wsg Slanty, the football-playing, jean-vested gecko who is inexplicably the first hit in Google images for "line slant football", or at least was a year ago.
One of my main concerns going into the season was what would happen to the short-yardage defense that Michigan was so good in a year ago without Mike Martin and RVB. Turning a third and short into a punt is 50% of a turnover, and Michigan could paper over a lot of deficiencies last year by telling Mike Martin to destroy some guys on third and one, thus allowing other guys to tackle.
Illinois disclaimers are in full effect—they can't do anything against anyone—but the Illini could do even less of anything against Michigan Saturday, and getting bombed on short yardage was a major part of that.
Michigan blew up Illinois short yardage with slants. Multiple times we saw this pattern:
- Michigan slants away from a power run.
- The playside end gets inside and upfield of the tackle or end trying to block down on him.
- The pulling guard bangs into the playside end.
- Linebackers profit.
Actually, Michigan doesn't so much "slant away" as show one defense and run another. When Michigan isn't running their base 4-3 under call they are inverting it by blitzing Ryan and moving everyone else over a gap.
Let's see it in action. /fishduck'd
It's fourth and one on the second and final Illini drive to make it past midfield, just before the half. Michigan has just stoned a power run by Riley O'Toole for a half yard to set up this opportunity. Illinois comes out in one of their standard sets, a pistol with two tight ends to one side of the line and twinned WRs.
Michigan is in an over this time since the strength is to the boundary, but Illinois will move a tight end over and not have an unbalanced strength on the line on the snap anyway so whatever.
This is what Michigan does:
They're essentially moving everyone over a a gap and dropping Ojemudia into a short zone. On run plays he "folds" which consists of backing off, keep an eye out for cutbacks, and allowing the linebackers to run to the frontside. If you're watching a replay and are wondering if Michigan's doing this gap-shift thing, the WDE backing off the LOS is a sure tip. If you watch for it, you will find it—Michigan runs this on upwards of 20% of downs.
On the snap, Ojemudia backs off and the line shoots down. Gordon, who is right behind Ojemudia in the above frame, has followed the TE across the field and now takes contain responsibility to the playside.
You can see the slant better from this angle:
Campbell is now attacking outside the left tackle, like he's a WDE. Roh and Ryan both shoot gaps to the inside. They get penetration, giving up an outside crease to do so.
Ryan gets under fast. He's essentially through clean, so the pulling G has no choice but to pick him off. Demens is already a yard off the LOS and charging as the handoff is made.
Now it's all about tackling.
Demens went inside out here as the back tried to go north and south on fourth and inches. That allows him to use the pile as help, and look at Desmond Morgan popping up to say hi/clean up any messes.
If you take a second look at this frame:
Note how Morgan is also clean and has stepped playside as the slant develops. He's still trying to check for any potential cutbacks and find the gap he's going to fill; he is available if the back makes Demens miss or threatens to power to the line.
[After THE JUMP: play it sort of again, Sam.]
One of the ongoing debates in the early part of the season is "does Kenny Demens suck." He's not in on this play, but one of the biggest differences I'm seeing in the defense in this game relative to Michigan's first three is linebackers running to the ball unimpeded.
Some of this is Michigan DL—particularly Washington—MAKING PLAYS, which is encouraging. Another part of it is more subtle, something I'm still trying to figure out as we go along here. In certain situations a DL can get washed out and that's fine as long as he's getting washed out by the right guy—the one with an angle on a linebacker.
Anyway, it's second and six on ND's third drive. ND brings in a 3TE set and uses Eifert as an H-back. They'll run a zone to the wide side of the field. This is unusual. ND came out to run at Clark, run at Clark, and run at Clark. He didn't do so well at this, and the results have been a series of five or six yard runs as the rest of the D compensates well for Clark getting pushed out of the way.
Standard D for M. with two TEs on the line it is 5 vs seven on the first level. The playside G is not covered up and will release downfield into Bolden, the MLB. This play is a great example of why you hear that the MLB has to be better taking on blocks than the WLB: because he gets that uncovered guard a lot and the WLB is covered up.
