H4: That One Run Play That Worked Comment Count

Seth April 7th, 2015 at 10:37 AM

Remember that one run that maize Michigan had against blue Michigan? It'll come to you: it was the one when the offense gained yards by running the ball. I mean forward yards, not the sideways stretch things. You know the one on the very first snap of the Spring Game that Ace giffed:

There wasn't much else from the Spring Game to pull out so I thought it would be fun to pick this one apart as a very vanilla example of Harbaugh's Power offense, and Durkin's gap-attacking with speed defense, and where various players are in it.

I also disagree with Brian on what caused this to happen. He gave RJS credit for fighting A.J. Williams to a draw and blamed Desmond Morgan for biting the running back's initial outside cut. Those things happened, but in the context of Durkin's defense I think Jenkins-Stone is mostly at fault for not being aggressive enough. In 4-3 world a tie is a loss.

What the offense was thinking. Here's the design:


This is Power O, the most base play of Harbaughffense, from a base formation for running it. The first play of the game, there was nothing tricky about it—the offense lined up where they snapped except (off camera) Chesson went in motion. You may remember this play from such offenses as Stanford under Harbaugh, and what Borges and Hoke wanted to run with two years of eligibility left on Denard Robinson. Well-defended it ends however far down the field the offense's bodies managed to move the defense's bodies. This wasn't well defended, as we shall see after…

[The Jump]

What the defense was thinking. They aligned in a shell I think of as 4-2-5. There are teams that run a 4-2-5 as their base, using the 4-3's gap-attacking method but applying the 3-3-5's multiple hybrid space players in the slots.


Welcome to D.J. Durkin's World of Weird formations. The line is playing straight-up 4-3 over, except you have #52 Royce Jenkins-Stone as the strongside defensive end. The linebackers are shifted as they would be in the under, putting #12 Alan Gant (the SAM) on a wing in the flat, and walking down the free safety, #25 Dymonte Thomas, as an edge threat to the backside. This is an aggressive-ish defensive formation but fairly ideal for a Cover 1 or a Cover 3—both the SAM and the FS are safety-linebacker hybrids and are playing in their respective flats.

But the offense has no kinds of slot threats here. The Y-tight end is #84 A.J. Williams, and the fullback is #37 Bobby Henderson, a blocking-only walk-on. The defense ought to be able to key a power run and shut it down. Specifically, you would like RJS to use his linebacker speed to attack that C (between the LT and TE) gap and maybe eat the fullback (if it's an ISO) or the pulling guard (if it's Power).

The defense's plan is to have #69 Willie Henry work into the A-gap and hopefully delay the LT in the process, getting a two-for-one and leaving the MLB, #48 Desmond Morgan, to both cover the B-gap, or if the LT and LG don't separate, to be in the hole behind them to help RJS, or if the FB is flaring take an outside lane. Gant is supposed to get upfield and keep the edge.

The WLB, #66 Dan Liesman, immediately reads the guard's pull and will be responsible for neutralizing the advantage the offense gained on that. Let's see how that works.


We're now one beat into the play. The right guard, #67 Kyle Kalis is pulling, and Liesman is going with him. Everyone but RJS is getting into their gaps—NT #96 Ryan Glasgow can't work to playside just yet, but soon enough Thomas will show to the backside and Glasgow will try to flow. This is long enough for the center, #57 Patrick Kugler, to seal him.

Morgan is already spotting a potential situation though. He's supposed to have the "B" gap that's between the LT #52 Mason Cole and LT #62 Blake Bars right then, but he's also seeing the fullback's flare toward the SAM; there's going to be an extra lane outside. He can't shoot up into Cole either because if it's play-action he's dead.

He also sees RJS has gotten no better than a stalemate with Williams. In the thinking of 3-4 this is fine—a DE controlling a blocker allows the LB to flow to either gap. In 4-3 thinking this isn't so good, since RJS is responsible for the "C" gap, Morgan has the "B" gap, and they should both be attacking those to penetrate upfield so the ball can't get to the outside (where it's fullback and running back vs. Gant).

With Jenkins-Stone basically two-gapping instead of 4-3 attacking, Morgan will start to play a little 3-4 style linebacker here, and that's the beginning of bad things for the defense.

Key Blocks

One beat later the offense has used up the initiative and soon will be committed to a single gap. The running back is already moving his feet before the handoff in anticipation of where he'll attack. This is when good RB decisions are made.


Meanwhile this frame does a great job of showing how every incremental difference in the execution of the OL's blocks versus the execution of the gap-attacking DL can make or break a play. See R.Glasgow trying to burrow up into Kugler? A great NT, or a good one against a light center, can blow up the pull—getting a two-for-one—by squeezing down the space the puller has to get by. If Kugler's pushed half a yard further back, his legs are in Kalis's way, and the pull has to widen, therefore arriving later to the hole with less momentum.

