Snap Shots: The Monroe Series

The Big Picture

Pretty much everyone in Longhorn Nation lambasted the coaching staff for the running performance put on against Colorado. It was terrible. During the week leading up to the Oklahoma game, Mack Brown apparently had to bite his tongue to keep from informing the big mean media that he and Greg Davis did indeed have some new wrinkles saved for the Sooners.

Over at BC, LonghornScott correctly pointed out the flaws of having one package that isn't working and trying to fix it with another separate, completely different package -- it's a somewhat simplified summary of the post, but enough for the purposes here. It's a valid point, and certainly one that Davis would be well served to understand better, but there is something to be said for series-based football. For example, the three plays Dan Lee ran at Arkansas in the Wildcat formation qualify as a series of plays that generally look similar, but can catch the defense overpursuing in anticipation of one play, in this case the stealer, then take advantage of that overpursuit by running the play in the series that punishes the defense for that decision -- the power. Once the defense adjusts to that play and takes it away, then the third play comes in, in this case the counter. In other words, series-based football.

Instead of using that series-based approach with the WildHorn (it was not used against Missouri), which probably would have kept it from dying, Davis decided to use it for another set of complementary plays -- what I've chosen to call the Monroe Series. After Monroe played well enough to earn the inaugural, but yet-unnamed Flavor of the Week award for the Louisiana-Monroe game, one of the first things I wanted to see with him was the jet sweep, putting him in motion across the formation to take the hand off -- it doesn't exactly take a football genius to figure out that it's better to get him the ball at speed rather than standing still, even if he does have elite acceleration. Davis finally answered that call with the Monroe Series.

The Context

Before Davis completely abandoned the run in the first half of the Oklahoma game, he sought to gain some momentum for the Longhorns by breaking out several running plays Texas had not shown to that point in the season. For instance, the first play from scrimmage was a draw play to Fozzy Whittaker that picked up 16 yards. On the second series, after knocking out Sam Bradford and forcing a three and out by the Sooners, Davis unveiled another new play, but this one was different -- it had other complementary plays along with it, a series if you will.

Stealer

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The play the Longhorns run is not exactly like the stealer run by Dan Lee because the original stealer had a pulling guard from the backside attempting to lay a block in front of the runner. In some ways, the design the Longhorns use is more effective, because judging from the plays included in the instructional video, it was extremely difficult for that pulling guard to ever get in front of the running back to actually throw a block -- think about, a guard is trying to catch up with a running back who already has a head start.

Instead, the Longhorns use Fozzy Whittaker, or Tre' Newton when the Longhorns ran the play with Garrett Gilbert at quarterback late in the MIssouri game, as the lead blocker on the play. The blocking scheme is the same as the speed option play -- the offensive line blocks down the line of scrimmage in the direction of the play, while the running back heads into the playside flat to block the first player he comes across, in this case the nickel back lined up over Malcolm Williams. Notice that both of the OU linebackers line up well inside the tackle box.

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Kyle Hix has a tough task in this play -- Jeremy Beal lines up well outside the left shoulder of Hix, forcing him to cut Beal. Since Beal is a badass, he doesn't allow that to happen, forcing Monroe to take a wider angle to get around him. Fortunately, since Monroe is ridiculously fast, Beal never really has a chance to tackle him, but he does allow his teammates an extra step or two in pursuit of the Longhorn ballcarrier, far from insignificant with Monroe. If Hix can get a good block on Beal, Monroe turns the corner much more quickly and has a ton of open field in front of him. Notice also that Whittaker is about to take an the OU nickel back.

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Whittaker also cuts the OU defender, with a slightly higher level of success, while Monroe, now seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, avoids Beal.

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Now by Beal, Monroe can finally turn upfield with the football, while the nickel back has to regain his balance after hurdling Fozzy. Notice the other highlighted OU defender taking a terrible angle on Monroe. In fact, one of the foremost reasons for putting Monroe on the field is on obvious one -- his elite speed changes the geometry of the game. In other words, he can blow angles up.

