Fee Fi Foe Film: Air Force Offense

Submitted by Ace on September 13th, 2017 at 2:12 PM


QB Arion Worthman is a dangerous runner.

This is going to be a little different than the usual FFFF posts. Air Force is coming off a bye week; they crushed an overmatched VMI squad 62-0 in the opener; they return only six starters, five on offense and one on defense.

Another program under these circumstances may not even merit a full post, but Air Force is no ordinary program. Their success is based on plugging well-coached upperclassmen into their unusual schemes—a triple-option offense and wildly aggressive defense—to the point that, with a few exceptions, the personnel involved hardly matters.

So, instead of watching Air Force walk all over VMI, I went back to last year's Boise State game to get a feel for their scheme and how it functions against quality competition. AF's two most important offensive players starred in that game, too, so this should still give a decent idea of what Michigan will have to stop on a player-specific level.

Personnel. Seth's diagram [click to embiggen]:


 

Air Force won't always line up in the flexbone. While head coach Troy Calhoun is very much a part of the Fisher DeBerry coaching tree, he's updated the offense in his 11 seasons at the helm, mostly by incorporating spread principles.

Beyond the two dangermen, don't get too caught up on personnel at the skill positions, as Air Force will rotate a ton. Sixteen different players logged carries against VMI, and six different players accounted for their ten receptions.

Yes, McCray lost his star until he cleans up his issues in space. He'll get a major test in this very game.

The base play. I highly recommend you check out EGD's diary on Air Force's offense, which was a huge help in putting this post together. The base play of their offense is the inside veer, which sets up everything else they'll do. EGD's primer:

Now, AFA is known for running its option plays out of numerous formations (and here is some VIDEO of them doing just that.  But in the standard flexbone formation that the triple option is commonly associated with, there are two A-backs who line up just outside the tackles (and may be called “slotbacks” in this formation), while the B-Back aligns two yards directly behind the heels of the quarterback.

Okay, so: the triple option.  The base play in the triple option offense is the “inside veer.”  That is the core play on which the B-Back threatens the dive (attacking inside the OT), the quarterback threatens off-tackle, and the (an) A-back threatens further outside (the linebackers).  Inside veer looks slightly different depending on whether it’s run against a three-man or four-man defensive line, and with Don Brown we really don’t know which one to expect, but for simplicity’s sake let’s just look at it against Brown’s basic 4-2-5:

The A-back (who'll be the pitchman) motions behind the B-back at the snap. The first read is of the defensive lineman to the outside of the playside guard (the circled WDE on this play); if he doesn't attack the diving B-back, the quarterback hands off to the B-back. If the quarterback doesn't give on the dive, his next read is the defender to the outside of his first read (the circled safety, in this case); if that defender goes after the QB, he pitches to the motioning A-back, who will attack the edge. If nobody takes the QB, he keeps it.

Simple enough, right? Now you just have to prepare for them to run it out of a bunch of different formations with several tricky constraint plays, all while making sure not to overcommit to the run and allow a deep bomb in the passing game.

Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? None of the above, really. This is still a flexbone triple-option system at its core, and that doesn't neatly fit into any of those categories. In this video from 2010, you can see them running the triple option out of Maryland I, shotgun two-back (with a shovel pass replacing the fullback dive), and flexbone sets:

Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? Mostly basketball on grass; there's an interesting four-minute coaching clinic video of Calhoun talking about how AF runs inside zone if you're so inclined. (The short version: they want to get upfield in a hurry, so their back has two options, frontside A-gap or backside A-gap.)

Hurry it up or grind it out? You'd expect an old-school triple option team to grind it out, right? Wrong. Air Force is even tougher to defend because they go at light speed; they ranked seventh in the country in adjusted pace in 2016. Just because they keep the clock moving doesn't mean they're moving slow.

[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]

Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Air Force won their final six games last season after sophomore Arion Worthman stepped in for injured senior Nate Romine and never relinquished the job. Romine had averaged a hair under three yards per carry and three touchdowns in 95 attempts; Worthman rushed for 5.2 YPC and six TDs on 130 carries. While much of that came off designed runs, he's also quite capable of breaking the pocket and scrambling for a first down if his first or second read doesn't come open on a passing play.

Worthman is decisive, fast, and possesses laundry-dropping wiggle. This was a beautifully designed counter that he turned into a big play by making a man completely miss in space:

Worthman gets a nine here. He completely changed the efficacy of AF's offense last year when he entered the lineup.

Dangerman: Yes, Arion Worthman is the primary dangerman. In addition to being an electric runner, he's an efficient passer given Air Force's play-action, bomb-or-bust approach. Worthman completed 23 of his 39 attempts last year for 546 yards—that's 14.0 yards per attempt—with four TDs and two INTs.

