[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]
No, Upon Further Review series is not comprehensive. Most years are absent Ohio State and bowl games (including last year), and 2014 checked out after Indiana. That said, I challenge you to find a greater cache of free data than Brian's masterful charting of Michigan plays going back to the DeBord Throws Rock age.
Every so often I pull all that into a massive Excel file and try to learn things like how spread the offense was, favorite plays, etc. Let's dive in shall we?
What're those pie charts at top? Shows the relative efficiency (by yards per play on standard downs) and the mixes of Michigan's backfield formation choices. For "standard downs" I mean 1st and 2nd downs when the offense wasn't trying to do a clock thing or go a super-long or super-short distance. So no garbage time, no two-minute drills, no goal line, and no going off on Bowling Green and Delaware State. The idea is to show which offense did they get in when they had the full gamut to choose from, and how many yards did it get when the goal presumably was to get as many yards as possible.
Nothing very surprising there. Rodriguez ran his shotgun offense, Borges inherited Denard and Devin and still managed to jam them half-way into an under-center offense in three years. Then Nussmeier ran his zone melange single-back thing. Harbaugh did what Hoke always dreamed of doing, and the offense climbed back to about where Hoke's offense was with a senior (but oft injured) Denard.
[Hit THE JUMP for each year's most charted play, visualized Hennecharts, how many TEs Harbaugh used, how many rushers defenses sent, and LOOOOOTS of charts.]
Mailbag: Stats Love Us, Saban Manball Canary, Substitution Style, Cole Absence, Playcalling Approach
Number 3? For the statistically challenged, what do you think of this methodology?
S&P+ is as good as any other ranking system that drills into play-by-play data to get a clearer picture of a football game than scoring margin alone can give you. Bill Connelly, the guy behind it, also runs Football Study Hall. He does a lot of smart things. S&P+ is a valuable look at who is playing the best.
Unfortunately, it can only go on the data that exists and in early-season college football that's always going to be sparse. Meanwhile some folks will dispute lot of the assumptions S&P+ makes, primarily that turnovers are super random and not major factors in the rankings. It also values all games evenly in ways that humans aren't always big fans of. Utah is significantly below Michigan because:
- the Michigan-Utah game was about even down to down and turned on turnovers
- Utah did not significantly outgain Utah State or Fresno State
- Michigan yardage-murdered everyone other than Utah
S&P+ is not trying to be a descriptive ranking (ie: these teams have had the best season so far) but rather a predictive one (ie: if these teams were to meet who would win). Michigan has performed like an elite team so far according to S&P+, and I can see why it thinks that.
FEI, the other major ranking that takes more than score into account*, is more skeptical than S&P, but I think that's because that still bakes some preseason assumptions into the ranking.
*[AFAIK Sagarin only uses the final score.]
Can we manball it when even Saban flees to spread-type behavior?
It seems that Nick Saban has recently admitted that his current style is a bit outdated, that he needs to adjust to the recent trends in college football. It is pretty obvious that teams like OSU, Oregon, TCU, Baylor, even BGSU are seeing a lot of success by utilizing both up-tempo and featuring quick guys in space.
Can you speak to offensive philosophies such as Alabama and Stanford and how this may or may not be a concern for us going forward? I understand that "smashmouth" football is not mutually exclusive with up-tempo and quick guys in space. But it just seems to me that Harbaugh's style doesn't seem to emphasize either of these current successful trends.
Given how the season has gone so far I actually think Michigan might occasionally run into the opposite problem. They've been absolutely lights out against six consecutive spread offenses. (Not very good spread offenses, sure, but Michigan isn't holding these guys to 20 points and high-fiving afterwards. They are crushing opponents.) Meanwhile the Harbauffense is winning plays against teams that aren't always comfortable putting heavy D packages on the field or filling all the gaps Harbaugh creates.
Saban's move to a more spread and tempo oriented offense is a reaction to the many times his defense has been blown out of the water by those kind of attacks over the past few years. When the Tide get to line up against one of the remaining "pro style" offenses, the results are generally ugly. Ask Georgia.
Michigan might not have that issue. Durkin seems very comfortable devising ways to neutralize spreads. I will have trepidation when and if Michigan does come up against… well, pretty much just Alabama.
On and off and on and off
Brian or Ace-
Do you know, or, if not, could you ask someone, why Dan Liesman (I think that is who it is, at least according to my Mini-Program; it is #54) comes out a few yards onto the field between plays almost every time when we are on defense. It is as if he is not sure whether he is going in or not, but since he NEVER goes in, it is obviously for some other reason. Is there some rule about substitutions that this relates to, are we trying to confuse the opposition, or does he just like to pretend he might be going in? There has to be a reason, and I would think most MGoBloggers would love to hear it. Thanks
We've seen Ross and Gant also do this. It's just a substitution strategy. After the play Michigan sends guys who may or may not be in the defensive package, depending on what the offense does, to about the numbers. (Any farther could get you an illegal substitution penalty.)
If opponents send in two or more blocky-catchy types, the linebacker will stay in and a DB will be removed. Since every team Michigan has played almost never uses two or more blocky-catchy types the LB heads back to the sideline almost all the time.
