Mailbag: Safety Strategy, Double Banner, Shotgun For Real, Mancrushes Comment Count

Brian September 22nd, 2011 at 4:44 PM


Zach Banner! Safeties!

Are coaches too conservative on the goal line? This was something I wondered on Monday. The Mathlete did some research into it. Survey says:

This one was a bit surprising to me as I dug in. Turns out coaches call this one about right. Existing playcalling from the 1 is worth on average +.10 in expected value. Going to a base playcalling set reduces that slightly to +.06. The difference is entirely in the magnified value of lost yardage. The 2 point loss weights negative yardage plays so strongly that the 11.2% of plays for loss on normal downs drive the value too low compared to the 2.1% of plays that go for a loss from the 1. I think the bigger takeaway is once you get a couple yards away from the 1. Once you have a little bit of space you might as well open it up but at the 1 or 2 you do have to be very careful.

All that being said, the numbers are fairly close and depending on score and time opening it up, even from the 1 could be a good decision.

In this instance, the conventional wisdom seems to be right. The next time your coach calls for a two-yard dive on first and goal ten from the one, grit your teeth and know it's the percentage play.

Let's wonder about Zach Banner playing everything for us.

Hi Brian,

It seems that Zach Banner really enjoyed his visit, so why not get ahead of myself and assume for a minute he's going to go Blue... If that happens, and if he wants to play hoops as well, how does that affect our basketball scholarship situation? Would that fill the last spot that we are praying is filled by Mitch McGary?  (I would assume that a 2 sport scholarship player counts as a scholarship against both sports, doesn't it? If not, why wouldn't schools start over-signing and stashing players on the water polo team.)


Anyone who plays football counts for football if they are on scholarship. Banner would be a walk-on for basketball, as a few MSU football players have been in the recent past. You can keep up your dual Banner/McGary fantasies. Yeah… that's the stuff.

Mancrushes of the author.

Hey Brian,

With all the talk about best games for the under thirty-two crowd (i'm 31), I started thinking about a ranking of players that the under thirty two crowd adores.  Your MANCRUSH with Denard led me to think that he's one.  But who are the rest of your top five?  Hart?  Graham? Woodley?


It's hard to tell with Denard's career barely more than a third completed, but it's equally hard to deny that he's #1 with a bullet right now. Strictly in terms of the amount of EEEEEE I would feel if put in a room with a current or former Michigan football player and was expected to interact with them:

  1. Denard. Obvious.
  2. Brandon Graham. Essentially Denard as a world-crushing defensive end. The combination of his performance, the defense he was on making that performance more difficult, and his ability to work through all the crap he had to deal with during the transition makes him an easy #2.
  3. Mike Hart. Equally obvious.
  4. David Harris. He looked like Worf and played like Worf. I have a special affection for him because I was very high on him in the UFRs and his pro career has borne that out.
  5. David Molk. Also I guy I loved very early, and then he drops f-bombs and says things like he'll "try to be nicer to the media" and is perfectly blunt.

The thing about a list like this is I want to extend it to a top 25 because hey, I left out Charles Freakin' Woodson. It's apparent that the guys I've reviewed every play of are higher up on my list.

Hello Brian,

On your podcast, you said that Denard is a pretty accurate quarterback. I have a suspicion that might be wrong.

As I think you've astutely pointed out, Denard racked up completions to wide open receivers because of his running ability. This likely props up his completion percentages without requiring him to be all that accurate. I distinctly remember last year's Michigan State UFR, for example. You made a comment about Denard's difficulty fitting the ball into tighter spaces.
This just might just be my lexical confusion about 'accuracy.' In any case, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.


This was discussed in the first couple offensive UFR and I agree to some extent. Denard was helped by a lot of screens, short throws, and blitheringly wide open seams. His major issue last year was missing wide receivers by miles; his major issue thus far has been missing wide receivers by miles, and a lot of his completions have been on deep punt-type things where underthrowing the guy is a good strategy but not a particularly difficult one.

That said, he at least seemed more accurate last year. Was that because he was rarely throwing in to tight coverage? That's probably some of it. If Denard's in a favorable down and distance and Michigan runs convincing play action his INT against EMU is a first down because there's no defensive back to intercept; I mark the exact same throw CA.

All the more reason to go back to the Denard or die offense.

Roh + Black plz

Hi Brian,

I was wondering what is so different about the responsibilities of the 2 defensive end spots in this defense that we cannot play Roh and Black at the same time?

