Hello, this series is a work-in-progress glossary of football concepts we tend to talk about in these pages. Previously:
Defensive concepts: Contain & lane integrity, force player, hybrid space player, no YOU’RE a 3-4!, scrape exchange, Tampa 2, Saban-style pattern-matching, match quarters, Dantonio’s quarters, Don Brown’s 4-DL packages and 3-DL packages, Bear
Special Teams: Spread punt vs NFL-style
We’ve been using this offseason to learn about some of the tools in Harbaugh’s inside running game toolbox, and have so far neglected one of my favorites: Split Zone. This play today is a mainstay of Rich Rod’s offense and its derivatives, since the blocking is almost exactly the same as a base inside zone read right up until the guy who thought he was forming up to play an option gets blindsided by a large, laterally moving TE.
But it originated in under center two-back offenses, and remains an important curveball for I-form teams like Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. If you’re going to be running inside zone, like, at all, and you’re not in a 4- or 5-wide formation all the time, you probably run this play and variations on it at least 3 or 4 times a game.
Let’s draw it up.
ignore McDoooooom—he’s just there to get the fans yelling “McDooooooom” and distract from what’s really going on
No, that line from the “T” to the “M” isn’t Hurst blocking Devin Bush—it means the guard and center will combo the the DT and the middle linebacker. This is true for most zone plays so I might just start drawing things up this way from now on.
This particular example from the Spring Game had some motioning and a fake jet, and the defense threw a few curveballs at it that the blocking handled as they were supposed to. We’re going to ignore those for now then come back and discuss them later when we’ve established the basics of what’s going on here.
How it works
Split zone is a riff on inside zone but flips the attack order: rather than reading outside-inside-backside like on most zone plays, Split Zone wants to hit that north-south cutback lane first, only going to frontside gaps when that’s not available. They do this by flipping the backside blocking tree, so that all of the usual gaps defenders think they’re going to be defending are not really the gaps they’re defending. That leaves an unblocked backside defender who gets whacked by a catchy-blocky fellow coming from the other side of the backfield.
Its strength is that at first blush it’s inside zone, which threatens a bunch of gaps to the strongside, with a backside cutback. But split zone is attacking the backside first, leaving the frontside gaps as a Plan B.
looks like inside zone
The key difference occurs with the backside blocking. Rather than kicking out the EMLOS (end man on the line of scrimmage), the backside OT will ignore the edge and check the gap inside of him, moving downfield if nobody shows. The backside guard and center are still going to combo the nose tackle, but they’re trying to get around the opposite side, so a nose tackle who tries to get to the frontside of the center is just putting himself in the wrong hole.
Now for the kicker. Remember how we left that EMLOS on the backside unblocked, right where the play design is going? Don’t worry we’ve got a plan for him: a fullback or tight end should be coming across the formation, then using that latitudinal head of steam to bang open the hole (the orange block in the above gif).
If the offense is lucky, the defensive end, upon realizing that the tackle inside him isn’t trying to kick, will think he’s getting optioned and form up outside to force a tough read while the middle linebacker fears play-action and stays back to read the backfield action.
[Hit THE JUMP for what happens when they don’t get lucky]
This would not go over well.
After the injury to Ryan Glasgow Michigan has struggled to stop zone running. Indiana and Penn State tore the defense to shreds on stretch or outside zone, until Penn State decided the thing that got them two huge gains in three attempts wasn't worth using again (please keep James Franklin forever kthx). I drew that up last week and found Michigan was still trying to defend runs by shooting the DL upfield and dominating one-on-one matchups up front, as opposed to soundly preventing guards from releasing onto the linebackers.
With Urban Meyer, one of a few true masters of modern running attacks, doing the planning for the Game, we knew Michigan's defensive coaches would have to pull something out of our butts to stop it. Here's what we found in our butts:
Michigan broke out a 3-3-5 defense with an "even" front. Offensive coaches have different names for fronts but the basics are:
- Under: NT on the center, shaded to strong. DT on a guard. (aka Weak, 50)
- Over: NT on the center, shaded to weak. DT on a guard. (aka Strong)
- Even: DL are lined up over guards, none over the center. (aka Split)
- Okie: Center is covered, guards are not. (aka 30)
- Bear: Center and guards all covered. (aka 46, Eagle, Double Eagle)
These can be split into "Odd" (under/over) and "Even" (Even, Okie, Bear). It is usual for just about any defense to come out in multiple fronts over the course of a game, though Bear and Okie are more rare than the other three.