Whether he can keep up that efficiency as a passer this year is in question, however, after losing 6'4" receiver Jalen Robinette, who did nearly all of AF's damage through the air last year. If not for an academic snafu and Air Force changing their stance on entering the pros before completing the two years of mandatory service, Robinette would've been a mid-round pick in this year's NFL Draft, and there isn't a similar talent to replace him on the outside.

There's still another skill position dangerman, however, in A-back Tim McVey, who finally got the team to stop listing him as Timothy this year. Like Worthman, McVey emerged over the latter half of the season as a big-play threat, averaging 8.5 yards and scoring ten TDs on his 83 carries while also leading non-Robinette Falcons in receiving. His approach is simple but effective: run fast in a straight line. 

Michigan's outside linebackers and safeties will be tasked with accounting for McVey on the edge. One bad angle or missed assignment and they'll get hit with a chunk gain.

Zook Factor: Nonexistent. Calhoun is all about maximizing opportunities and part of that is being properly aggressive on fourth downs. He's an excellent coach.

OVERVIEW

While Calhoun has opened up the passing game, this is still a team that wants to run until it can't run anymore, and maybe still even then. In the Boise State game, an even contest throughout, Worthman attempted only five passes; he accounted for 26 of Air Force's 77 rushes. Their goal is to use the option and inside zone to stay on schedule; they don't generate a ton of explosive running plays—that's what the passing game is for—but they get a lot of 5-7 yard gains that keep the run as the primary threat.

EGD highlighted two other staple plays of the rushing attack that came up repeatedly against Boise State. The midline read is the first. It takes advantage of the defense overplaying the edge by attacking right up the gut:

The midline looks very similar to the inside veer, except for a few things.  Probably the most obvious difference is that the playside tackle will cut-block the DE instead of leaving him for the QB to option off.  That’s because the QB is not reading the DE; instead, he is reading the first defender outside the center—the 3T here—and will give the ball to the B-back on the dive unless that defender attacks the B-back.  Note that here, the B-back attacks through the 2-hole (or A-gap, to the defense) between the center and guard.  If the dive key attacks the b-back, then the QB pulls the ball and runs outside the guard (the 4-hole or B-gap), this making the dive key wrong.  Click  HERE for an example of Navy running the midline against South Carolina.

I spent a couple series trying to figure out why the heck AF wasn't optioning the three-tech on midline reads, then finally realized Boise State had made it a strong point of emphasis for their DTs to prevent interior offensive linemen from getting to the second level. This was a typical midline read in that game; watch as the defensive tackle to the top of the screen, who's supposed to be unblocked, latches on to the releasing left guard and literally tackles him:

While this was relatively effective, Air Force still got a five-yard gain out of it on first down.

The other staple run play is the "rocket toss," which is what you think it is: a quick-hitting toss to the edge that punishes defenses for loading up on the interior. Air Force used it as an effective short-yardage play against Boise, trusting McVey's speed enough to even run it to the boundary:

Passes are infrequent and tend to go for it all. EGD diagrammed a four verticals play out of the flexbone. They got a big play against Boise by running Robinette on a post route while the other receivers took what looked like vertical routes and sat down at the sticks:

That won't be as easy to complete without a 6'4" NFL talent on the outside, but a major benefit of the AF offense is these plays are often so open that the size and ability of the receiver doesn't matter so much. Michigan's cornerbacks will have to stay focused on the passing game even though they'll have increased run responsibilites, while the safeties cannot bust. Controlled aggression is the key. So too is the pass rush; Worthman took sacks on a whopping 15.2% of his dropbacks last year. Part of that is the offense, which calls for long-developing pass plays in obvious throwing situations behind a small O-line built for run-blocking; part of it is Worthman's attempts to extend plays even when it's unwise.

How will Michigan approach defending the Air Force attack? This screencap from the 2013 Boston College-Army game, when Don Brown was BC's defensive coordinator, indicates Michigan won't stray from the 3-3-5 stack that's been their base defense so far this season:

This is ideal. It's easier to stop triple option offenses with one-gap defenses instead of two-gap defenses, and Brown's 3-3-5 is an aggressive one-gap scheme. 4-3 teams often adjust their linebackers so the MIKE has extra depth behind the nose tackle, giving him extra time to read the play and attack downhill; Brown's scheme already puts the MIKE at option-defense depth. Devin Bush will be a key defender in this game, and given the read-and-react ability he's shown so far this season, that's good news for Michigan. Mo Hurst also has a lot of responsibility at the nose, as he'll be a primary target for cut blocks as AF tries to open up the dive; Hurst should be able to handle that.