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Since Beal forced Monroe to take such a wide angle approaching the line of scrimmage, the pursuit catches up with him only a yard or two downfield. Had the timing of the play been more optimal, the excellent downfield blocking by Williams and Shipley might have led to a big play. Instead, they allow Monroe to gain a little bit of extra yardage.

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After his speed, the most endearing aspect of Monroe is how hard he fights for extra yardage at his size. Instead of meekly going out of bounds after picking up only two or three yards, Monroe manages to pick up six yards on the play -- an excellent gain on first down that easily could have resulted in more yardage.

The Verdict

The good news is that this play provides some evidence that Davis is not a complete idiot. Putting Monroe in motion is an obvious move, but it's also a smart one and it pays dividends on the first play, even though Kyle Hix fails to execute his block. Keep running it, GD, it's hard to stop!

Running Back Counter

This is where Davis doesn't quite understand series-based football, even though it's pretty simple -- on the next play, instead of running stealer until the Oklahoma defense adjusts and takes the play away, difficult because of Monroe's pure speed, Davis dials up the counter to stealer, the running back counter:

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The Longhorns stay with the same personnel in the same formation and the play starts out looking like stealer, with Monroe coming in motion across the formation. Notice that Oklahoma stands up the defense end on the opposite side of the field from Monroe to make it even more difficult for the left tackle, Adam Ulatoski, the cut the defensive end, Auston English. Perhaps Davis doesn't trust Ulatoski with that assignment running the stealer, so both Charlie Tanner and Chris Hall pull on this play. Notice that EBS has the assignment of blocking Jeremy Beal this time.

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Here's another example of why Davis fails by calling the running back counter here. Perhaps the linebackers read their keys well -- the movement of the offensive lineman -- but the point here is that they don't flow to the play or take any bad steps in the direction of Monroe coming in motion, indicating that stealer should work again. Notice also that Kyle Hix is matched up with Gerald McCoy on the play -- so far so good, but there's a problem developing, as Hix allows McCoy to get into his body.

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Once again, Hix allows penetration into the backfield, as McCoy quickly sheds the Longhorn offensive lineman, and, once again, the running back must take a wider angle, allowing more time for the pursuit and forcing the the blockers to hold their blocks for a difficult extra split second. Notice that EBS hasn't allowed Beal to get into his body and is holding the block well, except for the fact that he hasn't managed to seal him inside, a difficult task considering the opponent.

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Whittaker avoids McCoy and finally has a chance to start heading upfield and into the boundary on the short side of the field. Notice that Beal is about to shed EBS, who can't hold his block for the extra split second needed as a result of Hix allowing such quick penetration by McCoy. However, the play still has a chance for success if Hall and Huey can make their blocks in space. Notice that Hall could have stopped to chip Beal, but instead heads for the pursuing defensive back. Or does he?

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Beal has now completely disengaged from EBS, creating a fair amount of separation. Huey is still locked in on his target, while Hall inexplicably overruns the play, failing to put himself in a position to block either Beal or the defensive back.

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In the realm of positives, Huey gets a good cut block on the defensive back. Back in the realm of Texas offensive line realities, Hall has now completely run himself out of the play without having even gotten in anyone's way. To be fair, it's difficult for a lot of offensive lineman to block in space, but this is just not good enough. Beal is now locked in on Fozzy.

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Does the Mythical Fozzy Creature like contact or will he meekly head out of bounds, short of the first down?

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Instead of laying out, which puts him in little danger because the defenders aren't close enough to pick a big hit on him anyway, Whittaker opts to go meekly out of bounds short of the first down.

The Verdict

But it's 3rd and 1, any good offense should be able to pick that up, right? Wrong, not when Greg Davis infamously calls for an empty set and has every receiver run a route of less than five yards, culminating in McCoy throwing an incomplete pass to Shipley after Brian Jackson grabbed his jersey. Fail. Thanks Fozzy.

