Next time you see this you'll know what's going on
In previous layman's discussions on how fancy newfangled anti-spread defenses function I've talked about how Quarters works, and how MSU used aggressive alignments with it to dominate the run game at the cost of greater risk of getting beat over the top. Each time I alluded to the fact that Saban's defense is similar in concept except where Quarters is a Cover 2/Cover 4 hybrid, Saban's is a Cover 3/Cover 1 hybrid.
We will see it this year. Every defense uses some Cover 3 and Cover 1 as a changeup, but Saban's base system, now all over the SEC, has spread into various Michigan opponents. Penn State kept it around while transitioning to Bob Shoop's version of Quarters. Maryland had it last year; not sure if their 4-3 transition includes a coverage shift. I think BYU (which is going back to 3-3-5 with Bronco Mendenhall overseeing it personally) is expected to as well. Michigan State has played with it, since it's similar to what they do normally. Anyway I thought it'd be fun to get into it now, so we'll have it to reference later.
- Rufio of Cleveland Browns SBNation blog Dawgs by Nature.
- Matthew Brophy's incomparable series on Alabama's D: part i, part ii, part iii, and his "Rip/Liz" video.
- Eleven Warriors' Kyle Jones's film study
- Ricky Muncie of Crimson Tide SBNation blog Roll Bama Roll
- Chris Brown, of course. Of course.
- Pre-emptive thanks to actual football coaches who post in the comments and point out where I got something wrong or over-simplified.
I'm Not a Coach Disclaimer
I'm not a football coach. I'm a guy on the internet who read a lot about football.
Basics of One-High Defenses
Cover 3 is probably the most basic defense in existence. It is the defense you learn on Day 1 as a high school freshman, if not before. At that level it is a "go to this spot and then find work" scheme, past that there are techniques coaches teach to cover the gaps. Here are the two basic versions that Saban uses against standard 2x2 formations:
If you picked up on the fact that "Liz" and "Rip" begin with the same letters as "left" and "right" (or you know your port and starboard colors) you have my permission to eat a cookie.
Joe Paterno used variations of this (Rip is very close to his base defense*) since the Chatelperronian, and like Neanderthal toolkits it only looks crude until you see it in the hands of a master.**
Some things to know that we'll use later:
- The receiver numbering system is the same as in Quarters: start from the sideline and work your way in until you're at the center. It's where they are at the snap, not before, in case motion messed with that.
- The path you take to your zone matters a great deal. Note how guys running toward their zones are actually going through weak points in the coverage. This is for "routing" purposes: if you're there a receiver can't be.
The latter is true for all zone defenses, but it's a stress point for Cover 3 because the holes in the zone are places the offense can attack either quickly (7-9 yards downfield in the seam) or easily (deep downfield once the free safety has committed). Cover 3 coaches teach defenders to be in the way so receivers have to re-route to covered places.
The tradeoff is natural coverage strength to the middle of the field, to the detriment of the flats—if you've ever watched an NFL defense that seems to constantly be tackling fullbacks squirting out of the backfield, that's why.
The problem with Cover 3 is the same problem with Cover 2: those frikkity vertical routes:
The problem remains with pretty much any set of routes that stem from a vertical release.
The old-fashioned answer to this is play more man defense, and certainly Cover 1 (example diagram) is a complementary coverage to any Cover 3 team. In Cov1, aka "Man Free" defense, corners stay on the receivers, the erstwhile "curl/flat" guys stay on the #2's, and the middle linebacker over the RB takes the RB.
But if you're playing man-to-man defense, you'd better have men who can win their battles 97%+ of the time against theirs. If you need to activate that free safety to double up a dangerman, now you're giving up "front"—how many defenders are participating in your run fits, and once it's not an 8-man front anymore you're weak against the run. Offenses will also use rub routes, or exploit matchups, e.g. have a quick slot receiver sprint across the formation until he loses the linebacker trying to keep up.
These were problems for Saban to a much greater degree when he was dealing with the kind of talent the Cleveland Browns drafted during his DC days. By the time he got to MSU he already had his Rip and Liz and his Cov1 amalgamated into a hybrid scheme he called "pattern matching."
