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Football's 4th phase: Building a package for winning time

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Spread-option football paired with rapid tempo is taking over the game, but what happens when the team is up in the 2nd half and it's time to secure the win?

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

It's hard to argue that there's a better strategy for moving the ball quickly than up-tempo, "RPO" (run-pass option) offense. With multiple pre-snap and post-snap options available, quarterbacks can be trained to run the show from the field and pick defenses apart while they gasp for air.

The strategy is taking over at the college level with programs like Auburn, Ole Miss and Baylor and is becoming the preferred strategy at the high school levels. The x's and o's battle of football is quite compelling for coaches, but victory usually comes down to who holds the chalk last. With RPO offense and tempo, the offense can equip the QB with most every answer he'll need on a given snap and prevent defensive coaches from having a chance to counter.

Yet there remains a problem for these teams, what happens after points have been accumulated and all that remains necessary for victory is holding onto a lead until the clock runs out?

With eleven minutes to go in 2014, TCU held a 21 point lead and was close to doing something that hadn't been done since 2012, beating Baylor in Waco. However, they couldn't hold the lead despite bringing in their mega-back to try and run the ball. Left with the option of stopping the run or losing, most defenses can stop a spread running game by daring the offense to throw the ball. Baylor put an extra man in the box and TCU couldn't account for him except by throwing.

This is the flaw with option strategies, ultimately they allow the defense to choose how you beat them. If they choose to prevent you running the ball and dare you to beat them with the quick throws, what happens if you miss a pass? Throw a pick? It's the same story for the spread passing teams that use tempo. When it comes time to run out the clock how do you do it?

Of course, this came back to Baylor when they surrendered a 20 point lead in the 4th quarter of the Cotton Bowl against Michigan State.

Of the 15 fastest-paced offenses in 2014, nine managed to blow double digit leads they held in the 2nd half of the football game. This is a huge hole in tempo offensive strategy preventing it from totally catching on at bigger universities who prefer to impose their will with man-ball.

As the Football Outsiders have noted, four minute offense may be one of the more under-appreciated elements of the game. If you can maintain possession of the ball and run out the clock when you have a lead, you can't lose.

So why can't the HUNH spread teams manage to do so?

The challenges of situational football

Much of the success from HUNH and RPO tactics is that they allow the offense to attack the defense simultaneously with speed on the outside and power in the middle. Spacing is essential to these tactics since the offense is looking to find defenders to put into conflict.

Besides the DL, everyone on the defense has a coverage assignment either in zone or in man coverage. RPO teams will use alignment to find those conflict defenders and then have the QB read them while placing the ball in the belly of the running back and either handing off where the offense has a numerical advantage or pulling it and throwing the quick pass if the defender vacates his coverage assignment.

IZ RPO

With schemes like this, an RPO team can run the ball "downhill" on a defense but only if the defense chooses to leave themselves susceptible to that option.

When the defense tries to answer all of these threats by playing man coverage across the board, the 3rd generation spread-option offense will then look to beat them over the top with vertical routes and pick the best match-up to do so.

4-verticals with switch

Various ways of running the concept such as this one can put a lot of stress on multiple defenders. Can the boundary corner handle the "X" receiver without help? How do the nickel and corner handle the combination of the post route and the wheel route? If the deep safety follows the "H" on their deep post who will help cover the "Z" receiver?

The problem is that assembling a roster that can put multiple threats on the field like this requires focusing on stockpiling slot receivers and big, outside receivers. Even if this team utilizes flexed-out tight ends they are going to be players who excel and practice more in the receiving game than in blocking.

If the defense responds with an alignment or strategy like the one drawn below and dares the offense to throw it deep, they have little other choice. That might result in expanding the lead...or it might result in a quick "three and out" or an interception:

Stop the RB

What's more, most of the playbook and focus for a HUNH/RPO teams' base offense is going to be devoted to option concepts and execution rather than carrying a lot of run schemes designed to beat a defense that is playing to stop the run.

