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.]