WTFL;DR: Narduzzi coaches an aggressive take on the now en vogue Quarters defense that's still formidable even if State isn't quite what it was last year.
Pat Narduzzi's defense for the last season and a half has been a bitch to deal with. Yeah, maybe it's not as good as last year what with Jerel Worthy being a legitimately/literally huge absence to compensate for. Still, the remaining football players are talented and they play Narduzzi's 4-3 Over Cover 4 scheme with the kind of savvy you wouldn't expect from a squad diligently adhering to a strict regimen of crass goonery, per Mark Dantonio's demands. They diagnose ably, are patient and pair that with surprising athleticism. The first two are perhaps unsurprising as State has drawn much of their talent from Ohio, presumably from the bigger schools where the coaching and competition are first rate. The athleticism I have no quip for. It sure is annoying.
Cover 4 or Quarters coverage is en vogue at the moment in both the pros and college for a variety of reasons. Smart Football has run 2 articles
over the last few years that are absolutely worth reading on the subject. Some of this will end up rehashing that, with the end game being how State will use their Quarters D to attack our base run game, particularly inverted veer.
In the college game, its use stems largely from the ability to solve the numbers disadvantages more traditional 1-Gap Cover 2 or Cover 3 base defenses have to deal with thanks to the rise of the spread. As SF mentions, it's really difficult to stop 4 Verts when your defense has fewer than 4 deep defenders. There's very often an easy throw depending on whether you went with 2 or 3 deep defenders. Here's how
Nick Saban put it:
We got to the point where, this is the reason that we do this, when everybody started going spread we couldn’t play 3 deep zone. This started with the Cleveland Browns, I was the defensive coordinator in the early 90s and Pittsburgh would run 'Seattle' on us , four streaks. Then they would run two streaks and two out routes, what I call ‘pole’ route from 2x2. So we got to where could NOT play 3-deep zone because we rerouted the seams and played zone, and what I call “Country Cover 3” [drop to your spot reroute the seams, break on the ball]. Well , when Marino is throwing it, that old break on the ball shit don’t work.
So because we could not defend this, we could not play 3 deep, so when you can’t play zone, what do you do next? You play Man [cover 1], but if their mens are better than your mens, you can’t play cover 1 .
We got to where we couldn’t run cover 1 - So now we can’t play an 8 man front. The 1994 Browns went 13-5 , we lost to Steelers 3 times, lost 5 games total [twice in the regular season, once in the playoffs]. We gave up the 5th fewest points in the history of the NFL, and lost to Steelers because we could not play 8-man fronts to stop the run because they would wear us out throwing it
Saban solved this at first by revamping his C3 rules. Eventually though he and many others found that Quarters and similar such coverages could solve the same problem as well or better. Why? In part, the running quarterback means that 8 man fronts may still not be enough. Coaches generally play run defense thinking about the free hitter. That is, the best an offense can do is line up 10 blockers and 1 ball carrier. The defense has 11 would-be tacklers. 11 tacklers minus 10 blockers is 1 free hitter, the ball carrier's counterpart.
In modern football, often enough your free hitter is playing deep coverage because the passing game is a huge threat and isn't near the line of scrimmage. In standard Cover 3, this can mean leaving the free safety standing in the middle of the field doing jack while the QB takes a direct snap and shoots past the line and backers busy getting swallowed by blockers. Quarters makes sure there's never a safety doing jack.
For example, if the offense splits out two wide receivers to the same side of the field, and both run straight up the field on deep routes, the safety plays man on the inside guy and the cornerback plays man on the outside guy. If, however, the inside receiver were to run immediately to the flat -- say, on a bubble screen -- while the outside receiver ran upfield, the corner and the safety would actually double team the deep man, defending him from both the inside and the outside. This type of read-and-react is great against the spread's multiplicity, as it can allow some very short completions but lead to lots of interceptions and few downfield passing windows.
And what if that inside receiver ducked inside to run block? The safety responds by adding himself to the run fit. If the inside receiver is a TE, it's the same thing. If there is no inside receiver near the line of scrimmage and he's in the backfield or some such, he reads run first and then looks for something else to do. Both safeties are responding to the keys they receive and are adjusting the numbers back in favor of the defense.
