Michigan Museday in Rock, Paper, Scissors

Submitted by Seth on February 28th, 2012 at 8:19 AM

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This is a follow up to to Doctor Rocklove a few weeks ago, where I identified the influence of offensive sets on philosophies. If you're not familiar with offensive theory you should go back and read that. If you're a football coach you are welcome to pinch the bridge of your nose and shake your head, for this is only going to cover about 20 percent of what you know to be the basics of offensive football.

The point today is to look at some of the base plays of various offenses, and a few of the constraint plays that they use to counter, and what defenses do to counter that. In doing so I hope to find stumble upon a better explanation of Borgesian offensive theory than the "grab bag" this space has previously suggested.

That Thing You Do

You've probably read enough college football boilerplate by now to have heard a coach talk about "what we'd like to do." This does not have to mean one play, but it often means one concept—very much like a play—which the team will be able to execute to perfection against the defense they want to see. That play is usually going to be low-risk, and if executed flawlessly against the vanilla defense it's built to beat, it will gain a consistent 5 to 7 yards. the-art-of-manlinessIt can be run out of many formations, and you will practice it a thousand million times until you are sure it will work every time unless the opposition "cheats" to beat it.

For Vince Lombardi it was the sweep. For Wisconsin (and virtually every high school in our division in the late-'90s) it was the ISO. It could be the Triple-Option (Bo), or the Zone Read (Rodriguez), or Hitch-n-Out (Walsh) or Levels (Peyton Manning's favorite), or 62 mesh (Captain Leachbeard). With passing offenses, which is Borges's thing, it's important to note that the core concept itself can often be a package of plays which work off of each other, none particularly favored; for running the same concept will vary where on the line it will attack.

You can go crazy for your core concept. You can practice it incessantly. You can recruit players whose skills best fit what they're supposed to do on that play. You can even focus physical training on developing muscles that are used on that play. The better you are at that play—and this is a sliding scale—the more the defense has to move someone or do something to "adjust" to you. But this is a zero-sum game, so if you're moving a defender to stop the base play, he's no longer doing the thing he was doing before. He is making something else way easier than it should be. He'll do this anyway, until you make him pay.

Constraint Theory of Offense and RPS

What you choose as your core play or concept will determine much about the other things your offense does, because now you add plays to punish defenses for adjusting to your base play. That's what coaches mean by "constraint"—you are constraining the level to which the defense can react to your bread and  butter. What you are essentially doing is creating an environment in which you get to run your core play, which you've practiced more than any other play, exactly how you drew it up as much as you can.

Mike Martin forces a pitchCertain concepts are almost always constraints because they won't work against vanilla defenses. Delayed handoffs work because the defensive line is closing on the quarterback as if it's a pass play. Halfback screens work well against blitzes but if a linebacker is in man on the running back, a vanilla defensive concept, you're screwed.

Defensive wins in rock, paper, scissors are rare and lucky guesses; usually a D's successes come from outstanding execution of a vanilla defense, for example if the nose tackle shoots past a playside block and forces a pitch on a speed option (as if that could happen).

Defenses have constraints too but theirs are limited by the offense's greatest advantage: whoever has the ball chooses the play (the D's advantage is so much more can go wrong with offensive execution). Defensive constraints translated to boilerplate sound like "we took away the run and made Denard beat us through the air." What they mean is the defense was cheating against the offense's base play all game but leaving themselves more open to the constraint plays, betting on poorer execution by the offense.

Dantonio last year sent two blitzing linebackers up the middle on many occasions, taking away Michigan's bread 'n butter play "Denard-'n-stuff." This forced Michigan into our constraint, which was targeting open receivers in short zones, but then Dantonio took this away by having safeties replace the blitzing LBs. This opened up another constraint by making deep coverage completely up to the cornerbacks, but then a trash tornado covered that constraint for them.

What the constraint theory does for playcalling is create a kind of matrix of offensive adjustments to defensive adjustments and adjustments to those adjustments. For a typical varsity high school team that matrix is probably 20 plays, and for college football it's more complex, and in the NFL the adjustments are so myriad and subtle I'd have an easier time teaching EMI/RMI shielding (it sounds hard).

Because the shades of gray in such a big decision matrix make for convoluted understanding, I've tried to (over-)condense the basic constraints of four basic offenses. There is way, way more but these are a few of the constraint packages that Michigan used last year.



Offensive Concept: I'm bigger, faster and stronger than you are, so I'm gonna hit you so hard your momma cries, then evoke masculine metaphors.

Defensive Concept: Control the point of contact, win 1st down, never let the train leave the station.

