For these posts, I try to cover football things that I think my audience will have interest. I have an increasing suspicion that I am the only person who reads these posts (and let’s be honest: I’m just skimming to check for mistakes), so this week, we’ll focus on the Cincinnati Bearcats’ final two drives that brought them the win against Pittsburgh. Because I love Notre Dame and want to be familiar with what former Cincinnati head coach Brian Kelly likes to do. That said, it’s not like there’s nothing here for you. Cincinnati is a traditional non-factor who has been achieving big success the last few years, especially at the quarterback position. Figuring out how that happens is always interesting to me. So hey, you might like this. I guess.
The foundation of my knowledge about Kelly comes from this super-informative article from Smart Football’s Chris Brown. It’s totally worth reading the whole thing, but just to give you the basics, Cincinnati’s running is built around regular stuff adapted to spread shotgun formations (kind of like Oklahoma does, I think), not so much the zone-read type of stuff. In the passing game, everything is kind of built around the four verticals play we’ve seen a number of times in going through NFL plays. Chris calls this “vertical stems.” For the most part, every play starts out looking like four verticals. All of the receivers run straight down the field, and it’s only after that do they make breaks. One of the advantages is that the secondary has no clues as to what’s coming until the play has been going for awhile. Often, they’re out of their backpedal and running with the receivers when they have to change direction, which is more difficult to do.
This opening play is the only running play in this set. It’s a power run, like the Cowboys and every other team in football run, with a guard pulling. Given where the run is going, the four key players to block are the defensive end and defensive tackle to that left side, and the two linebackers on the field. The pulling right guard and left tackle get out and block the linebackers, leaving the left guard and tight end to handle the defensive linemen. Of these blocks, the tight end taking on a defensive end stands out to me as the big one. That tight end holds his block long enough for the run to get by him, and it’s only after eight yards that the defensive end is able to peel off and chase the play down from behind.
On the left side of this play, a cornerback lines up over each receiver with a safety covering that side. Both the safety and the nickel corner seem concerned primarily with taking away the inside. The outside receiver just runs upfield to clear out his cornerback so when the slot receiver makes his cut, there is no one close to him. It seems like the defense was placing a pretty heavy bet that the routes would be going to the inside. Maybe they thought they had something based on the film or plays earlier in the game, but they were wrong, and it led to very easy yards. Further, the receiver was hit by the safety once he was already out of bounds, so the play ended up gaining 29 yards.
In the article linked above, Brown says Cincinnati doesn't use much zone-read-ish kind of stuff, but I think this play is an exception. I think what's going on here is from an empty backfield, a slot receiver drops back into a pitch relationship with the quarterback while the tight end loops behind the line to come to the other side of the quarterback. That creates a triple-option of sorts: the quarterback can keep it, pitch it back to the receiver or shovel it ahead to the tight end. And another thing confirms that this is definitely a read/option kind of play: the playside defensive end is unblocked. On this play, the receiver dropping back actually falls down, so I'm partly just guessing he was there to take a pitch (though it looks like a really strong possibility before he falls), so when the defensive end closes in, Pike pitches it past him to the tight end. With the defensive end taking himself out of the play, the key defenders in position to cause immediate problems are the right defensive tackle and the two linebackers on the field. The right guard takes care of the defensive tackle by himself. The right tackle, who is free after not blocking the defensive end, blocks one of the linebackers quite well. The other linebacker reacts like he is in man coverage on the slot receiver who drops back for the pitch: he immediately runs toward the receiver when he drops back, so when the receiver ends up stumbling, the linebacker is well out of position to chase down the play. The nickel corner on the other side of the play does a nice job diagnosing the play after being victimized on the previous play. The pulling guard has a chance to block him, but he has gone too far upfield, outpacing the ball-carrier. That means he has to change directions to come back and get a block on a cornerback. The corner is far too quick to let a lineman pull that off, and he cuts inside of him to make the tackle after a seven-yard gain.
This is a pretty simple counter off of the four verticals play. Everyone looks like they're running a 'Go,' causing the secondary to retreat. Then a receiver in the slot stops suddenly and turns back to the quarterback. If Pike can hit the receiver before the defense has a chance to react, there are easy yards to be had, and he does just that.
This formation is kind of a Kelly signature, I think. What happens here is the formation more or less demands that there be only one safety deep, otherwise you're badly undermanned on the four-receiver side. Moreover, that deep safety keeps to the middle at best. More likely, he shades to the four-receiver side. What he definitely doesn't do is pay much attention to the lone receiver on the left. So the left receiver is running deep against single-coverage, and on this play, he wins that match. There are two keys to the receivers' success over the corner: the receiver looks back and tracks the ball while the corner doesn't, and the ball is placed in the perfect spot, high and wide. That lets the receiver stop and jump to go and get the ball (a set of highlights for this game is available here, and I really suggest going to 7:08 to see this catch. It's really awesome.)
That's the first drive to look at, the one that tied the game in the fourth quarter. I think Brown's points were pretty spot on, the play often did look like four verticals four steps in before breaking off to something else to make for open spaces and easy throws. It's late tonight, so tomorrow we'll look at the game-winning drive and see about drawing any more conclusions.