Over the last couple years I have definitely focused more on the passing game than the running game when writing these articles, and with A&M’s style of offense, who could blame me? But big changes are afoot in Aggieland as A&M is getting it done with their feet rather than their arm...s.
Two big things to show you this week. First let’s go back to the 89 yard touchdown run by Trayveon Williams against Auburn. Here is the formation.
Auburn has six defenders in the box, while A&M has six blockers. What A&M does is leave the circled defender unblocked. He is the read on the play. The H-back, Ricky Seals-Jones, will also go to the same side as the unblocked defender.
Get used to this, you’re going to see it a lot in this article. What I love about this is that if the defensive end stays wide and the running back gets the ball, the Aggies still have five blockers for five defenders. However, with Seals-Jones pulling around in front of Trevor Knight, he now becomes a lead blocker for Knight if the defensive end crashes inside and Knight keeps the ball.
On this play, a couple important things happen. One is that the strong safety sprints down into the box, leaving just one deep safety. So as you see here, Knight is reading the unblocked defensive end, leaving five blockers for five defenders. The two linebackers haven’t been engaged yet.
But here’s where A&M’s offensive line does a masterful job. They execute their combo blocks and move to the second level very well. Everyone is blocked, hat on hat as they say. And with the strong safety coming down, he has run himself right out of the play.
And this becomes a touchdown rather than a first down because Trayveon Williams makes one person miss. Perfectly blocked, and all is well.
So now that we see the play run from that formation, let’s look at how it went down against Arkansas. The first example was on the first drive. Arkansas played with seven in the box rather than six, but it was essentially the same as having that safety from the play above come down into the box. The Aggies will leave the circled defender unblocked and then have six blockers for six defenders.
Just like the example above, at the snap there are two combo blocks (the LG and C and the RG and RT) that establish the line, followed by the two linemen releasing upfield to block those unoccupied linebackers.
Later in the first quarter, same concept, same alignment with the ball on the hash and the H-back into the boundary, and the same seven man box, but this time Arkansas is shifted further into the boundary.
The play doesn’t not work this time because left tackle Avery Gennesy gets beaten to the inside by the defensive end and left guard Colton Prater whiffs on blocking the linebacker when he moves to the second level.
Next time the play occurs is on the first play of the second quarter. Same formation (sometimes there are two receivers to the field and sometimes to the boundary but that’s not really relevant) and again Arkansas has a six man box (instead of seven in the two examples above) but they walk a safety down into the box just like Auburn did in the first example.
The unblocked defender is circled.
Here’s the key on this. This play actually should not have worked because Gennesy whiffed on his block. Focus on the left tackle for A&M and watch as he completely missed the linebacker. The defensive end crashed inside to take away the hand off, so Knight kept the ball. The safety in the box can be accounted for by Seals-Jones leading the way, but with Gennesy whiffing, this play should be dead.
Two things happen though. One, the linebacker hesitates and doesn’t make a play that he should make. And two, credit Gennesy for not giving up on his assignment. Even though he missed it initially, he still comes back and blocks the man he’s supposed to block, and it just so happens to spring Knight for a touchdown.
Next example, 1st and 10 later in the second quarter. Once again, the H-back is into the boundary side and the running back is to the field. Arkansas has a six man box with two deep safeties and now a nickel back that could potentially be a seventh man in the box.
Knight decides to keep the ball when reading the first defensive end, but that creates a second read he must make. Now that the nickel back is hanging out there, Knight has an option to keep running with the ball if that defender stays wide with our slot receiver or now he can throw the ball to Christian Kirk if that defender hangs inside.
Knight decides to throw and unfortunately, makes a bad throw. But now you can start to see how these plays all build on themselves.
Before halftime, we see the same play again. And now A&M starts to do it from slightly different looks. Instead of lining up an H back in the boundary, the Aggies go with four wide receivers and motion Christian Kirk across. It’s a different personnel group and a different formation but Kirk’s motion across serves exactly the same purpose as the H-back in the examples above. And as in all of these examples, the Aggies are leaving the defensive end to the field unblocked.
This time the unblocked defensive end not only forces Knight to keep by convincing him he had sold out on the running back, he also still essentially blows up the carry by Knight. Good play by him and perhaps some indecision by Knight. It was blocked well had he handed it off.
Next example, we’re back to a six man box with 2 deep safeties and a nickel back hanging out to the field side. I think Knight made the wrong read here personally, because it sure looks like a lot of green with a blocker in front of him if he had kept the ball.
