Note: The following contains poorly crafted hand-drawn play diagrams. You have been warned.
Veer. Midline. No discussion of the Flexbone offense is complete without talk of each of its two essential play series. With the departure of Justin Thomas, much of the offseason talk has centered around the Midline. Would CPJ begin to call more plays in this series with a bigger quarterback? How would that effect how teams prepare for the Jackets? Would it help the team become even better?
As part of an article I wrote earlier in the 100 days series, I went back and watched all of Lucas Johnson’s snaps during the spring game. I specifically identified each of his option plays and broke them down. The list looks like:
- Belly Option
- Belly Option
- Counter Option
- Belly Option
- Belly Option
- Counter Speed Option
That’s... a lot of Belly. Ok, so maybe CPJ wanted Lucas to work on his pitch reads, so he focused on plays that didn’t have a dive read. Except... the other QBs were also given a steady diet of Belly. Was it just time to practice that set of plays? Or was it something else?
What is the Belly?
In countless fan discussions of the Paul Johnson flexbone offense, the Belly series has taken a backseat to the Veer and the Midline. That’s expected. After all, the Belly is the natural 3rd wheel of the bunch. In fact, it’s not really a core flexbone concept at all, but was integrated into the offense by CPJ from the Wing-T.
The most defining feature of the series within the context of the flexbone is its “gap-down” blocking. On the play side, the guard typically pulls to the edge while the Tackle blocks to the inside gap. Down blocking makes it easier for smaller linemen, as they only have to wash the defender inside instead of driving them off the ball. This can be especially useful against stout DTs. To use our own example, defending against these blocks was perhaps the biggest weakness of Brandon Adams last year.
The play side guard pull is unique to this series within Paul Johnson’s offense, and is the easiest way to tell if a play is from the Belly. Here’s a gif of the Belly toss, which can sometimes be hard to ID:
For now, we’re going to focus on the main 3 plays in the series: Belly, Belly Option, and Belly Toss.
-“Wait, those look a lot like plays from the base offense!” - You
Exactly! The Belly series is more about an adjustment in blocking style and timing than any big tactical changes. But these subtle changes can make a world of difference.
We’ll get back to the Belly in a second, but first lets talk about some of the tactics defenses have used against Georgia Tech over the past few years.
The most common defensive formation seen by the Georgia Tech Offense, the Pyramid defense utilizes a 4 man front with the OLBs stacked over the DEs, while the MLB is flexed back. This defensive scheme is predicated on keeping the MLB clean so that he can flow from sideline to sideline and disrupt option plays. The flex back helps here, but teams also utilize heavy jamming by the DEs.
The stacked LBs allow the defense to disguise the player that is going to be the dive read. Occasionally the DE will bail outside and the OLB will blitz directly at the mesh. This is designed to confuse the QB, but Justin Thomas was quite good at recognizing these and pulling the ball. As a result, these became less frequent and teams focused on jamming the OT.
I came up with this name because it’s an odd front and....it kinda looks like a bird? Anyway this formation has popped up a lot over the past couple years, so it needs to be addressed. It seems to be primarily aimed at stopping the Veer series and is....really weak to the Midline and Belly, but more on that later.
The odd front consists of a 0-Technique and Two 4i-Techniques. By employing a 3 man front, the defense aims to jam the offensive linemen that traditionally climb to second level for the Veer, the T and C.
The ILBs can be stacked or parallel. Some teams have used a stack(pictured in the diagram), having one LB guard the dive and another scrape to the outside. Others have had a more traditional look.
With the Ends playing inside the T, they also won’t be the dive read, as the first man outside the T is the dive read for the Veer. This makes the OLB and the Safety the 2 reads, which is a bit of a different look. With the dive read so far outside, this formation draws dive reads by design.
I could get into how weak this formation is to the Midline, but that would be an entire separate article. I suspect DCs will abandon it in the near future unless they are dead-set on running a 3 man front.
During the 2015 and 2016 season, teams got aggressive with the Georgia Tech offense. Teams like Clemson and Duke found success shooting gaps with either linemen or blitzing linebackers to disrupt the mesh, and Clemson made a point in 2016 to shoot a linebacker to the edge to put pressure on the pitch and force more QB runs. That game saw a lot of these aggressive tactics, as well as some Heavy Belly usage by CPJ.
How Does This All Tie Together?
To put it simply, the Belly grants Georgia Tech a counter to many of the tactics that could cause problems for the Veer and Midline Series.
Against the Pyramid Front
One of the central tenets of the Pyramid Front(Scheme?) is keeping the playside OT off the Mike. Is the defense succeeding? Play your option like this:
Notice how the unnamed B-back completely takes the Mike out of the play. The defense wasn’t playing pyramid here, but the concept still applies.
Against Odd Bird
The DE is positioned at a 4i, perfect for getting down blocked. The shallow LB can also get caught up in the downwash. The OLB is also in a perfect position to get kicked out by the pulling Guard. Running this formation out of Heavy(shift one OT to the other side and have the WR play TE weakside) amplifies these effects against an odd front.
Defense Shooting Interior Gaps to Disrupt Mesh?
As was mentioned earlier, the Belly option does not have a mesh read, making it easier on the QB to deal with the increased pressure. In addition, the down blocking by the play side tackle tends to wash the defenders down inside, which can trap these players from pursuing the play. Running out of Heavy amplifies this effect.
No Mesh? No Problem.
Force Player Charging Hard Upfield to Disrupt Pitch?
Makes them a perfect candidate for a kick out block from a pulling guard. This is easiest in an odd front, but can be done against a 4 man front in Heavy formation. This play from Clemson demonstrates how Belly in Heavy formation can really wash the defense inside and how it can kick out nosy LBs. A better executed kickout here and this could have gained more:
OTs Getting Squeezed?
Now they get to block inside, and the DE is vulnerable to the pulling Guard. Neither has to climb to the second level. Backs can be used to get the LBs
“Why did Kieffer make me read this long rambling nonsense?” - You
Well, this certainly got out of hand, didn’t it? If there’s one thing to take out of all this, it’s that as teams have zeroed on stopping certain portions of the offense, others will open up. CPJ was just prepping his counter-punch during the spring game. If teams continue trends seen over the past 2 years, expect to see a lot of Belly in response.
“Paul Johnson always has an answer. There is no magic cure for this offense. The only way to win is to beat the man in front of you and do your job.” - Bill Belichick ....probably ....maybe