There was a rather long twitter exchange earlier this week between BiSB and former player/regular MGoBlog reader Jon Duerr about this play, a ho-hum split zone that Michigan State swarmed. Both guys saw things in this play that somewhat characterized the Spartans’ approach this game, and why Michigan had to pass to counter it. So I thought I’d draw it up.
This play has been an effective counter to the base inside zone run all year. Rather than making the tight end block the DE lined up over him, the TE releases into a linebacker, leaving that end to get clobberated by a crossing TE or FB. Defenders who think they’re trying to defeat zone blocks to the frontside suddenly find themselves sealed in place, and linebackers who thought they were flowing to frontside gaps are just putting themselves in position to be blocked by free-releasing linemen who shouldn’t have an angle on them:
Regular zone rules are otherwise in effect. The covered linemen and the next closest uncovered linemen will try to combo the DTs then work their way to the Mike and Will linebackers. With split zone however play is designed to seal the tackles—who think they’re winning at preventing themselves from getting reached—in place and release the covered guys to the linebackers, who will naturally try to flow to the frontside of those blocks. Then—“whoops”—the linebackers are on the wrong side.
What you do with your receivers is up to you (and what your opponent is doing). The tight end’s crack block on the SAM is mirrored by the split end (X)’s attack on the Will, which mimics a mesh play. Michigan added the flanker (Z) cracking a safety rather than running off a cornerback, since the CB might take himself out of the play by playing man anyway.
Michigan State snuffed it out by playing super-aggressively against the run. They’re doing three things to blow this up.
In the Kindle Edition of HTTV for this year (oh by the way that exists) I added a sidebar/article on Michigan State's defense and different ways to attack it. With Quarters coming back into vogue to combat the spread, and Quarters teams getting super-aggressive against the run, offenses have been pulling the old Spurrier trips-and-triangle stuff to attack it. But Quarters is not new, and there are some other good answers out there for an overzealous defense from the two-back offenses that dominated the '80s and '90s.
Here's an oldie but a goodie, the Tunnel (or Jailbreak) Screen to a running back:
A-Train motioned out to the flat, essentially becoming a receiver. Chris Floyd stayed in as an Ace back, then he drifted out the other way to draw people away from where Thomas is going. DeBord caught the Buckeyes in one of TENUTA!!!!'s crazy blitzes that overloaded the backside. The running backs flying out horizontally pulled the linebackers out of the middle. Then Thomas cut back in, and by the time the outside guys can react to that there's an A-Train a-comin' with a lead blocker. It's a race between him and the flat defender for ALL the yards. Flat guy won.
(And Tuman got away with a hold).
This play never went away; they run tunnel screens out of spreads all the time with receivers coming in. Whereas bubble screens attack the defense in the space outside, tunnel screens get the defense moving hard one way to defend the edge, then pass it to a good athlete coming the opposite direction. Like a cutback run, if the screen target can accelerate downfield before the defenders can reverse momentum and converge, it could be a huge gain.
DeBord brought that out in '97 because OSU was blitzing guys off the edge. In 2011 vs MSU Borges (unsuccessfully since he didn't have the personnel) tried to make it a hot read to Vincent Smith. It's particularly good to run against a defense that's getting upfield too aggressively and dropping other guys back, since it attacks the space between them. As you might have guessed, if you catch the linebackers blitzing too that space could be huge, which is why this is fun to run on passing downs.
* [Moore was technically a free safety in '97 but the way OSU played twins this game was to have the CBs follow their receivers and leave Moore the strong side overhang DB.]
When news broke recently that Jabrill Peppers was moving to safety, Brian threw up a quick explanatory post, Why Peppers Might Be A Safety, talking about how modern spread offenses dictate modern quarters defenses, which in turn dictate that the safety over the slot is the glamour position du jour.
An offensive innovation like the zone read will open up the entire book again as coaches figure out ways of running all the things they already like out of new looks, new play-action, etc. But defensive innovation, with a few notable exceptions, is much more reactive.
