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Offensive Philosophy and Play-Calling: The Weisian Approach

By · January 16th, 2009 · 3 Comments · 13,783 views
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Offensive Philosophy and Play-Calling: The Weisian Approach

The off-season is here, and, save a few recruiting tidbits and coaching changes, there isn’t much for Irish fans to talk about.

In light of this, I’ve decided to dissect some of the offensive woes for Notre Dame the past two seasons. Even though Notre Dame’s offense exploded to destroy Hawaii in their season finale, many Irish faithful have lamented over the ineptitude displayed in the overwhelming majority of the past 25 games.

The most often identified culprits are predictable play-calling and lack of a running game, the latter of which is mostly blamed on zone blocking schemes. But these are indirect effects of more subtle causes. The play-calling is largely a result of head coach Charlie Weis’ offensive philosophy while the blame attributed to zone blocking is mostly misplaced.

This discussion of Weis’ offensive philosophy and play-calling is one of three off-season editorials regarding these issues. The second will debate the positives and negatives of zone blocking schemes, as well as the common misperceptions associated with them. Finally, the reduction in sacks from 2007 to 2008, will be outlined in the final segment.

Offensive Philosophy

Before diving into play-calling, a discussion of offensive philosophy is in order as the two are closely linked, the latter often dictating the modus operandi of the former.

Offensive philosophies vary, but all are valid to certain degrees and the basis—not validity—of an offensive philosophy is the primary focus of this discourse. Some offensive minds are run-first, others focus on the passing game. Some are consistent with the in vogue, spread offense, while others prefer more traditional personnel groupings and formations.

For example, rather than using a vertical passing game to extend the field and remove defenders from the box, spread offenses use multiple wide receiver personnel groupings to stretch the field horizontally. This accomplishes the same objective, emptying the box, but doesn’t require pass protection for the long durations associated with deep routes.

Rather, it forces defenses to use smaller, quicker personnel to matchup with their offensive counterparts. Additionally, it pressures defenses to remove defenders from the box, i.e. defenses must use wider formations that do not allow for seven or eight, and sometimes even six, defenders to stop the run.

If defenses do not adjust using these two techniques, the offense has advantages in the outside passing game. The space created by spreading the field horizontally dictates difficult open-field tackling for the defense. Even if the defense does adjust, the offense still has advantages. With the defense spread thin, there are favorable one-on-one matchups in the inside running game and protecting the quarterback.

In other words, defenses can’t overload to stop the run or rush the passer without tipping their hand prior to the snap and/or opening spaces for quick passes. The number of offensive and defensive players in the box are equal, and the advantage goes to the offense.

But spread offenses do have drawbacks. Even if the offense has favorable (read equal) numbers, the players still have to win the one-on-one battles, often times in space.

Seemingly less applicable, but relevant to this discussion, are option-based offenses. Option offenses are designed to make defenders choose incorrectly by reading and reacting to the defense.

This certainly has its advantages. First, the defense is never correct. By isolating defenders an option offense forces a single defender to be responsible for two offensive players. If executed correctly, the offense will always gain yards.

Second, only a handful of plays are required to operate this offense. Since the same play has multiple looks, option offenses constitute breadth based on the diversity of a single play. This occurs after the snap, with the same post-snap motion, and without the defense knowing where the ball is going.

However, option offenses are typically difficult to execute as they require players to make near-instant decisions based on the defense. The result is a very small margin of execution error.

The primary goal of Weis’ offensive philosophy is to generate one-on-one mismatches using personnel groupings and formations. This creates an evolving offensive game plan, one that changes based on the competition.

Weis creates these mismatches by running the same plays from multiple formations, thus giving different pre-snap looks. Similar to the option offense, this simulates breadth while minimizing the number of plays needed.

Because more opportunities for one-on-one matchups exist in the passing game, this is the first focus of a Weisian offense. He favors multiple wide receiver and tight end personnel groupings that match these players with defensive counterparts. That isn’t to say he doesn’t appreciate balance, but running the ball is more of an afterthought used to keep defenses honest.

Offensive Play-Calling

Regardless of offensive philosophy, play-calling is as much an art as it is a skill. Hours of preparation go into every game plan but offensive play-callers never know, with certainty, what their defensive counterparts are going to do.

They can track tendencies and maximize the chance of success, but opposing defensive coaches do the same and nearly all staffs at the college level are equally adept at characterizing the opposition’s trends.

The wildcard is randomness.