Liesman specifically is interesting because Michigan usually has Ross available; I haven't noticed if sometimes he is poking his head on the field when Michigan's already in a 4-3. That would imply Michigan has a heavy package in case someone tries to manball them.
Someone was confused.
I wanted you to know how much I appreciate and enjoy your broadcasts of Notre Dame football. Your kind deference to Our Lady's University is a beautiful expression of the christian love that infuses your broadcast persona. Thank you so much! You are a good man.
May God bless you and yours.
I did flip over to the Notre Dame-UMass game when it was interesting for a minute and heard Hammond's dulcet tones. He's missed.
I assume that guy who made the Tom Hammond tie is in Congress by now.
[After THE JUMP: early drives allowed, Harbaugh's playcalling system, a search for superclusters.]
1. I bet you're mad because this isn't a spread offense amirite?
I am a spread zealot, it's true. However, I am not crazy. Therefore I am happy that Jim Harbaugh is the coach at Michigan no matter what offense he wants to run.
Meanwhile, the Harbauffense is not a spread but neither is it the old style "expectation is for the position" offense. Harbaugh's offense has a certain reputation…
…and it does live up to that. It goes beyond that. Whereas the late Carr offenses tended to drive one thing into the ground over and over until it settled into a 3.4 YPC groove, Harbaugh loves to troll defenses with constant motion, trap blocking, and—yep—spread elements.
The Sugar Bowl demolition of a Virginia Tech team that a year later would hold Brady Hoke's first team under 200 yards of offense is the canonical example of the motion. Stanford shifted, and shifted some more, and continued shifting until grand cracks developed in VT's run fits.
That relies on the opponent screwing up because of your shifts and is not always going to happen… but it does sometimes. After Stanford had blown it open, Harbaugh deployed a play that I've used at various MGoEvents over the past few months. At each it plays like stand-up comedy:
They practiced that, and then used it as a middle finger.
[After THE JUMP: building Rome, explosions, Rudock]
What is the difference between this run:
…and this run:
If you guessed "the one Harbaugh/Drevno were coaching got yards and the one from Hoke/Borges didn't" you win a running theme of the 2015 offseason. The results are certainly stark; why that's true is what we're interested in.
The Power Play
These are both the same play by the offense, and the same play Brady Hoke promised to make into Michigan's base because it is the manliest of plays. It is Power-O, the one where you pull the backside guard and try to run between the tackles.
You can click for biggers
The play is relatively simple to draw up and complex to execute because it uses a lot of the things zone blocking does, including having the blocking and back react to what the defense does. For all the "manball" talk this isn't ISO, where you slam into each other quickly. Depending on how the coach wants to play it and what defensive alignment you see, the basic gist is to get a double or scoop of the playside DT and kick out the playside DE, then have an avalanche of bodies pour into that hole—if the defense is leaping into that gap you adjust by trying a different hole further outside. Leaving two blockers to seal off the backside, one blocker, usually the backside guard, pulls and becomes the lead blocker—it's up to him to adjust to what he sees when he arrives.
You can run this out of different formations with different personnel, and the one immediately apparent difference in the above diagrams is Michigan was more spread—a flanker (Z) is out on the opposite numbers and the strongside is to the boundary; after the motion this is an "Ace Twins". Stanford ran this with a heavy "22-I" formation, meaning two backs (RB and FB) and two tight ends (Y and H) in an I-form. The benefit Michigan gets from its formation is the guy Stanford would have to block with its fullback Michigan has removed from the play entirely by forcing him to cover the opposite sideline.
What Stanford gets in return for its fullback is matchup problems: the open side of the field is going to be two tight ends and a fullback versus two safeties and a cornerback. Run or pass that can go badly for the defense as these size mismatches turn into lithe safeties eating low-centered fullbacks, and dainty corners on manbeast TEs.
In War of 1812 terms, Michigan is the Americans, sending the fast-sailing frigate Essex in the Pacific so the enemy has to move ships to the Galapagos instead of harassing the Carolinas. Stanford is the British, parking 74-guns ships of the line where engaging them cannot be avoided and trusting the outcome of any forced engagement should turn in their favor. The point is both work to the advantages and disadvantages of the talent on hand. (In this analogy Borges is a guy trying to use Horatio Nelson tactics with a Navy of sloops and brigs).
That being said, it still works as well as anything—people did in fact score points before the spread, and those who scored a lot of them could do so by keeping defenses off balance and with good execution. As we'll see both of those factors played a big role.
[after the jump]
Looking forward to tomorrow's event. Logistical details can be found here.
It's going to be a bit strange. Michigan has never had an actual spring game before. Carr generally provided an open practice with an attached scrimmage and was all too happy to cancel the thing if given any pretext to. Rodriguez seemed to want to play a game but having only seven offensive linemen rather prohibited that. Hoke was cut from Carr's cloth; if possible it seemed like he was even more opposed to the entire idea. Punting exhibitions were ironically common.
