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BSD Film Room: Chess and a Two-Back Spread

Relative value of chess pieces and the two-back spread offense.


Chess players universally subscribe to the tenet of relative value for the pieces on the board.  The more a given piece can do - the longer its reach, the greater its freedom of movement - the higher its value.  A queen is worth more  than a rook, a rook brings it more than does a bishop, etc.  And when placed within certain positions on the board, or used in combination with other pieces, the relative values of the pieces increase or decrease.

A shrewd offensive coordinator applies the same principle to the football field, and specifically to the five "skill" (read: little fast guy) position players he has at his disposal on any given play.  Who brings the most value to the field, and are there any combinations and/or positioning which could increase the relative value of the individual players (or combination of players)?  Understanding your answers to these questions helps formulate what George W. Bush called stra-tee-gery.

Kill The Lights

Thanks to BSD's Dan Smith, we have the offensive snap counts from the 2015 season, which allow us to delve into the collective thinking of the 2015 PSU offensive staff.  Below, in table form, stands the sum total of their mental output.  This is whom they thought gave them the best chance to gain yards, score points, and win foosball games.

Player POS Snaps Touches Yards TD
Chris Godwin WR 683 118 1103 5
DaeSean Hamilton WR 660 89 585 6
Saquon Barkley RB 457 213 1237 8
Brent Wilkerson TE 419 7 39 0
Kyle Carter TE 390 24 135 0
Mike Gesicki TE 364 30 125 1
Geno Lewis WR 329 37 196 3
Saeed Blacknall WR 211 18 248 1
Akeel Lynch RB 182 61 290 2
Brandon Polk WR 145 26 216 2

Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton rarely left the field.  True freshman Saquon Barkley - who took fewer than a handful of snaps at Temple and also missed time with injury - finished 3rd in the pecking order.

Who was PSU's fourth most valued piece on the board?  Brent Wilkerson, #11, redshirt junior tight end.  Wilkerson saw the field almost as much as Barkley (419 snaps vs 457 for Saquon).  Of course, Wilkerson's paltry 7 touches (rushes + balls thrown in his general direction) fell far short of Barkley's 212 touches, which means the staff saw Wilkerson's value - almost exclusively - as a blocker (this basic deduction holds for Gesicki and Carter, too).


Obviously, none of our three tight ends were known as devastating blockers, to put it charitably.  Two of them - Carter and Gesicki - were basically basketball small forwards: they were matchup nightmares too big to be covered by a DB, and too athletic for your average college LB.   So our 2015 staff gave them 1,173 combined snaps, and highlighted their relative strengths (i.e., receiving) 61 times (5%), while shrewdly masking their weaknesses by having them block on most of the other 1,112 snaps (95%).

Confused by that sentence?  You should be, because that stunning assault on logic is one reason why our Nittany Lions will be trying a new offensive coordinator in 2016.

The hope for 2016, of course, is that new OC Joe Moorhead possesses basic common sense, and thus, represents a huge leap forward in evaluating the pieces at his disposal, and positioning those pieces - individually and in combination - to maximize the relative value he puts on the field.  Set aside blocking scheme and route trees and tempo and playcall linguistics for a moment, because this remains job number one for Coach JoeMo: put the best players on the field, in a position to win their individual battles.  We haven't had that very often in the last 26 games.

Reader Question

Who are the best 5 for Penn State?  We don't know.   But Film Room reader Jared Slanina, hailing from Parts Unknown, wrote in with a question that assumes one of them might be incoming true freshman Miles Sanders.

"Saquon Barkley, Miles Sanders, Andre Robinson, Mark Allen - can you write something about using more than one tailback on the field at the same time?"

Yes. We. Can.  Here comes something.

The 1940's and 50's - Single Wing, Double Wing, Wing T

Here's a double-wing formation - two backs in the backfield, unbalanced line left.  Pre-snap, there's a 98.4% chance this play is a run to the left.  I know it, you know it, the American viewing public knows it.   So put on your big boy pants, because it's coming left.  I'll punch you in the face; you'll punch me in the face; and we'll continue doing that until one of us falls unconscious.  Ready?  Begin.

