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What does it mean to be balanced on offense?

Mike Leach loves to poke fun at the need for run/pass balance, but is balance the ultimate goal of an offense?

NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Iowa State vs Washington State Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

“There’s nothing balanced about 50% run-50% pass, ’cause that’s 50% stupid. What is balance is when you have five skill positions and all five of them are contributing to the effort in somewhat equal fashion — that’s balance. This notion that if you hand one guy 50% of the time and then you throw it to a combination of two guys the other 50% that you’re really balanced. You probably pat yourself on the back and tell yourself that. People have been doing that for decades. Well, then you’re delusional.” -Mike Leach

There are all sorts of definitions for balance floating around in the realm of football. Some coaches will define it as being able to run or pass the ball as needed, but even there it can get tricky. In the spread, run games systems depend on the threat of various passes to keep defenders from loading the box and outnumbering the run. Some coaches use the word balance to mean being able to throw the ball effectively on third and long or run it on third and short.

It’s often been noted that it can be hard to run the ball effectively if the defense isn’t worried about the pass at all because defenders fly downhill when they see run blocking. Alternatively, a defense that isn’t worried about the run can play more DBs, bring more exotic blitzes, and rush the passer off the snap more aggressively. In that sense, balance can just mean making a defense worry about multiple things before the snap to prevent them from zeroing in.

Mike Leach prefers to think of balance in terms of how many skill players on the field have to hold the attention of the defense. If all five skill players are a threat to receive a pass from the QB and do damage with the ball, it becomes very difficult to account for everyone on every snap.

The HUNH spread offense has changed the game somewhat in terms of what balance is or needs to be and there are still diverging theories on what’s important. I would like to suggest that most forms of “balance” are valuable and that none of these theories of balance is really the key to successful offense.

Over-stressing the defense

The real goal on offense is to be able to over stress a defense and present more real threats than they can defend at the same time. The breakthrough of the HUNH (hurry-up, no-huddle) spread offense is in accomplishing that goal while giving the QB clarity on which of the threats the defense is focusing on from snap to snap.

That’s essentially why the HUNH spread is ascendant and likely to win out over alternative styles of offensive football. One of the more heavily focused on advantages of the spread offense is the way it creates space for athletes to work in while forcing the defense to do the hardest thing in the game, cover and tackle isolated in space. But a perhaps bigger value is the way it can allow an offense to figure out what the defense is doing and optimize their play call to hit the weak spots.

When the defense is spread out the offense can more easily change plays at the line of scrimmage either with sideline checks or, better, with a savvy QB at the helm. At that point it doesn’t even necessarily matter if the main threats are all in the pass game or the run game, so long as the offense can hit the defense in two different places at the same time. That’s why you see spread teams that carve opponents up with West Coast passing concepts, power run/play-action combinations, zone/screen RPOs, and QB/RB option plays. The HUNH spread is merely a conduit through which a variety of types of players or schemes can flow.

Spread vs spread-iso stress

Originally the idea with the spread was to “hit em where they ain’t.” If the defense was spread out then they necessarily couldn’t defend everything, at least not well, and so the defense would dictate where the ball should go. When Mike Leach talks about balance as having five skill players that can all hurt you, that’s essentially what he’s describing. An ideal offense in that sense is one where whoever is open or at advantage can punish the defense.

Leach’s greatest offense was likely his 2008 outfit, QB’d by Graham Harrell (5111 yards, 8.2 ypa, 45-9 TDs to INT). That group had two RBs with 100+ carries for 700+ rushing yards, three WRs with 700+ receiving yards, and who’s no. 4 and no. 5 wide receivers caught 46 and 35 balls respectively. Obviously it was very difficult to cover everything, especially with a run game that could credibly attack a conservative, pass-oriented defense thanks to a massive and highly experienced OL.

As has been detailed here though, the division of labor and specialization of defenses makes them less vulnerable to bell cow RBs but still vulnerable to bell cow receivers. The vast majority of college defenses are still designed to stop the run first and they don’t choose their personnel regularly to allow them to be matchup proof against a good WR that can move around and run routes from multiple alignments.

Consequently you can still get a bell cow element to spread offenses that employ “spread-iso tactics.” For instance, the 2018 Iowa State Cyclones, who’s lead rusher David Montgomery got 257 carries while the next most used RB had 39. Their top WR Hakeem Butler caught 60 balls and their no. 2 target had 43 catches. What’s more, Montgomery and Butler had a combined 2691 total yards and 22 TDs. Between the two of them they accounted for 62% of Iowa State’s offensive yardage and 59% of their touchdowns.

The trick of spread-iso ball is having two skill players on the team that need to be handled with a plus one. The deep ball threat who needs to be doubled and a run game that commands the attention of a plus one defender can leave everyone else on the offense in a 1-on-1 situation. If that WR can move around then it can be hard to get help over him consistently while also outnumbering the run game. He may not get much attention anyways because if the other WRs are clustered on the other end of the field many defenses don’t tend to like to try and cover multiple WR sides without a plus one advantage.

