[This is a work-in-progress glossary of football concepts we tend to talk about in these pages. Previously:
Special Teams: Spread punt vs NFL-style]
Depending who you ask there are either two or three or sixteen thousand different blocking schemes offenses use to puncture run lanes into a defense. If we cut out a few exceptions, and a lot of variants, you can boil them down to two basic philosophic schools: Zone and Gap.
(And man, and hybrid, and zone can be split between outside/inside but shut up).
Harbaugh, as you might have heard, is one of if not the ur gap coach in football, as is his top lieutenant Tim Drevno. New tackles/tight ends coach Greg Frey, as we’ve mentioned twice this week, is not just in the zone camp but is one of the chief practitioners of its outside zone wing.
What’s the difference, and why does it matter? I’ll show.
HOW GAP BLOCKING WORKS
“When badly outnumbered he managed, by swift marching and maneuvering, to throw the mass of his army against portion of the enemy's, thus being stronger at the decisive point.” –description of Napoleon battle tactic
This is the football’s fastball: I’m coming towards the plate so fast and so hard that by the time you know where it’s going you can’t catch up. To use a war metaphor, gap philosophy is about picking a spot in your opponent’s defenses, puncturing a hole, and sending as much material into it as possible as quickly as possible before the defenders can match it.
The above formation is unbalanced, which did its job in getting the defense to leave a cornerback and safety to a side with zero receiving threats (Mags is ineligible by number). The fullback has a kickout block on the SAM linebacker. Kalis pulls, Asiasi picks off a linebacker, and Deveon Smith gets a 300-pound escort through the gap between Wheatley and the back of Khalid Hill. That gap is the gap they planned to attack, and the most likely one to become available.
That it won’t always be available is what makes gap blocking go from very simple to highly complicated. The great power teams know how to adjust on the fly to defenders diving into the important gap, for example on this play if the SAM is coming inside hard Hill might arc outside on the fly, seal the SAM inside, and hope Smith and Kalis adjust to earn a big run. Or what if that Mike linebacker blitzes the gap inside of Wheatley? Or the whole dang defensive line slants playside? In general the OL will do their best to not let that happen and adjust (e.g. Asiasi might have to assist Wheatley, or the puller might kick out an unblocked end discovered at the point of attack).
I think you get the gist. Gap blocking has everybody working to widen the chosen gap and get bodies attacking that gap as soon as possible. Emphasis is on overpowering—as you see here this play works mostly because Ty Wheatley Jr. latched onto the playside defensive end, and rode him downfield.
[Hit THE JUMP for Zone]
[UM Bentley Library]
It was 1986 and Michigan’s senior quarterback Jim Harbaugh was 30 minutes away from having to eat his brash prediction. That’s when Bo’s top assistant Jerry Hanlon told his troops how they’d attack the Buckeyes in the second half: MOAR tight ends. By John Kryk’s count, Michigan came out in some kind of balanced (a tight end on either side) formation just 3/38 plays in the first half, when Ohio State mostly shut down the Wolverine offense. In the second half that went to 25/38. Their plan was to see where Ohio State’s great linebacker, Chris Spielman, would line up, and go the other way. Here’s how Cam Cameron—yes the same guy who got Les Miles fired at LSU—explained their reasoning at the time in Kryk’s HTTV article:
“Real simple,” Cameron says. “We were just trying to balance up Ohio State’s defensive front. Really, it gave us a double strength formation. It gave us a strong-side running attack either right or left. Once you balance the defense, now you can run strategically away from the safety, and you just get stronger at the point of attack. They had shifted their defense to our tight end, and any time a team did that to us we were going to balance them off with two tight ends.”
The tradeoff was going with just one wide receiver, at which point either your running game is going to win its matchups or lose the game, because passing is severely nerfed. What made that a win for Michigan wasn’t this macro strategy, however, but the subtle blocking tweaks that Bo—ever the offensive line coach—and Hanlon had instilled in their linemen.
~~~~~~30 YEARS LATER~~~~~~
Penn State is, by some margin, the worst-coached team on Michigan’s schedule this year. I’m nobody’s idea of a football coach, so when I was picking up on things Michigan was doing in the middle of a series and Penn State wasn’t reacting, either I’m just guessing really luckily or it’s a REALLY bad sign for the sideline.
Wilton Speight said this in the postgame presser:
“Yeah, I think there was one drive—I think it was the third or fourth quarter—where we called the same play like eight times in a row. We would just flip it back and forth, and I started laughing looking at the play call because they’d do the same signal, same number in every time. The linemen were getting so excited because I’d call the same play. I think we were getting like nine or 10 a pop, so when that happens it’s demoralizing, probably, for a defense. I’ve never played defense, but I can imagine that would suck to go through that every single play having someone just run you over. That builds our confidence and probably makes them lose confidence.”
