Slowing Down Georgia Tech's Offense

Why Paul Johnson's If-Then decision tree is so difficult to defend and what to expect on Saturday.

Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech offense is a nightmare to defend, especially on a normal week’s preparation. It’s different from what any other Power 5 conference team runs, and they do it so well and so fast that it’s very difficult to simulate in practice. Georgia Tech puts tremendous pressure on each defender to do his assignment perfectly—the option is built to probe for one mistake and then hit a home run.

Most discussions of Johnson’s offense end right there—it’s different, it’s difficult or impossible to simulate, and it requires “assignment football” (as though other offenses didn’t. But in many respects, Johnson’s offensive philosophy is very similar to that of Jimbo Fisher, despite the different ways they go about it. Both offenses are built on the principle of always having an answer for everything the defense does and never trying to force exactly what the defense is trying to stop.

Whereas some coaches believe in establishing dominance by running specific plays regardless of what the defense does, few modern offenses (and almost no successful ones) operate according to that principle. Instead, the preferred approach is to have a bread-and-butter play (or combination of two or three plays) that serve as default “blind” calls—things the offensive coordinator can call without knowing the specific defense because they have options to beat each potential defensive look.

For Florida State, this is the outside zone/bubble screen combination in the running game and Houston in the passing game. For Georgia Tech, it’s the triple option out of the traditional Flexbone formation.

The Flexbone is essentially the old Wishbone but with the halfbacks converted into “A Backs,” a combination running back/slotback typically lined up a yard behind and just outside the offensive tackle. That change in alignment allows the Flexbone to release four receivers into pass routes immediately, always threatening the defense vertically in a way the Wishbone never could.

The basic triple option involves a dive, quarterback run threat, and one of the A Backs coming around the formation to receive a possible option pitch. The front side defensive tackle and defensive end are both left unblocked, allowing the offensive linemen to get to the second level while the quarterback “blocks” each of them by “optioning” them (see diagram below).

If the defensive tackle stays square, the quarterback hands the ball to the dive back, who has leverage to get at least three or four yards. If the defensive tackle turns his shoulders to take the dive back, the quarterback pulls the handoff and proceeds down the line. He then reads the end man on the line of scrimmage (typically the defensive end) and goes through the same process. If the end turns his shoulders to commit to the QB, he pitches. If he stays square, the QB turns upfield with the football.

The play is simple and elegant and a nightmare to defend in itself. But the real problem is that this play only scratches the surface of what the Yellow Jackets do. You’ll notice that everything on this play is predicated on an “if … then” decision tree. “If the defensive tackle does this, then do this.” That decision tree works all the way back to what Georgia Tech runs as variations and wrinkles off this bread-and-butter play.

The Option’s If-Then Decision Tree

Many option offensive coordinators actually use an “If-Then Sheet” to simplify the playcalling decision tree. This sheet has a specific call designed to beat any look the defense might show. Paul Johnson doesn’t use such a sheet—it’s all in his head—but he operates by those same principles.

It works something like this:

IF the defense starts overflowing from the back side to get leverage, THEN run reverse pitch off the triple option.

IF the offense leaves an A gap Bubble by putting the defensive tackle in a 2 (head up with the guard) or 3 (just outside the guard’s shoulder) technique, THEN run Midline Option. The Midline is actually what should scare most offensive coordinators the most when playing Tech, as this option series essentially combines power principles with option principles and can get 4-5 yards a pop even if they have excellent players on the interior.

The basic difference between the Midline series and the traditional Triple series is that the Midline sends the B-back (fullback) behind the center rather than the guard and doesn’t send the quarterback down the line of scrimmage. Instead, if the defensive tackle takes the dive back, the quarterback tucks right into the vacated area and gets upfield immediately.

If the linebackers have been flowing fast to get to the perimeter, this play can gash a defense for big plays straight up the middle. And even if they’re at home, they have to fight through a releasing guard (and usually the lead block from the slot) to get to the quarterback. The threat of the midline forces those players to stay at home to read the initial dive, slowing down perimeter pursuit.

A fuller explanation of the midline series can be found here, and my critique of how Florida State failed to defend the Midline in 2009 can be found here. Here’s an example of a Midline “Blast” or “Lead” play on which the playside slotback loops inside to serve as a lead blocker for the quarterback:

IF a team adjusts to take that away via the outside linebacker reading the playside slotback’s lead block and coming inside, Georgia Tech can come back with something like this, where the slot stays put, destroying that defensive key:

It’s infuriating. But we're just getting started.