On the snap, it's stretch blocking time.
Okay. The left guard (1) and left tackle are trying to scoop Campbell. The G wants to get a shove on him that will delay him so the tackle, who's the guy with the wavy arm who's actually taken a step back from the line of scrimmage, can get around him and wall him off as the guard takes off for the second level, destination Morgan(2).
A little further inside, Washington has already gone inside the center. Helmet across chest equals reached. He was barely shaded, though, so not a huge surprise, and later we'll wonder if that's really so bad. One OL over is the G releasing straight downfield.
At the bottom of the line, Roh(4) and Ryan are two on three.
Here's a half-second later.
Roh has shot upfield and outside of the tackle, which absorbs Eifert and definitively forces the play back inside. +1.
Before I say anything, on the backside, let's zoom in.
Campbell has given ground. He's getting locked out to the backside. I don't think he cares at all about any of this as long as he does not let that guard get to the second level. He took two holding penalties against the fleet-footed Air Force OL trying to execute this; ND's line isn't quite as nimble and he's probably gotten two weeks of coaching that adds up to "don't let the dang guards into the dang WLB."
Half beat later:
Campbell still riding that OL, and the tackle trying to scoop him has no shot at blocking anyone; Roh finishes cutting off the outside. Washington now fully reached but he's about to…
Come under that guy and pop up in the backfield. This is not optimal but it's better than getting locked away. By now Morgan is gone. Campbell did his job, which was to let Morgan get to the ball free.
I'm still not a huge fan of Bolden's contact here, as he should stand the guy up and force it back. He doesn't, but Morgan's charging the back down anyway:
Watch how Campbell only has eyes for that guard, the whole play. He is not doing anything except riding him.
Things And Stuff
This is what they mean when they talk about the differences between the MLB and the WLB. Bolden has to take a guy on; Morgan gets a free gap to shoot. This doesn't really happen on power plays, on which the WLB will often have to take a pulling guard if it's to his side, but on this zone stuff you can see where the bubble is and the resulting difference in the responsibilities of the linebackers.
Linebacker cleanliness was not happening in the first couple games. Holding calls, cut blocks, etc. The major leap forward Michigan took as a run defense against Notre Dame was an ability for Washington and Campbell to either occupy two blockers or get into the running lane when one on one. It wasn't entirely consistent; it was a lot better.
Here Washington does get blocked but at least he comes through it and would be pursuing usefully if Bolden turns the play back in. I'm not entirely sure he wasn't assigned to that gap by the center and executed just fine, with Morgan the guy who is supposed to get there.
Bolden still dainty. As a true freshman this is to be expected. Improvement here is something to look for as the year goes on. At some point you hope to see the light go on and Bolden start getting into these guys with a little more authority. He needs to set up outside here and does not, BTW.
Morgan looking pretty good. That's a nice flow and tackle on a play that did not come right to him; he bails out Bolden for the failure to push it back. He gets to flow so decisively because there isn't a potential gap he's running by, which again goes back to Washington getting reached probably not being a big deal.
This is probably why they kept running at Clark. Clark had a rough time and wasn't so much with the taking out two for one blockers and keeping the edge. Roh's not an impact guy but so far he's been a pretty good player despite a lack of stats. He does a lot of the things Van Bergen used to.
Notre Dame has a very good defensive line, possibly great. If they still had Aaron Lynch holy pants man. They don't, but Tuitt is a 300 pound pass rusher, Nix is hard to move, and their Kapron Lewis-Moore/Prince Shembo combo at the other DE is a quality option. They've been making a lot of plays so far, and some of them against Lewan, who has a bunch of NFL hype and has shut down virtually every DE he's ever gone up against, including guys like Adrian Clayborn.
So Michigan was up against it against the Irish. They compounded those troubles with a spate of seemingly bizarre play calls that made it even harder for Michigan to execute since they often left key players unblocked, with the results you saw.
