February 21, 2008

An attempted analysis of Norm Chow's philosophy and (partial) playbook

Well, here we are, 3 weeks after my previous post. Sorry for disappearing. Unfortunately, real life intervenes as usual and gives me a nice boot to the forehead. Anyway, I noticed I finally had a few comments from a select group of what I can only assume are the most intelligent, nicest, best-looking web trawlers on the planet. I will try to address some of what you mentioned in the next couple of days, I promise!

Anyway, I would like to note before I begin this post that a lot of my football knowledge has atrophied greatly. I haven't played competitively for a while now (flag football, of course, does not count =P). So please take anything and everything that follows with an enormous grain of salt. Major thanks for this post go out to BHW and USC TFA, as this post would have been impossible without their information (and, TFA, if you want me to take down the stuff I copied from your blog, just let me know... I have replacements of a sort for most of it).

That being said -

Over at BruinsNation, Nestor's post on the LA Times interview of Neuheisal and Chow contains this comment by BHW linking to a speech by Chow, and a sample from his playbook. Nestor mentioned he thought it might be interesting to see an analysis of the materials, and I thought I'd give it a shot. As an aside, I would like to note that, contrary to what I think is being suggested by BHW, this is not the entire Norm Chow offense, only the 5-step drop patterns (and a couple of 7-drops if they're still in use - see below). Hence the 'partial' in the post title. There are different passing sets (the 50s/90s/etc), and obviously there are no running plays listed. Nevertheless, it's a good sampling of what he seems to like to accomplish with his offense, so I thought I'd look through it. But far more instructive, I found, was the link to Chow's presentation on the precepts of his offense (the hosting site, Trojan Football Analysis, is chock-full of great information, including an odd rant that in one paragraph completely justifies my abject hatred of Colin Cowherd - the fact that the site is run by a Trojan shall be ignored due to its value =P). His speech offers a great look into his thought processes, and I'd highly recommend reading the whole thing if you have some time to kill. If not, hopefully this post will help some. To arms!

Summary point number 1, is to understand Chow's "rules" for quarterbacks and offense in general. In his speech, he lists them as such:
1) "[The QB should] Never give a command that will be misunderstood, and always give a command that will be understood."
2) "We want to know what the QB saw on the play and why he made his decision."
3) "The third rule for the QB is that he is never wrong."
4) "Always throw the football to the receiver. Throw the ball straight ahead." [ed - In case this isn't clear, he's talking about mechanics and simplicity together. Get in the right position and throw to the open man. Do your work off the field so that you don't have to think about it ON the field.]
5) "We are going to protect the QB, otherwise nothing works."
6) "We try to make it easy for the QB... He is concerned about throwing the football. He has enough to worry about." [ed - There's a handful of read examples in the full article, if you're curious about some specifics.]
7) "We are going to try to control the football with the forward pass... there are two statistics we believe in. One is the time of possession. We feel we need to win this battle. The other statistic we want to win is the turnover battle... What does this mean in our terms? Check downs!"
8) "The third aspect of the passing game is this: We want to kiss it... Keep It Simple Stupid." [ed - My personal favorite, as always.]

Then he starts getting into the gist of his offensive mechanics. Important concepts will be bolded for your convenience. He mentions his 60 series. The '60' is the protection, the 'ones' digit is the pass patterns. "We may call the play 65 for example. This means the lineman know it is basic 60 cup protection. The 5 is the pass pattern for that play... The mistake that coaches make is to make it too complicated." Paging the WCO to the white courtesy phone... The West Coast Offense, to the white courtesy phone, please... Anyway. See the 'passing zones' image below for the diagram of the '65' play.

He then talks about using 3- and 5-step drops and play-action, as well as establishing the run. Big money graf for me: "Also we need the ability to sprint out at times. [emphasis added] The reason you need the ability to sprint out is this: If you can't handle the defense on the inside you can take the ball outside; if we get beat on the outside, we can step up in the pocket; if they come up the middle then get to the outside." One of the reasons USC was so dangerous with Chow heading their offense was their ability, and willingness, to use the entirety of the field in both protection and release point, and it's clear that has always been a hallmark of his offense, and not just a reaction to having Reggie Bush's speed (is making a 'bought and paid for' joke too easy here?).