Calling the same play and relying on minutiae is a bit old fashioned, but not completely out of style, especially if your opponent has already thrown in the towel. This drive occurred after Penn State punted on 4th and 1 while down four scores with about a quarter and a half left to play. Michigan picked up a big chunk on their rollout draw and Speight turfed a throw to Perry when Mason Cole uncharacteristically got bowled back into the pocket. Then this sequence happened.
Bo would have loved it. And Michigan’s upcoming opponent Wisconsin would instantly recognize it. Let’s jump and see what Michigan was doing.
[After the JUMP: balanced formation and inside zone]
Michigan's run game started out with a thud, with a series of short gains and even the occasional Dread Pirate TFL rearing its ugly head. As with the Notre Dame game, the problems due to were a mélange of errors from lots of people. And as you might expect against Miami, most of them were mental issues.
People have asserted that Miami was dropping an eighth guy in the box and that guy was blowing up the Michigan run game. That's simplistic; these days spread-oriented offenses are looking at one or zero deep safeties on every play. The eight man box is something you have to deal with as a coach, and anyway when you're playing Miami it shouldn't matter.
Michigan's issues were largely assignment-based, with the occasional bad block thrown in; the tailbacks were better but still had issues. The nice thing is that as the game went along we saw Michigan correct some of those those problems and start moving forward. Mason Cole in particular was evolving right on the field, hampering two plays with errors and then executing in near-identical situations just a few minutes later. One was mostly executing a block; this one was about IDing the guy he needs to address.
Which Guy Needs Help? Not That One.
This is actually the first play of the game. It comes from the 50 after the least interesting successful Dennis Norfleet kick return ever (run to the right until the kicker stops you), and Michigan comes out in an ace set. Miami has a 4-3 under on the field (sort of; their SAM is 190-pound Lo Wood) and will roll a safety down for guy #8.
Michigan's going to run inside zone and things are going to go pretty well all over the field with the exception of Mason Cole and AJ Williams trying to handle the backside DE.
This is your presnap setup:
There's a one-technique NT and a five-tech SDE. The SDE is splitting Cole and Williams down the middle, and the play is going to the top of the screen. It is very hard for backside blockers to do anything with a guy who is 1) lined up playside of him when 2) they get no help. This is about to happen to Williams.
I'm not entirely sure why this guy is free to fly down the line and blow this play up. The other DL are handled by Michigan's OL driving guys lined up a half-step to the playside of them. It seems like he figures that the OLB is going to be there to clean up anything that breaks behind him, so gap integrity is for suckers. (Michigan will get a bunch of waggles off this tendency, as Miami isn't using that OLB to contain hard upfield.)
On the snap Magnuson hops over a half-gap to get the nose; Cole goes to his zone a gap over without touching anyone and then starts helping on Magnuson's block. Williams is going for this DE:
Williams does not get the DE even a little bit, and with Miami DL set up to the outside on the frontside of the play Green is correctly going right up the gut, something that looks promising as Michigan gets movement on the DL.
Williams was put in a tough spot here; even so this feels substandard. Annoying the guy, pushing him so that he's on the correct side of the LOS, maybe cutting him: all of these things are better than escorting him to the RB.
A yard later it's clear that Michigan has cleaned out the DL; one linebacker shot a gap and is going to help tackle here but without the space constriction provided by the Williams block-type substance shooting that gap is a dangerous game to play that is 50/50 to put the tailback one on one with the safety for all the yards.
Green falls forward for two as Magnuson finishes pancaking the NT. Cole ended up not really doing much of anything on the play.
And the slow version:
[After THE JUMP: something that goes better]
Not Just A Gimmick™, we hope. [Adam Glanzman/Special to MGoBlog]
For a player with a meager 113 yards from scrimmage in two years, Dennis Norfleet is the topic of discussion around these parts a whole lot, and that topic is usually "can we please get this guy the ball more?" This seems like an odd request to endlessly put forth regarding a player with 12 career offensive touches and zero touchdowns, but there's Norfleet atop the depth chart at slot receiver, and beyond that there's good reason to think he'll be a much bigger part of the offense this season.
