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Film Room: Tigers can’t stand up to the Counter-pressure

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Lynn Bolden is the latest running quarterback to shred this Mizzou defense

NCAA Football: Missouri at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The Mizzou offense was putrid against Vanderbilt, and it continued to putrefy against Kentucky. But in the face of the Wildcats’ QB run game, executed by emergency quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr., the Missouri defense joined the offense in its decay.

Following the trend, I suppose we can expect the special teams unit to implode against Georgia, as it did last year.

Bad memories

We all know Bowden is good at playing football. Most of us have this play—a punt return TD that made possible Kentucky’s unlikely comeback victory last year—seared into our tortured memories.

But I don’t think any of us foresaw Bowden going off for 204 yards on the ground.

Saturday’s game was a confluence of historical Tiger-killing factors.

Backup quarterback? Check.

Monsoon? Check.

Mark Stoops on the sideline opposite Barry Odom? Check.

And now a new factor we can add to the list: heavy doses of Quarterback Counter Trap.

Check and checkmate.

Indeed, QB Counter Trap is a play the Tigers have struggled against earlier this year.

I’ve addressed it before, but let’s look closely at the inner workings of QB Counter Trap, then see how the Tigers defense broke down trying to defend it on Saturday.

Quarterback Counter Trap

Let’s take the above touchdown by Ole Miss’s super-QB, John Rhys Plumlee, as an example.

Notice that the Rebels split four receivers, yet Mizzou keeps seven in the box, aligning in a 5-2. This means the Tigers are playing Cover 0: man-to-man on the four wideouts with no safety help. They are stacking the box to stuff the run.

And here’s the play design.

Let’s note a few things:

  • The blocking scheme calls for the playside linemen to block their backside gaps, while the backside guard and tackle pull around to the frontside.
  • This leaves the backside end man on the line of scrimmage (EMOL), in this case the strong safety in red, unblocked.
  • The mechanism to control the backside EMOL is a toss sweep read.

If the EMOL follows the pullers to the playside, the QB will toss the ball out to the RB on a sweep.

If the EMOL widens with the RB, the QB carries the ball up behind his pulling blockers.

On this particular play, the EMOL takes the latter option—watch the strong safety, Khalil Oliver (#20), peel off his course to take the RB—triggering Plumlee to carry the ball.

The play is blocked perfectly, and Plumlee scurries across the goal line untouched. But this needn’t have happened. The Tigers have a man for every blocker, one for the running back, and one for the quarterback.

The unblocked man is the Mike linebacker, Cameron Wilkins (#40), highlighted red in this diagram.

Wilkins joins Oliver in following the sweep-threat to the backside, putting two players on the RB and only five left in the box to take on five blockers.

This is option football. The key to defending the option: there should be a defender assigned to each potential ball carrier.

Here are two ways of properly defending this play.

The first involves what we have been calling gap-exchange. In the example below, the backside EMOL chases the pulling tackle inside, forcing a toss out to the running back. The Mike linebacker is now responsible for the outside gap, and runs to the edge. He is responsible for the sweep.

Another option is to have the EMOL on the sweep. In this case, the Mike reads the pullers and fits into his gap against the Counter Trap.

The best way to defend the Counter Trap scheme is to bracket the puller who is wrapping around for the playside linebacker, in this case the backside tackle.

The playside LB—the Will in this case—will take the outside half of the wrapper. Bolton does this. The backside linebacker—the Mike—should take the inside half.

Will LB takes the puller’s outside shoulder, forcing the ball inside to the Mike.

But on this play, Wilkins, having chased the running back—isn’t there to fill the gap.

The takeaway: the backside EMOL and backside LB play complementary roles. They need to be in sync with each other: if one goes outside, the other needs to go in, and vice versa.

Having established the nuts and bolts of QB Counter Trap and the ways to defend it, let’s look at Kentucky’s most successful snaps of the play.

Kentucky’s QB Counter Trap

Play #1

This is the exact play Ole Miss ran in the above example: wide trips formation to the field, QB Counter Trap with a Toss Sweep read into the boundary.

The Tigers are in an odd front, but this time the coverage is Cover 1: a free safety—Joshuah Bledsoe (#18)—is in the middle of the field. This means there is one fewer defender in the box. Bolton is alone at linebacker, making this a 5-1 front.

Tiger defensive coordinator Justin Walters slants his line to the field and away from the Counter scheme. Not ideal.

Here is the play diagrammed against the slant.

