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Previewing the FSU Offense

Having been at LSU while Fisher ran the offense to the 2003 national championship, I'm pretty familiar with what he likes to run out there. He's always been able to develop his quarterback into at least a solid, and potentially great, player under his tutelage (JaMarcus Russell, Patrick Nix, Matt Mauck) and Christian Ponder might be the best pure athlete he's had at the position. Make no mistake, Ponder is the center of this offense and is the key to limit as best as possible.

The Fisher offensive system is a pro-style spread, in that sense its the same as Clemson's, but this is a catch-all term. It is a system that uses considerably less pre-snap motion and more personnel groupings than what Clemson does. It is more multiple in formations: I-formation, offset I, Ace, Jumbo Ace (2TE-1RB-2WR), 3/4 wide shotgun, pistol...with liberal use of the H-back or a 2nd TE. Its not a system that is designed to dink & dunk you in a West-Coast style like Miami, but attacks all levels of the defense. He always took what the defense gave: if they can run, he'll run it. They'll throw it deep, intermediate, and short. Fisher did not run quite as many screens at LSU in my recollection, but it has been developed into a heavier screen offense to keep pressure off Ponder and force the defense to make plays in space: 37 times so far this year of all types (bubbles, tunnels/jailbreaks, cracks, and regular). However, its been inconsistent at times, which has helped lead to their record being so poor. Still, its ranked 25th nationally and put up 443ypg.

FSU this year has still been more of a passing team. FSU is 9th in the country at 307 yards per game. Christian Ponder (6-3, 217, Jr) is 206-297 (69.4%) for 2,453 yards, 13 touchdowns and only three picks. If he misses a throw, he misses it where NOBODY can catch it. Picks will be at a premium this week. He's extremely intelligent with the football, and makes many audibles and checks himself at the line, without looking at Jimbo. Ponder has also rushed for 166 yards and two touchdowns. He's not quite the runner so far that he's been in the past (hasnt had to be), and with bruised ribs and ankle, I'm not sure he'll run a zone read as much as Fisher would want to, after watching our film.

Their receivers catch more of their throws than Miami does, with 5 of them pulling in at least 25 receptions. Taiwan Easterling has been hot of late, but I believe Bert Reed and Rod Owens are the biggest threats.

Their running game, however, has been pretty average. Florida State is 74th in the NCAA and fifth in the ACC in rushing with 136.5 yards per game. FSU is a zone-blocking team, and run the same plays we do in that respect: inside zone, stretch/outside zones, shotgun/pistol zone plays and counters, with I-formation runs like the counter, iso and blast. Jermaine Thomas is the leading rusher but is a great receiver out of the backfield. They also run considerable play-action off of these, and run much more no-huddle than we have seen so far.

The OL is great at pass-blocking, even with 5-man protections, which in part has led to Ponder's decreased rushing and improved completion percentages, but Ponder doesnt hold onto the ball long. They handled UNC's front extremely well against the pass, and I would say, only given the superior talent and skills at LB for UNC, that their front 7 is better than Clemson's. On 42 passing plays, FSU allowed a sack on only 2 at UNC. If at any point you believe during this game that our DL isnt getting pressure, start counting seconds after the snap until Ponder gets rid of the ball. It wont be long. They are a bit small up front, but well coached and athletic. In run blocking, they are very average, probably due to their youth.

But, FSU has not faced a good secondary like Clemson sends out there. Our guys are faster, better coached, and more aggressive than UNC's. Now we'll look at a few of the plays you should see from FSU this weekend. From Kevin Steele:

Would you say they're pretty diverse with all the stuff they do on offense?

Steele: "Yeah. They're very multiple in their personnel groupings. They're multiple in their formation groupings. They've got the vertical passing game, the intermediate pass game, they throw a lot of screens and they create the two-back running game with the quarterback and tailback. They're about as diverse as you can get."


Does Christian Ponder remind you of any of the guys you've seen this year?

Steele: "No. He's a little bit different. He throws the ball like an NFL quarterback and runs it like a college option QB in the 70's and 80's, which is a rare thing now. He's a very gifted young man, very, very bright. I know him quite well."

"I recruited him, No. 1. I was in his home. I know what kind of young man he is. He's a bright person and has a lot of tenacity. He's very calm and has natural leadership qualities. He's a very special young man. He's what it's all about. I think he's working on his masters and he's just a junior. I wasn't working on my masters when I was a junior."

Is it hard to get to Ponder sometimes, given their quick passing game?

Steele: "You're not going to sack a quarterback when he throws 37 screens in four games. It's a rare occasion a quarterback is sacked on a screen. That's a another deal. You approach that totally different. When they go traditional, drop-back pass game, we have to do what we do, which is four-man rush, pressure and push the pocket in his lap and dial up the pressures when they need to be dialed up."

Who are some of the other guys that concern you other than Ponder?

Steele: "Their running back is a good player. He can hit the homerun. #38 can go the distance. No. 24 at fullback is a tailback. They can formation you with multiple tailbacks. The receivers, you have to know where No. 80 is. He's a big presence that makes big catches for them. No. 83 and 8 are the guys who are getting the reverses and the screens. Obviously you have to make sure you get those guys. The last couple of games for them, there has been a lot of tackling in space. They're going to get the ball in space, although they can and do throw it down the field effectively. A lot of that stuff is get the ball on the edge quickly with the bubble screen, reverses, option with the orbit over the top. If you tackle in space, you have a chance."