Here he has just enough space and agility to get by. Once Kugler's won that mini-battle, he will be fighting to keep Glasgow from flowing down the line, and he's getting in good position to do so. The fullback is still stalking the SAM, hoping to create a gap out there. Williams is still fighting RJS from getting to his gap.

Cole is lurching a bit, having won the battle too easily with Henry (who was always going for the A-gap). This is a good time to have great balance for an OL, because the sooner Cole is back on his feet the sooner he can start picking off second level defenders. If you recall, one of the complaints last year was Braden would often find himself leaning too far forward and would fall down rather than make a block once the defender he moved has moved on. Mason Cole is the opposite: he's athletic enough with those freakish hips and tush to swing his right leg way out without his shoulders coming unsquared from his next blocking target. He's already eyeing Liesman, the WLB dutifully following the pulling guard. I'd imagine he'd have a harder time with Bolden or Ross shooting into the gap, but this is still boss. Mason Cole is boss.

Lastly, see what Smith is thinking. Shooting into that hole could get you three or four fall-forward yards, maybe more if the linebacker's the type you can run over. But that wastes the puller, and the linebacker could just stuff him. If Smith has matured in this offense he'll know that MLB has to worry about the outside and can get tricksome.

In half a beat it looks like this:


Cole is good—he's off his block and widening and big enough that the WLB's best shot won't push the hole any thinner. The FB is also creating space, enough space in fact that Smith's cut to the outside, immediately read by the MLB who's watching the handoff so he can react, is going to draw Morgan to a "D" gap that wasn't there before.


And now the bad thing that was going to happen to the defense occurs: Morgan sets up behind Willliams to play the gap it seems Smith was going for, but Smith is good and one step later he's back to accelerating into the "C" gap.


This remember is supposed to be RJS's gap, but RJS is still tied up with A.J. Williams, and while having that occur a tiny bit in the backfield was a good thing for squeezing these gaps, if Bolden is going to the "D" gap Jenkins-Stone really needs to control the other side of Williams right now. Because the RB is cutting in there, and the puller is arriving there. Can RJS get back on the right side of his block before…


Nope. In fact Williams gets a win by controlling that inside shoulder so RJS can't even dive for the ballcarrier. We can only fault him so much; he was a linebacker a few months ago and is head-to-head on a 300-pound tight end.

The Result

Anyway Kalis decides to use his block to answer the Morgan question for good. Smith is crossing the line of scrimmage and will get 6 to 8 yards depending on what happens with that filling safety (Wilson). Except someone else has now come into our picture.


It's #86 Jehu Chesson! The Z receiver, he has arrived from all the way from the numbers to harass Wilson's tackle attempt! How did he get so free? Who on the defense was supposed to be there? Where's…


…Countess, who backed off when Chesson went in motion, then attacked the gap Morgan had taken when Blake thought Chesson would be cracking the SAM. In the other (first) angle in the video you can see Chesson first went like he was going to crack the SAM inside, though that was the fullback's block. If that happens Countess has to control the resulting outside gap and force back to help. So Countess comes up, Chesson moves on, and now the defense has lost its edge too. Twenty-five more yards ensue.


About the motion

By having the Z receiver (Chesson) come in like the maize team got itself an extra blocker, and occupied Gant a little longer since the receiver would be starting a pass route into the slot. That little movement can set up a bunch of counters to this base play, for example a Z drag route with a boot roll, or have both Chesson and Williams go vertical to stretch the SAM's zone. It also sets up a reverse.


…or a bubble screen, or the good ol' fashioned Transcontinental play that Lloyd brought back this weekend, plus the other trick play.


This isn't about Harbaugh doing anything scheme-wise except the defense was not cheating to the playside despite all the power there, a sign that it respects the likelihood of an attack on the backside.

The big things that made this play:

  1. Cole's two very good blocks,
  2. RJS is a linebacker trying to do 5-tech things, and the play went right at his hole.
  3. Morgan had a chance to play hero but got caught outside because DeVeon Smith decided before the handoff he was going to sell the "D" gap then go inside.
  4. Countess attacked the same gap as Morgan, getting out of position too late to close down or negate Chesson as a blocker

Also Kalis had a decent pull that took some agility to get around Kugler. The first thing above is encouraging and the Smith move was as well, but I think mostly this play was Hargbaugh's most vanilla play run over a soft point in the defense. This was not exploited again as the defense got more aggressive at attacking their gaps.

Distilled into Coachspeak

We'd like the frontside end (Jenkins-Stone) to get more aggressive.


Space Coyote

April 7th, 2015 at 11:03 AM ^

The major reason to motion Chesson is two plays you saw later in the game from the Maize team: G Lead (or T Lead) and the Power O Boot where the WR comes under the formation to catch the ball in the flat.

