Film Study: The Basics Of The Navy Flexbone

By Kyle Jones on April 29, 2014 at 1:15p
29 Comments

As we hit the longest part of the offseason (only 123 more days until Kickoff!), Film Study will begin to look at what’s happening in the college football world outside of Columbus. We’ll begin by taking a look at some of the schemes that the Buckeyes will face this fall that may be unfamiliar. Our first stop is in Annapolis, MD at the U.S. Naval Academy, focusing on the flexbone offense that has become a trademark for the Midshipmen.

Coming off a winless campaign in 2001, the Naval Academy turned the reigns over to Paul Johnson, then the Head Coach at Georgia Southern. Having won two Division 1-AA National Championships in 5 seasons, Johnson’s Flexbone offense had proven nearly unstoppable. Without traditional scholarships and difficult recruiting circumstances, Navy had been an option team for years by that point (Johnson was actually the Offensive Coordinator there in 1995-96), but had trouble consistently winning with the formula in place.

Within 2 years, Johnson and the Midshipmen went 10-2 and beat New Mexico in the Emerald Bowl, cracking the final AP top 25 for the first time in 41 years. The winning hasn’t stopped since then, even as Johnson left for Georgia Tech in 2008.

Since then, Johnson's former pupil Ken Niumatalolo has had only had one losing season, going 5-7 in in 2011. Niumatalolo has not changed much about the flexbone system Johnson set up, and the Georgia Tech offense gives us nearly as much insight into the Navy schemes as film of the team itself.

All three service academies run versions of the flexbone, but for the sake of the upcoming matchup in Baltimore this August between Ohio State and Navy, we’ll focus on the Paul Johnson/Ken Niumatalolo version. 

Base Offense

Flexbone Base

The engine of the Navy offense, as with any such modern scheme, is still the Quarterback. While the flexbone doesn’t require the same amount of decision-making in the passing game as a pro-style or spread offense, there are still plenty of decisions to be made, as Paul Johnson has noted in in the past.

Before the snap, he must identify all the defenders to read during a play, which can be up to three different players. Once the ball is snapped, he must be able to properly make multiple decisions to keep or give within only a fraction of a second, and then find the next man to read almost simultaneously. Finally, when they do throw the ball, often on play-action, he must be able to read a secondary like any other quarterback and find his open receiver.

Lining up directly behind the QB is the B back, which is often compared to an old-school, Larry Csonka-style Fullback who isn’t just there to block. This is not to say that a B back must be a bruiser that can only fall forward for 3 yards, as former Georgia Tech B back (and current Arizona Cardinals Running Back) Jonathan Dwyer showed.  Dwyer was listed at 5’11” and 230lbs, with a build very similar to that of many “traditional” Tailbacks found across the NCAA and NFL. While the majority of the B’s runs are between the tackles, he will occasionally see the ball on the edge in the Speed Option, which we’ll get to shortly.

Finally, what separates the flexbone from nearly every other modern offense are the A backs. For anyone that ran the Wing-T offense in high school (a cousin of the flexbone), this position functions very similarly to the Wingback in that system. Often coming in motion behind the B back and acting as the tailback on triple options, the A back is often a quick open-field runner that shares a number of traits with the H position in Ohio State’s offense. However, the A must be able to run block, as they effectively replace a Tight End in the formation. Occasionally, the A will split out into the slot and create a three-receiver look, both to remove a defender from the box in running situations, as well as give the offense more opportunities to spread the defense horizontally in the passing game.

Triple Option

If one play defined the flexbone system, it would be the Triple “Veer” Option.

Veer Option

As seen in the diagram, the play is optioning two different edge defenders, often forcing a member of the secondary have to step up and make a tackle. The QB first reads the defensive linemen over the tackle (a DE in this diagram, but can be a DT depending on alignment), who is left unblocked. If he doesn’t step up and take away the B back dive, the QB will give the ball to the B back every time.

If the DE does attack the dive, then the QB will keep and go on to the second defender, which is usually an Outside Linebacker or Strong Safety. The QB will then read that defender as he turns the corner of the line, either pitching to the A back on the outside (that came in “rocket” motion before the snap), or keeping it himself if the defense over plays the pitch.

 

The key to consistently running the Veer is the B back, who must be featured in order to keep defenses from over-playing the outside pitch. Teams know the Veer is coming, but the offense must keep the defense from over-playing any specific option as the game goes on.

