3 Plays: An Analysis of France’s Elite Championship

Photo: La Ferme du Pecheur

The 2015 edition of the Casque de Diamant, the French Super Bowl, if the game’s MVP received a huge wheel of brie instead of a trip to Disneyland–was this past weekend in Paris.

The idea of French football might not excite you, as the overall level of play is admittedly lower than in the U.S. (the French national team lost to Division III power Augustana 20-13 in 2013). However, the top flight here, known as the Élite division, has more than a few North American players that played at the D-I FBS level, including 4-year starter at QB for Wake Forest, Tanner Price, and former UCLA/Fresno State RB Milton Knox, Jr. While these may not be household names, they certainly aren’t slouches, either.

The game itself was won by the Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône Cougars over the Thonon-les-Bains Black Panthers, 28-7. However, the score does not tell the whole story of what took place during the match. Here are three plays that turned the tide in favor of the Cougars.

[If you want to actually watch the match, or even the plays that I’m discussing, you can click on this link. The plays that I’m discussing will have little icons so that you can go straight to the important action. The commentary is in French (and pretty awful), but you can just mute it.]

Key first quarter interception

The teams traded punts to open the game, with the Black Panthers eventually being pinned just inside their own 1-yard line. It was clear the Cougars’ defensive strategy was to load the box against the Wing-T rushing attack of Thonon. On nearly every play of the game, their defense had all 11 players no further than 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. Thonon was able to exploit this on the first play of their second drive, when they completed a quick pass (a variation of the Stick concept) to the flat for a gain of 52 yards. The following play, Black Panther QB Billy Greene threw a pressure-influenced yet ill-advised pass off of play action, but the Saint-Ouen defender in man coverage was penalized for holding the receiver.

So with this momentum, and now seeing the that the Cougars had sold out completely to stop the run, the Black Panthers called another play action pass (they didn’t seem to have any 5-step drop back passes in their game plan) to beat the Cougars’ defense deep to alleviate some of the pressure so they could run some of their more base run plays against fewer defenders in the box.

BP Int

On the play in question, Thonon motions a slotback into the backfield, showing Toss action (one of their more successful running plays during the season). Greene faked the run to the left and rolled to the right, looking for either the FB in the flat or the HB, the aforementioned Knox, crossing with the TE down the field.

However, the Cougars where able to again put pressure on Greene, while at the same time adequately covering both targets. The result was that Greene was forced to throw deep while on the run, under-throwing the route, and the defensive back was able put himself between the receiver and the ball to make the interception.

In championship games, teams have to make the most of their opportunities and capitalize. The Cougars’ defense dared the Black Panthers to beat them deep with the pass, and Thonon rarely showed the ability to do so, which caused offense to be out of sync for much of the rest of the game.

4th & Goal from the 1

One major exception to this was the Black Panthers’ final drive of the 2nd quarter. Saint-Ouen had capitalized off Greene’s interception with a methodical drive led by their own QB, Tanner Price, culminating in a 10-yard TD run by eventual game MVP (congrats on your cheese prize!) Carl Tembo.

Eventually, Thonon responded with touchdown run of their own to even the score at 7-7 in the 2nd quarter. In their subsequent drive, the Cougars were again driving successfully until they fumbled just outside the Red Zone, giving the ball to the Black Panthers with ample time to move down the field before the end of the half.

Thonon had a bit of offensive success with a few well-timed passes, and an incredibly lucky break on another ill-advised long pass, before converting a 3rd and 4 play on a designed QB run by Greene to make it 1st and Goal at the 9 yard-line with under 2 minutes left in the half. Momentum was on their side at this point, and the Black Panthers tried to power the ball into the end zone on three straight inside runs, eventually reaching a 4th and Goal situation from the 1 yard-line with 10 seconds left after the Cougars had jumped offside.

Instead of going for the very short field goal to end the half, the Black Panther coaches decided to go for it, faking another inside run and having Greene keep the ball to the outside, where he was apparently stopped a half of a yard from the goal line. [I say “apparently” because I still think the ball crossed the plane of the goal line, and I don’t know how the line judge did not call it that way.] This left the Black Panthers with no points to show for their drive, and the team was clearly frustrated by either the referee’s call and/or the result of the play.

I both like and dislike this decision to go for the touchdown for a few reasons.

