Most modern defenses use primarily "one-gap" schemes in which each player is responsible for a single gap along the line of scrimmage, as can be seen in the graphic below (each gap is represented by a letter).
The option presents a special problem for such a scheme in that two potential ball carriers may pass through a single gap, "optioning" the defender responsible for that gap, choosing which player winds up with the ball based on that defender's position. In doing so, the offense can effectively ensure that the hapless defender will always be wrong, regardless of what he chooses.
Thus when people talk about how to defend a triple option scheme, they typically talk about "assignment football" as opposed to standard gap control defense. That is, the defense assigns one player to the dive back, another to the quarterback, and another to the pitch back.
It's true that each individual play ultimately requires this kind of assignment football, but Johnson's version of the option is especially pernicious in its variety, in the way Johnson toys with these assignments, forcing opposing defenses to adjust on the fly to a wrinkle that might involve a changes as simple as blocking the linebacker rather than the defensive end.
In the words of UNC senior defensive tackle Tim Jackson, "They do well adjusting mid-drive. They'll find out what a guy is doing, they'll find out if he's undisciplined in his job and then attack him. Every play they're reading somebody different. So one play they might be reading me and what I do. Next play they might be reading a defensive end. Next play they might be reading a safety to see if he comes up so they can throw the ball. So you have to do your job every play."
Tweaking the Assignments
Take the videos below as an example of the way Johnson's offense identifies which players are assigned to what option and then tweaks the call to take advantage of those particular assignments. (Videos courtesy of The Birddog's excellent analysis of the Flexbone.)
On this play, the corner forces the pitch while the safety is responsible for the pitch back and comes up and makes the tackle. So far, so good. The problem is that when the exact same play was called to the other side, the playside slotback, having learned from the previous play that the linebacker's responsibility was inside, blocked the safety responsible for the pitch instead of the linebacker. The result?
The defense again plays assignment football exactly as it did the prior play—only the safety responsible for the pitch back can't get there due to the block, leading to a huge play down the sideline. (Even worse, you'll notice that Johnson put twins to the short side in making this second call, pulling the corner to the other side of the field to cover an ineligible receiver.)
This is a big part of what makes defending Johnson's Flexbone offense so difficult. Every drive involves this cat-and-mouse game, with Johnson probing for just the right look to confuse or disrupt the defensive assignments. It is critical that the defense have counters to Johnson's counters, with the defense having multiple calls with different assignments and—better still—ensuring that defenders are able to recognize concepts and swap assignments when necessary.
The Importance of Experience
Last year's Carolina defense was still learning a new defensive system when it was thrust into this unenviable task, with the predictable result that players often simply had no idea how to respond when Johnson countered what they had prepared.
This year's defense has the advantage of the players already being comfortable with the base schemes, leaving more room for the on-the-fly adjustments demanded when facing Johnson's offense. Whether that's enough for Carolina to win this game remains an open question.
The Big Pass Play
Finally, the other major advantage the Flexbone has over other traditional option offenses is that—as with more familiar spread option offenses that operate from the shotgun—the Flexbone lines up with four receiving options on the line of scrimmage, allowing for quick releases into the passing game, including the "four verticals" (four receivers released on downfield routes at once) concept defensive coordinators fear. Combine this with the constant run threat and the downfield play-action passing game is perhaps the most devastating thing in the Jackets' offense.
Once defenses begin committing extra secondary players to the running game—or if safeties start flying up against the run—those four receivers on the line of scrimmage are immediate big-play threats.
Additionally, because of the constant threat of the option, defenses are limited in which coverages they can use and are typically forced into vanilla defensive schemes to retain soundness against the option. This means Georgia Tech's quarterbacks rarely see anything that might cause much confusion, making their task that much easier.
There are unfortunately no easy solutions for stopping a robust and schematically sound offense like that of Georgia Tech. Because the nature of the offense itself so drastically limits what a defense can do schematically, it really boils down to personnel and execution. Here are a few keys to limiting Johnson's prolific offense:
1) The defensive tackles must play excellent, sound football. If you can't stop the dive back, you won't stop anything. And if you have to commit extra players to it, you'll just give up lots of big plays.
2) The defensive backs must be totally disciplined and only "go when they know"—if they begin to come up too quickly in run support, backbreaking pass plays are sure to follow.
3) Defensive players must fully understand the concepts underlying their assignments and be able to adjust to slight wrinkles on the fly.
4) It is critical that the team tackle well in space. This offense creates a lot of one-on-one matchups in space, and one missed tackle can mean a huge play. 5) Hit the quarterback every time he runs it—make the pitch back beat you. The more often you force the pitch and hit the quarterback, the more opportunities for a fumbled pitch you have. These elements still won't stop everything—we haven't even gotten into Tech's terrific sweep game, for example—but those five keys will keep a defense from getting run off the field by the Flexbone.