Anyway that's what that means. By putting guys over the guards it makes it tougher for them to release to the next level. Michigan State used to love their even fronts back when Bullough was their best run defender, and that tells you something about the design of this defense. Tweaking your defense is about making life hard on your better players so things are easier for the rest of your players. "Even" makes life hard on the MLB, since that center is getting a free release unto him.
There's nothing 100% unsound about this defense. Depending on the offense's play, one LB is likely to get a center on him but the other is often a free hitter. If your LB eating the block is good at beating those consistently, or your free hitter is a ninja who sniffs out the play and attacks ferociously, or your unblocked guy is coached to play aggressively against an option you can defeat a basic run play regularly.
[After the JUMP, we totally can't]
Tom always MIKEs before he hikes.
We here at MGoheadquarters recently received some disturbing news about today's youth:
Devin Gardner on SiriusXM: "Before coach Nuss got here, I never had to identify a MIKE ... now I know where pressure's coming from."
— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) August 20, 2014
Kids these days are running around playing three or four years of Division I FBS major conference Block-M-Michigan football without ever identifying the MIKE. !. This sudden revelation has caused widespread histeria. Al Borges has been fired 180 times in the last several hours, and right now Dave Brandon and key personnel are closed off with Rich Rodriguez, deciding whether he needs to get a superfluous extra axe as well. This is calamitous. Catastrophic. Grievous. Pernicious. Regrettable. And avoidable.
What in the name of Double-Pointing Brady Hoke are you people talking about?
MIKE (v.): The act of identifying the middle defender inside the box on the 2nd level for purposes of establishing protection assignments.
It's basically calling out the defense's alignment, using a very simple mechanism: declare one linebacker—the one in the middle of the defense—to be a fifth guy that the five linemen are responsible for blocking.
|Chad always MIKEs before he hikes.|
This is often, but by no means always, the middle linebacker, which many defenses call a "Mike," which is where the term comes from. This is important: the [guy playing the defensive position called] Mike doesn't get to be all-time MIKE. In fact the very reason we MIKE is because Mike the Mike might not be the MIKE, and not knowing this might get your quarterback very badded.
Why is MIKEing important to my children?
Because if the MIKE blitzes there's no way for outside protection to pick him up, so the offensive line has to assign everybody's blocking with that guy accounted for somehow. Defenses LOOOOOOOOVE to screw with this because that's how you get unblocked blitzers, and unblocked blitzers right through the heart of the OL are the best!
When the defense screws with you, you don't have time to point at everybody and say "you block him; you block him." So ONE guy calls out the MIKE and everyone else in the blocking scheme already knows what that means. Usually they call out what sounds like a playcall—it's just a blocking call. "Tango!" "Lightning!" "Red!" "Green!" "Taupe Carpet!"*
|Brian always MIKEs before he hikes. [James Squire|Getty]|
Like in running, pass pro can be man or zone (slide protection). Man makes sure every defender who could be blitzing has a guy assigned to block him (or as is often the case, a man who checks one guy then looks to another). In zone they're blocking gaps: A gap, B gap, C gap, etc. Whatever protection scheme, they have to "declare the MIKE." What they do from there depends on the scheme.
* My dad used colors/nonsense words for playcalls: Blue Jumbo, Yellow Turbo, Purple Eskimo etc. Since he didn't like to use the same "play" twice he got pretty deep into the crayola box before parents' complaints in re: his Lombardi cigar ended his coaching career.
[After the jump, Y U NO MIKE, DG?, and you learn to MIKE]
This is a companion piece to last week's refresher on inside zone, Michigan's new base play. Outside Zone, also known as the Zone Stretch, is one of two very common complementary plays to IZ, because the technique for the offense isn't very different, but the way the defense has to defend it is (the other complementary play is Power-O, Michigan's extremely nominal base play the last few years).
Outside Zone Defined
The difference, as made obvious by the name, is the point of attack. Inside Zone blocks "downhill"; the running back aims for the first line defender past the center, and picks a lane to either side of the guards. In Outside Zone the back is running to a point outside the five linemen. Some coaches say run to the back of your tight end, others say run to the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMLOS); it comes to the same thing.
