Nebraska’s first game of the year against BYU introduced fans to the basic tenets that appear throughout Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf’s offense. Inside and outside zone, a lot of motion (jet, H, Y return, etc.), shotgun, under center, tight end and fullback wings, detached and flexed tight ends. This was a lot of variety for BYU to deal with, and to their credit, they handled it pretty well.
A team’s first drive often gives you a good glimpse into the offense’s core principles, largely because offensive coordinators want to see how defenses plan to answer those principles before opening up more of the playbook. I’m not sure whether Langsdorf is a script play caller, but the first drive showed a lot of things that Nebraska leaned on throughout the year. Perhaps most importantly, it was Nebraska fans’ first real introduction to something they had heard about in spring and fall camp: the jet sweep. Or as Riley likes to call it, the “fly” sweep. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Nebraska’s first drive against BYU, which featured two plays with jet motion.
Play 1 – Inside Zone Tagged With Jet Motion
What Nebraska Did:
This was the first play of the game. Nebraska opens up under center in 21 personnel, with Andy Janovich lined up in a wing alignment to the left (which is the boundary or short side of the field) and Terrell Newby in the backfield. Before the snap, Alonzo Moore (“Z”), who is aligned to the field (or wide side), runs jet motion to the left just behind Tommy Armstrong. But he doesn’t receive the ball. Instead, Armstrong fakes the hand off to Moore and gives the ball off to Terrell Newby on an inside zone play to the right. Inside zone is a standard play (indeed, because it’s the base of Riley and Langsdorf’s run game, more to come later on it), but there are two nice wrinkles in the play.
The first wrinkle to this play is the backside fold block between Alex Lewis, the left tackle, and Dylan Utter, the left guard. Typically in inside zone, the backside tackle and guard will be responsible for the backside inside linebacker and the backside interior defensive lineman. In this case, because BYU lines up with three down linemen, that means Lewis and Utter are responsible for the defensive end and the left inside linebacker. However, because the left inside linebacker is shaded between the end and nose tackle and the defensive end is in a 4i technique, this is potentially problematic for Alex Lewis. If that end slanted into Utter, a common defense against the inside zone with a 4i technique, Lewis could have a difficult time controlling the defensive end or working to the linebacker at the second level. To eliminate this potential issue and take advantage of the natural blocking angles, Lewis and Utter execute a fold block on these two players.
To execute the fold block, Utter first blocks back to engage the defensive end. Even if the defensive end did slant toward the A gap, it would be negated by Utter blocking out on him. At the same time Utter engages, Lewis steps behind Utter and “folds” into the A gap before pressing forward to block the linebacker. Again, I’m not sure whether this was called before the play or whether Lewis and Utter simply recognized BYU’s front and checked to the fold block because of it. In any event, it was a nice call, as Utter successfully stalemated the defensive end and Lewis worked up to the second level linebacker to block the backside of the play.
The second wrinkle, and perhaps the most identifiable trait of Mike Riley’s offense, is the jet sweep action from Moore. Although Riley and Langsdorf can call this inside zone play without motion, Riley and Langsorf “tag” it with jet motion to get an early idea of how BYU will react to it. Defenses can adjust to jet motion in five basic ways: (1) do nothing (in which case the defense is often outleveraged to the side the motion travels); (2) bump out linebackers to cover the jet motion (in which case the defense often leaves a vacated hole in the B to C gap); (3) roll a safety toward the motion to fill the alley (in which case the remaining safety is often either a middle of the field player or in some sort of man coverage); (4) blitz the cornerback towards the jet sweep guy (in which case a hole opens up down the sideline between the corner and safety); or (5) let the cornerback initially covering the jet sweep guy travel across the formation with the motion.
The importance of this play is why Riley and Langsdorf are using jet sweep motion early. One, it helps Tommy Armstrong read the coverage. When the cornerback travels with the jet sweep guy, it often indicates man coverage. If Nebraska has a passing play called with the jet motion, it simplifies the coverage read for the quarterback and gives him an early idea of what he can expect. Two, all of the other options (do nothing, bump out linebackers, roll safeties, or blitz the cornerback) create holes in the defense. If a defense predominantly reacts one way to the jet motion, Riley and Langsdorf have complementary plays designed to take advantage of the hole left by the defense’s reaction. Three, the jet sweep helps widen the outside linebackers to create more room for the base inside zone on this play. Moving those guys out of the box puts Nebraska’s offensive linemen in better shape to create holes for the running back and means one less defender to deal with.
How BYU Reacted:
For BYU, they come out in a classic 3-4 front with one exception: rather than the traditional 4 technique defensive ends (head up on the offensive tackles, often two gapping with responsibility for the B and C gaps), BYU lines them up in 4i techniques. Lining up this way is a common tactic to help these ends pinch down and stop the inside zone play. BYU has also walked up both outside linebackers to the line of scrimmage showing strength against the run with a 7-man box (three DL and four LBs).