The motion from Chesson threatens to crack the SAM and seal him inside. Because of that, Countess is responsible for "exchanging" gap assignments with Gant. This is termed "crack exchange". In the event that the WR cracks down, Countess is responsible as the force player to force the play back inside to help. Here, Chesson has no intention of doing anything to Gant other than feigning the crack block. This forces Countess up, forces the SAM to respect blocks to come from two locations (something DTs are constantly battling, OLBs much less so) and doesn't allow Gant to squeeze or wrong arm the FB to constrict the D gap (in the event of an outside run, he'd only be taking himself out of the play). Chesson's intention the entire way is a 2nd or 3rd level block though.

The boot that comes off of this look is the one where Thomas made a tackle in the flat, for those looking for that play. It's a key component in Harbaugh's offense. The reverse is a threat, but that's not the real constraint on this play. The motion is more or less constraining both the SAM and the EMOL on the weakside of the formation (along with preventing the WILL from flowing over the top freely).


April 7th, 2015 at 1:11 PM ^

Credit where credit's due, Countess AND Gant respect the feint from Chesson because he's a good blocking WR.  If, say, Funchess (who, all due credit as our #1 receiver last year never was a good blocker) had made the same motion, odds are Gant (who hesitates in anticipation of Chesson's block) figures he doesn't need to worry about it and just attacks Henderson, as a result there's no D gap, and Morgan (with just one gap to worry about now) maybe even beats Kalis & Smith to the C gap.  And even if doesn't, no way a non-blocking receiver ties up two DBs so either Coutness or Wilson would be there to fill.

If Morgan or Henry had blown up the play then Chesson's effort is all for naught, but his ability to sell a block stems from his known willingness and ability to do so.  Runs of 10+ yards often can't happen without something like this, and when the running game can torch a defense for long runs instead of merely "safe" yards (3YAACOD), it's a really crappy day to be a safety.  I wish the passy-catchy part of Chesson's game would blossom because while I never envision him as a game-changing, field-stretching #1, if he can establish himself as a reliable downfield threat he's exactly the sort of space player any OC should love to have.


April 7th, 2015 at 10:59 AM ^

So Chesson continues to be a smart and great blocking WR and Smith shows the wits, patience and vision to exploit good blocking for a big gain. That is excellent. I think had the playbook been more open there would have been a few more gains like this.

Shop Smart Sho…

April 7th, 2015 at 11:04 AM ^

Not all of us have the have the numbers of the players memorized.  When you use the numbers in the diagrams, could you put their number (##) in after their name when mentioning them in write up?


April 7th, 2015 at 11:39 AM ^

Your premise that only a run of this many yards was basically the only effective run (if I am correct) seems superficial.  Watched this game again almost entirely with my eye on the defense but I say a fair, heck, good number of runs that were 3 , 4, and up to 9 yards and there were some penalties too that called things back.

I hope you aren't saying that a run is only good if it is long... I'll take 3 yards a run every time all the way to the national championship.


April 7th, 2015 at 12:02 PM ^

I'm not positive the "H4" tag is really adding anything here...  I don't have a better recommendation, I jsut don't think it's doing anything for you right now.


April 7th, 2015 at 2:07 PM ^

Yeah, remind me again what H4 even stands for? If I check this site 5+ times per day and can't remember, how is the casual reader ever supposed to catch up? I'm sure that over time, a clever inside joke akin to "Hokepoints" will present itself. Until then, no need to force it. "Breakdown" or "Technical Dossier" or something not necessarily hilarious, but usefully descriptive, seems like a better title for this series.

Title-snark aside, this was an excellent article. Thanks!


April 7th, 2015 at 12:18 PM ^

RJS has to work across TE's face to constrict the inside lane. Because he doesn't, the back has two lanes to pick from and Morgan has to deal with both.

The other LB also has to not get sealed in there by the LT. Part of it is his fault, the other part is on the DL getting doubled. He has to fight through the double, delaying the LT in getting to the 2nd level. Think UM OL in 2013 - they often failed to secure the first level defender and never got to the second level. If we are going to have a good DL, and I think we will, they will have to take on doubles better.

NOLA Wolverine

April 7th, 2015 at 12:19 PM ^

Really hope they can get Wilson to be a little bit more physical than just trying to give the ball a slap. We need good to great run support from our safeties if we're going to slow Ohio State down. 

steve sharik

April 7th, 2015 at 2:09 PM ^

First, this is Classic G defense, except:

  • it looks like Cover 1 instead of the Washington/Va. Tech Robber coverage, and
  • with 3-4 personnel, using RJS as a hybrid DE/LB and in this case playing the 7-tech SDE
  • WDE is in a 4i technique (inside shade of OT)

Morgan is correct, as he is responsible for D gap and to get his heels 1 yd. behind the LOS on run to his side.  There is no angle weak as Seth has suggested; RJS is responsible for C gap, but is used to LB technique where you shoot your hands to the blocker and discard to get to the ball.  He needs to play the C gap first.

