UTSA expects a big crowd in the Alamodome as they welcome Army on Saturday afternoon. UTSA is coming off a blowout loss to Baylor in Waco. They’ll look to rebound against the Black Knights who narrowly lost to Michigan in overtime last week. Typically we look at three keys to a game for UTSA, today we’ll focus on three keys for the UTSA defense as they deal with the flexbone option.
Trust Your Eyes
Like most offenses, the flexbone is going to give you a presnap hint or key as to what’s coming. Use these keys with a grain of salt, because the root of the offense is to deliver a physical rushing attack through repetition. Once a defense starts to “cheat” or guess, the offense will take advantage in the form of big plays. As a defense, you have to see it and react.
But just because something looks the same, doesn’t mean it is the same.
Here’s the bread and butter of the flexbone, the triple option. The left A-back, here designated with an “F” runs arc motion, the quarterback takes a counter step, has the option of the fullback, then turns and reads the force player, typically an end or outside linebacker. When someone says “flexbone” this is where most people go to in their mind.
The flexbone is vibrant today because if a defense doesn’t remain patient and play to its keys, they’ll get gashed. From this formation, the Black Knights can run seemingly endless combinations of toss sweeps, leads, counters, bootlegs, zones, and reverses. It’s a ground-based attack, but once the defense starts to cheat, it’s ripe for splash plays out of play action.
The Black Knights will stress UTSA’s safeties and linebackers to trust their eyes and not make assumptions.
Part of the success of the flexbone lies in the fact that you cannot replicate it in practice. Coaches don’t want anyone in practice cutting or taking the legs of those jewels of the defense - the defensive lineman. I remember a few years ago Greg Schiano gave his Rutgers defensive linemen shin guards to protect against Navy’s option blocking.
Army is proficient and downright nasty at taking legs and getting defensive linemen on the ground. UTSA can’t give their defense a decent look at that technique on the practice field, so they’ll simulate it with heavy bags and giant balls. The devices teach lineman to use their hands to protect their legs from a cut block.
The Black Knights want the fear of the cut block at the forefront of UTSA’s minds to slow them down; then they’ll start taking legs and make nightmares a reality. A good cut block doesn’t have to get the lineman on the ground, but it has to occupy the eyes and arms of the defender. To counter the cut, UTSA’s front needs to use their hands to shock and clear, all while keeping their eyes on the play and not on their feet.
Line play is a spacial fight for territory, both players want to get into the body of the other, and whoever gets there first wins. On most blocks, a lineman seeks to get their hands inside the frame of the chest first to gain control. When an offensive lineman comes at the legs, he wants to attack either hip with his shoulder and then scramble or crawl to seal and move.
A good defensive player is going to use his arms to shock, punching down on the head or shoulder pads, while giving ground with his legs, keeping his head up, and then shuck or lose the offensive lineman to pursue to the football. Again, since simulating this action on another human at full speed is difficult, it’s a hard skill to master. Plus, getting cut hurts like hell. Defending a cut is about toughness as well as technique.
Pursue to the Ball
Anytime you have an option; you have a mesh point or a point where an exchange is happening. That mesh point will slow the play down while a read is happening. For the defender the offense is optioning buying time is critical. This idea is called “slow playing” the option. When a defender slow plays the option, he’s non-commital, typically moving laterally to slow down the read and the mesh point.
For the other ten players on defense, the flexbone becomes an exercise in proper pursuit. When the mesh is happening, penetration is an option killer on the dive and in UTSA’s 4-2-5, the linebackers should be crashing into run gaps or fits. The more active your interior defensive line is, the better you can contain the greatest weapon in the flexbone: the fullback dive.
The Roadrunner safeties will have slightly different responsibilities. Savion Harris and Rashad Wisdom will play closer to the line and act as force players on the edge of the tackle box. Free safety Carl Austin will run the alley between the tackle box and the sideline and attack the quarterback and pitch. But regardless, like a lion on the Serengeti, when the bell rings, you’d better be running.
Teams that play well against flexbone defenses force the offense to speed up through penetration and force. The risk is, if you cut and run too soon, you might be chasing a misread or a letting a receiver run free on play-action. Again, UTSA needs to trust their eyes and then run to the football.