Why Bubble?: It's all about Constraint

By Ross Fulton on March 8, 2012 at 9:00a
32 Comments
Putting the ball in space for the sake of arithmetic.

Upon their arrival at Ohio State, Urban Meyer and Tom Herman made clear that they wanted to force the opponent to defend the entire field, both vertically and horizontally.

"I think it's an offense based on using the entire width and length of the football field. The field is 120 yards long and 54 yards wide.  And in our opinion the defense only has eleven human beings to cover that much grass, and so we're going to use space and numbers to our advantage." 

One way spread-to-run teams have traditionally done this is with the bubble screen. (H/T:  Smart Football).

 

 

The bubble is a way to get those favorable 'matchups' of 'speed in space' that commentators fondly discuss.  But the bubble screen also serves a more specific strategic purpose--as a constraint against teams overplaying the base zone run.  

As I have previously discussed, football is a game of arithmetic.  The 'spread to run' helps an offense even the inherent arithmetic disadvantage by making the defense account for the quarterback as a run threat, allowing teams to run from the shotgun effectively.  One way defenses attempt to 'cheat' in response to defend the zone is by sliding an an edge defender off the slot receiver into what Rich Rodriguez terms the 'gray area.'  By bringing the highlighted defender closer to the box it assists in restoring the defense's numbers' advantage.

 

 

The bubble becomes an inexpensive check that constrains the defense from cheating.  As Chris Brown states in discussing the 'constraint' theory of offense.

The idea is that you have certain plays that always work on the whiteboard against the defense you hope to see — the pass play that always works against Cover 3, the run play that works against the 4-3 under with out the linebackers cheating inside. Yes, it is what works on paper. But we don’t live in a perfect world: the “constraint” plays are designed to make sure you live in one that is as close as possible to the world you want, the world on the whiteboard.

Constraint plays thus work on defenders who cheat. For example, the safety might get tired of watching you break big runs up the middle, so he begins to cheat up. Now you call play-action and make him pay for his impatience. The outside linebackers cheat in for the same reason; to stop the run. Now you throw the bubble screen, run the bootleg passes to the flat, and make them pay for their impatience. Now the defensive ends begin rushing hard upfield; you trap, draw, and screen them to make them pay for getting out of position. If that defensive end played honest your tackle could block him; if he flies upfield he cannot. Constraint plays make them get back to basics. Once they get back to playing honest football, you go back to the whiteboard and beat them with your bread and butter.

The bubble is therefore a a constraint upon a backside defender cheating against the zone read, which is itself a constraint upon the basic zone.  We can thus work backwards and see how the spread-to-run offense developed.  Teams wanted to find ways that they could establish an inside run game.  But an offense must account for the backside defender, who is the quarterback's counterpart and thus unblocked.  Coaches discovered that if they had the QB read that defender, suddenly that defender is constrained from crashing the front side run play, making it easier to run the base run play.  If the defender continues to play the run, then the quarterback can simply pull and keep the football.  In turn, a defense may respond by cheating their alley linebacker or nickel into the box.  If that alley player can account for the quarterback, then the defensive end is again free to crash down upon the front side zone play.  The bubble screen is a second level check upon the defense.  It forces the defense to play straight up, providing the offense better numbers to run the base front side zone play.  If the defense fails to do so, the QB simply turns and throws the bubble screen.

Even better, the zone read and bubble screen can be combined together into a package.  In other words, the QB can either make an automatic pre-snap check to the bubble if the slot receive is uncovered, or he can throw the bubble during the play depending on his read.   If the QB keeps the ball based on the defensive end crashing, he can make a quick run or throw read off the alley defender.  The offensive linemen can run-block since the throw is behind the line of scrimmage.  For example, as you can see in the diagrams from Florida's 2008 spring clinic, the half filled O's represent that the QB can throw the bubble screen on a given play depending upon how the defense reacts.  The defense's job is thus made more difficult by the fact that they cannot 'guess.'  The bubble screen thus serves the purpose of constraining the defense and evening out arithmetic, while having the added bonus of getting the ball to an athlete in space.          

