Play Action Gives Tennessee Traction

A lot of football fans hear the term "balanced offense" and think middle-of-the-road ambiguity, a neither fish-or-fowl attack that smacks of indecision and lacks distinction.

They would rather see a spread ‘em-and-thread ‘em air show that turns a 60-minute game into a four-hour thrill ride, featuring offensive pyrotechnics that light up the scoreboard, put fannies in the seats and fans on their feet. Under Hal Mumme Kentucky called it fastball football, under Lavelle Edwards at BYU it was known as the multidimensional passing game, offensive guru Mouse Davis dubbed his version of air-it-out football — the run and shoot.

The football fan with a bend toward the conservative might prefer a rock ‘em-sock ‘em offense that pounds opponents into submission while controling the ball and field position. At Ohio State, Woody Hayes' run-oriented offense was known as three yards and a cloud of dust, and Hayes was noted for saying: ‘Three things can happen when you throw the football and two of them are bad.' In the 1970s, the wishbone and variations of the veer option dominated the gridiron landscape. Teams like Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama symbolized power football that aimed to balance and break the defense down by isolating the point of attack and executing technique— perfection through repetition.

For the most part under Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee has been balanced but rarely boring. The Vols have attempted to combine a vertical passing game with a smack-mouth rushing attack to both burn opponents and beat them down. UT has made the offense work because it forces defenses to cover the entire field and allows the Vols to ultilize their speed in combination with power. It's an offense that relies on UT's ponderance of athletic talent and forces opponents into unfavorable match-ups. It also makes defenses choose between double teams and single coverage when the Vols go to three- or four-receiver sets which can create opportunities for both the run and pass.

Without Kelley Washington or Donte Stallworth, Tennessee couldn't force many double teams nor could it capitalize on single coverage. Those inabilities freed more defenders to crowd the box and take away the run. Additionally, it allowed defenses to ultiize more stunts and blitzes which further complicated blocking assignments, and forced UT into an almost defensive posture. The resulting confusion was as often as not the reason we saw so many jail breaks on third-and-long situations with Casey Clausen fleeing for his life.

The real advantage to a balanced offense is that it gives you a viable solution to most every game circumstance, all weather conditions and any field position. The downside is that it usually relies on a lot of pre-snap reads, route adjustments and alteration of blocking assignments which are challenging under the best of conditions. The more inexperienced players you use the more problematical it becomes. Last year Tennessee was forced to do just that because of injuries and the lack of quality receivers.

Although Tennessee has more talent at wide receiver this season, it is largely untested. The Vols need a couple of their young receivers to learn the offense well enough to impact opponent strategy and coverage. As long as teams feel they can cover four receivers with four defenders it leaves only six Vols to block seven opponents. Those sort of numbers make it difficulty for an offense to remain consistent. It also enables defenses to free someone to rush the quarterback that is unaccounted for. The resulting lost yardage is demoralizing to an offense and fuel for a defense.

Another obstacle Tennessee has to overcome in its commitment to balance is the fact it's base alignment is the I-formation which isn't an ideal passing formation. Naturally, that's why we rarely see UT in the I on third down and anything more than two yards.

Though it's sometimes overlooked, the fulcrum that supports a balanced offense is play action and Tennessee's ability to execute this phase of its offensive package will largely determine its recovery this season. What play action requires to be successful is an experienced operator behind the center who can make the change and sell the fake. It also requires the tailback and linemen to sell the run. It takes good timing between quarterback and receiver. And it takes the element of surprise. In other words, teams need to self scout their tendencies and be willing to pass when they normally run, or run when they would normally pass.

Performed correctly play action takes away a defense's underneath coverage, slows its pass rush, limits its aggressivness and exploits it tendencies. For instance: The speed rusher that tries to run around the tackle to get to the quarterback creating a natural hole to run through.

An offense has to continue to evolve its play action look as defenses adjust. Varying seemingly small things like reversing the QB out from center in order to hide the ball longer can give the defense a false read. The waggle pass that Maryland diagnosed on the first play in last year's Peach Bowl could have been countered with a throw-back screen.

The key to making the balanced offense work is to keep a defense guessing and play action is the best way to keep a defense guessing. It doesn't obligate UT to use play action on the majority of its throws but enough to effectively maintain its offensive balance and keep the defense off balance.

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