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Point-CounterpointBattle At The Goal Line
Rice\'s Goal Line Offense
Arkansas\' Goal Line Defense
by: David Purdum
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One yard. Three feet. 36 inches. It seems so simple. Peyton Manning thought so. In 2003, trailing the Patriots by six with less than a minute to go, Manning marched his Colts down to the New England two yard line. First and goal: Edgerrin James to the one. Second down: James stopped for no gain. Third down: Manning’s pass incomplete to Aaron Moorehead. Fourth and goal from the one: James up the middle loses one. Game over. Patriots win.
One yard. Three feet. 36 inches. It seems so simple. Joe Paterno also thought so. In the 1979 Sugar Bowl, top-ranked Penn State was trailing Bear Bryant’s Alabama squad by seven midway through the fourth quarter. Nittany Lion quarterback Chuck Fusina drove his team down to the one yard line. “How close is it?” asked Fusina after a third-down play. “About an inch,” replied Alabama linebacker Marty Lyons. “You better pass.”
Paterno didn’t listen and called tailback Mike Guman’s number. Linebacker Barry Krause leveled Guman for no gain to help the Tide prevail, 14-7.
Frustration is an impressive 14-play, 79-yard drive that stalls inside the 10. Frustration is having first -and-goal and settling for a field goal. Frustration is demoralizing goal-line failures. Here’s how Rice head coach Ken Hatfield avoids them, and how Arkansas defensive coordinator Reggie Herring causes them:
“Can you run the football when other people know you’re going to run the football?” asks Hatfield. In 2004, Rice, one of the few true triple-option teams left in Division I-A, led the nation in rushing, even though defenses were geared up to stop the run. The Owls scored on 75 percent of their trips to the red zone that season.
Successful goal-line offense, according to Hatfield, begins in the film room. The offense is at such an advantage that scheme is not the issue; discovering tendencies, pinpointing mismatches in personnel and exploiting injuries is much more critical. “Maybe your tackle has an advantage on his man,” Hatfield said. “All you want is somebody that can come off the ball, control the line of scrimmage and give your running back a little crack where nobody has a direct, head-on shot on him. It’s hard to tackle someone without him falling forward for a yard or two.”
Hatfield also recommends determining when and where on the field a defense switches from its base scheme to its goal line package. “Some people don’t go into a goal line defense until the two yard line. They might play their base defense and just walk the linebackers up tighter at the five,” he said. “You’re really trying to look at what the defensive coordinator’s philosophy is. At what time does he really go into a goal line mode compared to just tightening up his base defense. You usually don’t change from week-to-week your goal line defense. Pretty much what you see is what you’re going to get.”
Goal line offenses aren’t any more sophisticated than their counterparts, says Herring, who employs an aggressive 5-3 alignment with safeties firing from outside the tight end on the goal line. “People are going to be pretty generic,” he says. “You’re either going to get the power-o, the lead or the block-down kick outs. Some people run counter or misdirection on the goal line; some people run the toss. You’ve got to be in a situation where you can defend any kind of run, and at the same time be able to get it pulled up and get guys covered.”
The strong corner in Arkansas’ scheme is responsible for the wide out or a third back in the backfield. Lined up on the inside eye of the tight ends, the two defensive ends are in seven technique and attack the inside breast plate of the tight ends, attempting to knock them back and guard them man-on-man. Herring’s “TNT, double-eagle” look on the line covering the nose and guards strives for penetration and to fill every gap. The No. 1 objective of the nose guard is to not let the center get to the backside linebacker. The linebackers are stacked five yards off the line, allowing for a running start to aid in the top-off tackling.
When surrendering a yard or two means giving up a touchdown, it just doesn’t pay to be anything less than ultra-aggressive, says Herring. The defense in goal-line situations is at a severe disadvantage. Trying to read the play is futile. Anticipate the snap count and penetrate. Attack, attack, attack. “It’s feast or famine,” Herring says. “To stop a run for a one-yard gain or a foot gain, somebody’s got to penetrate and make a great hit on the other side of the ball. You can’t be worrying too much about the pass. In goal line, you don’t have much room for error and the percentages are not in your favor. What you want to do is try to create a new line of scrimmage, protect the back-side backer from the center getting out to where we can get a hat on the running back with our linebackers...that’s our deal.”
