The Chalkboard: 'Noles 41, Terps 16

Florida State had a lot of success against Maryland on the offensive side of the ball pairing a zone-read run play with a bubble-screen pass play. To explain, Jason Staples goes to The Chalkboard again.

It was a tale of two halves for the ‘Noles, with most of the damage in the first half done through the air while the ground attack was the weapon of choice in the second.

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher had this to say after the game about using the pass to set up the run:

"Well, we did. [It's about] the matchups. I mean, we had some runs called there, but that's what they gave us and [junior quarterback] E.J. [Manuel] was taking it. And we were able to execute and hit it, and we've got some big-play wideouts which opened some things up in the running game and got ‘em going."

In this explanation, Fisher is referring to a staple of the FSU offense -- along with many modern spreads, such as those at Auburn, Clemson and Oregon -- in which the offense comes to the line with a play combining a zone read with a bubble screen.

Essentially, the offensive line blocks as though the play were an inside zone or zone read, with the running back(s) also treating the play as an inside zone. The receiver(s) to the back side, on the other hand, run a bubble screen. It is the QB's responsibility to read the opponent and take what the defense is giving him. If the primary perimeter defender is shading more toward run support (leverage closer to the so-called "box"), then he throws the bubble. If the perimeter defender respects the bubble, then he dials up the run.

Each option serves as a "constraint" on the defense, forcing the enemy to play honest. So long as the passer makes the proper reads, the defense will always, for lack of a better term, guess wrong because the offense will simply run the counter to whatever the defenders try to take away.

Essentially, the offense has a built-in right answer to whatever the defense shows.

In this sense, the bubble screen paired with the zone read is a modern triple option, with the bubble serving the same role (horizontal stretch constraint) as the pitch element of the triple option, with a similar risk level. This is why most coaching staffs today regard the bubble as a part of their running game, even calculating it with their rushing yards -- and subtracting it from their passing yards -- when self-evaluating statistics.

Ultimately, the goal of this package is to get a 4- to 7-yard gain on "choice" or "neutral" downs (first-and-10, second-and-medium) to set up a manageable yardage situation for the second- or third-down play. This is the primary reason teams run the football. The object is to stay in front of the sticks, forcing the defense to defend the entire field and the whole range of offensive possibilities. So long as a team is able to do this, it doesn't really matter whether it's done on the ground or through the air.

This realization is one of the late Bill Walsh's biggest contributions to the game.

Here's an early example of an obvious bubble read, with the primary perimeter defender (the cornerback) playing 8 yards off the receiver and the support player (in the red circle) close to the line of scrimmage just off the tight end.

This is an easy decision, with Manuel pulling the ball and throwing the "extended handoff" (or "forward pitch," if you prefer) to Christian Green on the outside with no defender near him. The play went for an easy, risk-free 21-yard gain.

A couple quick coaching notes: Typically, in a single-receiver-to-a-side set like this, the read is to throw outside immediately if the corner is playing more than 7 yards off. This also has the effect of opening up vertical routes by forcing smaller cushions. The receiver is told to run to the numbers before even thinking about cutting back to avoid pursuit from the inside. He must get a minimum of 4 yards on this play and should average well over that.

Success with the bubble forces the defense to alter its alignment to take away the perimeter threat, opening up the box for the other two options: the zone to the back and the read keeper by the QB.

This is exactly what happened in the second half, as Maryland adjusted to take away the bubbles FSU had run early, which opened the running lanes for big plays from Jermaine Thomas and Devonta Freeman.

You can see the difference on Thomas' long TD run, as the corner is up on the line of scrimmage, while Maryland has another player (yellow circle) in a better perimeter support position. Manuel's run threat has frozen the back-side pursuit (red circle), leading to a big seam for Thomas.

The same was true on a 25-yard Thomas run later in the game.

Maryland committed three players to cover two on the perimeter (the third perimeter defender in the red circle has walked over from further to the left), giving the ‘Noles a play-side numbers advantage in the running game, which again led to a big run.

If that player in the red circle were a bit further inside, this defensive look would be vulnerable to a tunnel screen to the outside receiver. That's something coaches up in the box would note and suggest if Maryland showed that alignment several times.

Understanding this aspect of the modern running game is also important for fans that may identify the bubble screen as a pass call and become frustrated that the offense is not running the football when it seems they should be. In fact, this package is effectively a run call, even if the ball technically travels through the air if the defense has committed to stopping the called run play. The same play was called in all three of the above examples, with the defensive alignment determining which option was actually chosen.

FSU runs numerous variations of this fundamental concept, often with a sight read, as in these examples, but other times involving an audible at the line of scrimmage. This approach is a fundamental part of the modern running game and at its best keeps the defense permanently off balance -- always guessing wrong.

But like any option concept, this approach puts a lot of responsibility on the QB, who must manage the game artfully and make the right check at the right time. Otherwise, the offense gets off balance.

There's no question Fisher's offense requires a great deal of his quarterback, who not only must make the right reads after the snap. He also has to get the offense into the right play before the snap.


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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