If I had to choose one play that encapsulated Baker Mayfield and Lincoln Riley’s offense, it would probably be the Counter play. So much of what the Oklahoma Sooners did was based on Counter, and they ran it incredibly well. (See Part I of this series if you missed it)
Counter’s origins and play description
Many football plays can be traced clearly back a few generations of coaches but have somewhat murky origin stories. Counter, however, was invented by Tom Osbourne at Nebraska. Osbourne had incredible success with the play in the 80s and 90s, and Joe Gibbs liked it so much he stole it and used it with his famous Washington “Hogs” teams. From there, the play exploded. Yet another hat tip to Chris Brown, who writes more in-depth about this history.
Counter is a gap-blocked run, meaning unlike a zone run there is a predetermined gap through which the RB is to run. Every counter play has three components:
- Down blocks on the playside:
- Pullers from the backside (almost always two, but in certain situations only one)
- And some form of misdirection away from the eventual direction of the play
The traditional counter play fakes the run away from the eventual playside, allowing the pulls time to develop. Meanwhile the angles that players can take on the down blocks give them a great advantage to washing players down the line. As the pullers reach their targets, they have momentum toward the playside of the run. This action of down blocks headed in one direction and pulls headed opposite creates a natural split in the defense.
The first puller kicks out the end man on the line of scrimmage, the second puller wraps to pick someone up on the second level, and the back runs through the opening. It is power football, and it is beautiful.
Osbourne’s original version pulled two backside linemen to wrap around the play, with a fullback or TE plugging the gap created by the pullers. Gibbs saw the gap left by the pullers as a liability in the pro game (I wouldn’t trust a fullback to effectively seal Myles Garrett or Aaron Donald in this situation, would you?), so he switched the role of the FB and backside tackle:
This switch had the added benefit of making the Counter run overlap with the Power run even more than it previously had (i.e. a lot), which created additional practice efficiency. Now the tackle’s job was the same on both plays, meaning he only had to practice one technique.
Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma Counter
Fast forward to 2018 and a lot has changed on the cutting edge of offensive football. Lincoln Riley has taken this classic running play and made it the centerpiece of an offense that evolved from the “throw it every down and then throw it again” offenses of the Air Raid. With Baker Mayfield as his quarterback, he developed an offense that was as beautiful as it was lethal.
From my perspective, there are two parts to Riley’s genius. The first is his creativity and the new ways he is able to deliver, disguise, and combine tried-and-true ideas on the football field. The second—which is perhaps the reason for the duration and the degree of his success—is the way that everything in his offense fits so well together.
So few plays in the offense are playcalling cul-de-sacs, leading down one road only to awkwardly circle around at a dead end. Riley’s offense is more like the traffic grid in Futurama, a 3-D network where Riley can go anywhere at any time. Almost every play is setting up a fake for another play or looks exactly like a third play until the receiver breaks the opposite way.
Riley’s drive and courage to be “different” and the way he has seemingly no wasted space in the playbook are both firmly in step with the Air Raid ethos, even if he is running the ball more than he is airing it out.
Base shotgun counter
Oklahoma’s typical counter play has reverted back to the old Tom Osbourne style with the GT pull (though honestly they run so many variations of the play it is hard to call any variation “normal”).
They run the play from a shotgun spread formation, a development which should hopefully surprise no one:
While the GT pull was the typical style of blocking during my film study, there were other times where a FB or TE would pull instead:
There were also times where the Center pulled. This appeared to be an adjustment or line call based on the defensive front:
On these plays the misdirection element to the play is the threat of the backside QB run. Instead of having the back fake one way and head the other, the offense presents the threat of running to the backside of the play with the QB. There is no way to be certain without inside information, but this could be just a fake or it could actually be a read. My best guess is that they have one call for each.
The added benefit of this is that the QB can act like a blocker by optioning a defensive player, thus removing the need for a tackle or FB to seal off the backside. This means Riley’s variation has effectively added another blocker to make the play even more deadly.
