In our weekend clinic, we'll take a look at the impact and the effect two former Big 12 teams had on SEC defenses and how those SEC defenses adjusted on the fly to come up with big wins.
The Big 12 conference is dominated by programs that run the spread. Ironically, Texas A&M was not a spread team in the Big 12, but when Kevin Sumlin was hired as head coach, the Aggies installed his version of the spread as they ventured on into SEC action. Missouri, on the other hand, has been a spread team for a while and under the leadership of dual threat QBs Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert, the Tigers offense was consistently one of the most dangerous units in the conference. Moving over to the SEC, though, the two Big 12 defectors provided a "new picture", so to speak, and two SEC powers would have to answer…and eventually did. Here's how.
Throughout the offseason, there was plenty of concern in Columbia, MO as to whether QB James Franklin would be 100% by the night of the SEC opener after suffering an injury that kept him on the shelf for much of the offseason. Sure, his throwing acumen improved throughout his inaugural season as a starter, but what separates him from other quarterbacks on Georgia's 2012 schedule is his ability to change the game with his legs.
In 2011, he didn't have one game in which he carried the stone less than 11 times, in fact, he averaged nearly 18 carries a game last year (in 12 games against D1A opponents). What we've seen in the SEC, for the most part, quarterbacks don't run the ball, by design or by accident, like Franklin has done and will continue to do.
So, Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, a former NFL coordinator, had decisions to make as to how to stop James Franklin running the football and if he was able to find that answer, he would be taking away a key part of the Missouri offensive attack.
Grantham, though, had an ace up his sleeve and he would turn his All-American OLB Jarvis Jones into Franklin's shadow. It's what we in the coaching world like to refer to as spying on the quarterback. Ironically, it would be on a pass in which spying on Franklin changed the complexion of what was a close game in the fourth quarter.
Grantham's biggest concern was Missouri's use of its "spread empty" shotgun set - five wides, no backs next to Franklin, seen below.
You can see that Georgia is in "two man" with underneath players in man coverage with safeties playing over the top. Both outside linebackers 2x2 or 3x3 off the open tackles to either side in anticipation of QB run or to play underneath a quick pass to the perimeter. But, the key to this defense is the use of Jones, who is lined up as a "wide 5" to the top of the picture. On the snap to Franklin, Jones drops back to the middle of the formation, playing a "spy" technique, and has eyes for only one player - Franklin.
Now, on this play, Missouri burns the Bulldogs secondary to the top of the screen with an out and up/skinny post combination for a 70-yard touchdown. Safety Shawne Williams jumped the out cut (unnecessarily) and the skinny post was wide open for six points. This gave Missouri plenty of confidence and a 17-9 lead. This would've been the key play of the game, but because Georgia fought back and battled back into the lead 27-20, it only was a set-up piece for the most important play last week.
Throughout the contest, Grantham switched up his looks with Jones when Franklin was in "spread empty" out of the gun. He would play an odd/3 man front and use Jones all over the formation. Jones exploited nearly every gap along the way. He would loop inside from a wide 5 to get pressure.
He would eventually line up over the guard and rush from there. And, he would also play the "spy" technique, meaning that he had eyes for Franklin and only Franklin. If the Tigers QB was to tuck and run, Jones was responsible for him. Consequently, Jones was a menace and Grantham had the right approach in using his best defensive weapon to slow the dynamic Franklin. Even when Jones did rush Franklin, Jones was ultra-concerned not to lose his leverage, avoiding just flying up field and leaving a seam for Franklin to split the D and rush for big yardage.
After Georgia took a 27-20 lead, the Tigers got the ball deep in their own territory and had just registered a first down after a pass interference call on the Dawgs. So, on first and ten, Missouri, again, put Franklin on his own in the backfield in the spread empty gun formation. This time, Grantham put Jones in a pure spy position on Franklin, lining up #29 as a MLB in the middle of the formation.
Georgia was in two-man behind Jones as it was on the previous Missouri touchdown, but you can see Jones, at the MLB position, has eyes for Franklin. He doesn't move and has the Missouri QB in his sights. As Franklin looks for a "crosser", he never sees Jones and the All-American linebacker skies to pick the pass out of the air, running it back to the one yard line. Georgia would score a TD one play later to go up 34-20 and effectively end the game on the spot.
What makes Jones special is the fact that on the very next offensive play, he rushed the edge, beat the Tigers left tackle badly and strip sacked Franklin for a key Georgia turnover. That's what he's known for (rushing the quarterback) but it was Grantham's deployment of Jones in such a varied manner that helped slow down Franklin and the vaunted Missouri offense.