I like it because the rewards were pretty great if they could have converted. The Black Panthers were also set to receive the opening kickoff of the 3rd quarter, essentially giving them two consecutive possessions, so the score possibly could have been 21-7 before the Cougars would have touched the ball again on offense. The momentum then would have clearly been on their side for the rest of the game. I am also not so sure that the Black Panthers have a “traditional” kicker–one who could nail 40-yarders with no problem–on their roster, judging by both their kickoffs and PATs that I saw both during the match and throughout the season, so it is possible that their coaches felt that a field goal would not have been as safe a decision as we would normally believe.

I don’t like the decision because of the play call. I understand that this same play worked on a 3rd down conversion early in the drive, but with the Cougars’ defense clearly keying in on the run, I felt that some kind of run or bootleg action (similar to the interception play, only ideally minus the interception) with the ball going to the hopefully wide-open flat would have been more successful. I also understand that maybe the coaches didn’t have the most confidence in their kicker, but this attempt would have been even shorter than the PAT already kicked after their first TD, and the ball was spotted pretty close to the middle of the field. So I’m not sure that there was that much risk in taking 3 points instead of trying for 7.

Points are always at a premium in championship games, and despite my natural aggressive-thinking offensive philosophy, I think that Thonon should have tried for the field goal. They continued to be in the game for most of the rest of the match, but never really had another chance to win it, partly because the defensive stop really rattled the Black Panthers emotionally, and they had no real positive momentum for the rest of the match.

Cougars exploit defensive weaknesses

The Cougars were really the better team throughout the entirety of the match. They ran the ball well, passed efficiently enough, and made enough spontaneous plays that the Black Panthers would have had to have played a near-perfect match and/or been extremely lucky to have won. They were also able to adapt do the Black Panther defensive strategy and exploit its weaknesses.

The Cougars run a basic “10 personnel” (1 RB, 0 TE, therefore 4 WR) Spread offense, with 2×2 and 3×1 (Trips) being their base formations. A common way to defend spread formations are with split-field coverages. “Split-field” refers to the fact that one side of the defense may play one type of pass coverage, while the other side might play something completely different. The most common coverages used by split-field coverage teams are “Quarters” (also sometimes known as Cover 4) and Cover 2. Against Trips, a team will often line up in Quarters on the 3-receiver side, and Cover 2 on the single-receiver side, known as “Quarter-Quarter-Half”.

The weakness of Quarters in passing situations are the safeties. If two receivers attack vertically (usually counted as any route deeper than 8 yards), then both the safety and the cornerback have their receiver in 1-on-1 coverage–for all intents and purposes, it becomes Cover 0, a man-to-man coverage where neither defender can help the other on any deep route. The Black Panthers appeared to line up in the modern Quarter-Quarter-Half coverage against the Cougars’ trips formations, but I believe that they played it with more traditional match-up man-to-man rules.

The Cougars effectively attacked this weakness for their third touchdown of the match, which put the game out of reach for Thonon. In the fourth quarter, on 3rd down & 7 from the Thonon 43 yard line (the first football icon of the Fourth Quarter) and leading 14-7.

coug TD

Cougars TD

At the snap, both the #1 an #2 receivers attack vertically, so the safety and the cornerback are all alone with their receivers in coverage with no help. The #3 receiver, not as integral to the concept as the other two, runs to the flat to occupy the OLB. The #2 receiver runs a crossing route, taking his safety inside to the opposite hashmark, as well as occupying the safety on the opposite side of the field. The #1 receiver, #80 Jefferson Alexandre, runs a Post route and gets inside the opposing cornerback, who has no iniside help from the safety who has followed the #2 receiver. Price was well-protected by the Cougars’ excellent offensive line, and fired a strike to Alexandre, who then made a great move to break free and get to the end zone.

One play does not make or break a game, nor do three plays. However, these moments in the match demonstrated the major themes of the match: the Black Panthers’ inability to efficiently punish the Cougars’ D for loading the box, their subsequent desperation to score the maximum amount of points knowing that their opportunities would be minimal, and the Cougars’ capacity to attack defensive weaknesses all played integral parts in how the game was decided.

My only real disappointment with the match is that I did not see a TV commercial in the days after the game where the Cougars all look into the camera and shout: “We’re going to Euro-Disneyland!”

Videos courtesy of Oniryk Productions
Commentary: Marion Santiago
Rights: Fédération Française de Football Américain

Tom Pilotte teaches English and plays and coaches football in Nancy, France.