Four Plays – UM vs. Minnesota 2013
This series examines the probable individual matchups Michigan expects to face against particular 2013 opponents on one of Michigan’s key running plays and one of its key passing plays, as well as defensively against a couple of the opponent’s key plays (assuming first-sting personnel in a base defensive alignment). This is the third installment of the series; previous: Notre Dame and Connecticut.
Michigan opens Big Ten action at home this season against a Jerry Kill’s Gophers, who didn't exactly face a murderer’s row in their non-conference schedule but got off to a 4-0 start nonetheless—even despite an injury that deprived Minnesota of their starting QB for two games. [Edit: The Gophers are now 4-1, having lost 3-7 yesterday to Iowa. In the game, Minnesota gained only 30 yards rushing and gave up 147 yards rishing to Mark Weisman]. Overall, the Gophers looked well-coached and unlikely to beat themselves, but with the talent differential and Michigan needing to make a statement, this is not a game that should be close.
When Michigan has the ball…
The slant is a relatively easy throw that gets the ball to a receiver with a chance to gain yards after the catch. In west coast offenses, pairing multiple slants with a flat route underneath stretches a defense horizontally, while motion is used to help the QB diagnose the defense before the snap.
When the H-back motions across the formation before the snap, the QB will watch to see if a defender follows him. If so, then the defense must be playing man coverage—meaning the X receiver is one-on-one with the CB. If no defender follows the H-back, then the defense is in zone. The H-back (running the flat route) and the Y receiver (running a slant) will flood the right flat; the QB will read the flat defender (against cover 3, this is usually the box safety) and throw to whichever receiver the flat defender leaves open.
LT – Taylor Lewan: pass protect vs. WDE Theiren Cockran
LG – Graham Glasgow: pass protect vs. DT Cameron Botticelli
C – Jack Miller: pass protect vs. DT Ra’Shede Hageman
RG – Kyle Kalis: pass protect vs. DT Ra’Shede Hageman
RT – Michael Schofield: pass protect vs. SDE Michael Amaefula
TE – Devin Funchess: motion across formation, run flat route (covered by SS Cedric Thompson)
SL – Drew Dileo: run slant (2) route (covered by NB Brock Vereen)
SE – Jeremy Gallon: run slant route route (covered by CB Derrick Wells)
FL –Jehu Chesson: run slant route (covered by SS Cedric Thompson)
TB – Fitzgerald Toussaint: pass protect vs. SDE Michael Amaefula
QB – Devin Gardner: pre-snap, motion H-back across formation, recognize zone coverage underneath; receive snap, read flat defender (SS); if flat defender follows Chesson, set feet and throw flat route to Funchess, throw slant to Chesson if flat defender comes up to play Funchess.
Three weeks ago I wouldn’t have hesitated to declare the advantage for Michigan on this play, with Devin Gardner throwing to a solid group of receivers against Minnesota’s underwhelming defense. But Gardner’s been inconsistent over the past couple weeks, due in no small part to poor pass protection on the interior—and now Michigan has to face arguably the best DT in college football. That would be Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota’s senior DT who entered the season on most first-team All-B1G lists and boasts a first-round NFL draft grade. To have success against him, the Michigan line that handled Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt will have to show up against the Gophers. Another performance like the one we saw in Hartford could spell a long day for Michigan’s offense.
[After the JUMP: it's a trap!]
22 Inside Trap
I’m going to go ahead and assume that Michigan doesn’t particularly like their chances of handling Minnesota’s stud DT, Ra’shede Hageman, with Jack Miller. One obvious way of dealing with the problem is to double-team Hageman (see tackle power play below). Another is to option Hageman off. And a third approach is to trap-block Hageman, as we see here.
I found this play at the National Football Post, having known to look for it after reading Chris Brown’s articles about Harbaugh’s wildly successful wham schemes in the past. I’m not entirely certain that Borges has installed any trap-blocked plays into the offense this season (though I partly wonder if the play below is actually just an outside trap, and that Lewan was supposed to make his block in the backfield rather than lead the runner through the hole). But trap plays are a regular fixture of power running schemes and it’s well-known that Borges gets most of his ideas from the NFL—so hopefully he’s taken note of the 49ers’ proven method of dealing with dangerous DTs like Ndamakong Suh.
