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Why college spread teams are better at running than passing

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The New England Patriots' Super Bowl success against Seattle's "Legion of Boom" was eye opening for demonstrating the potential of the spread passing attack in the modern game, but it won't necessarily be easy to replicate at the college level.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

There's no better defense in football right now then the one in Seattle led by Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor.

The "legion of boom" has led the Seahawks to consecutive Super Bowls where they are a single play away from being 2-0 in football's biggest game. They play almost exclusively MOFC (middle of the field closed) coverages like cover 1 and cover 3 and dare opponents to either try to over stress the seams where Earl Thomas lurks or to make their living throwing into the flat.

So when the Patriots took them down by accepting their challenge, throwing endless flat routes and executing them with enough precision to win the football game, people took notice. Todd Graham and Arizona State can't be the only coaches thinking about designing their offense to attack teams in the ways that the Patriots do.

There can be little doubt that this is where the game is heading, particularly in the pro ranks. Greater precision in the passing game cannot be easily defended unless the rules change to help defenses out, and the rise in post-snap tools for quarterbacks is only going to continue to push the game more and more towards fluid decision making by the players on the field.

All that said, it's going to be hard for collegiate teams to match the Patriots efficiency in the spread passing game for a whole host of reasons so don't expect the non-smashmouth varieties of the spread offense to necessarily win out as the spread continues to take over the major programs.

The challenges in building a precision passing attack in college include:

Challenge #1: Lack of chemistry and reps for quarterbacks and their teammates

Tom Brady has been with the Patriots for 15 seasons, all under the same head coach, which has resulted in the accumulation of hours and hours of film study, experience, and accumulation of muscle memory for the quarterback to master defenses, reads, throws, verbiage, and countless other skills that allow him to be so precise with their passing game.

A college quarterback usually spends three to five years in the same program, ideally in the same system but only if there's success, and usually only one to two years as the starting quarterback. In those one or two seasons he can't necessarily count on playing with the same center, left tackle, or any of the same receivers.

What makes the Patriots so devastating is the way that Brady makes reads and gets the ball out with indefensible timing and placement, which is very difficult to do without tons of drilling and practice.

The few times that we've seen dominant college passing attacks return their QB and his top weapons we've seen them do extraordinary things, but generally programs have only been able to field the same combinations for a limited window of time.

It'll be fascinating to see what happens with A&M's combination of Kyle Allen, Speedy Noil, Christian Kirk, and Ricky Seals-Jones. If those guys are all still starting in 2016, which is on track to happen, A&M could have one of the most experienced and talented passing attacks of the modern era.

Handling the blitz is one of the biggest issues for passing oriented teams, as there are endless ways that an opposing defense can bring pressure and attempting to respond to all of them with hot reads or audibles quickly becomes complicated. A hot read requires that the quarterback has a process for identifying and punishing the blitz AND that his receivers get on the same page to adjust their routes properly and provide him a target.

Many teams prefer to just find an athlete to play QB who can scramble around and limit how a defense can afford to attack him, which is a much more efficient if less elegant solution for the underlying problem. That problem is that college teams can't rely on consistently having QBs with enough experience and chemistry with their teammates to always beat the blitzes and disguises that better opponents can send at them.

Summer 7-on-7 drills and youth development is helping teams navigate these problems, but they can only do so much. What's more the offense can only install so much in the way of routes, concepts, protections, and master them all before they cut into valuable time that's needed to install a running game. The run game is the much easier way to punish the blitz and that's many teams preferred way to handle a complex pressure package that they struggle to block.

Anyways, limited practice time and quick roster turnover isn't the only challenge.

Challenge #2: The college hash marks

You frequently hear commentators mention that the wide alignment of the college hash marks afford unique opportunities to spread offenses while the more narrow alignments of the pro hash marks restrict space and make the concept of "spreading out" your opponent more difficult.

This is utter nonsense.

College defenses derive tremendous benefit from the wide hash marks that create a "boundary" and "field" effect on the field. Take the Patriots for instance:

Patriots 3x1

The Patriots have plenty of room to both flood one side of the field with a three receiver set as well as to create abundant space for the weakside receiver to run routes. They could also run sets with slots to either side of the formation to attack either outside linebacker in space:

Patriots 3x2

Now take a look at a college spread set working within the field boundary constructs of the hash marks:

TCU 3x2

Wide open spaces to the field sure but on the boundary the slot and outside receivers are in close proximity. The distance from the box to the slot receiver is less for the outside linebacker, which makes it more difficult to put him into conflict or to require him to move well in space.

The whole field/boundary effect on the college field has two profound effects on how defense is played at the college level that have to be considered. First, it allows them to shield slower players on the boundary. The NFL team facing the Patriots can't play two deep safeties unless they trust both outside linebackers to be able to handle playing routes in space. Otherwise, they have to drop a safety down to cover a slot and that's exactly what many NFL teams end up having to do.

In college, teams don't have to worry as much about the boundary linebacker getting attacked and can even blitz him while trusting the boundary safety to be able to cover for him because the distance that needs to be travelled is so reduced.

Meanwhile the boundary safety can often be a box safety, since he doesn't have to worry as much about the receivers having lots of space to attack him in. The only advantage the offense has is in attacking the boundary corner with the outside receiver. Since that receiver lines up closer to the QB he can run very difficult to defend comeback/hitch/curl/and fade routes while the QB is close enough to throw them with anticipation and velocity.

This leads us to the second major problem of the boundary/field hash marks in college ball, it allows the defense to force the offense to play in more narrow space.

Defenses usually respond to getting attacked in the boundary turning the screws on the offense. Take this standard trips coverage that quarters teams around the country rely on for choking out spread offenses:

Special vs trips

The defense can play three over two against the slot receivers to the trips side and take away all the easiest throws to the middle of the field. If the offense was trying to isolate the weakside receiver he's working against press-man coverage underneath with a safety sitting on top.

The only potential advantages for the offense are if the running back is great at running routes against that linebacker or to go against the field corner locked up in man coverage without help against the outside receiver.

The problem is that your running back may not be that skilled at running routes out of the backfield, many aren't, and that receiver is 20 yards away from the quarterback before the ball is even snapped. It's not easy to beat coverage out wide against the field corner unless the quarterback has a rocket arm and great accuracy to boot. All that space out wide isn't an advantage for the offense, it's an advantage for the defense who can generally trust that this space will be inaccessible for the vast majority of college QBs when trying to beat good cornerbacks.

You know what a team can do against that coverage? Run the dang ball.

The real effect of the wide hash marks in college isn't for offenses to have endless room to attack defenses unless they have exceptionally gifted quarterbacks who won't be around for long before they go off to the NFL. Instead the hash marks allow the defense to box in the offense and force them to work in confined space.

Running games are also damaged by the wide hash marks as a defense can use a hard force player to contain the running back within a narrower space where the linebackers can then more easily reach him. However, the rise of RPOs and spread option tactics are helping offenses mitigate that concern by punishing those force players with quick passes that are left open when combined with the run game.

What the Patriots did was impressive, and it'll likely help change the way the game is played as teams put greater emphasis on quick reads and throws at every level, but there are challenges in the college game that are always going to make the run game a more attractive option for building prolonged success.