What’s in a Field, and Why Does Our Offense Bog Down?
An American rules football field, depending on the level of play, is 120 yards long (100 for the field of play and 10 for each end zone) by 53 1/3 yards wide. The outer dimensions don’t change for any level of play from Pop Warner all the way to the pros. The principle differences are where the hash marks are placed. In college the hash marks are wider than in the pro game. The hashes are 40 feet apart in College. Each 20 feet from the imaginary centerline of the field.
The rules are that if the ball is downed in on the right side of the field out of bounds or outside the hash marks, as a team advances, the ball will be placed on the line described by the right hash mark. The same goes for the left hash. When a ball carrier is downed between the hash marks the Referee will spot the ball as close to the point at which it was downed.
A Little Football History: Hash marks are a leftover of the old grid (grid iron) in the sport as it evolved from 19th century rugby. The vertical lines eventually disappeared and the hash marks became standard. High school hashes are marked exactly at 1/3rd measurements of the field width, and the pros, as noted are closer – a change that also coincided with pushing the goal posts back from the goal line to the end line. But we aren’t doing pro stuff, we are doing college. So, what’s the difference? Well, in the pros there is very little difference between the Boundary side of the formation, and the Field side. In college and high school that difference is significant and can bear greatly on the play; including making field goals more difficult.
Well, that’s nice, but what does it have to do with Virginia Tech’s play calling, and game design? We are going to answer with a bit of old high school math, and some refutation of esoteric football theory.
The Math Part
If you look at the field of play from the perspective of the offensive formation, even with an unbalanced line, vey little of the formation will exist over the centerline of the field. When you line up all of the tackles and wide outs (either Ends or Flankers) a team might just get a formation to push that far to the wide side of the formation. Remember, when you’re on the Left Hash the Boundary side is the Left side of the formation. The right side of the formation is the Field side.
Okay, time for a note of warning. Some folks mix up strong side and weak side of the formation with the Boundary and Field sides of the formation. The terms strong and weak side have to do with the balance of the Ends and Tackles on the line of scrimmage related to the center. The strong side is TE, T, G, C and the weak side is G, T. Coaches play with the formation balances and the new unbalanced formation will look like T, C, G, T, T, TE. All of this fiddling with the balance of the line has to do with either misdirection or flat out power playing. We’ll talk about that sort of function later, but right now we are talking slightly higher altitude concepts of where on the field those formations are, and how to better use the field to your advantage.
Back to the high school geometry lesson. Let us say that you start off on the left hash mark of the 25-yard line. If you tend to run plays in the boundary and do it more often than not, you are limiting yourself playing in a rectangle with a fuzzy right side at about the centerline and hard a hard-left boundary to the left (the ultimate tackler – the sideline). The starting dimensions of this rectangle are 255ft by 80 ft (including the endzone – Aqua Area of Diagram). That is 20,400 sq. ft. for the defense to cover if you run mostly boundary side plays.
Of course, if you advance the ball regularly, that operational area for the defense to cover will shrink considerably. If you are on the opponent’s 20-yard line, and on the Right hash mark, the area that the defense must defend is 7,200 square feet. So, if you run 75% of your plays to the boundary side of the field, the opponent’s defense is well aware of the bias and can therefore play fast and loose with the other 7,200 square feet added to the defensive challenge on the field side of the formation. Notice that the boundary flipped to the right, and the strong side of the line is on the boundary.
The Big Offensive Philosophy Question
Why would you choose to not make the defense defend the entirety of the remainder of the square footage of the field? So, what’s the explanation of calling plays to the boundary side of the field; even sweeps and passes? Joshua Schneider (BlueLoneWolf) is a former writer who also happens to be a crackerjack football analyst. He answers that question this way:
Basically, Justin Fuente’s philosophy sacrifices operational versatility for a supposedly known thing. He runs to the boundary because, in theory, there are fewer people to isolate and block on that side, especially in wide-receiver heavy sets that throws people to the field. I think that takes a very pessimist view on blocking capabilities and over-simplifies how defenses flow and are picked up. In running to the short/boundary side of the field, you’re also decreasing not only your own operational versatility, but the amount of space that the linebacking corps has to make up in order to get to the ball. Theoretically that’s offset by the shorter distance that your running back has to go to the hole, but I’d rather take the greater amount of options provided by the spacing on the wide/field side rather than the smaller amount of options on the short/boundary side.