Here's a two yard run in the second quarter. It's first and ten on the first play of Michigan's first drive after the Smith interception. ND comes out showing a four-man front with one-high coverage, but will shift into their standard 3-4. Zeke Motta, currently 16 yards off the LOS, will approach the LOS for an eighth run defender against eight players in the box.
Post-shift, this is about standard for ND. Note that the secondary is showing extremely soft man coverage on the receivers, which is par for the course when you are in cover zero with three converted offensive players. Or at least, I'd imagine it's par for the course if anyone else ever did this.
Now, you may be thinking "AAAAAH DAMN AAAH BUBBLE." I am too. The defense is allowed to align like this because Michigan won't take a shot at that gooey soft edge. Constraint plays constrain what a defense can do, simplifying life for QBs. Here we've got a play, and it's a run despite the D showing a cover zero look.
On the snap it's revealed to be an inside zone play…
…but Lewan does something unusual by flaring out to go block Shembo as Denard reads Lewis-Moore. Meanwhile, look at Toussaint's upfield angle of attack:
This was supposed to be a midline type read. When ND showed a four-man front, Nix was shaded outside of Mealer. He would hit the frontside A-gap, allowing Barnum to release into the second level. Instead he's head up on the center and fights back, forcing Barnum to try and deal with him.
What Michigan thought it was doing
Meanwhile, Lewan's flare out on Shembo was supposed to be useful. Instead he's blocking a contain guy on a run up the middle. Lewis-Moore is not tearing up in a gap like a one-gap DL would but coming upfield under control.
So instead of a quick hit that got Michigan past the DT they get this:
Which is two yards thanks to an unblocked LB in the middle of where your belly is supposed to go.
This Looks Familiar
Denard's second interception is a terrible throw helped along by a totally unblocked Te'o as Barnum tries to help on Nix.
Terrible throw and all that but also not a shining example of coordinator mastery. This is a position to fail in, when you can't step into your throw because you'll get hit if you do so.
Things and Stuff
RB angle gives you the intended hole. Look at how vertical Toussaint is going. This is designed to go backside.
Checks: none. Once ND shifts to the three-man front, this play is in trouble, and once Motta slides down you're up against zero safeties. This would be a nice time to check. To what? Well, you are maybe probably getting some yards if Lewan changes his assignment and releases directly into that LB, or, you know…
…that OLB has eyes only for the backfield, so you've got one guy within twelve yards of the slot receiver. Who isn't a slot receiver, sure.
Since this was the first play of the drive I assume there was time to do this after the shift; nothing comes. This might be on Denard, or there just might not be a check for this. Rodriguez took that check burden onto himself with those plays where Michigan would call for a snap and then everyone would look to the sideline.
Constraints: none. A little later Michigan will block a QB sweep well but Motta will show in the hole as an unblocked eighth guy. Denard will abort and get three. ND again went cover zero with pudding soft outside coverage:
They're sitting out there waiting to give you their money! It's not the stupid little bubble itself that helps—though the yards from 2-8 averaging about 6 aren't bad—but the things that the defense can't do because they can't align with their secondary in Bolivia and bring down a run defender that erases your numerical advantage.
This alignment cannot be allowed to exist without a quick easy throw that invalidates it. Have we mentioned that both corners are converted offensive players? And one is a freshman?
Oy OL. Note that Nix not only drew a double but ripped through it to the backside hole, and that Tuitt has gotten inside of Schofield with ease. It may have been possible to get some yards here by getting Nix sealed and hitting a gap further to the playside, but none of that happens. I haven't gotten to the bit where Michigan just grinds on them yet, but so far there have been a lot of plays like this where Michigan OL get nowhere with their guys.
Why are we running a play that seems designed to go at a 4-3? ND will go to it but they are a 3-4 at heart and when they show a four man line it's usually short yardage or a passing down. I would expect an incoherent play like this to fire off when ND is giving Michigan a 4-3 curveball instead of the 3-4, especially after Michigan spent two weeks preparing exclusively for this defense. That Lewan flare-out is deadly to this play because Barnum has to help on a NT who is not shaded—and is rarely shaded. Meanwhile that guy on the edge is not a threat to Toussaint. RPS –1.
