Mazzone Offense - Philosophy

Bumped. Mazzone to UCLA is not official yet but we may as well start delving into our new OC's offense. Great stuff in this post and we are looking forward to more. GO BRUINS. - BN Eds.

I'll be putting up a series of posts about Noel Mazzone's offense over the next week or so. Not sure how many parts or exactly what this will cover, but probably the base concepts, some playcalling stuff, some guesses as to how he'll implement his system into our offense next season.

I think the biggest change between Mazzone and what we've had in the past with Norm Chow and Mike Johnson running the pistol will be that Mazzone has an actual offense - one you can buy here. What I mean by that is that he's got an offensive philosophy, with a plan on how to stress and attack a defense, with plays that complement each other and adjustments to deal with defensive responses to stop his base plays. He doesn't carry many plays but they all are built off of each other. I don't think that we had that with the previous OCs as both Chow and Johnson had to learn the pistol offense on the job and each only had one season of experience running it. I'm not sure how big a role he plays in supporting his packaged offense, but typically (yes, other coaches do this with their schemes) it means that he's got experience installing it with various teams and has helped troubleshoot problems that teams around the country have when a certain concept is not working - all this is good experience.

On paper, I think it's a good hire, but on paper, Norm Chow looked great so we'll see. Having a great system is nice but you still have to be able to teach it and get your players to execute it - that's what coaching is. I do believe that the system works and that Mazzone is a talented and knowledgeable coach, but that's only part of the battle. I just watched Boise State destroy Arizona State in the Vegas Bowl - the plays made sense and the calls were good, but the players were missing blocks, making wrong reads, and committing dumb penalties. No matter what kind of offense you run, you're not going to succeed with those simple problems. I know no one is impressed with the ASU offense after watching tonight's game. But even Oregon's offense was held to 152 yards, 8 points, and 2 turnovers against Boise State in '09, and Chip Kelly's offensive scheme isn't bad.

Is the ASU offense the type of offense we'll see at UCLA next season? My guess is that it may look different on the surface - Mora seems to favor more of a "multiple/pro-style" attack, whatever that means - but under the hood, I'm fairly certain the philosophy and method of attacking defenses will remain similar. I'll put up a post with plenty of speculation and guessing towards the end of this series but I want to get the concrete stuff (what ASU actually did last season) out of the way first.

So that being said I'll start with Mazzone's offensive philosophy and the why.

Why Spread the Defense?

For a good primer on one-back offense, read this article (also previously linked on BN). Here's the main point:

The reason I harp on this is because, and I mean no disrespect here, Mazzone’s incarnation of the spread is so medieval that it’s progressive. By this, I mean that the fundamental principles and structures upon which Mazzone’s offense is predicated are virtually identical to those upon which Erickson based his offenses throughout the 80s and 90s, which is to say – verticals, quicks, and zone running made easy by defensive displacement.

There's a couple great articles linked on there about the rise of the original "spread offense". We're not talking about what ESPN talking heads call the "spread" nowadays - but the 3 wide, 1 back attack Erickson helped pioneer back in the '80s. His reasons for substituting out the fullback for an extra receiver were simple:



  • Remove a linebacker from the box. If you have a slot WR, someone has to slide outside to cover him. Instead of 7 in the box, you only have 6. You still have to block this adjuster player, but he's further from the ball now.
  • Add an extra vertical threat. A slot WR can immediately threaten the vertical seams of a defense, moreso than a fullback from the backfield can. A defense facing a 2-back set only has 3 immediate vertical threats, now you have 4 (3WR and TE).
  • You've got an extra hot receiver. Against a blitz, the slot WR quick is an extra place to dump the ball to. In a 2-back set, you can swing the ball to a back in the flat against the blitz, but there's no guarantee that he'll even make it back to the line of scrimmage.

This is the spread offense in it's most basic form - the "spread" label has nothing to do with the shotgun formation, the zone read series, bubble screens, the option game, no huddle offense, running quarterbacks, or anything else that's typically associated with that term these days. Ten years ago, we were calling Erickson's one-back attack the "spread" - today it's associated with the shotgun zone-read - who knows how offenses will be spreading defenses ten years from now. However you decide to spread the defense, you are simply trying to remove numbers from the box and spread out the defense horizontally in order to do two things:

  • Open up the inside running game. The displaced defenders occupied with slot receivers and defending the perimeter aren't involved with inside run support.
  • Open up the vertical passing game. If you can run the ball inside and attack the perimeter, the defense has to bring more guys down to defend both areas - this helps vertical pass reads.

How do you Spread the Defense?

There are many ways to force the defense to play sideline to sideline and create space underneath without simply aligning a player out there. People get concerned with the "type" of offense (spread, pistol, pro-style, air raid, option) but I think that every good offense uses spread principles one way or another. Announcers always talk about "the spread" when a team runs from the gun, but you can spread a defense from under center, in the pistol, with passing, with running, with the option game, with the passing game, etc.

