As the field gets shorter, the advantages of a spread offense disappear, since the defense no longer has to defend the deep zones and can regain the numbers advantage against the run with more players in the box. The challenge is therefore to find ways to gain those tough yards when everything is compressed and there is less space to run or throw.
One solution is of course to have a big running quarterback—like a Tim Tebow or Cam Newton—who can get tough yards between the tackles and tip the numerical advantage back to the offense. That option is not really on the table with Bryn Renner on the field, so one good option is to use Marquise Williams in special packages that use his legs.
The “Diamond” Formation
Against Middle Tennessee State, the Heels displayed another package with good short yardage options—though they used it in the middle of the field—the pistol formation, most notably the so-called “Diamond Formation” with tight ends Eric Ebron and Jack Tabb lined up at H-Back/Fullback positions on each side of the quarterback.
As can be seen from the above picture, Marquise Williams was the quarterback on at least one occasion, suggesting that there may indeed be some short-yardage packages that might make use of his running ability later in the season.
This formation hearkens back to Fedora’s Flexbone days under Fisher DeBerry at Air Force, with the exception that the quarterback is in the pistol and the two wingbacks are tighter and further in the backfield.
This puts two large lead blockers in the backfield while also forcing the defense into a balanced look, since the offense is equally strong to each side. The other benefit is common to all Pistol formations—the running back is able to get the football with lots of forward momentum, unlike the traditional shotgun.
The defense also has to honor the misdirection threat provided by each H-Back, since the tailback can follow one as a lead blocker while the other can either release into the flat as a blocker for the quarterback or a receiver on a bootleg.
There are also variations that involve giving the football to the backside H-Back (Ebron, for example) going the opposite direction of the tailback action. Such use of misdirection—while still having a power running threat—helps the offense regain the initiative without the benefit of spreading the defense.
That Carolina is able to run this formation with Ebron and Tabb in the backfield is an additional advantage, since both players are also able to line up at tight end or split wide in a receiver role, making it difficult for defenses to match personnel based on substitution patterns.
That flexibility can help prevent the defense from matching this look with a “jumbo” personnel grouping better suited to stop the power game in short yardage. If a defense should try that, Carolina would likely adjust by moving Ebron wide, perhaps using motion, to try to isolate him on a poor coverage player.
The downside to the Diamond is that it actually further compresses the formation by putting four players in the backfield. Unlike a one-back formation with two tight ends on the line of scrimmage or a traditional I-formation or a Pistol set with a fullback, the defense does not have to fear a quick release by either H-Back.
In my opinion, this makes the Diamond less suitable for short yardage outside the red zone, though those problems are minimized by the lack of any vertical space inside the ten yard line.
The offense also showed another good short-yardage option, using an unbalanced line out of a strong I-Formation set on the goalline, with Eric Ebron lining up at left tackle and James Hurst moved to the right side of the formation. That’s a lot of beef on the right side, leading to a fairly easy touchdown plunge.
The real oddity here is that Carolina practiced these looks—and the Pistol in general—quite a bit during camp but did not use it against South Carolina, even when struggling to punch the ball in on the goal line. Instead, Carolina lined up in a traditional I-formation with Tabb at fullback and Ebron lined up next to Hurst on Jadeveon Clowney’s side.
I suspect that respect for Clowney’s impact on the edge led the UNC staff to prefer an in-line tight end to that side to help with Clowney rather than putting that player in the backfield in a Diamond set and asking Hurst to single-block Clowney or going unbalanced and asking Ebron to single-block a very good defensive end on the backside. Either way, I’d definitely expect to see more Pistol and Diamond formations the rest of the year, and keep an eye out for unbalanced lines in short yardage.
A Few Notes about the Defense
The defense again gave up a few too many plays and more points than ideal against MTSU, but the performance was not really a poor one. Keep in mind that Georgia Tech gave up 49 points (albeit with some turnover help) in a loss to the Blue Raiders in 2012. This was not Elon; MTSU is a pretty good football team.
The South Carolina offense’s performance against Georgia on Saturday should also be encouraging to Tar Heel fans, as the Bulldogs gave up 7.44 YPP (454 yards/61 plays) and 30 points, compared to 6.9 YPP (406 yards/59 plays) and 27 points given up by the UNC defense.
It is also evident that the defensive staff is trying to find ways to keep its best eleven players on the field more often, as evidenced by the number of reps seen from Darius Lipford. In my view, Lipford should come off the field as little as possible, as he can offer much-needed size and explosiveness to the linebacker position on standard downs and can then move to the Bandit position for extra pass rush on passing downs.
Unfortunately, this is where Shakeel Rashad’s injury hurts quite a bit, as having two Bandits with pass rush ability in addition to Lipford might have allowed Lipford to get more reps at linebacker. Either way, the defense looked a little better out of odd (3-man) fronts than standard 4-man fronts against MTSU’s spread formations, something I’d expect to see a bit more of as the year goes on.