[After the jump]
* The Paterno-era "Hero", and "Sam" in the linked diagram were early examples of hybrid space players, and the zone-blitzing 8-man front it spawned was the basis of Rocky Long's 3-3-5 defense.
** …who discovered children were being sexually abused in his locker room and didn't tell the police because football reasons.
Early in the 2011 football season I noticed an odd, seemingly-impossible task handed to one of the inside linebackers: going from one hash to the other while attempting to get enough depth to cover a receiver who's starting the play on the opposite side of the field from the linebacker.
Here's Brandon Herron trying this admittedly hard task:
This would end up a Western Michigan first down as the receiver would sit down at the sticks; you can tell that Carder has already identified the open man and is throwing before the WR makes his break. He'd do better on a subsequent attempt to cover this but still give up another completion. He got there, basically, but because of the angle he had to take to do so he wasn't in a position to do anything about the ball when it was in the air:
This was odd behavior to me. Most of the time a Picture Pages is trying to explain something; this one was just "I noticed this weird pattern… isn't it weird?" It seemed bizarre to ask a not-very-good coverage guy to make a very hard drop, especially when the quarterback is getting blitzed from the same side of the field and will naturally look for a hole in the zone from the direction of the blitz.
One of the ancillary benefits of checking out those coaching clinics, however, has been an increased understanding of what's going on when this happens. A hash to hash zone drop requires a particular set of circumstances:
- The defense is sending a zone blitz with a three-deep coverage behind it and three underneath defenders, one of whom is an inside linebacker*.
- The three underneath defenders are instructed to "drop off of" a particular receiver.
- The offense aligns or motions itself into a situation with three wide receivers to one side of the line.
In this situation… well, here's some Xs and Os that should help:
This comes from Coach Hoover via Smart Football and is a fire zone similar to one Greg Mattison explained at his Glazier Clinic talk. Michigan's running something similar above, with the WLB tasked with a "hot" coverage on a receiver. It is far from uncommon—the Coach Hoover post calls it "America's Fire Zone."
Our linebacker chugging across the field in a futile attempt to wave at a ball he's not looking at is "hot 3."
Hot 2? Hot 3? What? The goal of this defense is to get pressure without giving up big plays and often devolves into man to man coverage. Defenses number the opposing WRs from the outside. Above the two receivers are the #1 receivers and largely dealt with by the corners. The tight end is the field side #2 and will be the responsibility of the SS; the dropping "F" (in Michigan's scheme this would be the WDE, Craig Roh last year) is going to pick up any back coming out of the backfield to his side of the field; the WLB has whoever's left. Hot X defenders are supposed to get their man until he breaks to safety depth at 15 yards—again, pseudo man-to-man.
If you're running a three-under combo like this and you are facing an I-Form, no problem. The WLB is going to have to make up a yard or two of distance if he even gets a guy to play pseudo man-to-man on. He may watch a back stay in to block, in which case he's just an extra guy or becomes a delayed blitzer. If he does get a second guy leaking out of the backfield, he's probably a fullback. Crisis: not present.
Unfortunately for weakside linebackers everywhere, a million billion plays these days are run with three or four wide receivers on the field. This means the WLB is going to have to deal with a player who is a lot faster than a fullback and much farther away from his starting point, with results often like what you see above.
Mattison's video jockeys did find an example of the coverage working against a slot receiver, but where they had to go to get it was telling. It featured Brandin Hawthorne against Purdue running over the top of a seam route. It's not in the UFR because it was in garbage time.
Hawthorne took off for his drop the moment the ball was snapped without even thinking about the possibility of a run, which caused one of the coaches in the audience to ask after that odd behavior. Mattison hadn't selected the clips and this one did not jump out from his memory for obvious reasons, so he attributed it to Michigan's scouting and whatever the potential down and distance was.
He was right, but it doesn't take much scouting to predict a pass when the second team is in up 36-7 in the fourth. The one example Michigan had of this drop working against a spread formation was better evidence that it didn't work than it did.
His Rock, Your Scissors
Getting rained on like this is a frequent problem in the current college football metagame. Offensive coaches are always searching for ways to get bad matchups; defensive coaches are looking for free rushers and no holes. The hash-to-hash thing leapt off the page in the opener because it was strange and seemed really hard.