I'm feeling quite a bit better about Michigan's DL performance now that I'm actually going over the tape. They're not doing much more than it seems like they did live, but since no actual NT types are getting much time and a lot of the problems rest squarely on the shoulders of things like "let's see if Mario Ojemudia is a 3-4 DE" and "let's see if Frank Clark is a three-tech." They turn out not to be.
Hopefully we can file this under experimentation and things won't be so bad when the big boys are actually in there. If Michigan goes long stretches without Washington, Campbell, or Pipkins on the field against Notre Dame I'll be surprised. And possibly catatonic.
Not everything can be waved away by calling it mad experimentation, unfortunately. Michigan's linebackers, be they beardy veterans or baby-fresh newcomers, are not making plays. One particular example leapt out because I'd just seen the UMass LB read Michigan's sprint counter, shoot past a blocker, and fill.
Thing I'm talking about == watch Mealer and the MLB
UMass gave up seven yards because all their guys ended up downfield but that's not on the LB.
On UMass's next drive they'd run a play that's very close to that sprint counter. It's just the plain ol' counter, but it's got a pulling tackle that leaves for the wide side of the field on the snap, a linebacker who could be but must not be looking at that, and positive yardage for a team that has struggled to find any.
Late first quarter, second and ten, UMass comes out with trips and a TE to the boundary (short side). Michigan is in the nickel look they spent almost the whole day in. Your DTs are Brink and Black; your ILBs are Bolden and Ross. Ryan is the DE who gets run at.
The tackle at the top of the field pulls.
My great and powerful desire in the above frame is for a Michigan linebacker to read that pull, bug out for the frontside, and hit whatever hole the tackle shows up in. I've been thinking of Notre Dame's linebackers this week since Notre Dame is the next team on the schedule, and they do this. If you zone your line one direction or pull a guy, they're gone. They go so hard it seems they leave themselves open to misdirection and counters, but that seems preferable to the steady drip drip of not getting off blocks.
Ross doesn't do this. He's moving, but the wrong way. Everyone else has taken two steps here; he's gone a half yard and drifted slightly to what would be the playside if this was the standard inside zone. Bolden, by contrast, sees what's going on and gets on his horse.
A moment later, Ross is kaput, Bolden is moving at the LOS, and there's a pretty big hole because Black is not a nose tackle.
Bolden makes contact at the LOS. This is a good place to make contact, but the thing that bugs me here is something I can't show you in a still.
Here's a still anyway. Bolden's got to the LOS and he's got this tackle and he forms up. Okay. But even if Ross is here, the RB is going outside of Bolden. All he does is make the gap somewhat small. He has not MADE PLAYS.
As I watched this I started getting frustrated with Bolden's approach. This is a technique thing and I may be wrong, but don't you want this contact to be less dainty?
I want some BOOM at the end of that approach. Bolden just kind of catches the guy, which has two negative impacts. One: he does not go BOOM. If Bolden really whacks this guy he has a good shot at giving Cox no crease, or at least forcing him to slow down and pick another one. Two: he cannot make a tackle because he hasn't hit him hard enough to set up outside. No tackle, no funnel, no point. His ability to impact the OL at the LOS is essentially irrelevant because he didn't turn it into the Situation BOOM [tm shutdown fullback].
Like, I want to insert a little fireball when Bolden makes contact here. Instead, crumpets. There is some amount of control that must be deployed to prevent you from not impacting the play. Here the control makes you… not impact the play.
Anyway. Cox bursts through the hole…
…and is hewed down after six yards.
Things and Stuff
Once you've committed to the run you should COMMIT TO THE RUN. Whenever you're hitting a blocker in the backfield you get a check-plus for your read. But because Bolden just impacts the guy softly, he does not force Cox into a new hole. He doesn't even get the diving arm-tackle attempt Ryan puts in, and Ryan has contain responsibility.
