What a game. The Tennessee Volunteers absolutely destroyed the Northwestern Wildcats 45-6 to close out a memorable season on a high note. After starting 2-3, the team was in despair. Butch Jones and the Vols managed to turn it around however, and Tennessee finished the season on a six game winning streak with a top 25 ranking. The cherry on top came on New Year’s Day, when the Vols blew out a very good Northwestern team in the Outback Bowl.
This post is part one of three in a series of posts that will take a look at some of the tactics employed by the Vols coaching staff that led to such resounding success in the bowl game.
One of the most important plays in the Vols’ offensive system is the counter play. This power running scheme is one of the most used plays in the offense. It is a tough, physical downhill running scheme that Jones and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord like to use to punch the defense in the mouth. The base scheme is very simple, which means that DeBord has the luxury of dressing it up in many ways with different formations, motions, and reads, but maintain the same basic blocking scheme. One of those adjustments came up big for the Vols against the Wildcats.
We’ve covered the counter play before, but here’s a quick refresher. The playside offensive linemen all block down, while the backside guard pulls around to kick out the playside defensive end. This aims to create a running lane just outside the offensive tackle and inside the guard’s kick out block. A tight end/H-Back will pull around and lead through the hole to block the playside linebacker.
When it works, counter is really fun to watch. The Vols scored their first touchdown of the game on this play.
You’re not going to see many running lanes bigger than this. Right tackle Chance Hall does an outstanding job of sealing the defensive tackle inside with his down block, left guard Jashon Robertson gets a good enough kick out to keep the defensive end outside, and tight end Alex Ellis finishes it off with an awesome block on the playside linebacker. Josh Dobbs walks in the end zone untouched.
However, this play was one of the few times all day the Vols had much success with counter. The Wildcats’ defensive end made a critical error that allowed Dobbs to score so easily. Outside of this one play, Northwestern did a great job of shutting the counter play down. In fact, I would say they did better at stopping counter than anyone Tennessee played this season.
How did they do it? Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats defensive coaching staff teach their defensive ends a “block down, step down” rule. This is not a new or revolutionary tactic – it is a basic, fundamental rule for all 4-3, one-gap defensive linemen (go here for more on the one gap defensive approach).
The principle works like this. If the defensive end sees that the offensive tackle is blocking down, he has to step down and squeeze into the inside gap. The defensive end absolutely must maintain control of the C gap, just outside of the offensive tackle. If he does not step down, then there is going to be open space between the offensive tackle’s down block and the defensive end, which is what the offense wants.
This defensive end knows that if the tackle is blocking down, then someone will be pulling to block him. With this in mind, he has to be expecting the offensive guard and take him on with a “wrong arm” technique. This means that the end must take on the block from the guard by getting low and engaging the guard’s inside shoulder with his own outside shoulder. The goal is for the defensive end to blow up the guard in the backfield, clogging up the running lane for the back.
For more on this technique, you can read an outstanding piece by Coach Hoover here.
Almost all one-gap defensive coaches teach this technique, but Northwestern executed it far better than any defense that Tennessee faced in 2015 and were able to blow up the counter play early on.
On the second series of the game, DeBord called counter for the first time. Robertson pulled from left to right, but the defensive end took him out, and Hurd had to jump over both players. This slowed him down enough for Northwestern to make a tackle for a short gain.
The second time DeBord called the base counter play, the result was similar. This time Dylan Wiesman was the victim, pulling from right to left. He was blown up in the backfield as well, and Hurd had to cut back away from his blocking (a strict no-no on gap scheme runs like counter) where he was quickly brought down.
So what did DeBord do? He knew that the success on Dobbs’ touchdown run came because of a mistake in technique by the Wildcats’ defensive end. More often than not, the Wildcats were blowing the play up in the backfield and clogging up Hurd’s running lane.
DeBord went to the counter read, an adjustment designed just for defensive ends who like to squeeze down inside.
The counter read is simply a counter for the quarterback. Dobbs now becomes the lead ball carrier up the middle. The back, either Hurd or Alvin Kamara, will run a playside sweep.
Should the defensive end squeeze inside to take on the pulling guard, Dobbs would give to the back. The end would be giving up edge contain, and Hurd or Kamara, both fast backs, would simply have to outrun the Northwestern linebacker to the edge. If the end stayed outside, the guard would be able to kick him out and Dobbs could keep the ball on the counter.
This is how Kamara was able to score the second touchdown of the day for Tennessee. Late in the second quarter on a key third and four, DeBord dialed up the counter read. The end squeezed inside, so Dobbs handed to Kamara and he easily ran around the edge for a touchdown.
This is a great example of how DeBord made an adjustment to one of his base plays to find success. Northwestern did a great job of defending the counter run with their end executing the “block down, step down” rule, so DeBord had to find a way to beat them. He did that with the counter read, and it resulted in a big touchdown.
Thanks for reading. Be sure to check back tomorrow for part two that will take a look at how DeBord used the passing attack to beat the Wildcats coverage.