This is part two (read part one here) in a series of posts that aims to examine some of the tactics and adjustments Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord made in his gameplan for the Northwestern Wildcats in the Outback Bowl. The Vols offense was very successful and the Vols won big, 45-6. While we looked at the counter play in the previous post, this post will examine Northwestern’s primary form of pass coverage and how the Vols attacked it.
Northwestern bases out of a quarters coverage. While quarters can be a complex coverage, here is a simple way to explain what Northwestern was doing. All four defensive backs, the two corners and two safeties, align eight to ten yards off the ball and drop to cover any vertical routes. The three linebackers cover any intermediate to shorter routes.
The upside of this coverage is it is very sound against any deep passes downfield. Northwestern’s corners played well and didn’t give up much deep outside. Also, quarters keeps the safeties reasonably close to the line of scrimmage in run support. This is a strong coverage, and the favorite of many defensive coordinators across the country. However, Mike DeBord and the Vols coaching staff did a good job of using the passing game to attack quarters. There were two ways he attacked the coverage that stood out to me.
ATTACKING THE FLATS
The first way Tennessee attacked quarters is by gong at the flat defenders. If the corners play far off the ball, then the defense is vulnerable to the quick pass. There are only three zone defenders across the entire field, one hook defender over the middle and one flat defender on either side.
Some defenses, such as Michigan State’s under Mark Dantonio and Pittsburgh’s under Pat Narduzzi, base out of quarters with lots of press man coverage outside. However, the Wildcats prefer to play their corners off the ball, leaving the flats vulnerable.
The Vols used a concept called spacing to attack the flats. Spacing is a route concept that calls for two receivers to the same side of the field to both run hitch routes. This allows the offense to horizontally stretch the flat defender. By placing two receivers in the same zone, the offense forces the defender to choose one, leaving the other open.
Spacing is one of Jones’ favorite pass plays when facing a team that plays their corner off the line. Whether the defense is in man or zone, a deep corner means the quarterback will be able to fire the ball into the receiver before the corner can jump the route. Versus the zone defense that the Wildcats favor, the quarterback just simply reads the flat defender.
Spacing serves to put a horizontal stretch on the flat defender, meaning that there are two receivers spaced horizontally in his zone. There is no way to cover them both. As long as Josh Dobbs makes the right read and an accurate throw, this is an easy completion.
This is a concept the Vols went to multiple times, and had success with each time. In this first example, Dobbs was able to hit a wide open Josh Malone, who did a great job of fighting for some extra yards to get a first down.
In this next example, DeBord caught the Wildcats in a zone blitz. Northwestern sent edge pressure and left the strong safety responsible to roll down and cover the flat. This is actually a cover three look by Northwestern, but the principle remains the same. The corner is dropping deep, leaving an defender, in this case the strong safety, responsible for the flat. DeBord is simply flooding this zone with two receivers. The result is another easy completion, this time to Marquez North.
Northwestern played quite a bit of off coverage outside all day, and Dobbs took advantage. He had a perfect completion percentage, 11 of 11, on passes that went less than 11 yards downfield. Four of those were hitch routes like the ones above.
In quarters, the safeties are responsible for the #2 receivers (second receiver from the sideline on each side) on any vertical routes, while the corners are responsible for the #1 receivers (closest receiver to the sideline on each side) on any vertical routes. Should any of these receivers release on underneath routes rather than vertical, the linebackers will pick them up, and the defensive back will help double team the nearest vertical threat.
This is a strong deep coverage and Northwestern’s corners played well. Dobbs struggled throwing downfield, and he had few open receivers. He only completed 3 of his 14 attempts that went 12 yards or further downfield.
Two of those completions came off of play action. That is the only way DeBord was able to scheme a receiver open deep downfield for Dobbs.
When an offense is as good at running the ball as Tennessee is, defenses take notice. Safeties and linebackers are often quick to fly to the line of scrimmage in hopes of stopping the Vols dynamic running game. Northwestern was especially aggressive on Friday, as they wanted to make sure the Vols didn’t gash their front.
When a defense is over aggressive in attacking the run, the offense must be prepared with a constraint play. Mike DeBord had a few of those lined up and went to a run fake designed to attack the safeties flying towards the line of scrimmage.
Since Northwestern’s safeties were being active in the run game, DeBord dialed up a route concept called four verticals. The result was a wide open Alex Ellis and a 42 yard gain.
For Northwestern, the pass coverage is simple. Because all four receivers were releasing vertical, all of the Northwestern defensive backs are essentially going to be playing man coverage.
By sending multiple receivers deep downfield, the Vols can keep the corners occupied with the outside receivers and create one-on-one opportunities with inside receivers versus safeties. If someone gets beat there will be no deep help. All four defensive backs are locked up in coverage.
DeBord combined the route concept with a run fake of the inverted veer play. Dobbs faked a handoff on a sweep to Jalen Hurd around the left end, and right guard Dylan Wiesman pulled around to sell the fake. DeBord hoped to use the run fake to get one of the Wildcats’ safeties to hesitate just enough to get someone open.
The run fake definitely worked. Northwestern’s strong safety bit. He came down hard to defend the run, and left Ellis wide open. In the video clip below you can see him creeping up towards the line of scrimmage pre-snap and even pointing at the edge after Hurd motioned into position as if to alert his teammates that the Vols were running a sweep.
This is a great shot that shows the Wildcats’ strong safety, along with two linebackers, all moving downhill towards Hurd while Ellis runs right by.
The corner and free safety were both busy, covering their vertical routes, and Ellis ended up in the middle of the field with no defenders nearby.
The four verticals and spacing concepts are nothing new. Neither is the play fake off of the inverted veer play. However, each of these took advantage of the weaknesses of the Northwestern’s defense. Dobbs didn’t hit many big plays downfield, but he did a great job of protecting the ball and taking what the defense was giving in the flats. When the right time came, DeBord dialed up the perfect play action pass to get the ball downfield.
Thanks for reading. Tomorrow we will conclude this series with part three, which will look at the special series of plays from the under center, I formation that DeBord used in the bowl game.