Here's the offense's (we spell ours with an "s" #murca) blocking scheme:


Image and video hosting by TinyPic

And what the D should be doing to defend it: Image and video hosting by TinyPicThe keys are:

  • 3-tech must command the double team, freeing the MIKE.
  • MIKE keys guard for cross-pull, makes "PULL!" call and runs the crease (A or B gap, where the hole has been created.
  • Backer (B) must be heels in D gap on LOS (initiated by "pull" call from MIKE)
  • Corner must "crack and replace," meaning that with the flanker crackback, the corner replaces the defender being cracked
  • Rover (R) must force ball back inside--he must meet the FB 1 yd behind the LOS and as tight to the box as possible.  If TB bounces, escape and tackle.
  • Nose keys a pull and expects back block by the center.  Fight pressure and constrict the hole.
  • WDE plays weakside C, constrict and pursue.
  • Wolf (W) executes a "fold" technique, shuffling toward play, securing gaps visaully until ball declares, then pursue.
  • Free safety fronts the ball.
  • Weakside Corner is the TD saver, pursuing for the opposite corner goal-line, but being careful not to allow a big cutback run; i.e. stay behind the football as you take your pursuit angle.

This should've been a dead play, with two unblocked defenders (playside corner and MIKE) unblocked in the box.  Even if the D concedes the combo of the OT/OG (which would never happen from a D perspective but would from an O perspective), the corner is unblocked and there should be 1-2 free hitters, one outside the ball and one inside it.

The reason the play broke was because:

  • RJS wasn't in his gap
  • The 3-tech did an absolutely terrible job on this play allowing the OT a free run at the MIKE.  The 3-tech's footwork on his get off probably got him yelled at in film review.  Dreadful.
  • Countess was late and too wide on his assignment.  His fit is b/w the Rover and Backer.  As a result, he was unable to make the tackle and it went from a 5-7 yard gain to a 35 yard gain.

Again, the offensive geniuses (no sarcasm) can do whatever they want in order to think they have a numbers advantage at the point of attack, but the simple truth is that when the QB turns and hands it off to a runner, there's now 11 defensive players attacking 9 blockers.  In other words, if everyone on both sides executes, the defense should win by simple arithmetic.  

This is why I like option football--it allows the offense to play 11 on 11.  And spread allows the offense to remove defenders from the box.

The only pro-style teams to win the national title in the BCS era were simply loaded with NFL talent (SEC teams and USC--recruiting issues, anyone?).  This, in my opinion, is the key to the ability for the Jim Harbaugh era to be a perennial playoff contender.


April 9th, 2015 at 1:10 AM ^

THanks so much Sharik!

I gotta start running these by you again before I post. At least I'm learning--you're hard on Henry and I see why but from an offense perspective I thought Cole made a good play by exploding off the line and hitting Henry before Willie and Blake have even made contact with each other. Is there a technique that can stop a tackle with that much get-off from blasting you down?


April 7th, 2015 at 12:45 PM ^

This was well layed out explanation as I followed about 90% of what you stated. The maps and visuals help a lot. It will be interesting to see the starting 5 OL next year work in unison. They are going to have to be a strength as the skill positions get set.


April 7th, 2015 at 2:10 PM ^

Another thing this analysis brings home to me: It's a little frustrating that out of our current stable of RBs, the one who seems to have the best instincts, balance, toughness, and vision -- Deveon Smith -- is also the one with the least speed, quickness, and burst. (I'm withholding judgment on Ty Isaac b/c I haven't seen him enough yet.) If you could put those qualities of Smith's in Green or Isaac's body, that would be a dangerous back. But Smith's pretty good, when you also consider his ability to keep getting positive yards after contact. He's not going to bust any 70-yard TDs, but if the guys up front get the job done, he can be a very nice Chris-Howard style back for us.


April 7th, 2015 at 7:36 PM ^

The thing that Harbaugh's offense does best, when clicking on all cylinders, is force the defens to be perfect with all of their responsibilities. On this play the 3tech and RJS botch their assignments and it allows for a huge play. The 3tech needs to do a better job of occupying two offensive lineman. RJS just flat out missed his gap responsibility.

I do hope that Harbaugh incorporates some spread not this offense because the spread allows for you to truly play man on man 11 v 11, while the pro style, after a handoff becomes 9 v 11, giving a defense that is fundamentally sound an advantage at the point of attack. Harbaugh is very smart and even if he is fain a stern defense, he will still set up big plays and wear you down.

I'm just glad this team has the better part of 5 months to get better bc the spring game was an offensive shit show which is something all of us are unfortunately used to.


April 8th, 2015 at 4:39 AM ^


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