Norfleet came to Michigan as the in-state recruit too talented not to offer late, even though he didn't fit the coaching staff's idea of... anything, really. He certainly didn't fit the MANBALL running back mold, nor the desire to head in the direction of fielding a receiving corps in which being 6'2" makes one a slot receiver. It felt like he was offered as an afterthought, and his usage in the years since reflected that; Norfleet would occasionally come into the game at the slot, get a totally surprising jet sweep, and head back to the bench to await his next special teams opportunity.
The problem with this wasn't so much the plays Norfleet was asked to run—getting a player that shifty in space is a good idea, and jet sweeps should accomplish that—but the obviousness of what he was going to do, and the fact that these plays often didn't fit into the larger scheme of the offense. This blog has extensively covered the constraint theory of offense—in essence, that an offense has a core set of plays, then "constraint" plays that take advantage of defenses overplaying those core plays—and that Al Borges went for more of a grab-bag approach.
Norfleet's longest career carry works as a great example of both the constraint theory and how he was misused, oddly enough. He broke a 38-yard run in last season's opener against Central Michigan when Michigan ran an end-around to him off a counter trap run; the counter action—especially the pulling right guard—drew the CMU defense to their right, and by the time the ball was pitched U-M's blockers had a very easy time sealing their men off from the real direction of the play:
This worked because Central hadn't yet learned that Michigan didn't ever really run the counter trap and that Norfleet's presence on the field almost certainly indicated he'd get the ball; it also helped that they were a 6-6 MAC team. Norfleet's runs after the opener weren't remotely as successful due to a couple factors: Michigan couldn't establish a base running game, and when Norfleet was on the field it was incredibly obvious what he'd do.
[Hit THE JUMP for the whole point of this post: how Doug Nussmeier can use Norfleet to boost Michigan's running game.]
By the end of this article you should be able to make an educated guess
as to what Braden is saying to A.J. Williams [Fuller]
You may have heard Michigan has a new offensive identity, by which of course we mean Michigan now has an offensive identity. We think. We're told. Evidence for this is Michigan hired a new OC who runs inside zone, and he has even Brady Hoke talking about it being our base thing. This thing is totally happening. I mean if they hadn't sworn up and down for three years that Power was going to be their thi...
Let's just not go into that and focus on inside zone and how to watch inside zone, and how to be correctly disappointed with the correct person when inside zone isn't run very well. Since this is a new thing, and the offensive line are all relatively new things themselves, and the recent history of Michigan football has given you no reason to believe otherwise, and there are some really good defensive linemen Michigan has to go against this year, let's concede right now that Michigan isn't going to be running inside zone very well this season, especially early. Let's pretend like the coaches are going to stick it out anyway and let it play out.
IZ Resources: As well as the above-linked articles, I drew from Chris Brown at Smart Football, and this article that quotes Chris Brown on a Philly Eagles website. And Space Coyote wrote an entire article on IZ and some plays that stem from it in this year's HTTV; I'm sure he'll pipe in as soon as I mess something up here.
|Every blocker is responsible for whatever defender appears in the "zone" he's responsible for blocking.|
A Temperate Zone
What's inside zone? Maybe it's best to start with what it's not: man. In MANBALL, most linemen have an assigned guy to block; a lead blocker (sometimes a puller) is the only dude who has to make a tough, mid-play decision, and the running back just has to follow that guy.
Inside zone is a base running play where all the blockers are reacting to the defense, not just a lead guy, and the running back has to choose from among various holes that could open up. It takes a different set of skills, mastery of a different set of blocks, and most of all: reps reps and more reps so that everybody can make split-second decisions and those decisions will be correct.
That's not to say all decisions are made after the snap. In fact most blocking assignments are determined by how the defense is lined up. In many cases it won't be all that discernible from man-blocking.
yellow is uncovered. click bigginates.
The read OL have to make is whether they're "covered" or not. Covered means there's a DL lined up across from you. If there isn't, you are "uncovered" and most likely you'll get to go hunting linebackers. But first you look next to you and see if there's a defender shaded to the playside of your buddy; he may need help with that lineman before you release downfield. If that defender is a beast your buddy may need all the help he can get. You deal with the first level defenders before you worry about stopping linebackers.
Almost always, more than one defender will arrive in a blocker's zone. So zone blocking means lots of shared blocking. Ultimately the blocking ends up being 2-on-2 instead of 1-on-1. For example in captioned illustration above-right, the center and right guard are together responsible for blocking the nose tackle and the middle linebacker.
Offensive linemen in high school seldom get the right footwork down. Zone-blocking footwork isn't the same as pile-driving some dude, for one; and two it's not something many high school coaches know how to teach; and three if you're a 6'6"/300 future Big Ten OL and your job is to block a 6'0"/180 future Big Ten economics major, your greatest motivation to pay attention to your feet is probably the preservation of your prom date's.