We can see the effect the QB run game has on a defense. Deploying six box defenders against a backfield of one running back is standard. But a dangerous runner at QB evens the numbers. A defender must account for the RB, leaving five defensive players to take on the five offensive linemen. Someone must get off a block and make a tackle or else... well, this happens:

An exacerbating factor is the slant. A few things about this:

  • The defensive line’s movement prevents much chance that one of them could fight the pressure of the block and get to the ball. The tackle and nose —Jordan Elliott (#1) and Kobie Whiteside (#78), respectively — get washed down.
  • Mike linebacker Devin Nicholson (#58) — after Cameron Wilkins and Jamal Brooks, the third man to attempt to fill Cale Garrett’s cleats — is the backside EMOL and takes away the toss to the running back. End Chris Turner (#39) shoots upfield on the backside and, therefore, can’t threaten the quarterback.

Mizzou ends up with two players playing outside, near the RB.

  • The slant forces defensive end, Tre Williams (#93), inside. He shoots underneath the guard’s attempted kick-out block, forcing the tackle to pass him to the outside. Will linebacker Nick Bolton scrapes outside, performing a gap exchange with Williams, and takes on the tackle with his inside shoulder forcing the ball inside.

But Mizzou is out of box players. The last line of defense is the free safety, Bledsoe, whom Bowden easily shakes.

The Wildcats would score their first touchdown on the next snap.

Play #2

With the ball on the Tiger 28 yard line and thirty seconds left in the half, Tiger offensive coordinator Derek Dooley made a bold, and, in retrospect, reckless choice to pass the ball. Kelly Bryant was stripped as he wound to throw, leading to this, Kentucky’s third touchdown.

The formation sets three wide with an H back in the backfield.

Walters counters with the 5-1, and adds strong safety Khalil Oliver (#20) to the strong edge, and screws down free safety Bledsoe near the run box.

Wildcat offensive coordinator Eddie Gran runs an interesting version of QB Counter Trap.

Gran keeps the tackle and H back to block the backside, and uses the running back as the second puller, leading for Bowden on the playside linebacker.

Bowden’s quick pass set adds a Draw element, and allows the running back space to lead for him.

Walters slants his line toward the playside of the Counter Trap this time, with Jordan Elliott becoming the EWOL on the playside and end Turner falling into the B gap.

A few observations:

  • As we noted, Turner (#39) falls into the playside B gap and takes on the running back with his inside shoulder, funnelling the play inside. He gets off the block and has a chance to make the play, but misses the tackle.
  • Turner turns the ball inside to an unblocked man, Bledsoe (#18), but Akial Byers (#97) gets driven back into Bledsoe’s path.

One last look.

Play #3

These last two plays are the same as the Ole Miss play we began with. Gran saw something he liked in when breaking down that film.

On this snap Walters presents his 5-1 with the strong safety on the weak edge.

The defensive line slants to the field, away from the Counter Trap which hits the boundary side of the formation.

Here’s what the slant looks like against the play.

With seven in the box, Mizzou is in good shape numbers-wise. But once again the slant hurts the Tigers.

The interior linemen are ripping to the left, the same direction the Wildcat linemen want to take them. They are easily washed down, out of the play.

Byers (#97) is the unread, unblocked player. But Byers’ slant to the outside keeps him from changing direction and forcing a toss to the running back who is accounted for by Nicholson (#58).

Once again, the Tigers have two players outside the box near the running back, leaving the Wildcat offensive line to block Mizzou’s five box defenders.

And block them they do, springing Bowden for a 28 yard TD.

Play #4

This is, again, the same play as the Ole Miss QB Counter Trap we began with. Same formation, same scheme.

Also the same defense, and same defensive breakdown.

The Same. Exact. Play.

Mizzou is in its 5-2, so they have the numbers to stop a quarterback run.

Here’s how the play develops.

Notice in the diagram below that strong safety Oliver (#20 in red) is the read man. If he were to crash inside the ball would go to the running back on a sweep. Mike linebacker Nicholson (#58 in green) can’t be blocked by the scheme.

The next diagram shows the lack of coordination between the EMOL and backside linebacker that, as we mentioned above, is so important.

Oliver peels with the RB, but instead of reading the linemen, which are taking him to the ball, Nicholson gets his eyes in the backfield. This causes him to hesitate and step to the outside. Again, the Tigers have two players concerned with a single piece of the option. That leaves them outmanned elsewhere.

Ultimately Nicholson’s absence probably doesn’t matter. Bolton takes on the block properly, with his inside shoulder, trying to funnel it inside. But Bowden slips outside of Bolton anyway.

Conclusion

The quarterback run game puts tremendous pressure on a defense, whittling the margin for error razor-thin. But the Tigers had a significant role to play in their own undoing.

In terms of scheme, slanting the line put them in bad position several times. Lack of discipline against misdirection was a killer, as Tiger linebackers continually took the bait. And when Mizzou was able to get a body off a block, Bowden often squirted through their grasp.

While he couldn’t do enough to address all these issues, it is clear this unit misses Cale Garrett’s leadership, discipline, and instincts.

But Garrett ain’t walking through that door, so this defense needs to clean up the issues, or sink further into the morass this season is becoming.