32 Comments

Comments

dan_isaacs's picture

And somewhere, beneath the morning Sun,  Bam Childress sheds a tear for what might have been.

Dan Isaacs

Bam_Childress's picture

:(

5 ft 9 in - 185 lbs - ALL HEART

DJ Byrnes's picture

Hahahahahhahahahahahahaha.

Californian by birth, Marionaire by the Grace of President Warren G. Harding.

causeicouldntgo43's picture

Thanks for the analysis Ross. We will undoubtedly be seeing more overall variety in the Buckeye's offensive schemes being deployed this coming season than perhaps we ever have - although 2006 was a pretty good year offensively (until the game against you know who....). Defenses will be constantly tested throughout the entire game - can't wait.

Squirrel Master's picture

So what you are saying is that the zone read actually works if there is a threat of the QB actually throwing a screen or short route? If Braxton was actually given plays that utilizes the advantages of the zone read instead of "who should the pass rusher get to tackle this time" plays, the zone read could actually be a weapon? I knew something was missing last year!

Keep it up Ross! Good stuff!

I just can't help get excited to see what OSU's talent can do with the right game plan. IMO, this team is talented. I think Urban is beating up on the "speed" and "talent" of this team to get some motivation. I think he will find who his players are and will be able to use them to the max. Spring Game here I come!!!

I saw a UFO once.......it told me to have a goodyear!

thatlillefty's picture

forget Percy Harvin... we need another Ted Ginn Jr. !!!

Doc's picture

Ross, another great and informative article.  Could you explain why the play is called a "bubble"?  I'm a non foozball player, but love the game.  All the terminology is very cornfusing.  Thanks.

"Say my name."

yrro's picture

"Bubble" is the name of the route where the receiver or running back takes a step or two backward, and then bubbles out. His route sort of forms a little half circle.

Doc's picture

Thanks YRRO.  That makes sense.

"Say my name."

Buckeye in Athens's picture

Ross, how do defenses proactively defend against the zone-read rather than just responding to what the offense dictates? For instance, rather than just leaving the slot receiver uncovered (and thus tipping your hand and allowing the qb to make a pre-snap read for the bubble), can defenses disguise their intent to cheat? Or do they change personnel, etc? 

yrro's picture

I'm not Ross, but I can give some answers.

Part of what they do is personnel - the "Star" position played by Tyler Moeller at OSU grew out of facing spread offenses. Similarly, so did the "LEO" position played by Nathan Williams. Getting hybrid players with more speed who can cover the slot receiver or track down the athletic quarterback from behind on those runs.

As for schematic solutions, Ross has a great article on this over at along the olentangy http://www.alongtheolentangy.com/2010/10/27/1777708/the-osu-defense-v-pu...

Buckeye in Athens's picture

Thanks Yrro and Fido - this stuff is great. I thought the Star and Leo/Viper positions would be part of it, but didn't know about the DE alternating between crashing and faking crashing.

I think we should put some of these concepts to the test in an organized 11W NCAA '12 tournament. 

Squirrel Master's picture

Another idea would be to play bump coverage on the bubble to buy time until the QB tips his hand.

Not sure if at any time last year did I see Howard or any of the DBs come up and play tight press coverage. With the talent coming in on the front 7, I think a bit of strong press coverage could really bring some sacks

I saw a UFO once.......it told me to have a goodyear!

Ross Fulton's picture

I'm going to write a column about this soon, but the short answer is that defenses play games on the backside to confuse the read.  The most basic is called a scrape exchange.  That is why spread offenses have attempted to run schemes that punish the defense for doing so.  But I will have that column soon!

Buckeye in Athens's picture

Excellent - looking forward to it! 

yrro's picture

Make that two of us!

Run_Fido_Run's picture

My inexpert take:

Defenses can wreak a lot of havoc by cheating both ways, i.e. if they're frequently guessing correctly whether a play will be a base play or a constraint play. One play, they have the DE crash down inside against the RB while the slot defender cheats in against the QB. Later, they bluff that the slot defender will cheat and instead he crashes the bubble screen.

