Tuesday, June 23, 2009

GT: Defensing the Flexbone basics

If you ask most defensive coordinators what type of offense they like to face the least, you'll get one of two answers, either the Airraid of Mike Leach, or a triple option (veer) team. Lets be clear, the option is as old as football and will always be here. Florida's whole offense is essentially option, but based in shotgun and spread formations. RichRod's offense was a spread option and we know how well that worked for us with Woody Dantzler, so anyone who will tell you the option is dead or outdated is really an idiot who doesnt pay attention to football.

The Flexbone is derived from Fisher DeBerry's comment, "We need to become more flexible in the Bone..." DeBerry was talking about adding passing concepts to his normal Wishbone offense, and the flex is essentially the first true "spread option." The whole purpose of flexing the TE out was to create a horizontal stretch to the defense (Flexing essentially means the TE is lined up offset within 2 yards of the OT, and standing him up). Clemson puts WRs and TEs in flex positions frequently, yet we never really throw to the TE (the tragedy of Ben Hall).

In GT's Flex, those flexed TEs, or Splitbacks (also called Wingbacks or Halfbacks) are usually recruited RBs with enough speed to get around the corner on a sweep/end-around and yet still catch a pass over the middle. There's nothing mystical or gimmicky about it, Johnson just puts people in a position to win with sound principles. Has misdirection been abandoned in pass-happy offenses? Do we not ever use lead blockers or run traps and counter plays in a spread? What about double-teaming DL and LBs on a HB power play?

But how does one defend against any option team, particularly the Flex? If the opponent has a smart coach like Johnson, you're doing well to hold them under 4.0 per carry, because he knows how to make adjustments to what you're showing them. However, there are basic tenets to stopping the triple-option and Wing-T/Flex that we can go through.

-Take away something: The Dive or the Pitch, but preferably the Dive.
-Control the LOS: You must control the operating space of the QB and dive backs in the middle.
-Get the LBs into the running lanes: The DTs cannot be knocked backwards and the LBs must fill the lanes and be free to move.
-Discipline: Defenders must know how to recognize blocking schemes, and not worry about his teammate's job, only his.
-Lack of Stunting. You dont want to get caught in alot of stunts or play too many tricks up front, because you'll just open a hole for a Dive.

Of all those things, the most important is stopping the FB Dive, it sets up the entire option offense, no matter whether you use a Flex or a Wishbone or the "I" formation.

The key to defending the veer here is the dive...if the DE gets sucked in or if your DT's lose ground, you may as well pack your shit up and go home, cause you are going to give up 10 yards. Its a direct-attack play that forces your DL get off their blocks, and the LB/S to choose whether to come up and make a play or wait for the pitch. In a true option, the QB has a choice on every play whether to run the Dive, by watching the defensive end. If he sees the End stand pat, he gives the Dive. If the End collapses inside, the QB takes it himself around the corner with a pitch man behind him.

What is missed when people talk about the Bone is the play of the interior linemen. The Dive is all set up from the Center and Guard play. Generally they will be doing the same thing. If the Center blocks down, so will the Guards (but one might pull for the Trap). If he charges upfield to take out Mike, the Guard will try to follow. If Mike is knocked out of the play by a block, you can expect to get a minimum of 4 a carry.

If you bring everyone into the box, to stop the interior rush, then you are setup for the Keep:

Its relatively simple in concept, but the GT offense uses misdirection and motion to confuse the secondary and LBs, less so than an I-formation offense that would normally run directly at you with more lead-blocking plays. If one S/OLB's key is the splitback/wingback to his side, then when he runs across the LOS, he must immediately go to his next key or follow. Also with everyone up in the box, you are setup for the pitch play:

In the pitch play above, you see the Miami safety was keyed on the Wing, and cheated closer and closer, and once he broke to the other side, he had to follow because he was the only key once the safety read run, but he was so close that he got blocked out when he crossed midfield. The LBs, worried about the Dive play, all came up to stop it, but the QB keeps the ball and reads the OLB.

