Neck Sharpies: Unzipped

Neck Sharpies: Unzipped Comment Count

Seth November 13th, 2018 at 11:41 AM

Thanks to Rutgers Michigan is now merely the #2 defense in the country to favored fancystat S&P+. The Scarlet Knights' 193 rushing yards were the most Michigan gave up all season. In fact Rutgers gained more rushing yards in a single play than Michigan ceded to Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan State or Penn State all game. Normally I don't like to focus on bad plays, nor things that are unlikely to recur, but Rutgers is so bad at everything than 80-yard run to tie the game didn't even remotely move the needle of concern for a rote washout. It was also the only time there was any threat of Rutgers scoring. And it's a cool play. And people wanted to know what happened. So let's unpack it as best we can.

1. Zipper Motion

The play is a simple zone stretch run with a "Zipper" motion from the slot receiver that forced Michigan's safeties to switch their roles pre-snap and switch again post-snap. Zipper is jet motion that reverses the way it came, and a staple of motion-reliant offenses like the one Matt Canada runs in Maryland, and this derivative.


Zipper motion is really just taking Jet to the next level. Jet motion often reveals a defense's coverage, forces defenders to change the assignments on the fly right before the snap, and creates an enhanced threat of an already speedy player with a head of steam to account for. It also puts them out of alignment, and used correctly can break your offensive players free from whomever the defense wanted to match on them. It's sort of like banging the top of a jar before trying to open it—by crossing the defense you're loosening everything up. By crossing a defense again you're giving that top another bang. The tradeoff is you have to vary your motions or else you're tipping when you're going to snap the ball. Also your motion guy can't have his hips downfield so you're losing a precious moment that he could be threatening a vertical route or blocking. It's not a bad trade, and that's why just about every offense uses motion.

A defense that's screwed down well should be well prepared to handle any Jet motion. Michigan's defense has several methods that they can rotate through on a game- and per-play basis. When they get slot motion in man to man they can have the safeties swap jobs ("Switch") or have the slot defender follow the motion. If they're in a Cover 2 look they'll often just leave everyone where they are or reveal the coverage if they've been disguising it. They can also convert their coverage call, or roll the Viper into it. In general if you get a reaction from the top group it's probably man coverage (or Cover 3) and if you get the bottom reaction you've probably revealed a zone (Cover 2).


Michigan's favorite is Switch, and even though it's a Cover 2 presnap look the original jet motion reveals Kinnel and Hawkins switching their jobs, and when the slot zippers back the other way the safeties are flipping back.


On this play the coverage doesn't matter so much as making the safeties run every which way before the handoff. It's one more thing in their heads, and makes it harder for them to be in the ideal position at the snap because they're on the run. It's annoying because their run assignments are going to change based on where they end up on the play, and because Hawkins isn't nearly as experienced at this.

The safety swapping isn't the main event and only possibly a contributor. I think the zipper motion with their best player, #2 Raheem Blackshear, created the sense among Michigan's defenders that Rutgers intended to get the defense moving one way and Blackshear running the opposite way. Brian argued on the pod this week that no coaches teach their players to overreact to a guy and that's true, but it's college football and Blackshear is the majority of the Rutgers offense; it's understandable that Kinnel would find himself floating one way, seeing Blackshear going the other, and think the play is going to come down to whether Tyree can shut down the edge.

The motion is one of two things Rutgers did to make this play crack open—Pacheko being much faster than Hawkins was the other. Michigan's reaction, however, was bust-tacular.


Neck Sharpies: High Leverage

Neck Sharpies: High Leverage Comment Count

Seth November 6th, 2018 at 11:19 AM

It's the last minute of the 3rd quarter. Michigan has dominated in just about every phase of the game. They're winning the turnover battle. They're quadrupling in yardage. They're converting 3rd down. They even have a huge advantage in special teams—despite a nearly disastrous blocked kick—because of DPJ's punt returns. And yet it's only 14-0. Michigan's at the PSU 7 with 2nd and 6 on a 13-play drive that's just murdered most of the third frame. A field goal and it's probably over. A touchdown and you know it's over. Nothing…well, Penn State knows a thing or two about losing games that Bill C's numbers say they won handily.