Often what we call a "new defense" is just rediscovering an old, unsound thing that takes away the thing offenses are doing these days. The 46 defense was bringing a safety down. The zone blitz was having a defensive end playing coverage. The Tampa 2 had a middle linebacker responsible for deep middle coverage. The 3-4 made three linemen responsible for six gaps. And the hybrid man/zones of today put your deep coverage into the middle of the run-stopping game.
The way a defensive innovation becomes a sustainably great defense is great players. Dantonio's quarters dominated college football with a string of NFL-bound defensive backs. The 3-4's proliferation through the NFL was accompanied by a rush on anything that looked like Vince Wilfork. The Steel Curtain (the first Tampa 2) was built around Jack Lambert. Miami (NFL Miami)'s "No Name" zone blitz defense had a 6'5/248 lb. track star named Bill Stanfill at WDE. And the '80s Bears could pull off this crap:
…because that "46" was the jersey number of one Doug Plank.
You don't need to be a football guru to see what made the 46 defense tough: there are eight dudes in the box, six of whom are just a few steps from the quarterback. Running into a stacked box is futile (DO YOU HEAR ME? DO YOU HEAR ME, AL?!?). You can try to identify who's blitzing and throw to holes in the coverage before they arrive, but you'd better have Dan Marino.
I'm a tiny bit skeptical here since the source right now is recruit Iman Marshall (and Freddy Canteen if Canteen isn't just reacting to that) and Michigan's coaches other than Mattison haven't seen Peppers take a snap, but it's out there:
@JabrillPeppers moving to safety is good, can scrape the field left to right .. And is 2nd to none at it, peppy pep
Michigan does return Countess and Lewis at corner, plus Channing Stribling, Terry Richardson, and Brandon Watson. If they find a third guy there's enough depth there to make the move. Meanwhile Michigan never settled on a safety opposite Jarrod Wilson last year, rotating through Delano Hill, Jeremy Clark, and Dymonte Thomas with middling success.
"But why?", you ask?
We have seen a lot of defenses move to a quarters system of varying aggressiveness as a response to the spread, and depending on how good and deep your safeties are that's either gone really well (Michigan State two years ago) or gotten you blazed down the slot whenever you run up against a good offense (Michigan State last year). OSU is also playing quarters for the most part, and when they're not they're putting a lot of pressure on a single high safety.
This trend comes from the NFL, where passing offenses were more advanced and you could unearth a freak of nature more often at safety. Chris Brown on quarters:
At first glance, Cover 4 looks like an anti-pass “prevent” formation, with four secondary defenders playing deep. But therein lies its magic. The four defenders are actually playing a matchup zone concept, in which the safety reads the tight end or inside receiver. If an offensive player lined up inside releases on a short pass route or doesn’t release into the route, the safety can help double-team the outside receiver. If the inside receiver breaks straight downfield, it becomes more like man coverage. This variance keeps quarterbacks guessing and prevents defenses from being exploited by common pass plays like four verticals, which killed eight-man fronts. The real key to Cover 4, however, is that against the run both safeties become rush defenders (remember, the outside cornerbacks play deep). This allows defenses to play nine men in the box against the run — a hat-tip to the 46’s overwhelming force.
The problem college teams often face is what happens when that man coverage from a vertical receiver comes from the offense's best WR against your third-best cover guy: the touchdowns linked above.
In a spread-oriented world, a safety has to be a corner and a linebacker at the same time. This is very hard, and modern offenses are targeting them more than anyone else for their big plays. After decades in which cornerbacks were the glamor players in any given secondary, the way many teams are playing and the shortcomings against slot receivers exposed this year demands a new, crazy athlete safety, even at the college level.
That's Peppers. If Michigan is set on quarters coverage, he's a guy who can sit over that "slot" receiver and not give up a major athleticism mismatch.
I know Hoke said they spent the bye week on Michigan's "identity," by which we're pretty sure he meant scrapping any semblance of sense again in favor of slamming fullbacks into people and praying for the turnover fairy to stop hating us. But for those people actually interested in how to defeat Michigan State's lauded/loathed defense, it appears to be vulnerable when you spread 'em out and test them deep.