Since the DE had come inside (one of his keys is still the OT/TE) to stop the Dive, the OLB was out there alone, with his normal assignment being the pitch man and not the QB. He turns inwards and blocks the alley for the QB, forcing the pitch, except that the CB has been knocked out by the WR and the play gains 40yds.

So how do you teach a defense to stop this kind of offense? Primarily it comes down to discipline and good fundamental defense, with the key player being the DE. A good defense may simply have so much speed that they are always near the ball pretty quickly, and they tackle well enough so that they make plays. That doesn't mean the players are always in the correct positions, just that they manage to recover quicker than the offensive back can take advantage of it, and they swarm to the ball to make up for any bad tackling. The Flex is different from the Wishbone mainly in that it has those two TE/WB players (who may just be RBs that can catch) set outside, but the coverages run against both are usually Cover 1 Man or rotated zone because you still must keep enough players close to the LOS.

Something that many people do not realize about teams that run this offense is that it is very confusing to figure out who has the ball. You begin each play with three running backs and a QB. There is often a great deal of motion, with players "criss-crossing" in the middle of plays (this constant motion and excessive number of ball handlers makes a a defense that is not fundamentally sound easily susceptible to any sort of counter play--specifically an inside handoff).

Here is a basic rundown of what most coaches will teach in defending the Flex, or any other triple option offense. It is primarily the same run keys (and sky/cloud calls) for any defensive back, so their specific assignment duties wouldn't change much week-to-week from a pro-style team to an option, except that they may be told to cheat up more than usual.

Defensive End

The DE is critical here with the veer to maintain containment on the fullback while acting as the "force" man should the QB fake the dive. The End must be more athletic than the man in front of him to slow down the veer, be thankful we have D. Bowers and Ricky Sapp. The End must be the force, making the QB take more time than he wishes and most importantly make him pitch the ball.

Against the double-wingback set the End has a difficult assignment, but its best to play either an anchor or loop technique to keep it simple. The Ends are primarily responsible for forcing the Pitch. They play for time, and wait for help from the inside, because the option will force them to make a choice on who to tackle. They must be aggressive. Against a veer/pitch play, the End gets his inside hip into the hole and rotates his feet towards the sidelines, and doesnt jump on the dive back unless he's coming directly to him with the ball.

On the snap, using the Anchor, he'll charge the TE to give him a shiver, helping the LB thats scraping across behind him. All the while he's keying the FB first, and if he goes away or up the middle, he backs upfield waiting for a counter sweep or a bootleg. He has to do this even if the Wing is trying to block him. If the FB comes toward the end, he flattens out to prepare for his block (on a power sweep play, or the Guard's block on the belly play) but keeps his feet parallel to the line.

If he's playing a Loop, after the snap he charges upfield in the TE/WB seam and reacts the same way to the FB key as before. If they try a bootleg, he's supposed to be there waiting.

Against an arc play, where the TE across him will try to come upfield and block the SS, he has to stand pat with his outside foot back. He has to feel for his help, and then come down the line to make the play. Against a Load play, where the Dive back will come off-tackle or off TE (the TE/WB will usually block inside), the End attacks the load blocker and forces the QB to go around him, then tries to get off the block and make a play.

Defensive Tackle

Tackles key the Diveback and the QB. They must be taught to get off blocks and not be moved from the LOS, and simply be aggressive against anything they see.


You want to keep the LBs within 4 yards of the ball, so that they can read on the move and react effectively. Because of the misdirection, LBs have a hard time keying one back or the ball, which is why this offense is difficult to defend. Instead, they are told to key the Guards and react from that.

If the G blocks inside on the NT over the Center, the LB has to step in to the OT for the trap play, keeping his outside arm on him. If the Guard base blocks (i.e., straight up on the DT across from him), the LB looks for the ball and plays an assigned gap (usually A/B). If the flow of the play is away, they are taught to rip through the Guard's block with their outside forearm, aiming for the A-gap on the opposite side. If the Guard pulls, the near LB pull with him.

