How Florida State Will Try to Defend Paul Johnson'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 linebacker play. 

To do this, I expect Florida State to give the defensive tackles A gap responsibility to limit the midline threat and keep the Georgia Tech guards from getting easy releases to the second level. The primary aim here will be to clog the interior and get push inside, forcing 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 will be primary all game—keep it clogged inside, force it outside.

Last year, FSU typically kept its middle linebacker (usually Reggie Northrup) deeper than usual (about eight yards off the ball) in the effort to keep him clean and allow him to come downhill against the dive or midline if the ball carrier breaks through the line while still being able to scrape laterally as secondary support against a traditional triple option, functioning almost like a third safety. A typical response to this is to send crack-back blocks inside, forcing FSU’s CBs and other secondary players to take secondary pitch responsibility. Jalen Ramsey and Marquez White's ability to fight through blocks and be effective as tacklers on the perimeter will be critical in this game as a result.

Derwin James (who I expect to see in the box most of the game) and Ro'Derrick Hoskins will likely have a double responsibility, taking the B gap against the triple option and the D gap against rocket sweeps.

I expect to see that basic look hold constant most of the way in this game as FSU keeps things simple on the defensive front. 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.

Georgia Tech lacks the downfield threats in the passing game they had in 2014. Without that kind of threat in 2015, I expect to see FSU get aggressive in the secondary, allowing safeties and corners to take more force responsibility against the run.

Conclusions and Prediction

Florida State’s run defense has been outstanding in 2015 thanks to a deeper and more assignment-sound defensive line. Georgia Tech has struggled to block good defensive tackles so far in 2015, and FSU has been excellent on the interior with Nile Lawrence-Stample, Derrick Nnadi, Demarcus Christmas (who has been playing very well of late). This combination suggests that FSU should be able to defend inside-out without overcommitting personnel to stopping the dive, and Seminoles are longer and faster on the edge with Josh Sweat and Jacob Pugh than they were in 2014.

I also expect Ramsey's 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. Tech's offense is especially dangerous when they can throw at will rather than because of necessity. I expect FSU to play more 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, and Tech isn't as athletic on the perimeter as they were in 2014, so they're less likely to bust big plays 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. Fortunately for FSU, Georgia Tech’s run defense has not been especially good this year, and the FSU running game has been one of the nation's best behind Dalvin Cook's spectacular start.

I think at the end of the day, Florida State runs the football well enough to control this game and walk out of Atlanta with a win. I have Florida State winning 38-27 win (win probability 75%).

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