Bolden needs a little Ross in him on this play. Not the Ross on this play. The Ross on other plays. The ones where he meets a guy at the LOS and that guy ends up on his back, antennae flailing in the air.
I don't get what Michigan's reading. You can't chalk this up to Ross being a freshman since he's a freshman who seems in the process of displacing Kenny Demens and Michigan linebackers have been frustrating like this for a year-plus now. Are they supposed to be looking in the backfield? Are they making Mattison chew his lip in frustration? Does Michigan require their DL to fill a bunch of these holes and want to use LBs as a cleanup crew?
I don't know. I hear Alabama LBs talk about what they see before a play even starts…
…and I'm like whoah. It doesn't seem like Michigan's getting much of that.
Big dang hole here. Black gets put away, but I'm not sure that's a problem with him. He doesn't know a tackle pulled. He sees the guy in front of him start inside zone blocking. He wants to get in his gap. He does. This goes back to the questions about Michigan's line slants against Alabama. If the DL controls his gap and you've got the extra guy who knows where the line is going, you should have a free hitter somewhere. Michigan has not gotten that much this year.
Ryan: active. Here he almost makes a great play by coming upfield of his guy and making a tackle attempt without giving up the outside. He did this late enough that his attempt did not open the hole any wider. He's a quality player.
Nice fill from Gordon. This is only six yards despite a tailback running untouched through the LOS because he comes down well and tackles in space.
Air Force's ability to consistently get the edge on Michigan's defense was the most frustrating thing about Saturday's game, and many theories have been proffered as to what was supposed to be happening, why it wasn't, and why we will or will not die on the rest of the schedule.
I'm of the opinion that Michigan's scheme was predictable and that as soon as Air Force started blocking Kovacs they were out of ideas.
Here's Air Force's first play of the second half. Denard Robinson's just gone 58 yards to put M up 21-10 and a poor decision by a Falcon player to fall on a squibbed kickoff sets the Falcons up on their own 12 yard line. Michigan has just sat in the locker room for 20 minutes getting coached up; Air Force comes out and runs the same triple option they've been running all game.
It does not go well.
Okay: I called this "near half-flex" for Air Force. Michigan is in their 4-4 under, which I know is actually shifted towards the nominal strength of the formation and so is technically an over. Michigan aligns to field, not strength—so they would flip their formation if it was on the other hash.
Against Air Force, Michigan brought Gordon down into the box and made their formation basically symmetrical. Mattison:
Jake and Thomas were the exact same position in our scheme. A lot of people play the same scheme.
Kovacs is playing center field. Earlier in the game, he was not getting blocked and doing Kovacs things. Like this:
Air Force was all like Eff that to the A and started blocking him. That took out Michigan's edge defender and opened up the corner. Michigan didn't really adjust.
Air Force's "triple" option" wasn't really that. They occasionally ran the dive to keep the defense honest but when they did that the QB just turned around and give it, no read. Here they're running the option with the token dive fake. Already in the above frame, bad things are happening.
Will Campbell(1) is tackling an Air Force lineman who's trying to get out on Bolden. He'll succeed at this, allowing Bolden to flow freely for the rest of the play, but he'll pick up a second defensive holding call doing so. On the edge, Gordon(2) is the optioned guy. Michigan is playing him to pitch like they have been all game. Kovacs(3), is the destination of the flexback.
In a second or two, Michigan is going to eat cut blocks:
Thanks for participating, Clark and Morgan, but you've been elimidated. Try again next play. Meanwhile, downfield…
…the ref is ANGAR at Campbell and Jordan Kovacs is decidedly not coming up to stop the pitch.
Why is Kovacs taking that angle? Why is he not attacking the run? That's an eligible receiver he is in man coverage on. He's got no one behind him, and there are two other receivers going vertical. He has to respect this guy as a receiver, or he could give up an 88-yard touchdown.
At this point it's pretty obvious, but Kovacs doesn't have good options.
Gordon forces the pitch. Michigan has Bolden ready to hit the QB if necessary, but he doesn't know that, and that's not the scheme.