The 1960's and 70's - Option Attacks

This is the wishbone.  It's a balanced formation.  You can run left, or right (or up the middle on the fullback dive).  The defense doesn't know if you're running left or right (or up the middle) until you snap the ball.  And with 4 possible ball carriers, the defense doesn't know whom to tackle until the play progresses (and thanks to the option, they'll likely need to tackle more than one guy).  Thus, the whole formation is shrouded in mystery and deception (except for the part that there's an 92.6% chance you're running the ball).

The 1980's - Split Backs, I-formation, "Pro" sets

Sure, one of the split backs is a fullback, so it appears a little unbalanced.  But Tom Rathman can run, catch, and block.  He is a triple threat.  There are more pass catchers on the field now, too.  And though the quarterback can't run as well as Roger Craig, he can throw it like Joe Montana, because he actually is Joe Montana.  These offenses sought run-pass balance, putting safety-men in peril, with a quarterback who can't run that well but can throw freaking darts.

The 1990's - Spread To Pass

Passing is fun, so let's pass all of the time.  Tommy and Kev, go deep.  Jimmy, you curl up in front of the oak tree.   Stevie and Donnie - just do something over the middle this time; I'll come to you guys next play.  On two, on two.  Ready, break.

The 2000's - Spread to Run

It turns out that when you spread the field, you also empty the tackle box of defenders.  And this makes it easier to run the dang ball, using one of the two guys you kept in the backfield (the tailback, or the running 'quarterback', who is actually like another tailback, but sometimes can also arm punt a little bit).

Current - A Mix of All of the Above

Most of today's college offenses spread the field to run and pass, using a quarterback who can run and pass, executing run-or-pass option plays, which remain run-or-pass options even after the snap, featuring blindingly fast "skill" players (read: little fast guys) who can line up in the slot or in the backfield (like Percy Harvin, De'Anthony Thomas,

It's this last aspect that we suspect Film Room reader Jared S. is wondering about.  Specifically, is Miles Sanders (or Brandon Polk, or De'Andre Thompkins or Andre Robinson) capable of lining up in the slot (or the backfield, in Polk/Thompkins' cases), running routes, and catching the foosballs?  Again, we don't know, mostly because we've either rarely or never seen them try it.  But in the immortal words of Wood Wooderson, it'd be cooler if (they) did.

Assuming one or all can do both things reasonably well (i.e., tote the pill and run routes), then their relative value increases dramatically, due to the pressure this positional flexibility puts on a defense.  From the slot, this player gives the defense a 4-wide look, which is a pass heavy formation.  Motioned to the backfield into a 2-back set, this player gives the defense a predominantly "run" look.  That's scary because mystery and intrigue.

With 2 backs in the backfield, a "dual threat" QB can execute triple-option offense which threatens both sides of the defense (and the middle) simultaneously.  It's effectively both 1970's wishbone and 1990's air raid at the same time.  Here's a video of Oregon trying it against Auburn in the MNC a few years ago.  The video doesn't include any passes, but pretend it does because the receivers will be open given the DBs response to the rush threats.

For some more on 2-back spread and the many painful things it can exact upon a defense, please take a spin through SpaceCoyote's post on Maize n' Brew from 2014.  It's a good one.

Hit The Lights

The very best part about football - thee very best part - is that it's a game of chess in which you can also flip over the table and punch your opponent in his face.

He's smarter than you?  Well how smart is he when he's unconscious and bleeding?

And it's for that reason - screw your math, eat my fist - that every offense can work.  NFL Hall of Famer Larry Allen would exit the huddle, approach the line of scrimmage, and let the opposing defense know that "it's coming", while Emmitt Smith set the NFL career rushing record.

But if you don't have 10 grizzly bears and a runner on offense, then you gotta have a dude who can play chess calling the offense.   The last guy couldn't.  There's reason to believe JoeMo can.