Most offenses have “complementing” plays, or plays that utilize the same or similar post-snap motions but attack defenses in different ways. Moreover, because complementing plays utilize similar motions, a package of plays can usually be implemented in a simple fashion.

The triple option (dive, keeper, and pitch) series is one example of complementing plays. In theory, if a play-caller dialed these up at random, the offense would keep the defense off-guard, stay ahead of the chains, and consistently move the ball.

Of course, this doesn’t always happen. On any given play there could be a turnover, penalty, poor execution, defensive adjustments, etc. that lead to a less favorable result. The first three are the results of underlying symptoms. Turnovers can be minimized with low-risk play-calling, disciplined teams do not commit a host of penalties, and execution can be maximized with simplified offensive scheme.

But what about defensive adjustments? It isn’t enough to randomly call complementing plays because defenses adjust. And when defenses adjust, so must the offensive play-caller. This is where play selection becomes an art.

Play-callers counter defensive adjustments using “cheater” plays. When the defense cheats to stop the pitch by pinching the corners and using them in run support, a play action pass or slot receiver wheel route can be used to empty the box.

Once a cheater play is used to reset the defense, the play-caller can revert back to a complementing play series and begin to chip away again. But anticipating (rather than simply identifying) defensive adjustments is what differentiates good and great play-callers.

Weis’ offensive approach works a little differently.

Rather than focusing on a complementing play series, Weis identifies the best couple of personnel groupings for a given opponent. He then drafts up a set of plays, run from different formations, for each down and distance pairing (first and ten, second and long, third and short, etc.).

Thus, his offense seeks to stay ahead of the chains using similar plays run from different pre-snap looks. While his offense does have some complementing play packages, it doesn’t primarily act to deceive the defense after the snap. Instead, it seeks to use complementing formations-rather than plays-with different personnel groupings to achieve favorable one-on-one matchups.

This is good and bad news. Running the same play from multiple formations can make it difficult to identify play tendencies based on pre-snap reads. But because Weis’ offense is based on one-on-one matchups, complementing plays are not used to deceive defenses and down and distance tendencies are still applicable.

To counter this, Weis takes calculated risks. In order to prevent opposing defenses from honing in on down and distance tendencies he introduces a different sort of randomness, the big play. Weis frequently takes chances down field or with some trickery in order to keep defenses honest. This usually comes in the form of passing in an obvious run situation and from an obvious running formation.

This aligns nicely with Weis’ greatest attribute as a play-caller, his ability to anticipate defensive adjustments and capitalize on them by dialing up cheater plays at precisely the right moment.

But How Does This Apply To The Irish?

The obvious downside to Weis’ offensive philosophy is the lack of a consistent rushing threat, but more subtle artifacts also exist. Because Weis desires to generate one-on-one mismatches with personnel rather than attack defenses with complementing plays, his offense is somewhat predictable.

Passing formations are typically indicative of passes and running formations are generally indicative of runs. The type of pass and run is less obvious, but one-dimensional offenses are more easily defended, even on a down-by-down basis.

The weekly approach to game planning can also act to shift the team’s offensive identity. This creates a cerebral approach to the game, something that often leads to a lack of physical play.

Additionally, despite the prowess of primary Weis’ play-calling asset, there are still downsides to his play-calling approach.

Using the big play to keep defenses off-guard does not minimize turnovers with low-risk play-calling. Furthermore, since Weis’ offense runs the same play from multiple formations and personnel groupings, each skill position player must know the others’ assignments. This complexity can lead to errors in execution.

But this doesn’t mean Weis’ offensive philosophy and approach to play-calling are invalid. The crux of the issue regarding the success of a Weisian offense is protecting the quarterback.

Since Weis’ philosophy is a pass-first approach that likes to use multiple wide receivers and tight ends, the offense must be able to successfully protect the quarterback with five and/or six players. When given time this season quarterback Jimmy Clausen was extremely accurate, i.e. if the offense can protect Clausen with consistency, the running game will become more effective and the offense can operate with balance.

This can be a relatively difficult proposition. Athletic, aggressive, blitzing defenses make protecting the passer with minimal bodies a formidable task. Additionally, counting on hot routes and other pre-snap adjustments from the quarterback relies on a high level of execution from a position that experiences fairly high turnover in the college game.

The bottom line is that the Weisian offense is high-risk, high-reward, and doesn’t carry with it a high probability of success at the college level. Player turnover coupled with a complicated scheme makes consistent execution unlikely. There are many other equally-and perhaps more-valid offensive approaches that require less precision to execute and carry less risk.

Furthermore

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