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Caution: Xs and Os football class is in session

I've been wondering why exactly the Dolphins, and many other NFL teams, use an unbalanced offensive line against the New England Patriots and other 3-4 defenses. I know, life is really sad when I am admitting these thoughts are in my head.

Anyway, to quench my curiosity I did something most folks don't have the opportunity to do: I asked Dolphins coach Tony Sparano to explain it. And he did! It was amazing!

Now this is strictly meat for rabid football fanatics. I don't often go over stuff like this because not many folks like to read about Xs and Os. But I found this so fascinating I had to share Sparano's answer to my question, "What does an unbalanced line do to a defense:

"It does two different things," Sparano said. "When you go unbalanced, with a tight end on one side and a tackle on the other side, it forces [the defense] to declare what you want to do with your safety. Do you want to put your safety in a situation where if he goes to the big side, to the two-man side ... Do you want to run support that side? Do you want to bring the safety over there? Or do you want to leave the safety back to the tight end side right now, knowing that he's the eligible [receiver].

"It also forces [things] [against] some teams that want to be balanced on defense. You play 3-4 teams. They want to have the nose on the center. It forces them to have to do something else. If they keep the nose on the center, then they are playing maybe their four or five techniques a little bit wider. They have to play those over maybe a ghost tight end maybe in some of those situations. Or they need to reduce the front. And they need to make the nose now play over the guard. Now all of a sudden, they are doing jobs that they're not used to doing in those defenses."

In other words, it makes the defense do things it doesn't want to do along the line of scrimmage. It makes the defense show the offense its intentions with the safety. And it puts the defense out of its comfort zone.

Smart coaching. That explanation raised my respect level for Sparano's Xs and Os acumen and ability to communicate. If he's able to explain what coaches are trying to accomplish to me, he's obviously able to communicate it to his players. Good stuff.


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Cam Cameron used unbalanced lines last year. It's good to throw in there because it does take a defense out of it's base formation and you make them think more and take some of their aggressiveness away. But just like any other scheme, you can't live on it every down.

Hey, Armando-

Great stuff, as always. There's plenty of football fanatics out here that love to learn more about the nuts and bolts of this stuff.

One thing I've been wondering (and my apologies if it's been covered already somewhere) since seeing the Wildcat is... why is Pennington on the field? Why risk injury to him when he's not going to be anywhere near QBing the ball? Seems like a big WR who can catch and block would be better. Heck, maybe even another TE.

A likely answer might be that there is some sort of reverse/flea flicker/screen pass play tucked in the formation somewhere where Penny would get the ball in a position to pass it. But other than that, it seems like an odd personnel choice. Unless you HAVE to have a QB on the field for some reason.

Any ideas?

This is the best blog post you've ever done. Thank you.

Doug, the reason the QB is kept on the field is so as to not tip the defense before they break the huddle. If you sub for the QB, then the D will be able to account for it in their huddle. Keeping the QB in the huddle and on the field forces the D to make all of the adjustments at the LOS.

Doug Boemler Wareing:

I can take a guess because I have been thinking about the Wildcat and different ways it can be used after Coach said they have just "scratched the surface".

Imagine sending Pennington in motion instead of Ricky. Ronnie could then hand of to Penny who could look for a streaking Ginn (i guess depending on what the safety shows from the unbalanced line). OR, Penny could look for either Ricky or Ronnie in the flat or in the center of the field and let them use their ability to run after the catch. Ronnie could fake it to Penny and then run or pass. It essentially puts two passing options in the backfield and three of your most talented players on the field at once that the defence has to worry about. Taking Penny off the field for some of the Wildcat plays shows your hand a little, so by keeping him in there the D still has to keep an eye on him. And Coach saying that he wants Penny to just "run off the field if he has to" is a pretty good way of making it seem like he has no purpose in the formation.

Jay is right. You tip your hand without the QB on the field. The defense can then add an additional LB or DB on the field to counter your personnel.

You don't want to put Pennington in motion because you're exposing him to get hit. DBs can hit receivers within 5 yards. That's why they basically tell Pennington to go wide and get out of the way. Sparano has told him to run out of bounds if you have to.


My vote - Please give us more Xs and Os. I can read speculation and fluff everywhere, but with Xs and Os I actually can learn to appreciate the game of football more.

As to the Unbalanced Line. I get that it puts the Defense in positions they aren't used to playing, but, doesn't it by definition do the same for the Offense? I suppose the only advantage is that the offense generally has a sense of their gameplan going in so can practice more if they plan on using it more. But that is precisely why one can overuse it. The more you use it, the more a Defense will be prepared for it and the players won't necessarily be uncomfortable with defending it.

i dont think the qb can be in motion??

What did you mean by the sentence, "Andy they need to make nose now play over the guard." in the fifth paragraph of your blog? You need to come on back to school and repeat my class. I still have some openings for this Fall.

The more you can make a defense prepare for the better off your offense is. There are only so many days and hours to prepare for a team. Then you hit them with something they haven't seen. I'm sure we've got something new up our sleeve this week. We've had two weeks to work on it.

For instance don't be surprised if we attempt more down field passes Sunday if we can get the Chargers in man on man situations. They're going to be playing close to the line of scrimmage trying to stop our run game and to stay with our short and medium pass game. That's why we have to go deep on them. That doesn't mean Pennington has to attempt 50 yard passes and pretend to be a mad bomber. But if we can set up a few stop and go routes and hit them, we'll soften up their defense.