LT Taylor Lewan: fan block WDE Theiren Cockran
LG Graham Glasgow: pull behind C Jack Miller and trap-block DT Ra’Shede Hageman
C Jack Miller: down-block DT Cameron Botticelli
RG Kyle Kalis: proceed to second level, seal WLB De’Vondre Campbell
RT Michael Schofield: kick-out SDE Michael Amaefula
TE Devin Funchess: seal SLB Aaron Hill
FB Sione Houma: lead tailback through 2-hole, block first defender (likely MLB Damien Wilson)
RB – Fitzgerald Toussaint: receive handoff, follow FB Sione Houma through 2-hole, cut off Houma’s block
This is a play Michigan really should be able to execute well, as many of the assignments match up pretty closely with the skills of Michigan’s players. But as everyone knows, the TEs have been dodgy (or worse) blockers this season and Jack Miller has really been struggling. A TE whiff here limits this play to maybe a 2-3 yard ceiling; if Miller gives ground to his DT, this could end in the backfield.
Bonus Play: 24 Tackle Trap
So, I posted this play on the board a couple weeks ago and asked whether it looked right that nobody got out to block the SAM linebacker. There were a lot of great responses, mostly to the effect that yes, this is probably what Michigan intended because (i) between the QB, the RB, and the double-team, there aren’t enough offensive players to block every defender so somebody has to go free, and (ii) the SAM probably can’t get through the traffic in time to stop the play anyway. I’d previously read something about how Vince Lombardi supposedly explained that a concept in Power O is to “get so much force moving in one direction that you completely seal off the back side.” Now I think I finally understand what Lombardi meant by that.
Of course, there would be even more force moving playside if there was a fullback picking off the EMLOS instead of a second TE going into a pass route. But as a couple of the previous commenters suggested, the pass pattern could additionally draw the SAM into a false step toward his pass drop on top of being sealed by the melee in front of him. The play already appears designed to work in tandem with M’s bootleg passes—and as those commenters pointed out, if the SAM doesn’t respect the TE’s pass route then the defense could be exposing vulnerability to a big play-action pass later on. But mainly, the play works as a counter by letting Michigan essentially run Power O without having the opposing LBs key on the pulling guard every time.
LT – Taylor Lewan: pull and lead tailback through 4-hole, block first defender to appear (likely WLB De’Vondre Campbell)
LG – Graham Glasgow: seal DT Cameron Botticelli to the back side
C – Jack Miller: double-team DT Ra’Shede Hageman, pop off to seal MLB Damien Wilson
RG – Kyle Kalis: downblock DT Ra’Shede Hageman
RT – Michael Schofield: kick-out WDE Theiren Cockran
Y-TE – A.J. Williams: reach block SDE Michael Amaefula
U-TE – Devin Funchess: sell seam route (hopefully drawing coverage from SLB Aaron Hill)
RB – Fitzgerald Toussaint: counter step left, receive handoff, then follow LT Taylor Lewan through 4-hole, cut off Lewan’s block
As you have probably noticed already, this play seems to perfectly highlight Michigan’s offensive weaknesses. Having Lewan pull puts Michigan’s most reliable blocker outside his comfort zone, and having Funchess tight to the formation probably draws a safety toward the box without providing another blocker. And while it’s a pretty good bet that Glasgow and Schofield can execute their blocks on this play, expecting Williams to reach block a SDE and for Miller & Kalis to get movement on Hageman are much dicier propositions. For these reasons, I don’t think we’re likely to see this play again any time soon—and that’s why I’ve only included it here as just a “bonus” play. Then again, who knows?
When Minnesota has the ball…
Pistol Midline Option
Since I remembered 2012 Minnesota as pretty much a full-on spread unit, I was a bit surprised to see them repeatedly line up in I-form sets—often with multiple tight ends—against UNLV and try to establish a power running game. That didn’t really work. But Minnesota did begin to have success once they shifted into pistol and shotgun formations and began running spread option stuff again. Probably their most successful play was this midline read out of the pistol, which is starting to show up all over college and even pro football. This play resembles the inverted veer except that the QB options off the B-gap defender (the 3-tech, in a base; if the B-gap defender attacks the tailback, the QB pulls and proceeds outside; if the B-gap defender does anything else, the QB hands off to the tailback (who proceeds downhill into the B-gap).
