Picture Pages: you see, Rudy, sometimes you just need to break down a play that's representative of a larger trend. This series picks out a play or two per game that seem significant in the grand scheme of things, Theo, and attempts to explain why. Vanessa.
I brought this up in UFR and wanted to make it clearer so here goes. This is a first and 15 on Michigan's first drive of the day.
Michigan lines up in one of their common sets, a three-wide shotgun look. Here the tight end is lined up as an H-back. Michigan often used the h-back as a pass blocker for Forcier rollouts, but this time he's going to go with the play. Western aligns in a 4-3 look with the nickel back shaded inside of the slot receiver. Michigan will run a zone read, and Western will do a version of a scrape exchange. In brief: in a scrape, the backside defensive end will take off after the tailback instead of maintaining contain. A weakside linebacker or corner will provide QB contain, thus hopefully minimizing or eliminating the quarterback's athleticism edge over the defender he's dealing with.
Below is the handoff point. As Western did basically the whole game, the unblocked backside end takes off after the tailback. Since this is the guy Forcier is reading, he pulls the ball out. A couple points: Michigan has six blockers against six defenders here and should be content to hand the ball off. As we'll see, Brown's going to end up with a lot of room.
A few moments later we see the scraper coming in: he's the corner/LB who was lined up over Grady. He comes flying in and threatens to tackle Forcier in the backfield. The scrape exchange Michigan saw a lot last year saw the WLB head outside; this one is less vulnerable to the veer or other quick-hitting backside plays that exploit the fact that your WLB is flying around the edge. But there's an obvious cost: HOLY GOD LOOK AT THE SLOT RECEIVER.
Forcier is, in fact, looking at a spectacularly open guy on a bubble route. One of the Western safeties is coming up but he's inside of and ten yards away from a guy who's quicker than him. At best he squares up and holds the gain down. If he misses a tackle Grady is born to run.
Also note the line moving to the second level and sealing those defensive tackles. Michigan had three or four plays like this where the tailback shot up to cavernous gaps in the line of scrimmage without the ball. And this isn't a reaction to Forcier's decision to pull the ball yet; only the WLB has seen that. The frames above make it pretty clear that if Michigan had handed the ball off Schilling was going to cut this guy off.
Forcier, unfortunately, decides against the bubble and cuts directly upfield:
Molk has finished burying the playside DT and if Brown had the ball he'd be cruising, as the WLB who peeled off to Forcier was about to get his clock cleaned by Schilling. But Forcier pulled the ball and then made a poor read, so he's got one option:
- Just because the backside DE is crashing down doesn't mean you have to pull the ball. This would have been a big gainer if Forcier handed it off.
- Scrape exchanges are not a magic pill. They pull defenders out of position and the right play call—or read—can exploit them.
- Forcier is, yes, a freshman. He made a number of mistakes against Western of this variety.
- But even so it's nice to have a guy like Forcier who can turn his mistake into positive yards. Michigan had a lot of screwups in game one but most of them still went forward. That's a huge difference from last year.
The bubble screen is a staple of the spread 'n' shred. It's tough to defend without committing a player that would otherwise be in the box to the slot receiver, and if you've got the right zippy dwarf running it it can break big.
Theoretically, it should be an easy throw, but it requires precise timing and location. If you're off by a couple feet on a longer ball you might take the receiver off his feet but you've still picked up eight, ten, fifteen yards. If you're errant on the bubble screen you'll slow the receiver and wreck the play. Or you could, like, throw it backwards and provide a free turnover to an opponent.
Since that last horrible example has actually occurred this year, this will be no surprise: Michigan's quarterbacks have been pretty iffy on them all year. However, Nick Sheridan had a couple beauties against Minnesota. Here's the purtiest:
Minnesota lines up in a 3-4 with a linebacker or safety sort lined up over Clemons. The outside coverage is offering eight-yard cushions; this is a pre-snap setup that looks perfect for the bubble. (It's markedly different than Illinois' approach.) Especially when…
…the guy covering the slot blitzes. Michigan gives the dive fake, then Sheridan pulls up for the bubble. Note the position of Clemons at the moment. He's four yards behind the line of scrimmage. He will give another yards as he searches for depth, then run forward to a designated spot.
Here Clemons has acquired the ball. You can see the setup downfield, with the outside receivers blocking the two defenders and a safety attempting to close it down from the outside. The key here is the timing of the pass and its location: Clemons catches this in stride, facing downfield. There is no delay between the catch and run. This has not frequently been the case this year.
Excellent blocks from the two receivers and a not-quite-quick-enough reaction from the safety provide…
…a first down. Clemons will use his momentum to get ten more.
Here's the video:
Here's a similar play against a defense that's basically the same except the opposition defensive backs are offering less cushion:
In UFR I said this one "isn't as upfield as it should be," and you see Odoms has to turn his body upfield a bit to catch a ball slightly behind him. I think I overstated my criticism a little bit on review (review-review, actually); this one also sees Odoms catch the ball basically in stride.
A couple notes:
- I can't find where I read this, but IIRC when you see Michigan give a handoff fake before the bubble screen, that's a read. When it's a presnap call they just throw it.
