So Gus Malzahn's running game is centered around three basic plays: Inside Zone, Power/Counter, and sweeps like the Buck Sweep. As we've seen, these plays attack differently yet look similar enough to cause defensive problems by themselves. But a team doesn't lead the nation in rushing with only three plays. As I've hinted before, the genius of this running game is in the multitude of adjustments and add-ons.
After re-watching last season's offense with an eye out for this "window dressing," I've found six specific ways Auburn changes up the run game.
- Quick passes based on pre-snap reads.
- Different formations.
- Combinations of inside and outside runs.
- Simple read-option.
- Different outside blockers with read-option.
- Passes as part of the triple option.
The first way a run play can be adjusted is actually with a quick pass. If a defensive back is cheating inside or backing off of his receiver before the snap, the quarterback can hit that receiver as soon as the ball is in his hands.
The most often seen example is the bubble screen. Whenever Auburn runs up the middle, the Z slot receiver usually widens and looks back to the quarterback. If the defender covering him (usually a nickelback or outside linebacker) is cheating inside to help against the run, the bubble screen gets the ball outside quickly. The Y receiver blocks his man, the Z should get a nice gain, and the responsible defender will back away from the box next time.
Auburn also uses a quick hitch and a quick out to easily gain yards when the defensive back is playing too deep. These aren't used as often as the bubble screen, but they make the defense play more honest just the same.
In the previous posts, I've only shown Auburn using 20 personnel (2 backs, 0 tight ends, 3 receivers), but Inside Zone, Power and Counter can just as easily be run out of 10 personnel. When there is only a single back and four receivers, the defense should spread out more than usual, which should make blocks in the second level even more devastating.
With another form of 10 personnel, the running back is replaced by the H-back and the quarterback is the ball carrier. This way the kick out and lead block needed for Power and Counter are still available from a four-receiver formation.
Now Auburn can also run the basic run plays with more in the backfield. With an H-back and a fullback, the Power play gets two lead blockers. As useful as that sounds, running a "power sweep" out of this formation might be better.
In the last post, I mentioned that the Buck Sweep was not used last year as often as before, partially because of the talent at H-back. Auburn ran a Jet Sweep with one lead blocker that was basically a faster Buck Sweep, but with the H-back taking the place of the frontside guard. With three backs, the H-back and the fullback took the place of both Buck Sweep guards.
So if Auburn can run outside with lead blockers and the offensive line remains intact and can still block a basic Inside Zone or Power, why not use both at the same time?
A simple but effective way of combining inside and outside runs is by motioning a player through (Jet) or behind (Utah) the backfield. This motion is usually just a decoy as the basic run play is executed as normal. For example, Auburn runs Power with Jet motion to the play side. The threat of a Jet Sweep widens the defense and makes opening the gap easier for the offensive line, whose blocking scheme didn't change at all.
Of course, Auburn can run Counter and Inside Zone with this jet motion or actually give the ball on the sweep. Even the quarterback can be the ball carrier to further complicate things, and when the quarterback is a threat, read option opens the playbook even more.
Often times, Auburn showed an inside and outside threat, but it was decided before the snap which direction the ball would go. The defense could guess correctly and contain the play. But by adding read option, the decision is made after the snap and the defense is always wrong.
In a way, reading a defensive end takes the place of the kickout/seal block of an H-back. Consider the standard Inside Zone. The runner wants to find a hole inside, so the H-back kicks out the end man. Simple enough. Now consider a sprint out by the quarterback. The H-back would certainly need to seal the end man inside to give the quarterback running room outside. Also simple.
By reading him, the end man effectively kicks himself out or seals himself in. If he stays out wide, a block from the H-back is no longer necessary to keep him off the running back. If he goes inside, a block from the H-back is no longer necessary to keep him off the quarterback. (Click to enlarge.)
So with the Zone Read, the running back is the inside threat and the quarterback is the outside threat. Auburn also runs a Power Read this way, but more often the quarterback is the inside threat and the running back is the outside threat. This is commonly called the Inverted Veer or the QB Power Read.
Outside Blocks for Read Option
One common counter to read option is what's called a scrape exchange. The end man being read purposefully squeezes inside to force the run outside as a linebacker "scrapes" over to handle that outside threat. Offenses have found a way around that by using an arc block. Typically, an H-back is brought back into the backfield, but not to block the end man like normal. Instead, he allows the end man to crash inside, arcs around to the second level and blocks the scraping linebacker.
Obviously the defense has answers to a simple arc block, but Auburn mixes up where that block comes from. The H-back can come from the playside or backside, or the slot receiver faking a jet sweep can throw an arc block after passing through the backfield. To really protect the outside run, Auburn can use two arc blocks, one from an H-back and the other from either a fullback or a jet sweep player.
When a defense is good enough up front to force runs outside, that defense will start to bring field pressure, or blitzes from the wide side of the field. The hope is that the offense is stuffed inside and one man can lock down outside runs. Gus Malzahn explains a few ways to combat field pressure in this video, but he showed something new last year, at least new to me. I had not seen it or even read about it before.
Auburn used a zone read to threaten inside and outside, but also added a player sweeping through the formation. This sweep would normally just be a decoy as the ball was handed off inside, but starting against Georgia, the sweep would turn into a block against the blitzing corner or linebacker. When the quarterback kept the ball outside, the field pressure was neutralized and he could reach the edge for a big gain.
Pass as a Third Option
Finally, if a quarterback keeps on a read option play, he may have the third option to throw a pass. Similar to the passes available based on pre-snap reads, the quarterback eyes the defensive back covering the route. Since a bubble route is likely being run anyway, the slot receiver just continues to widen as the play continues. If his man leaves to chase the quarterback, he is now open and the quarterback can zip the ball out to him.
But the most famous example of these packaged plays (a play with a run/pass option) is Auburn's last offensive play of the Iron Bowl. After giving to Tre Mason up the middle a few times, Nick Marshall finally kept the ball. As he ran to his left, the defender covering Sammie Coates left the receiver and chased the ball. All Coates had to do was turn around and give Marshall a big target.
As you may have noticed in some of the gifs, Auburn can use more than one of these adjustments at a time. For example, the H-back is arcing around for a linebacker in the last one. With so many add-ons and combinations of add-ons, defenses have a hard time keeping up. The Tigers ran the ball 52 times a game last year, and defenses couldn't stop what seemed to be 52 different plays. But to the offense, they were just running the same basic plays over and over. Gus Malzahn himself said so when talking to ESPN last week.
"I kind of like when they say it's tricky. Bottom line: We're going to run the power, the counter and inside zone and everybody's going to know it. The fans are going to know it. They're going to know it. If you can do that, that makes it go.
It's not tricky to you or your team, Coach. But it is a bit tricky for defenses, and that's the point.