Here's Alex Gibbs (from the Elway-era Broncos), via Smart Football:
This is another "base" play. If the defense plays sound against it, the success of the play comes down to execution and talent. As with IZ, if the defense gets too aggressive the reaction to that is built into the play.
This isn't a play that attacks multiple sides; it threatens outside and can come back inside if the defense overreacts to that. Since we're coming into this from a fan perspective I won't get into the footwork you can't see, but you'll recognize Outside Zone immediately because the linemen start out by moving sideways.
As you can see, reps, reps, and more reps turn this into a possibly devastating play. The more you run it, the better the team will react to various things defenders do. In the video above Gibbs talks about the guards "making the read for him [the RB]". The big breaks from OZ come when a guard or center sees a defender reacting too aggressively, let that guy run himself out of the play, and then destroy a back-filling defender.
Like inside zone, the offensive linemen have to read the defensive front to decide before the play begins who they're blocking. The "covered" rules still apply: if someone's lined up over you, you're covered; if not you're uncovered:
The general rule of coveredness still applies: if there's a guy lined up over you, you have to block him. But the whole idea of a zone stretch is it slides the line, so if you're uncovered that means you have to reach the next defender to the playside of you, and if you're covered you're looking to 1) get playside of that dude and 2) combo block him with your uncovered buddy, and 3) release and get downfield.
Combo blocking is one of the things that takes lots and lots of reps. The essential blocking rule is don't let anybody cross your visor, and block the guy in your zone. Outside Zone's strength against a base defense is it creates double-teams at the point of attack
How It's Defended
Outside Zone pairs well with Inside Zone because a defense used to IZ can get caught inside, but that should be rare with a well-coached defense because the play is quite obvious from the first step by the offensive linemen, and from what's going on in the backfield (the RB isn't coming downhill). As soon as the defense realizes this they have to get on their horses and prevent the offensive linemen from flanking them, but because of the threat of the cutback, the defense also has to maintain gap responsibility.
There's gonna be a huge temptation for the EMLOS, with the play headed right for him, to square up and end the play right there, but the most important thing (unless they've given him extraordinary safety help) for him is to keep the play inside. The offense knows this, and a good tight end who can get that EMLOS skating wide can create a big hole to run through; a bad tight end will let the EMLOS get leverage and hold him inside, squeezing the hole shut.
Keys to Success
Every little thing the offense does has a potential to make or break this play. The faster the RB makes his cut and accelerates through the decided hole, the bigger this can break.
A fleet-footed, quick-thinking, tough sumbitch of an interior lineman can really make this go. David Molk could consistently get playside of a guy lined up shaded strong on him, and could react so well to defenders that he'd often make the RB's job easy, abandoning a defender running himself out of the play to catch a chasing linebacker and create a gaping hole.
Outside Zone is where a great running back can really shine and a just-a-guy can make the play barely more than a side show. Mike Hart, with his great vision for a developing hole, his super-quick and decisive cut, his great acceleration, and his tiny stature in comparison to the mountain of flesh in front of him, was an awesome Outside Zone running back; if only he had stayed healthy the one year he got to run it consistently.
[One sample play and more coming, after the jump]
Years ago, Brian posted a UFR of a West Virginia game in order to provide his readers with a feel for how the Rodriguez spread offense worked. Nussmeier's offense at Alabama isn't so different from Michigan's under Borges in 2013, and indications are he plans to be a little more dynamic than he was under Saban. But I wanted to get a feel for the subtle differences, for the kinds of plays he ran with the kind of talent Michigan has been recruiting. And I've been meaning to actually try my had at UFR-ing because I know a guy who learned an awful lot about football that way. So I put Nussmeier's last game under further review, in hopes of maybe separating what's Nuss from what was just the Tide.
I went with this year's Sugar Bowl since they faced a defense whose talent level was relatively close to their own. Unfortunately Oklahoma's 30-front defense is closer to Michigan's than any M opponents save Notre Dame, and things you do with a fake plastic tree at quarterback are not the same you do with Devin Gardner, Most Alive Man on the Planet. I've since been downloading some games from his time at Washington and might do one of those next week if this attempt doesn't put me off forever.
Meta note: UFR is really Brian's thing. I am an interloper here.