IF the defense responds to the midline threat by putting both defensive tackles inside, taking away the A gaps, THEN run standard triple option with the Dive back in the B gap.

IF the defense tries to squeeze that by having the perimeter defender squat on the pitch (turning shoulders inside), THEN run rocket sweep, outflanking that defender, who can’t turn outside quickly enough.

IF the defense brings an extra defender to the LOS and goes MOFC (single-high safety), THEN run four verticals and throw to uncovered vertical route.

The list goes on and on, and the offense literally has a simple answer for any possible response the defense might take. If Johnson has a quarterback who can read and adjust at the line of scrimmage, the offense should never be wrong and should always be running something the defense is not designed to stop.

It’s terrifying.

How To Defend It

What then is the answer on defense? As always, the answer starts with personnel. The defense had better have terrific athletes who can beat blocks and tackle in space. If you don’t have better athletes on defense than they have on offense, Tech can eat you alive.

Beyond that, the key is to defend the option inside-out, forcing the offense to work horizontally as long as possible to allow the defense time to pursue. This starts by having outstanding defensive tackle and inside linebacker play.

To do this, I expect Florida State to two-gap Georgia Tech with its defensive tackles on the inside at least some of the time, keeping the Georgia Tech linemen from getting easy releases to the second level and trying to slow down the dive read by putting its defensive tackles head-up with blockers. Either way, I think FSU's primary aim will be to create piles on the line of scrimmage with its size inside and force Georgia Tech wide, with the DLs getting their hands on the OL early to make sure no lineman gets a free release to the second level (that is something I castigated the 2009 team for not doing). That's going to be primary all game—keep it clogged inside, force it outside.

Against the Citadel, FSU typically kept its middle linebacker (usually Reggie Northrup) deeper than usual in the effort to keep him clean and allow him to come downhill against the midline while still being able to scrape laterally against a traditional triple option. The Citadel responded by sending crack-back blocks inside, forcing FSU’s CBs and other secondary players to take pitch responsibility. P. J. Williams’ and Ronald Darby’s ability as tacklers on the perimeter will be critical in this game as a result.

I expect to see that hold constant most of the way in this game as FSU does different things on the defensive line in front of him and shows at least four or five different looks while also changing things before the snap in the effort to “regain the chalk.” It’s going to be a chess match all night between Johnson and Charles Kelly, who knows Johnson’s system well, having coached several years in Atlanta.

Tech receiver DeAndre Smelter’s injury significantly affects this game as Smelter was the Jackets’ one true downfield threat in the passing game. Without Smelter, I expect to see FSU get a bit more aggressive in the secondary than they might have been, allowing safeties and corners to take more force responsibility against the run.

Florida State is fortunate to have had John Franklin as the scout team QB all week, as he’s one of the few players in the country faster and more athletic than Justin Thomas while still being able to throw effectively. It’s still not the same as seeing this offense run with the speed and efficiency Tech brings to the table, but at least the defense has now had two weeks (the Citadel and this week) to work against these looks.

Conclusions and Prediction

I think Smelter’s absence is huge in this game, and Florida State’s run defense has been improving as the young defense has gotten healthier and more assignment-sound over the second half of the season.

FSU’s size on the interior with Goldman, Derrick Mitchell, Mario Edwards, Jr., and Derrick Nnadi (who has been playing well of late) should be a major asset in being able to defend inside-out, and Seminoles are longer and faster on the edge than anyone else Tech has played this season. I also expect Williams’ size, ability to fight through blocks, and tackling ability from his corner position to be a significant factor in this game, with FSU giving him pitch responsibility at times.

The key to this game will be FSU’s ability to win enough first downs to get Georgia Tech off schedule. FSU will play very aggressively on first down in the effort to get tackles for loss or very short gains, while Georgia Tech wants at least three yards on each first down play to keep the chains moving. Thanks to FSU’s size inside and length on the perimeter, I expect the FSU defense to be able to win enough of those matchups to keep Georgia Tech from holding the ball on lengthy touchdown drives, though they're likely to give up a big play or two in exchange for that aggressiveness.

I think FSU’s magic number on offense in this game is 31 points—if they score more than that, they win the game. The problem for the Seminoles is that Jameis Winston has obviously had a draining week in every respect, so he is unlikely to be at his best. Fortunately for FSU, Georgia Tech’s run defense has not been outstanding, and the FSU running game has started to click over the last few weeks.

I think at the end of the day, Florida State runs the football well enough to beat Georgia Tech in yet another close game. I have Florida State punching its playoff ticket with a 31-27 win (win probability 70%).

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