Alabama, for example, used the same 2-4 front. It didn’t work so well:
Hawaii used a similar look with their defensive backs, using two strong safeties in run support and a free safety deep. Keenan Reynolds ended up running for 226 yards and 4 touchdowns, with the team rushing for 383. Obviously, that didn’t work very well either.
This is the difference between a team that understands how Navy’s offense works and teams that try to imitate the team that understands how Navy’s offense works. Other teams might line up like Army, but they don’t know why. There’s no magical alignment to stop the Navy offense. Army sets themselves apart in the details.
One way that Army differs from other Navy opponents is in the soundness of their individual technique. Here are a couple plays that demonstrate what I’m talking about. In the first play, the linebacker understands what the quarterback is looking for when he makes his reads. He turns his shoulders to make it look like he’s taking the fullback, but after the quarterback reads to keep, he steps upfield to make the tackle. On the second play, there are two good examples. In the first, the strong safety does a good job using his hands to shed the cut block attempt of the A-back and disrupts the play. Also on this play, the playside OLB holds the tackle just enough to keep him from blocking the free safety, who goes on to make the tackle. This one is actually illegal, but it’s rarely called. One of those sneaky tricks of the trade…
Something else that Army does is anticipate Navy’s snap count. Army usually lines up with only two down linemen, but they always blitz one of the two inside linebackers. In doing so, they basically have 3 on the defensive line. One of them just gets a running start. Army players understand the timing of the quarterback’s cadence, and what calls start tail motion. Rather then have their defensive line go toe-to-toe with Navy’s larger o-line, Army uses that snap count to have a player try to shoot through a gap before the offensive line can react to the snap.
That brings me to my first key to the game for Navy: be aware of the quarterback’s cadence. Army made a lot of tackles behind the line of scrimmage doing this. It didn’t work every time, but it only has to work once to get the offense off schedule and kill a drive. I’m not sure exactly how to change things up to solve this problem– run plays without tail motion maybe– but Army cannot be allowed to get into the backfield the way they did last year.
In the secondary, Army uses their three safeties to gain a numbers advantage on the perimeter. In Navy’s offense, the job of the playside A-back is always to block whatever defensive back steps up in run support (#3 in the count). With Army’s 3-safety scheme, that player is the strong safety lined up on the play side. However, if the PSA is blocking the strong safety, that leaves nobody to block the free safety, leaving him free to make the tackle.
That leads us to the second key to the game for Navy: manage the free safety. He can’t be allowed to roam all over the field to make plays. Over the past year we’ve seen several different ways to do this. The most obvious way is with the pass. With two defensive backs stepping up to play the pitch, there has to be someone open in play action, especially since the other strong safety has to come all the way from the other side of the field to cover the middle. Coach Jasper tried this in last year’s game, but Army’s SS was disciplined, read his keys well, and was able to react in time to get back into coverage. Jasper tried again against Hawaii. They were not disciplined:
We’ll briefly step away from the second key for a moment to mention the third key to the game: make plays passing the ball. The game didn’t have to be quite as close as it was last year; Navy could have had a 14-7 lead going into halftime but for a dropped pass by Gee Gee Greene at the goal line on Navy’s last drive. Eventually it was a pass from Reynolds to Brandon Turner for 49 yards that set up Navy’s winning score. The opportunities will be there, and if the Mids want to put the game out of reach, they will have to take advantage. Otherwise it could be another nail-biter.
Ok, so back to that second key…
Another option for dealing with the free safety is to use formations that get him lined up away from the play. Army ran the same defense against Air Force, only without the snap-jumping. The FS favored the strong side of the formation just enough that Air Force’s center was able to get to him. Navy did something similar against Hawaii, lining up in trips to draw all three safeties to the strong side of the formation, then running the FB option the other way:
One novel idea might be just to block the guy. On this play, Air Force runs a double option with the fullback as a lead blocker, taking what would be #3 in the count. The wide receiver that motioned into the slot blocks the free safety:
Against Hawaii, Coach Jasper ran the midline option to force the FS to respect the middle of the field. Once the FS cheated up (or simply hesitated), Jasper started running plays outside:
There’s no way that Army will be anywhere near as reckless as Hawaii was, though, so I don’t think this would be quite as effective.
Something else that Air Force (and everyone else) did that worked well against Army was plain ol’ power running. Air Force ran a couple different variations of the old Redskins counter trey for huge gains:
I’m not sure how that kind of play would manifest itself in the Navy offense unless we saw a return of the shotgun. We haven’t seen the shotgun for several weeks, but it was originally introduced into the offense with the Army game in mind. I’ve seen Ohio State run a version of this play with the quarterback keeping the ball, although if Chris Swain is healthy this is a play that just screams his name. Maybe we’ll see the shotgun make a comeback tomorrow.