You will either see more Cover 1 or a rotated cover 3 zone against this offensive scheme, and this (rotated zone) is what Clemson primarily used last year in Death Valley. This year I expect GT to use more misdirection and pass a bit more because more teams will stack the box against them after what they did to Miami last season. Whether Kevin Steele will use more zone against GT or stick to his Cover 1, I'm not sure. Like I said, the Corners are usually out wide because the slot man is not on the field between the Wing/TE and the Flanker in the Flex, so they can be on an island by themselves.

In a rotated coverage, the secondary might key the FB to determine the rotation. This would help them cover the counter pass, or a fake keeper pass. As the two safeties rotate, they read the blocks of the Wing for run, and if they ever show blocking for a counter, they stop rotating and play run support. Otherwise, the secondary keys the ball, which places the responsibility of the counter pass on the OLBs.

Finally, the defense cannot be lulled to sleep. A good offense can run simple plays like the dive, toss sweep, iso, and off-tackle all afternoon and can do this with relatively little motion (often shifting a wing to a split back or i-formation look). If you were watching the Clemson-GT game last year, you saw them consistently get 3.5-4 per carry against us, and by simply running the same play over and over again. It only takes 3 runs of 3.3x yards to get a 1st. Methodical operation of this offense has a tendency to get the defense complacent and lackadaisical, allowing the offense to run a misdirection play or for the QB to pull the ball on what looks like a FB dive. Defensive inattention allows the offense to go from 3-4 yds repeatedly with the dive, iso, or offtackle rushing play to picking up a huge chunk of yardage because defenders are out of position and anticipate the 3-4 yd play.

An addendum, for the R&S concepts from the flexbone, is here.


  1. Were we watching the same game? I was there and it was pretty obvious that we basically shut down GT's offense with the exception of a couple of long drives, which were keyed by a couple of long plays. I forget how many INT's we had, but that was why we lost that game. If Grisham does not throw the pick six, then I think we would have won.

    If the defensive end is the key to stopping this offense, then we should be in good shape with Sapp and Bowers. The other key is to score some points so they are forced to throw the ball...my guess is that PJ and GT will always be good, but never great because smart defensive coordinators (like VK) will really slow them down, and the great recruits will not want to play in that system.

    Good blog.

  2. We still gave up 200yds rushing against GT, I recall them seemingly getting that consistent 3 yds a carry and just eating clock most of the game, til they broke a few plays and scored.

    It wasn't bad because they didnt really throw at all, but still we gave up alot of rushing yards.

  3. http://clempsonfootball.blogspot.com/2008/10/dabos-first-game.html

    We did give up 207, on 52 attempts, for 4.0 average. That has to come down, even though its a lot of attempts.


    I think PJ will always be in that 8-10 win range I believe, but he didnt recruit that well this past year. Give him a couple years and time to establish a base, and he'll get the RBs in the system, along with OL. There are so many dual-threat/option QBs in HS that he'll get an athlete able to run it well.

    Only thing he may never get is WRs and TEs.

    So I dont believe, if he gets people on staff that can recruit at all, that he'll have a hard time getting people in his system. I think his problem is that well-coached speed (not just speed, see Florida vs. Nebraska in the 90s, or GT-Miami in the clips) will stop the option.

  4. That is a good average, but it seemed that they were not able to sustain many long drives against us. They would get a nice run, but then they would have three plays that went nowhere, or at least that is how it seemed. Something tells me we would have been evern more effective at stopping them had we not changed head coaches the Monday before hand. Ofcourse, we get very little time to prepare this year, which I am sure is the working of Swofford.

    One problem PJ will have is keeping the QB healthy, since the QB is required to run the ball a fair amount in order for that offense to really work. Seems that changing QB's will really mess up the continuity that that offense seems to really need in order to be successful.

    Thankyou all for the well thought-out responses.

  5. Thanks for the blog from a GT fan. It sounds like you "get it". In response to some of the comments, though, remember that GT didn't even have half the offense in yet. Miami looked like a coming out party, but GT only ran a few "base" plays plus some fun ones at the beginning. Look for a much better offense this season to go along with opponents' better defenses.

