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Defending Georgia Southern’s Triple-Option Attack

09/12/2019, 4:45pm CDT
By Daniel House

 by: Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL)

When offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse left New Mexico to join Georgia Southern, he brought modern triple-option wrinkles with him. For many years, the Eagles traditionally ran a classic veer triple-option. The offensive system was popularized in the 1990s by former Georgia Southern head coach Paul Johnson. The key responsibilities for a defense to monitor in the veer triple-option are the dive man, pitch man and quarterback. 

During the Quick Lane Bowl against Georgia Tech, Minnesota was tested with the triple-option. They learned how to maintain the necessary eye discipline, alignments and run fits to successfully defend this system. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi has now defended this offense five times at Rutgers, Maine and Minnesota. Last year, the Gophers mixed fronts consistently and utilized 5-3, 3-4, 4-3 and 4-4 alignments. In 2018, I wrote a deep breakdown of the veer triple-option, which can be found here. 

The main area a coordinator wants to defend well is the alley/perimeter. This is the empty space between the tackle and boundary (draw an imaginary line straight up the hash marks). For example, out of this 4-4 look, Carter Coughlin and Chris Williamson are widened out and defending the alley. This type of defensive scheme can help improve the angles defenders are forced to take in the second-level against the triple-option. 

via Gfycat


With improved personnel this year, Minnesota could possibly use a modified 4-2-5 defense to defend the triple-option. However, they can mix it up and run multiple fronts to keep Georgia Southern on its heels. At the end of the day, defending the triple-option adequately starts by having the right numbers. All of the pre-snap motion and horizontal stretching tries to pull linebackers out of a run fit. The edge also has to maintain contain, not get too far up the field or over pursue the play. With the type of triple-option Georgia Southern uses, you have to be ready for different looks and can't sell out against the offense having just three options. 

So what makes DeBesse’s modern version different than the traditional veer triple-option Minnesota faced last year? 

The three offensive options generally don’t change, but Georgia Southern will be multiple out of the traditional triple-option nomenclature. 

For example, they will often flex out three or four wide receivers and have the slot receiver motion into the backfield to be the pitch man. On their first drive against LSU, they used 11 and 21 personnel. 

In the first clip (11 personnel), they run the triple-option with the running back as the dive man and slot receiver executing pitch responsibilities. They are also willing to occasionally throw to the slot receiver out of this specific play, too. 

via Gfycat


In the 21 personnel play, the traditional pitch player goes inside (instead of looping behind) and slips into the flat for a pass. This essentially is a classic zone read play and the quarterback has to determine whether he wants to keep, give to the dive man or attempt a throw in the flat. 

via Gfycat


Here’s a speed option-style play Georgia Southern will use out of 21 personnel, too: 

via Gfycat


They even passed out of the 11 personnel set on third-down. This is the direct benefit of forcing them into a third-and-long situation: 

via Gfycat


There are also some situations where DeBesse has been known to go into 10 personnel (4 WR) and use motion to set up the option. In some cases, they simply use a zone read with a single back and quarterback. This play is an example of using a simple delayed draw with the field spread out (4 wide receivers). 

via Gfycat


I also wanted to pull an example where the slot wide receiver motions and becomes the pitch player out of 20 personnel (3 WR, 2 RBs). They will sometimes even do this out of an 11 or 10 personnel set, too.

via Gfycat


As you’ve noticed, there are moments where the defense doesn’t need to handle all three of the traditional options we are accustomed to seeing. DeBesse will even use a three-back set out of a diamond formation (three backs) or pack set (pistol-like), too. This is an example of a diamond formation:

via Gfycat


Essentially, DeBesse’s system is more of a zone-centric triple-option out of the shotgun or pistol. I encourage you to watch these two video clips from his coaching seminars to learn more about the system.