Michigan's in a 3-tight end shotgun. The day so far has seen a lot of split zone and zone reads with a crossing TE to the backside of similar formations, and Penn State's having none of it, getting into an Under formation with the backside reinforced and no safeties deep. Michigan likes to run, huh? Well We Are Penn State. We're Unrivaled. We brought the BLUE band and they're hanging out by the sideline over there. James Franklin's Pennsylvania boys. And Michigan's about to see what they're made of, especially if the Wolverines try the middle.

Penn State's inviting Michigan to try that gap between the Bushell-Beatty's right shoulder, where the strongside end is lined up, and two gaps over where the DT has shifted to Ruiz's right shoulder. Remember back to the Neck Sharpies after Northwestern, how your defensive linemen are your fortresses and the weak spots are the gaps between them? Look at PSU's front and where they want Michigan to go:


I don't remember the Sun Tzu quote for this. If your enemy shows you a weakness, use it? Or is it never do what your enemy wants you to do? Or is it when facing an irrational man never rationality? I'm sure it's something.

[After the Jump: The Art of War.]


Neck Sharpies: Trapping the Slant

Neck Sharpies: Trapping the Slant Comment Count

Seth October 30th, 2018 at 10:38 AM

Waaaaay back in the nonconference portion of the season Michigan was getting repeatedly gashed by slants. The problem hit a crescendo against SMU, and their excellent little slot bug James Proche.

SMU threw six slants for 44 yards on 4 completions; only on the last did a safety make a play on the ball, and there’s a big reason for that we’ll get into further down. As the season’s progressed, however, Michigan’s gotten much better not just at defending slants but convincing opposing offenses not to even bother with them by running trap coverages. Why were we bad at them before? Is that a hole in our base defense? What’s a trap coverage? Let’s discuss.

Defending Slants and Fades with Man Coverage

The reason Michigan was bad at slants was they were bad/unlucky last year at fades, and made a conscious decision to be align in a way that made fades harder and slants easier.


Michigan likes to run a lot of Cover 1: man to man defense with single high safety. They also like to blitz their linebackers and play them aggressively against the run. The coverage has help inside on deep plays but no help outside, and small help underneath. Offenses learned long ago that you can put a Cover 1 slot defender in a bind by threatening him short/inside (a slant) and deep/outside (a fade). Both routes start by running directly at this guy, trying to get him to flip his hips to defend whichever of the two you’re not running.

[After the JUMP: a wild Mon Calamari appears]


Neck Sharpies: Belly and the Well-Fed Spread

Neck Sharpies: Belly and the Well-Fed Spread Comment Count

Seth October 24th, 2018 at 4:09 PM

I challenge anyone to find a greater irony in football than the fact that the spread 'n shred offense was rejected at Michigan by Rich Rodriguez and restored under Jim Harbaugh. Rich Rod scrapped it in 2010 because Denard wasn't good at option reads. Hoke avoided it because he had other plans. Harbaugh is on everybody's short list of best coaches in the country for Hoke's plans.

But here we are, running not just zone reads and split zone as a check, but the checks to the checks. Last week I got into the arc keeper, a counter off split zone that can hit for big yardage. But Michigan was also making heavy use of "Belly", a Rodriguez favorite from 2008-'09 that looks like a zone read but is actually doubling the backside DT and planning for the cutback. And it did its job.

Let's break out our 10-year-old playbooks and see how it works.

The Standard Defense of Zone Read

Since this is really a counter to a base play it's best to first understand the base play: the Zone Read option. You're familiar with zone read, but probably more so with the option part. For this exercise you need to pay more attention to how it's blocked.


After the backside end is dealt with by the option, the play becomes, well, whatever off-tackle run play you want to use. You can run inside zone, outside zone, even Power-O or Down G with it. In the above example it's inside zone, and when running the zone read game out of a pistol formation this is by far the most common run play.