From there, it's all about gap responsibility and assignment football. Michigan had one bust by the backup D-line (specifically Reuben Jones) against Cincinnati that allowed a QB read keeper to go big up the middle; otherwise, they've been very sound this year. So long as the linebackers and safeties don't let running plays outside of them—and, in the latter's case, let passing plays go over the top—then Michigan should hold up. Air Force needs to consistently move the ball on the ground to stay in this one. Don Brown has spent a lifetime drawing up defenses to prevent that very thing from happening. By running his defense out of the 3-3-5 stack, he can still bring some heat from the second level—blitzing is usually a bad idea against option teams—without putting them at too great a risk, and that be enough to knock AF off schedule.

ADDITIONAL READING

There's a ton of great stuff on the option offense and how to defend it, much more than what I could fit in this post. Some suggestions:

Comments

JBLPSYCHED

September 14th, 2017 at 7:00 AM ^

This will be a challenge. Air Force pretty much always moves the ball and scores 21+ pts, albeit against Mountain West competition. Against Michigan St in 2015 they lost 35-21 but had 428 yards in total offense (against a good MSU defense) but were done in by 3 turnovers. They only passed the ball 9 times that day. In 2012 against us they had 417 yards of offense and 0 turnovers and the game was somewhat close. We will move the ball on them and must avoid mistakes--hello Wilton Speight--to get a lead and then run the ball and dominate time of possession. I am confident that our defense will contain them when it counts and probably force them into turnovers, but if we let them hang close anything could happen.

pistolwolf

September 13th, 2017 at 2:36 PM ^

against any triple option type team, is what your own offense does. there is a reason these type of teams dont dominate college football. score enough on their defense and the whole game changes. they will make some plays, but score enough points and their offense has to start taking chances. but you cant let them control the line of scrimmage or you will be seeing a 42-39 type game. plus you limit their possesions if your offense moves the ball the whole game.

Space Coyote

September 13th, 2017 at 2:43 PM ^

But the formation above is a 3-4 (which is really what Michigan has been running this season, a one-gap 3-4). It's a bit nebulous because Hudson is basically a "hybrid space player", but in the base formation, he's playing LB (he's usually only doing safety things when the defense starts getting exotic). And Brown himself called it one-gap 3-4 back when he ran it at BC. Typically here Hudson and the SS are even going to line up on the same side of the field, where a true 3-3-5 stack will put those guys on opposite sides.

The reason it's important is because, as you see above, Brown is going to keep two safeties deep and involve the CBs in the run defense by running a Cover 2 Trap defense. This often time means the CBs are setting the edge and limiting the width of the offense to the WR splits. The pitch can't go outside the CB, so now you've limited the space that Air Force has to make all their reads and make plays before pursuit happens. Against a fast defense, that's tough. Furthermore, the whole defense has their eyes in the backfield. If the WRs don't release down field, you are getting 11 guys to the ball.

I love EGD's diary, but given what we know about Brown, I don't think he plays a lot of Cover 1 except to change things up. Cover 1 allows the offense to run off the two CBs and forces the FS to cover sideline to sideline (essentially) with only 8 other players. It's much easier to cover WR to WR with 11 players.

corundum

September 13th, 2017 at 2:46 PM ^

Not trying to argue here because obviously you know your shit, but all three of Kinnel, Hudson, and Metellus have had to cover the deep safety spot this season depending on how the offense lines up. How often in a 3-4 do you have the hybrid LB acting as the deep safety? I think that's generally why the blog is referring to it as a 3-3-5 base.

Space Coyote

September 13th, 2017 at 3:00 PM ^

But again, that's mostly when the defense gets exotic or there is late motion from the offense. Otherwise, Hudson is almost always doing LB type things. I get why the blog calls it 3-3-5 (they really aren't always stacked, but they do typically start that way). Peppers also did some safety type stuff last year and played deep center. But he was primarily a LB that that could flip to do exotic stuff and to better mitigate issues due to late motion.

Again, it's nebulous because of hybrid players and all that and what guys are actually asked to do in modern defenses. It's a bit like Cato June in college, yeah, he was a safety, but there was a reason the NFL was confident he could play LB in the NFL, because he did a lot of LB stuff. It's the scheme and what is being asked of them. Within the defensive scheme at Michigan, June was still a safety, even though he did some LB stuff. Now as offenses spread out more, it's the opposite.

At the end, it's why I said it irks me more than it should, because it doesn't really matter and is admittedly a bit pedantic (like in many ways, many, not all, one-gap 3-4 can be an awfully a lot like a 4-3 Under; but there are small differences) it's just how you want to use your players and what you want to ask of them vs making substitutions, etc. But it really is lined up much more like a 3-4 typically than a 3-3-5, even when they shift it so that the MIKE, WILL, and JACK (I'm sure Brown has a different term for JACK in this alignment, but I'm too lazy to look it up) are lined up within the tackle box and stacked.

