NIU’s Empty Formation QB Power / Counter Combination Play


Northern Illinois has a pretty nifty offense. It seems to be all the rage these days. However, when you watch the film, the vast majority of the offense relies heavily on the old, reliable power blocking scheme. In this case, since they run QB power from an empty formation, they’re kicking out the end with the guard in this specific usage of the power scheme.

You may consider this a trap play, but it’s using the power blocking concept (specifically the “counter” play scheme, with the QB’s read acting as the “wrapper” typically filled by the fullback or pulling tackle).

They run a lot of QB power, and this article will focus on their combination QB power play with the jailbreak screen.

If you aren’t familiar with combination plays, it’s the idea that you give the offense a run and pass option on the same play. Many teams will combine Y stick with Zone Read for instance. Some teams combine the zone read with the bubble screen. While some coaches consider that an option play, I consider it more the combination of two concepts into one play, depending on how it’s run exactly. But ultimately, that’s really just semantics.

Revisiting the Concept Blocking Idea

The Power or “Power-O” blocking concept is relatively simple. You pull the guard and another player (fullback, tackle) to kickout and wrap the two edge defenders, typically the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMOLOS) and the playside linebacker.

This is concept blocking. The idea is to minimize learning for the offensive line in order to make them more efficient and aggressive up front. So many teams have multiple variations of Power. This includes Counter, “Inverted” Veer or Power Read, and in this case, a version of Counter or Trap where the QB’s read represents the backside puller wrapping for the playside linebacker. Again, the blocking concept or blocking scheme is basically the same, except your switching a few players responsibilities.

Aside: If you’re interested in concept blocking to develop a more physical offensive line, check out my e-book “Developing a Physical and Aggressive Offensive Line“.

In this case, the 5 offensive linemen have the same responsibility, except the guard is kicking out the end rather than wrapping for the linebacker like he does in traditional Power, as illustrated below.

power-o vs over-under

Old school Power from 22 personnel

NIU’s QB Power Combination Play Basics

NIU’s QB power / counter combination play isn’t super special. It’s not going to revolutionize your offense. However, it will help you be successful by allowing you to only run the ball when the numbers are in your favor. It will also allow you to get the ball quickly on a screen to the outside when the ball is in your favor. It can be efficient, which is what all offensive coordinators want.

Empty QB Power

Notice the circled Linebacker. This is the QB’s read. If he stands still or steps up for the QB, he instead throws the screen.

As the caption states, the QB will pull the ball if the linebacker settles or steps up. Basically, if he can tackle the QB, the QB throws the screen. Here’s the clip from the end zone:

Empty QB Power Endzone Shot

See how the QB pulls the ball back when he sees the linebacker settle on the running play.

And here’s the all-22 shot. We see that the offense throws the jailbreak screen. The slot receiver blocks the cornerback.

QB Power Jaillbreak Screen

Slot Receiver blocks the cornerback

Here is the play in action from the same shot:

Empty QB Power All22 Shot

The QB throws the Jailbreak Screen after the Linebacker Steps Up.

Jailbreak Screen vs the Bubble Pass

Now why does NIU throw jailbreak screen rather than bubble screen? I honestly believe it’s because they’re getting Cover 2 Read or the Quarters Coverage 2 Read concept to the two receiver side.

The coverage concept is the safety and corner both read the release of the #2 (or slot) receiver. The corner jumps #2 if he goes flat, but only once he’s in his area (he sinks with #1 vertical until #2 crosses his horizontal – at which point he jumps the flat). This helps them respect #1 vertical too because that’s a tough play for the safety if the corner immediately bails to the flat, which is why the corner doesn’t jump the flat right away.

QB Power Combination Play

Corner and Safety See #2 go Flat. They must respect vertical by #1 and not jump it, though the corner gets width.

NIU wouldn’t be the first team to prefer jailbreak screen over the bubble screen to a two receiver side. I’ve detailed how Oklahoma State ran jailbreak screen from 21 personnel vs cover 4 read before.

Because of this coverage, NIU knows that if their slot receiver can get a piece of the corner, the receiver that they throw the screen to will have a 2 way go around the slot receiver’s block, making it a tough angle for the safety. If the safety goes underneath the block, the receiver could easily go to the house. If he goes over the top of the block, it’s a free few yards. Also, if the slot receiver that’s blocking gets beat by the corner one way or the other, the receiver catching the screen can still get a respectable play thanks to the safety’s uncertainty initially.

With all of this going on, along with the running play, the safety takes two steps away from the play initially. He steps back in his coverage responsibility, he steps wide for to respect #1 vertical with #2 going flat, and only then does he attack the jailbreak screen.

safety reading #2 on Jailbreak screen

If NIU throws bubble to the two receiver side, the play is easily defended by the defense. The corner would have worked towards the sideline (as he does in the clip below) to respect #2 going to the flat. He would then have great leverage on a block by the corner.

Now, they do run bubble on the bottom (to the trips side). If they get the right coverage and run the ball that way, this could be a possible throw as well.

Putting the Empty Formation QB Power Combination Play Together

The play overall is difficult to defend. The play doesn’t allow the defense to successfully get 3 defenders over 2 receivers versus the two receiver side of the empty formation. The QB could also get a feel pre-snap for this. If he sees that the outside linebacker isn’t in the middle (otherwise known as the apex position) between the offensive tackle and the slot receiver and is instead favoring the offensive line, then he knows he’s probably throwing the screen. If the outside linebacker walks further out to defend the receiver, then he’s probably keeping it.

Overall, NIU modifies the power blocking scheme they run so well so they are always in a win / win scenario. Even if the end spilled the guard, the QB probably still throws the quick screen because the linebacker must step up and exchange gaps with the defensive end who spilled. If he doesn’t, the QB will run all over them.

For the defense, it’s getting tougher and tougher. If the linebacker gets his run pass keys right, he’s still probably going to be wrong on this play. He either can defend the run or defend the pass, that’s it.

The defense might be able to adjust by dropping the safety down just outside #2. The corner would stay over the top then. This can be done with a traditional cover 3 drop. However, the that probably means the offense has numbers in the running game to the playside (assuming they have a running QB) or in the passing game to that side. Cover 3 is also susceptible to 4 verticals and the quick passing game.

The defense should focus on disguise and simple coverage adjustments. Play the coverages the defense knows best.

Overall, this is an efficient adjustment to the QB power scheme. It allows the offense to force the defense to play in a lose / lose situation. Also, if your QB doesn’t have a talented arm but is a good runner, it forces the defense to still account for the receivers, which is a challenge in a spread to run offense without a decently talented throwing QB. If the defense doesn’t have to respect the receivers, their is no reason to run spread formations. This forces the defense to respect the receivers and opens up running lanes for the QB.