[After THE JUMP: gliding downhill]


Neck Sharpies: Breaking Tendency

Neck Sharpies: Breaking Tendency Comment Count

Seth October 16th, 2018 at 10:07 AM

Michigan and Wisconsin are two of the last great bastions of Manball offense. In an age when offensive coaches are constantly trying to scheme their way to limiting the number of blocks that have to be made to win a down, the Wolverines and Badgers predicate their attacks on the concept that the more blocks they can force to happen, the more blocks the defense is going to lose. There's nothing particularly tricky about it. We are going to squeeze your defenders into a tiny, vertical space where the only directions that exist are North and South, and our heavy cavalry are charging downhill.

So of course the play of the game was a tweak to a zone-read option, a play so Rich Rodriguezian in its design you are a little bit mad at the end that the quarterback doesn't have dreads.

[Note: stephenrjking wrote a diary about this play as well]

Let's take a look at what Wisconsin thought they were defending, what they were actually defending, and how everybody's shoelaces suddenly came untied.


  1. Zone Read
  2. Split Zone
  3. Arc Block

1. What's a Zone Read? I see you've missed the last 20 years of football. That's alright, it's a simple enough concept to explain, and a little flick of the mouse wheel if you're already up on the idea.


The zone read options an unblocked defender on the backside of an inside run play. You've seen it a thousand times. The quarterback holds the ball in the RB's hands while watching whatever defender is in that zone on the backside. If the defender forms up outside, the QB takes his hands off the ball and the RB can continue to run as if it's a normal running play. If the defender "crashes" toward the running back, the QB keeps it and runs around into the vacated space. The point is to free up a blocker by having the QB's read either hold that backside player where he can't help a run to the other side, or alternatively get that defender chasing a non-ballcarrier instead of protecting his edge. It doesn't really matter which base running play you pair it with: inside zone, power, zone stretch, Down G, whatever.

Takeaway: It's an important play because it made it possible to have a good running game from the shotgun. All defenses today know how to defend it, most commonly by having an end who finds himself unblocked "shuffle" in that purple zone to make the QB really have to think about his read, wasting precious moments while the defense is prying its way into the plausible gaps. Naturally, offenses that use the zone read have a favorite counter for this kind of thing.

2. A Split Zone. Split zone is basically just inside zone except you block the backside edge defender with an offensive player, usually a tight end, H-back, or fullback, who is blocking opposite and across the flow of the play.


A split zone run gives up some blocking on the frontside for an epic win on that backside, and is particularly punishing when that backside defender is wholly concentrated on forming up to threaten both sides of a zone read.

But again, this is a highly common play at all levels of football, so any defensive player taught to form up against a zone read is also going to keep the corner of his eye ready for any kind of trap block coming from the frontside. If one comes, he shifts his weight and meets the blocker, maintaining the edge of the defensive front and constricting space as much as possible inside of himself.

Takeaway: Any offense that runs a bit of zone read is also going to run a bit of split zone, and any player who'll be playing edge defender in a modern college defense has practiced how to convert a zone read shuffle to setting the edge against a trap block.

3. Arc Block. This is basically the opposite of a kickout block. It's usually used to describe the block by an H-back or tight end who "arcs" around a defender in an attempt to reach block him, i.e. seal him on the opposite side of where the offensive player lined up.


Takeaway: It's just a block.

[After THE JUMP: Stir with half a season of tendency and serve cold]


Neck Sharpies: Up the Gut

Neck Sharpies: Up the Gut Comment Count

Seth October 2nd, 2018 at 10:18 AM

Shot through the heart, cuz your LB’s too late. [Barron]

In a departure from Michigan’s first few games this season, Down G didn’t work against Northwestern, however a sort of similar A-Gap Isolation play was gashing them on the regular. This was not surprising given how Northwestern aligns its front, a thing I noted in the Foe Film last week.

Base Set: It's a 4-3 even, the same that Michigan State bases its defense out of. Even when they shifted to an under look they kept the wide splits between the DTs:


This is a thing you see Match Quarters defenses do when they like their middle linebacker a lot. The uncovered center can be dangerous since there's nobody to chip him if he releases on a linebacker. If you trust your MIKE to beat that block consistently you can get away with this bubble, making up for it with more strength in the B and C gaps.

