The defensive switch concept and the importance of using your best player

The defensive switch concept isn’t new.  Option football has been around for close to 50 years, and thusly, strategies to defend option quarterbacks have been around forever.  The only thing that’s the same in the game of football now as it was fifty years ago is that the team that wins usually did a really good job of letting it’s best players do the heavy lifting.

NFL defenses have been stunting, twisting, and pressuring forever, but the switch is far more prevelant in college football because option-based rushing attacks are far more prevelant in the college ranks.  When I say ‘switch’, what I mean is any defensive concept where the defense switches up it’s responsibilites in an attempt to throw off the offenses reads in the option game.  Last year, the Redskins ran into plenty of switches when the played the Ryan brothers, Rex and Rob, three times combined last year.

The switch is a very effective counter for the stretch-boot game that Mike and Kyle Shanahan have employed.  One of the reasons that Mike Shanahan was so lethal using the zone-boot game with the Denver Broncos is that his run-pass mix forced defenses to play vanilla looks, and to read and react defensively, which meant that regardless of what opponent the Broncos saw week to week, the bread and butter of the Denver offense could be excecuted to perfection practice to practice, game to game, and even year to year, and the Broncos players wouldn’t see a lot of variation in the defensive looks.  Every player on the Broncos offense could tell you where the ball would go based on any look in any practice or any game.  In other words, they we’re good at it.

The Broncos didn’t see a lot of switches.  Nor would they have had a considerably difficult time dealing with altered assignments.  By the middle of Shanahan’s tenure, the Broncos OL and backs were so good at executing their offense, that had opponents blitzed into their run actions, it would have just created more opportunity for damage down the field.  The Redskins, however, aren’t obviously better at running these zone and bootleg plays than they were back in 2008 and 2009, when they started using them.

Teams figured out pretty early on last season based (I believe) on trial and error that the Redskins were not balanced in their play action passing game.  They showed a strong tendency to go with the play fake both before and after a called run.  Changing up defensive assignments gave a defense playing against Kyle Shanahan a pretty extreme advantage.  In fact, in the months of November and even into the start of December, the Redskins zone-boot game was entirely ineffective and pointless.

It would be easy to blame Rex Grossman’s lack of mobility for the ineffectiveness of the bootleg calls in the second half of the 2011 season, and suggest that now the zone-boot game will role flawlessly with an athlete at quarterback in Robert Griffin.  But I think this misinterprets where the problem is.  Too many times last year, the Redskins were predictible with their bootleg plays on first and second down, and Grossman would have a guy in his face when he turned out of the play fake and just one place on the field where he could phyiscally throw the ball to avoid the sack.  Of course, the defensive guys knew that as well, so they’d cover the tight end or receiver coming out of the backfield, and force a wasted down.  Then the Redskins offense, behind in the down and distance, would eventually be forced to punt or throw an ill-advised ball into coverage.

The unblocked rushers on the quarterback is a tactic made available by the defensive switch.  The defensive end doesn’t have to stay home when a box safety takes his contain responsibility.  So when the defense reads stretch run, an end can crash down hard when the switch is on.  From the defenses perspective, it’s not relevant before the snap or just after the snap whether Griffin is going to keep the ball or if the Redskins are actually going to run the stretch.  The takeaway is that for most of last season, NFL defenses playing Kyle Shanahan and the Redskins did not feel adequately threatened enough by the stretch play to strictly play gap football.  

The injuries on the offensive line certainly played a role here, but not a defining one.  The Redskins were not totally ineffective with their rushing attack in 2011.  But they were also never committed to it.  This brings us to the other topic of this article: playing your best players.  A coaching staff is tasked with the responsibility of knowing it’s own roster inside and out, and being able to critically evaluate when necessary.  When it comes to the running back position, Mike Shanahan has always passed this critque with flying colors.  Kyle Shanahan hasn’t done nearly as well.  From overplaying Steve Slaton and Ahman Green with the Texans, not knowing he had anything in Arian Foster, then badly overrating Ryan Torain in Washington, Kyle’s track record wasn’t good at the RB position heading into 2011.

