Part One: Deboning the Flexbone
Ah, the Techmo Bowl. Since Paul Johnson brought his three headed dragon of an offense to Atlanta there is no conference game that fills me with more anticipation, excitement, and nausea.
Forget Miami and screw the Hoos. It's readily apparent that Georgia Tech is our true nemesis. The winner of VT/GT went on to win the division and the ACC every year PJ has been with the program, though of course the Ramblin' Wreck did get their '09 conference title stripped by the NCAA for some cardinal sin or another. But let's get down to brass tacks: this game is our season. Georgia Tech has one remaining conference game, at Duke. Losing this game would give us as many conference loses as GT currently possesses (2), and the chances of GT losing to the Blue Devils is slim. That means even if we won out against UNC and UVA, Georgia Tech would still own the tiebreaker against us and would be off to Charlotte, most likely to pants Clemson again and punch their ticket to Miami.
So a big game deserves a big preview. A two part preview, even (since I have the bye week to work on it). And it deserves the type of preview I almost never do: a preview of our defense.
My knee jerk reaction is never question the defense. We have a bad game? Don't question the defense. We have an off year? Don't question the defense. The defense is fine. And even if the defense isn't fine, the defense will be fine. Because Bud Foster is a very bad man. He's the best defensive coordinator in football. I trust his judgement implicitly. I named my son after him, for Christ sake.
But Georgia Tech is a different kind of animal, and to understand how critical this game is you have to understand why Georgia Tech has given Bud Foster fits the last three years. So that's what I'm going to spend this first part of the preview talking about. It's going to be a long wall of text and it's going to be boring if you don't like getting into specifics, so I'll put a jump here. Follow it if you like. I'll get around to posting my preview of our offense versus their defense in a couple of days, which will read much more like the normal previews I do. In the meantime, enjoy some Georgia Tech cheerleaders.
You can't swarm to the ball against the flexbone. You can't blitz it. You can't gang tackle. You basically can't do any of the things that make Bud Foster's defenses nightmare-worthy.
The key to stopping the flexbone is disciplined man defense with gap control. Each defender has a specific assignment, and the defender must stay on his assignment regardless of where the ball is, because in a properly executed flexbone offense the ball can wind up pretty much anywhere at pretty much any time.
This is the base flexbone formation:
It's basically the old wishbone formation with the two running backs that would line up flanking the fullback on either side moved up (or "flexed") to flank the tackles, where a slot receiver would normally line up. There will be basically no variation in Georgia Tech's running plays. On each play Tevin Washington will show a handoff to the fullback. Washington will either let the fullback take the ball on a dive up the middle or he will pull the ball back and run in the direction of one of the two slot backs. That slot back will then become Washington's pitch man, and Washington can either keep the ball himself or pitch the ball to the pitch man depending on how he reads our defense. So if we swarm to the ball while Washington has it he just pitches it and watches the slot back take off downfield. It's the exact same principle as setting up a screen pass, except you have the opportunity to do it on every single play.
In a pure triple option Tevin Washington would never know before the snap what direction the ball was going to wind up going on that play. Who winds up keeping the ball is determined by how the offensive line blocks and what the quarterback reads in the defense. In this regard the triple option requires more trust in a quarterback than any other type of offense. But GT by all accounts does not run a pure triple option. There will be plays where Tevin Washington knows who will get the ball before he snaps it. But if they're executed correctly Bud Foster will never know which plays are predetermined runs and which are true triple option plays. If you gamble that the next play is a pre-designed fullback dive and you sell out to stop it, and the play winds up being a true triple option, you are fucked.
Notice in the picture above that there are actually two slot backs. That means that if Washington keeps the ball he can then run either left or right. So not only do you have to worry about defending against the fullback dive, the quarterback keeper, and the pitch man, you have to worry about which direction the quarterback and the pitch man are running. The direction of the run, though, is almost always predetermined, because the offensive line has to be prepared to block in the direction of the run. Georgia Tech usually runs its option pitches toward the short or boundary side of the field, which is typical of most option offenses. That means when they run the option pitch to the wide side it's basically a misdirection play, and they've just misdirected themselves into a lot of real estate for our defense to have to cover on short notice. That's why the really big runs from scrimmage have tended to be in that direction for Georgia Tech this season.
How the fuck do you defend this?
You pick a man and stay on him.