  Offense Defense
Rock Man-on-man blocking, backs hit 2nd level at full speed running vertically. Repeated success quickly tires defenders, especially if the backs are regularly hitting defensive backs, and sets up soul-crushing play-action. Read and react. Have LBs who can react quickly to the right hole (5-2, 4-3 under, 3-4), or b) have superior DL beat their blocks while the LBs maintain their gaps (4-3). Zone behind that so CBs can pincer.
Paper Prey on the reacting linebackers by running play action, then rolling the pocket away from the point of attack and passing deep. Blitz their favorite gaps. The point is to control where the point of contact occurs, so the sooner that happens, the sooner one of them will take out the lead blocker, and the sooner the ballcarrier is tackled.
Scissors Screens, draws, and quick, short passes to curl and out routes to take advantage of corners' fears of something deep. Back off into safe coverage--these days it's cover 2 man, meaning the cornerbacks are in man on WRs with safety help over the top. This takes the CBs out of run support but any pass deep is into double-coverage.

Timed Passing (West Coast)


Offensive Concept: A symphony of route design and timing that puts defenses into a progression of impossible choices.

Defensive Concept: Throw off your timing, suffocate your routes, kill your conductor.

  Offense Defense
Rock Quick routes by receivers and RBs that make a zone defender commit to one guy, then hit the other guy before another defender can come up. Cover-2, and faster, smarter zone defenders who pass off receivers seamlessly, so that the O has to check down to nothing, throw into a super-tight window, or just runs out of time before the pass rush gets home.
Paper Run the ball with power, delayed handoffs and screens. Once the defense is thoughtlessly stepping backwards when the QB is, they're no longer able to react to something as basic as a RB and his convoy pointed downhill. Zone blitz, i.e. drop DL into coverage while random LBs and safeties blitz or squat in short zones. Reads and blocking are much more difficult, and small windows become no windows.
Scissors Throw "hot" into the pressure, with pre-arranged hot (post-snap) reads that both the QB and his receivers make. Levels/Robber. Drop back in a 3-deep zone while rushing 5 (often the SLB/nickel). Robber reacts to runs/screens or replaces guy who blitzed for instant pick/scared QB.

Read Passing (Air Raid, Pro)


Offensive Concept: Spread, mesh, read, and gun, so on any given play, at any spot on the field, we can put it where you ain't.

Defensive Concept: Anywhere you can get, I can get faster

  Offense Defense
Rock Spread to pass. The O-line is spread to basically neutralize line play (DL will break through eventually but seldom right away). Receivers run "mesh" routes against each other, then cut off their routes when they've recognized the D in order to find soft spots in the zone. Cover-3 zone, trusting your LBs to intelligently route receivers and react and trusting the QB and WRs can't connect on all of their 7-yard passes and that soft spots are small.
Dynamite with a cut-able wick Curls, and/or bubble screen whenever the defense is obviously backing off. Dana Holgorsen has altered this to delayed handoffs and screens by using two RBs and putting one in motion to simulate the spread. 3-5-3. The Air Raid threatens the whole field to open up the easy passes off of two crossing routes, so forget pass rushing and clog up the middle.
Scissors (This is just mean) Four Verts: suddenly the deep receiver is no longer just a quick glance to keep you honest but a high-low with the seam. Press man coverage/blitz up the middle.

Option (Triple-Option, Zone Read)


Offensive Concept: Reverse the traditional 7-on-6 "numbers" advantage of the defense in the running game (i.e. their front 7 versus 5 OL and a running back) by having the quarterback participate, and "blocking" an edge defender by optioning off of him instead of wasting a body.

Defensive Concept: The cat has more patience than the mouse.

  Offense Defense
Rock Isolate an unblocked front-7 defender against the QB and another accessible option he can go to once the defender commits. Change up the edge attack so the QB is reading the wrong guy or walking into a trap. Scrape exchange, slant the DL, etc.
Paper Fake the option and then send a quick seam over the heads of the oncoming defenders. Cheat extra defenders (8 or 9 in the box) into the area where the option will occur so nobody gets isolated and/or blitz into one of the options (e.g. CB blitz or MLB blitz into RB's hole) so unblocked guy can focus on one option.
Scissors Option 3. This is the FB dive in a triple-option and the bubble screen in the spread 'n shred, and is a constraint called by alignment. Line up "clean" with safeties still in coverage, and if they option do what you can to delay the decision and await the cavalry.

Next time in this series: vanilla defenses, and the best offense for Michigan this year and beyond.



February 28th, 2012 at 11:06 AM ^

I know this essay is deliberately concise to prevent information overload, but I figured I'd add the fun part.