Then we struggled through a shutout during Roy Helu watch while Torain was averaging (literally) under a yard per carry over a three game span.  Torain was only getting that chance because Tim Hightower tore his ACL in Week 7, although Hightower himself was largely ineffective as a runner (3.8 YPC mostly behind the healthy version of the Redskins OL again against the worst run defenses on the schedule).  Certainly, Helu wasn’t necessarily ready for a full time role at the point when Hightower was carrying the load, but he did set a club receptions record against the top defense in the NFC, so its not like the game was way too fast for him.

Beyond Griffin, Helu may very well be the best offensive player on the Redskins right now.  He might have been the best offensive player on the Redskins last year.  And it’s time to take the two topics of this article and bring them together.

If Kyle Shanahan is going to take the same mentality to the zone-boot game he used last year, based on a couple of observations 1) it doesn’t matter who is in at running back (or that the RBs on the roster are interchangable), 2) that the run action in the play itself is adequate to suck the linebackers up, and 3) that because it is a ‘staple play’ for the Redskins it can be run consistently without concern for how teams plan to defend it, then I already know that it will be an ineffective series for the Redskins this year in spite of Robert Griffin’s skill set.  How do I know this?  Because if Kyle Shanahan doesn’t change anything, opponets already have tape on how to counter attack the Redskins when they try to get the QB outside the pocket on boot action.

With the proper adjustments, however, the quickness that Griffin brings off the run action can bring back Mike Shanahans best days in Denver where teams were destroyed on the ground and through the air by a single series of plays.  The secret is committing to Helu — not Tim Hightower — in the first quarter of games.  That is how the Redskins will beat the switch.

Helu is the Redskins most effective runner.  Let’s say that instead of the silly assumptions the Redskins held about their roster and their running backs in particular last year, now the Redskins make a secret mandate that Roy Helu will take the first six carries in the first quarter every game of the season, provided he’s healthy.  And lets say that the Redskins will average 30 run calls per game (about 43% of offensive playcalls), and that at the conclusion of the Helu mandate, they will rotate evenly between their three backs with the other 24 runs.  Your breakdown of handoffs comes out to about 14 for Helu and 8 for Royster and Hightower each.  That will keep all three fresh throughout the season and into future seasons.  And it will also take away team’s best defense for the Griffin bootlegs.

Back to the example from before.  When teams use a defensive switch with Hightower in the backfield, what ends up happening a lot of the time is there’s an overload on the backside.  So the defensive end is free to crash down uinblocked on Hightower (or to hit the tight end coming out the backside, disupting the timing of the play and allowing the linebackers to follow the run action before hitting their pass assignments), who lacks the burst and vision to beat him to the edge and find the hole quickly enough to gash the defense.  Then the defense also has an edge rush from a linebacker or safety whose primary assignment against boot action is to trap and hit the quarterback.  So now the timing of the play is disrupted because the primary receiver is held in the backfield, the runner sells the frontside action hard and even if the linebackers bite, it rarely matters because the quarterback has pressure right in his face before he can confirm anything after the snap.

Once a team rips off two or three 12-14 yard runs to the safety level, however, Griffin doesn’t have to worry about the weakside overload pressure, and it opens up the entire field to attack the defense.  If you give the ball to the back who can challenge the front AND the back side of the stretch play means that no matter what the defensive assignments are, the defensive end cannot crash down and give up contain because now if the runningback can beat the end backside, a backside safety might not be a good enough tackler to prevent a 10+ yard run.  Once you have the backside end playing honestly, you limit a lot of the advantages of the defensive switch.  If defenses are reading and reacting to what they see, the zone-boot series becomes a losing proposition for the defenses.  By letting defenses counter this series by not adequately giving the best runner enough opportunities to gash a cheating defense, the Redskins lose one of their greatest offensive weapons.

Remember this when the Redskins play the Cowboys this season: it doesn’t take a genius to give Roy Helu the ball, but if you give Helu the ball against Rob Ryan’s defense, you’ll look like a genius.

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