GOING OUTSIDE AT THE GOAL LINE
Herring and Hatfield agree: One of the toughest plays to defend near the goal line is the option or any play that allows you to get outside, basically turning the play into a race to the pylon. In order to have any chance on stopping someone from gaining one yard, defenses focus on the inside, almost begging you to run outside. This makes option teams like Rice, Navy and Air Force especially effective near the goal line.
“There is no doubt, the option play gives you one of the best chances to (get outside),” Hatfield said.
“A great toss team that has great speed at tailback running to the pylon,” added Herring, “it’s tough to stop, any time you can get it out on the edge real fast on the goal line because everybody’s thinking power game.” To stop the option or the toss, Herring says you better have a linebacker that’s fast enough and a good enough tackler to bring down a back sprinting to the edge. If you don’t, pray for bad execution.
“If they run the option, we’ll run it down with scrape linebackers, which are stacked on either edge with a guy in the middle,” Herring said. While it is a potent weapon near the goal line, the option, compared to a dive or a basic off-tackle play, comes with obvious added risks, especially if your quarterback is not comfortable pitching the ball under pressure.
“Most of the time on the goal line,” said Hatfield, “because you don’t want to give up one yard, they usually have more people inside, and defenses force you to run to the corner and say, ‘we’ve got enough speed, we’ll out-run you or we’ll force you to execute the pitch play on the goal line, and if we bat it down, we get a big play.’ That’s why a lot of people don’t run the option down there. But with our offense or anybody running it like Air Force or Navy you’re going to get the pressure from the first down the whole game. That’s why it's important to have have enough experience. The biggest thing, if you’re quarterback doesn’t run the pitch play often, you better spend more time on it if you’re going to run it, or you will get it batted down. That’s why a lot of people don’t run the option down there. They don’t feel as comfortable pitching the ball.”
4TH AND GOAL FROM THE ONE
You’re shaking your head. You should have scored by now. What’s the problem? Do you call the same play? Is play-action too risky? “You’re scrambling like heck right then,” says Hatfeld. “You’ve already given it your best shot with your best back behind your best blocker. Usually, you’ve done it before fourth down, possibly twice. If it’s your bread-and-butter play, you better make it happen.”
But if your go-to play is not working, you have to figure out why, then adjust. “Naturally, whoever called the play expected it to work,” Hatfield explained. “If it didn’t work, immediately in that 25-second time frame that you have to call another play, you have to analyze why didn’t it work: Did the defense run two people through one gap? What caused the play not to be effective?” According to Hatfield, two of the most common reasons a play doesn’t work on the goal line are: The hole opens but the running back misses it; the defense is overloaded to one side.
“That’s when you need to have an alternate play to go with it,” he said. “You have to make a decision if a play fails. Why did it fail? Did the defense just guess right? Did one of your guys slip or step on somebody’s ankle? If it is something that you can correct, go ahead and run the play again. If it’s one that you gave it your best shot, but they have too many people lined up over there, immediately you go to another play. It’s all chess. If a defense strengthens itself in one area, it naturally weakens itself in another area. So you have to have a counter play for the weak area. That provides a good balanced attack for your goal-line offense.”
1. Penalties: Flags can squash an offense’s momentum anywhere on the field, but the yellow hankies are especially disastrous near the goal line. An offsides penalty on the two costs the defense only a yard; a false start on the two costs the offense the entire five. And nobody wants to be in the dreaded 3rd-and-goal from the nine. Limiting audibles and long snap counts near the goal line can help deal with crowd noise, especially at the closed end of stadiums.
2. Turnovers: They’re never a good thing, but in the red zone a foolish fumble or ignorant interception basically hands points to your opponent. Nothing’s worse than matriculating the ball down to the two and matriculating back to the bench with a 0.
3. Bobbled snaps: Again, they’re never a good thing, but timing is extra important in short-yardage situations. Any hesitation can result in unwanted penetration, thwarting any ideas of breaking the plane. Emphasize concentration near the goal line.
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