- I'm not sure if different defensive alignments call for different sorts of throws and may be partly responsible for the QBs not throwing these "right" much of the year. But I kind of doubt it; even this well-timed bubble is caught four yards behind the LOS.
- This is the kind of thing I thought we would be surprised we missed without Henne. (We all knew we'd miss, say, laser post passes to Adrian Arrington.)
Okay, so we've just taken a spin through Michigan's hitch-susceptible cover three. What's the alternative? The Big Ten Network did give us one replay of something different. It comes on third and long in the third quarter with Michigan on offense. Threet is going to throw a hitch to Darryl Stonum.
(This camera angle is wider so I've cropped the pictures down; it'll be slightly fuzzy.)
This is pretty much the same as the first frame we saw with Morgan Trent earlier, except the defensive back is lined up a little further inside.
The Purdue corner turns his hips towards the receiver and looks directly at him. This is man coverage.
When Stonum starts making his break it's immediately apparent to the corner and he can turn his hips towards the receiver. Trent had to turn around the other way, taking himself away from the receiver until he can get his body around.
The ball from Threet is low and inside and gets marked IN in UFR, but Stonum still has a chance at a diving grab…
…but the Purdue defender is right there making life difficult. If the ball was better thrown he had a chance at a breakup or even an interception.
Here's the video on this one:
So it's pretty obvious why Purdue was able to play this sort of tight coverage on third and long: Michigan's receivers don't seem like much of a downfield threat and this guy has safety help over the top, a luxury not afforded Michigan's corners on the regular.
Okay. Question: does Michigan's coverage style (here's another example from Cissoko) make any sense given the defense they're running? I'm not a coach, but doesn't it seem like Michigan corners should be setting up outside of the receivers and funneling them towards the safety and/or zone dropping flex players and linebackers? Maybe Shafer thought Siller couldn't throw well enough to make him pay. He was wrong.
So, yeah, the 3-3-5 stack was sort of a spectacular failure. Not so much against the run, as Michigan did a decent job against Korey Sheets, but against the pass. Michigan allowed 266 yards—7.8 YPA—to a third string quarterback on a 2-6 team. That is epic failure.
Why did this happen? Well, IMO, the stack had a a major part in it. Here's a typical presnap alignment:
The thing to note is the one deep safety. This is Donovan Warren. With one deep safety the corners are basically on an island; they won't get much deep help from Warren on a sideline route. Fades and fly routes are going to be left up to the corner to defend.
Michigan, then, often sees itself play a cover-three susceptible to little hitches and out-cuts. Here's a closeup of Morgan Trent on one of many, many ten-yard outs that Purdue will find wide open all day:
We've just started the route. Greg Orton is going to run directly at Trent.
Trent is turning his hips inside and looking at the quarterback.
Here we see Orton reaching Trent, with Trent turned completely away from him, not even looking at him.
Orton begins his break with Trent facing 180 degrees the wrong way.
Orton now has two yards of separation and Trent is still facing the wrong way.
The perspective on this makes it difficult to tell, but this is wide open for ten yards.
Here's the video:
Michigan's corners have been coached to do this. Trent would do it all day, and Boubacar Cissoko did it on the long Orton completion down the sideline. This coverage style covers that extremely well and the only thing that made that a completion was a perfectly thrown ball, some bad luck on Cissoko's part not to knock it down, and a great catch by Orton.
However, every wide open hitch or out was because of it, too. It's completely impossible to flip your hips around 180 degrees that quickly, impossible to do anything but tackle after a first down. So Michigan provided this n00b quarterback with the easiest reads in the history of reads most of the day, and ended up paying for it.
Okay, so. On the last play Michigan picked up three yards when Brandon Minor cut behind Steve Schilling and got tracked down by the backside defensive end.
On this play Michigan returns to a more conventional formation. They're going to run the exact same play:
Again, the key block on this is the Schilling-Moosman double on the playside DT. Getting him blocked and Moosman into the linebackers is win.
Okay, Moosman has engaged with the backside DT and is actually driving him back off the LOS a bit. He didn't get this much push on the last play. Schilling, also given the humiliatingly amateurish Paint Arrow, is hustling to get into position.
Schilling's still rushing to get there, but on this scoop we see Moosman already disengaging to get to the second level… look at him facing downfield, not towards the guy he's nominally blocking. You can see Schilling's knees buckle.
Schilling intends to cut the DT. For this to be legal, Moosman can no longer be engaged with him; this block requires precise timing.
Moosman is away, again with great angle to block a Purdue linebacker who's got no idea what's going on. You can see the frontside DT shooting hard to the playside. There is about to be…
…one hell of a crease. Minor cuts up. Note that the linebacker Moosman had such a great angle on has decided to go around the other way. The backside DE is still chasing, but Minor's cut isn't taking him back to the right enough to be caught.
Minor bursts into the secondary for 21 yards. The backside DT, nearest to you in the picture, is still getting up. That linebacker who eschewed contact is waving at Minor's legs as he passes.
Object lesson on this one is: cutting a defensive tackle to the ground is a good idea, if you can do it.
