The Chalkboard: 'Noles 41, Devils 16

Devonta Freeman was on the field more because he's starting to get it in terms of pass protection. ... Duke had the kind of inside-zone run Florida State has been trying to perfect all season long.

Seminoles on Offense: Blitz Pickup

One of the things that keeps teams from playing young backs, even in the NFL, is they need to understand pass protection. Football is won and lost at the QB position more than anywhere else, and keeping your QB protected has to be a priority.

As it turns out, Leon Washington, who was on the sideline for this game, was saying before kickoff how much he wished this staff had been at FSU when he was there, that he would have been much better prepared for the NFL had he dealt with scouting reports and understood the game better in college.

With very rare exceptions, the timetable for young running backs involves giving them some carries early in the year before getting them more fully involved near the middle of the season, when they're finally aware of where they're supposed to be. Otherwise, putting young backs on the field effectively announces he's going to get the football.

Florida State's Devonta Freeman seemed to have turned the corner against Duke, putting in an especially impressive performance in blitz pickup against a team that brings a lot of pressure.

An example of this is found on Rodney Smith's long TD catch.

On this play, the 'Noles have called a two-man play-action route with max protection, expecting pressure. True to form, Duke brings two defensive backs off the edge with the rest of the defense in man coverage, meaning the two linebackers will come on a delayed blitz as soon as the running backs stay in the backfield for pass protection. FSU's seven blockers must thereby protect against Duke's eight rushers.

Against the blitz, it's critical that the backs recognize where the pressure is coming from -- even backs have to read defenses. Each back is responsible for his side. On this play, fullback Lonnie Pryor has the left. Freeman has the right and a "dual read" responsibility, in which he must check inside for a blitzer first before picking up the outside man. Both backs do this beautifully, stepping forward first and then getting enough width right away to pick up the outside blitzers.

With this view above, you can see who is responsible for whom, with the two guards and the two backs having to read which players come on the blitz.

It would be hard to draw up the protection any better, as E.J. Manuel is able to step forward into a huge throwing lane (note Bobby Hart getting the pancake in the green circle) and make an accurate throw downfield. Freeman (yellow circle) and Pryor have aggressively picked up the blitz on the outside, while Jacob Fahrenkrug (red circle) has rotated from his left guard spot to help tight end Beau Reliford finish the block on the edge.

It may have been Duke, but this was the most cohesive and consistent performance from the FSU offensive line and running backs so far this year. Seminole fans should be especially excited that the talented Freeman appears to be far enough along in the passing game at this point to be the primary back for the rest of the season.

Seminoles on Defense: Inside Zone

Last week, we looked at an example of an inside-zone play in which the running back inadvisably bounced outside and was stopped for a safety. This week, we'll break down what an inside-zone play should look like.

Duke is in the "Pistol" formation here, with quarterback Sean Renfree in the short shotgun and running back Desmond Scott behind him. This allows the back to run with the same kind of forward momentum he would have in the I formation or "Ace" (one back) set rather than getting the ball from a stopped position, while also allowing the QB the extra time and vision afforded by the shotgun. Florida State is in a 3-4 set with Brandon Jenkins as the "Jack" (rush) linebacker on the left side.

Just like last week's example, the play is "inside-zone left," with the offensive line all stepping to their left and causing the defense to flow to the left. The goal is to use the defense's aggression against it, getting the "flow" to move faster in one spot than another, which opens up a seam the back can run through. The inside zone is going to get most of its big plays on the cutback, when the play-side flow gets too quick and opens a seam on the back side. Ideally, the defensive line holds its ground and maintains gap integrity across the line, flowing with the play in order to keep the back from having a seam.

In this case, however, the left side of the FSU front has created a seam, as space has opened between Jenkins and Everett Dawkins, who has lost leverage against the offensive tackle and is getting pushed play side.

You'll notice how important it is that the back stay north and south on the inside zone, as the seam will not be there for long -- he'd better hit it as soon as he sees it. This is where the zone play requires both patience to allow the line to establish the play-side flow and a slashing running style to hit the seam as soon as it's there.

Scott does exactly that, getting north and south first and then making an aggressive cut back to the right.

And now we see the beauty of the inside zone. Jenkins isn't able to recover in time, which allows Scott to hit the second level at full speed and run against the flow of the defense, resulting in a big play for Duke.

The things to note here are just how close this play is to being a simple 2-yard gain, how small the seam is initially -- and, therefore, how critical it is for a defense to keep its gap integrity -- and how running the zone play properly and aggressively can result in big gains, even when the offensive line isn't as talented as the defensive line it's facing.

I expect you'll start to see the FSU offensive line and running backs begin to find a comfort level within the next week or two, leading to a good number of this sort of big play out of the inside zone.

One final thing to note: If the offense has a quarterback that can run, like Manuel, bootleg action out of this play can be devastating when the end crashes inside, as can the zone-read play. Those possibilities put the defense one defender down against the zone run, giving the offense a significant advantage.

Jason Staples was a walk-on wide receiver at Florida State in the early 2000s and is now a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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