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Peak Perspective: An Analysis of the Air Force Offense

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Let’s dive into the triple option attack.

While we are waiting for decisions on what the NCAA will be doing with the upcoming college football season, I thought we could start by looking at the Air Force Falcon offense and the type of plays and execution employed. Most of you know that the Falcons employ a triple option attack as their primary scheme. The triple option can be run from a variety of formations; the Falcons primarily run it out of a FLEXBONE formation. The quarterback lines up directly under center with a lone fullback in the backfield and two running backs just behind and outside the offensive linemen as depicted in the figure below:

The Falcons usually employ a single wide receiver and a tight end as shown. For the two slotbacks, the Falcons will use one as the primary running back and will generally refer to him as the tailback even though he doesn’t line up as a tailback. The second slotback is used mostly as a blocker and as a second receiver.

The Falcons run the triple option more than any other play because they are so successful at it, but also to set up a variety of other plays that can surprise the opponent as they try to maintain their discipline on stopping the option. Lets take a look at a perfectly run triple option from the Falcons, the winning play against the Colorado Buffaloes this last season:

On this play, it’s important to note that the Falcons have the wide receiver, their three top linemen (Nolan Laufenberg, Scott Hattok, and Parker Ferguson), and the tailback (Kade Remsberg) lined up on the left of the formation. Colorado has six men lined up on the right side of their formation to match this overload, leaving only five defenders on their left side. At the snap, the Falcon right guard and tight end attempt to block the left end and left outside linebacker. The quarterback, Donald Hammond, puts the ball in the gut of the fullback while reading the blocks on the right side of the line. He sees that the defensive end gets free from the block and has a clear path to the fullback and pulls the ball back out. The defensive end completes the tackle of the fullback, and is now out of the play. The linebacker makes a move toward the fullback, but sees that Hammond has kept the ball, and comes in for the tackle, but Hammond pitches the ball out to Remsberg, who has come all the way from the left of the formation. He now has one man to beat on the outside with the other slotback in front of him as a blocker. The blocker slows down the remaining defender and Remsberg adds a burst of speed to get outside. The only remaining tackler on that side of the field, the safety, is blocked by the Falcon tight end, who moved downfield past the linebacker to break Remsberg for the touchdown. It’s quite possible that the right guard actually let the defensive end through to the fullback initially, knowing he would be taken out of the play by going for the fullback fake. The tight end only makes a cursory attempt to block the linebacker, so he can get downfield to block the safety. To all Falcon fans, this is a thing of beauty.

The play that sets up all the Falcon’s other play is the fullback dive out of the option. The Falcons often employ a zone blocking scheme along the line of scrimmage. Coach Troy Calhoun was an assistant under Mike Shanahan, the originator of zone blocking, for the Denver Broncos. The main idea of zone blocking is for the linemen to block zones and not a specific opponent. It requires the linemen to be smart, nimble, and technically sound. Sounds ideal for slightly undersized cadets who are required to manage 18-21 hours per semester, doesn’t it? Also, this year Calhoun had what was probably the best offensive line ever at the Academy. Three all-Mountain West linemen and another who I think should have been all-MW but the voters didn’t want to put that many Falcons down on their ballots. The following clip will show an example of the zone blocking scheme used on the fullback dive. The first part of the clip is a sideline view, and the rerun at the end is from the end zone, which reveals the blocking better. On this play, the center and the right guard come off the snap blocking their opponents toward the outside of the line, trying to clear a lane in the center of the line. The right tackle moves behind the guard and center toward the opposite side of the line to join the left side of the line, who are moving defenders to the left and out of that lane being created in the middle. Timothy Jackson, the fullback, hits the lane quickly and explodes into the defensive backfield. You can also see that a linebacker and two defensive backs continue to pursue Hammond and Remsberg while Jackson blows by them.

Now we’ll move on to some other plays that the Falcons like to run out of the flexbone. For these plays I’ll use a series of highlights from the Falcons opening drive in the Cheez-it Bowl against Washington State. As I describe the plays, you can watch the video and pause the progress to see the actions I am describing. The drive starts at the Falcons 2 yard line after a goal line stop on fourth down, and is a classic option team drive that takes 12 minutes off the clock, and goes for a touchdown.

After a seven yard gain on first down, the Falcons line up in the flexbone with a balanced line and the wide receiver and tight end in tight. Hammond starts the play as though it will be the option, but lets the fullback go by him as a lead blocker to the right side. The right guard and the right tackle cross, with the tackle getting a nice cut block on the defensive end, putting him on the turf. Hammond gets outside with Remsberg, the fullback Birdow, and the tight end in front of him as blockers. Birdow knocks back a potential tackler and Hammond picks up six yards for a first down.

Several more running plays later, the Falcons line up in the flexbone. The Cougars haven’t been able to stop the runs yet and pack the box, but the Falcons spread it out with three wide receivers and the defensive backfield in man-to-man coverage. Remsberg goes in motion but Birdow and Remsberg stay in the backfield as blockers. Hammond drops straight back and finds Ben Waters inside the 20 just to remind the Cougars that they have to respect the pass.

A couple plays later, the Falcons execute a play that is a staple in their repertoire, a counter play. Executed out of the flexbone, we see Remsberg goes in motion while Birdow goes through the normal motion of the fullback dive. Remsberg comes back and takes the handoff from Hammond, hitting the opposite side of the line, while the offensive line tries to seal off the left side. Remsberg takes it to the 2 yard line, first and goal.

Before showing the final play of the drive, I should mention that during this drive, the Falcons executed 6 fullback dives, every one for plus yardage. This forces the opposing team to keep the box packed pretty tight, and opens up all the other plays. The final play is a plain quarterback sneak, with all players on both teams packed in tight, but you can see that a couple linebackers have to remain to the outside in case of the option is run. The left side of the offensive line for the Falcons consists of all-MW second team center Connor Vikupitz, all-MW first team OL Nolan Laufenberg, and OL Parker Ferguson (according to Pro Football Focus, the eighth best returning offensive lineman in college football, Laufenberg is third best). Their surge provides an easy touchdown, aided by shoving from behind by Birdow, Remsberg and the tight end. I’d have to look at all the tapes again, but I don’t recall the quarterback sneak failing all year to convert a touchdown or first down opportunity.

The precise, disciplined execution of these plays shows why the Falcons were so successful this last year. But they also opened up good opportunities for the passing game, and Donald Hammond has a strong passing arm, although perhaps not as consistently accurate as many other passers in the Mountain West. This resulted in the two main receivers for the Falcons, Geraud Sanders and Ben Waters (who had not caught a pass before this year and had played in the defensive backfield), averaging 27 yards per reception. In the following play against Colorado State, the Falcons have set up the play with two consecutive runs for 10+ yards by Kade Remsberg. Remsberg goes in motion to the right, the other slotback, Ben Waters pulls back as though he will be the lead blocker for Remsberg on the pitch. Hammond fakes the quick pitch to Remsberg and fades back to pass. Waters releases downfield and the defenders don’t realize he has now become a receiver. Waters is left wide open on the right sideline, and Hammond hits him for an easy touchdown.

The Falcons always have a good offense, but last year they had a “perfect storm” of the best offensive line in the league, a quarterback that makes good decisions on the triple option and can throw downfield, and running backs that make things happen when they run with the ball. All three of those elements will return next year, but some major components of the defense have departed and will need to be filled. I hope you enjoyed the rundown of the Falcon offense.