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Canadian Offense: Unbalanced Formations

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I never said there would be no math.

Matt Canada’s offense is the subject of a lot of excitement and hope for LSU fans, and for good reason after the struggles of the last few seasons. We (Seth and myself) have done our best to try and explain and analyze what will change about the 2017 Tiger offense, based on what Canada has done at previous stops at Pitt, NC State, and Northern Illinois.

A big reason we think Canada will be a great fit for this team is that the foundations of his offense aren’t radically different from what LSU’s been used to. In his own words:

“We’re going to run zone, we’re going to run power,” he explained. “We’re going to move the pocket and throw the ball effectively, and down the field when we have to.”

Most great offenses and styles have a backbone to the system, whether it’s the West Coast passing game of Bill Walsh, the zone-blocking, and tempo for Chip Kelly or the spread-option principles of Urban Meyer. The thing that every opponent in every game knows they have to stop.

How you build constraints to that backbone forms the tactics of your offense and your game plan. Tactics tend to involve one of three principles: numbers, leverage, or grass. You can overwhelm a defense with more blockers than they have tacklers (or more receivers than they can cover), outflank them and use the angles of the field to your advantage, or put your best athletes into open space.

Canada finds ways to use these principles with motions and shifts that allow him to package multiple plays and options into the same formation. Another tactic that dovetails with his use of shifts and motions is the unbalanced formation.

An unbalanced formation in football, in the simplest terms, means aligning more players on one side of the ball (and the center) than the other, while still maintaining the necessary seven directly on the line of scrimmage.

Obviously, most two-back sets or any sort of trey or trips formation with a receiver fits this basic definition. In a base I-formation, the unbalanced side features the tight end and a defined strength of the formation and blocking advantage.

The unbalanced look has always been a huge feature of Chris Petersen’s offense, at Boise State and now at Washington. The gadgets and razzle-dazzle of those great early 2000s Broncos teams always got the headlines, but at their core, they were generally hard-running teams with backs like Ian Johnson and Brock Forsey. Boise rarely had the athletes to just push teams around at the line of scrimmage, but Petersen would find ways to make it work with his use of formation. Smart Football has a fantastic explainer here that I recommend.

Where Canada changes things up is by using what’s known as a tackle-over unbalanced set:

The tight end and the left tackle change places, creating a very defined blocking strength on one side of the formation. By shifting which receiver is off the line of scrimmage, the tight end remains the eligible receiving option, while the tackle is “covered” by the receiver to his right on the line of scrimmage and ineligible.

Unbalanced formations fall under the “numbers” portion of strategy by helping to create more gaps than a defense can cover. And when paired with the jet/fly sweep motions that Canada likes to use, they help gain leverage as well.

X and O Labs has an excellent breakdown of a couple different uses of the unbalanced look — including Stanford’s “Balco” heavy package with an extra tackle. What’s more, they quote a number of coaches from multiple levels explaining why they use the look.

Obviously, pairing two tackles on one side of a formation create a very defined strength and weakness. You’re sacrificing a shorter corner on one side for extra beef on the other. But a defense has to react, and that can expose them one way or another — and that’s if they even catch on to the set because remember, the defense doesn’t have a full view of the formation in real time. Some teams are simply taught to spot a tight end and align to him or count men on one side of the formation. Nobody sees the unbalanced formation enough to donate a ton of time to it in practice — even against an opposing coach that likes to use it as much as Canada.

LSU’s new play-caller prefers to add the tackle-over wrinkle to his one-back sets, especially with a tight end and an H-back to shift opposite them. A couple examples:

He’ll also just flat out add an extra tackle to an 11-personnel grouping.

And then there’s this:

Six linemen, plus three tight ends creating 10 total gaps for a defense to cover, and seven of them on one side of the field. Canada had previously experimented with these types of heavy sets in his one year at Wisconsin with the infamous “Barge” formation, which helped the Badgers rush for more than 500 yards and score 70 points on Nebraska in the 2012 Big 10 Championship Game.

The spread offense with four or five wide receivers was built on the idea that with that type of personnel grouping, there was a good chance somebody on offense would be matched up against a defender that couldn’t cover him. Force a defensive front to cover nine or 10 gaps, and it’s the same principle — there’s more likely to be a hole somewhere. The Atlanta Falcons also had a lot of success last season using a “13,” or one-back/three-tight end formation that made defenses choose between overloading the line of scrimmage and covering Julio Jones one-on-one.

And it becomes that much easier to make the defense wrong when you pair these unbalanced formations with the jet/fly sweep/run combination. Whether the tailback takes the ball on an inside run or the sweep man takes the ball wide, there’s an advantage to either side. The offense either has the advantage of the extra tackle on one side, or the misdirection helping to create a numbers or leverage advantage to the weak side.

Here we see it at play for Canada’s Pitt team last year:

Pitt shifts a tight end outside of the two tackles, and now has a perfect hat-on-a-hat matchup to the strong side of the formation. Only with a guard, two tackles and a tight end against an end, tackle and two linebackers.

X&O Labs’ Mike Kuchar adds some more detail here, with some specific examples from Canada. While his offense doesn’t always move at the breakneck pace of a Gus Malzahn or an Oregon-Era Chip Kelly, the creative use of shifts creates the same effect as snapping the ball every 20 seconds. The defense is constantly forced to adjust to what the offense is doing and adjust alignment and assignment.

Here we see Pitt use an unbalanced look, shift, and motion to completely cross up Oklahoma State and create a huge alley to the wide side of the field, and a long touchdown run.

The Panthers start in a six-man grouping to the field, then motion the tight ends to the weak side. The OSU slides with the two blockers, and then secondary motion creates a complete void. The linebackers slide down, and the play-side defensive end shifts to the C-gap. When Henderson comes back to the wide side, he’s got a lot of room and a sweeping offensive tackle blocking a safety.

Here, we see Syracuse shift with the Panthers, but the jet motion from the fullback causes two linebackers to take a few false steps and create a huge lane for James Connor running behind a guard and two tight ends.

The easy way to adjust to the change-up in pass protection is the roll the quarterback towards the unbalanced side — which set up one of Pitt’s most famous trick plays last season.

Canada was also willing to change up his blocking a bit, such as this fake jet/pin-and-pull stretch play.

The potential holdup here may be LSU’s lack of depth at tackle. If younger players are pressed into service, moving them around could lead to some mental lapses. Although the tight ends and fullbacks may make up for that. Either way, it should make for some very fun versatility for the Tiger offense this fall.