In this moment it matters greatly. You need to get off the snap, get playside of your defender, get downfield, and get your feet set beneath you, your hands inside, and your pads beneath his so you can ride him out of the play, stonewall him, or shove him downfield; you let him dictate his fate.
On inside zone, an uncovered guy's first step is always to the play-side, not directly toward the guy you're going to block (the OL taking this step is a good indicator it's a zone-blocked rather than man-blocked play). This is because the DL don't always come straight upfield; you don't want them running by you.
Your job is to block the guy trying to cross you. If someone lined up inside you and ran further inside you, he's not yours. Your head stays downfield until you lock on a target, and any object that attempts to cross your field of vision must be stopped.
That Rabbit's Dynamite
Interesting example of a 1) a cutback and 2) the U starting on the strongside of the formation then executing his backside block almost like a lead blocker
Mastering the combo blocks and footwork to respond to all the things defenses throw at you takes a bazillion reps. The upside: inside zone, like option offenses, is a multi-attack threat that can go where the defense doesn't. A called IZ play could end up going outside, or inside, or cut to the backside depending on how your opponent defends it. A well-run IZ offense doesn't let defensive fronts play aggressively; if they want to stop you they'll have to activate the safeties in the run game, opening up the pass. It's not wimpy; it's smashmouth football that—as you'll see—relies mostly on crushing blocks to break things big.
[After the jump I'll show some sample executions versus various defensive alignments so you can get a sense of how it attacks and what factors lead to its success.]
So we've got ourselves a new offensive coordinator. I guess there's no use hiding that I'm on the more ambivalent end of the spectrum of Michigan fans, but I'm a spread zealot, and I admit another gorram transition is just too painful a prospect right this moment. At the very least it was the kind of PR coup that resets the countdown clock on Hoke's tenure. These days you only get to play the "it was my offensive coordinator's fault" card once per Rose Bowl trip, but this was the right time to do so. I'm probably just a cynic who's been sold a bill of Mariucci over Mornhinwheg to believe in any apparent upgrade. Let's see if the readers can convince me otherwise.
Eye of the TIger tried. He found some quotes by an ex-Bama player on how Inside Zone is repped to insanity, which can be taken as evidence of philosophical thinking, or taken as the zone version of Hoke's "Power" philosophy which admittedly never materialized under Borges anyway.
|The thing about Barrett Jones is you don't have to make tough decisions about what your OL can and can't do.|
Tiger pointed out that Alabama's riches in offensive lineman size allowed them to depart from the typical suite of complementary plays and players that limits you to. It's supposed to be this:
Inside Zone has another advantage--flexibility:
The majority of the time in a zone blocking scheme the tailback will follow the design of the play, but occasionally the tailback will perform a cutback and change direction during the run. A cutback is when the tailback changes direction and runs away from where the linebackers are flowing (the tailback can only do this once and must not hesitate). This cutback made by the tailback is what makes zone blocking so dangerous because of how easily a cutback can lead to a big play. The cutback exaggerates the advantages of the zone-blocking scheme.
Watch this video highlighting Texas’ use of Inside Zone to see this point illustrated nicely, not only for cutbacks, but for alternate read options.
Major advantages: You can run an offense with less experienced OL and opens up a bigger growth curve for RBs, who become more effective the more comfortable they get at reading the holes and cutback lanes.
Major disadvantage: It's way harder to run play-action from a zone running look. Reason is nothing gets defenders thinking run like a good running MANBALL (or inverted veer) team pulling a guard. Second reason is the small, cut-rate scatbacks that zone lets you get away with don't typically make very good pass blockers. I probably don't have to tell this to 2013 Michigan fans.
At Alabama they overcame the disadvantage by having massive/quick OL who are naturally difficult obstacles to a pass rusher, and with 5-star running backs who can cut, block, slam, juke, and jet, all for three easy payments of $3,995.95, plus shipping and handler's fee (order now and we'll throw in a free safety). At Michigan, well, actually, we've got just those kinds of guys on campus now. Maybe?
Also there's this:
@michiganinsider I think people don't realize how handcuff Nuss was at Bama, he called the plays, but Nick was in control, handcuffs are off
— Theus DeShon Sears (@Theist313) January 10, 2014
And here I am a quarter way through UFRing an Alabama game. Anyone got Washington tapes?
P.S. I purposely stayed vague on the Song of Ice and Fire references; you're not off the hook from a season recap.
[After the jump: the board goes Borges for Nuss]