MHR Primer: The Urban Meyer Offense in Denver? (Part 2)

DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 18: Running back Willis McGahee #23 of the Denver Broncos rushes with the ball as Frostee Rucker #92 and Manny Lawson #99 of the Cincinnati Bengals move in for the tackle at Invesco Field at Mile High on September 18, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. McGahee rushed for 101 yards as the Broncos defeated the Bengals 24-22. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

"There's no such thing as luck, there's a big word called investment. If there was luck, why work as hard as we do? I've never been involved in a game where the most invested team lost." Urban Meyer

In Part 1 of this series, we painted a very broad picture of the Urban Meyer offense which produced Denver's current starting quarterback, Tim Tebow. The reason for taking a closer look at Meyer's offense is the strong possibility that we might be seeing a variation of that offense being run by the Broncos come September. Unfortunately, there are a number of mis-characterizations of the Meyer offense as being almost exclusively a read-option spread offense -- in the sense that pretty much all they do is run the ball.

The idea of installing the Meyer offense by an NFL team has been widely criticized by former NFL players/coaches, media pundits and fans alike. It has had the further, unfortunate effect of painting Tim Tebow as a quarterback who cannot possibly successful in the long run in Denver (no pun intended).

Since the Meyer offense is, in fact, a run-first -- though not a run-exclusively -- offense, this installment of this series will take a closer look at the running component of Meyer's offense. It would be helpful to be aware of the fact that from 2006-2009 (or the four years Tebow was playing for Meyer), the Gators ran the ball 59% of the time and passed it 41% of the time. This balance ranged from a low of running 54% of the time in 2006 (when Chris Leak was the starting quarterback) to a high of running 62% of the time in 2008. Tebow personally accounted for approximately 29% of these rushing plays.We will address Tebow's personal pass/run balance in the third part of this series.


Let's make our cut and turn the ball upfield.

The foundation upon which Meyer built his running game was the formations he used. In one edition of a playbook -- purported to have been compiled out of extensive film study of Florida games, there are thirty-one different formations, all but one of them were shotgun formations (it will be seen in Part 3, that Meyer did allow for the quarterback to operate from beneath center on some passing plays). In those formations, the following conventions are used:
X and Z are used to designate wide receivers.
Y is used to designate tight ends.
F is used to designate an h-back.
S is presumably used to designate a slot wide receiver.
T is used to designate running backs.


These formations can be grouped based on how many receivers are split wide to either side of the line.

5 Wide Formations (empty backfield)

Trick Right: X and T to the left, Y, F and Z to the right, F motions to the left and goes behind the QB
Trick Left: X, F and Y to the left, T and Z to the right, T motions to the left and goes behind the QB
Trigger Right: X and T to the left, Y, F and Z to the right, X motions to the right and goes behind QB
Trigger Left: X, F and Y to the left, T and Z to the right, Z motions to the left and goes behind the QB
Thunder Right: X and F to the left, T, Y and Z to the right, T motions to the left and goes behind the QB
Thunder Left: X, Y and T to the left, F and Z to the right, T motions to the right and goes behind the QB; there is a variation in which F motions to the left and goes behind the QB
4 Wide Formations (one back)

Doubles: X and F to the left, Y and Z to the right, T to the left of the QB; four variations with different motions using F or Y and having them go in front and behind the QB
Trio Right: X to the left, F Y and Z to the right, T to the left of the QB, F motions to the left and goes behind the QB
Trio Left: X, Y and F to the left, Z to the right, T to the right of the QB, F motions to the right and goes behind the QB; variation - T motions to the left and goes behind the QB
Trips Right: X to the left, Y, F and Z to the right, T to the left of the QB, Y motions to the left and goes behind the QB
Trips Left: X, F and Y to the left, Z to the right, T to the right of the QB, Y motions to the right and goes behind the QB
3 Wide Formations

Right: X and F to the left, Z to the right, Y on right end of the OL, T to the right of the QB, F motions to the right and goes behind the QB
Left: X to the left, F and Z to the right, Y on the left end of the OL, T to the left of the QB, F motions to the left and goes behind the QB
Split Right Flex: X to the left, Y and Z to the right, T to the left of the QB, F to the right of the QB, Y motions to the left and crosses in front of the QB
Split Left Flex: X and Y to the left, Z to the right, F to the left of the QB, T to the right of the QB, Y motions to the left and crosses in front of the QB
Right Twins: X, Z and F to the left, Y on the right end of the OL, T to the right of the QB, F motions to the right and goes behind the QB
Left Twins: F, X and Z to the right, Y on the left end of the OL, T to the left of the QB, F motions to the left and goes behind the QB
Trips Right Tight: X on the left, F and Z on the right, Y on the right end of the OL, T to the left of the QB, F motions to the left and goes behind the QB
Trips Left Tight: X and F on the left, Z on the right, Y on the left end of the OL, T to the right of the QB, F motions to the right and goes behind the QB
2 Wide Formations

