Maestro, play that funky music:
Oh yeah, that's the jam.
And one more for good measure. Defending the triple option: it's not that complicated.
We take reader feedback pretty seriously around here. That's why when longtime reader chesterhighwater pointed out that it had been a while since we addressed the fundamentals of defending the triple option, I told him that we'd get on that this week.
Ghosts Of FUBAR'ings Past
Chester's right, by the way. The last time we looked at defending the triple option from a tactical perspective was prior to the 2008 Georgia Tech game, almost 4 years ago to the day. We then proceeded to go out and do many of the things necessary to stop the option for one half, then (as was the hallmark of Georgia teams from 2008-2010) decided that one half of football was enough for one day.
What did we learn that day? Among other things, tackling is critical to stopping the triple option, for a couple of reasons. One is that option football is assignment football. Especially when the play is run down the line and to the outside, one guy is supposed to attack the QB, and one guy has responsibility for the pitch back. If you're that guy, and you miss the tackle, the cavalry isn't coming behind you. Your teammates have their own assignments. So missed tackles can lead to things like Jon Dwyer rumbling for a momentum turning touchdown on what should have been a minimal gain. As we also saw in that second half, missed tackles that don't end in long touchdowns also extend drives, which hurt you in a variety of ways against an option team. Principally, long drives wear down the defense and make it more prone to giving up the big play. Also, the longer an offense like Georgia's stays off the field the harder it is to get back in synch once they return to the turf.
As I also said before that game, the "A" gaps (the gaps on either side of the center) are critical to defending the option. Not every play is the same, but more often than not in Paul Johnson's offense the first "option" the QB has is to give the ball to the B back up the middle. You know things are going poorly for your defense when a triple option quarterback just keeps handing the ball to the B back. It's the simplest play in the football playback, the fullback dive. It's designed to get 3-4 yards a pop, and if it's working, you're screwed. Because eventually a savvy option playcaller is going to catch you selling out to stop that play, fake the dive, and get to the edge.
You'll recall that in 2010 Deangelo Tyson served as a stopgap at nose tackle in the first year of Todd Grantham's installation of the 3-4. He had a long, long day against Tech, albeit in a winning effort. The reason was that the 3-4 nose defending the triple option is going to get double teamed all day to set up that fullback dive.
A Spiritual Journey Toward A More Perfect Option Defense
All football strategy really boils down to geometry and arithmetic. It's about getting 5 guys into the space where your opponent has 4. It's about attacking from the right angles. No matter the offensive attack, this reality is at the heart of football game planning. That's why a lot of what you have to do to defeat Urban Meyer's spread option and Chip Kelly's fast paced Oregon attack are applicable against Paul Johnson. Truthfully, the reads the quarterback makes in all three systems are very similar. Sure Kelly does some interesting things (like reading the nose tackle to determine whether to throw a shuttle pitch to the tailback up the middle), but again it's really just finding numerical and geometric advantages.
Along those same lines, Johnson's triple option has a spiritual cousin in Gus Malzahn's attack. While Malzahn's offense is often lumped in with Tony Franklin's "System" offense, the misdirection that makes his attack hum is largely based on single wing concepts that Fielding Yost used. A lot of what Johnson and Malzahn do are identical but for the location the players start the play in. If Johnson ran out of the shotgun and made one of his A backs a slot receiver, he'd often be singing from the same page of the hymnal as brother Malzahn.
It's because of this similarity that stopping Georgia Tech's offense is, in theory, fairly simple. First you stop the dive into the A gaps. With the 3-4 that means having a space-eating nose like John Jenkins or Kwame Geathers who just makes those gaps disappear. It also involves having middle linebackers to can thump the B back in the hole and turn 4 yard gains into 1 yarders. The triple option is not built for 3rd and 8. But it will eat you alive on 3rd and 2.
If you stop the dive and force the QB to consider either keeping it or pitching it on the outside, you must hit him either way. Really, if you want to destroy an option attack, knock the quarterback in the dirt every time he takes more than two steps with the ball. Frankly, I'm even willing to trade a 15 yarder for a late hit if it delivers the right message. The option is a monster to stop, and if you cripple the brain the rest of the beast stops functioning. You may have noticed that this is also cited as a key in stopping Meyer's spread option. As we saw in 2007 (and Alabama showed in 2009), even a tank of a QB like Tim Tebow will start to malfunction if you hit him enough.
Finally, you must stay in position, and not overplay the play. One of the things Stanford did a great job of last week against Oregon was maintaining balance on defense. By that I mean they didn't find themselves in those 4 on 5 and 5 on 6 match ups that old Coach Yost used to exploit back in the day.
Of course no matter where you end up on the snap you have to line up somewhere at the start. Traditionally a lot of teams used a 5-2 front against the triple option. I played high school football in southeast Georgia in the 1990's when Johnson was teaching his attack at Georgia Southern, and remember seeing this approach a lot. It's good for stopping that B back/fullback dive we talked about a moment ago. Because having 5 defensive linemen makes it harder for 5 offensive linemen to double team anyone. This is especially true for base 3-4 teams like Georgia. In order to get into this front we'd likely shift the ends down to play over the guards and bring the outside linebackers up to the line in a 7 or 9 technique. Guys like Jarvis Jones can be really disruptive in this role.
One problem with this alignment is that it's not optimal for pass coverage. Those two linebackers can be forced into some tough positions, especially when offenses flood their area with both a tight end and a wide receiver. Another option is the "46" defense made popular by Buddy Ryan, which has found some renewed popularity in defending the spread attacks of recent vintage. It allows you to disguise which guys are coming on the blitz and which ones are handling which gap assignments, confusing blocking assignments. There's also the 4-4-3, which Todd Grantham has used from time to time in Athens, which allows you to remain "multiple" (10 points for use of a coaching buzzword!!!!) in your blitz looks, while also getting pressure at the point of attack. This look also works well when you've got a safety like Bacarri Rambo who can cover a lot of territory on the back end of the field.
In the end, I think defending the triple option is less about what you do than how you do it. Again, it's all about controlling your assigned gap and tackling well. If you can disrupt things enough to create turnovers that helps too. The option relies on angles (there's that geometry thing again) and when you change the angles by applying pressure you increase the odds of the offense making a mistake.
But you must tackle. You must be where you are supposed to be. You must make the quarterback develop nervous ticks. On paper it's very simple. But it's the execution that gets teams beat by the option. That's what we saw in 2008.
I said on the podcast a couple of weeks ago that I felt like playing Georgia Southern would be helpful for us. That was borne out by the fact that a lot of guys looked lost against the Eagles early but eventually got the hang of things. No matter how much you practice it you jus can't run the triple option with the speed the Eagles and Jackets do. You have to get out there and see it face to face. We've now done that, and I think that's positive.
That being said, Paul Johnson has a film room, too. Expect him to look hard at how we handled some aspects of the GSU attack and find a way to exploit that. The option will get its yards and points. And Jowls O'Nerdistan is smart enough to come up with some wrinkles based on what we did last week. But I like our chances if we just play fundamental football. Until later . . .