But let’s take a quick look at something else. Go back to that play and watch the safety on the near side. Notice how his eyes are in the backfield the entire time and he pays no mind to the wide receiver running right past him? He never once acknowledges Reynolds at the bottom. It’s subtle, but it’s important, because on the very next play, his eyes stay in the backfield and his body language is identical. One step towards the line of scrimmage is enough to get him out of position to defend the deep ball. And the Aggies score a touchdown.
Getting back to the run game and particularly the zone read game, now is where some fun wrinkles start coming out. None of the examples above have been run from a trips formation. Now the Aggies go with trips to the field, which really spreads out the Arkansas defense, and instead of using combo blocks where linemen release up to the second level, the Aggies pull both the center and the tackle.
And since the defensive end stays wide, Knight hands it off (correct read), and now you again have five blockers for five defenders.
Also note how well center Erik McCoy turns the defender to create a lane for Williams. Perfect execution all around.
A little bit later, A&M does another wrinkle, pulling the guard and tackle rather than center and tackle. On this particular example, we get another RPO situation. Knight keeps the ball when the defensive end crashes, but then when the safety comes up so aggressively, Knight knows that Speedy Noil has a one on one matchup with no safety help so he throws it up for Noil, who draws a pass interference call.
Very next play, Aggies line up in the same formation (trips into the boundary) and do the same exact play (zone read with guard and tackle pulling to lead the way). Arkansas defends it differently though.
Here are the previous play and the current play, pre-snap.
In addition to the alignment differences, the Arkansas line plays it differently, crashing on the running back in the first example but staying wide in the second example. And in that second example, Knight reads it correctly and hands the ball off, and as we’ve seen in many of these, reading the sixth defender allows your other five blockers to block their five box defenders, and A&M executes it perfectly.
A&M went back to the well one more time, and again it’s the same formation that all the first examples were run from.
A&M killed Arkansas (and Auburn) with that play. Lest you worry that the Aggies are too predictable (so when they line up like that, it’s always that play?!?), A&M also does plenty of of other stuff from the same formation. Noel Mazzone always talks about “protecting” your pet plays by also having other things to do from the same formations and looks. But I would certainly expect future teams to start trying different approaches to stop this. I really like the pulling linemen wrinkle that A&M mixes in.
Now, for some passing game. Remember how Trevor Knight completed something like four or five slants against Auburn and there was talk of how comfortable he was with that? Arkansas clearly noticed and game planned for it on the first play of the game.
A&M obviously wanted to get Knight into a rhythm early with some slants, passes that proved to be in his wheelhouse the week before. So the first play is a slant to the single receiver on the boundary. But watch what their defensive end does.
Arkansas did a great job of planning there and got exactly what they wanted. And Trevor Knight didn’t recognize it and almost threw an interception. Luckily, A&M got away with it.
On the very next play, the Aggies were still determined to get a slant pattern for Knight so they run slants to the trips side, and he gets it done.
But after that, A&M couldn’t find anything to work in the passing game for most of the first half. In the third quarter, A&M came out and again decided to try to give Knight a throw he is comfortable with.
This time, they put the trips into the boundary, leaving the single receiver with a ton of space to work.
No doubt Knight checked to make sure the defensive end wasn’t sagging into the throwing lane this time. Nice completion.
In the fourth quarter, we go back to it again, again putting the trips into the boundary to give the receiver (Speedy Noil this time) a whole lot of space to work with. The play was there to be made but the throw was behind Noil.
So here’s the big crescendo to this. The play above was 2nd and 2. The next play, A&M gains a couple to get a first down, and then on 1st down, they go right back to this formation again and run the RPO I showed earlier.
Then on the very next play, they stick with the same formation, and it’s the 33 yard touchdown by Trayveon Williams that I broke down earlier.
So how do they tie in? Three plays in a row with the same formation on offense. The first two plays end up being passes to the single receiver. On the third play, the safety starts to finally respect that threat and now he is lined up a little wider than he was on the first play.
It’s not much, just a few yards. Just wide enough to be out of position when a running back runs through.
It’s chess, not checkers.
Other notes and neat-o’s
Sometimes A&M runs the zone read from a normal 2x2 spread formation. Six defenders in the box here, so if you leave one defender unblocked and read him, you have five blockers for five defenders.
Erik McCoy (#64) is very good.
And sometimes the Aggies run simply because there are only five defenders in the box and five blockers can block five. No one needs to be unblocked. Just block the four linemen and then get one blocker up to the second level to the linebacker.
Same idea here. (Technically there are six in the box but one follows Kirk out to the flats and then we just block their five.)
Speedy is working hard and is open sometimes. Look at him beat his man up top here.