In most defenses that I'm familiar with the two DE spots are relatively interchangeable. My limited understanding is that you generally want the better run defender on the strong side because teams often run that way because they have an extra blocker, and you generally want your faster, quicker, pass rusher on the weakside to make it easier to sack the QB.
Besides those minor differences, I don't understand what is so gravely different about the 2 positions in our defense that we wouldn't want our 2 best DEs (Roh and Black, counting Van Bergen as a DT) in the game at the same time?

I suppose that if Will Campbell man's up and takes over at DT, and we slide Van Vergen back out to DE, this question is moot, but I still would like to better understand the major differences between the two positions.

Thanks for clearing this up,

In a 4-3 even the two DE spots are relatively interchangeable. In a 4-3 under they're significantly different.

The strongside defensive end:

  • is essentially alone next to the strongside G and T
  • takes a lot of doubles
  • has to hold up
  • doesn't get many opportunities to get a speed rush off the edge
  • is kind of a defensive tackle but not quite unless you've got a really good one

The weakside defensive end:

  • almost always gets single blocking
  • rarely, if ever, gets doubled
  • can speed rush all day on passing plays
  • often drops into short zones on zone blitzes
  • is kind of a linebacker sometimes

There are players who are great at both of these. Brandon Graham flipped back and forth and was still Brandon Graham. But in general they are meaningfully different players.

HOWEVA, as mentioned in the defensive UFR I'm advocating both of those guys on the field at the same time, especially against spread formations where the relative lack of bulk won't be too killer. Someone's playing out of position on this line and maybe it's time to try an extremely slanty DL featuring no real anchor but four fast guys (or three fast guys and average Ryan Van Bergen) who can one-gap into the backfield all day. It's not ideal; it's still worth a shot.


Denard / Tom Brady, first and goal from the two: shotgun

I have a different conventional wisdom.

Hi Brian,

Assuming perfect execution and the right personnel, why is it widely accepted that operating from under center is superior to the shotgun?  Are the physics such that the extra downfield head start of 2 yards for a RB that much more effective in a running game as a base set (with shotgun draw type plays serving as the offbeat counterpoint)?  What about from a passing perspective?  I would think that the shotgun allows the QB (any QB) to see the field better at the outset of the does it all come back to the running game?

Posed another way, given <insert current top tier NFL QB>, why is under-center better than shotgun?  I'm trying to remove Denard from the argument to get a sense of what we'll be trying to do with Gardner/Morris/et al.

Hope this question makes sense - would appreciate any thoughts (or links to others' thoughts) you've got.

Go Blue!


I think it may be accepted, but that acceptance seems to be shifting in the NFL. For one, see Tom Brady. The league is just now dealing with the injury faking brought on by no-huddle spreads. Shotgun plays are generally more efficient than plays under center even there, though the main reason there is passing, not running.

I mentioned this on the podcast, but the NFL scouts' constant whining about the spread killing the footwork of college QBs has always seemed like a selling point for the shotgun. If footwork is so important and so deficient in a spread option system that seems like a lot of time spent working on something else. This goes both for little ninjas like Denard and artillery pieces like Ryan Mallett, who spent no time under center in high school and couldn't even take a snap half the time as a freshman in college. If footwork is really hard, stop doing footwork. Just start where you're going to be.

This thinking is now becoming popular since a bunch of spread QBs have been instantly successful. Don Banks:

"People have kind of gotten away from the stereotypical thinking we used to see about the spread. I remember when [Florida State's Heisman winner] Charlie Ward came out and they said, 'Oh, he plays in the shotgun.' There were all these different reasons why he couldn't succeed, and it just baffled me. I said 'Do you see what the guy is doing? He's making plays to win games. He's making decisions, he's throwing the ball, he's on target, he's moving away from the rush, all the things you have to do in the NFL. Taking a snap from the center is the easiest thing to learn, all those other things are hard. But I think we've kind of gotten away from that kind of thinking, and we're looking at what these guys do positively. They can make decisions, they can throw on the move, and they can get out of the pocket. So you say, OK, let me build off of what their strengths are.''

Spread zealotry is catching. This, from Football Outsiders, was written four years ago:

Over the past three seasons, offenses have averaged 5.9 yards per play from Shotgun, but just 5.1 yards per play with the quarterback under center. This wide split exists even if you analyze the data to try to weed out biases like teams using Shotgun more often on third-and-long, or against prevent defenses in the fourth quarter. Shotgun offense is more efficient if you only look at the first half, on every down, and even if you only look at running back carries rather than passes and scrambles.