To control the blitz and hard edge rush, use screens and traps/counters - use their eagerness to get into the backfield against them. Another money quote: "We don't run the 7 step drop game when we can not protect the passer. We run the football. We throw the ball on timed routes, we throw the screen and draws, and we are going to run some gimmick plays just to slow the game down a bit. This is our game plan every week."

He starts discussing the passing schemes USC's offense designed to attack the zone. He calls it "building triangles."
No word if Tex Winter plans to sue for infringement. Though he doesn't say it explicitly, I'm assuming the idea is that by creating a triangle with your potential receivers, you're likely to find the "hole" in the zone with at least one of them. Additionally, the receivers all move 'obliquely' (that is, both down the field and across the field), stretching the zone to widen the spacing.

One important point to understand: the concept of the "8" passing zones (I was always a little fuzzy on this, as I played DLine, so forgive me if this is confusing and/or incorrect; I think I have it right). You have 3 deep passing zones, strong/middle/weak. Then you have 5 zones underneath (usually the underneath routes extend to about the safety coverage at the snap) - 5 instead of 3 because with the shorter distance, passes must be more precise.
A pass 5 yards forward just outside the hashmarks is far different than a pass 5 yards forward but all the way to the sideline. This is much less true for a 20+ yard bomb. If the defense only rushes 3, run it down their throats. Otherwise, at least one 'passing zone' will be open - find it and you're in business.

From this point he begins breaking down specific plays (I'll get to that in a bit). He talks about 'tagging' routes - that is, take a play and change one specific route for different situations. Say, changing the halfback's route if the linebackers are playing the pass. Or using the tight end to take advantage of a safety in man coverage. This affects blocking schemes - block 'big on big' - so an RB should never take on a DL, and if the smaller players don't blitz (e.g. 4-man rush) release the backs to catch passes. Some tags tell the QB if he needs to use his hot read or not. If the "Sam" tag is used, the 'Sam' linebacker (usually strongside LB) is unblockable. If he blitzes, the QB must take his hot read (generally HB/FB). Tags can also change the order of the QB progression (which receivers should get first look). So the complexity in a Norm Chow offense seems to come from using 'tags' to adapt to the defense, giving Chow the flexibility to play his 'chess game' for which he has become famous.

Lots more very play-specific stuff. Really, do read the full thing if you get a shot - it's fascinating. I mean:

Let me show you what we do against the basic Cover 3 with a basic 4-3 defense. On the first step the QB takes he is reading the MLB. The MLB will give the QB direction. If the MLB goes weakside it means the WLB has taken the flat away. If the MLB has taken the curl route away the read now becomes inside-out to the defenders on that side. We have three underneath receivers and the defense has only two defenders on that side. If the strong safety hangs on the curl and runs to the flat we throw the ball to curl inside. If the SLB takes away the curl by the tight end and the strong side safety takes the curl by the Flanker the QB throws the ball to the flat. If the SLB goes to the middle and the strong safety goes to the flat we throw the curl with the Flanker. You have four defenders underneath in this coverage. We have five receivers underneath. The QB simply has to find the open receiver. We do not run this play against Cover 2 as there are five underneath defenders and two deep in coverage as the match up is less favorable.

That's just a sample of the awesome.

One interesting note buried in the middle of the play-specific info. Chow apparently limits audibles to just a pair of potential plays: "Against man coverage we allow two basic calls. Against Cover 3 it is two basic calls. Against Cover 2 it is two basic calls. The QB knows he has only two basic calls against the defense. If he comes up to the line and sees the defense is in something that will give us a problem with the play called in the huddle, he has two plays he can check to. We do not have a complicated list." If that precept was still around the season after he left 'SC, it puts that Leinart audible against Notre Dame into an interesting new light.

Now, I'd like to cover one of the plays available in the BYU playbook. Specifically, the 62 Crossing Route (noted as 'X Shallow' on the BYU playbook page, but in his speech - more recent - he calls it the Crossing Route; it's Figure 12 there, if you're looking). If you don't know how to read a play diagram: the square with the X through it is the center. The white dot immediately behind him is the QB, and the two dots on either side are the rest of the OL. The WR out wide on the left - on the line of scrimmage - is the split end, or 'X.' The WR out wide on the right, behind the LOS, is the flanker or 'Z.' The dot on the end of the strong side of the LOS (the same side as the flanker) is the tight end, called the 'Y.' The backs are lined up behind the QB.