Split Right : X to the left, Z to the right, Y on right end of the OL, T to the left of the QB, F to Right of QB, F motions forward & right in L
Split Left: X to the left, Z to the right, Y on the left end of the OL, F to the left of the QB, T to the right of the QB, F motions forward & left in L
Strong I Right Flip: X and Z to the right, Y on the right end of the OL, QB under center, F to the right and behind the QB, T directly behind the QB
Ace: X to the left, Z to the right, H on the left end of the OL, Y on the right end of the OL, T to left of the QB, T motions to the right and goes behind the QB
Trey Right: F and Z to the right, H on the left end of the OL, Y on the right end of the OL, T to the left of the QB, F motions to the left and goes behind the QB
Trey Left: X and F to the left, Y on the left end of the OL, H on the right end of the OL, T to the right of the QB, F motions to the right and goes behind the QB
Split Right Twins: X and Z to the left, Y on the right end of the OL, F to the right of the QB, T to the left of the QB, no motion
Split Left Twins: X and Z to the right, Y on the left end of the OL, T to the left of the QB, F to the right of the QB, no motion
1 Wide Formations

Trio Bunch Right: X to the left, F, Y and Z bunched close to the right end of the OL, T to the left of of the QB, F motions to the left and goes behind the QB
Trio Right Bunch Trade: X to the left, F, Y and Z bunched close to the right end of the OL, T to the left of the QB, F, Y and Z all motion to the left, crossing in front of the QB
Trio Left Bunch: Z to the right, X, Y and F bunched close to the left end of the OL, T to the right of the QB, F motions to the right and goes behind the QB
0 Wide Formation

Double Bunch: X and F bunched close to the left end of the OL, Y and Z bunched close to the right end of the OL, T to the right of the QB, T motions to the left and goes behind the QB


I realize that reading through these formation descriptions may have been a bit tedious. They were presented so that we could see the rich variety of formations and personnel packages the Meyer offense uses in its running attack. The base formation for running plays is the Doubles formation:

X LT LG C RG RT Z
F Y
QB
T




Virtually all of the plays called for motion that resulted in a split left flex or a split right flex formation -- which happens to be a base formation for many of the Gators' passing plays.

The Running Game


The first thing that needs to be understood about Meyer's running game is that there is nothing new or revolutionary to it. He has simply taken what he believes to be the best of different systems and combined them to create his own.

The Meyer offense's running attack features two major characteristics: inside zone running and quarterback reads. You may recall that zone blocking is based on the concept of blocking areas rather than pre-assigned defenders. Those areas are defined as: the inside zone -- the ball carrier aims for a point just inside the playside tackle; the outside zone -- the ball carrier aims for a point just outside the playside tackle; the stretch zone -- the ball carrier aims for a point just inside the last offensive player along the line of scrimmage. Meyer also uses the concept of the quarterback reading a key defender -- usually the backside defensive end or linebacker. This read is made AFTER the ball is snapped and determines, in part, whether the quarterback goes ahead and hands the ball off or chooses to keep it.

It should also be mentioned that Meyer has started using an h-back on many of his running plays. For those who are not familiar with the term, the h-back is also known as a power back (Joe Gibbs) and an f-back (Norv Turner). In Meyer's playbook, the h-back is designated with the letter "F." This back is a hybrid of a fullback and a tight end. He is a versatile player who can line up in the backfield, on the line, and is often used as a motion player. He is used in both run and pass blocking, as well as running receiving routes and occasionally acting as a ball carrier on a running play. It is a designation/player not commonly used in the NFL at the current time.

The Meyer offense features five core running plays: the Counter, the Trap, the QB power, the Iso(lation), and the Option. We will take a brief look at each of these runs. There are approximately 81 running plays in the Gators' playbook.

The Counter
In the counter play, the running back to the side of the quarterback away from the playside. At the snap, the playside offensive linemen delay and might even show an apparent pass protection stance. After that brief hesitation, the playside offensive linemen explode forward to block and double team the playside LB. While this is going on, the backside tackle pulls and becomes a lead blocker for the running back. The running back takes one step towards the backside before turning to follow his lead blocker. At the moment of the hand off -- usually called the "mesh" -- the quarterback reads the backside defensive end -- called the "read key." If the read key moves laterally along the line to intercept the running back, the quarterback has the option of pulling the ball back and running with it himself.