And here’s how Harbaugh attacked it:

Before digging into this let's go over some actual football terminology. That way I can use the jargon later to explain why Michigan's curveball play worked so well against previous opponents, but was not expected to work against Northwestern, and why this cut fastball was devastatingly effective.


Ever since offenses learned to pass and run outside, their opponents have had to array their defenses with some points stronger that others. How you set the strong points of your front and react to the weaker points will establish your defensive identity.

This starts with where you line up the defensive linemen. They are your fortresses. Linemen are difficult to move, and the linebackers usually will line up at least partially behind those lineman to create an impediment for releasing OL to get a shot at them.

Here’s a typical (4-3 over) alignment:


  • Techniques are those little numbers I put between the defensive and offensive lines. They are instructions for the defensive linemen as to how they’re going to line up. When we talk about a “3-tech” for example, that’s a guy who lines up off of a guard’s shoulder. There is no single established numbering system across football so I used what I’m familiar with above. Note the numbers in red correspond to where the defensive linemen are set up.
  • Shading is an instruction to the offensive linemen, often represented in graphics by coloring in all or part of a lineman to show who’s got a defensive player lined up on him. This comes into play with line calls, zone running, or any play that changes up the blocking depending on how the defense aligns.
  • Gaps are represented with letters, and are used by offenses and defenses alike to refer to gap assignments and attack plans. The letters in red denote gaps where a defensive lineman is lined up. An offensive player without a defensive player shaded on him is considered "Uncovered."
  • Under/Over can refer to the front as a whole or a player. "Under" means weakside, "Over" means strongside (the side with the tight end)

So in this example alignment you could say the nose is aligned in a 1-tech shaded under the center and attacking the A gap.

Now see if you can find the softest spot in that front above. If you said backside B gap you get a lollipop. Not only is nobody lined up in that gap but the nose is on the opposite side of the next gap, leaving the left guard uncovered. To avoid that, a lot of 4-3 teams will put their nose in a “2i” technique, or over the guard’s inside shoulder, especially when the offense is in a spread formation and there are only two LBs back there to help.

The gaps that aren’t covered are (usually) the linebackers’ problem. Linebacker gaps are more pliable because they have other responsibilities besides that gap, such as passing, matching pullers, and dodging blocks from offensive players not committed to the linemen.

No team stays in the same front with the same linemen attacking the same gaps every play unless they want to be mercilessly attacked by plays that go at their weak points. They’ll shift their fronts, and also slant guys into different gaps than they started in, and blitz their other players to stuff up more gaps. But they also try to spend as much time as possible in the front that best uses their talent.

Now, see if you can spot the soft spot in Northwestern’s front:

You get a lollipop.

[After the JUMP: Why this works so well, and Down G wouldn’t]


Neck Sharpies: Oh I'm Sorry Were You Keying That?

Neck Sharpies: Oh I'm Sorry Were You Keying That? Comment Count

Seth September 25th, 2018 at 4:12 PM

Nebraska fixed their atrocious linebackers by giving them aggressive reads. So Michigan unfixed them. [photo: Eric Upchurch]

I had a very hard time pulling anything interesting from this game. I wanted to see Michigan dominating with skill, speed, and play design, but the takeaway after a rewatch was Nebraska's linebackers were responsible for much of the Michigan offense's explosive day.

This was something of a surprise. In the film preview I thought the Huskers had found a good player in WLB Mohamed Barry (#7) and a serviceable one in MLB Dedrick Young (#5) by giving them easy Keys and telling them to play those aggressively. I think Michigan saw this too, and also a way to use that to make Nebraska's linebackers atrocious again.

So the play in question is the first snap of Michigan's second drive. They had already used it for a big Higdon run on the first drive but Nebraska did some funny stuff that time while this was straight-up pwnage.

Michigan is running two concepts on this play to screw with the Nebraska LBs' Keys. On the frontside it's Down G, and on the backside it's a Wham Block. Let's go over the bolded terms.

