Michigan Museday Pulls Bazooka

Submitted by Seth on March 13th, 2012 at 8:02 AM


Shouldn't Spock be in this?

Hi. Me. Back. So before that much-appreciated vacation, I used this space to talk about constraint theory of offense and provide a rock-paper-scissors matrix for offensive/defensive play calling in various offenses. Today I'm on to Part III, the one where I tell you that Rock-Paper-Scissors is only a fraction of the football head game, because the actual decision trees are far too complicated for even a coach to play all of the interactions, let alone teach them. Moreover, unlike in RPS, or super-advanced-nuclear-capable-canid RPS, there are levels to things: scissors cuts paper better than it cuts (but still cuts) woven kevlar.

Rock-Paper-Scissors is a game you learn to play on the bus ride to school in 2nd grade or thereabouts. It is a very simple, 2-dimensional, triangular matrix:


…meaning every point interacts with every other. It's one dimension past a coin flip but you still only need to remember three interactions (yellow lines). Based on your personal capacity for testing the limits of social institutions, you either very quickly or eventually tried to insert an additional dimension to the triangular matrix, and realized that you were exponentially increasing the amount of interactions you had to remember.


Your 2nd grade mind didn't draw this; it just exploded the same way it might if you interlaced Grbac to Howard, Wangler to Carter and Robinson to Roundtree into the same video. Then it came up with a brilliant way to add a point without adding dimensions:


Bazooka!!! Bazooka blows up rock. Bazooka turns scissors into mangled slag. Bazooka leaves only scant streaks of carbon where once was paper. This idea is not totally silly, since defensive coordinators call bazooka like all. the. time.

Bazooka = Vanilla

Just as the offense wants to get really good at one basic thing and then do that thing all the time, many defenses are deploying the same concept. It's a bit harder for them because they have to react to various offenses on the schedule and various plays, but the concept's the same: the defense wants to stay in a scheme that is basically sound, and will mix in blitzes and different coverages as constraints, so that they can keep running their well-practiced, mostly sound blanket defense. Bazooka is a jack of all trades, solid against the run, solid against the pass, solid against tomfoolery, and vulnerable only to great offensive play and their own physical/mental limitations.


Defenses are a bit more varied than offenses but the most popular vanilla D these days, as I mentioned in the earlier discussions, is a Cover-2 zone (above-left) against run-first teams, or the Tampa 2 against pass-ier teams (above-right).

The difference between those two is in the MLB's coverage duties—in a Tampa he has the deep middle, in a regular Cover 2 he has the short middle and can be more involved in the run game. Everybody, including the cornerbacks, are hovering around close enough to gang-attack running plays like a pincer; and soft spots in the zone (everyone has them) are relatively small and difficult for non-accurate quarterbacks.

If these guys are all reacting correctly and aggressively to the run, if the cover guys are fast enough to close their zones, and the four rushers can generate pressure with rock-paper-spockregularity, this defense can bazooka anybody's rock, paper, scissors, candle, Vulcan, or whatever. Of course that is way easier said than done—remember offenses are recruiting, training, practicing, and designed for attacking this scheme.

Offensive rock is made to beat defensive bazooka. I want you to look at the above and imagine various offenses succeeding against them. ISO running forces the linebackers to read run, read the hole, and get there in time to take out a lead blocker and lead runner who by design are getting there ASAP. West Coast passing lives in those soft spots under and between the coverage. Air Raids attempt to warp the zones into providing bigger holes by flooding and stretching them. Option running makes a balanced coverage into an effective numbers advantage for the offense at the point of attack. Vanilla defense is made to stop whatever's thrown their way, and offenses gain success by making Mr. Jack-of-All die a consistent bleeding death.

To see vanilla defense in action throw a dart at any recording of Iowa in the last 12 years; their M.O. is to stick to this maniacally. The converse in-conference would be Michigan State. On the way home from Europe this weekend I randomly sat next to MSU LB Chris Norman. Other than "Wisconsin's offense was way tougher than any of the SEC teams," and "lol Michigan's uniforms last year," Norman happily admitted "YAARRGGH SPARTY SMASH!!" is the coaches' favorite blitz, and that they'll run it or something like it more than any other play. Some teams like paper.