Gross oversimplification, yes. But it's basically the truth. Here's a very brief, dumbed down version of who will be doing what on our defense. I'm going to assume with Tweedy still not 100% Foster is going to chose to play nickel most of the game against GT like he did last year. Against the flexbone that basically makes the nickel back's responsibility identical to the whip, so we're really just starting Cris Hill at field corner and Kyle Fuller at whip.
The defensive ends stop the fullback dive. That's D-Hop and Maddy's assignment all game long. If they can't blow up the fullback dive every play we're in for a long night. Collins and Gayle want to scrape off the ends and blow up the QB keeper as soon as Washington pulls the ball back from the fullback. This will not happen often.
Hosley and Hill play man coverage against their receiver all game. What becomes difficult for them is that on some triple option plays the receivers will block them and on other triple option plays the receivers will run routes. Sometimes by covering those routes the cornerbacks will be eliminated from defending against the run. Likewise the corners have to be careful not to try to shed the first block the receivers lay on them, because the receivers could be jamming them on a stop and go route. So the corners can really only help defend the run once Washington is past the line of scrimmage, and by that point the receivers have probably taken them far enough downfield that they would be making a touchdown saving tackle if they tackle at all.
Barquell Rivers and Tariq Edwards are basically spies. They have to read the offense before they can engage. They have no set-in-stone assignment, which means they will get mostly assists this game because the play will have almost fully developed by the time they commit to a ball carrier.
That leaves Whitley, Exum, and Fuller. My guess is they'll put Whitley on the field slot back to guard against the "misdirection" option play. And now we're down to two defenders for their two primary offensive weapons. Traditionally the whip - in this case, Kyle Fuller - has taken the pitch man, which would leave Exum on the quarterback.
Remember when GT beat us in 2009 and we heard all about how Bud based his entire offense around Kam Chancellor? At the time I thought it was a really risky proposition, but that's because I didn't understand the flexbone. (Who does, anymore? It's not 1946.) The flexbone forces you to base your defense around one defender: the guy who has the quarterback. It's the cornerstone of defending the option. Contain the quarterback, you debone the flexbone.
If Bud is going to shut down Georgia Tech, Maddy and D-Hop must blow up the fullback dive consistently. The dive in the triple option is the offensive equivalent of Chinese water torture. It will ping you to death four yards at a time. If Washington keeps, Fuller's first job is to eliminate the pitch man. If you force Washington to bail on the pitch and cut upfield himself then Barquell Rivers and Tariq Edwards are much more likely to be able to arrive at the ball and assist Exum, especially Rivers who has lost a step laterally due to his quad injury. This will also keep the mike and backer more rested, meaning we're much less likely to have a boot print on our neck in the fourth quarter. If Washington does pitch it, Fuller has to bring down the pitch man alone and in space, because if the pitch man reaches the second level of the defense he's probably going to have way more than just first down yardage. We are in good hands here. I don't think we've ever had an open field tackler like Kyle Fuller before. If there is a defender on this team who can neutralize the boundary slot back consistently it's Fuller.
Now there is one thing that Bud Foster loves to do that he can still do effectively against Georgia Tech: disguise coverages. We will come out with the assignments I've described above. Or if not exactly as I've described above - meaning Bud has found man matchups he prefers to what I've predicted - then they will at least be the same assignments we show on defense for a while. But things will get really interesting for Tevin Washington when on one play Jayron Hosley covers the pitch man, Kyle Fuller has QB contain, and Exum becomes boundary corner. These sudden shifts in defensive assignment can confuse the hell out of the quarterback when he tries to read the defense, because if he sees Fuller breaking on him he might assume that leaves the pitch man uncovered. Except when he pitches, Jayron Hosley is all over the slot back like Bibi Jones on a married pro athlete. Blown up play. Turnover. Happiness.
This is how Bud Foster will win against Georgia Tech.
Keep in mind, in this game you are going to see our defense do some things you are very unaccustomed to seeing. You might find yourself screaming at your television, urging Kyle Fuller to lay out Tevin Washington. Remember that if he did that, we would lose. If GT manages a big run despite the appearance that defenders were in position to make the tackle, remember that there is a good reason why those defenders didn't make that tackle. Successfully eliminating one defender on one play can make our entire defense look like idiots, especially if the man their defense eliminates is Kyle Fuller or Antone Exum.
Take a deep breath and a healthy swig of bourbon. Keep track of how many fullback dives you see. Get a little nervous when you see them run to the wide side. Understand what our defense is trying to do, and let them do it.
In Bud we trust.