Assignment Football: The key to stopping the option

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

What worked and what didn't work against Carolina's option attack last season.

The core of the Carolina Panthers' run game, perhaps even their entire offense, is the option. They run the read, speed, power, counter and triple option. They'll run option plays from under center or out of shotgun. It is an offense that is designed to maximize the strengths and minimize the deficiencies of Cam Newton, a 245 pound QB that runs a 4.58 40 yard dash and struggles with accuracy as a passer. Last year, Newton rushed for 741 yards and 8 TDs. To put this number in perspective, DeAngelo Williams, the Panthers lead RB, rushed for only 737 yards and 5 TDs last season. If the QB leads the team in rushing, that team most likely runs a lot of option plays.

Even though Newton is such a threat to run the ball, the Seahawks did a fairly good job limiting Newton's rushing ability in Week 5 of last season. Newton rushed for 42 yards and 0 TDs on 7 attempts. Respectable numbers but that effort only harnessed his team 12 points.

So how did the Seahawks limit Newton to 42 yards rushing and the Carolina offense to 12 points? The key to stopping any option attack is to play assignment football. Players have to know what gaps to defend and which players to hit. When defenders do not execute their assignment, that's when option plays go for big gains. Here is a look at what happened last year against Carolina when the Seahawks played assignment football and when they didn't.

In the following GIF the Panthers are in 22 personnel and the Seahawks are in their over front. With the 2:46 left in the 3rd quarter, the Panthers are up 10-6 and the Panthers run a counter option to the strong side of the formation on 1st down. Brandon Browner owns the Panthers on this play by playing perfect assignment football with outstanding technique. He maintains outside leverage on Newton, keeps his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage, forces the pitch to Williams and then mugs him for the ball.

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On this play, the Panthers left Browner unblocked, essentially making him the defender to option off of. If Browner chose to guard Williams then Newton would have cut the ball up field for a decent gain. Browner didn't go after Williams initially though because his assignment on the play was to attack the QB while maintaining outside leverage. The person that was responsible for Williams on this play was Kam Chancellor.

Notice how Chancellor is pursuing Williams at an angle that would have prevented Williams from getting outside before either being put to sleep or being forced to cut back inside to be tackled by Leroy Hill. If Chancellor and Browner had attacked the same player then the Seahawks would have been susceptible to large gain. However, what happened was that the Seahawks maintained their option assignments, filled their running lanes and caused a turnover. This is about as good as assignment sound defense gets.

Now time for the bad news, this next play is an example of what happens when assignments break down. The Panthers are in '11' personnel and the Seahawks are in a nickel package. The panthers run a triple option in which Newton fakes the hand off to Jonathan Stewart and then later makes a pitch Kealoha Pilares for a for 13 yard gain.

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Notice how Red Bryant bites on the fake hand off to Stewart which may or may not have been by defensive design. The Seahawks could have been running a play which was designed with the intentions of stopping the read option in which Bryant always goes after the RB and KJ Wright is always responsible for the QB if he decides to keep it. Notice how KJ doesn't bite on the fake handoff at all and moves immediately outside to keep contain on Newton. Bryant, on the other hand, attacks Stewart with complete disregard for the possibility of Newton keeping it. This could be by design or it could be that Bryant was completely fooled on this play and Wright diagnosed it perfectly.

Regardless, Bryant biting on this fake is not the reason why this play went for a big gain. The reason why this play went for 13 yards was because Chancellor got sucked in on the play fake as well. By Chancellor getting sucked in on the play fake, the Seahawks now have two defenders (Bryant and Chancellor) defending the C gap and nobody responsible for Pilares on the option. When defensive players don't play assignment football, option plays go for big gains.

Now let's say that the defensive play was designed for Bryant to always go after the RB and Wright to get the QB. If the Seahawks played assignment football on this play, what should have happened was that Bryant would have crashed down on Stewart, this would have forced Newton to keep the ball, KJ would then have immediately tackled Newton, which would have forced him to make the pitch earlier to Pilares, and Chancellor would have been right there to decapitate him after he caught the pitch. Maybe they even would have caused a fumble on this play as well. However, this didn't happen and the Panthers ended up with a 13 yard gain.

Lastly, if the Seahawks can play assignment sound football and take the option out of Carolina's offense then they will force Newton to throw the ball. If Newton is forced to throw, good things will happen for the defense. Last year Newton threw for 141 yards on 12 for 29 passing against the Seahawks. A lot of his throws against the Seahawks last year went like this.

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On 41% passing, it is no wonder Newton only led the Panthers offense to 12 points despite playing at home. The Seahawks have an entire off season to make sure that this happens again. If they were able to learn their option assignments in one week last year, it is scary to think of what they will do to Carolina's option attack with months to prepare for it.

Thanks to Danny for the gif-creation!

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