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Improving the Irish Rushing Attack: Personnel, Predictability, and Synergy

By · March 18th, 2009 · 8 Comments
Improving the Irish Rushing Attack: Personnel, Predictability, and Synergy

At times during the 2008 season the Irish offense looked like a passing juggernaut. Other times Notre Dame sputtered when faced with a short field, frequently failing to produce an effective rushing attack. This led to poor red zone and third down efficiency that cost the Irish more than one game.

In fact, many of the problems with the 2008 (and 2007) offense were due to poor production on the ground.

Fans have opined about the causes of the anemic Irish running game. Some blame zone blocking, others a passive offensive line. The latter is undoubtedly true, but is not the focus of this discussion as it is not easily rectified with schematic adjustments.

This discourse focuses on the schematic problems with the running game and the corrections needed to improve the Irish rushing attack.

How Do The Irish Use Zone Blocking And The Running Game?

Before identifying the problems, a discussion of how zone blocking is used and the functionality of the run in head coach Charlie Weis’ offense is needed.

Weis’ offense almost exclusively uses zone blocking in half (three wide receivers, one tight end, one running back) and other “spread” (three or more wide receivers) personnel groupings. In this personnel the most commonly called run plays are the inside and outside zone, as well as the zone-stretch. The most commonly used running backs are Armando Allen and, to a lesser degree, Robert Hughes.

In regular (two wide receivers, one tight end, one fullback, and one running back) and other “heavy” (multiple fullback and/or tight end) personnel groupings the Irish also utilize zone blocking. The most popular plays are the inside zone, wham, and isolation. Man schemes are not the primary blocking strategy, but they are used more often with heavy personnel where running back James Aldridge is the featured ball carrier.

Weis (and former offensive coordinator Mike Haywood) favored half personnel more than any other in 2008. When quarterback Jimmy Clausen was under center in half the Irish run/pass split was about even. However, when Clausen was in the shotgun, whether in half or some other spread personnel grouping, the Irish threw the ball on the overwhelming majority of plays.

When in regular and other heavy personnel packages the Irish were run-heavy. Despite this tendency, play-action wasn’t effectively utilized in these formations.

Weis’ offense also employs screens, flares, look passes, and quick hitch routes. While these aren’t technically considered running plays, they are effectively “long” hand-offs designed to attack shallow zones or defenses dropping multiple defenders into coverage.

In Weis’ offense the running game is primarily used to keep the opposition honest, i.e. to prevent defenses from selling out against the pass. To some extent, balance is created by using the pass to open up the run. Darius Walker enjoyed quite a bit of success running the ball during Weis’ first two years (2005 and 2006) because quarterback Brady Quinn was such a threat in the passing game. This has not been true over the past two years of Weis’ tenure.

What’s Wrong With That?

There are three primary problems with the Irish running game: personnel, predictability, and synergy.

As outlined here, zone blocking requires smaller, more athletic offensive linemen and patient, quick running backs that read play development and are able to accelerate through running lanes.

The Irish have neither in large supply.

Notre Dame’s offensive line isn’t particularly agile or athletic, whether it be from a lack of natural ability or Weis’ 2008 off-season edict aimed at increasing the size and strength of this unit. In many ways the front five are more suited for man blocking.

Additionally, only Allen possesses the ideal physical skill set needed to excel in zone schemes. Running backs Aldridge, Hughes, and Jonas Gray are far better downhill runners who benefit from a defined running lane that allows them to attack the line of scrimmage at full speed.

The result is sluggish play development and a higher burden of execution. Asking slower, less athletic linemen to execute zone running plays exacerbates their physical shortcomings. Tasking bigger, more powerful backs with patient, lateral running doesn’t maximize their talents.

Second, Notre Dame is extremely predictable when and how they run the football.

Personnel grouping and formation indicate when, while the running back telegraphs how. Simply speaking, heavy personnel means run, spread formations mean pass. Allen is used to stretch the defense laterally while Aldridge is used as a power back. Hughes is somewhere in between but seems to have far more success when running North and South due to quickness and speed limitations.

Moreover, backs are set deeper on running plays (presumably to allow time to read play development), but shallow on pass plays. This was apparent nearly every time Clausen called an audible in 2008.

This predictability is amplified by a lack of misdirection and play-action, both of which are needed to exploit aggressive defenses that over-pursue. Reverses are sometimes used, but these are slow developing plays that allow the defense to react. Counters and other misdirection running plays are virtually absent from the Irish offense.

This is also true in the passing game where bootleg, roll-out, and play-action (see below) passes are rarely called. The Irish ran the zone-stretch a host of times in 2008, but executed a play-action pass off this run motion fewer than five times.

Finally, the running game is disjointed from the Irish air attack.

Part of the running game predictability is due to play-calling, but the approach is also deliberate. The primary weapon in Weis’ offense is the passing game. The run offense doesn’t supplement this. It merely attempts to prevent opposing defenses from honing in on the pass.

The result is a running approach that is obvious, doesn’t utilize play-action or complementing plays, and lacks deception.

So What’s The Solution?

Three problems require three solutions.

First, Weis, offensive line coach Frank Verducci, and running backs coach Tony Alford need to take advantage of the physical and athletic potential on the current roster.

Zone plays that require larger, slower offensive linemen to beat smaller, faster defenders to the point of attack is an exercise in futility. In 2008 the zone-stretch resulted in a paltry per play average but was continually called.

This doesn’t mean abandoning zone schemes, but it does mean down-selecting to a subset of zone runs that require less agility from the front five as well as mixing in some man blocking to maximize the strengths of Aldridge and Hughes.

Weis must also adjust play-calling.

The Irish don’t need an even run/pass mix out of every formation and personnel grouping, but the current tendencies are unforgivable. In shotgun and spread formations pass plays were called at an alarmingly high rate. Similarly, heavy formations all but forecasted a run.

Run/pass trends, coupled with running back-driven tendencies, create a level of predictability that hampers the offensive players and makes execution unnecessarily difficult. The offense must exhibit more balance in play-calling regardless of personnel grouping, formation, or back.

This doesn’t mean Weis must jettison the passing game. The Irish can be successful with a pass-first offense. Throwing the ball to open up the run is a valid offensive strategy, but only if there is an equal—or nearly equal—run/pass threat before the snap.

Misdirection and play-action must also be incorporated in the running game to keep opposing defenses and defensive coordinators guessing. Bootleg passes in short yardage and red zone situations would be a good start.

Finally, Weis and his offensive staff must develop more cohesion between their running and passing strategies.

If the pass is used to open up the run, the two must be linked. Running and passing out of the same formations and personnel groupings is a start, but integrating packages of plays with complementary run/pass motions is also needed. Without this, defending the run becomes a trivial matter.

In other words, the intent of both the running and passing strategies must be well-defined and synergistic. The benefit of stretching the field with a dynamic vertical passing attack is lost when coupled with slowly developing run plays. Safeties can still play deep against the pass and have time to react and fill running lanes.

In Summary…

The answers are relatively apparent, implementing the solutions is the real challenge.

Change is necessary to achieve the level of rushing production required to consistently compete at a championship level. While Weis’ offense has orchestrated a productive passing game during his tenure, more balance is needed to be successful in the future. The running game needs to be adjusted to take advantage of the offensive line and running back skill sets, play-calling needs to be less predictable, and the ground attack needs to become integrated with Weis’ passing offense.

If these problems are rectified, the 2009 version of Weis’ offense will look much more like Quinn and company in 2005.



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