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Tennessee Film Study: Using The Unbalanced Formation To Create An Advantage

How Tennessee Managed To Run On The Tide

Tennessee v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Last night marked the first “Third Saturday in October” match-up since 2015 that Tennessee was able to eclipse 100 rushing yards. That year the Vols’ backfield consisted of Alvin Kamara, Jalen Hurd, and Joshua Dobbs — they went for 132-yards on the ground and one touchdown in Tennessee’s six point loss.

What made a difference yesterday, despite starting two true freshman offensive tackles on the road? Some will point to the physicality of the offensive line. A great example of that can be seen on this play:

Tennessee’s offensive line is certainly playing with a toughness that hasn’t been seen in Knoxville in quite some time. But, last night’s performance was more than just playing with an attitude. The Vols made heavy use of an unbalanced formation, which created favorable match-ups in the running game.

Below is a look at the unbalanced formation Tennessee employed quite a bit against the Crimson Tide:

Figure 1: Unbalanced Formation

The player circled in yellow above is aligned on the line of scrimmage, and is closest to the sideline. Therefore, he is considered eligible to receive a pass. The player with the red ‘X’ is also on the line of scrimmage. Because he is “covered up” by the outside receiver — again, in yellow — he is considered ineligible to receive a pass. The player circled in green is offensive tackle Wanya Morris. He is actually considered an eligible receiver as he is on the line of scrimmage with no other players outside of him covering him up. Personally, I would love nothing more than to see us try to get Morris involved in the passing game out of this formation. That would be hilarious. However, that probably isn’t in our best interest for trying to move the ball down the field consistently. Where we do have great match-ups with this formation is running the football inside.

By my — unofficial — count Tennessee had 12 called runs from this formation against the Crimson Tide. Of those 12 attempts, 11 went for positive yardage. In total Tennessee racked up 107-yards rushing out of this formation. In other words, running from this unbalanced formation accounted for about one-third of the total rushing attempts, and about 78% of rushing yardage — if you adjust for sack yardage. That is incredible! What is even more incredible is that pretty much each run was a simple zone scheme.

What Tennessee is trying to accomplish with their six offensive players — five linemen plus the tight end — is to block the six defenders “in the box.” This phrase simply refers to the defensive players aligned between the offensive linemen — and tight end — and within about five yards of the line of scrimmage. We are trying to get “a hat on a hat” up front.

Figure 2: Box Count

The six players across the offensive line create seven gaps for the defense to defend. Alabama countered by adding a seventh defender — a safety, circled in red — near the box to help defend the run. Tennessee just runs a simple zone scheme away from that player. Each offensive player is basically working to the gap to their immediate left. In doing so, Tennessee manages to create a nice seam for running back Tim Jordan.

Figure 3: Unbalanced Zone

Unfortunately, Brandon Kennedy was caught up on his initial double team and unable to get to the second level. Alabama’s middle linebacker was therefore able to get a piece of Jordan, and bring him down with the help of the safety for a solid gain of eight.

Clip 1: Jordan Run

Later in the game, with the ball in the middle of the field, Tennessee was able to catch Alabama in a two-high safety shell, and consequently a soft, six-man box. It can be difficult from this spread formation to keep track of which receivers are eligible and which ones are not. Particularly, if the offense is using any kind of tempo.

Figure 4: 2-High Safety Shell

Again, the offensive line creates a nice seam for Jordan with zone blocking. This time, everyone is blocked well up front leaving Jordan one-on-one with the safety — well, technically speaking that’s a cornerback lined up in a safety position, but you get the point. Jordan is able to break off a huge run down the sideline and set up Tennessee in the red zone.

Clip 2: Jordan Second Run

After the game there was only one Tennessee running play that was being discussed online:

But, amidst all of the drama surrounding the play above it’s important to keep in focus how well the offense ran the ball on a great defense. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney had an excellent game plan, and the combination of this unbalanced formation and the growing physicality of the offensive line proved effective.

There are no moral victories, we know this. However, this type of planning and execution from the Volunteer offense ought to engender quite a bit of optimism going forward.