But that's a pretty standard Quarters set up. State does a few things differently. Let's check out some pretty pictures.
[ED: after the jump.]
It's 2nd and 16, so MSU is probably thinking pass at least a bit. That and QB draw.
First thing, watch the safeties' eyes. They line up over the TE and Slot respectively, with their attention split between the receiver and what's happening in the backfield. They're using both their receivers and the QB as keys. Part of this is the fact that Braxton Miller is Braxton Miller and he runs waaaay better than he throws. But this is still a matter of design. Zone defense these days is played with a relatively complex set of reads. The more information that can be usefully received, the better the response of the given defender.
The other point of interest here is the cornerback. In more usual C4 set ups, the corners play at about the same depth as the safeties and are making similar reads. In Narduzzi's version, they're playing straight up man defense from the start and are rarely given safety help. They're always on an island.
Both TE and Slot break to the flat. Based on their rules, the LBs are responsible for these routes. The safeties wait for more information. Free of their pass support responsibilities given the route distribution, they're looking for further clues. As it happens, this isn't a pass.
The center releases to take care of the MLB. The TE and Slot have already dealt with the OLBs. In more usual Quarters set ups, the safeties would have been helping on the outside receivers. But Narduzzi has designed this defense with the running QB in mind and this is Braxton Miller. Dude can run.
Schematically, this is a win for Narduzzi. With a made tackle, that sets up 3rd and very long. But that's Braxton Miller, so instead it's 3rd and fairly short. In fact, this was the overwhelming theme of the game. State often dueled to a stalemate or better on scheme. But Braxton Miller couldn't be stopped on the run and passed just enough to win. OSU got lots of yards but couldn't really string together drives because they were very reliant on improvisation and sheer athleticism. That kind of variability leads to long gains, but only eventually. If the long gains don't end up in the endzone, you might have to wait a while for the next one.
NOTES ON PERSONNEL AND SUCH
Let's go back to that first cap and make a few more notes.
Even though this is on 2nd and 16, this is pretty much a base alignment. Obviously Miller isn't getting a ton of respect for his passing ability. On the other hand, State also has a ton of faith in their ability to play pass man to man. I'm not sure how actually common this response to this down and distance is, but I can say that they love to stay in their base and adjust as little as possible to formation. Narduzzi clearly wants as simple a scheme as possible.
In any case, they align everybody on the basis of field/boundary designations. Gholston is the boundary end, Marcus Rush is the field end. Denico Allen is the boundary LB, Chris Norman plays to the field. Johnny Adams plays corner to the boundary, Darqueze Dennard to the field.
Another point: they don't play much if any Under front w/ the Sam dropping down onto the line of scrimmage. There will pretty much always be 4 down linemen. Those DL will, however, shift around a lot. The base, I think, is two 5 techs, a 3 and a 1. In this screencap, there are two 3-techs and two 7-techs. So, the center has a free release and theoretically they should have a tough time defending something like Inside Zone, just as a matter of alignment. On 2nd and 16, they're of course willing to give up 5 yards up the gut. Maybe it's just me paying way too much attention, but it seemed to me they move their DL around a lot relative to Michigan.
Another point of interest is the TE in the formation. As a matter of alignment for MSU, 3 receivers split off from the lineman seems to give them a lot more options to blitz than 4-wide formations. Why? Two reasons: it keeps the boundary backer in the box and State plays such formations as though they only offer 3 rather than 4 vertical threats.
Which means State has every opportunity as far as they're concerned to run their two favorite blitzes. We're well acquainted with that damn ass double A gap blitz at this point. They also love the corner blitz. Perhaps if they respected that TE's ability to get downfield more, they'd be less inclined to blitz that corner. But Narduzzi loves to bet against WRs ability to get open and even more against a QB's ability to find them. He figures he'll get to the passer and/or that Braxton Miller/Everett Golson can't throw. From what I saw, he bet right often enough.