Clearly, NFL teams have figured the importance of the Shotgun out for themselves. Over the past four seasons, the average team has gone from using Shotgun 19 percent of the time to 36 percent of the time, not even counting the Wildcat and other college-style option plays that have become popular in recent years. Before 2007, no team had ever used Shotgun on more than half its offensive plays. In the past two seasons, five different teams have used Shotgun over half the time. It is likely that if teams continue to increase their usage of the Shotgun, defenses will adapt and the benefit of the formation will become less pronounced.

Under center has a few advantages: it does not tip plays based on the position of the running back (unless you're shuffling the fullback argh). The tailback can run north and south more easily. If you do not have a running quarterback it is hard to get safeties to massively misplay play action based on a shotgun running game. And that's all I've got.

So… the answer to your question is "people have not caught up with the new reality."



September 22nd, 2011 at 5:02 PM ^

Speaking as a member of the "over 32" crowd, below are the five Wolverines that I "grew up" with and would most like to meet:

1.  Denard Robinson - obvious reasons

2.  Desmond Howard - obvious reasons

3.  Charles Woodson - obvious reasons

4.  Drew Henson - his story is very interesting

5.  Daydrion Taylor (the kid that was paralyzed at Penn State - I'd like to know how he dealt with the injury and about his life after football

Hart doesn't interest me as much as it seems that his outspoken-ness reveals most of his personality.  There are lots of defenders that I'd like to have a chat with but the above supersede each of them.  The only one I really want on that list is Tyrone Wheatley but there's no space for him in the Top 5.


September 22nd, 2011 at 9:36 PM ^

As a greying member the over 32 crowd myself I find your inclusion of Drew Henson a little weird with so many great and interesting players to pick from. I never had a crazy hatred for him like some nut poster on TWIS, but he essentially chose the Yankees over Michigan and helped cause a major shift in the program's course of history (think of Navarre's day in the 2001 OSU loss, Tressel's 'guaranteed' first win). I suppose it would be interesting to get the inside scoop of how everything went down, but that was a pretty controversial and difficult choice and I think it had a big effect on the program and the second act of Carr's career. I can't think of a more devastating early exit.


September 22nd, 2011 at 11:03 PM ^

1A. Rick Leach

1B. Rob Lytle, RIP

3. Tom Brady

4. Charles Woodson

5. Dieter Heren

Leach and Lytle are the first two Michigan players I remember. They had names created for Bob Ufer to say. I thought Brady got screwed over by Lloyd Carr, and history has proven me right. Plus, he's Tom Brady. Dieter Heren was a linebacker/special teams player. My brother and I would practice kicking field goals in the backyard growing up, and when he was kicking I tried to rush in and block the kick. I was always Dieter Heren in those situations.

Regarding shotgun vs. under center, I thought one of the perceived drawbacks of the shotgun was a greater chance of having a bad snap. I love me some Dave Moosman, but he would be the case in point here. However, if you run the shotgun the majority of the time and practice that snap regularly, I don't think it's any more risky.


September 22nd, 2011 at 5:12 PM ^

Actually just the 4-3 Under in general - think of it more like a 3-4 than a 4-3.

Bear with me - Just think of the WDE As a linebacker with his hand on the ground, and boom, you've got a 3-4 Defense.

 That's ND is a 3-4. Now if their closest LB (on the line, over Lewan) had his hand down...

 Boom, 4-3 Under.

In a 4-3 Under your WDE is more similar to a Rush Linebacker in a 3-4 (think Woodley) than a traditional 4-3 DE (think Peppers). In the 4-3 Under your 3-Tech DT and SDE are more similar, while your WDE and SAM are more similar (just one has a hand on the ground).


Blue boy johnson

September 22nd, 2011 at 5:31 PM ^

My pet peeve from the 1 yard line is changing the count or changing the play, and in the ensuing confusion a lineman moves and presto, you've got yourself a 5 yard penalty, resulting in 2nd and goal from the 6. Just run the damn play.

Edit: I guess I'm on the wrong end of the field, but actually it is the preferred end. Who the hell wants to run plays from your own one yard line. Your better off if you don't put yourself in the position of having the ball on your own one. My philosophy is never start inside your own 30


September 22nd, 2011 at 5:34 PM ^

Brian - curious as to what college spread QB's you're referring to as being successful in the nfl?

Spread is a very general word.  The spread offense that Oklahoma runs is vastly different from the one that RR likes to run.  Sam Bradford's been successful, but he was in a passing spread.  There's really only 3 QB's I can think of that have come from spread offenses in college where the QB was asked to run the ball a lot that have had various levels of success in the nfl:  Vick, Alex Smith and Cam Newton (so far).