A common refrain we’ll hear from fans, opposing coaches, and pundits as the Navy game gets closer, is that defenses playing the triple option must play “assignment football.” There is some truth to that, being that each defender must know his responsibility on each play, knowing if and when he is supposed to take the B, the QB, or the A on a pitch.

However, what makes Navy so successful in this offense is their ability to deviate from their initial plan and make you wrong in your assignments. For instance, the Midshipmen will have the outside WR block the opposing CB in front of him, leaving the Free Safety as the player responsible for coming down and making a tackle on the pitch. Then, on the next play, the WR will block down on the Safety, not only blocking that player, but also bringing the CB that was assigned to cover him right along as well, effectively taking two players out of the play simultaneously.

Inside Zone

For those of you that read 11W regularly, you’re probably able to draw the Inside Zone on the back on a napkin for any given stranger at this point, given its prominence within the Urban Meyer offensive system. While Navy runs this play from a different formation, the rules for the Offensive Line are basically the same as in any other scheme. 

Flexbone Inside Zone

In order to keep defenses off balance, Navy will try to disguise Inside Zone as another Veer Option, by bringing the backside A back in motion and carrying out a fake with he and the QB. Instead of leaving the DE unblocked as the optioned defender though, he is now blocked and taken out of the play. Since Navy often can’t simply push their opponents around physically, they won’t rely too heavily on this play, but they will run it when a defense is consistently taking away the dive on the Veer option.

Speed Option

Flexbone Speed Option

If the B back in the Navy offense is fast enough to cause problems on the edge, then we can expect to see a fair amount of the speed option in Baltimore. Without any motion from the A backs, the speed option is a basic one-read option run, aiming to get the ball to the edge thanks to a numerical advantage.

By leaving one of the outside defenders (can be a DE, OLB, or Safety) unblocked, the QB simply reads this option defender and decides whether to keep or pitch. Unlike the veer option, which takes some time to develop, the Speed Option gets the ball on the edge quickly, not leaving the backside defenders much time to get to the ball and help.

 

Midline Option

As Chip Kelly’s Oregon offense began taking the college football world by storm, football minds across the country noticed that his spread option offense not only called on his QB to read defensive ends, but also interior defensive linemen. Thus, many of us came to know the Midline option. This has been a staple of the Flexbone for years though.

Flexbone Midline Option

As a wrinkle to the dive in the Veer option, Navy will leave the interior tackle unblocked, leaving him to attack the B as he runs inside. If the DT goes after the B (which is his responsibility), the QB will keep and follow a lead block inside.

The QB is given a lead block from an unlikely source though, as the A that goes in motion then cuts up through the hole and take out a linebacker or safety on the second level.

 

Rocket Toss

Once a defense has become flat-footed and waiting for the Veer, Midline, or Speed Options to develop, Navy will hit them with the Rocket Toss. Much like the Inside Zone is meant to quickly get the ball inside, the Rocket Toss is the quickest way to get the ball outside, along with a host of lead blockers.

Flexbone Rocket Toss

Once again, the devil is in the details here, as the QB and B back will go away from the toss, pulling the linebackers that have been watching him on the dive all day long to hopefully take a false step away from the action.

 

Play-Action Passes

Finally, once a defense has gotten so tired of getting beaten up by the run and have all 11 sets of eyes in the backfield, the Midshipmen will take their shot downfield. Navy has a number of passing concepts built off every kind of motion and fake imaginable, but the routes themselves are nearly all vertical. One of the more surprising pieces to the Paul Johnson/Navy puzzle is the effect the run and shoot offense has on their passing game.

Navy Play Action passing

Although they don’t do it often (passing attempts per game ranged from 4 to 18 last season), Navy will attack a defense with vertical threats. The quarter rolls from the QB off fakes, and rules that define the way a receiver runs his route, there are a number of concepts that may remind fans of the old Houston Oilers. The A backs simply become the slot receivers in this instance, occupying the opposing safeties and leaving the wide receivers in single coverage on the outside.

Conclusion

Needless to say, the Navy playbook includes more than 8 plays. There are countless counters, motions, formations, and rules for all 11 players, trying to catch the defense off guard. What has made the Navy (and now, Georgia Tech) offense so successful is not the ability to hit one play over and over, but to be able to recognize the counters a defense will make, and have an immediate answer to that counter. The Flexbone is not a simple offense by any means, and the minute details are what define success and failure for the teams which employ it.

Next week, we’ll take a look at some of the ways that Chris Ash, Luke Fickell, and the Ohio State defense will likely try to stop this system, which they rarely see.