As we can see from what Josh relays, it’s really limiting philosophy that has a number of problems in execution and definitely a lack of operational flexibility. The Boundary Side Bias relies on two things to operate effectively:
- The Offense Blocks the play effectively, at the right time, and sustains the blocks long enough on a running play. On a passing play, the pattern development and near vertical stacked patterns aren’t completely covered from the perspective of the point of release.
- The Defense fails to react effectively to stop the play; either with the rush, blitz, or coverage to negatively effect the pass play. On a run play, the issue is that the defense doesn’t defeat the blocks and collapse the play via traffic pressure.
In both cases, reducing the area on the field required to cover the offensive action limits the choices of the offense in planning. It also forces the execution into a smaller space with more defenders to defeat blocks and shut down the play closer to, or behind the line of scrimmage.
Doing the Unpredictable at the Right Time
There is a certain utility to being predictable in ‘routine’ portions of the game. Most teams come out onto the field with some sort of predefined list of plays or play concepts that they want to execute without any real adjustments, to start. The number of plays often vary from coach to coach, and certainly the mix of plays will vary depending on the pregame planning. What often does not change is the play sequence. The intent is to provide a ‘defensive baseline’ for the game. There are lots of notes taken by assistants for these sequences. They will note the reaction to motion, perceived audible signals in the line and between the players of the backfield. The assistants will start cataloging the signals with motions on the field (in baseball it’s the legal way you steal signs). The idea is to make note of how the opposing defense reacts to formation and setup. Of course, the important information is then recorded as to the tendencies in how the defense reacts to the unfolding play.
What does that have to do with boundary side bias? Well, the answer is behavioral conditioning. If you more often than not run to the boundary the offense is training the defense to set up to defend the boundary. That will afford a critical opportunity for some future play to execute a play-action fake (either pass or run) or misdirection (like a naked bootleg) play.
The Offense is Firing on All Cylinders What’s the Complaint about Bog Downs?
The success of the Hokie offense on the ground is not to be dismissed. However, it is also not to be taken as a massive endorsement of the boundary side bias. Sometimes, regardless of the limited choices one has presented, the result can be good if the execution is perfect. Remember, no one designs and chooses a play because the play doesn’t work if executed properly. The issue is that with peer teams a dominant offensive line and wily backfield can work magic with simple tools.
The problem is that we are running into several converging points that we already hit once with the UNC game. The Hokie Defense has lots of heart, but it as been problematic this season. We’ve already reviewed some of the mid-season observations so we won’t go into that again. The big issue is that the Hokie Offense is now in the position of needing to score on nearly every possession; preferably a touchdown. The best defense is an offense that stays on the field, completes drive, and scores points. That allows a struggling defense to stay on the bench as long as possible. The benefit is two-fold; denying the other guy the offensive chance to score points and denying him enough clock to catch you.
To pull that sort of offense off, the playbook cannot be so limited and the play selection cannot be inconsistent. In short, the offense must move the sticks methodically. To do that the offense must take chops out of the yardage needed, not big chunks. Big chunks are great but they leave too many seconds on the clock. In a shootout, seconds are points for the other side.
The tendency to run clock burning type plays into the boundary side of the field means running or passing into dense coverage. It also means limiting the physical exertion for the defense. The spread offense has its advantages and its greatest is forcing the defense to cover more of the field.
