A Schematic Look At Army’s Flexbone Offense

After a comfortable win over Middle Tennessee State, Michigan welcomes Army to town following their nailbiting win over Rice in week one. And the Black Knights are bringing their always scary triple-option Flexbone offense with them.

Here’s an in-depth breakdown of Army’s offense and what to expect on Saturday:

Toss MotionThe Motion a slot back will take in order to receive a toss, or make the defense believe he is receiving a toss
Pitch MotionThe Motion a slot back will take in order to be in a position to receive a pitch if the read dictates a pitch
MeshDifferent than the passing concept, a triple-option mesh is where the quarterback will turn his hips to read the dive read while holding the ball out for the fullback. The quarterback will hold or “ride” the mesh for a quick second, and can either keep the ball or give the ball.
Dive readThe first read in a triple-option play. If the Dive read comes upfield, or takes himself out of position to take away the dive, the quarterback will let the fullback take the ball. 
Pitch readThe second read in a triple-option play. Typically a defensive end or safety. If the pitch read attacks the quarterback, the ball is pitched to the perimeter with the expectation of big yardage
Scoop BlockA combo block where a G/T or G/C is responsible for a down lineman as well as a linebacker. Must work together to get the first player blocked while one of the two will come off of his block to block the linebacker.
“Most Dangerous Man”A term in the triple option in which certain blocking designations are in charge of “the most dangerous man”, or a player that could disrupt the play in a disastrous manner.
Playside *position*The position of the player, whether offensively or defensively, in the direction of which the play is being run. Can be a playside tackle/guard/End/Linebacker whatever
Backside *position*Same thing as playside, except the opposite direction of the play. 

One of the more eccentric, crazier, weird, and overall unbelievable moments during the College Football season last year occurred when over 32,000 people signed onto Twitch, the live streaming platform, to watch Oklahoma play a football game.

No, the game was not being streamed by Twitch, in fact, the game was actually being streamed by a Sooner fan on his cell phone, the same way a twelve-year-old Snapchats a Katy Perry concert. Because of a weird stipulation in the Big 12 television rights deal, every Big 12 team gets to put 1 game on pay-per-view, meaning that almost no one was able to see the Army Black Knights take the 5th ranked Oklahoma Sooners to the wire, before falling in overtime 28-21.

The Knights used their prolific triple-option attack to gash the Sooners to the tune of 339 rushing yards, and controlled the ball for nearly 45 minutes. When firing on all cylinders, the triple option is nearly impossible to stop, which makes Michigan’s week 2 opponent all the more formidable.

This is going to be a quick schematic preview of what Army does offensively, why it’s hard to stop, how the adjustments a defense will make will then lend itself to a counter or reverse, and then how Army can use different formations with their wide receivers to scheme yards in different situations.

This will be more focused on the scheme, and I’ll be saving the specific personnel for the game preview. But this is more of football-centric piece centered around a unique offense that’s known for giving elite teams a lot of trouble. 

What is a Triple Option Offense?

Pictured above is the base bread and butter of any triple option offense.

Most offenses have quite a few variations, counters, reverses, midlines, and slot inserts in their repertoire, but that stuff only works if they can get consistent yardage on the base plays, forcing the defense to adjust. The play pictured is the basis of any play down the road. If you were to think of the triple option like a prizefight, this play would be a consistent jab. It’s not going to knock a guy out, and it’s also probably not going to go for a 75 yard touchdown if the defense is any good.

What this system does do, however, is slowly and methodically move the ball down the field while forcing the defense to either make a significant adjustment, which opens up a new wrinkle, or force the defense into being ok with 17 play, 75 yard drives. This play can be run anywhere from 20%-80% of the time, depending on the success and adjustments the defense makes.

Usually on a base triple option play, the fullback read is the first person outside of a 2 technique on the line of scrimmage. Ideally, it’s a 3 tech or a 5 tech being read. If the first read man comes upfield or stays put, the quarterback will just give to the full back and let him read his blocks up to the second level.

With how quick these plays hit, it’s very hard to stop the fullback without a dominating nose tackle, a bad read, or blitzing linebackers.

The playside guard will go block a linebacker, the playside tackle will institute what’s called a “veer release” which means he’ll take a path that will leave a read man completely unblocked to work up to the next level, the center and backside guard will work nose to backside linebacker, and the backside tackle is responsible for cutting off the end man on the line of scrimmage, usually with a cut block.

Already, the front 7 has been schematically taken care of in the play for the most part. The fullback is responsible for the MIKE backer regardless of if he has the ball or not. If he does, he’s responsible for making him miss, but at the very least, getting 4 yards and taking care of the football. If he does not have the ball, he’s responsible for the MIKE, whether it’s by following the centers hip into blocking him, or more simply, getting tackled by him without the ball.

If the ball is pulled from the fullback, the quarterback will then attack the outside while keeping his eyes on the pitch read. If the pitch read attacks the quarterback, the ball is pitched, and the slotback is responsible for getting as much yardage as he can. If the pitch read lingers, the quarterback tucks the ball and becomes a runner, using the crease between the pitch read and the seal on the end of the line to get upfield and get as many yards as possible.