Regardless of who pulls and what the misdirection is, the elements remain the same:
- Down blocks to the play side
- Pullers from the back side
- Misdirection away
The real key to Oklahoma’s version of the play isn’t just that it is sound on a whiteboard, or that they players are well-coached and execute it well (and both things are true). The key is that unlike the traditional counter play where the misdirection is a simple step by the back, Riley’s counter series is true misdirection: the ball can actually make it to the back side of the play on any given down.
There are always down blocks to the playside and pulls from the backside, but the misdirection element of Counter takes many forms.
If the linebackers are keying the running back, Riley can draw upon a back-away (“BASH”) type of counter play that sends the pullers in one direction and the backs the other:
If Oklahoma were to always fake the pass to this back and run to the pulls, linebackers could just follow the pullers to the ball. But as with seemingly every piece in Riley’s offense, the fake isn’t a dead end:
That’s the same play, only the ball goes the other way. This could be a type of option for Baker to keep on the Counter or throw the swing route to the back, but it looks to me like a predetermined call.
Here is a wrinkle where OU snapped the ball directly to the running back and faked a pitch to the QB on the backside (by my count this fake affects 4 OSU defenders):
Is that Baker Mayfield under center!? Just kidding. It’s a counter from the wildcat in a jumbo package on 4th and 1:
OU could also read a backside player but save Mayfield’s legs by optioning between giving the ball on counter and throwing a quick pass to a back headed the opposite way. To make it even harder to defend, they would cross backs in the backfield:
The play above looks like a true read to me, where Mayfield keeps the ball long enough to decide to give or pull it. Here is that same play but the read takes Mayfield to the downhill runner:
And with players like Dede Westbrook and Marquisema Brown, they ran plenty of jet motion along with counter as well:
And again, that Jet motion isn’t just a fake, they give it to that player:
If you get caught watching the guards and lose contain, one of the fastest skill position players in the FBS could be eating up yardage there.
As if that weren’t enough to keep track of, Riley, Mayfield, and the Sooners could dial up a number of Run Pass Options off of the counter play to keep defenses honest. Here is a slant thrown behind safeties coming up to stop the run:
And here is an out thrown against a soft corner, who must play deep because his safety help is up for the run:
With both plays, Mayfield is reading the defense’s reaction to the pulls to determine whether to hand the ball off to the run or throw it to the wide receiver.
Mayfield, the point guard
Are you dizzy yet?
Defenses sure were. With this seemingly endless array of variations, Riley could get the ball into the hands of his playmakers and keep defenses on their heels. Oklahoma could pull anyone, they could run the classic counter play or give ball to the misdirection player, they could run the play from any personnel grouping or formation in their offense, and they could attach RPOs to it as well. To a defense it’s a nightmare. But to OU, it was just counter.
I haven’t even touched on the play action pass game off of this play yet, and you better believe OU had a good one.
There is something about the multiplicity within this play that reminds me much more of the way that NFL offenses work than the typical Air Raid. The idea that they are basing all of this off of one play is classic Air Raid, but the shifts in formation, the tinkering of who does what job on the play, and the way they can attack a defense’s keys is much closer to the way the best pro offenses operate in my opinion. While the classic Air Raid offenses dared you to beat them even though you knew what was coming, Lincoln Riley seems more willing to make gameplan-specific adjustments to what his offense does.
At the center of it all directing traffic, getting people lined up and on the right blocks, and making the option reads when necessary was Mayfield. This was one of the most overlooked aspects to his game during the draft process in my opinion, his ability as a “game manager”. I know that’s typically a derogatory term, but much like a point guard he was leading the offense and making it run smoothly even when he wasn’t the one with the ball. As he said in the Behind Baker series to Patrick Mahomes, another signal caller for an “Air Raid” offense:
Mayfield: What people didn’t realize is what we did: we get one signal and we’re telling everybody what to do
Mahomes: Exactly. And that’s what they don’t realize
Mayfield: And they’re like ‘how are you going to handle (calling plays in the NFL)?’
Mahomes: People asked me that all the time, ‘well, what did you do in your offense?’
Mayfield: ‘Can you change your protection?’
Mahomes: Yep. They gave me the play and I told everybody what to do
Mayfield: Yeah, exactly”
A look at the OU passing game