You should remember how their thing works. The defensive backs read the inside (#2) receiver; if that guy goes vertical the DBs play cover 4; if that guy goes horizontal they play Cover 2.
We shall have to *press* our *quarters*. Ha ha! do you smoke the pun dear Maturin?
We've been talking about how Michigan State's defense worked and how Michigan's this year and in the future could be using that as a model. I've brought up how the 4-3 over works, but the genius of Dantonio's defense is really in how he does coverage. Since it seems this is what Michigan will be doing, I thought a lay understanding of it wouldn't go amiss just now.
Coaches, you can offer corrections or tune out because this is going to be a little more basic. Spartans, try not to be too offended at the butchery I make of your wonderful defense. You are truly our state's top program and in no way does continuing to whine about a statement a 21-year-old made in 2007 make you petty.
Now let's go to the alignment above. We're looking at a 4-3 over; the defensive line is shifted to the "strong" side (technically Michigan's offense is balanced but the side with the two TEs is strong. Also that's the field side). We're also looking at a defense that is really creeping up. The safeties are 7 and 8 yards off the line of scrimmage, the linebackers are 4 yards off, and the cornerback at the bottom of your screen is in press. The variant on the 4-3 over is the defensive ends spread out (the SDE is in a wide-9 tech, the WDE completely outside the RT's shoulder), and the linebackers group in closer to compensate.
This is "aggressive." The guys apparently in charge of the deep part of the field are further off the line of scrimmage than the running back. There's a mismatch on your right, where a cornerback is matched against a tight end (Butt), but that hardly matters since any run is going right into a pile of bodies.
Cover 2 and Cover 2 Man
Getting up and bothersome to any receivers near the line of scrimmage has big benefits. The receiver will have a hard time getting into his route, throwing off the timing of the play and ensuring the offense gets nothing cheap like a quick out or in. A good press corner will prevent his receiver from getting into an easy route like a slant (the old fashioned man-coverage beating route). The danger of this is the press doesn't work all the time and then you've got a receiver accelerating downfield past a cornerback who's facing the wrong way. For this reason press teams would leave the safeties back to help. It ends up functionally not that different from Cover 2.
Of course that has a downside as well. While each receiver has 1.5 guys occupied with him, you've got the safeties and outside linebackers chasing the passing game instead of manning the run gaps. Defensive rule numero uno is don't be easy to run on.
A very popular alternative these days is Quarters. The link will explain further but simply put, with quarters coverage the cornerbacks and safeties have option routes depending on what the receivers do. They watch the inside guy (in a stack it's the back guy). If he goes vertical the safety has him; if he goes into the flat, the cornerback does and the safety plays Cover 2.
Watch this gif from the above link until you get a feel; the left side is the #2 receiver going vertical and the right side is him going into the flat.
"Going vertical" as I learned it, is the receiver going 8 or more yards downfield before making a turn. This is a strong coverage technique to cover the outside and downfield stuff the receivers will do, and leaves the linebackers available to cover short Cov 2 routes and react to the run. It's very base; the best way to beat it is to have your running game outmatch their front seven. The safeties are able to stand back and read, so like Cov 2 they're available to cut down whatever made it through. That's good enough for Virginia Tech, who's been running Quarters and been solid against the run for a decade and a half. But it wasn't good enough for Dantonio.
Very Aggressive Quarters
You may have already smoked out the difference between Michigan State's alignment against Michigan and the Cover 4 look that quarters starts out in. You've got that cornerback pressing a guy, for one. And the other thing: if the coverage is waiting until the inside guy is 8 yards downfield to be sure of their decision, and the safeties are standing 7 yards off the line of scrimmage, aren't they setting themselves up for one of those "hey maybe I oughtta be chasing this guy who just ran by me." things?