These intrasquad practices were always difficult to glean data from, but they did give you a pretty good picture of who was on the first team and who was on the second at that moment. Saturday will not provide much clarity in that department.
If he had a draft order that might, but we don't. We only know that Malzone was the first QB taken and others didn't follow for a while. We can also make a couple of guesses based on the distribution of certain players, but the depth chart will remain fuzzy.
On the other hand, it'll be a better crucible to observe folks in. Ones versus ones and twos versus twos often saw whoever the second string quarterback was spend his day running from large angry men. While this was in fact an excellent preview of Devin Gardner's life, hopefully that won't be the situation going forward. An even spread of talent on both sides may not give us as much insight into who the coaches think is ahead; it should give us more ground to form (admittedly useless) opinions of their own.
But let's form them anyway
There are a few things I'll be looking out for.
hello sirs [Fuller]
The Peppers disposition. We all know Peppers is starting, and his team has two other legit safeties on it—Jeremy Clark and Delano Hill. His team does not have a third corner. The obvious conclusion is that Michigan will be moving Peppers to the slot in nickel situations on Saturday.
That makes a lot of sense. I've been yammering on about Hybrid Space Players forever. Peppers promises to be that, at long last. The Hybrid Space player is a triple threat. He can cover like a corner. He can defend an edge run like a safety. And he can blitz like a linebacker. He resolves a number of the questions spread offenses pose by flat-out winning the one-on-one battles the spread issues, against all comers.
I thought Dymonte Thomas might be that guy until he disappeared down the depth chart. Peppers has, uh, not. How he's deployed is going to be be a fascinating subplot.
How 3-4 is it? How 4-3 is it? We've tackled this in multiple posts over the past few weeks: a lot of inside chatter holds that Michigan is moving to primarily a 3-4 this year. I'll be watching to see how accurate that is. This is going to be difficult with the lack of anything resembling a weakside end on the Blue team. Meanwhile, the Maize team has only Lawrence Marshall.
There is going to be ample shoehorning no matter what happens. The nature of that shoehorning should give us an indicator as to how "multiple" the defense is, and if they're really going to run a 3-4.
Formations and personnel on offense. Harbaugh has the MANBALL rep, but the real calling card of his offense is diversity. A gentleman named Colin Davy presented a measure of offensive complexity/diversity at Sloan and a friend of his sent it along to me. San Francisco is highlighted:
That edition of San Francisco deviated from Harbaugh's first three years, which were more WR-averse than any other team in the NFL. Harbaugh ran a ton of three-wide shotgun last year…
…and San Francisco had its worst offensive output under Harbaugh. Probably not a coincidence.
But even so the thing that leaps out after watching a bunch of Harbaugh games is just how much weird stuff there is. People tend to think manball is synonymous with pro-style, but whatever Harbaugh is doing is its own beast. Unless you've seen anyone else line up in a goal line set on first and ten from their own 30, that is. Maybe you have.
Mixed in with the popular conception of the Harbaugh offense is shotgun, zone read, pistol, you name it. Last year he adapted because he had to—injuries slashed his tight end corps to ribbons. What will that adaptation look like with Michigan's personnel?
We got excited about the result of Canteen vs Countess last year; we should have been worried. [Fuller]
Skill positions. Usually the easiest group to get a handle on because breaking tackles, cutting quickly, and catching the dang ball are somewhat competition-invariant. This is not a hard and fast rule—Freddy Canteen was the star of last year's spring game-type substance and did little when the live bullets started flying. But there are going to be a lot of receivers competing for time and attention as Michigan tries to find a #1.
Quarterback. I may be looking at the quarterbacks to see if any of them are any good. Previous spring games have actually been pretty good about delivering information here: Forcier was a revelation after he enrolled early, Denard was a revelation after his freshman year, Bellomy never looked plausible, and last year was extremely ominous. A first glimpse at Malzone and Speight will be interesting. And has Shane Morris developed enough to stay in the conversation?
Interior DL. Both sides have starters that look like plausible Big Ten starting lines: Henry and Glasgow versus Hurst and Mone. I think Glasgow is going to be Glasgow. (This is a good thing.) The other guys are all potential breakout players if they can put the proverbial It together.
Countess. Lewis is a lock at one corner spot. Countess is a favorite for the other… until Wayne Lyons comes in. Michigan's coaches are again asserting that they want to be a super-aggressive man to man outfit, which was Countess's achilles heel last year. Does having an experienced DBs coach help him out? Is he capable of putting his nose across from a wideout and preventing him from doing what Will Fuller did to him last year?
Norfleet. IT COULD HAPPEN, OKAY.
Hackett's first gameday. Last year's spring game was the worst. Michigan played Phil Collins constantly. The band sat in the corner, irritated that they were even there, until deciding to play for about 20 minutes straight near the end. Their constant noise was the only way to get Special K to cut out his constant noise.
Hackett's recent comments on how he envisions the gameday experience are as encouraging as possible and this will be the first opportunity to see them in action. I'm not expecting miracles immediately. The athletic department is a large ship that takes some time to steer. I will be looking out for gameday changes that might stick.