The playside slot will take a release that allows him to cut the safety/outside linebacker and is responsible to be a blocker for the quarterback. Because the offense is forcing several players to dictate where the ball goes, it allows the offense to get a numerical advantage, as they can completely ignore two players in a blocking scheme, which then makes the play essentially 11 on 9.

As long as the quarterback makes the correct read, and the players execute, it’s nearly impossible to stop without making significant adjustments.

Monken’s Flexbone Attack

Part of the difficulty in stopping Jeff Monken’s Flexbone attack is the versatility that he gives his offense due to their formations and the wrinkles they’ll throw in.

While very similar to what Paul Johnson ran at Navy and Georgia Tech, and what Ken Niumatalolo runs currently at Navy, Monken places slightly more emphasis on a power approach, rather than a strict zone blocking scheme.

Army’s offense can also become much more condensed, which allows them to utilize their speed on the edge a bit more. This allows them to become incredibly dangerous in short-yardage, as they can get the ball in space before the defense has a chance to react. 

Part of why I love this play is the unique way Monken will you the wide receivers to create running lanes. In this short-yardage situation against the Sooners, the wide receivers are very tight on the line of scrimmage, closer to the tackles than they are usually.

What ends up happening on this play is the exact reason Monken uses the tight formation. 

This play is a basic toss to the left slot back. It’s especially lethal in short-yardage situations because the slotback will go in motion and time up the snap count so the ball is usually snapped when he’s crossing the tackle in the backfield. This means even against the quickest linebackers in the country, the slotback has the advantage, because they need to beat the linebackers to the spot, but they’re starting at full speed as opposed to from a dead stop.

Because of the motion, this lessens the degree of difficulty on the wide receivers.

The wide receiver at the bottom doesn’t need to deliver a perfect block, he just needs to make enough contact on the outside linebacker to prevent him from spilling inside and disrupting the play.

This is the beauty of the tight formation, as it allows Monken to neutralize the most dangerous player to the success of the play, simply by tightening the formation. The slot back on the right is responsible for blocking the corner. To make this easier, the slot will take what’s typically called an arc step. The slot will actually focus more on getting width on the corner, rather than running out towards him. This allows him to get outside leverage on him, allowing him to cut the corner if he is within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, or simply attack his outside shoulder giving the pitch back the outside lane.

The fullback on this play will usually sprint through the gap between the guard and tackle in order to block the MIKE linebacker. If the MIKE linebacker has taken himself out of the play, the fullback will redirect towards the safety.

The backside receiver just has to keep the backside corner from making a play.

On the line, the backside of the line will cut block the defenders in the gap to prevent them from chasing it down, while the playside guard and tackle will pull laterally for three steps to prevent anyone from crossing their face, before moving upfield.

Oklahoma is in a very tough position to make a play, and the result of the play is a 15 yard gain. The toss is also a commonly used play, but one that doesn’t work as well if the triple option isn’t as effective. 

When triple-option teams are able to gain consistent yardage on their bread and butter plays, it creates a lot of problems for the defense.

First, they have to worry about stopping the bleeding defensively. The option is designed to hold the ball, ice offenses, causes defenses to get tired and prevent substitution, as well as eat the field up 3-4 yards at a time while waiting for a big play to hit. The counters that Army runs are incredibly lethal, as they hit quickly once the coaching staff in the booth notices linebackers flowing heavily towards toss or jet motion, or the safety filling hard.

Here we have the right slotback appears to be going in toss motion so he is in a good relationship to receive the ball on a pitch or toss. But once he gets directly behind the fullback and quarterback, he’s going to plant his foot in the ground as the ball is snapped and reverse direction.

Here’s what the offense expects to happen and how they’ll attack it:

If you ignore the poorly drawn play art, you actually get a really interesting design that’s intended to take advantage of a hard flowing defense trying to beat the pitchmen to the spots.

The offense will run this play if they think the motion will get the linebackers to take a step or two to the motion side, and get the defensive linemen to shade towards. This works much more effectively once the base triple-option play has been gashing on the perimeter.

Defenses have the tendency to react heavily towards the motion if it’s been successful, and once the defense shows the reaction towards regular motion that the coaching staff wants, they’ll break this bad boy out of the playbook.

There are quite a few more plays that Army will run, in terms of options to different gaps, traps, dives, sweeps, play-action, and rollout, as well as inserts that can hit the defense for quick gains. The reason for these three plays, however, was the consistency in which they’re run, as well as they show Jeff Monken’s penchant for using formation variance to his advantage. The offense he runs will keep the defense behind the 8 ball, and force adjustments that Army will then be able to take advantage of.

Saturday should be a very interesting game. One that will test the Michigan defense’s discipline immensely as they look to lead the Wolverines to a 2-0 start on the season.

Hopefully, this helps you understand the method that is Army’s Flexbone Triple Option.

Photo Credit: Cadet Brenden Stanton/ArmyTimes

Harry Hillman
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