A lot of that pressure rests on their team speed, which he took right out of
Jimmy Johnson's old 4-3 Over playbook. Quoteses:
What did Johnson change at Miami? Some of this you already know. To stop the wishbone option on the edge, you need fast OLBs and Ends. Johnson decided to recruit Safety-types, 6'-6'2 190-210lb, which are fairly easy to find, and put them at OLB. If you bulk them up without losing their speed, you have more speed on the field, but it doesnt matter how tall they are, they just have to be fast and tackle well. He took the guys who played LB in HS and moved them to DE, again you put more speed on the field...
...In the 4-3, in general (meaning either Under or Over), you put the Ends down off the shoulder of the OT and angle them to the RB so they can make the Block-Down-Step-Down rule work easier...The BDSD rule says that when the OL across from you blocks down (towards the center), you must follow him and step down (towards the center) the LOS. Once you think about how the option works, with linemen constantly veering inside to option off the End, you see how this worked against the wishbone teams of the time. This stops the Dive of the option, which is the basis of the system(s) and makes it go. If the Dive went inside or the QB tried to keep, the End would be right in his face.The faster OLBs could just run around the OL who went to the 2nd level.
That whole Shakin' The Southland article gives some nice background to what Narduzzi is trying to get from his front 7. The basic point: if option football is making a resurgence, go back to the principles that stopped it the first place. Which finally brings us to the actual specifics of Michigan v. Michigan State. State employs a defense more or less designed to stop Veer football. Michigan's best running play is the Inverted Veer. Who shall emerge from Thunderdome victorious?
It's a downblocking power O scheme combined with an RB/QB read option. If the end stays wide, the QB jets up the middle. If the end crashes the mesh point, the QB gives.
As we've seen, letting Denard keep has often been disastrous for Michigan opponents. So the question is: why the hell do teams keep letting Denard keep?
A lot of it is habit or a lack thereof. Unless you've been drilled again and again to let the DE crash and have the LB loop around to attack the give read, getting a whole lot out of a scrape exchange is tough. Think the defensive version of Rich Rod when he was just installing his offense. He had a counter, but no counter to the counter. As Smart Football mentions in his IV article, a crashing DE and a scraping LB can be countered with runs up the middle and assorted trickery. Turning that tactic into scheme takes committment.
Unfortunately for us, however, Michigan State has been busy sleazing their way to the top of Crash and Scrape Mountain, 80's style. Their DEs crash by default and their OLBs are often aligned outside the box, providing poor angles for either Tackle or Slot to block down. They don't even have to scrape. They just read, shed easily if necessary and attack. Likewise, their safeties are reading run, ready and able to chase. Which is why if you watch the MSU-OSU game, you'll see (if I counted good) just one instance of the Inverted Veer. Wherein a crashing Vernon Gholston obliterated Jordan Hall after an uncertain give read. Braxton Miller was clearly not used to having a 6'7'' 280lb truckasaurus gunning right for him with hate in its mesozoic 12 chambered heart. Also evident in the play was State's LB entirely ready to wrap Hall up if necessary. It was not.
This is not just a lesson in not letting Gholston do what he does best. Narduzzi's defense didn't have to do anything special to obtain this result. They have fast DEs and OLBs in a scheme and alignment that let's them sprint after the ball. That's the whole point of the defense.
OMG SO WHAT DO WE DO
Obviously getting crushed by dinobots sucks. Fortunately, there are caveats. For one, IV still has a lot going for it. Michigan State plays Quarters to make sure it doesn't get outmanned at the point of attack. But consider why down-block-and-pull plays were designed in the first place. It subtracts a guy from the line of scrimmage where the play is not going and inserts him at the point of attack.
If the downblocking is good enough, you seal off the guys from the other side and boom you've got a numbers advantage again. State has been coached to deal with this via crashing DEs. But Al Borges' Momma didn't raise no fools. He knows that they do this and instructs M to execute in such cases.
Boringly, precise and adaptive execution is often enough to beat good scheme. Likewise, so does sheer talent advantage. If Braxton Miller can do it, I'm willing to bet a consistent application of dilithium to the troubled region will do some good.
Okay, so there's that. But schematically, we can also take advantage of Narduzzi's teachings and use it against him. OSU did exactly that on their first play from scrimmage.
OSU RB is aligned for Inside Zone and MSU's DL is lined up to take away outside runs, leaving the center uncovered. As you might guess, the LBs are looking for plays that hit at the weak point of the line.