I will note that, depending on the defensive call, Brown will still technically 2-gap the NT, but he's picking a gap at the snap based likely on the B back motion, not holding up the center and then adjusting. He's still firing out and trying to get in the backfield. Got to watch for traps in this game though.

Space Coyote

September 14th, 2017 at 8:58 AM ^

From the BC DL coach talking about their one gap 3-4 defense. He has like 5 video talking about the one gap 3-4 that Brown ran at BC that moves pieces exactly like Michigan moves pieces.

If you guys want to call it a 3-3-5 (despite the coaches not calling it that) because you view Hudson as a safety because sometimes he does safety things, then fine, that's just how you account for personnel and while I disagree with it, it's not a huge deal (5 wide with 21 personnel is still a 5 wide formation). But at least don't call it a 3-3-5 stack, which it absolutely is not. That's like calling every 4-3 a 4-3 Over. It's not. The stack is a specific defense that is absolutely not this.

And yes, there is a very significant difference between what most consider a 3-4 (the NFL standard 2-gap defense) and a one-gap 3-4, which I wrote about using clips of Brown's defense from Brown's DL coach to talk Wisconsin before Brown even became Michigan's DC. LINK

Night_King

September 13th, 2017 at 2:43 PM ^

I pray McCray doesn't get continuously burned on the outside. Absolutely love Big Mike, but this offense bodes well vs. his skill set and strengths. I think guys like Bush and Hudson could have near 15 tackles each, not to mention the safeties. 

Watching more closely, the AF offense gives me heartburn. You think you have them stopped for a 7 yard loss, only to realize their RB has the ball 15 yards downfield. 

Brhino

September 13th, 2017 at 2:44 PM ^

Anyone way more nervous about this game then the four touchdown spread would dictate?

 

Didn't look great against cincy, now here comes a team with a diciplined, unique scheme, and a track record of putting up 8- to 10- win seasons.

Night_King

September 13th, 2017 at 2:51 PM ^

I'm not nervous considering AF has maybe the most inexperienced defense in the country. It's not like us replacing 10 starters, when we have 4 stars all over the place. So they are going to have a hell of a tough time stopping our offense, even if we have been sloppy to start off the year. We should be able to run the ball at will, and set up play actions down field.

 

On defense, I think our speed will definitely be enough to stop AF, so I'm not necessarily "nervous", but I think it could be closer than 25 points. We'll see how bad AF's defense really is by the end of the first quarter. 

Kevin13

September 13th, 2017 at 3:11 PM ^

as it will not be an easy game. Last time we played them we pulled out a 31-25 win.  Their offense is very tough to stop when it's something you see maybe once in a career. Your defense has to play extremely strict assignment football and one guy blows his assignment and they pop a big play on you.

Air Force will move the ball against us and score some points. Our size and athleticisim will be enough to get us through the game, I just hope we do it unscathed, as in no injuries. I could end up seeing final score of like 38-21, I think the spread of 26 is a little high.

Michigan4Life

September 13th, 2017 at 2:47 PM ^

triple option offense. They have a lot of different running plays and if they can sustain their run game via 5-6 yards a pop, it's going to be a long day for defense. Can't always say just play assignment football considering they'll change up their blocking scheme to block the assigned players if they can figure out who's getting who on any given play.

One counter, I believe, hasn't been covered is the QB counter option. GT used it to great effect against Tennessee and Tennessee couldn't stop it until the last play (2 pt conversion).  IMO, GT shouldn't have run to the boundry side. If they had run to the wide side, they would've had a chance to convert.

Monocle Smile

September 13th, 2017 at 2:51 PM ^

But has no one picked up on the fact that AF has a defensive backed named "Weston Steelhammer" on their roster?

EDIT: Or maybe "had," because it seems he got the same raw deal as Robinette

kehnonymous

September 13th, 2017 at 3:13 PM ^

Can't find who noted this 1.5 years ago, but someone posted Don Brown basically saying 'LOL I hate that week, I can't do shit' of another triple option team.   I bet any other defensive coordinator in the room was silently nodding in agreement.  

That's not to say I doubt Don Brown or our guys being up to the task but it's still super annoying to prepare for and defend and it's compounded by any downloaded knowledge being 15% applicable to the rest of the schedule

Squash34

September 13th, 2017 at 3:16 PM ^

Is it just me or does Mone's hole clogging ability make him more valuable to the defense this week than having furbush out there?
To me, this feels like a game the 4-2-5 would work better than the 3-3-5. And I would expect that to be the primary scheme used.