A few days ago guest columnist Jay Shields penned an outstanding analysis of the first Pats – Broncos game, Gap Integrity: the very simple tale of the Pats defense versus Denver. Today he is back with another excellent X’s and O’s breakdown with what is essentially a followup to that column.
I caught Patriots All Access tonight and payed specific attention to the Belichick Breakdown segment. The main focus of it was the singleback option, as that is the meat of Denver’s option game. While the Broncos will run zone read off of it, it seems that the majority of it is the midline option, as Tebow is best between the tackles. They build multiple back sets off of motion, and in turn can present a more traditional pitch option look. However the fact that they are utilizing motion to build off of the singleback look tells me that the basis of their option game is the midline. So, being the football nerd that I am I furiously scoured the interwebs for Broncos highlights. What I found was overwhelming evidence of a strong reliance upon the midline option as the foundation of the Denver run game. Let’s take a look at what it is.
The midline read got it’s beginnings as an adjustment play off of the zone read option. The zone read option is keyed off of the backside end. In traditional zone plays where no one accounts for the backside end, the play is often blown up in the backfield by that end getting skinny along the line in the backfield. This end is forced to sellout to defend the zone, so offenses figured out that by having the quarterback read that player they could gash the defense regardless of how the backside end should play. If he stays home, handoff to a traditional zone play. Should the end crash, QB keeps and skirts the now poorly positioned backside end man on scrimmage (EMOS). As this play began to become a standard defenses adapted. They realized that they could effectively bait the QB keep by stunting the end and tackle. They would crash the end, baiting the keep, and loop the tackle into the area vacated by the end. This is also done by crashing the end and replacing him with the backside linebacker. So, like any other chess game, another move was made and the midline read option was born.
In the midline read, the QB is reading the playside defensive tackle and the back is aiming for the outside hip of the center. The playside guard and tackle block the playside backer and EMOS, respectively. This leaves the defensive tackle unblocked with a decision to make, and defensive linemen aren’t the best decision makers on earth. Should the DT sellout towards the center, the QB keeps and hits the vacated area and follows a lead block from the playside TE or slotback. Should the DT stay home, the QB gives to the back straight ahead. Simple enough, right? Well, here’s where Denver begins to build the fundamentals of their option game.
There are a lot of ways to design an offense around the midline read as it’s balance enables a lot of shifting and pulling. At first glance of the first matchp, I thought that the power-o and other pulling based runs were the meat of the offense. Turns out, my lying eyes stayed true to their nature. What I first thought was the power-o was in fact the midline trap. Highschool and college offenses run the midline trap as a derivation of their midline read, and Denver has assimilated this into their offense. This is a “wider” option that attacks both sides of the defense. The read is still the defensive tackle, but the backside of the play looks a lot different. Let’s saying that the read tackle is on the right side of the line. The right guard (backside, or off guard hence the power-o) pulls to the left, leaving the defensive tackle unblocked…we’ll get to that later, though. The right guard is now aiming for the hip of the left tackle. The center will get upfield to seal the linebacker following the pulling guard. The left tackle will slip past the end, and reach the outside linebacker. The guard traps the end, the left tackle is now on the linebacker, and if executed the back just has to beat the safety for 6. Ah but what about that read tackle we mentioned earlier? As the QB hits the mesh point (option speak for handoff decision as the ball is placed into the sternum of the back) he reads the defensive tackle. If the defensive tackle is coming, the QB will keep and skirt the crashing tackle to the right side of the line. Should the tackle stay home, the ball is given to the back to run off of his pulling guard. This play is beautiful in it’s lethality because it exploits the read of the linebacker and the pulling guard. It plays the numbers game on the hypothetical right side of the line that the option is based off of.
Once this midline concept is established, the team can run power-o’s, they can utilize wham blocking to kickout the conditioned tackle and run at him, they can motion in a receiver and run the veer off of this. They can build in their pitch options, hell, they even were running the freaking PISTOL in a few clips I saw. They can PA really well off of this look because of the numbers game it forces, and the advantageous throwing position the QB is in. In fact, the skinny post that beat Pittsburgh in OT was a playaction midline trap that drew the safety to overcommit to the handoff trap play. The versatility afforded by this one concept enables Denver to punch and counterpunch off of one simple personnel group and fundamental concept. It keeps the reads simple and predictable for Tebow, and presents a myriad of potential plays off of one look for the defense. It’s very interesting to see a professional offense executing these concepts at such a high level. After the research, it is very simple to me what the Patriots gameplan is going to be. They are going to gameplan to shutdown the midline concept. If they can accomplish this, the engine that drives the Denver offense will stall.
A couple questions. First, do you realistically see the Pats being able to shutdown the midline concept given their personnel and Denver’s personnel (and why or why not)? If not then I would presume that means that the Pats offense will likely need to score on almost every possession, correct?
Also, based on those Broncos highlights that you watched if the Pats do have success shutting down the midline concept does Denver have a viable Plan B, or does that most likely mean the game is over and the Pats should win easily?
I absolutely do see them shutting down the midline concept. I see this for a few reasons. The first of which is simply scheme. The 34 is a great defense against the mindline concept primarily because of spacing. The read becomes the end and in a 5-technique will almost universally dictate a give read. The 34 alignment also ties into my second reason for seeing a dominant defensive performance, good linebackers. A major key in defending any option is slow-playing the read. By slow-playing a read, you get your second level help coming much quicker to defend the choice. Not only do capable linebackers play the run better, they also are very well coached here. I expect them to slow-play the option and get great support from Chung. The spacing of the 34 also makes most midline concepts much more slowly developing. As a disciplined defense that will maintain gap integrity, the Patriots greatly reduce the probability of time creating a crease. It will simply collapse around them.
I view the midline concept as the key to their offense, everybit as key as Faulk was to the Rams offense. The Broncos big plays come off of constraint plays that are setup by the strength of the midline game. While they may, and likely will make plays off of edge concepts and timely called passes, those cannot sustain drives. They are so restricted by the quarterback that they really can’t seamlessly shift into a different look that will consistently beat you. It’s not like a team that wins the ball well but can still adequately distribute the ball on the perimeter and seams to force honesty. The key will be winning on 1st and 2nd down. I view 3rd and 6 as a very difficult down and distance for that offense. If New England is able to force punts early in the game I see it as rapidly getting out of hand for Denver.