September 22nd, 2011 at 7:24 PM ^

versus shotgun, not running quarterbacks versus non-runnning quarterbacks. Point is a great college QB who is still making great throws and making his reads isn't any less likely because he threw mainly out of the spread to fail in the NFL than one who was taking it from under center.

but you've got plently of guys that made the transition successfuly who ran a lot in college as well including Kordell Stewart, Elway, Young, McNabb, Cunningham, McNair, etc. . . 


September 23rd, 2011 at 10:06 AM ^

And as far as running the spread in the pros, Tom Brady has run a lot of 4 and 5 wide receiver sets out of shotgun ever since he started for the Patriots. I think a lot of this is overblown. You run what you are used to and Borges and Hoke have run a lot of under center stuff w/ full backs and tight ends in the past so that is what they would normally fall back on. But Borges has already shown an ability to adjust and Hoke seems to let Borges do what he wants.

Manball is more of an attitude than a set of plays that must be run. I think Hoke is just setting the tone. He doesn't mind if we scheme to get fast players in space. What he demands is that if we need to get 2 yards, or if we need to prevent the other team from getting 2 yards, that we can put our heads down and knock the opponent off the ball.


September 23rd, 2011 at 12:05 PM ^

I think in some of these examples you're confusing mobile QB's with guys who ran a lot.

Steve Young, 3 year starter:  7733 passings yds, 1048 rushing yds.  He barely averaged 350 yds rushing/year and I bet a lot of those were on passing plays where he scrambled.

John Elway:  3 yr starter (played a little as a freshman):  9349 passing yds, -279 rushing yds.  He averaged a whopping -90 rushing yds/ year.  Yeah, he ran a lot.

Kordel Stewart's career at Colorado:  6481 yds passing, 772 yds rushing.

Donovan McNabb, 4 yr starter:  8389 yds passing, 1561 yds rushing. 

Steve McNair, 4 yr starter:  14,496 yds passing, 2327 yds rushing.

Randall Cunningham, 2 year starter:  over 8000 yds passing, 942 yds rushing.

As I mentioned above, I think in most of these instances you assumed because they are mobile QB's, they ran a lot in college.  Other than McNair, the guys you mentioned barely averaged 350-400 yds/ rushing.  Due to their mobility, most of those yards probably came when they were scrambling and not on plays that were designed for them to run.

axel foley

September 22nd, 2011 at 6:12 PM ^

Great almost compliment.  IMO he's the most underrated guy on defense.  Plays hard.  Fundamentally sound.  Never comes off the field.  Makes plays when his number is called.

Could use a couple more average guys like that.  


September 22nd, 2011 at 6:17 PM ^

Random story about shotgun versus under center....

I live in Chicago and earlier this year they interviewed Jay Cutler on the radio about the porosity of his offensive line.  They asked him whether it would help to take more snaps from shotgun.  He laughed, and answered emphatically "no".  When they asked why, he said that they didn't understand football well enough for him to explain it to them. 

Besides the obvious douche-bag response from Cutler, this confused me.  Maybe Cutler has taken too many big hits thanks to his OL, but he seemed to think shot-gun was a bad idea.  I still don't understand why.

But to me it comes down to being able to manipulate the defense.  With our roster, there are more dangerous things we can do from shotgun.  We don't scare anyone from under center because it neuters Denard and there isn't a game breaking WR, a dynamic RB, or someone else to force the defense to adjust to.  We need a go-to play from under center that scares a defense and opens up other things.  So why not......THE OPTION?  A handful of times per game you put Shaw and his speed in and you run the variations of the option. 

Maybe it is risky and hard to teach when it isn't part of your base offense, but I think it would be electric and a way to scare teams when we line up in the I-form.


September 22nd, 2011 at 7:14 PM ^

unless Cutler doesn't think he can catch shotgun snaps. At least in the gun, he'd have a second or so to realize his line had collapsed. (Or maybe he doesn't want to take that half-second to make sure he catches the snap ... but is that really different from making sure you have an under-center snap? I honestly don't know.)

I think the option is extremely risky if you haven't practiced it a lot, and practicing (conventional) option plays takes away from practice time for the parts of the offense Borges would like to run and the parts he'll have to run for now. I mean, you're throwing the ball backward, often behind the line of scrimmage. Lots of things can happen, and many of them are bad ... particularly because they would involve giving the ball to someone not named Denard while still behind the line.


September 23rd, 2011 at 9:45 AM ^

Bill Walsh hated the shotgun because of the split second the QB must take his eyes off the linebackers in order to catch the snap.  He preferred to have his QB under center so he could read the defense continuously.  Not saying he's right, just thought it is an interesting perspective form a pretty smart coach.