  • One extreme is Georgia Tech. Ask Paul Johnson, they run the spread. They follow the same core spread philosophy: spread out the defense laterally in order to open up the run game and vertical passing game. In their base formation they can go left or right, middle or outside, with any ballcarrier - the defense must defend the entire width of the field. They have 4 immediate vertical threats/hot receivers that they can send deep. They use wide line splits to force the defense to align wide and give their inside running game more space to operate. They don't align a slot receiver to displace a linebacker, but they do use motion and the threat of attacking the edge (they outflank LBs very quickly with their speed/load option and rocket toss) in order to force the defense to account for this threat - a player running at full speed to the edge is as threatening as lining up a player out there. If Georgia Tech motions a wingback, the defense has to immediately respect the perimeter by removing a player from the box or deep coverage, which opens up their inside running game and vertical passing game (watch what motion does to the defense).
  • At the other end of the spread spectrum is the Air Raid - Leach at Texas Tech used wide line splits as well, to force the DEs to line up wider, giving his QB more time to throw as well as opening up their (limited) inside run game. Air Raid teams like to create space underneath with a wide range of crossing routes that stretch the defense laterally. The best way to stop crossing routes is to put a bunch of defenders underneath - assuming you rush 4, and put 5 underneath, that only leaves 2 deep. If Leach sees you running 2 deep, he'll run verticals or smash at you until you stop - if a defense has to defend sideline to sideline underneath, they'll be weak vertically.
  • Spread-to-run teams like Florida under Meyer, WVU/Michigan under RichRod, etc obviously use spread principles. There are detailed breakdowns of these offenses floating around the internet so I won't get into it. Teams nowadays are putting 4 WR out regularly to get 6 in the box. They block 5 defenders and "block" the 6th by optioning him off with the threat of a running QB, making him choose between the back and the QB. Just like Georgia Tech, if for some reason a defense tries to cheat into the box with a 7th defender, teams make them pay with a quick hitting perimeter play or go vertical to force them to respect the threat to the outside and play sideline-to-sideline. A cheap way to do this is the simple bubble screen or a quick "now" screen.

How did ASU Spread the Field Last Season?

I won't get into many details right now but here are some quick observations of what I've seen from ASU vs UCLA, USC, Oregon, Mizzou, and Boise State.

  • Formations/Motion - ASU almost always went 3WR, 2RB or 4WR, 1 RB. When they went 2 backs they often motioned one out - there's immediate threat of the ball on the edge with the bubble screen which forces at least one defender to play the flat. When the defense overplays this motion, it opens up opportunities elsewhere. This means they usually saw only 5 or 6 defenders in the box and often had defenders aggressively playing the edges to defend bubble.
  • Screen game - This is the most obvious aspect of the offense. ASU used outside screens similarly to how Georgia Tech uses their rocket toss to get outside very quickly. Mainly bubble screens, some flash screens just like other spread teams. They didn't use screens as big gainers but instead to force the defense to respect the perimeter - I'll get into it in more detail later but ASU used the bubble screen (and were good enough at it) as their outside run play.
  • Running game - ASU was able to run inside after setting up the outside screen game with their zone read series - slightly different than other teams as they weren't really looking for Brock Osweiler to pull and run it. Maybe this will change with Hundley. Again, more details later.
  • Passing game - ASU ran several Air Raid staples - a lot of crossing routes at varying depths, which puts stress on a defense underneath. If linebackers are chasing receivers horizontally across the field, they will be out of position to defend the run, and if they load up the underneath zones, they'll be weak up top. What most coaches associate with Mazzone is the "snag" concept, which attacks the perimeter players, but he also uses a lot of in-breaking routes to take advantage of defenders overplaying the flat.
  • Tempo - Last but not least, ASU used the no-huddle. If you look at the NCAA stats and divide plays per game, ASU ranked #25 with 73.5 offensive play per game. That's comparable to Oregon's much more hyped no-huddle attack which was only #28 with a shade over 73 plays per game (top teams were Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Texas A&M with around 82, UCLA was #101 with around 63.5). Tempo doesn't do anything to spread the field on paper, but fatigue leads to mistakes, and lining up wrong when there's so much space to defend or covering the wrong guy can lead to 6.

If you look on Mazzone's website, many of these concepts are on there - it's not a complicated offense by any stretch. Again, it's not about who runs where and what the QB reads are on any given play - it's about how the parts fit together and how you get the defense to overplay one aspect and then hit them when they're off balance. I think that's what we had lacking in past years as our OCs didn't have the necessary experience calling games with the pistol.

I'll work on more in-depth posts in the coming weeks to explain this stuff, maybe one per bullet point above...if you have questions post in the comments.

<em>This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of BruinsNation's (BN) editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of BN's editors.</em>

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