The scheme is getting cut to the ground 13 yards downfield.
Presenting yet another ten yard run on a pitch. WSG Will Campbell holding flag.
[After THE JUMP: Air Force twists its mustache!]
The option has always been about making a defender wrong about who has the ball, thus effectively blocking him. Since you don't have to actually block him this means you can take out a slavering rage-beast with even the daintiest of skill position players.
Rich Rodriguez's innovation was taking the hazard-laden option and turning it into a simple yes-or-no handoff. The read option makes a guy wrong without requiring a pitch, and without getting your quarterback lit up time and again. Pairing that with plays that stretch the defense across the field horizontally opens up the box, forces safeties down, and creates the kind of environments that see his teams run for nearly six yards a clip.
Borges and Hoke have a different outlook on football. Last year when the inverted veer was running riot over Ohio State, they were consistently blocking the guy a Rodriguez-style offense would consider optioned off.
This worked, but I wondered if it was working because Ryan Shazier was an injured freshman who was pretty horrible in that game. It's hard not to look at what's going on with Michael Schofield in this clip and not pine for the guy to move past the OSU DE and take on Ohrian Johnson, thus likely springing Denard for another huge gain.
Last year both myself and fellow guy who does the picture paging Chris Gaerig thought that this was an execution issue that would be hammered out given enough time, but Tyler Sellhorn, a high school OL coach who frequently emails me tips and corrections, thought this was a philosophical thing:
I think Schofield and Omameh were coached to block the DE. Hoke/Borges do not like leaving unblocked defensive linemen out there. A famous unattributed coaching axiom that I am sure that Hoke/Borges believe in is: "First level defenders cause fumbles, second level defenders make tackles." To me, this is the "MANBALL" component of M's "option" game. True power running game people think like that. I think that is the reason there have been fewer really long runs (the second level has been blocked less consistently this season).
This is one philosophical difference: RR's first thought always was, "How can we mess with the safeties to get big yards when we break through the line", Hoke/Borges first thought is "How can we mess with the DL so they are less aggro (in run and pass situations) and we don't ever have a negative play." Both work well as we have seen.
The consistency with which Michigan guys were blocking the supposedly option DL was a point in his favor. At first I thought the Alabama game was the point at which this was undeniable, but now I think Alabama was blocking Michigan, not the other way around.
Optioning Nobody #1
It's Michigan's first drive. They've picked up a first down with a (horribly spotted) flare to Smith and a third down conversion from same. They come out in a two-back, three-wide set. Alabama responds with its base 3-4 set, half-rolling a safety into the box.
Michigan will run the veer. They pull Barnum (1), use Hopkins(2) as a lead blocker, and block down on the front side. This leaves the Alabama defender (3) there unblocked… for now, anyway.
Hopkins. You are not flaring out, my man. You are doing something that isn't that.
At the mesh point, Hopkins (1) has contacted the "unblocked" Alabama defensive end. This means he is now blocked. (Science!) Hopkins is also blocked. They are mutually blocking each other. Neither can go forward very easily.
This happens really fast. The DE is doing this on purpose. His goal here is two-fold: one, to force the handoff, and two to pick off one of the lead blockers.
Barnum(2) is still pulling for the front side; since the guys blocking down have actually done a pretty good job of getting push he's got a lane. Denard(3) sees the DE underneath Hopkins and gives.
And now it's over. Hopkins has indeed eliminated the Alabama DE, and Barnum reaches the hole as Smith sprints outside. Also sprinting outside: the totally unblocked Alabama LB.
Michigan's got some other problems, too, as the playside DE came through the double on the playside when Kwiatkowski released—you can see Schofield hunched over in an "oops" way right at the LOS behind Barnum. Given Smith's angle and Barnum's this is only a further indicator that Schofield got hammered on Saturday, not an actual reason the play doesn't work.
And that's all she wrote.
Who did Michigan block with Denard's legs on this play? Nobody.
[After THE JUMP: oops they did it again :( ]