Wisconsin was the type of game on which you don’t usually do offensive write ups. 305 total yards, 3.5 yards per carry, and a 39% completion rate don’t exactly rate high on the excitement meter. That said, I’ve got to write about something, and while the Blackshirts would be the obvious choice because of their stellar performance, there simply weren’t enough All 22 shots to make that viable this week.
So off we go with the offense. The Wisconsin game saw us bring back a friendly play from the Taylor Martinez Era (oh boy), and it also saw us continually work from Bunch and Tight formations to take advantage of natural rubs in the passing game. In this post, we’ll take a look at the repackaging of Nebraska’s Inverted Veer play, along with the Mesh and Spacing concepts we used to give Tommy Armstrong (allegedly) easy throws on key downs.
Play 1 – Inverted Veer
Personnel: 11 (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB)
Formation: Flex Doubles Tight
Over the last few weeks we’ve talked about how offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf has tried to attack the middle of the field with our inside zone package, though with limited success because of a weak interior OL.
To help those guys out, a coordinator has to come up with a viable complementary concept to attack the edges of the defense as well. In 2015, Nebraska often found that answer with its Bubble screen package. In early 2016, the Huskers leaned on the outside zone (or “Stretch”) play against Fresno State and Oregon. The problem is that outside zone is a lateral movement play requiring a lot of footwork from your offensive line. Tackles need to be able to move quickly down the line of scrimmage while holding ground, and that’s not exactly a great situation with both of the Huskers’ bookends hobbled with ankle injuries.
Nebraska has also seen the Zone Read come back to earth, as defenses are now setting their defensive front to take away the backside keep by Armstrong. And because the Huskers’ offensive line has had such difficulty blocking the front side of the play, it’s a dual win for the defense. They get to shut down Armstrong’s running ability while also bottling up the rest of the Nebraska run game. When that happens, it’s on the offensive coordinator to find a way to move the Read man away from that backside to force defenses to adjust.
And so against Wisconsin we saw the Inverted Veer make its first appearance of the year. It’s not a new play for the Huskers, as Nebraska fans saw Martinez run this plenty during the Tim Beck days. It’s also not a new play for Langsdorf, as he used it last year to get Armstrong involved in the run game. The difference, though, is that last year Langsdorf used Power blocking on the play, pulling the backside OG to wrap into the second level and lead the QB. This year, with the line struggling to move, Langsdorf ditched the Power blocking and just went with standard zone blocking up front.
Inverted Veer moves the Read defender from the backside of the play to the front side. The benefit of this is obvious: with defenses now overplaying things to the back side to take away the Zone Read play, moving the read to the front side means that a defense will be overmatched to that side. You see that play out in this clip, as Wisconsin blitzes the Nickelback to Armstrong, expecting Nebraska’s standard Zone Read play:
But because Langsdorf has called the Inverted Veer, Armstrong and the RB both move to the front side of the play away from the Nickelback while Armstrong is reading Wisconsin’s OLB to that side. Even though it’s not a great job blocking the play by Sam Cotton, it still goes for a big gain because Nebraska has gone anti-tendency. And here’s another good shot of Armstrong’s front side read:
It’s a nice call at the right time, and it’s something that Langsdorf called four other times to keep Wisconsin guessing as to who the Read man was on any given play. Unfortunately, because Wisconsin is so fast to the edge, the play above popped for 19 yards while three of the others went for 2 or fewer yards. As you can see above, Nebraska had difficultly working to the play side ILB, and this man often ran flat down the line of scrimmage to tackle the RB. I also wasn’t impressed with Armstrong’s reads on the play, as a couple of times he had “Keep” looks and should have taken it up the middle. For whatever reason, he missed the Read and it left the RB hung out to try against the pursuit.
Play 2 – Bunch Spacing FIB
Personnel: 11 (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB)
Formation: Shotgun Trey Y Off
Nebraska ran a lot of Bunch concepts in this game. By Bunch, I generally mean 3 eligible receivers on one side of the field in a tight grouping with a lone wide receiver on the other side of the formation.
There are a lot of advantages to running Bunch sets. In the running game, it shortens the distance to the edge of the formation and creates a lot of traffic in a small space that that the defense has to work through. That’s a bonus when running outside zone, jet sweeps and tosses. In the passing game, it also forces defense to declare their coverage and how they’re going to play the safeties to match the formation. Bunch sets also give you natural pick routes and, when coupled with the single receiver to the other side, most Bunch concepts have routes designed to beat both zone and man coverage.
One of Langsdorf’s favorite Bunch plays is the “Spacing” concept, a play that creates a horizontal stretch on the defense to the Bunch side. You’ve seen this a number of times, perhaps most notably on the key 4th down play last year against Iowa where Tommy Armstrong elected to throw the fade to the single WR side rather than hit a wide open Carter out of the Spacing concept. Can you tell that decision still burns me?
Spacing itself is simple enough: the #1 WR runs a Snag route, the #2 WR runs a Stab or short Curl over the middle, and then the TE runs a flat route underneath them. When run properly, it creates a three-way horizontal stretch to that side of the field. Nebraska will run it as they did here with 2 WRs and a TE, but they’ll also run it with 3 WRs or by using a RB out of the backfield on an arrow route instead of the TE.