Along those lines, don’t be surprised to see a few quirks in both offenses. Both teams the last couple of years have introduced new plays and formations after having more time between games after Army-Navy was moved to the second weekend in December. Army played a game over Thanksgiving weekend, so it might not be the case in this year’s game with less time off to prepare something new, but still keep an eye out for it.
Not that Army really needs to unveil anything new. For all their problems, offensive scheme is not one of them. Coach Green has never liked to go bananas in drawing up plans to stop the Army offense, preferring instead to focus on keeping things simple and concentrating on technique. You can see the basic idea on this next play. Green wants to get a numbers advantage on the perimeter too, but he does it a different way. In addition to having a safety come up in run support, he has one of the inside linebackers scrape outside. The other ILB would follow the direction of the play and come from the back side to plug up the middle. Here, Matt Warrick does a fine job of his own in beating the cut block and stops Trent Steelman short of a first down.
Army was able to take advantage of Navy’s linebackers in a couple different ways. First, they used the midline option. With an inside linebacker scraping outside, Army just ran right behind him. As long as they were able to get a block on the other ILB, they would have a big gain:
The other thing Army would do is use a little bit of misdirection. With the backside ILB concentrating on the fullback, Army would run the fullback one way, then hand off to a running back going in motion the other way.
You can probably see where this is going. Army was able to use their success in running between the tackles to force Navy’s linebackers to stay home, which then allowed them to open up the outside running game. As Navy adjusted to one, Army would revert to the other, and on and on it went. That’s what makes individual technique so important in this game. You saw Matt Warrick fight off a cut to make a tackle earlier. Danny Ring did the same thing at NG all afternoon:
The importance in the nose guard in disrupting plays makes the return of Bernie Sarra a real boost to the Mids. Just like with the Army defense, one or two plays like that can get the offense off schedule and kill drives. If you want to see what happens when a 3-4 defense uses a similar scheme but doesn’t know how to get off of blocks, take a deep breath and look at what Army did to Eastern Michigan:
It’s tempting to look at both the Navy offense and defense in a vacuum, but that’s not how the staff manages games. Decision-making in both phases is influenced by how the other is doing. If the offense is having trouble moving the ball like last year, and it looks like another nip-and-tuck game, then I doubt Coach Green will take too many chances and risk giving up a game-changing play. On the other hand, if Navy’s offense is getting into the end zone, then you might see the defense play more aggressively to try to put the game away early.
Who Army plays at quarterback might be another consideration for Navy’s defense. Ellerson hasn’t announced whether Angel Santiago or A.J. Schurr will start. Army has rotated both QBs in the past, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the same again tomorrow. If the call was mine to make, Schurr would get most of the snaps. Santiago is probably the better of the two at running the option, and that’s usually where I would turn. The problem for Army is that they’ve been hit hard by injuries, with running back Raymond Maples and fullback Larry Dixon out for the game. Without the depth to plug those holes, Army’s offense sort of becomes All Terry Baggett Everything, which makes game planning on defense a bit easier.
Unless he has a receiver running wide open, Santiago isn’t much of a downfield passing threat. Army’s passing game becomes more like an extension of the misdirection running game:
Air Force took advantage of this by parking their safeties so close to the line of scrimmage that they were basically linebackers:
Santiago did complete a few passes, but not enough that Army could rely on his arm consistently.
Hawaii did a lot of the same things against Army, and without Maples and Dixon, it got ugly. Santiago finished the first half of that game with 15 carries for 23 yards while going 3-10 passing and getting sacked 3 times. Schurr came in for the second half, and it was like Army was a completely different team. Army outscored Hawaii 35-21 in that half with Schurr passing for 122 yards and adding 47 yards and 4 TDs on the ground. Not bad for two quarters. Schurr isn’t a great passer, but he’s good enough to give Army another credible threat to take the pressure off of Baggett. With Army at full strength, Santiago is better suited to get the ball to their best players. With all of their injuries, though, Schurr presents the most problems to opposing defenses.
Navy’s offense is often described as a great equalizer. Any team, no matter how talented, can struggle against this offense if it doesn’t understand how it works and plans accordingly. That’s a double-edged sword, though; less-talented teams that do understand how it works can make up for their deficiencies by doing the little things (mixing QB reads, beating cut blocks) that gum up the gears. Navy is the better team, and should win this game. Army is 3-8 for a reason. Recent Army-Navy games have been close for a reason too, though, because no team knows better what they’re doing against Navy. Navy will need to match Army’s attention to detail in order to win. Here’s hoping they do.