Mike Denbrock’s offense places an emphasis on the run. It isn’t a return to the Les Miles days or anything like that, but it is an offense that is extremely capable of punishing you for emptying the box and playing nickel/dime. With its receiver talent, LSU has a unique opportunity to force teams into those looks and hammer them in the run game if they can get the OL and TE position rooms to a serviceable level. They have been one of the more effective rush offenses in the nation over the past few years, so this is a welcome element for an LSU offense that has desperately missed it over the past few years.
The base run play of this system is inside zone. Mike Denbrock likes to lean extremely heavy on it and uses it as something of an anytime call. Inside zone has been the defining run play in college football over the past 10 years due in large part to its incredible versatility and adaptability against multiple defensive looks. This system, at least when Kelly and Denbrock were at Notre Dame in 2015, organizes their assignments with a set of calls labeled “single, double, triple, A, B, and C.”
There are other specialized alerts and calls but these are the general combinations. A single call means that the center and frontside guard are zone blocking together, a double call means the frontside guard and frontside tackle are zone blocking together, and a triple call means the frontside tackle and TE are zone blocking together. A, B, and C are the same but for the backside of the play. The specific assignment is determined by whether or not a player is “covered’’ or “uncovered.” Covered means that you have a defender lined up overhead, uncovered means the inverse. See below for an example of how these assignments shake out:
Generally, if you’re covered you have to block the guy ahead of you, if you’re uncovered you help a covered defender in a double team and/or climb to take linebacker.
Here you can see the backside guard, who is uncovered, helping the center and climbing to the Mike linebacker. Additionally, in this play, we see what Denbrock calls a “FAX” tag. FAX simply means the TE crosses the formation and blocks backside, usually taking a scraping linebacker, the backside end, or arcing to a safety in the fit. Keep this in mind for the next part in this series, RPOs, as they RPO this action with the TE as a receiving option.
(This is not the same play, the play in the GIF is an RPO they call “skip,” but the base blocking scheme is still inside zone).
Here you can see a single combo and a fax tag executed for a nice gain with the center climbing to the second level and the TE cutting off the backside end.
Mike Denbrock likes to run zone read, like, a lot. The read is simple, you read the man on the line outside of the blocking scheme, if he collapses, you keep, and vice versa. Here we see it from 12 personnel against pressure (this look is used very effectively in short-yardage situations when teams bring edge pressure). If Jayden Daniels is the QB, I really like zone-read as a simple way to steal a number in the blocking scheme and potentially get a dangerous ball-carrier into space. I wish he ran more new-school option concepts like counter-read a bit more than he did a year ago, but I expect a lot of big plays on zone-read from Daniels if he starts.
Here we get zone read with a tag that has the TE on a FAX and the WR (big-bodied, high-end blocking, Allen Lazard-esque Alec Pierce, more on him later) cracking the safety. The angles are good for the WR to crack and cut off the safety while the TE takes the corner. This is a G R E A T tag against quarters, as the weak safety usually will fit down like this, leaving him vulnerable to a crack from the W receiver (boundary outside receiver in Denbrock/Kelly language). This also leaves the corner out in a lot of space for the ballcarrier and FAXing TE to account for.
Against 3 down, odd fronts (including the inside-zone busting “tite front”), Mike Denbrock has said that they like to wash the play frontside and create sort of a natural windback for the ballcarrier. The idea is to pin everyone inside and have the RB aim for the area behind the created mass of bodies. In 12, you can have the TE block the play-side outside linebacker (first gif), who is now the most dangerous player, or in 11, the RB can juke him out in space. Additionally, you could also RPO him on a stop route from the slot and put him in run/pass conflict. There’s a lot of stuff you can do to account for that, but it’s overall an innovative, creative way of dealing with a defense’s answer to inside zone.
Inside zone is Denbrock’s bread and butter, but they ran a handful of other schemes off of it.
One of these schemes is outside zone. The way Denbrock likes to run outside zone is to have the blockers aim to “reach” (cross face and win outside leverage on a player, basically) and pin them inside so the back can take it outside. They run this mostly from offset gun since Denbrock isn’t huge on pistol (a shame, in my view, it’s great for play-action, especially considering the 2015 Notre Dame offense he ran with Mike Sanford was huge on it). They’ll also run it from under center, like above, though that’s uncommon. This would have hit for a big play if the RT didn’t whiff on the linebacker coming from the backside.
Another, and probably his main secondary scheme, is counter. Denbrock ran both GY (guard and tight end pulling) and GT counter (guard and tackle). One puller kicks out the force defender while the other leads through the hole. When run out of 12 personnel like above, you can have the frontside tight end account for the weak safety there. Denbrock does a lot of great stuff in 12 personnel, which is why it’s so important for LSU to fill out the TE room.
The main scheme Denbrock will run when under center is “crack toss.” The idea is to have the receiver crack on a linebacker flowing outside from the inside of the formation to take advantage of the angle and have one or two pullers pull around the outside. Denbrock usually uses two with the W receiver (boundary outside receiver) as a single crack blocker.
One thing Mike Denbrock does that has made his run game particularly effective is motioning players, usually tight ends (and WR Alec Pierce), from out wide into the blocking scheme to steal numbers in the box. Inversely, you can motion players out wide and run opened-up passing concepts against base defenses. This versatility allows this offense to run the ball against favorable packages like nickel and spread the field/throw against favorable pass looks like base. This is why being good and VERSATILE at tight-end is so important not just for this offense, but for modern offenses in general (particularly at the NFL level). Cincy was VERY good at tight-end last year.
Here, they start out in a 4 open look (4 wide) and motion TE Josh Whyle into the formation. The defense is in 2 high with the offense showing 4 open. The defense then has 6 defenders in the box trying to account for 7 gaps with the Sam backer pulled out wide. They also read the backside end to steal another number by leaving him unblocked. Thus, the defense ends up badly out-gapped and unable to stop the play. If they had stayed in 4 open, the defense would have the bodies to fit this out somewhat serviceably, but motioning the TE into the formation has them hopelessly out-gapped. Running the ball is ultimately a math problem; It’s about angles, and it’s about numbers. This is a simple way to win the numbers and matchups game.
They often would use Alec Pierce as an extra blocker. They’d motion him into the formation which gives you a free extra blocker against an outmatched coverage player who is near-useless in the run fit. Alec Pierce was an elite, elite run-blocker at Cincy and was a big reason they could run the ball so effectively in 11 personnel. When he’s on the field, you have to account for him as a downfield pass catcher, which sorta prevents you from accounting for him as a blocker in the run scheme very effectively. With Jack Bech’s experience at tight end (make no mistake though, he’s a wide receiver), I could see him being used in a similar way with his solid build and high-end strength. Another thing they do a lot that you see in this is same-side inside zone. Same-side runs are basically plays where the back doesn’t cross the QB’s face and hits to the same side as his alignment. Running your base schemes both normally and same-side prevents defenses from keying in on your back path and run-blitzing gaps they know your ball-carrier is going to target.