FORMATION NOTES: Nothing very fancy. Not a lot of fullbacks; when they went to a Pistol H-back formation usually it was just a U-back they motioned into that spot. They do have a hybrid Shotgun-Pistol formation that's Pistol (QB is 5 yards behind L.O.S.) with the RB offset like in the gun. This isn't uncommon:
Oklahoma spent a lot of time in the 3-3-5 nickel above that was sometimes more like a 4-2-4-1, by which I mean the Quick (Deathbacker, stand-up WDE, Thing-Roh-Was-And-Shouldn't-Have-Been) came up to the line, and they nearly always kept one safety deep. When Bama subbed in an extra TE they went to a 3-4 with a safety playing the backside OLB; I called this "3-3-5 Eagle."
…and later started cheating this (not like how Bama does) like hell to the field:
Later on they did this then audibled out of it, moving Striker to the other side of the line; Bama hit them with a 43-yard run down the middle.
Oklahoma also used lots of Okie and things like Okie, which led to this:
From top to bottom on the line of scrimmage that is a WDE/OLB rusher type, a 3-tech, the MLB, a 5-tech, and the box (not Spur) safety, and two more safeties in the LB area. I asked for help and decided to call it 3-3-5 Dime to differentiate it from the nickel look; usually the MLB backed off into coverage anyway.
[after the jump]
So we've got ourselves a new offensive coordinator. I guess there's no use hiding that I'm on the more ambivalent end of the spectrum of Michigan fans, but I'm a spread zealot, and I admit another gorram transition is just too painful a prospect right this moment. At the very least it was the kind of PR coup that resets the countdown clock on Hoke's tenure. These days you only get to play the "it was my offensive coordinator's fault" card once per Rose Bowl trip, but this was the right time to do so. I'm probably just a cynic who's been sold a bill of Mariucci over Mornhinwheg to believe in any apparent upgrade. Let's see if the readers can convince me otherwise.
Eye of the TIger tried. He found some quotes by an ex-Bama player on how Inside Zone is repped to insanity, which can be taken as evidence of philosophical thinking, or taken as the zone version of Hoke's "Power" philosophy which admittedly never materialized under Borges anyway.
|The thing about Barrett Jones is you don't have to make tough decisions about what your OL can and can't do.|
Tiger pointed out that Alabama's riches in offensive lineman size allowed them to depart from the typical suite of complementary plays and players that limits you to. It's supposed to be this:
Inside Zone has another advantage--flexibility:
The majority of the time in a zone blocking scheme the tailback will follow the design of the play, but occasionally the tailback will perform a cutback and change direction during the run. A cutback is when the tailback changes direction and runs away from where the linebackers are flowing (the tailback can only do this once and must not hesitate). This cutback made by the tailback is what makes zone blocking so dangerous because of how easily a cutback can lead to a big play. The cutback exaggerates the advantages of the zone-blocking scheme.
Watch this video highlighting Texas’ use of Inside Zone to see this point illustrated nicely, not only for cutbacks, but for alternate read options.
Major advantages: You can run an offense with less experienced OL and opens up a bigger growth curve for RBs, who become more effective the more comfortable they get at reading the holes and cutback lanes.
Major disadvantage: It's way harder to run play-action from a zone running look. Reason is nothing gets defenders thinking run like a good running MANBALL (or inverted veer) team pulling a guard. Second reason is the small, cut-rate scatbacks that zone lets you get away with don't typically make very good pass blockers. I probably don't have to tell this to 2013 Michigan fans.
At Alabama they overcame the disadvantage by having massive/quick OL who are naturally difficult obstacles to a pass rusher, and with 5-star running backs who can cut, block, slam, juke, and jet, all for three easy payments of $3,995.95, plus shipping and handler's fee (order now and we'll throw in a free safety). At Michigan, well, actually, we've got just those kinds of guys on campus now. Maybe?
Also there's this:
@michiganinsider I think people don't realize how handcuff Nuss was at Bama, he called the plays, but Nick was in control, handcuffs are off
— Theus DeShon Sears (@Theist313) January 10, 2014
And here I am a quarter way through UFRing an Alabama game. Anyone got Washington tapes?
P.S. I purposely stayed vague on the Song of Ice and Fire references; you're not off the hook from a season recap.
[After the jump: the board goes Borges for Nuss]