29 Comments

Comments

Ethos's picture

Defensive Strategy:

Bosa Destroy's Worlds

"What do you need water for, Sunshine?!" - Coach Coombs, if you don't love this man, you have no soul.

+2 HS
WesPatterson23's picture

Great write up!I can't wait for Aug. 30!

+1 HS
USMC11917's picture

The thing I hate most about playing Navy: Having to wait till the next week to find out if our Secondary has improved any in coverage.

+3 HS
mobboss1984's picture

Thats the main thing for me as well. How has everyone behind the defensive line improved? That is killing me right now.

Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.
Bruce Lee
 

Shangheyed's picture

Can't get worse... Pass D was terrible last year, have to see improvement.

CGroverL's picture

I have said those same words: "Can't get worse". The issue with that statement is that we are both wrong. Trying not to make this comment 500 words long, I'll just say this about the Buckeye defenses before and after the departure of Jim Heacock...

Jim Heacock's defenses were always the same when it cam down to being a base 4-3, 1 gap defense. The difference was the 7-technique (Leo or Viper) and the Star position. The difference over the last 2 seasons is not that the Bucks were trying to change the defense necessarily, but the appearance of a Leo and Star have seemed to disappear in the defense. Believe it or not, the Leo's #1 responsibility is to get to the QB, BUT...on certain plays, the Leo (because he normally has the size and speed of a longer outside linebacker) actually dropped back into coverage. Have you noticed Noah Spence dropping back into coverage and getting his mitts on any footballs? Cam Heyward did it. AND...when it comes to the Star position, I can only say that if the position is still in the equation, it is hard to find, especially when your secondary is getting torched and the Star is supposed to be a run stopper from the secondary.

I don't claim to have the answers, but my guess is that the Buckeyes have not had a true Leo to man the spot and the loss of 3-year starter and team leader Christian Bryant had to make the "Star" position more of a want and not a need as the secondary, like we have all talked about...was weak.

My point is just that I see the Buckeyes as a team without the PERSONNEL to have a Leo and Star on the field (and if you KNOW the Silver Bullets, you know the Leo and Star were very important pieces of the defense, if not, the MOST important and most defining factors of Heacock and Fickell's defenses). This season seems primed to have a true Leo (a more experienced Noah Spence) and a healthy Vonn Bell and even bigger Tyvis Powell both seem to be physical specimens perfect for the positions as both are hard hitters. The difference in this, of course is Chris Ash and what he brings to the back 7 and their responsibilities. The days of Ohio State and having a Star from the secondary may be gone. Sorry 'bout the 500 words. Go Bucks!!

"I hope they're last in everything"

Thanks, Urb!

+3 HS
GH_Lindsey's picture

I think we're gonna be seeing Darron Lee kind of filling that "star" role next season. Sure, he's in with the linebackers, but the guy was a safety in high school and was recruited as an athlete. He could be used in a coverage role to cover the slot and TEs, but still have the ability to come up and make hits in the run game.

+1 HS
otrain2416's picture

If there's one game I'm uneasy about next season its this one. Not because I think we'll lose, I just fear one of our main defensive guys could get injured with all the cut blocks they do. 

+1 HS
Run_Fido_Run's picture

Yep, that always worries me, too. It almost seems like good, but not great, DLs do better against cut-blocking OLs because the great DLs will have several kids who are worried about cashing NFL paychecks some day. It will help the Buckeyes against Navy this year that they plan to rotate a bunch of DL. Hopefully (knock on wood), they'll all stay healthy.

+1 HS
Earle's picture

Would love to see us run that rocket toss with Wilson.  Surely that could be adapted to OSU's spread.

Also, it looked like there was counter action on that speed option clip.  Does Navy run it that way (noticed that the clip was Ga Tech.)?

Italics are for emphasis.

+1 HS
Fugelere's picture

Looking forward to this game for lots of reasons.  Obviously because it's the first game of the new season but also because I love to watch  option football.  That's one of the best things about the college game vs the pros is that there is a ton of varity in the schemes you see on any given Saturday.  

That being said I'm interested to see how our defense performs.  Specifically if we have an answer for the midline, which Navy used to gash us continually last time we played them.

+1 HS
Vinginia_Buckeye's picture

Defensive Strategy: Michael Bennet and Adolphis Washington HULK SMASH center and guards, defensive ends uuhh.....wait, on second thought just HULK SMASH their entire undersized offensive line with our Man-Child D-Lineman.