In the secondary, BYU starts with one coverage and then adjusts on the fly reacting to the jet motion. After breaking the huddle, BYU’s strong safety is rolled down to help in run support. Although the free safety starts out one yard outside Janovich on the wing and 10 yards from the line of scrimmage (10 x 1 outside alignment), he rolls toward the middle of the field as Armstrong starts his cadence. At the same time, the left corner, who is aligned in press coverage, zone turns and starts to bail off the line of scrimmage. This is a standard Cover 3 look: both corners have a deep third of the field, and the free safety rolling deep has the middle of the field.
As the left corner starts to bail, however, Moore begins the jet motion across the formation and BYU is forced to react. Rather than traveling with him across the formation, the right corner simply pinches in just outside of Nebraska’s tight end and his strong safety. The left corner reverses back to a press look and the free safety retreats back to his initial alignment. At the snap, the left corner blitzes and the coverage ends up as a partially inverted Cover 2, with the free safety playing one deep half and the right corner playing the other deep half.
And so the game begins. With BYU’s reaction to the jet motion, Riley and Langsdorf now know that one of BYU’s checks is to blitz the corner toward the motion and play Cover 2 behind it. This leaves a natural hole behind that corner, as the free safety cannot get down to cover the X receiver (Lane Hovey on this play) in time to take away short throws. Indeed, Hovey ends up blocking no one because he finds himself with so much open real estate.
Play 2 – Inside Zone Tagged With Jet Sweep
What Nebraska Did:
Only three plays after running its first jet motion look, Nebraska returns to it with the same formation, personnel and jet motion. This time, however, Langsdorf changes it up and runs the jet sweep to Alonzo Moore while faking the handoff to Newby. It’s a nice call given that BYU, especially early, was unlikely to react the same way it did before with the corner blitz. And it gives Langsdorf another early look at how BYU plans to defend jet motion.
There are some subtle differences in the blocking up front compared to the first play. First, rather than blocking out on the left outside linebacker, Janovich instead arc releases and blocks the left inside linebacker. Lewis and Utter don’t fold block this time. Lewis solo blocks the defensive end while Utter works up to the right inside linebacker. Reeves and Kondolo get an initial double team on the nose tackle before Kondolo releases to look for anybody from the backside. Gates and Sutton take care of the backside defensive end and outside linebacker as Moore turns the corner for a 11-yard gain.
How BYU Reacted:
BYU aligns up in the same 3-4, but they tweak the alignment of their defensive line a bit. The left end lines up in a true 4 technique, head up on Lewis, while the nose tackle lines up in a shade nose technique (outside shoulder of the center) and the other defensive end remains in the same 4i technique from before.
In the secondary, BYU lines up with two high safeties, the left corner pressed and the right corner at 9 x 1 inside alignment. This time, rather than the left corner bailing and then returning to press alignment once the motion begins, BYU responds to the motion by bumping the two inside linebackers and the free safety toward the motion one step each and pinching the right corner as they did before. The left corner was locked up man-to-man with the X receiver (Stanley Morgan) and gets run off by his route while the free safety works over top to the deep half.
Unfortunately for BYU, Janovich’s arc block negates BYU’s attempt to bump the linebacker toward the motion, and the left corner no longer blitzes to set the edge. The left outside linebacker is confused by the backfield action (track the inside zone right to Newby or play the jet sweep from Moore?). Although he reacts fairly quickly to the handoff to Moore, he’s outleveraged and Moore gets around the end before the linebacker can close the gap. End result is an 11-yard gain and the drive continues.
Moving Forward with the Jet Sweep
Although Nebraska had decent success with the jet sweep last year, they never truly found a guy who looked comfortable running it. Demornay Pierson-El was thought to be that guy in the spring, but injuries and a lack of timing for the play limited his jet sweep ability until he was lost for the year. Ideally, for your jet sweep back, you want a receiver who can stick his foot in the ground and get vertical immediately after clearing the edge defender. That’s not an easy task for the jet sweep guy, as going from a near full sprint to an almost 90 degree change of direction is an incredibly athletic move.
The good news is that Nebraska’s 2016 recruiting class featured two guys who may possess that type of athleticism: All Everything J.D. Spielman from Minnesota and California’s record-breaking wide receiver Derrion Grim. Interestingly, Spielman’s 5’9″ height, which makes him a less than prototypical wide receiver, also makes him ideal for the jet sweep guy. With a low center of gravity, explosively changing direction is one thing at which Spielman excels. Assuming Spielman can pick up the playbook this summer and fall, look for him to get an early look as the jet sweep guy. Grim could be the guy who gets a second look at that position, as he’s another player with the ability to change direction that Nebraska’s offense lacked last year in the jet sweep.
Either way, the jet sweep is a package that Nebraska needs to leverage more next year to expand defenses horizontally, and with DPE still recovering from his knee surgery, Nebraska needs someone to step into that role full time. Although Alonzo Moore was a capable jet sweep guy when healthy last year, Spielman and Grim appear to have the frame and natural ability to take it to the next level.