So there are exceptions but the exceptions can be beat with your properly executed scissors. The point remains that all matrices aside, much about football comes down to defeating your opponent's bazooka, or vanilla thing, or "rock" defense with your rock. If you recognize this particular bit of wisdom from DeBordian philosophy, well yes in this DeBord is absolutely right. But if you don't properly mix in your constraints, and you always run rock to the same spot/guy out of the same formation, and you shuffle your fullba…uh let's not go there.

Next time (last one? I think it is but I keep stretching these): What's Our Rock?



March 13th, 2012 at 7:53 AM ^

Great work Seth, it's always nice to get some football analysis in the off-season. Side note, does anyone think our offense this year has the possibility to be like Wisconsins? We've got the 2 key components, some good receivers, I mean the only thing we don't have is five 6'5 300 lb Lineman, but ours aren't too bad. I dunno, just a thought I had


March 13th, 2012 at 10:46 AM ^

Last time it was "playmakers" -- the guy who defies conventional roles, like the tight end with a wide receiver's speed or a defensive tackle who can force a pitch on a speed option.  These will turn "rock" into "super-rock" or whateva to make even the correct decision turn out badly.

This time it's field position.  Note the "Tampa 2 zone" assigns the "deep middle" to the MLB.  This is why Tampa 2 is often associated with a smaller MLB with good speed, but it also makes clear why some defenses (like Michigan) are short-yardage, "bend don't break" defense and some offenses (like Air Raid) "can't score in the red zone".

Imagine that defense is set up at the 50-yard line.  The wideouts are mixing up routes to keep the corners and safeties occupied.  Then a guy like Odoms lines up in the slot position and tears up the field in a "post" route while the wideouts curl.  Per the Tampa-2 scheme, the guy responsible for this route is a linebacker.  A slotback against a MLB is a mismatch, especially with a run threat making the MLB read the inside blocking before backpedaling.  The wideout curls mean the safeties are nowhere near the play.  Slotback is one-on-one in open field with a non-DB -- no chance, free TD.  Forcing the opponent to play away from its strengths is a key to winning.  (There are defensive adjustments that lead to other, more efficient ways to break down the Tampa-2, but bear with me -- this is to illustrate a point.)  It would take a "playmaker" MLB to prevent that, which is frankly why every Tampa-2 tries to scout just such a linebacker.

But. . . now try the same thing in the red zone.  The wideouts run their routes. . . then stop.  Odoms runs to the post. . . then gets there.  Now all three receivers are about the same distance from the LOS with nowhere to go except kinda shifting back and forth hoping the QB will find them.  There's nowhere to stretch the zones so the defensive backs don't need to range as much; the receivers can't get separation and there's safety help everywhere.  You're not doing anything differently, but the field has neutralized your advantage.  An "Air Raid" offense is notorious for piling up yards but if the wideout doesn't reach the end zone on the big play, the offense can stall completely.  On the other hand, MANBALL works well in these situations (it doesn't require space to work) but in other cases basically plays with limited parts of field even when there's an awful lot of downfield pasture available.  Quick Cover-2 defenders can maintain tight zones and move to the ball without fear of getting burned.  The key to beating range-y defenders with MANBALL is to just blow them backwards with power, but now you can kinda see how scheme and personnel are so closely related.  You can't blow back a Cover-2 secondary MANBALL style with an option QB and slotback.  (I could go on but I've made my point and these counter-counter punches can get uber-complex very quickly.)


March 13th, 2012 at 12:06 PM ^

Could afford to go to Europe for Spring Break?  That's a good deal better than Tattoos...

(Not that serious, but it would have been funny if he had said something not knowing who he was talking to....)


March 13th, 2012 at 1:57 PM ^

Georgia and Bama in the last two bowl games, though he said Bama in general was an eye-opener for the team as they saw exactly where they needed to get to (he was mostly referring to the defense). Really what he was saying is Wisconsin's offense was THAT GOOD, not that the SEC was overrated.

I brought up oversigning and we talked about that for awhile --mostly me explaining what's going on with that.