To the backside, they’ll option the WR’s route depending on what they see from that CB pre-snap. If he’s pressed, as Iowa was last year, the Huskers will run a fade route from that receiver. If the CB is off, as he is here against Wisconsin, they’ll run a Slant route in front of him. They also package the WR’s backside route with a swing route from the RB to expand any flat defender to create room to throw the Slant. Here’s what it looks like in action:
As you can see, the concept creates a lot of options for Armstrong. He correctly choose to throw the Slant here, and Officer Stan made a great play to take it down the field. Had Stan been covered, though, we see DeMornay Pierson El break open on the Snag route as well as a natural check down to Newby in a ton of space as well. In fact, we came back to this play on our next drive, with Armstrong hitting Newby on the swing route for no gain when Brandon Reilly again broke open on the Slant.
Also, as we’ve discussed before, this is a Formation Into Boundary (FIB) play, designed to put the passing strength into the Boundary and force the defense to declare how they’ll play. By putting three defenders into the short side of the field, Nebraska is forcing the issue for Wisconsin’s secondary. They can push a safety toward the Bunch, but that leaves their CB on an island against Stan. Or they can play their safeties straight up, though that means they’re outleveraged against the Bunch. Here, the push the SS down to the line of scrimmage and leave the FS in the middle of the field, creating a lot of room for Officer Stan to work on the Slant.
Pay attention to this concept over the next couple of weeks. We used it 3 times against Wisconsin, and it’s a way for us to get a variety of easy throws for Armstrong. Because of the natural rhythm of the routes, which are all Quick Game (or three-step drop) routes, it’s also an easy way to get the ball out fast to help our struggling offensive line.
Play 3 – Bunch Mesh
Personnel: 11 (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB)
Formation: Shotgun Trey Y Point
Almost the same formation as the Spacing concept we saw above, with a couple of notable changes. First, the formation is no longer FIB, instead choosing to put the passing strength into the field. Why? To create space for the Wheel route from Jordan Westerkamp. You simply don’t have enough room to the Boundary to run that route from a Bunch set. Second, whereas TE Sam Cotton was off the line of scrimmage in a Y Off position in the Spacing concept, he’s now the point man in the Bunch formation. Why? To present the threat of a run and to use him to create natural picks for either Westerkamp or Moore to work behind. Because Bunch sets frequently mean run, putting the TE at the point of the Bunch puts that tendency on red alert.
In this case, however, Langsdorf dials up Nebraska’s “Mesh” concept, or what fans commonly refer to as “the crossing route play.” The Mesh is two shallow crossing routes over the middle, which are designed to create a pick by the TE on the CB covering the WR. When done right, it’s a way to get your WR open in space with only a safety in front of him.
Beyond the Mesh, you can package the other routes a number of ways. Here, Nebraska has Alonzo Moore run a Stutter Post to hold the FS deep and away from driving on the Mesh. You can also turn that route into a deep Dig to accomplish the same thing or you can run a Corner route to pull the safety outside the hash marks and away from your crossing WR. In this case, though, the Corner route isn’t necessary because Jordan Westerkamp is running a Wheel route that accomplishes the same thing. From a route distribution perspective, the play works great as Reilly breaks wide open:
Unfortunately, we see Nebraska’s twin evils on this play. The pass protection up the middle from Corey Whitaker is abysmal, and this creates a chain reaction with Tommy Armstrong falling away from the play while throwing. When that happens, big gains becoming meaningless incompletions, and that’s happened far too often the past few weeks.
As with the Spacing concept, the Huskers will run Mesh with a variety of personnel. The Huskers most often run it as seen above, but they’ve also used the RB out of the backfield to form the Mesh with the WR while sending the TE on a deep dig behind it to occupy the safeties.
In any event, it’s another ostensibly “easy” throw for Armstrong with very little threat of an interception. Of course, if you pass protect it like above, the throw becomes anything but easy.
Wrapping It Up
No denying that the Wisconsin game was frustrating. Although injuries to the offensive line and Cethan Carter have turned the offense from a machine gun into a pop gun, the team still competed like hell, and the Blackshirts turned in one of their better performances in the last five years. Nevertheless, Coach Riley, along with all Nebraska fans, lamented the missed opportunities that “haunted” Nebraska in the game. We saw one of them above, as the Mesh concept to Reilly had a chance to go for a huge gain.
That Mesh play, as with many other plays in the game, highlighted the frailties of Nebraska’s offense right now. The offensive line can’t create movement in the running game, and it’s having difficulty consistently pass protecting as well. That is compounded by Armstrong feeling pressure and reverting to his old fade away footwork in the passing game. And when that happens, even good play calls end up in incompletions and frustrating negative plays.
Yet good news is on the horizon. Cethan Carter is back to practicing, and it appears he should get some run against the Buckeyes. That’s big for Nebraska’s passing game, but it’s also huge for the running game as well. It’s no great secret that Nebraska has largely moved away from its outside zone and other perimeter runs in Carter’s absence. Cotton and Trey Foster have been decent enough blocking in the run game, but those plays often require TEs to solo block LBs and DEs. And that demands a blocker of Carter’s ability. Keep an eye on how Nebraska tests Ohio State’s edges early if Carter is back in action. If he is healthy and can block close to where he was when he went out, it’ll greatly add needed flexibility to the Husker offense.
I’ll try to have some thoughts up on Thursday about the Ohio State match up. No full scouting report because the Buckeyes are a conference foe, and we’ve seen them enough to know what we’re going to get from Urban Meyer’s group. That said, I think some of their personnel deserves comment, and they’ve got some new stuff they’ve been running on offense as well to take advantage of dynamite athlete Curtis Samuel. And if you can’t wait, head on over to Eleven Warriors, a great blog dedicated to all things Buckeyes, including some nice breakdowns on their Xs and Os.