As mentioned earlier, Davis clearly doesn't quite get series-based football, as he should have run stealer until Oklahoma stopped it -- that's how series-based football works. Sometimes an offensive coordinator has to sacrifice one play in order to hit a big play on the next. However, even though it wasn't the optimal time to call for the running back counter, it still would have picked up a first down if Hall could have thrown a block on someone, if Hix could have held his block on McCoy for a split second more, of if Fozzy had simply laid out for the first down. Monroe would have.

Quarterback Counter

As much as Davis failed in going to the first counter too soon, he makes an excellent play call in the second quarter after completely abandoning the run for much of the first half. It's the third play in the series, the quarterback counter:

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It's the same personnel, the same formation as the previous two plays (with the exception of Kirkendoll in at wide receiver instead of Malcolm Williams), with Monroe coming in motion across the formation to the wide side of the field. It also has an extra misdirection built in -- McCoy will fake the running back counter to Whittaker before taking the ball himself behind the two pulling linemen, the left tackle Ulatoski and the left guard Tanner. Notice that OU now has greater separation between their linebackers, with one farther off the line of scrimmage on the short side and the other now almost outside the tackle box to deal with Monroe's speed to the outside.

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The OU defenders get a little bit undsiciplined on this play -- both the nickel back and Ryan Reynolds key on Monroe, attempting to stop stealer. On the other side of the field, Travis Lewis isn't quite as undisciplined, as he only takes a little hop forward to deal with Whittaker, while the cornerback on that side of the field and English both also key on Whittaker. Instead of watching their keys -- the movement of the offensive linemen, they get caught up in both fakes.

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EBS has the toughest job on this play. Though Chris Hall tries to cut Gerald McCoy, it's a long way for the center to go to block such a good defensive tackle -- he has little chance. After taking a step or two to his left, Smith must now block the dangerous McCoy for the play to succeed. Smith gets a good seal on McCoy and even helps out Michael Huey behind him by getting in the way of the other defensive tackle attempting to get into the backfield -- Huey has allowed the defender to get across his body. The play has set up extremely well to this point, as the nickel back takes himself out of the play by following Monroe, while Tanner and James Kirkendoll are both set up to make their blocks and Ulatoski heads into the open field with no one currently in the picture to block -- that's a good thing.

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Ulatoski makes a good decision to help Tanner the linebacker, Reynolds, while Hix gets an excellent seal on English inside, allowing a big running lane for McCoy to head through.

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Ulatoski's footwork could have been a bit better to seal Reynolds and keep the running lane open longer, but he still does a good enough job to allow McCoy to eventually pick up 12 yards on first down.

The Verdict

Had Davis called either stealer or the running back counter, OU probably had them well defended with several offensive possessions to talk about adjustments to the first two plays. Instead, Davs dailed up the counter to the first two plays and picked up 12 yards on first down, giving the Longhorns an excellent start to a drive on which they would eventually kick a field goal, an important three points in a game decided by that margin. It's also important to note that the Longhorn offensive line executed this play to near perfection, much better than some individually poor efforts that limited the first two plays. Yay, execution!

Stealer, Redux

Of course, these plays don't mean much if Davis isn't willing to call them again or if defenses make adjustments to take them away. Yet, that's the beauty of series-based football -- the defense should always be wrong. Here's another look at stealer, this time run with different personnel against Missouri:

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It's the same play run against Oklahoma, except with Gilbert as the quarterback, Newton at running back, and Howard at tight end, with Williams and Kirkendoll as the blockers. However, the most important player here, Monroe, stays the same. Notice that the only real adjustment Missouri makes versus what Oklahoma did is to walk up a safety behind the outside linebacker covering slot, while keeping two linebackers well inside the tackle box and at the same depth, unlike OU defended the quarterback counter.

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A Missouri defender slices through a gap against the second-team Longhorn offensive line, but, like the first stealer play, Monroe just takes a wider angle while using his speed to beat keep his opponent from having a chance to tackle him. Notice the unblocked Mike linebacker running down the line of scrimmage in pursuit. The question then, is that a good enough angle?