State will pack their guys in the box so linebackers and safeties are right there to stop the run. The linebackers squeeze laterally into the box, so the coverage is strongest inside (knowing this, offenses don't typically expect to find open guys there, leaving those LBs free to run Narduzzi's favorite Double-A gaps blitz).
That makes them very stout against the run, but should have a weakness tradeoff against outside passes. If the #2 receiver goes vertical the safety has to turn and go with him, meaning there's zero help for the cornerback.
State's answer to that: "So what!" This is where stretching the boundaries of pass interference comes into play, because the cornerback's job is to grab anything, pay off anybody, or sacrifice however many livestock and virgins it takes to keep that receiver from getting downfield.
Here's where Dantonio's program development comes into play, because it takes a long time for cornerbacks to get to the point where their press will work often enough that the quarterback stops expecting that guy to be open. Also they have to be ready for what coaches will do to screw with them.
It's also where finding good players comes into play. You can't get away with this if you have crappy Indiana safeties. There's tremendous strain put on the defensive backs to play up and still cover deep; if they can't handle it (and the offense has any kind of downfield passing ability) the jig is up.
In the defense's favor: in the college game, especially the game today where Tom Brady wannabes are less common than Denard Robinson wannabes (i.e. guys who are running threats but hardly devastatingly accurate deep passers), an offense that can rip you over the top is a rare cove indeed. The talent-depleted Big Ten has been short on defense-stretching receivers; a good 40% of Big Ten wideouts who'd pose a major threat to this scheme play for Maryland. Braxton Miller has a lot going for him but he tends to sail such passes over his open guys' heads. Devin Gardner, especially a beat up Devin Gardner, has a tendency to underthrow, turning open receivers into a game of Five-Hundred. Hackenberg might have success but his best targets are tight ends; Sudfeld has a similar problem now that his slot dude is the last man standing. And omigod can you just imagine what happens when this thing meets Gary Nova? "Like a Wrecking Ball" don't enter into it!
Last year Borges tried to screw with the Quarters reads by making it unclear who's the #1 or #2 receiver to that side, either with stacks or putting 3 receivers to the same side or like this (watch the WRs at the top of the screen):
Michigan ran just a two-man route, motioning the outside receiver into the inside receiver. Ultimately Funchess leapt a million feet in the air to beat Drummond to the outside, but look how seamlessly the Spartan defensive backs executed this and made it hard.
A novice might have a hard time with who's 1 or 2, but not a 5th year senior. Dantonio built his program, like Wisconsin's, on retention. He'll hold onto guys for three or four years usually before they see the field (or else the kids have to beat out the upperclassmen). It also makes those elders kind of crucial because the depth chart carries a lot of pressmen in training.
So for the first few seconds of the play, it's kind of Cov 2 man with everybody so bunched near the line of scrimmage that the run game will be right there and obvious, and thus easy to stop. Then quarters rules take over. And it can't be cracked wide open because pass interference isn't likely to be called unless you're playing at Notre Dame.
Can Michigan do this? Actually it's probably the best thing for the defensive personnel the coaches have collected, since the one thing we seem to have a glut of is really good cornerbacks, and more in development.
Trying a new series on the blog this year, kinda like picture pages but more focused on base concepts in Michigan's offense and defense, and how the skill level and talent of our players and our opponents' interact with that. If you're like "yeah, that's Picture Pages" well, yeah, sometimes, except usually PP is about showing you something specific while I'm really trying to show how all of these mad football skillz we talk about in recruiting translate into plays with a big outcome on the game. Since I'm still pretty new at this stuff I strongly appreciate criticism and comments. Anyway this week's play:
A very slow-developing play-action where Gardner is either very lazily getting into his drop or else doing a very good acting job of a lazy quarterback who handed it off already and is just going through the motions. Because Michigan was up 38-6 and Central's front seven were getting so pwned the safeties were being forced to sell out against the run, a play-action deep pass was so set up you can hear the announcers literally wondering aloud at the snap when it would come. Or should have been. Was it? On the fourth play of the drive (following a waggle, an Iso and a zone stretch), it comes.