The best way to defend this play is with a “gap exchange” between the 3-tech and the MLB. That is, instead of coming straight upfield and getting optioned-off, the 3-tech should bash the offensive guard into the A-gap and keep the MLB clean. The MLB can then flow over top of the 3-tech and fill the B-gap. The SAM, meanwhile, must beat the TE’s block and set an edge point (2 yards outside, 2 yards upfield) to force a QB keeper back inside.
WDE Frank Clark: Shed block of LT Marek Lenkiewicz, backside pursuit, “fence” play inside
NT Quinton Washington: Defeat single-block of C John Christenson, hopefully forcing LG Zac Epping to double (and keeping Epping from getting to WLB James Ross)
3T Jibreel Black: Quickly recognize that he is being optioned off; engage RG Caleb Bak (keeping him from getting to MLB Desmond Morgan) and constrict the right-side A-gap
SDE Keith Heitzman: Defeat reach block of RT Josh Campion; defend C gap
WLB James Ross: Defeat block of LG Zac Epping, assure no cutback lane through backside B-gap; pursue
MLB Desmond Morgan: Scrape over Black to fill B-gap
SLB Brennen Beyer: Defeat reach block of TE Drew Goodger; set edge 2 yards deep, 2 yards outside and (if QB Phillip Nelson keeps) force run back inside
Black and Morgan are experienced players who should make reliable reads, and Michigan’s NTs should regularly demand double-teams. If Black can effectively engage Minnesota’s RG despite Black’s size disadvantage, then Michigan should consistently close down the middle against this play. Beyer (and Cam Gordon) should not struggle to set the edge against Minnesota’s young tight ends, and Minnesota’s tailbacks are not particularly threatening.
Against UNLV, the Gophers must have run this same simple passing play at least ten times, albeit from numerous formations and with varied personnel groups. Shown here from the pistol in a 3-WR set, the play is designed to hi-lo the flat defenders on either side of the field.
Of course, the natural danger with continuously throwing outs is that a DB will eventually jump one of the routes and intercept it—with a good chance of a big return. Minnesota deterred UNLV defenders from jumping the outs by also running a fair number of go routes, back-shoulder fades, and “scissor” patterns (in which the outside receiver runs a post, crossing with a slot receiver running a corner). The Gophers also like to sometimes send the tailback on a wheel route underneath the pattern.
BCB Raymon Taylor: Defend the deep third (>15 yards) zone on the boundary side from the sideline to the hash against SE Isaac Fruechte
NCB Blake Countess: Defend the flat on the boundary side vs. slot receiver Derrick Engel
ILB James Ross: Defend the middle short ¼ zone on the boundary side
MLB Desmond Morgan: Defend the middle short ¼ one on the field side
FCB Delonte Hollowell: Defend the deep 1/3 zone on the field side from the sideline to the hash against TE Maxx Williams
SS Thomas Gordon: Defend the flat on the field side against FL Donovahn Jones
FS Jarrod Wilson: Defend deep middle 1/3 zone
DE Frank Clark: Pressure QB Phillip Nelson, defeat RT Josh Campion
DT Jibreel Black: Pressure QB Phillip Nelson, defeat C John Christenson, RG Caleb Bak
DT Chris Wormley: Pressure QB Phillip Nelson; defeat LG Zac Epping
DE Brennan Beyer: Pressure QB Phillip Nelson; defeat LT Marek Lenkiewicz
Michigan’s pass rush has been inconsistent all season, and this will probably be the second-best offensive line they’ll have faced (after ND). OTOH, the best pass rush performance M has shown this season came in their last game—and the The secondary has looked consistently good. Perhaps most importantly, QB Phillip Nelson is coming off an injury and isn’t a particularly skilled passer to begin with, and while WR Isaac Freuchte has some skills the Gophers are not exactly tripping MPLS air raid sirens.
Based on the foregoing, Michigan will win obvs. Note: I'm not sure I'll have time to get another one of these out by Penn State week, so I'd be interested to know whether folks whether folks would prefer I do the next one on State, Nebraska, or Northwestern. Thanks for reading!