Unsurprisingly, it faded as the year went on. Like Mattison flipping his line every time an opponent changed its strength, it was a makeshift band-aid made necessary by a lack of experience with Mattison's defense. If Michigan's running a fire zone and gets a bunch of receivers to one side of the field, this year you'll probably get something like this:
That is from a post at Coach Hoover detailing a half-dozen coverage adjustments this blitz can undergo to combat bad matchups like you see above. Here the D sees a bunch of guys to the wide side of the field and switches the blitz, sending the WLB and giving the closer MLB slot duty. WLB high-fives himself, MLB grumbles, defense probably gets a better result.
That adaptation is well underway at Michigan. Linebackers will look at each other, pat their helmets or cross their forearms or give each other finger gunz, and check into something less ostentatiously weird. Not every time, but enough to relegate those hash to hash drops into the realm of oddity. We'll see them from time to time as Mattison tries to bait opponents into big wrong decisions and not much more.
[Hoover HT: Smart Football.]
*[Nomenclature NOTE: the middle and weakside linebackers are almost but not quite interchangeable and I use this term to distinguish them from the SAM, who is almost but not quite a DE.
Also while you're down here: these Purdue plays were actually cover four but all of Mattison's clinic stuff assumed cover three so I'll stick with that for the explanations. I assume Michigan was intent on preventing big plays in game one or didn't think WMU could run the ball at all.]
HEY TOMMY REES
CHECK IT OUT I'M ALL GONNA BLITZ YO
LOL LOOK HOW CLOSE I AM TO THE LINE
WHY IS EVERYONE LOOKING AT YOU?
HEY MAN… I'M NOT BLITZING BE COOL
LOL JK YES I AM. HEY… THAT GUY IS OPEN
IF I WAS NOT BLITZING I MAY HAVE BEEN IN THIS AREA
TOMMY REES IS A JERK
I HOPE HE THROWS A BALL BACKWARDS FOR NO REASON LATER
This happened a lot. Michigan would line up, show something unsound, and Rees would check into something that would punish the defense. Blue Seoul highlighted another instance where Michigan tipped its blitz:
Also a result:
Michigan would line up in its okie package on plausible running downs like third and five, which caused Rees to check to runs up the middle. With no linebackers and Mike Martin dropping into coverage these went for about 20 yards.
Hell, even when good things happened this was going on. Look at this dude on Kovacs's interception:
That is a 65-yard touchdown waiting to happen if Rees's brain isn't going FLOYDFLOYDFLOYDFLOYDFLOYDFLOYD. The difference between a great call and an idiotic call is Rees not being a true sophomore in his fifth start with deep man love for Michael Floyd.
Seriously. Michigan's defensive RPS is going to have huge numbers because Mattison is doing all sorts of crazy stuff. This defense is the philosophical opposite of the bland 4-3 cover twos of Iowa, Michigan State, and Wisconsin.
They show a bunch of different fronts, blitz from everywhere, don't bother to cover guys in the seam when there are no safeties… it's a freak show out there. Sometimes it works. When it doesn't it's ugly. ND's last touchdown is especially galling because Michigan had to know ND would see this massive bust on the Kovacs INT and check into "free seam touchdown" when Michigan checked to cover zero. In this instance there was at least a guy vaguely in the area, but they've got a lot to work on.
Blitzing is not such a good idea when you wave your hand and say "sir: I am blitzing." In the first half Michigan tipped their blitzes a lot. Matters improved when Hawthorne came in—I watched him blitz without so much as taking those anxious shuffle steps, let alone going LOL I'M AT THE LINE—but it's disconcerting to watch the Michigan defense freak out on a QB handclap so consistently. They should know by now that the clap often leads to a check, because the offense did that a ton last year.
So… where is Michigan's check after ND checks? You can't check all the time because then ND's check will be "let's change their play without changing ours" but you have to check some of the time, particularly early.
Avery could have done better here. He's beaten to the inside too easily and can't tackle on the catch. He is not capable of dealing with Mike Floyd. Not many are, but predictions in this space of a bust-out year are not off to a good start. It's early yet.
Not that it would have mattered: Avery can run his slant for Floyd and Eifert is still hand-wavingly wide open. Dude could have gone for 150 against us if Tommy Rees's brain wasn't going FLOYDFLOYDFLOYDFLOYD.
