One’s opinion of Johnny Manziel’s NFL potential – putting aside off the field issues – is likely dependent upon one’s opinion on the staying power of spread concepts in the NFL. Manziel lacks the prototypical NFL size and arm strength. It is difficult to imagine Manziel succeeding in a traditional pro-style offense.
But Manziel is perhaps the ideal embodiment of the shotgun-spread quarterback as that style of offense has developed over the last decade. Manziel is not the fastest of the spread quarterbacks. But that is not the critical attribute. Having enough speed to threaten the defense when they do not account for the quarterback is sufficient, and Manziel has ample speed and his quickness is a more useful trait as a runner.
Instead, the key element to thrive in the shotgun-spread is quick decision-making. Nearly every play requires the quarterback to decide within seconds whether to hand off, keep, or throw. That is why Chip Kelly has stated that his primary concern is not finding a quarterback that can run, but one that can quickly make the correct decision. Perhaps no one does so better than Manziel.
Texas A&M Coach Kevin Sumlin is an Air Raid practitioner, the pass-first offense developed by Hal Mumme and Mike Leach. But as the Air Raid coaching tree has grown, so has the variety of Air Raid offenses. Sumlin’s roots actually go back to the one-back, pass first offense operated by former Purdue Head Coach Joe Tiller. Texas A&M’s offense is therefore an amalgamation of one-back offenses that have flourished over the last 30 years.
Like fellow Air Raid coaches Sonny Dykes and Tony Franklin, Sumlin has added zone read elements to the offense. And like Dykes and Franklin, Sumlin has decided less is more. He has pared down the number of plays he uses in favor of going up-tempo and packaging plays together.
The latter concept provides the quarterback a run/pass option after the snap. For instance, the offensive line and halfback run inside zone. The backside wide receiver runs a quick stick pass concept, heading six yards downfield and quickly breaking away from whatever side the defense is favoring. The quarterback reads the backside defensive end and linebacker, determining whether to give on the inside zone, pull and keep, or throw the stick route. This puts the linebacker in a bind. If he stays with the stick route, the running back has large cutback lanes. But if he plays the run he vacates the stick route.
The irony is that the new trend in football is taking the sport back to its backyard roots. Texas A&M runs packaged plays with short routes and screens where the receiver is essentially instructed to get open, along with the occasional all verticals or deep crossing routes. And the quarterback is always a threat to tuck the football and run.
Such a system sounds simple, but puts pressure on the quarterback to quickly make sound decisions. This is where Manziel thrives. Perhaps Manziel’s best trait is his innate ability to know when to scramble, both to create time to throw and to run for yards. Many quarterbacks that are good athletes do not know when to throw and when to run. Manziel has no such hesitation. The moment underneath defenders vacates the middle of the field he is prepared to take the easy yards the defense is providing.
Manziel’s Texas A & M offense thus stretches the opposing defense. A defense must account for 4-5 wide receivers while also defending the middle of the field against Manziel’s threat as a runner.
Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide is no exception to that dilemma. As Chris Brown discussed, the Aggies beat Alabama last season by successfully exploiting the middle of the Crimson Tide’s nickel defense. Against spread offenses Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart’s operate a 4-2-5 defense with two deep safeties. Texas A&M used packaged plays and Manziel’s running threat to put Saban’s linebackers and nickel backs in a bind, attacking with quick stick and out routes when they stayed in the box to play the run, and with Manziel running when the middle defenders dropped out into coverage.
The onus is upon Saban and Smart to better deal with the horizontal stretch presented by the Aggie offense. The match-up is made all the more interesting by Saban’s comments last fall decrying the rise of no-huddle, up-tempo offenses.
Saban’s defensive success has been predicated upon utilizing increasingly complex coverage schemes. But as Brophy of brophyfootballblogspot.com and others have suggested, perhaps the best way for Saban to respond to back yard football is to simplify his own schemes. One such method with split safeties is to play a form of quarters combo coverage. The back six defenders are assigned to work in groups of three and pattern match the receivers to each side of the field. To the wide side the field corner, strong safety and nickel work together, while the boundary corner, free safety, and will linebacker do so to the boundary.
Pattern matching is the equivalent of matchup zone in basketball. The three defenders determine who is responsible for the receivers based upon the route distribution. Within their zones they play aggressive man coverage, but instead of following the receiver across the field as with traditional man, they will pass the receiver that goes outside their zone to their teammate, waiting for another receiver to appear. For instance, the corner will take the number one receiver if he breaks outside. But if the receiver goes inside the corner will pass him to the safety.
Pattern matching avoids the pitfall of traditional man coverage, namely creating easy running lanes for a quarterback like Manziel while the defenders’ backs are turned in pass defense. Pattern matching should allow the mid-level defenders to play run defense and leverage the football and for the safeties to provide force support while taking away quick throws. It should also allow the remaining back seven defender - the Mike linebacker - to play zone in the middle of the field. This keeps him inside the tackle box to defend quarterback runs.
It is one thing to draw a scheme on paper, of course, but it is another to execute. In particular, such a scheme puts pressure on the Mike linebacker to maintain drop discipline to eliminate run lanes.
For instance, last season against Texas A&M, Alabama was in a dime formation with C.J. Mosley at Mike. Texas A&M ran a four verticals route and the Crimson Tide corners and safeties – who were pattern matching – ran with the outside receivers. Mosley, responsible for hook to curl, gets stuck outside the tackle box, providing Manziel an open lane to exploit.
There is no more experienced and talented linebacker in college football then projected first round draft pick Mosley. Whether it is Mosley or Trey Depriest, the Crimson Tide linebackers must maintain discipline in their drops and more importantly tackle the elusive Manziel.
This is just one example of how Nick Saban can seek to contain Johnny Manziel’s decision-making ability. There can be little doubt that Saban spent all off-season preparing for Manziel, making the game within the game all the more interesting.