How the Vols Scored in the Red Zone

What a game. The Tennessee Volunteers pulled of a upset on Saturday, giving head coach Butch Jones a signature win over the Georgia Bulldogs, 38-31. Jones and the Vols battled back from down 24-3, ending the game by outscoring the Bulldogs 35-7 down the stretch. There are many aspects of this game worth a review, and there will be more articles later this week, but one thing that jumped out at me was how Mike DeBord made adjustments to his red zone gameplan that completely stymied the Bulldogs and helped Tennessee score 4 key touchdowns.

I have been pretty harsh over the past few weeks about DeBord and Jones not making many in-game adjustments. I was very glad and impressed to see that DeBord learned from his mistake, and his adjustments give the Vols a winning edge in the red zone.

A common strategy for many red zone defenses is to play Cover 0. This is perhaps the most aggressive defensive scheme out there. Six players are rushing the quarterback, while the other five are locked down in man to man coverage. There are no help defenders. Each corner is on an island.

This is exactly what Georgia decided to do against Tennessee. Every single time the Vols got inside the 5 yard line, defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt put most of his defenders in the box to stop the run, and played one-on-one man coverage outside. Pruitt wanted his defenders focused on aggressively stopping the run, and he trusted his corners to win one-on-one outside.

It looks something like this.

GL 2

Early on, this strategy was effective. On the Vols first play inside the five, they called for an inside zone running play right into a Georgia blitz. Unfortunately, this play was doomed from the start. The Bulldogs had three players showing immediate pressure on the (defensive) right side of the center, and the center and left guard were the only blockers in position to block them. With the current alignment, inside linebacker Tim Kimbrough (#42) will come unblocked.

GL 1

GL 2.2

And come unblocked he did. Kimbrough shot through the A gap unblocked, and forced a fumble in the backfield. Linebacker Leonard Floyd scooped up the ball and sprinted 96 yards for a Bulldogs touchdown.

This wasn’t so much a case of bad blocking by the Vols as it was Georgia’s scheme beating Tennessee’s. The Vols had no plan to block Kimbrough from the start. This is a situation where DeBord should’ve recognized that the play was doomed to fail by alignment, and changed it to something that attacks Cover 0. The aggressive defensive philosophy is designed to take away the inside run, but is weak in many other areas.

Fortunately, even though he didn’t catch it before it happened, DeBord did recognize his mistake and made adjustments. Pruitt went to the Cover 0 every single time the Vols got close to the goal line, so DeBord was able to counter by calling some plays that attack the weakness of the scheme.

On the next drive, the Vols once again took the ball inside the five yard line. This time, DeBord decided to test the Bulldogs man coverage outside. This was wise. In Cover 0, one of the schematic weak points is the corners outside. They are one-on-one on outside and have no help.

After an unsuccessful run play on first down, DeBord called two plays that attacked the man coverage.

First, the Vols went into a formation with two tight ends, and one receiver split to each side. This was a designed fade to Preston Williams all the way. Georgia once again showed the Cover 0 look, so DeBord knew he had the matchup he wanted: Williams vs. corner Rico McGraw.

GL 3

McGraw ended up making a good play on the ball to force the incompletion, but this is still a good playcall by DeBord. Williams is the Vols best jump ball receiver, and this is a matchup he can often win.

On third down, DeBord went with a similar play. This time, he spread the field and isolated tight end Ethan Wolf in the slot with a corner, Aaron Davis. Wolf has a 5 inch and 55 pound advantage over Davis.

GL 4

Dobbs just lobbed the ball up over the middle to Wolf and he almost made a fantastic catch. Wolf caught the ball, but lost control when he hit the ground and the pass was ruled incomplete.

Even though the Vols didn’t score a touchdown, I came away from this drive encouraged by the playcalling. DeBord recognized that running up the middle wasn’t going to happen versus this scheme, so he called plays to attack where Georgia was weak. The result was the Vols came inches away from a touchdown on two separate plays. Both playcalls were excellent; the players came up just short of perfect execution. If the offense could keep moving the ball inside the five, I was confident DeBord would find the right play to get it into the end zone.

That assessment proved to be correct. It wasn’t until only 30 seconds remained in the half before the Vols got inside the five again, but this time they finally were able to get into the end zone. The Vols went with one of their favorite red zone playcalls: Snag. We’ve covered this play multiple times before (here, here, here, and here) and examined why it is an effective red zone concept, but here’s a quick refresher.

When the defense is in press man, the two receivers on the outside come together and form a natural pick for the #3 receiver running to the flat. This is a favorite play for a lot of teams on the goal line, because it is so hard to defend the flat route while playing Cover 0. If the pick is set correctly, it is almost impossible for the flat defender to cover his route versus straight man coverage.

So let’s look at how the Vols scored. Georgia is in obvious man coverage once again, and the Vols are in Snag.

Flat 1.12

Flat 1.3With the two outside receivers moving inside, they form the pick. They end up right beside each other, so there is no way a defender can get around. Alvin Kamara is running to the flat and he’s wide open.

Flat 1.4

Another thing to keep in mind is that by motioning Kamara across the formation presnap, the Vols made it even harder to defend him. The Vols like to use motion when they call Snag so that the defender of the flat receiver has even more of an issue getting to the flat.

If at first it works, why not try again? After scoring this touchdown right before half on the Snag concept, DeBord decided to go back to it at the end of the third quarter, just dressing it up a little differently.

This time, Kamara lined up in the backfield before motioning out into the slot. The use of two running backs and a tight end indicated a run play to Georgia.