Picktown GoBlue

September 22nd, 2011 at 9:55 PM ^

when the QB is under center and sacking Cutler because he doesn't know how to move around and make something happen, putting *him* in shotgun just means that the sacks will happen a second or two later as Cutler stands back there dreaming up ways to blame his admittedly weak offensive line for his likewise lackluster play.  I've been neutral on Cutler in the past, but sheesh, I'm doubting he makes it to the end of the season with the Bears, one way or the other (demoted, injured, traded again for Kyle Orton, etc.).


September 23rd, 2011 at 9:18 AM ^

My guess here with Cutler not wanting to switch to more shotgun comes down to timing.  I remember the Mike Martz offense here in Detroit was all about timing and the receivers running proper routes.  Under center Cutler will be able to stay in motion an develop a ryhthm knowing if he takes a 5 step drop then x receiver will be here, if he's covered, then y receiver will be here.

When you have a more sophisticated pro style offense, timing is more important and it helps the QB to base that timing on his dropbacks from under center.

That type of offense puts tremendous pressure on the offensive line to pass protect for 5 and 7 step drops.  The payoff is if you're timing is right, and you're players are all doing their job, you can't stop it. 


September 22nd, 2011 at 6:38 PM ^

Slanted his defensive linemen relentlessly.

This is how he got away with 210 lbs Timmy Davis and the even smaller walkon white kid who's name I can never come up with at middle guard on some of his best defenses.

There were a couple of years where Bo didn't have a defensive lineman on the field within 10-15 lbs of legendary Buckeye fullback Pete Johnson.  We had guys slanting into gaps on every play and getting into the fat boy's knees before he could get his feet moving and his pads down.  This worked out nicely on most plays as they ran the option two out of three downs (I'm exaggerating, but not much) out of what I call the Power I.

We usually caused enough pile to force Cornelius Green to bend his path slightly away coming down the line of scrimmage with Archie which gave Donny Dufek and whoever had Corny another instant to get there and hit em.

Among the idea's behind the 3-3-5 that Gerg seemed unable to grasp was the notion that your three down linemen slant on every play, the linebacker behind them reads the slant and steps into the other gap, making the slanting lineman "always right" ... "correct".




September 22nd, 2011 at 7:15 PM ^

I was in my preferred seat in the end zone dead between the uprights where you can see what's going on. 

It was just all very, extremely, exceptionally important to me back then and as such is burned indelibly into the same brain that struggles periodically to come with the names of my kids.

Hey .... yeah you ... the youngest one ... yeah you, what's your name again?

As an aside I was the first person in the world to know that Lantry missed.


G&$ D^$% M&*^%&% F&$%^*&^ M*&$%^ F**$%^& G(^ M(^&*%^ F*##%^&


September 22nd, 2011 at 8:52 PM ^

The reason why coaches prefer the "under center" snap is that hypothetically speaking, there should be less margin for error on the center-quarterback exchange.  In a shotgun set, the center is throwing the ball under his legs back to the QB, whereas in an under-center position, the center is handing the ball to the QB.

Many will say hiking the ball in a shotgun set isn't difficult, but when you are running 500-750 plays per season and every snap counts, there is no margin for error for coaches who are being paid millions and can lose their job on one play.

I don't have the statistics to prove this theory (some of you probably have stats to actually disprove my thinking), but that's one coach's perspective.


September 22nd, 2011 at 9:42 PM ^

It is a very interesting point.  I have to admit, I spent the beginning of nearly every offensive play for the last three seasons panicked about this.  My wife especially hated it on the short yardage and goal line plays.

The remarkable thing is how few bad snaps we had.  After the badness of 2009, one of the huge positives was the number of good snaps.  Still, I didn't want to mention it because I didn't want to jinx it (superstitious much? sigh).  Then, we had continued success last year and I didn't want to jinx it again.

In my mind, the key is that you practice it, and practice it, and practice it. 


September 23rd, 2011 at 10:13 AM ^

I think something you are highlighting is how lucky we have been to have Molk. Besides accurete snaps, he is very quick and able to snap the ball and still get out of his stance and block quickly. I think it is harder to shotgun snap and hit your block than under center snap and block.


September 22nd, 2011 at 8:54 PM ^

Not advocating but I've heard that an advantage of taking the ball under center is that you don't have to take your eye off the defense to catch the snap. There's also those 2008 Moosman snaps.


September 22nd, 2011 at 9:34 PM ^

(unless you're shuffling the fullback argh)

I was doing fine, minding my own business, enjoying the post, almost to the end, when this comment literally made me laugh out loud.  Well played, Brian.  Well played.