  6. CPJ has shown opponents about half of this offense. He will be implementing the "run and shoot" which is to say the airborne part of the offense next season. Watch what he can do with superior athletes than what he had at Navy.

    Superior talent cancels all theories.

  7. Well coached speed will stop almost any offense.

  8. MrB, this is one of the best posts I've seen from a rival fan on the GT offense.

    I don't think Clemson has to hold GT to under 4 yards/carry to win. Which is good for the Tigers, because that may be a somewhat unrealistic goal. Only UVA managed it last year with Nesbitt playing, and GT will run the offense much more crisply in 2009.

  9. 4.0 is a lousy average for PJ's offense, especially with no passing attack. Though, I suppose we did beat you with a TD pass....that was a rare moment. Clempson really did control the line of scrimmage reasonably well and would well have beat us if not for all the turnovers.

    We were really quite awful executing the offense last year, especially early last year. We should improve quite a bit, because it's all about the QB's learning the decision making process. And you can expect a better passing attack as well, but still as a changeup designed to hit big plays.

    When you understand that Dwyer averaged over 6 ypc, and Roddy better than 8 ypc, you have to feel great about giving up 4.0. It'll never happen again, but if it did, yall will win the ball game.

  10. @ Dr.B's comment about GT recruits... we don't really recruit TE's (unless he's just recruited as an athlete), becuase we use small WR's and RB's at A-back (wing). And for recruiting WR's, we got one of the top WR's in the state (Stephen Hill) with PJ's first recruiting class (which was a good class), plus last years #1 WR in the state who went to Alabama is transferring back into GT (Chris Jackson).

    Great Blog though and some very good points in there.

  11. I can appreciate all y'all trying to pick apart Coach Johnson's offense but it's quite comical to read some of the comments. Especially the ones about how we haven't recruited well and/or top recruits will never want to play in this system. For the record, WE have the top returning RB in the league returning with several of his cohorts and they should easily be competitive with the top backfields in the nation. As for WRs, we have Bay Bay Thomas, Stephen Hill and Chris Jackson(may be an A back) who are here and I'd put them up against most WR corps out there.

    You're right in saying that Clemson pretty much held us to minimal production(compared to the rest of the year), but as other posters have commented, CPJ only had 50%(at most) of his offense installed, hardly any passing plays and please don't forget that this was YEAR #1 for everyone to learn the system. If Tech has what I feel to be an above average defense(conservatively speaking) and they can't contain the offense that they see everyday, how can other teams expect to shut us down? The best I can see a team hoping for is to capitalize off of any of our turnovers, limit the BIG plays, use Special Teams and perform well against our D. Our O, if working efficiently, is going to put up 200+ yds rushing and hopefully 100-200 yds passing a game(at minimum). Just understand that and try to control other areas of the game. Good luck to you this year and I'm sure we'll see another barn burner the 2nd week of September.

    Go Jackets and THWGa!!!

    C Pope

  12. What most people are failing to realize is that CPJ has said that he doesn't want to be a completely "rushing" offense. That in a perfect world Tech would run for 200-300 yards and pass for another 150. Last year Tech had one of the worst OL's in college football.

    We gave up a sack ever 8 pass attempts... Combine that with Nesbitt's lackluster passing numbers and CPJ had to run the ball to win. He showed that he could do that.

    This year being at spring practice and watching the Tech team has shown me that the offense is going to be greatly diversified this upcoming football season.

    If teams sell out to stop the option, Tech will have many ways to beat it.

    I think its going to be a great year offensively for Tech, but Clemson does scare me because of your incredible DE's.

  13. By the way, you should know that PJ's version of this formation evolved differently and separately from Hatfield and Deberry breaking the wishbone at Air Force.

    Georgia Southern was using the run-and-shoot out of the double-slot in 1983-84, and Erk Russell wanted to run the ball out of the I. Johnson talked him into letting him merge the option and other rushing plays into the run-and-shoot, they moved the slots in to make it a more run-oriented than pass-oriented offense, and that's how the Hambone was born.