Indeed it is IZ action, with the OSU H-Back (ugh, it's Zach Boren) crossing back to the weakside of the formation. Often this kind of HB movement indicates some attempt to hit the backside. The IZ action acts as a down block on the DL, the HB clears out the LB and the back hits it up through the weakside hole. Suspecting as much, the DE and OLB work down to restrict the gaps while keeping an eye on the mesh point.
Boren, however, is not aiming to clear the DE out of the backside hole. Not that DE Marcus Rush has guessed. As he's been schooled lo these many years, he crashes inside of the block and tries to wrong arm Boren, looking to spill the RB to his OLB. Boren just runs on by both DE and OLB after a convincing head fake. Admiral Ackbar has words for these fellows.
He's in fact headed for the safety as the Slot blocks down on the OLB. The safety is now definitely thinking run, but it's already too late. OSU has everyone accounted for and MSU's coaching has lead them right into it. Miller pulls, takes off, and gets pushed out of bounds many yards later.
Whatever you want to technically call this, I think it's reasonable to think of it as Uninverted Veer. There's the middle threat, the pulling blocker, the read...it's all there. The QB and RB just swapped roles. But Ohio has given it a different look that totally mixed up State's keys and took advantage of their coaching. The DE crashed down when they needed to stand pat.
It certainly also helps that the DE being read was not Gholston. He may be as easily confused as Rush, but his fervor for attacking something/anything often leads him to success on read plays because of his relatively atypical approach and impressive athleticism. Rush is more measured and not the same kind of athlete. He's the one to take advantage of. The conventional wisdom for the option is "if you can't block him, read him". We already know we can block Gholston.
Schematically, the lesson here is that you can get what you want with other relatively simple play designs. Given the considerable downtime between significant opponents, I think it's likely Borges has drawn up enough variants on "Denard keeps, tries to run far". If he can pick a few we can execute comfortably, simply showing new wrinkles will help open up the base offense.
Lastly, it wouldn't be a Smart Football ripoff post without some reference to constraints. As Brian has mentioned, now is the time to finally bust out the play action off IV action. With either safety potentially in the run fit, the WRs will have a chance to fake some blocks, convince their would-be pass defenders to join the melee and slip by undetected. We haven't done much of this in the Borges era and getting to that point will have huge payoff against any team that wants to get aggressive with their safeties in the run fit. Not to mention the worst waldo touchdown fun times.
As for other runs that use IV action, that's a bit tougher. OSU didn't really show anything, opting to play off their IZ look instead. With the pulling guard, the action is fairly obvious. While that helps with the play action, it makes different runs more difficult. They could always pull an H-Back or the backside tackle along with the guard and turn it into Inverted Veer Counter, but I don't think M has installed Counter blocking. More likely is that Borges will emphasize kicking out any crashing DEs rather than having the pulling G hit up an LB. The OLB will end up waiting for a give read that doesn't come and that hopefully will spring Denard into the secondary.
STRICTURES OF MGO HALF-JOKING ADHERENCE TO STRICTURES COMPEL, ETC.
It's tempting to try to blow the lid off a Cover 4 defense and hit long passes against their man-match coverage. And if we can get Denard to do that, great, we're going to absolutely dominate from here on out. But that would be an incredible turn around. We're all pretty sure it's not happening at this point.
So how well can Borges design a spread-and-shread running game against a defense that was built with stopping exactly that in mind? A few subtle changes in our base runs can go a long way...but successfully getting your guys to do slightly different things week to week is harder than it sounds. Air Raid guys like Holgorsen are always talking about simplification and you can just tell in those press conferences that Borges bristles at the concept. He seems to like the idea of football as a complex game and moreover likes the idea of teaching the complex and making it work.
To some extent, this means he gets in his own way. He acts like but in fact doesn't have unlimited time to teach and scheme. But it also means when he gets that balance right, it goes spectacularly right. He'll have thought of everything and figured out how to teach it. Until he gets players that are more his style, though, it's hard to bet on that happening. I think it'll be a bit of a slog that will tell us a lot about Borges as a coordinator. Executing the right counter at the right time will be the difference between not breaking 20 and finally getting off this State schnide. It's time to find out just how well Borges can spread to run.