Video One:
Video Two:

When I spent time looking at this offense, I almost viewed it as a zone read with a speed option attached to it. The key difference of this system is the occasional use of a “cruiser” or “sniffer.” Pay specific attention to the tight end who crashes hard and blocks the option side of the formation. This is one of the fundamental differences between the traditional triple-option and Debesse’s modified version. They will try to block the inside linebacker or defensive end (depending upon reads), which means defensive players have to execute well on the perimeter. As I noted above, Georgia Southern sometimes uses three back sets and the cruiser will be embedded within the pistol to disguise him. 

In cases where they are in their basic triple-option look with a cruiser, the quarterback will be reading the defensive end to determine whether he wants to give the dive or run the option. This means discipline and reading keys are critical to prevent explosive plays. 

With Georgia Southern's varying personnel sets, the defense may have to make adjustments to the scheme in order to stop certain wrinkles. In Week 1, LSU had no trouble defending the Georgia Southern offense out of Dave Aranda’s 3-4 defensive scheme. When the Eagles wanted to stretch the perimeter, LSU's safety play was phenomenal. The Gophers can find a way for Antoine Winfield Jr. to roam in the backend and come into the box. With his range and instincts, this is a huge bonus to defending the perimeter adequately. Chris Williamson will also be a huge weapon because of his physical tackling skills in space. Minnesota could run a 3-4 look with two deep safeties playing tighter to the box. They could elect to use a modified 4-2-5 defense and have Chris Williamson moving around to defend the alley. 

Not only that, but due to his versatility, Winfield Jr. could play that role and shift into the box. You could also use a single-high look and flex Williamson and Winfield Jr./Howden into each of the alleys. This package would be essentially like have three safeties on the field, but through design, one of them would have the chance to roam free and chase the pitch player. Depending upon how you set up this package, it also could be considered a 4-4 alignment, but that is dependent upon the type of personnel used. 

Out of the basic 4-3 defensive alignment, you can move the strong safety into the box and have the free safety play the alley, too. This is perfect for defending these type of “speed option-like” plays that are hitting the perimeter. They could also shift into a 3-4 look while widening out Carter Coughlin to defend the alley. 

There are so many ways you can line up against this defense, and based upon matchups, I expect Rossi will mix it up like he did against Georgia Tech. However, this time around, he may have a little more flexibility due to the team’s personnel.

No matter what, the Gophers’ defensive backs have to make tackles in space or it will lead to explosive plays and cutback lanes. Last year, it was more difficult to implement this type of gameplan against the triple-option because Minnesota's defensive back depth was thin. 

The Gophers' secondary also didn’t feature enough versatility to flex guys all over. Now, with both Winfield Jr. and Williamson on the field together, they have athletic/rangy options. It’s also beneficial to be in a 4-2-5 package for situations where Georgia Southern uses different personnel sets and tries to spread the field. When that happens, it will be necessary to maintain gap discipline, keep eyes on the motion players and not over pursue the play. In the event they attempt to pass the ball, you also have the coverage flexibility out of Cover-3 or Cover-1. If Minnesota does force the Eagles into passing downs, right tackle Drew Wilson has struggled. It’s also unclear whether primary quarterback Shai Werts (quarterback) will be available for Saturday’s game. He missed last week’s matchup against Maine and redshirt freshman Justin Tomlin started in his place. 

Many of the core principles required to successfully defend the veer triple-option apply in this situation. However, this time around, the Gophers have more options due to their current personnel. Minnesota must get off the field and prevent Georgia Southern from controlling the tempo. The Eagles ranked 15th nationally in average drive time (2.62 minutes) and will try to play ball control. If the Gophers get off to a quick start and prevent them from having success on first down, the entire landscape of the Eagles' offense changes. 

With the multiplicity of sets Georgia Southern uses, there are many different wrinkles that can be thrown your way. However, defending the perimeter, maintaining discipline and reading the right keys, are the main ways Minnesota’s defense can successfully stop Georgia Southern’s modern triple-option attack. 

credit: ESPN, SEC Network and NCAA. This content is intended for fair use.

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