How To Defend Navy's Option Offense: Six Keys To Success
It’s time for the annual “triple option” matchup for Notre Dame. This weekend the Fighting Irish host No. 21 Navy (7-1), which will bring its option offense to South Bend.
It’s an incredibly unique offense, and it’s even more of a unicorn in the modern era of spread offenses. While the spread has some root principles in the option, the manner in which Navy and Army run their offense is vastly different than what opponents face on a week to week basis.
This is how Navy, with a vastly inferior roster with really only one NFL caliber player on its roster (Malcolm Perry), is able to score so many points and win so many games.
How teams line up and defend Navy from a pure schematic standpoint will very, but there are six key principles to beating an option offense. The first, ironically, begins with Notre Dame’s offense.
1. Score Early, Score Often — The best friend to a defense that must defend the option is when its own offense can score early and often. Navy’s whole goal is to shorten the game, limit the oppositions possessions, and when it gets the lead it can strangle an opponent.
Consequently, Navy is not a team that is built to play from behind. When an offense can match Navy point-for-point early in the game it gives its defense a chance to get caught up to the option. If the defense is able to make a few early stops and the offense is getting scores in return it puts Navy in a major bind.
Beyond the practical impact of an offense scoring early, it also provides the defense with a boost in confidence. When an option team like Navy gets early scores and the offense doesn’t match those scores it can greatly increase the pressure on the defense that knows the game is being shortened. That’s when you see defenders try to “make a play,” and more often than not the result of that is a mistake that gives Navy a big play.
2. Be Disciplined, Be Diverse, Be Disruptive — There are a variety of fronts and looks that can work against the option. I’ve seen three-man fronts work, four-man fronts work, single-high safeties work, two-high safeties work. I’ve also seen all of those looks get obliterated by Navy’s option offense.
What a defense runs from a structural standpoint isn’t as important as what makes up the game plan from a philosophical standpoint. The game plan must provide players with limited responsibilities on each call. The more defenders are guessing and reading, and the more responsibilities they have on each call, the more likely they are to make mistakes. A defense must be disciplined against Navy, which means clear responsibilities for each player on each call.
That doesn’t mean running the same defensive call snap after snap. If you run limited calls eventually Navy will figure them out, and like every other offense, they will have answers. Notre Dame must be able to mix up its looks and calls against Navy. Perhaps they come out in a three-man front one series and a four-man front the next. Perhaps one series it’s one-high safeties, the next its two-high.
Notre Dame must keep Navy off-balance, but it must do so while keeping things as simple as possible for their own defenders. Diversity is a must, but not if it causes players to lose discipline.
An effective game plan against Navy must also be aggressive. It can be very, very tempting to look at the option and think, “If we can just string things along we can rally to the ball.” That doesn’t work very well against good option teams, and Navy is a very, very good option team. You also don’t want to be too aggressive, because that’s when you lose discipline and get gashed.
The key from an aggressiveness/disruptive standpoint is to have players attack their responsibilities with force and speed. If your job is to play the fullback, blow him up. If your job is to play the quarterback, drill him. If your job is to play the slot backs, fly hard at them with good leverage/angles. The calls must then allow players to be aggressive within a clear structure.
The diversity then comes from who is attacking those responsibilities on each snap.
3. Handle The Cut Blocks — Navy doesn’t cut on every single play like some think, but they cut enough to impact the game. Handling cut blocks is vital to success against the option, but it’s not just the technique involved in physically handling the cut blocks. When you get cut as much as a defensive lineman does against Navy it can get in your head.
Don’t believe me, go watch Notre Dame’s defensive linemen in 2013 and see how far they lined up off the ball throughout the game. It was in their heads, it was in the heads of the coaches.
Technique is important to beating the cut blocks, and Mike Elston has a lot of experience against that. But the players must also mentally be prepared to attack the cut blocks, beat the cut blocks, and make a lot of plays.
Over the last two seasons, Notre Dame has given up just 10 combined points in the first half against Navy. If that trend continues the Irish will have a chance at having a strong defensive performance against the Midshipmen.
4. Win On Early Downs — No offense likes getting off schedule. No offense goes into the game and says, “Hey, let’s get into as many third-and-longs as possible.” But for Navy, getting into long-yardage situations is even more problematic. Depending on the field position, Navy will have no issue running the football on third-and-long and setting up a manageable fourth down, but if the defense can make stops - or better yet negatives - on first and second down, especially early in drives, it puts Navy is a bad spot.
When Navy gets off schedule it also creates more opportunities for mistakes by its offense, and it sets up the defense for opportunities for even bigger plays. With Navy’s desire to shorten the game, if the defense can force punts or turnovers, or even hold Navy to field goals, it will give the Notre Dame offense a chance to blow the game open.
5. Control The Middle Of the LOS — While much of the focus is on the option part of Navy’s offense, when the offense is truly dominating and rolling the way it wants, it is attacking teams downhill and between the tackles.
Watch the first touchdown against Tulane.
Navy wants to hammer defenses right up the gut with the fullbacks - who have combined for 860 yards and 15 touchdowns - which then sets up the quarterback follow plays, the quarterback dive plays and the quarterback counter players. Once team’s start getting sucked in trying to defend the between the tackle plays, that’s when the options to the perimeter and the pass game become more dangerous. When Navy goes outside because it’s beating a defense between the tackles it is going to make a lot of big plays.
That makes dominating the line of scrimmage an absolute must for Notre Dame. The defensive linemen must be aggressive, physical and disciplined and blow up the Navy fullbacks. This is especially true of the backside players. Notre Dame must also tackle extremely well between the tackles, which means no extra yards for the fullbacks or the quarterback.
Control the line of scrimmage - especially right up the middle - and the defense will greatly limit Navy’s ability to gash it. That forces Navy outside, and when Navy goes outside out of necessity the Irish defense has Navy where it wants it because now it can use its speed advantage.
6. Don’t Get Out-Leveraged — One of the things Navy does very well is use its formations to gain leverage advantages against the defense. It will use overload looks to gain advantages, either by pinning the defense inside and then getting the ball outside with a toss or an option, or by spreading the defense out by creating an extra gap, which then can give the offense more room to work inside.
It has been especially effective this season at using its wide receivers to pin defenses inside.
On this particular snap against Tulane, Navy reduced the defense by tightening its receivers, and both receivers executed excellent crack/seal blocks. The tailback then took off outside to clean up the first defender that shows for the fullback toss play. The Middies picked up an easy 14-yard gain on a toss play to the fullback on this snap, and the sole reason was it out-leveraged the defense.
Notre Dame cannot allow itself to get out-leveraged against Navy, because that is when the big plays are most dangerous, and that is where Navy can get its chunk plays on the perimeter.