The Screen

-The screen is designed to do a few things: attack zone blitzes who give up something in underneath zones (nearly all zone blitzes are Cover 3), attack man coverage on blitzes, force the defense to tackle in open space, and, most importantly against Clemson, slow down the pass rush.

-Bubble screens: the slit or motion WR bubbles away from the QB, while the outside WR will come in to crack a slotman's defender to spring him. Some offenses will actually abort a running play and throw a bubble screen if the linebacker blitzes. The only players who make this judgment are the wide receivers and quarterback. The offensive linemen and backs actually go ahead and execute a running play.Diagram4_bubble_medium

-Jailbreak screen: WR comes in over the middle behind the linemen. It's called a jailbreak is because the offensive line releases automatically downfield to block, after chucking the DLinemen. The offensive tackle stays in and chops the DE to keep his hands down so that the ball can be thrown over the top of him. The offense uses a TE or wide receiver to go away from the line of scrimmage to pick the outside receiver's man.Jailbreak_screen_medium

-Crack screen: A killer against man coverage with a LB on the RB. In 4 wide shotgun, the slot WR would crack block the LB assigned to the back, while the outside WR would take an outside release vertically to draw his Corner away. The Nickelback or safety on the slot wouldnt recognize the play coming and wouldnt immediately pick up the back.

Theres no reason why you cant crack one side and run a bubble to the other, both are going to be high percentage passes. Then theres the usual screen play that sends a RB out with 2 OL in front of him. Usually a skilled DE can get off blocks and disrupt these plays by jumping/rushing into the throwing lanes, and with discipline can tell that the RB and OL are releasing and stop his rush to play the screen. Otherwise, there really is no trick to stopping a screen play for the defense.

Just hope you dont get caught in a blitz.

From Smartfootball, the bootleg play Jimbo ran against Miami.

The Smash pattern: A two-WR pattern where the inside/slot WR runs a 12 yd Corner route, and the outside receiver runs a 6yd hitch. Smash has become a go-to for attacking Cover 2 zone defenses, but also can attack man coverage. Against man to man defense to the short side of the field the depth of the corner route will be around 20 yards.


In this play, which worked to success against UNC, the QB has a simple progression read: 1. the Corner route, 2. the hitch, 3. underneath, keying the CB. If the cornerback sinks back to stop the corner route, throw the hitch; if he comes up for the hitch, corner route. In general, you take the corner route til the defense shifts to stop it.

In Cover 2, the CB usually takes a "flat" zone with safety help up top. He'll read both #1 and #2 to his side and gets sandwiched by both of these routes. If the corner comes up on the hitch, the outside WR will push to 6, turn inside, and work inside to the next zone hole. It puts pressure on the safety to that side to get over to cover the Corner route and if the defense "cheats" by telling him to shift over a few yards, then the middle of the field is open.

In combination with this pattern, the "divide concept" can be used. The safety may cheat over for the Smash, and the TE runs a skinny post down the middle. This way, the SS is caught in a pickle and must read the QB's eyes and be fast getting to whomever the ball is thrown to.


Here is the Double Smash against UNC.


To defend this, I think a defense must pattern-read or play great man/man defense. A possible 2nd adjustment is switching to Cover 3. Against man the corner route must be thrown well or its hard to hit because of the Safety/Nickel taking inside leverage on his receiver. However, it is not a CB on the slot WR, so it can give them a better matchup.

Pattern-reading is a technique used with matchup zone, which Clemson runs. Essentially, the defensive backs are taught all the possible combinations (patterns) an offense can run to each side of the field, based on the personnel grouping. It improves their instincts immensely. Once the defense recognizes Smash, they can react and make plays, and every pattern-read Cover 2 team will rep the Smash every day.

Looking at UNC, they are a blitz-happy Cover 1/2-Man under team like Clemson. They are ranked higher nationally, particularly against the run. FSU smashed them in the passing game. Clemson went to more matchup zone and less blitzing against Miami, and I expect that to occur Saturday night. Still, Miami put up 433 on us.

To defend against Ponder's ability to scramble, do not be surprised to see our usual Cover 1 "Robber" defense, where Maye will be, in effect, the spy watching Ponder and waiting for him. If our LBs and secondary have a good day, I think we can contain this offense well enough to win.

 Other than the Miami game where you gave up a bunch of big plays, you haven't been troubled with that extensively this year.

Steele: "We've been pretty effective. I think we're in the top four or five teams in the country in allowed first downs. We're right at the 70-percent mark in getting off the field on third down, which that is the benchmark. We've done a good job of getting pressure on the QB. Our coverage has been good. Not since I've been coaching and one team had 80-something yards passing and another team had 25 and another team had 27 yards passing. Somebody out there is rushing the passer pretty good and somebody is matching those routes pretty good. Coach Harbison has done a good job of getting those guys in route recognition. (pattern reading)

"There are some things we have to keep getting better at. Every game will present its own problems. For example, you mentioned the TCU quarterback. The first time we saw that play was that day. It was very different. They ran it four times and he did a good job on it. We run it every week now in practice whether we see it or not. The first play of the game this week was the same play and I think it went for two yards. Sometimes you'll see things in this game you haven't seen before, because of all the pullers and motions and shifts. They're not going to go out there and do it perfect. If everybody's perfect, we wouldn't have a job."

(image credit goes to Smartfootball and vids to Tomahawk Nation)