" I'm a Buckeye "

+2 HS
Jpfbuck's picture

I guess I am less worried about Navy this time around than I was in 2009, not that I think it will be a push over

In 2009 we were replacing 4 of our front 7 on D coming into that game plus a strong run corner in Jenkins, and our O coming back from 2008 had not been great under TP who had yet to blossom into his late 2009/2010 version of himself

I also was concerned that we would be looking ahead that year to the USC rematch and not take navy seriously

I don't think Navy has much chance of holding us under 40 and maybe not 50 with our offense against their D. Navy gave up 35 plus 5 time last year including over 50 to San Jose St and 45 to Toledo, I think we can easily put that number up against them

and given that our strength is run D, I guess I don't see them coming anywhere close to those kinds of numbers. I think they will score and maybe even get 21, but I could easily see a 49-21 win with giving up 2 early scores maybe even 14 by half, while we roll up say 21 or 28, and then controlling the 3rd quarter to go up 49-14 and give up a late score against our back ups

frankly anything closer than a 21 point win will be disappointing

CGroverL's picture

After looking at that 2009 team and their schedule, I came across something I never knew. Most of us members of Buckeye Nation probably know this, but I didn't.....The 2009 Ohio State football team was the first and only team to have wins against (10) 10-win teams in a single season. Navy was one of those ten win teams along with Wisconsin, Penn State, Iowa, and Oregon. It might not seem like the greatest thing on a resume, but I think it is. It goes great with the 2002 team that was the first 14-0 National Champion and another recent thing for the Buckeye resume that has to do with the Buckeye defense in 2007 is: The Silver Bullets, statistically, ranked #1 against the pass, #1 in scoring defense, and #1 in total defense as well. That team really had no business losing to LSU. Maybe one day some important, end of year (playoffs maybe) games will be played a little closer to Columbus. Playing against LSU in New Orleans for the National Title doesn't seem fair now, does it....and I'm not the kind of guy to make excuses.

"I hope they're last in everything"

Thanks, Urb!

D-Day0043's picture

Navy's back-up quarterback can throw, and I guarantee they get him in the game to test our secondary. I would not be surprised at all if Navy broke tendencies and threw the ball until we proved we could stop it.

I am D-Day0043 and I approve this message.

+2 HS
Zimmy07's picture

The very last diagramed pass play worries me about how that could be covered with the Cover 4.  I think the RB would have 5 yards on a well thrown ball every time they run the play - but I'm not a Cover 4 expert.

bucknut94's picture

Aren't cut blocks illegal?

tussey's picture

cut blocks - no

chop blocks - yes

The difference between the two is the angle that the cut comes in on the defender and whether the defender is already engaged with another player.  Running backs often get called for an illegal chop block because they throw a cut block on a defensive end that is trying to get around the tackle.  Legal cut blocks (I believe) have to come in front of the player they are trying to cut.  Meaning that you can't cut someone by just diving into the side of their knees.  The way to defend against getting cut is something similar to a sprawl in wrestling.  You have to use your hands and get your feet and hips back.  I hope this helps

+2 HS
Zimmy07's picture

"You have to use your hands and get your feet and hips back.  I hope this helps"

My sons (both played d-line, but often sub in for each other) were getting chop blocked apparently by design in a middle school game last year & I think some of the other parents probably thought I turned into a crazy man.  I went down to the first row of the stands and told them exactly what you said during halftime & also to essentially push the cutter unto the ground and then try to "crawl" over them.  I figured they'd tie up 2 lineman for the entire play by doing that.  I think that was the only team that was able to keep them out of the backfield.

I hated the refs that game.  And thankfully neither of them ended up with a blown out knee.

Hovenaut's picture

Good stuff...very welcome during the slow months.

Linebackers up, but really would like to see our offense coming out swinging - air and ground - and forcing the Mids out of their strengths when they have the ball.

I am not the Last Dragon, therefore I do not possess the power of the Glow.

CGroverL's picture

The Navy/Georgia Tech offense makes the defense think on the run. In that way, it mimics Urban Meyer's offense as the QB gets the ball and makes a read before the other 9 players on the offense know where the play is going. That (even though the Buckeye offense is different) will play into the Buckeyes hands, I believe. What intrigues me the most is exactly how many yards the Buckeyes will give up on the ground. Giving up 250 on the ground isn't out of the question, unless you have a run defense equal to Ohio State's. Ohio State could very well give up 300 yards to Navy...and win the game by 30 points because the Buckeyes score 40+ points and roll 600 yards of offense up.