Doing Difficult Things for the Defense to Guess Correctly
The point is that part of keeping the ball methodically moving down the field and burning clock up means that the offense cannot be too predictable. The old saw was that if you could run every play, successfully, out of one formation you would make it impossible for the defense to guess what you were up to. That was the old game when few players moved around – pre-Tom Landry and Don Coryell days- very little. Once offenses starting moving players around outside of the tackles, putting men in motion, and executing passing plays out in space that were effectively option pitches, the defenses loosened up to adjust to the movement. To set up a formation that’s heavy to the right, on the right hash mark, piles the defense up on the right boundary. If you never or rarely execute to the field side of the formation the defense is going get better odds on guessing your intentions; and have a smaller field to execute the stop. There is another disadvantage of the boundary that we don’t talk about much. The #1 tackler on any football field is the sideline. The added disadvantage is that the clock stops when the ball goes out of bounds. So, the desire to burn clock is also impacted negatively.
The Upshot of This
Offense always relies on three very critical factors in any play. Setup, pacing, and execution. Practically, the Boundary Bias has become a sort of bull-headed belief more than an operational advantage. The advantage lies in challenging the Defense to react to your offense, not play the defense’s game. If I am a defense facing a boundary biased team, I have had two major factors removed from my guessing game. I am very sure of where the ball is going, and I don’t have to cover a huge amount of territory to get a stop. The boundary side bias offense relies too heavily in perfect execution of plays in order to consistently move the ball without relying on explosive plays.
It would be much better for the current offense to take advantage of the field side, instead of being afraid of it. Getting a really fast outside runner like Raheem Blackshear out in space with only a few defenders between him and the line to gain would be an ideal situation. Very few open field tacklers re capable of wrapping up a runner like Blackshear, or a Keyshawn King. Inside runners like Khalil Herbert or Jalen Holston would also benefit by introducing more field side heavy alignments to cut back against the grain as they get to the second level.
Rolling passing plays to the wide side of the formation has a large benefit, especially as the field condenses and coverages become tighter. Fitting passes into small windows, or trying to fade jump balls into short corners mean that the defense has double coverage opportunities. Of course, passing across the field is a major no-no in football, it often results in a major mistake happening. Moving the pocket toward the field side as the play executes allows the quarterback to cover both left and right patterns equally. If he is passing the ball from the right hash into the right side of the end zone, no one has to cover the left. Only a fluke broken play reversing direction will result in a desirable outcome for that situation.
Try Something Else to Break the Cycle
Breaking the cycle is going to be key to getting this offense consistently to the next level. The Hokie coaching staff could build a play book with a series of “just in case” scenarios (play concepts) for good things happening. Most teams have an “oh crap a fail!” section, but you rarely see the “gee wow, that worked!” series of plays designed to take advantage of a defense that might be winded, and certainly upset that something broke. Maybe if the Hokies ran a wide side RPO that allowed Hendon Hooker some space to either tuck it and run, or get a next big play off, down field? Maybe run a screen to Raheem Blackshear to the wide side on 1st and 10 after a big gainer. It would be interesting to get the pocket moving a bit to give Hooker some outside pattern options? How about a 2nd down and 6 situation and a pass under the zone on a 3 second drop to James Mitchell or Nick Gallo on a fast release dig and go two yards beyond the down marker? How about an entire series where the coaching staff hands a concept plan to Hendon Hooker and lets him run the Offense without stopping for sideline checks. Just trust him to call for the snap and go. How about not throwing passes short of the line of scrimmage on the field side where the entire defense is in the way of gaining anything?
All of that opens up when the traffic loosens and the defense is forced to cover a much larger area. Most of all, it would be much better for Fuente and Cornelsen to change their tactical approach to offense from reactive (basically defensive offense) to completely offensive play calling where they scout the defense, find the weak spots, and run plays at the weak spots, no matter where they are on the field.
Gathering Up and Changing a Bit
Someone called the Virginia Tech Playbook, a “Play Sheet”. Complexity in the offensive scheming is almost always the reality of repetition in practice, and practice for 2020 has been a rare commodity. There are enough games in the books and experience on the field that it might be wise for the Hokies to put more than a page or two in the game binder. The opponents are getting tougher and a two-tone offense is going to eventually get stopped. The offensive coaching staff might want to take a look at where the failure came from in the series after the half. Tech had the opportunity to put some serious distance between it and BC, it tanked three unwise plays and punted. That’s not going to make it in the near future when our defense needs to stay on the sideline.