When Michigan State started running their six-man zone blitzes every other snap against Baylor, the Bears were left to either have Petty pick his way through the under-manned zone coverage or hand-off into numbers. At that moment, having such a loaded WR corps may have given them a big lead but keeping them on the field didn't help to secure the victory.

Four-minute offense isn't the only time this problem creeps up on spread teams. There's also the goal-line and other short-yardage situations. Games are won in specific situations and spread teams' best players are often unhelpful in those crucial moments when the situation calls for shoving the ball down the defense's throat.

This was apparent in the Super Bowl when the Patriots responded to Seattle's attempt to "spread to run" on the goal-line by inviting the pass play against the goal-line defense.

The solution?

As noted with Baylor, or with Seattle's unfortunate alignment in the Super Bowl, there are often crucial situations in a football game where normal offensive personnel don't provide the best chance to win and the bigger blockers with marginal roles who come in may not be good enough to secure victory. But are those the only players available?

Texas HS state champion and RPO/Tempo offensive adherent Joe Willis of Cedar Park notes, "When you look the game today, most people look at X's and O's, the three phases of offense, defense, and special teams. Now there's the 4th phase, which is getting the best 11 athletes on the field in the right situations to win games."

For Willis and Cedar Park that means using special teams portions of practice to work on their situational offensive package intended for four-minute offense. In that package, Cedar Park will use 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends) and feature some of their better defensive players on the field to allow them to win crucial physical battles and impose their will at the end of the game.

Timberwolf trap

With a bigger athlete running inside at quarterback (Cedar Park uses a DE/TE), the best physical athletes on the team blocking at fullback and tight end, and then a couple of speedy ball carriers at receiver and running back the offense can methodically drive the field and eat clock.

At these times an offense only wants to have run options and not give the defense the chance to dictate a pass, perhaps even putting someone on the field besides the Quarterback to execute the package. This should be fairly straightforward for most college teams, who generally have former option quarterbacks all over their offense and defense. If not, you still see teams employ their better DL as lead blockers on the goal line, why not embrace a similar philosophy to get the best players on the field to protect a 4th quarter lead?

Teams have stumbled upon the beginnings of this new strategy already. In 2008, Texas had a brilliant quick passing game with QB Colt McCoy and a four-wide receiver package that featured effective receivers at every skill position, including running back. However, when they wanted to pound the ball on the goal-line they brought out big, 250 pound Cody Johnson and used future NFL defensive tackles like Roy Miller and Lamarr Houston at fullback to pave the way for him. In Texas' "jumbo package" he produced 24 touchdowns in two years finishing drives for McCoy.

Oklahoma had similar success when they realized that their massive, Yeti-like QB Blake Bell might have some use to the team on the goal line with his 6'6" 260 pound frame and conceived of "the Belldozer package" to feature him in short-yardage situations. With no one else on the field for the offense save for big blockers and maybe a single receiver, it was nearly impossible for defenses to get tacklers to Bell with enough momentum to stop him from plunging forward for yardage:

From 2013 to 2014 Alabama has gone eight for 17 on 4th down rushing the ball, good for 47%. In the span of 2011 to 2012 when the Belldozer was in vogue, Oklahoma went 12 for 15 rushing the ball on 4th down for 80%.

For a spread, up-tempo team that struggled to impose their will running the ball unless the defense was gassed this was a huge boon to the Sooner offense. For whatever reason, despite that success they haven't pursued any such package again with a different player.

Finally there's linebacker Myles Jack, whom the UCLA Bruins have called upon as a short-yardage runner for 66 carries10 TDs over the last few years. Jack might represent the future of the game.

Given what's happening at the high school level, it's only a matter of time before more college programs determine that it's worth their while to build situational packages that put their best football players on the field for the moments when games are won or lost.

Since their need for effective four-minute offense to protect leads is so dire, don't be surprised if more HUNH spread teams look to create a unit for winning the "4th phase" of the game that involves the best players available from both the offense and defense.