Look for us to do that.

What's with the petty grammar and spelling bee nerds? It's a blog guys, relax!

Dear second grade spelling teacher: I appreciate the correction but if you really knew me, you'd know I skipped second grade. Went from first to third. Haven't recovered since.

...also, having the QB on the field as a WR isnt bad, because if the QB lined up extreme wide on either side, regardles if he is the slowest and worst receiver in the world, the defense MUST account for him with a man... this stretches the defense, as he pulls a player out of the play.

My son Donovan was unbalanced one time in the Super Bowl cuz he didn't come ta ma house and fill up on the good. He should have grabbed a bowl of Campbell's® Chunky™ Steak 'N' Potato Soup. It is a balanced diet with tender chunks of lean meat. If you don't be eatin it you get all unbalanced in the head area and start actin a crazy like my boy Donovan. Da only xs and os he gets is dem alphabet soup vittles I feeds him and da hug and kisses I give him when he come ova ta big mommas house. Dat boy crazy like a dawg who dun got some skunk smellum in his hair and be runnin round chasin his tail in da hot sun.

AS- We share initials but not opinions most of the time. I will say, however, that your response two posts higher was a solid reply and funny to boot!

Nevertheless, spelling and grammar should always be correct, even in blog posts. Unless it is breaking news that has to go up immediatley, take the extra two minutes and read it over before posting. Then you don't have to worry about the criticism and corrections!

Sending Pennington in motion not only exposes him to injury, but you're not really fooling anyone into thinking it's an end-around to Penny. They would be able to play the pass and take their chances with a LB being able to tackle Penny in space. Although I do think he'll occasionally run downfield if the defense doesn't account for him.

The Patriots didn't put anyone on Pennington when he lined up wide outside. Most defenses will challenge you to throw to the QB and expose him to big hits at a position he is not used to. But if he's wide open and can get out of bounds it can be done. The Pats did that to us twice with Brady years ago.

In my opinion you have to throw the ball more or the defense will just stack the box knowing you are going to run 99% of the time.
A guy like Ginn that can pass(former quarterback), run outside, or handoff gives this some serious defensive nightmares. If he is any kind of effective passer and he throws from it several times it will back off the defense and allow the angled blocking to give the runners an advantage.
This is usually defensed the most effectively by rushing your ends up field to force all the action to stay between the tackles. This eliminates a lot of the sweeps, roll out passes, and other options that make this effective.

Awesome. Thanks, guys, for all the different looks at the Wildcat. I'd never considered some of them!! Long live the Wildcat and GO PHINS!

Keep on rockin, Mando...

The Patriots didn't put anyone on Pennington when he lined up wide outside. Most defenses will challenge you to throw to the QB and expose him to big hits at a position he is not used to. But if he's wide open and can get out of bounds it can be done. The Pats did that to us twice with Brady years ago.

Posted by: Mr. Bungle

I disagree, I saw each play reviewed on NFL Network and ESPN, and he was covered each time... of course, it means nothing if neither of us can prove it, so I'll look for a link... until then- *shrug*

Thanks for the blog Mando. I had thought that an unbalanced line would mean that the team would make a play on that side. Now I see that it confuses a defense a lot. Makes people play out of position and also gives the offense an idea of what the d is planning.
And thanks to Coach Sparano for explaining it to us out in the bush.

Mando, you are wrong. I would rather get into the nuts, and bolts of the game, then to read a Team Gossip column every day. Most of what we see in the body of these blogs have been what you would hear from two girl friends gossiping over a cup of coffee. Lower down, someone will interject something about the HOWS, and the WHYS of what is being done, and the conversation shifts to what we care about. You will always have a few nancy boys who want to discuss the feelings of their favorite whiney millionaire who wants a new contract, or to be traded, but most of us want substance.

The bigger question is this: do the Dolphins know how to defend the Wildcat?

I would hope they have some way of combatting it if this trend starts to go league wide.

A lot of bloggers care more about strategy than petty gossip. Omar Kelly does a great job of explaining the ins and outs of the game and is respected for it. You should definitely write more blogs like this.

I went back and looked at the tape of the Wildcat formation and Pennington was covered. It was interesting because the Pats gave him a lot of space even though he barely tried to run down the field. I don’t think there is a high probability of Pennington being utilized in this formation but they may have a play or two in which he gets involved.

I hope Sparano and staff can outcoach the Chargers again this week.

great blog - very interesting comments on what happens on the line of scrimmage but what about the linebackers keys ? From looking at the way the pats defended the wildcat they were nowhere near the play - please could you ask coach sprano about how the formation affects the keys - many thanks

Finsupremo, it didn't look like they had anyone on Pennington at least a few of the times that I saw.

Thats great. You should do more of these types of blogs

Excellent, excellent post.

Damn, sorry I was traveling and missed this one... Great post Armando! I wanted to chime in on the "D" covering Pennington. They absolutely have to account for him. Not because he will run a pattern but because of the backwards throw to him and then he can look downfield. If no one is defending him he could have all day over there.

There was also a play I was looking for that we didn't see on the goal line. Jake Long becomes an eligable receiver once he moves over (and declares). This presents another problem for the defense. I could see him holding a block for a second or two and then slipping out nto the pattern.

Thanks Mando. I didn't know the safety part and new knowledge is always good knowledge. Keep up the good work and add in this type of blog anytime you want to.

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