About Keys

One of the great things about about Down G is how it messes with "Keys." Keys are cheats that defenses use to get extra defenders to the ball faster by identifying what the play is by certain types of backfield action. Every defense uses keys, and the game that running game coordinators are often playing is identifying what the defense's keys are then using that against them. The defense meanwhile will have different keys for different looks to punish an offense that just sticks to the plays they run well.

A highly common Key against power teams is to read your guard. The backside LB ("W" in the diagrams below) is often Keying the backside guard to decide what to do. If the guard pulls, that LB can guess the ball's going that way too and hightail it across the formation, arriving in the intended gap before the pulling guard and mucking everything up.


If that backside LB reads a zone block he doesn't activate so quickly, since he's got to cover that lane in case of a cutback. For completeness if the guard steps back to pass block, the LB knows to sink into coverage, or if the guard releases the LB knows to get playside and dodge the block.

Keying is a slider; you can use it as information while staying on your assignments, or tell your players to go hell for leather whenever they read one. Where you set that has to do with what your players are capable of doing on their own. If you have a particularly fast linebacker or one who can diagnose more things on his own, you don't have to try to cheat him into the right spot so much. Think back to 2011 Michigan with Brandin Hawthorne, who could knife through for some key stops or get caught paralyzed, versus Desmond Morgan, who though a true freshman was more diagnostic and decisive in his approach.

Nebraska is at the Hawthorne stage of a similarly wholesale rebuild. They're not as blitzball as the WMU and SMU linebackers when they Key run action, but they're up there with recent Rutgers and Minnesota teams Michigan's faced who don't wait to see the whites of their blockers' eyes before firing at a gap. As you may have derived from those memories, playing blitzball against a Harbaugh run game can get you a few stuffs followed by a good view of the back of Higdon's jersey. Except with the Huskers, it was a different shiny thing.

[After THE JUMP: Michigan's getting good at this, Nebraska was REALLY bad]


Neck Sharpies: Power Practice

Neck Sharpies: Power Practice Comment Count

Seth September 18th, 2018 at 2:52 PM

"Never mind the maneuvers, just go straight at them." –Horatio Nelson, maybe

This game was spectacularly unexciting from just about any standpoint, though my spot in the corner opposite the action and directly in the sunlight might be in the running for least spectacular fan experience.

On replay I thought most of Michigan's struggles running the ball were they were trying to practice running power into stacked boxes when the linebackers were firing aggressively at power and the safeties were starting at eight yards and stepping forward at the snap, not so different from what Michigan State does. So rather than show some amazing adjustment to the very unsound thing SMU was doing, I thought it might be interesting to pick apart one Power run where Michigan needed to get two yards and failed to do so.

1. The Primary Gap

The setup: It's 3rd and 2 later in the 1st quarter, about the point where Michigan needs to make it 7-0 to prevent what was supposed to be a laugher from turning into a grumbler. Michigan comes out their Heavy (fullback + two tight ends) formation, with both tight ends on the front side.

What happened? Michigan ran power, SMU slanted into it, Evans tried to cut back, and there were two unblocked guys waiting for him there.

What's Power? Power, or Power-O (for off-tackle) is God's play. It's a gap play where you try to pry open the frontside of the defense and then send all a bunch of material into it before the defense can close it down.


You block down on the linemen to the backside of the play, kick out the edge, and—this is the key—pull a blocker from the backside of the formation to thwack whoever appears in the gap. Send any unused frontside blockers into the linebacker level, add fullbackery and other frippery as necessary, and serve. Mostly that's changing up who gets the kickout block versus the playside linebacker (e.g. have the fullback kick and the tight end release on that SLB).