Baylor under Art Briles (before he was fired in disgrace) perfected the art of spread-iso ball with ultra-wide receiver splits paired with a downhill run game. Their main objective was to either get a WR of their choice running a “choice” route down the field. They’d use alignments and the threat of the run game to get a burner like Tevin Reese or Corey Coleman running what amount to a “get open” route down the field with the QB throwing them open. Their effectiveness here has enabled Kendall Briles to still get big time jobs despite the stain on his reputation from coaching at Baylor during that period BUT at this point many of those spread-iso tactics have been picked up across the Big 12 and at spread programs around the country. It’s all on film and much of it is pretty simple and straightforward.

Another good example of spread-iso ball is the Pinson Valley Indians, a HS program about whom I wrote recently when describing Auburn’s new 5-star QB Bo Nix. The Indians, facing a 3-1-7 dime package anchored by a massive blue chip DT heading to Alabama, went to empty formations in order to ensure they could create spacing and 1-on-1 matchups for their top receivers. Then they’d mix in some 4-verticals concepts, which are becoming popular less as a way to find an open man deep and more as a way to isolate a top target:

The offense can basically play their best WR at whichever spot the defense is least likely to help against (in this case he’s the Y) and then let him run an option route based on the coverage he faces. Everyone else is essentially running a clear out and that receiver has a ton of space to break off his route where he knows he can get open. Meanwhile the QB may look at the safeties at the snap but he’s quickly turning to his guy and throwing in anticipation of the route break. It’s difficult to nail that chemistry down but if a QB/WR pairing can get it right this becomes high-near impossible to defend.

Especially if there’s any other WR on the field who’s a threat to take the top off if he isn’t carefully tracked on his vertical route.

With tactics like this, the offense really only needs two good wideouts on the field, even if they are sending five guys out on routes. So long as everyone running a route needs to be covered in order to prevent a pitch and catch for a big gain then the offense can move the two top guys around to create spacing to run option routes in. New England ran an empty formation isolation play for Julian Edelman to win the Super Bowl from a 22 personnel set with Edelman as the only true WR on the field.

The classic version of 4Vs involves throwing the ball to one of the inside WRs if there’s only one deep safety and if there are two deep safeties throwing to a 1-on-1 outside where an outside WR is matched up against a CB. If everyone was covered, perhaps you’d check down to the RB or else scramble. That’d be Leach’s version of balance. Of course, Leach’s teams were the ones that made tagging a receiver to run an option route on 4-verticals famous in the first place.

10 years later and the same play with the same tag won another tightly contested contest in the same corner of the same end zone of the same stadium in a game between the same two teams. This time though it was Texas running the play for the win against Leach’s protege, Kliff Kingsbury.

Which way is best for over stressing a defense?

So balance should mean having the ability to present enough credible threats on the field to prevent defenses from effectively defending all of them at the same time. The run game can be a good way to command the attention of a lot of defensive players, depending on how many gaps are created with blockers and how effective the back can be. Teams that have two great WRs that can dominate against 1-on-1s also tend to do very well.

But what is best? Having threats at every skill position that can be counted on or having a few bell cow players that can be isolated and fed? Spread an opponent out and go where they aren’t or spread them out in order to isolate a star?

Having balance in the Leach-ian sense is pretty difficult. Ensuring that there are players at all five skill positions that can actually threaten a defense is pretty difficult. For years Leach was able to do it because his Tech teams were unique in their approach and defensive rosters weren’t built to handle facing so many competent receivers. Nowadays his teams face a squad like Washington that plays in base nickel personnel with speedy LBs in the middle of the field and there are diminishing returns.

Having a roster that can put five skill players on the field at the same time who can be counted on to carry the day if the defense dictates that the ball needs to go there. Perhaps even more difficult, the QB has to be able to consistently find the outlets where the defense is weaker and deliver timely and accurate throws while trusting a player that might be his fourth or fifth favorite target.

Overall the HUNH spread has made the iso path much easier. In previous eras if you had a dominant athlete that you wanted to be the focal point of your offense, he needed to play RB and everyone else was blocking. Nowadays the HUNH spread makes it so that anyone who can pose matchup problems as a target can find a role in a variety of positions and the offense can easily adapt from year to year to emphasize their abilities.

It’s also easier on the QB to develop high level chemistry with a handful of players while only throwing the ball elsewhere mostly in instances where the defense is wildly overplaying the top targets. The challenges tend to be in filling out the role players from year to year and having a savvy QB that can adjust with the roster from year to year in knowing how to use different skill players to attack a defense.

For Tom Osborne’s Nebraska, filling out their roster with role players was easy enough as they were regularly snatching up in-state blockers that grew up playing playing in the offense and dreaming of playing for the Cornhuskers. For a team like Oklahoma or Clemson there has to be a culture and leadership in place to convince young star receivers to pay their dues as blockers and route runners without targets until they get their chance to be the featured stars.

With the HUNH spread and increasing lethality from spread-iso tactics, the game is becoming something more akin to the days of the I-formation but with teams able to ignore previous understandings of balance in order to overstress opponents by getting top receivers into 1-on-1 matchups in space.