Regardless, I will look at this as a game to get the OL ready and hopefully get some togetherness as well. The real strength of Ohio State's offense last season was their OL. We need it to be a strength again and the schedule shapes up well as they have 6 games as big favorites and 2 off weeks before they play State College. Sounds like a lot of time to bring some consistency to the OL.

"I hope they're last in everything"

Thanks, Urb!

Humbuck's picture

Playing Navy in week 1 is a lot better than seeing them in week 3 or 4.  It gives the coaches a more leisurely pace to introduce the defensive concepts for this offense.  It is very hard to defend if you only spend 3-4 practices preparing for it.  If you have spring and summer to ease a defense into the concepts it is much easier to stop.  A deep DL rotation is key against a team that runs this offense, we have as deep a rotation as Navy will face. 

Navy will move the ball, they methodically gain yards.  However, their defense will be absolutely incapable of stopping our offense.  OSU has great athletes on defense who can adapt to the concepts, Navy has good, smart players on defense but you can't teach them  speed in fall camp.  The edge will be a cruel place for the midshipmen.   

 

Go1Bucks's picture

Thanks for a great breakdown of the offensive scheme. My football IQ just went up a bit. Next!

 

Go Bucks!

Go Bucks!

Jpfbuck's picture

the game in 09 was much closer than it should have been

we had 2 drives stall inside their 10 and settled for FG's and later missed an XP, convert all of those and we score 38 or 30 rather than 31.

plus midway thru the 4th quarter we simply let them up. Leading 20-14 Pettry kicked a FG to put us up 23-14, then we generated a fumble that led to a TD by Herron, then the wheels came off.

 

Pettrey shanked the XP which would have made it 30-14 instead it was 29-14.

 

Then after intercepting a Navy pass at their 35 and when up by 15 Tressel broke tendency and went for a 4th and 2 at the Navy 15 and failed which would have been another 3 point chip shot.

the OSU D promptly went to sleep and gave up an 85 yards TD pass to pull them within 8.

Pryor then threw a terrible INT giving Navy the ball at our 33, which led to their last TD and failed 2pt conversion

Rolle saved the day, but take away a missed XP a missed chance at a sure FG, a terribly blown coverage and a late INT, and that game ends 33-14

Navy ran ok that game but nothing spectacular getting 186 yards on 42 carries and passed 9 of 13 for another 186 for 342 total yards a decent total but not huge, however the OSU O was sluggish all day, gaining only 363 yards themselves.

frankly had we played closer to what we were capable, we would have won 41-14

Firedup's picture

Great.  We open the season against a team built on neutralizing more talented D line, our strength and makes the weakest unit we have, linebackers play in space.  I for one will be glad when this one is over and not a minute sooner

"Making the Great State of Ohio Proud!" UFM

immort9888's picture

Good write up, Kyle.  However, the Midline is almost always run to the 3 technique.  If it is run to the 1 technique or nose guard it is almost always a "pull" for the QB.  The Midline is a great compliment to the Veer because typically the Veer is run toward the 1 technique.  Since these two plays compliment each other, a check call can easily be made at the line of scrimmage.  For instance, if the call is Veer right and the Defense is playing a 3 technique to that side of the ball, the play can either be flipped to the other side (assuming there is a 1 technique on the left side) or simply changed to the Midline.  The call in the huddle would be, Veer Right Check Midline or Veer Right Check Railroad (or Ohio if you play EA football games).  These easy checks make the flexbone hard to stop when executed properly even with 8 or 9 in the box.  

+1 HS
Kyle Jones's picture

Excellent point about the midline. I didn't get too deep into the gaps with this write up, as that can be a bit overwhelming to a lot of readers. Apologies for the diagram not properly conveying that though.

As for the Veer, Navy (and GT) will run it on either the 1 or 3. They have so many variations of the inside/outside veer that I saw, that we could run an entire series on just breaking those down. Either way, I don't envy Ash and Fickell for having to understand them all.

The point about packaging them together is really important too. Just another way they will try to make you wrong, no matter what you're doing. 

Kyle Jones's picture

On that note, my diagram of the Midline looks like the Nose is playing a 2 technique, directly over the guard. This is obviously not an alignment you see very often. 

I've corrected the diagram to properly convey the gaps of the DL, in case this diagram starts floating around that giant set of tubes we call the internet.

MDBuckeyenut's picture

Have my tix to the opener in Bawlmer....can't wait!