Also, it is sad that Michigan's running game commands so little respect that Purdue has six guys in the box on second and seven. Four wide and all that, I guess, but still.
On Saturday, Michigan faced third and three and, for probably the first time in 20 or so years, called a designed quarterback run. Here it is:
Okay, empty backfield and wide splits on the defensive line. Seems like a pretty good setup, but there is one issue: this play is designed to go between the DT to the right of your screen and the DE to the same side. Without a lead blocker one of those linebackers will nail the slow-ish Threet before the marker.
To allay this, Michigan is going to try a reach block by Molk on the DT, which will allow Moosman to head downfield on the linebacker.
What's a reach block? Uh… well…
Using the left guard again, to “reach” would be to get around the defensive tackle, and use his right shoulder to pin him to the inside, so that a ball carrier can go around you to the left. Again, it is about getting the face mask in “front” or beyond the defender to get the shoulder pad in position. Seriously, line up with a friend sometime and try to reach block to your outside, you will appreciate linemen athleticism much more.
The idea is to get Molk around the defensive tackle so he can seal him, creasing the two defenders, as Moosman heads downfield to take out a linebacker. If this sounds hard, it is. I lost this in the ether, but at one point during my research for Hail To The Victors 2007 I came across one coach's description of a bunch of different blocks, ordered by difficulty. "Reach block by the center" was #1.
Real UFR diehards may remember a common bitch from the last couple years that usually went something like "Kraus attempts to block a DT lined up playside of him, but he shoots into the backfield/flows down the line to tackle/eats a baby." These were all attempted reach blocks gone bad.
(A "scoop" block, as I understand it, is basically an assisted reach block. Moosman banged the DT back and helped Molk get over, that would be a scoop.)
And all this stuff is supposed to be hard when the DT is lined up to your outside shoulder. Here the DT is lined up slightly outside of the guard(!). How is this going to work?
You can see the line shifting to the left here, and you can see that the DT is now between the two OL. The wide splits were a pass rush gambit—tougher to block outside that way—and the first step of the DT is upfield, not down the line.
Molk makes contact and he's in decent position here given the relative momentum here, but he's still got to get his helmet across the player, then anchor as well as he can to preserve the crease between the two OL. Chris Spielman, by the way, is currently doodling on the DE, who is still in pass rush mode.
Molk is now full of win, playside of a guy who lined up a yard outside of him at the snap. Moosman is in great position to block the MLB, but doesn't have to because he's getting cut to the ground. Minor is about to block the safety-type object.
Woop! Open spaces, first and goal, and a one-yard Minor touchdown follow.
Object lessons. I picked this play out of all the various things for a variety of reasons. To wit:
I think Molk might be pretty good once he is enormous-er. I brought this up earlier in the year, but Molk was a fringe top-100 guy who was the only real OL recruit brought in after the shift to zone blocking. He got dinged later in the year for being small, but in a system like this where he's reach-blocking all day his agility is an asset. Time and again against Penn State he successful executed these blocks, springing people into the secondary. Against Notre Dame he did the same thing.
The issues are obvious, though: too many missed blocks, and too many blocks where he's just not strong enough to deal with his man. But he's a redshirt freshman; strength should come.
(This is the long way of saying I think GS was unduly harsh on Molk this week in the Run Chart; he should get more credit for these reach blocks.)
You can only make a reach block if the defense lets you. I'm not a coach or an expert or anything but over the last three years I've watched a ton of stretch plays and have come to the conclusion that if the DL steps the right way and you have been tasked with a reach block, you lose.
And the thing is, either way can be the right way. Last year Penn State's Ollie Ogbu had three TFLs and a half-dozen more plays he forced into unblocked defenders because he was shooting behind the attempted reach block. Penn State slanted their DL all day, and if they got a zone left they strung it out and if they got a zone right they came under it and did even more damage.
Diversity. The reason Michigan's run game was so successful against Penn State was because of its diversity. For much of the first half, Michigan had Penn State defenders expecting stretch and getting something else.
The results are, for the first time, encouraging. The rushing game against Penn State this year and last, sacks excised:
|Year||Carries||Yards||Avg.||Opp Rush D|
Some of that improvement is the decline in Penn State's defense, but raise your hand if you think the Penn State defense declined more than the Michigan offense.
Right, no takers.
How? Well, I found a three-play sequence on Michigan's first touchdown drive interesting. Michigan had been moving the ball and found itself in fourth and one. Penn State slanted into the backfield and should have had Minor(+2!) dead; Minor squirmed out and got the first. On the next two plays, Penn State went back to the slant—back to the successful gameplan from a year ago—and got cut for a total of 14 yards and a first down because Michigan ran the same play you see above and that backside veer play. Michigan had Penn State guessing in a way that Carr never did, IMO, and that's a large reason why WVU's ground game was near the national best in YPC.
Of course, all that died in the second half, but there's only so much diversity Michigan has at this point. If they had a reliable passing game (read: Threet with elbows) or a better offensive line or some rocket quarterback they'd be able to punish Penn State's adjustments to their run game; as it was they just ran out of things to do.