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Film Room: Running the Ball in the Spread

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No tight end? No sweat.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Derek Dooley loves him some tight ends.

How much does he love them? Consider these points.

  • Last year Dooley employed formations with a tight end attached to the line or in the backfield on about three-quarters of all snaps. On those snaps, there were two tight ends attached or in the backfield more than one-third of the time.
  • When the tight ends were hit by injuries, Dooley didn’t abandon the position by opting for four-wide personnel groups. He scrounged for replacements, recruiting Samson Bailey, an offensive lineman by trade, and freshman defensive end Daniel Parker to become tight ends.

Parker was a revelation at the position. In his breakout game against Florida he made key blocks on two rushing touchdowns.

On this play he pulls from the backside, sealing the lane for Larry Rountree who goes untouched to the end zone.

And here he paves the way for Damarea Crockett, driving an unfortunate Gator cornerback out of bounds and then some.

The kid can block.

Against South Carolina, Dooley rewarded Bailey for his team-first attitude by throwing him the ball down on a gadget play.

That was a fun one.

With the Wyoming game fast approaching, the tight end position once again seems thin. Albert Okwuegbunam has been nursing a knee sprain. Parker has missed practice with a dinged shoulder. Brendan Scales looked good taking reps with the first team before breaking his foot.

Dooley has some options that we’ll note later. If he wants tight ends on the field, he’s shown he’ll find a way to make it happen. But in what follows I’ll suggest that Dooley has far more flexibility to play without tight ends this year compared to last.

The reason? Kelly Bryant, who else?

Erasing the Read

In Film Room’s first installment we noted that Dooley greatly limited Drew Lock’s responsibility for the backside edge player in last year’s run game. Let’s quickly review.

Inside Zone was Dooley’s favorite run scheme, accounting for more than 30% of all runs called last season. Inside Zone Read requires the quarterback to read an unblocked man, the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMOL).

If the EMOL crashes down on the running back, the quarterback keeps the ball.

Inside Zone Read

With Lock, Dooley tended toward variations of Inside Zone that blocked the EMOL, relieving Lock of having to read and preventing him from keeping the ball.

Here are examples of versions of Inside Zone structured to remove the quarterback read.

  • Adding players to the backside of the line.
Inside Zone with TE and H backside

Kendall Blanton and Parker align on the backside of this Inside Zone play. The unblocked man is too wide to affect Rountree, so Lock hands off.

  • Kicking out the EMOL from the frontside.
Inside Zone Wham

Blanton’s kick-out block creates the crease that Tyler Badie hits for a touchdown.

What do these strategies have in common? They require at least one tight end to be attached to the line or in the backfield.

Reading with Bryant

In that first piece I reasoned that running Inside Zone Read would be a cheap way to feature Kelly Bryant’s running ability. There are, however, other advantages to running these variations that I didn’t mention. One of them is relevant to my point here: the read versions of these plays leave the EMOL unblocked and, therefore, do not require a tight end. This makes it possible to effectively run the ball out of four-wide formations.

The Four Wide Run Game

Without the quarterback reading the EMOL, runs out of four-wide sets are only sound against five-man run boxes. (The “box” refers to an area close to the line of scrimmage from tight end to tight end.)

A five-man run box

When teams spread their defense to cover down on slot receivers, the numbers worked in the Tigers’ favor.

Inside Zone v. five-man box

Here is an example of Inside Zone against a five-man box. Rountree is untouched until he’s eight yards downfield.

But defensive coordinators have ways of slipping a sixth man into the box against spread formations. One way is to play with one safety. Now both slots are covered with six defenders in the box.

Inside Zone v. six-man box

That’s what happens in the play against Florida. The playside linebacker is unblocked and stops what would have been a surefire touchdown.

It’s because of this, I suppose, that Dooley rarely called Inside Zone out of four-wide sets. His run menu, therefore, was very limited without a tight end in the game.

But Dooley did have run plays he ran only out of four wide. The most popular of these plays was Trap.

Trap

Dooley ran Trap out of Trips formations exclusively. (Trips refers to formations that align three receivers to one side.) Trips sets can put pressure on the Mike linebacker who is responsible for a gap against the run and also for defending a quick pass to the #3, or inside-most receiver.

Mike linebacker in conflict

But the Trap blocking scheme is only sound against a five-man box, just like Inside Zone, so Dooley is counting on the Mike to leave the box to cover #3.

Here Georgia’s Mike linebacker does just that, aligning wide to defend the bunch receivers. He folds in late, but only after Badie makes a healthy gain.

Mike folds inside late

Here, the Tennessee Mike is a bit tighter, but still not in the box.

Mike folds inside

He folds in and makes the tackle but again, the gain is a good one.

The above examples of Trap pick up good yardage, but against six-man boxes the play becomes unsound, just like Inside Zone.

Here Oklahoma State plays with one deep safety over man coverage.

Trap v. six-man box

With the slots covered—watch the Cowboy safety (#3) jump the inside slot’s Hitch route—the Mike does not need to leave the box.

The Tigers can’t block the Mike who makes the stop for a modest gain.

The Bryant Factor

With Lock, Dooley’s hands were tied when it came to running the ball without a tight end. The defense could always gain an advantage by playing with a six-man box.

Bryant, on the other hand, excels at the run-read game, which evens the numbers against six-man fronts.

Let’s look again at Inside Zone out of a four-wide formation.

Inside Zone Read v. six-man box

But can we be sure Bryant is able to manage the run read game with success?

I used this clip in a previous piece, but I offer it again as an illustration to the affirmative.

He is able.

Bryant’s running ability can open up Dooley’s run play menu in four-wide formations. There is no need to call plays that depend on a five-man box for success. Neither is there a need to keep a tight end in the formation to block the EMOL.

Four Wide Receivers

This means Dooley can choose to employ personnel groups that feature four wide receivers and no tight ends. Mizzou’s depth at slot receiver—Johnathan Johnson, Dominic Gicinto, and Barrett Banister have all demonstrated their value—makes it an even easier decision to replace a tight end with another slot receiver.

Dooley removed his tight end in favor of a fourth receiver few precious times last year. When he did, it was usually Banister who entered the game. Banister demonstrated a knack for converting third downs. Two examples come quickly to mind, both on one of Dooley’s favorite third-down concepts: in-breaking routes by both slot receivers.

On a third-and-nine against Florida.

And a third-and-six versus Tennessee.

So there are benefits to playing with four wide receivers on occasion, even with a healthy stable of tight ends.

Conclusion

So there you have it, my argument that we should be less concerned with a thin tight end group this year than we were last season. My boiled-down rationale: Kelly Bryant’s legs open up the four-wide run game menu and the receiver depth makes four-wide sets plausible, and even enticing.

Now I’ll admit the points I’ve made here may be entirely moot.

The tight ends may heal up well and Dooley might have them all season long. This would be ideal.

And it could be that Dooley would rather get creative with personnel rather than compromise on his commitment to the tight end position, just as he did last year. There are reports that offensive tackle Angel Matute has been taking reps at tight end, suggesting that he might reprise Bailey’s role of 2018. Who knows? Maybe one of the young defensive ends will be cajoled into making a switch like Parker was last year.

After all, Dooley loves him some tight ends.