Flat 2.1

It was once again obvious that the Bulldogs were sticking with their Cover 0 defense.

Flat 2.2

Kamara ran to the flat, and Josh Malone and Jauan Jennings did outstanding jobs with their routes. Kamara’s defender couldn’t get around the pick and the running back was wide open for his second touchdown of the day.

Flat 2.3

Both of these plays came at extremely critical times for the Vols, as Kamara’s first touchdown cut the deficit to 7, and the second score finally put the Vols ahead. Georgia wanted to play Cover 0, so DeBord found the best Cover 0 beater in the playbook and used it twice to score touchdowns. This is an outstanding job of adjusting by DeBord, and a key factor in why the Vols won the game.

Snag was not DeBord’s only response however. Two more times Tennessee got the ball in the red zone and put the ball in the end zone on the ground.

The first rushing touchdown came midway through the third quarter. The Vols called for an inside zone running play, just like the play where Hurd fumbled. However, this time Dobbs was reading the backside defensive end.

IZ 1.1

Based on Georgia’s alignment, the middle was taken care of but the edge was weak. Once Dobbs saw some hesitation from the end, he pulled the ball and sprinted around the corner for a touchdown.

IZ 1.2

This is a good example of DeBord seeing that the strength of the run defense was up the middle and giving Dobbs a chance to get to the edge. Once the end was sucked inside, no one had a chance to bring Dobbs down, as he outran the inside linebacker to the end zone.

Georgia had numbers in the box, but by using Dobbs as a runner and reading a defender, the Vols were able to get numbers back on their side.

Finally, the Vols scored one last touchdown to go ahead for the winning score of 38-31. This time DeBord went back to the inside run, but he had a surprise for Georgia. The Bulldogs were able to attack the inside run early in the game because the Vols ran right up the middle with no hint of misdirection.

Here, DeBord called for Dobbs to keep the ball on a counter run play, and added some misdirection to make the defense hesitate.

Q Counter 1

Georgia had 8 defenders in the box to the Vols’ 6 blockers. So DeBord called for a play that blocked everyone except for the safeties on each edge. By running right, the safety on the left was too far outside to make a play. Dobbs faked a handoff to Hurd running wide right, which made the other safety hesitate.

Q Counter 2

This gave Dobbs the advantage he needed to power up the middle and score a touchdown.

DeBord knew he didn’t have a numbers advantage to just simply run up the middle. By using the misdirection, he was able to take out a Georgia defender and open up a running lane.

Overall, DeBord did an outstanding job of adjusting his playcalling in the red zone to attack the Bulldogs’ Cover 0 defense. DeBord has caught some flak for not adjusting well in-game, but he deserves a lot of credit for this one. The fumble was very costly, but DeBord figured out fast that he wasn’t going to be able to run it right up the middle on Georgia in that defense. He was able to exploit the weaknesses of the Cover 0 by attacking one-on-one coverage, using pick plays, and by using option and misdirection in the run game. It was so much fun it was to watch DeBord call plays in the red zone, because he found a tendency in the Bulldogs’ defense to call Cover 0 in a certain spot, and he exploited it.


9 thoughts on “How the Vols Scored in the Red Zone

  1. Hey Seth, can you do a little something on keys to success against Bama both offensively and defensively. Just a thought, thanks. Keep up the good work.


  2. Seth,

    Any chance we’ll see an article about how Tennessee might attack Bama’s defense based on the defensive schemes that Bama has employed against teams that are similar to Tennessee? We appreciate up urban work!



  3. A little off topic but I will post it here…

    If you were an offensive coordinator who had complete control over your scheme, what would be your ideal offense and philosophy as a whole?

    What offense do you enjoy watching and learning about the most?



    1. Good question Al.

      As for what I would do, the first and most important thing for me is to be a physical, downhill, run-first team. When an offense can run the ball, they can beat anyone. Once you get the defense focused on stopping the run, you can open up the playaction downfield. Also, once the defense moves a safety down to stop the run, you have one-on-one matchups outside. Running the ball effectively is the most important thing for me.

      I would lean towards using a one-back spread system. I like spreading the field so you can get positive matchups outside when the defense is keying on the run. It also enables you to advance your runnning game by using the quarterback as a runner, or use run/pass option plays. I like a tight end/H-Back guy who can pull and be a lead blocker, or go downfield as a receiver.

      That is a general philosophy, but based on the studies I’ve done, this is the basics of how I would try to attack a defense.

      To answer your other question, Baylor is probably the offense I enjoy watching the most right now. Art Briles has perfected his system and he’s been there long enough to recruit plays who fit his offense perfectly. That offense is by far the most explosive in football right now.

      As for some others, Gus Malzahn and Chip Kelly are two coaches who are struggling this year, but I’ve very much enjoyed studying what they do. I don’t agree with the “throw it all the time” philosophy, but I’ve learned a lot about the passing attack from Mike Leach and of course, that system is fun to watch..Dana Holgorsen made some adjustments to Leach’s offense when he left Texas Tech, and that has been interesting to see. I’ve not watched Urban Meyer’s stuff much, but I plan to do a project in the offseason and study what he’s doing at OSU more.

      And I don’t just enjoy shotgun spread offenses. The flexbone that Paul Johnson orchestrates is one of the most beautiful offenses in football when it’s clicking. Jim Harbaugh is a fantastic offensive coach and I’m glad he’s back in the college game. To go outside of college, watching the evolution of the New England Patriots’ offense through the years has been very interesting

      I could talk about this all day, but these are just a few coaches/offenses I enjoy studying.


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