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Solo tackles and the aim of every offense

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What types of teams are forcing opponents to make solo tackles and which teams are simply ineffective?

Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Our own Bill Connelly released some fascinating details on "spread" teams and solo tackles here at Football Study Hall, which has spawned some further looks by Chad Peltier on overlap between the "spread teams" that force a lot of solo tackles and the offenses that are ranked as most efficient by S&P.

Looking at the top 10 teams at forcing solo tackles vs the top 10 teams by S&P brings forth some interesting revelations.

Top 10 offenses by % of solo tackles
Solo Tackle % Rank Team % Solo Tackles S&P Rank
1 Kansas State 88.5% 30
2 Syracuse 85.8% 104
3 Hawaii 85.7% 125
4 South Florida

85.4%

123
5 Texas Tech 85.3% 51
6 Arkansas State 85.1% 57
7 Arizona State 85.5% 49
8 Arizona 83.9% 46
9 Florida International 83.6% 121
10 Memphis 83.2% 61

Before we look at how the nation's most efficient offenses ranked in terms of percentages of solo tackles we immediately notice from above that this list of 10 teams are not a particularly exceptional bunch. How many of these teams simply don't put their ball carriers in good position to break tackles? Or lack good skill players that can make anyone miss?

Top 10 Offenses by S&P
S&P Rank Team % Solo Tackles Solo Tackle % Rank
1 Ohio State 72.5% 84
2 Alabama 72.9% 82
3 Oregon 72.4% 86
4 Georgia Tech 80.5% 22
5 Auburn 75% 66
6 Mississippi State 67.8% 11
7 Oklahoma 73.3% 76
8 Georgia 69.4% 105
9 Baylor 83.1% 12
10 Michigan State 70.7% 100

Do you notice anything in particular about which teams were in the top 10 in S&P? First of all, it has to be noted that most of them rank pretty poorly in terms of forcing opposing defenses to make solo tackles.

Now let's try and put both groups together alongside their rank in some other stat. Maybe something like, oh I don't know, rushing S&P?

Team Rank by % of Solo Tackles Rank by Rushing S&P Rank by Offensive S&P
Kansas State 1 47 30
Syracuse 2 81 104
Hawaii 3 121 125
South Florida 4 124 123
Texas Tech 5 46 51
Arkansas State 6 58 57
Arizona State 7 73 49
Arizona 8 60 46
Florida International 9 125 121
Memphis 10 90 61
Mississippi State 11 10 6
Baylor 12 21 9
Georgia Tech 22 2 4
Auburn 66 16 5
Oklahoma 76 3 7
Alabama 82 8 2
Ohio State 84 1 1
Oregon 86 4 3
Michigan State 100 15 10
Georgia 105 5 8

Hmmmm...there's a very consistent theme with almost every team on either end of the spectrum and it has nothing to do with whether teams are pro-style or spread in nature. Running the ball well is an essential trait of an efficient collegiate offense yet doing so results in fewer solo tackles unless you're Mississippi State, Baylor, or Georgia Tech.

Why do good running teams generate a lower percentage of solo tackles?

As you may have noticed from the tables above, even the spread teams ranked low in forcing solo tackles, specifically the "spread to run" teams.

Well this puzzle is simple enough to solve, there are more defenders around the line of scrimmage then there are in the flats or downfield. If there are more defenders around on a running play then it's going to be easier for the defense to get multiple people to the ball carrier to help bring him down.

Why are their more defenders there? Because defensive coordinators know that the teams that can run the ball effectively are often the most difficult to defend. So they always ensure that there are players around the box that can limit damage from the run game. You'll notice that the efficient running teams that rank high in S&P were also generally good at punishing this defensive response with the passing game.

Everyone wants their passing game to revolve around getting their athletes in one-on-one match-ups in space where they become hard to tackle, whether you are a pro-style power run team or a four-wide Air Raid spread squad. However, the teams that are killing are the ones that set this up with the run.

As a general rule, solo tackles occur most frequently from the passing game or from bad running attacks that put the running back in positions where he can't evade a single tackler and is brought down before he can get up to speed.

The strategy for every good offense

Devised as a term within the great German military strategy tradition, the schwerpunkt (or focal point) is where forces need to be concentrated in order to break the opponent's ability to maintain a defensive effort. In football, the schwerpunkt changes depending on the defense that a team is facing and how they measure up to the offense.

When Alabama takes the field against a non-AQ team the point of focus is irrelevant as they'll be able to do most anything they want. But when they play Ohio State and the Buckeyes are lined up like this...

Buckeye Schwerpunkt

The Buckeyes are in Cover-6, so to the field they have the corner and strong safety as deep pass defenders while on the boundary it's just the safety. The Tide have three receivers to the field running routes against what will ultimately only be two deep pass defenders in a wide range of space. If they attack there and prove they can overwhelm the Buckeyes deep, then it's all over.

But that's a tricky area to attack if your QB is Blake Sims, so instead they identify another focal point, the box where Ohio State only seems to have five defenders. The problem is that Ohio State has their defensive end take away the B-gap and allow the middle linebacker to play the run game outside-in and be a factor in stopping the run and pass.

The Buckeye defense was difficult to out-leverage in 2014. The greatest offense needs to be able to attack multiple parts of the field with efficacy because the schwerpunkt, or crucial point, is going to change depending on the opponent and their strategy on a given play. If you can't effectively attack the focal point, you are going to struggle.

Generally, the crucial point is downfield against the passing game, but the teams that can run the ball and force defenses to sneak up their safeties are the ones that are most consistently able to exploit it.

What about those good offenses that always force solo tackles?

What about Mississippi State, Baylor, and Georgia Tech? Those teams all ran the ball exceptionally well while still avoiding situations where the opponent could get numbers to the ball, even when they were sending it up the middle of the field.

Well Mississippi State and Baylor both feature systems designed around the constraint theory of offense. Both teams will spread their opponents wide with multiple receiver formations and attack the extreme edges of the field.

Against a formation like the one by the Buckeyes above the Bulldogs would use their QB as a runner to gain a numerical advantage in the box until the safeties were forced to cheat down or the linebackers forced to tighten back in. If the safeties came up, they'd take deep shots with play-action. If the linebackers squeezed inside, they'd throw perimeter screens. One way or another the ball was going to an offensive player who'd be isolated against limited numbers of defenders.

The Bears would respond similarly but also by sending all their receivers running to open grass deep, or perhaps just one or two receivers in conjunction with run blocking, and over stress the deep Buckeye pass defenders.

A team doesn't have to utilize the spread to accomplish the ultimate goal of being able to overwhelm the defense at the critical point, pro-style teams built around the power run game are often able to attack the line of scrimmage well enough to force the defense to over-commit to the box only to be blown away by the deep passing game.

That said, there's no beating the simplicity of these spread designs for simultaneously attacking every part of the field and eliminating a defense's ability to structurally hold up. In particular, when teams can effectively attack deep with the passing game that will always bring quick devastation to a defensive scheme.

In the future be on the lookout for spread teams that can force a high percentage of solo tackles AND run the football, you're going to be seeing them in the college football playoffs with regularity.