Taylor on an island [Upchurch]
Brian forwarded me a mailbag question regarding where Michigan's defense is getting attacked through the air, i.e. are there certain coverage areas that have been particularly weak? It took me most of a day to chart every passing play; the resulting post is rather straightforward. Consider this your bye week from my logorrhea.
Data are here.
What I tracked:
1) Where the ball starts (hash or center). If the tackles lined up inside the hash it was "center"
2) Which zone it was thrown to, on a telephone keypad grid. 1, 4, and 7 are around the numbers to the sideline; 2, 5, and 8 are the area around the opposite hash to the wide side only, and 3, 6, and 9 are down the middle.
If a ball was on the line I always erred to the zone closest to the quarterback. This makes sense if you imagine a player covering Zone 6 will be responsible for carrying a player through that zone, and would be in better position to defend that pass than a guy over him.
3) Which side (strong or weak) of the defense. I noted "Strong" as wherever the SAM lined up in 4-3 sets and where Countess lined up in nickel sets. Once or twice this conflicted with the offense but it's better this way for identifying which players are being targeted.
Weakside/boundary players, usually: R.Taylor, Wilson, Ross/Bolden, Beyer (as WDE) on nickel, Clark on 4-3.
Strongside/field players, usually: Countess, C.Gordon, Beyer (as SAM) on 4-3, Clark on nickel, T.Gordon, Morgan/Bolden, Stribling/Hollowell/Lewis/Avery.
Sacks, throwaways, scrambles, and other such events that took the emphasis on coverage were excised. I couldn't reward those things which occurred because coverage was good enough to make them happen so keep that in mind as you read.
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.]
This one's not going to be a revelation. It's just more of the same from nickelback Courtney Avery, who you may remember from "aargh crippling third down conversion" and "I play man coverage always." But I'm grabbing it to show just how damaging it is to have these guys who should be redshirting running around on the field.
It's third and ten from the Michigan 14 on Iowa's third drive; Michigan has an excellent chance to boot Iowa off the field here. They come out in a three-wide set. Michigan responds with its 4-2-5 nickel package:
Courtney Avery is the nickelback and the key guy. Michigan's going to rush four and play three deep, leaving four guys in underneath zones. Avery is on the hashmarks to the top of the picture on the slot receiver:
Iowa's underneath receivers run crossing routes past each other—a mesh route. the two receivers to the top of the screen are going vertical, with Rogers on the outside guy and Avery on the inside one:
Avery is dropping deep to cut off space but turns his back to the QB. Has anyone else turned his back to the QB? No:
Here you can see two things: 1) Avery actually did a good job of rerouting the slot. Iowa's receivers are running paired posts and they are a yard away from each other. Cam Gordon should be in position to make a play on a throw here; it's unlikely Stanzi will force it if the drag isn't breathtakingly open. 2) Avery is completely out of his zone moving inside with his back turned to the QB:
Stanzi sees it and throws just as Roh lights him up:
Avery is nowhere. He can't change direction fast enough to get back out to his zone. No one could:
- Courtney Avery should be redshirting. He looks like a quarterback who played a little man coverage in high school, because that's what he is.
- Courtney Avery is not redshirting. Never Forget.
- Rerouting receivers is an important part of zone coverage. Avery changes the WR's route here and forces it deeper, into an area in which Cam Gordon is a threat.
- …but you have to pass the guy off way faster than this. I can't imagine you're ever supposed to chase the guy this far inside, or totally turn your body away from the QB.
- Demens is fine here, I think. Mesh is tough on LBs in zone. Here he lets the receiver outside of him but he has to expect Avery will be there. He also knocks down the other guy running a drag, which is a bonus.
- This is four free points from a freshman DB after the rest of the team got a stop. Maybe if Avery pulls off the slot receiver Stanzi has a shot at him on the post but that's a tougher throw than the little drag route here and with the reroute and the pressure chances are Stanzi either throws the drag anyway and picks up five or eats a sack.
- I would abandon the nickel. Thomas Gordon is almost exactly Avery—a high school quarterback switching to nickel-type DB in college—except he's got a redshirt year behind him. I can understand the desire to get another DB on the field in passing situations but Avery's been a huge liability so far; Gordon has not made similar mistakes.
So there's this and there's 404 Tackle Not Found—two huge swing plays that went against Michigan's freshman nickelback. Missing Troy Woolfolk is an enormous deal.