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Newton throws a nice block on the outside linebacker, while the MIke backer heads right towards that pile -- that probably won't be good enough, son. Monroe sees the running lane to the outside.

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The Mike backer did indeed take a poor angle on the play and has no chance at a tackle. Notice that both Kirkendoll and Williams are throwing good blocks downfield, allowing Monroe to still have a nice running lane to pick up more yardage after turning the corner.

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Both defenders eventually get off the blocks of Kirkendoll and Williams, who both do a good job of not getting a holding call on the play, and have a chance to tackle Monroe, who can go down with a nice gain or do what he normally does -- keep fighting for as much yardage as possible.

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Monroe does not go down easily, picking up another five yards in the process and turning a seven-yard gain into a nice 12-yard gain.

The Verdict

The beauty of the stealer play is that the offensive line doesn't really even have to block that well for it to work -- the important blocks are by the running back and the receivers outside. An offensive lineman allowed serious penetration on the play, but Monroe's speed kept that defender from being able to make the play. This play also illustrates, once again, just how often Monroe can blow up the angle of a defender and how well he does at his size making himself difficult to bring down -- there's some power in that small frame. The bottom line -- this play seems to be good for at least five yards a carry.

The Takeaway

The three main Wildcat plays made me a believer in series-based football and the early succes of this group of three plays -- the Monroe Series -- confirms that belief. Even though this package doesn't represent a serious leap forward for Davis in being able to put together a coherent offense that includes a more systemic approach, that really doesn't matter here.

What matters is that the Monroe series can significantly help the running game and gives the ball to one of the two most explosive offensive players on the team -- that's good, especially since Mack Brown talks all the time about how difficult it is to get carries for more than about two running backs. Even though it appears that those two backs are Fozzy Whittaker and Cody Johnson, this package still allows Monroe an opportunity to touch the ball. Davis should run these plays up to about 10 times per game -- once again, the beauty of series-based football is that as long as the offensive coordinator can correctly see how the defense is defending each play, the defense should always be wrong.

To make sure the defense is always wrong, Davis could make one important adjustment to increase the effectiveness of the plays. Instead of calling the play before the defense lines up, Texas could look back to the sideline after the defense shows their coverage to get the play. If a team overloads the wide side of the field or separates their linebackers in the box significantly, as Oklahoma did on the quarterback counter, Davis can get the offense into the proper play. A similar solution is to allow McCoy the ability to call the play at the line of scrimmage and it's possible that Davis already does give him that freedom, though it's impossible to tell.

It's worth noting that defenses continue to play this formation with two safeties deep, concerned about the pass. If defenses do begin adjusting, the Longhorns need to have two or three passing plays out of the formation, either keeping Monroe as the split end in the formation or having him run a route after coming in motion -- a wheel route would work well, a play the Longhorns have only tried to hit with Monroe once this season, against Oklahoma. Basically, the idea is to add another constraint play by passing the ball to keep that extra eight defender out of the box or close to the line of scrimmage on the wide side of the field. Texas has now had two full weeks to put in those passing plays, so they have had plenty of time for installation if they need those plays this weekend against Oklahoma State.

The other adjustment is less likely, but could allow the Longhorns more flexibility in the formation. By using Marquise Goodwin as the motion man in the formation, Texas could run all the same passing plays they normally do with Goodwin at split end, a position he played for several snaps against Missouri, while putting Monroe at running back, a player who can more quickly take the edge on the running back counter than Whittaker, critical since there is so little space on the short side of the field. The only downside is that Monroe would be responsible for blitz pick up on the throwing play and would also have to block on stealer. However, given his ability to pick up extra yardage, it's not inconceivable that he could cut a defender about as well as Whittaker and picking up the blitz isn't a problem until the Longhorns actually decide to throw out of the formation. Obviously, putting Goodwin and Monroe on the field at the same time for the Monroe Series is a long shot, but it does get the two fastest players on the team on the field in a formation other than the empty set.

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