Missouri had no clue, pre-snap, what Jones' responsibility was, especially when Franklin was aligned in the spread empty gun. When he played "spy" on this play, he, essentially, ended the game, making one heck of an athletic play, but he doesn't make that play if Grantham doesn't have him "spying" on Franklin. Expect more teams to utilize more spy techniques to take away Franklin's vision in the middle of the field on crossing routes vs. man coverage and shut down the Tigers QB as a running option. Just don't expect any opponent to have a Jarvis Jones playing that technique.
The Florida Gators were faced with a similar predicament as Georgia in College Station last Saturday - how to stop an athletic, running QB when it's not something that they've had to do much in the past. I've seen and heard so many theories as to what Florida did to slow down A&M's run game, in particular Aggie QB Johnny Manziel. Many people say it had to do with changing fronts, but the Gators showed multiple fronts all game long. In the first half, the Gators mixed up odd and even fronts as they had since Will Muschamp took over as head coach. I'm here to tell you, and show you, that it was two simple things (and a third, if you count conditioning and not being gassed as the Gators were in the first half).
Now, the first thing that the Gators did was stay true to the line of scrimmage and not sprint madly up field. You'll hear analysts and coaches talk about getting penetration to slow a running game, but there are situations in which getting penetration is a killer for a defense. Take for instance this inside zone run for the Aggies early in the game.
Simple inside zone run by the Aggies against an odd front for the Gators. Take a look at how many Gators are beyond the black line, signifying the line of scrimmage, post snap. Defensive linemen getting up field for no reason, which was caused in part by the Gators fatigue/conditioning on that first drive of the game. Regardless, that's all Christine Michael needed to be able to pop a seam and turn what should've been a no gain into an 8 yard gain. The penetration opened up a cut-up lane for Michael, who found the seam and hit the turbo button for key yardage.
Let's take a look later in the game with a similar play. Here the Aggies run an inside zone on second and four on the second play of the second half. So, how did Florida adjust? Look at the defensive front on this play, post snap. Outside of it being an even front, not one defensive lineman has penetrated upfield, therefore, leaving the Aggie RB no seam to exploit.
Offensive linemen were unable to get to the second level as the running back sees no lane for a cutback or cut-up run. All three Gator linebackers flew to the ball unabated and tackled Christine Michael for no gain, setting up a third and four situation.
On third down, the Gators showed the final wrinkle, playing off of the no upfield penetration concept. On the snap, the Gators, out of an even front, called a E/T stunt, in which the two ends drove hard up field for two steps, then darted inside to push the pocket in the A gaps.
But, instead of the tackles looping out and rushing Manziel, they took a much wider arc to set the perimeter of the defense, in case Manziel decided to roll out to one side or the other. Manziel did just that, but Omar Hunter was waiting for him and wouldn't allow Manziel to escape to the outside.
The Aggie signal-caller was able to complete the throw, but he didn't have much on it and WR Mike Evans was tackled two yards short of a first down. On typical E/T stunts, the tackles step around the end and continue to rush the quarterback, but the Gators two tackles played more contain than to rush the quarterback. Subtle adjustment, but it kept Manziel from "creating" after finding open seams in the defense.
The second thing that Florida did defensively in the second half was to stay "balanced" to play the run, no matter the formation. Here's an example of what I mean. This is early in the second quarter, when the Aggies have the ball first and ten from the 11-yard line. The Aggies emptied the backfield, putting four receivers to the field and left a lone receiver into the boundary. The Gators responded by playing cover one and leaving safety Josh Evans in the middle of the field.
Now, sometimes it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out. Count the number of Gators from the hash over to the defense's right - there are four Gators. Consequently, there is a lone Gator DL into the boundary. The Gators are going to learn a hard lesson about staying "balanced" on both sides of the field against a mobile QB. Here's the end zone shot just after the snap.
From the hash over, four Gators came and Manziel saw them, checked where NT Omar Hunter was and noticed that he's being blocked out of the play by his center. And, he knew that he had two Aggies on two Gators out to the right of the formation. As such, Manziel squirted out to the right, jocked Gator safety Josh Evans and walked into the end zone untouched. The Gators had no chance once Manziel realized how much "respect" the Gators provided to the overloaded wide side of the field. Touchdown Aggies.
Now that was the first half, but in the second half, the Gators respected Manziel's ability to run to both sides of the field, no matter what formation the Aggies showed. Later in the game, with a similar formation by the Aggies, the Gators moved a linebacker to the one receiver side of the field, challenging the Aggies to throw the quick bubble screen against man coverage to the four receiver side and taking away Manziel's advantageous running lanes that he was given in the first half.
Manziel did want to throw hot to the four receiver side, but found all of his receivers covered. As such, he tried to escape again as he did in the first half. But, Florida was in much better run fit position across the board. Florida tackled him for no gain.
No matter the formation, the Gators kept run fit balance on both sides of the field, no matter what formation the Aggies showed in the second half. The results were staggering too - no points, only 49 yards on 23 plays and three 3-and-outs.