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The smashmouth spread comes for the SEC

Auburn and Georgia have combined double teams and Iso plays with spread formations, to the dismay of the rest of the SEC.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The “smashmouth spread” offense, defined as offense that looks to spread the field in order to achieve the traditional aim of running downhill and then throwing over the top, keeps growing and expanding every season. It’s likely that this is going to become one of the main systems employed by major schools because it’s hard to beat as a way to impose your will with size in the trenches and dominant athletes on the perimeter.

The SEC has been seeing a lot more of the strategy with Georgia and Auburn both employing it this season while owning the second and third best records in the SEC. Missouri is also utilizing an Art Briles-influenced version of the offense as well but of course they’ve been a mess.

The appeal of this system to the big schools is pretty easy to understand when you watch how Georgia and Auburn attack defenses this season. Recruiting deep threat receivers who have to be doubled with a safety over the top to prevent tall, strong-armed QBs from finding them down the field really limits the ways in which a defense can get numbers into the box to stop the run. We’ve already this strategy be borne out as a good way to win without bluechip recruits at schools like Baylor and Oklahoma State, but it’s clearly no less effective when featuring superstar OL like Austin Golson or Isaiah Wynn blocking for backs like Kerryon Johnson or Nick Chubb.

With that expansion has come additional concepts and tactics within this school of offense. Here’s how what Georgia and Auburn have been doing fit into the tactical trends.

The counter revolution

In past iterations of smashmouth spread offenses, some of the great contributions to the play have been the H-back who serves as a fullback, the development of ways to run counter from the spread, and the addition of RPOs to allow QBs to distribute the ball on the perimeter or down the field to punish teams for bringing help to stop the run.

Two of the big questions for a team in run blocking is A) how do we handle those big and ultra-athletic DEs hanging out on the edges? and B) what do we do about the extra DB who comes down to be a free hitter?

The addition of the blocking H-back was a huge win for teams that wanted to run gap schemes downhill on opponents but didn’t know how to handle the DE from a spread alignment with all of the big guys normally charged with tasks like that (FBs and TEs, namely) removed from the equation to make way for faster athletes. Florida used to wreck teams in the SEC back in the day running QB counter and counter with an H-back for Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin.

What makes counter such an invaluable play is that the runner is aiming at a point in the defense that’s being cleared out by down blocks and the scheme doesn’t depend on a FB or H-back having to drive the DE out of the way straight up. Instead, the DE is accounted for by a pulling guard who is often just working with that DE’s natural momentum and sealing them inside or out while the H-back leads up on a linebacker.

The Gators on those two clips deal with the extra defender by having a TE or RB block them, nowadays teams will often run counter with a bubble screen or pass option attached to hold that defender. The play still requires the use of an H-back though to serve as a lead blocker unless you want to run the play for the QB with the RB leading, and most teams don’t want to have to scrap the counter play or else feature their QB as the runner when they’re in a four-WR set.

For these teams, it’s now popular to reach back in time to the traditional guard/tackle counter play and rely on a QB keeper-read on the backside DE to stop him from chasing the guard and tackle and stuffing the RB from behind.

On this play OU even motioned their FB/H-back Dmitri Flowers out wide to lead on a tunnel screen option while running GT counter to the opposite end of the formation. The Sooners have championed the GT counter revival and built a considerable chunk of their offense around the play. It’s become common everywhere though because it’s a great way for spread teams to handle DEs while freeing up their tackles and OL to block down at angles without needing a blocking H-back on the field.

The other big one has been the toss-read and the accompanying counter play that Clemson made great use of in the playoffs, which are similar to the counter plays above.

Back to the smashmouth spread

In the year 2017 the big trends have been the mainstreaming of the GT counter play from the spread and then the ascendancy of double teams with Iso and power football at places like Auburn and Georgia.

With the infusion of QB reads and perimeter screens to run games across the country came a lot of adjustments to defenses in the form of personnel choices, particularly at middle linebacker. As I noted at the time, the four playoff teams last year were largely defined by their use of short, speedy inside linebackers that could handle the horizontal stress of defending plays like counter that give them false keys before asking them to beat tackles coming at them with favorable angles.

Sure enough, the 2017 Ohio State Buckeyes slid speedy sam linebacker Chris Worley inside to middle linebacker. Saban’s Crimson Tide brought back 6-0, 230 pound Shaun Hamilton and are often pairing him with speedy Rashaan Evans while grooming another super-athlete Dylan Moses for the future. Georgia’s top defense relies on Roquan Smith, a 6-1, 220 pound backer with exceptional lateral quickness. Michigan has been doing real damage with 5-11, 232 pound Devin Bush playing in the middle of their defense.

The correct adjustment for a smashmouth spread offense to teams manning the middle of the field with quicker athletes is, of course, to smash them. This requires the use of a burly blocker at that H-back spot but there are some common workarounds these days to avoid having to kick DEs out all day on power.

What makes power “God’s play” and such a popular concept is that the offense is getting a double team and then a lead insert at the point of attack. Georgia and Auburn have been revealing some easier ways to handle the DE and still run double teams and lead blocks right at the middle of their opponents defensive front.

Here’s an example from the play that devastated Florida in the cocktail party.

This is basically Iso football but it also functions a lot like a power run without a puller. The Dawgs get a double team on the nose tackle with the right guard and center, the right tackle is executing the kick-out block by showing pass blocking to draw the DE outside and then sealing him, and then the H-back leads up on the first linebacker as he would on “counter.”

Here’s Auburn running a similar version of the play on Mississippi State, who tends to try and clog the B-gap with their DE rather than playing him on the edge:

The FB is creating a new gap on the edge that the linebacker scrapes to stop which then allows the RB to come downhill behind the RG/C double team. Of course Auburn also has a bubble screen attached as well to make it that much harder for Mississippi State to get enough defenders to the point of attack.

Another immensely popular play now is “duo” which looks a great deal like an inside zone scheme except that it’s designed to go to the weakside, it involves one or more TEs or H-backs, and its aim is to create multiple double teams to just mash and control DL while the RB makes his decision based off the LBs.

LT Isaiah Wynn is just looking to take his man for a ride here and the play is going off tackle and downhill in a hurry. Georgia often attaches QB keeper reads, bubble screens, slants, and hitch routes for Jake Fromm to throw if opponents try to sneak in extra defenders to stop these runs. They also occasionally load the field with TEs and FBs still but they’re using a lot more spread sets these days.

Duo is a popular play with Michigan and teams that like to use big formations but the key is getting a double team at the point of attack so only one TE or H-back is necessary (usually the latter) in order to ensure that neither of the DL to the play side can make the stop.

As Iowa found against Ohio State last Saturday, the same linebackers that may be great at scraping laterally to fit gaps may not be so great when dealing with downhill runs that create vertical rather than horizontal stress. Ultimately that’s what the smashmouth spread is all about, getting just horizontal enough with the football to allow an offense to isolate a DT or LB and run at them with double teams and lead blocks.

Georgia and Auburn are isolating opponents and then asking them to hold up against a combination like Isaiah Wynn+Jeb Blazevich with Nick Chubb coming hard on their heels. But now they also have more athletes on the field to go run down the field against your DBs and more space for a guy like Chubb to work in after he cuts off a block. This has predictably gone very well for these teams this season.

There’s a good chance we’ll see this style in the College Football Playoffs this year and then we’ll see how it holds up in comparison to other systems around the country. Auburn and Georgia square off Saturday so the winner may be the team that gets a platform to champion this style on the biggest stage.