But even if the defense is good at guessing, Ross points out how this "cheating" can still be overcome: e.g., a double option, whereby the QB can handoff to the RB on the base zone run play, run the ball himself outside the tackle, or throw outside to the bubble receiver - thus, outnumbering the "cheaters" 3 to 2. One challenge with this tactic, however, is that it requires a QB to make quick reads and excute quickly and precisely. Not only would you want the QB to have praticed many repititions, it works better if the QB is an instinctual player who has "eyes in the back of his head," who can decipher patterns in a split second and THEN release the ball on the run, to the right spot (for the receiver to gain leverage, etc.), at the right time. In other words, you need the QB to be somewhat of a witch.

And, even then, certain defenders will still be able to get away with "cheating" if they're freaks of nature, themselves. Some very talented studs can be out of position one moment, and recover in a split second, which has the effect of baiting the QB into a "mistake" (which against 99 percent of defenders wouldn't really have been a mistake). They'll also give up big plays, too, which is what makes for great games . . .

Doc's picture

Will the Buckeyes be able to make, what seems to me, a huge switch this spring?  I'm hoping they can, but it seems to be a completely new philosophy and scheme.

"Say my name."

Buckeye in Athens's picture

The good thing is that a good deal of the core plays have been in place for awhile (for instance, TP used to run inverted veer quite a lot), but it was often inconsistent and without a true method. So at least they have some exposure to the basic spread concepts. At least, that is what I've gleaned from following Ross when he was at ATO. 

Ross Fulton's picture

Exactly!  None of this stuff is new; only how it is integrated as a coherent whole. 

bassplayer7770's picture

I believe Ross's previous column was about how Coach Meyer may implement the new Offense.

http://www.elevenwarriors.com/2012/03/installing-an-offense-urban-meyer-edition

Doc's picture

Thanks Bassplayer.  I read that one last week and his Utah 2004 manual.  It was thuroughly confusing to me.  The only "X's and O's" that I got out of it was odd number plays ran left and even went right.  Other than that it could have been written in Swahili.  I'm hoping they pick it up quickly and show great progress by the Spring Game.

"Say my name."

bassplayer7770's picture

I'm not fluent in footballese either, but I would hope these football players already know the language a bit so it won't be so confusing for them.

Ross Fulton's picture

It is made more difficult by the terminology--every coach (or coaching tree) has their own lingo, so it can take time to learn.  But that doesn't change that the substantive plays are often the same...

Ethos's picture

I love these articles.

"I spent 90 percent of my money on women and drink. The rest I wasted." - George Best

BigMoosie's picture

Got as far as the 00:35 second point in the video and noticed something around 00:29 seconds.  If we ever have a guy in scarlet and grey "make a play on the ball" like #91 for Marshall in that clip.....I'm tempted to say just go ahead and cut him from the team.  That was the most pathetic......I don't even want to call it an attempt......to pursue and tackle a ball carrier I have ever seen.

I just really needed to point that out.  Ok, back to the rest of the video and article.

DJ Byrnes's picture

Can't tell you how much I enjoy reading these, Ross. It does pain me, though, to see you subscribe to the archaic "Two dots after a period" thesis that has been arbitrary since typewriters were put in their grave.

Californian by birth, Marionaire by the Grace of President Warren G. Harding.

Menexenus's picture

You mean "two spaces," right?  As you can see, I too subscribe to that dead convention.  I'm just barely old enough to have learned keyboarding on a typewriter.  So I'll probably be putting two spaces after my periods until I die.  <shrug>  It's not just a mental habit, at this stage of my life it's muscle memory.  I've been doing it for so many years now that it will not change without monumental effort, and it's not important enough to put in the effort.  So just deal with it, you young rascal!  :-)

Real fans stay for Carmen.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

I'm with DJ on this one. Not only is the two spaces just stylistically WRONG, it's a waste of time and effort. If you do end up doing it for another 30 years, you'll have consumed 7.34 days inserting those second spaces. That's time that could have been spent watching reality t.v.  

Ross Fulton's picture

In my day job, for better or worse, we have to follow certain stylistic rules, and that is one of them...

Maestro's picture

Bubblelicious

vacuuming sucks