I'd quickly like to note that in the pages available, you can see a handful of different plays. I think these are versions of 'tags,' though not necessarily the exact same thing (remember, BYU playbook doesn't exactly equal USC playbook). The idea seems to be that each one is the same general play, either with a route change (like a tag), or run out of different offensive sets. So for the 62 Z Shallow (the image in the middle row, on the right), you can see the alignment is the same as the normal play. But the TE and flanker switch responsibilities - the TE runs a post and the flanker runs the mesh across the middle of the field. While the 62 Twins accomplishes the exact same goals as the regular play (TE and split end mesh, flanker runs post into the middle of the field), it is out of a different formation. I hope this clears up these diagrams a bit. Anyway, for the analysis, we'll be looking at the standard play (the big image).

First, let's look at the QB's responsibilities. You can see the 7 next to the line coming from behind the QB - that means a 7-step drop. I doubt that's still the case, though, as Chow seems to have become very critical of 7-step drops. My guess is if this play IS run, it'd be a 5 instead. Anyway, at the end of the drop, the QB must 'peek' at the free safety (safety support on that side). If the safety has come up, the Z receiver will soon be streaking open (or in single-coverage) down the middle of the field. Big gainer. If FS is staying back, forget the Z. Now we enter the 'progressions' - see the "1"s next to the X and Y receivers. Check the mesh in the middle underneath zone. If neither player is open, come down to the backs, which are the "2" options.

Now, how does this work? Well, first, let's examine 2 eventualities: is the defense zone or man? This is a play designed against a man defense. If it's zone, the QB is taught to check down to a back, usually the one on the strong side (as the LB/S are either blitzing, or more likely occupied with the 2 receivers already on this side, the X and Z). "We want to throw the ball three yards and get three more on the run. Now, we have a second and four situation."

If the D is man, obviously you hope the safety has crept forward. Your flanker just may be flying down the middle with three steps on his guy - TD. Possible, but unlikely. So we come to our mesh option. Note: a 'mesh' is not a pick. There's no designed contact. But the proximity of the X and Y receivers should mean that one will come open as the man coverage gets mixed up in the middle. The tight end determines how deep the mesh is (where is the hole between LBs and SS - 4 yards off the LOS? 8? etc), and the split end must cross closely enough to throw off the defense without losing speed. And, again, the two backs are available as extra blockers or release valves, just looking for positive yardage.

The reason this play can be effective is that it is designed to use the offense's built-in advantages over the defense. It uses all 3 levels of the field (deep, intermediate, short), and threatens all 8 zones. The flanker covers the deep middle. The crossing routes threaten the underneath zones in the center of the field, with the potential for a runout into the deep zones on the strong and weak sides. And the backs can both release into the flats and head towards the sidelines. Even if the play is called against the wrong defense (if D is in a zone) there's an easy checkdown.

On the defensive side, it's hard to attack a play like this barring a perfect defensive call. The play is designed to allow the QB to make a decision with the ball as soon as his drop is completed (the FS peek/zone checkdown), or let the play develop (mesh). Now, it IS possible to blow this play up (an overload blitz with WLB/SS comes to mind), but if the exact defense isn't called it comes down to the D outplaying the O. At some point, the players have to play, but a well-designed offense gives them that opportunity - a 'position to succeed' instead of a 'position to fail,' and the like.

I hope this might answer a few questions, and raise a few more (hey, if you're not learning something new, why bother with anything at all?). Again, as I stated at the top, this information may be entirely wrong. But I hope not, and I do hope that it gives some insight as to the philosophies of our new OC, as well as a general look at the inner workings of some of his offense.

Closing quote from Chow: "The point I am trying to make and I want you to remember is that we are in the best profession in the world. We can go to work in shorts and tennis shoes. Don't forget to teach kids technique. Teach kids values and character. If we can do that we will all be successful. I appreciate you listening to my lecture."


BHW said...

Yeah, my comment over there wasn't clear, that one link is only the base dropback passing game, doesn't include screens, bootlegs, play actions, etc.

Great stuff here.

BHW said...

Oh, and unless I'm crazy, isn't the Y in the 62 Z Shallow running a corner (or "flag") route instead of a post?

Also, I should go back to Chow's talk, but I thought he was talking about the mesh play as being run against man, and you check down to the back against zone (though if it's a two-deep/MOFO maybe you'd hit the Z on the post?).

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