    There was a third evolution of the "flexbone", out of the Wing-T, moving the halfback up into the slotback position. Then if you add option you have the Mike
    Ayers Wofford Wingbone.

    They've all merged to become pretty similar. Compared to the Deberry/Hatfield flexbone, the real differences are that the Wingbone uses narrower line splits (2') and the Johnson school completely eschews TE's and retains more run-and-shoot pass packages. PJ hasn't passed much since the Hawaii days, but Cal Poly running the same offense threw for close to 200 yards a game over the last two seasons.

    Anyway this is a small point but I thought it might be of interest. Good luck with two-a-days and MTSU and we'll see y'all on the Flats in about 6 weeks!

  14. AS an objective GT fan a few comments.

    GT has more talent at RB than any program in the country. Not exagerating, look em up.

    Most know JD at B Back (fullback), Cox, Allen, Watson, Lyons and True FR Drummond (#5 FB in the country) make this postions VERY DEEP. A backs (slots lined up behind each tackle) Roddy Jones RSO (209 yards against UGA), Marcus Wright SO (3300 yards and 44 TD sr year in 6A TX football!!! and despite his size is a devastating blocker), Embry Peeples SO - hsd a great spring, very fast. Cox and Allen and some are saying that JD will mix in at this postion as well to get as much talent on the field at the same time. So, RB's is not the issue. Our OL is still, IMO, unproven. All starters return from last four games but three were injured in spring. CPJ has stated he will net be surpised if three of the five don't start this year. With several talented RFR available this year our depth SHOULD be better. But ??'s remain.

    WR - D. Thomas is first team preseason ACC and is a very good blocker. The other WR, IMO, needs to be more of a credible reciving threat to really open up this offense. For those that say GT wont be able to recruit talent at WR will soon meet 4* Stephen Hill. While a true FR his measurables are very impressive...

    Bottom line for GT's O, Josh Nesbitt's health. Jaybo Shaw is more than capable running this O but still seems turnover prone (see our spring game) and needs another off season to get D1 strong. (Maybe he is tired of reading this as was an animal this offseason...He did perform very well against Miss St and Duke last year but the sphingter just seems to tighten up a bit when he is in the game, see FSU) Our 3rd stringer, Tevin Washington had a good spring but has zero game experience..

    How good is Clemsons OL? Because our DL is the biggest question mark on our team. Losing three DL to the NFL is not an easy thing to handle for a program like GT. GT's schlarship restrictions seem to have effected this part of our team more than any. Derrick Morgan at one DE will be a first round draft choice when he goes pro. The other three DL 'have potential' but are unproven. At the other DE, Robert Hall got a ton of game experience last year but is it fair for him to try and fill Michael Johnsons shoes? At DT's, IMO, GT has 'size' issues with Walls, Peters and Anderson, all tough athletic players but all under 290. The 'wild card' of the group is TJ Barnes. At 6'7" 350 lbs he has the potential to be a great run stuffer in the middle. True FR JC Lanier was a 4* 6-4 340 recruit but you normally can't rely on TFR DL to have the strenth to compete at D1 levels. YOUTH and inexperience are behind all of our DL. ANY injuries along this group could be very concerning. Thankfully we get Clemson early.

    Our LB's and DB's are the strength of the D. Great Depth and experience. The LB unit as a whole under performed last year but all were hurt at some point or another and never seems to jell. Jefferson, Barnes, Griffin, Sylvester, and a slew of very talented RFR and TFR are behind these gentlemen. I look for this unit to be most inmproved on the team from last year. Jackson a starter most of the season is injured and may miss Clemson, but the others, IMO, are better players) DB, this is GT's best collective group I have ever seen since following GT. Add last years 'penciled' starter at CB (Tarrant who missed last year due to being falsely accused of indecent behavior) to Reid, Butler, Burnett (1st team AA), Taylor, Reese and we are DEEP and talented. Hopefully our DC will have some interesting blitz packages to help our inexperience DL get some QB pressure. IMO, that and stopping the run are still what it takes to have a good D.

    Look forward to the game!!!


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