Another reason for worry. This defense is unsound. Does Mattison want it to be unsound because it makes Kovacs pop up for turnovers or does he have little choice in the matter because he's starting a walk-on (Heininger—Kovacs has graduated), a couple freshmen, and only 2.5 non-walkon seniors (RVB, Martin—Woolfolk is the half)?
I don't know, but I'm betting it's the latter. I am glad they've got a week to practice not leaving guys wide open all day. They're busting coverages every other play.
Brandon Herron picked up a lot of minuses yesterday but it could easily have been Kenny Demens if he was the guy tasked with hauling ass to a far, far away zone coverage instead of making Alex Carder spit blood. He was given a tough job.
But he didn't execute that tough job, and we remain a results-based charting service. The good news is that he did get better at not executing his tough job. If you're looking for evidence that this coaching staff is better than the last one at teaching people how not to be terrible defensive players, here's some hope for you.
I found two plays that were exact replicas of each other. It's third down on one hash in both. WMU is in a four-wide shotgun while Michigan deploys its Okie package. Michigan will send wide-side blitzers and Brandon Herron will be directed to drop into a zone on the other hash—IE, run halfway across the field. WMU completes both passes, but Herron gets better.
Play The First
You are focused entirely on Herron, who is on the near hash in front of Demens, threatening blitz:
On the snap Heron pivots as Demens comes; RVB drops in to a short zone as Michigan sends five:
Herron crosses the hash marks three yards off the LOS:
Still three yards:
Now he's maybe three and a half yards deep and not even to the midway point as Carder cocks to throw the hitch to the slot.
Two other things to note:
- Gordon got a free run at Carder but slips as he moves in for a killshot. If he doesn't, he's likely to bat the pass or sack Carder.
- RVB is totally cutting off the other inside hitch, though his back is to the QB.
As the ball goes over Herron's head he's four or five yards deep, still not to the other hash, and not facing the quarterback:
Play The Second
This is going to be the exact same play by both teams. WMU runs the same all-hitch; Michigan runs the same zone blitz behind it. It's third and four on WMU's first drive of the second half. Herron is below the bottom hash this time.
As the snap reaches the QB Herron is pivoting…
…and on step two he's already got a yard of depth:
By the time the WR cuts off the route he's at the spot he was when the ball went over his head last time:
Important: this hitch is seven yards and the previous one was ten. The extra two steps the WR would take to get to the depth on the previous play would also get Herron all the way to the hash, whereupon he could give that WR the business. He's closer and a bit deeper earlier in the play.
You can see the improvement in the zone drop in the next frame, when the ball is halfway to the WR. Herron is right there:
Unfortunately he's had to run hash to hash with his back to the QB and never turns around.
First down again.
A primary disadvantage of zone blitzing is having to haul ass so hard you can't look at the QB. You can see this in RVB's drops both times, too: when you're dropping into a surprising zone far away from where you start the play in order to facilitate QB pressure you can't just shuffle backwards like a linebacker, keeping your eyes on the QB and the receivers in front of you. To even get in the area you have to turn your back to the world and then whip around when it seems like the right time.
This seems hard. (Todd Howard is nodding his head right now.) Certainly we don't see it happening on either of the plays above. This is probably easier in the NFL when everyone's more athletic—and it may be an argument for the fastest, whippiest WLB Michigan can throw out there.
If your zone blitz works the pressure you get is often coming from the same area the open guy is. On the first play Thomas Gordon is in free. If he keeps his feet he's got a great shot at batting the ball skyward. A guy leaping at the QB may cause a delay. In a normal blitz package this might not get you much, but with Herron rotating over lateness is dangerous for an offense.
It doesn't take much for late to be late. Carder is late on the second play. You can see that on the frame where he's in his throwing motion: the WR has already settled and is looking for the ball. If he's on time the argh about Herron not turning around in the next frame is considerably reduced.
If offenses execute perfectly there's not much you can do about them, but offenses do not execute perfectly and defense is all about giving little margin for error. Michigan did a much better job of that on the second play than the first.
They're learning. This is good and bad. You could see the confusion on the first drive, the big errors that got a little smaller as the day went along. But if we're looking for evidence that this year's coaching staff is more adept at doing things other than preserving their meticulous hair, we've got a couple examples.