Power is one of the few plays that deserves a spot in the pantheon of base plays that can work against virtually any defense if you're good at it. My main takeaway from this game is Michigan wants to learn power until the offense can punch its way out of a coffin with it, and the coaches' opinion of SMU's defense was they might make a solid practice plank:

[After the JUMP: Michigan breaks its hand]


Neck Sharpies: Meet Down G: Half-Power, All-Zone

Neck Sharpies: Meet Down G: Half-Power, All-Zone Comment Count

Seth September 12th, 2018 at 12:36 PM

The result [Fulller]

[Gif is here if you want to go frame-by-frame]

One of the hallmarks of a Harbaugh rushing attack is he finds ways to surprise defenders with blocks they weren't expecting. In the middle of 2016 Michigan brought out a weird play that pulled on the frontside like power but blocked zone on the backside. I started to draw it up, but it never really worked, and it disappeared from the offense until the first quarter of Saturday, when they ran it twice in a row. So let's draw it up.

The play is a meatball gap run where the backside blocks like Outside Zone and the frontside uses a bit of Power. A quick refresher of what that means:


Outside Zone or Zone Stretch: In zone running you block whoever arrives in your gap. If you're "covered" (a lineman is lined up across from you) you have to make sure you deal with the guy over you, either blocking him through the play or combo-blocking him with the next lineman down (reading playside to backside) from you. If you're uncovered you can release to the next level, but if the lineman down from you is shaded playside on your buddy you can give your buddy some help first. OZ is the a more extreme type of zone. The OL are shuffling horizontally instead of trying to create space by shoving the DL vertically. Also Outside Zone doesn't block the backside end. Ideally your covered linemen will flank the guys they're over, and the uncovered linemen will release and get blocks on linebackers, but failing that you keep shuffling and waiting for the lineman to overpursue so you can lock him out of his gap. The running back and any lead blockers will pick their way behind this and wait for a gap to open up.


Power: The front side of the line each has a man to block, and your job is blow him down and seal him in whatever gap he's in so you can run through a preordained gap. Meanwhile the backside guard (usually) pulls around to thwack whatever linebacker or whatever shows in that gap, and maybe you also send a fullback escort. The idea here is to give you advantageous blocks by "blocking down" on dudes lined up further from the play than you, and "kicking out" the last dude to the playside to make the gap you're running into as wide as possible. The running back then follows a mass of bodies into the gap.

[After the JUMP: These are entirely different concepts and I don't understand how they can work together]


Neck Sharpies: Mitigating the Left Tackle (Reposted)

Neck Sharpies: Mitigating the Left Tackle (Reposted) Comment Count

Seth September 5th, 2018 at 2:30 PM

Something went wrong with my post yesterday so I'm putting it back up, sans the 200 or so comments that were all telling me what a jolly good fellow I am while remaining measured and positive about Michigan's coaches and players.

[Bryan Fuller]

I thought Runyan had a very bad game. He had a bad game because he didn't seem athletically or physically capable of winning blocks at this level of football.

What we don't need to do is bag on a guy who did all he could for Michigan. He seems to have taken this gig with full knowledge that he'd be drawing the disgust of Michigan fans away from whatever freshman who might have been in there instead. All kinds of people could have practiced harder, coached better, recruited more, cheated a bad and mostly ignored system, or waved magic wands while Runyan was doing the most he could with what he has, and saved him the embarrassment of a not-even-shaded standup DE who did this to him:

One little juke and Runyan doesn't have the arms or feet to do anything about it.

Bagging on the coaches is fair. They got us to the point where a 6'4" legacy recruit from the Brady Hoke is Falling Era has to be exposed against the toughest slate of edge players any team has faced in decades. It's hardly useful except to the kind of person who feels better by making other people feel worse, but if that's your bag, bag. A more useful question was "Why didn't the coaches gameplan around this weakness?" And the answer is they tried. In fact they did about as good of a job of it as they could.

What I did want to show this week is that Harbaugh almost certainly saw this same problem in practice because Michigan went into this game with a plan to mitigate the tackles. This is a thing you can only do so much of when it's both tackles and the defense has three All-Americans inside. Once the opponent has figured out what you're about, you go to counters that avoid the tackles, and then counters off that which avoid the tackles, until you're down two scores in the 4th quarter. Here's how Michigan tried to do it.

[After THE JUMP: The plan for avoiding LT]