Meyer includes some variations on this play:

(1)The running back goes in motion pre-snap and cross in front of the quarterback. The quarterback then keeps the ball and follows the pulling tackle.
(2)The running back lines up on the playside, executes his counter step then circles to follow the lead blocker.
(3)The offense sets up in a two-back set. One is the dive back who will run the counter, the other fakes a sweep to the outside.
(4)The offense sets up in a two back set. The dive back fakes the counter while the other running back executes a sweep.
(5)The offense runs a pro-style "counter-trey." This variation uses two pulling blockers. One takes on the playside defensive end while the other becomes a lead blocker for the running back.

The playbook has approximately twelve counter plays. There is also a series of fifteen plays that are similar to a counter, but the ball is given to a player in motion rather than the dive track back.

The Trap
This is one of the oldest running plays in the NFL. In a trap, the offensive line does not initially block penetrating defensive tackles. The backside guard pulls and throws a hard block on the defensive tackle. The running back, or the quarterback accelerates through the resulting hole. The ball carrier typically aims for the gap between the playside guard and tackle. Variations include having a fullback or an h-back take the place of the pulling guard. The playbook has approximately twenty trap plays.

The QB Power
This play uses the quarterback to force the defense to play eleven-on-eleven on running plays. It is a variation of the NFL's I-formation runs. The offensive line blocks down and double teams defensive linemen to the playside, then push out to take on the linebackers. A backside guard or tackle pulls and lead blocks into the hole while a fullback or h-back attacks the playside defensive end. The quarterback follows the lead blocker into the hole. The playbook has approximately four quarterback power plays.

The Iso(lation)
This is another common NFL play. The goal is for the offensive line to block in such a way that creates a gap in which a line backer is isolated from other defenders. The outside receivers are responsible for blocking the deep defensive backs. A pulling guard or tackle, or a fullback or an h-back lead blocks the linebacker. The ball carrier follows the lead blocker and moves away from the nearest defender and towards the linebacker. If the quarterback is not the ball carrier, he must fake a bootleg or a quarterback keeper to the backside. This play can be used to set up bootlegs and play action passing. The playbook has approximately six iso plays.

The Option
The Meyer option run is based loosely on the traditional veer offense. When executed correctly, the veer is very difficult to stop. It involves four potential playmakers: a dive back, a pitch back, a perimeter blocker and the quarterback. The offensive line blocks all defensive linemen with the exception of the backside defensive end. The quarterback starts to hand the ball off to the dive track back in a move called a "mesh." As he's doing this, the quarterback reads the unblocked defensive end. If the end stays put or penetrates into the backfield, the quarterback releases the ball to the running back. If the end slides down the line in pursuit of the running back, the quarterback pulls the ball back, keeps it and starts to run to the backside. He is trailed by the pitch back. If the end then moves on the quarterback, he can toss the ball to the pitch back. The perimeter blocker takes on the nearest backside defender in the flat. There are approximately twenty option plays in the playbook.

The playbook also has two sweep plays and two reverses.

Implications for the Broncos

We saw the barest glimpse of what the Broncos could do with this kind of a running attack. It is really not all that a revolutionary thing -- it relies on zone blocking, traps, counters, isos, options, mixed with a few quarterback power plays, sweeps and reverses. In other words, nothing that is particularly unique. There are two things that could be suggested as making it different than a traditional NFL running attack:

(1)It is run almost exclusively out of a spread, shotgun formation -- neither of which are unknown in the NFL, but not usually for running plays.
(2)Rather than using pre-snap audibles to change the play in response to a read of the defense -- though this is not ruled out -- the Meyer running attack makes it's critical read AFTER the ball is snapped.


We saw in 2011 just how effective this type of offense COULD be. Consider the fact that the Broncos were able to gain yards on the ground, even at times when the defense was playing to stop the run. What hurt the running game was the fact that the Broncos did not have a credible passing attack to keep defenses honest, along with the fact that the offense was being installed in the middle of the season.

There are a couple of things the Broncos will need to do during this off season to make this type of running attack work:

(1)Pick up another back in the mold of Willis McGahee. We saw how well McGahee could do in the dive track spot, but he will need someone who can spell him.
(2)Pick up a speed back to take the pitch back role. I'm not convinced that this player is currently on the roster.
(3)Pick up a player who can take on the h-back role.
(4)Teach Tebow to be a better reader of NFL defenses.
(5)Help Tebow develop more confidence in his teammates' ability to execute the plays as ball carriers -- he was a little too quick to pull the ball back and try to run it himself in 2011.


Once again, we saw flashes of what this running attack can do. Now we need to see it become more consistent in its ability to successfully execute the running game. Next time, the passing game.

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