The rock-paper-scissors game is why every team is on the lookout for "playmakers", in as many positions as possible.  The "playmaker" is the freak athlete that transcends the conventional expectations of the position.  When dealing within schemes and constraints, both OCs and DCs make broad but generally safe assumptions about expectations at each position.  These assumptions are based on "matches" and "mismatches".  For example, a defensive lineman covering a receiver on a zone blitz is a band-aid because any receiver is expected to be much quicker and faster -- that's a mismatch.  A defensive lineman will eventually wrestle past a single blocker but "not right away", as that's a match.  Assuming the play happens too quickly for that lineman to do anything meaningful, the OC basically writes off the guy and focuses on someone else.  So when a nose tackle shoots past a playside block and forces a pitch on a speed option, the whole play blows up.  Examples of playmakers:

Mike Martin:  A nose tackle who forces the pitch on a speed option.  Makes QBs get in teh car.  You won't like him when he's angry.  Basically, he forces OCs to double-team him, which severely limits their constraints.  For example, consider the "read passing" scheme.  The core concept is to spread the line ("neutralize line play") and let the play develop, but you don't "neutralize" a line with Mike Martin in it.  He's strong enough to tear past his single block "right away" and fast enough to cause havoc in the backfield before the play develops.  Worst case, the OC has to abandon the spread concept entirely and double-team him.  Michigan's D had other weaknesses that were exploited but consider a single player forced some OCs to cover their playbooks with red ink.

Charles Woodson:  Cover-2 is a common defensive scheme, and like all others, it assumes a CB single-covering a wideout is a mismatch.  Manball defense scissors:  "cover 2 man, meaning the cornerbacks are in man on WRs with safety help over the top. This takes the CBs out of run support but any pass deep is into double-coverage."  Woodson basically eliminated the need for the "scissors" because he could single-cover any single deep threat, allowing the defense to "cheat" on his side of the field.

Braylon Edwards:  The opposite of a playmaking CB is a playmaking WR, of course.  If single-coverage is generally a mismatch that favors the offense, double coverage (of course) favors the defense.  Enter the playmaking receiver, who can catch passes opposing DBs can only wave at.  With pass interference being illegal (and jamming a playmaker not very smart) about the only thing the defense can do is hit the receiver after the catch and pray he drops the ball -- not a very attractive choice for a DC.  They also tend to have breakaway ability so you have to double-cover ANYWAY (or every catch is potentially a TD) but this means the defense can play rock-paper-scissors perfectly and still be unable to stop the offense because you can never completely take away the choice to throw to a playmaking receiver.

Open to discussing other favorite playmakers and what they do to "rock-paper-scissors". . .


February 28th, 2012 at 11:48 AM ^

Denard's good, really good.  But I don't know if he fits my "technical" definition of "playmaker" because as an option QB he's rather conventional -- he's small and quick with questionable throwing ability.  My point is that within the context of this discussion Denard's not a "playmaker" in that he blows up the rock-paper-scissors game.  You defend him like you'd defend any option QB -- contain the edge and make him beat you through the air.  Weaker defenses had to bring up extra help at the expense of pass coverage, but good defenses generally got decent results going by the book.

If I didn't limit my examples to Wolverines, a "playmaker" (in the "I can't rock-paper-scissors this" sense) option QB would be Tim Tebow.  He was an option QB with the strength of a tight end.  Without that he's a prototypical option QB with good speed (at least good enough to outrun any single down lineman and usually a good deal faster) and mediocre throwing ability.  But his strength meant if you used a small (quick) linebacker or defensive back to chase him down he'd just barrel through your guy, usually with nothing but open field behind him.  You also couldn't "hit him out of the game" like defenses would try with Denard.  The fact that he was generally STRONGER than average FBS linebackers and FASTER than average FBS defensive backs means no single defender could take him down. . . which made Florida's spread option a nightmare.  He racked up insane passing stats because it pretty much took an entire average FBS defense just to keep him from running into the end zone.


February 28th, 2012 at 10:23 PM ^

Too much, but Tebow, combined with another playmaker, Percy Harvin = Nat Champs.  (A pretty good defense also helped that).

Good point you brought up about the playmaker.  It seems so obvious: you want the best talent possible.  But to be able to utilize that talent to the extreme, making him a playmaker within your offense/defense/special teams(?), maybe isn't as "easy" as one thinks.  I think you started to hit the nail on the head as to why that is.  A playmaker must also "fit" within your "scheme", not just be athletically gifted.


February 28th, 2012 at 12:38 PM ^

This is a fantastic addition! You should turn this into a diary-- I wish I'd thought of doing it as part of the series.

A few I can add:

Brandon Graham: Running against the strong side of a formation is an important part of any run-based offense--otherwise the defense will just key on the same holes you're always attacking. With man or zone blocking usually that strongside end is the recipient of a double-team: the tackle plus a pulling guard or a cracking down tight end. The play can then stretch as long as it takes for the weakside end to flow down and tackle from behind, or the safety to come up from coverage and stick the tackle.

If you're committing two blockers to one guy, you'd better be able to handle that one guy. An SDE who can stand up to a double-team, shed his block and make the tackle or meet the pulling guard in the backfield is a big cog in the running game. Now your "rock" has lost half of its attack power and the defense will be having their linebackers cheat to protect runs to the weakside, knowing they'll have time (provided they diagnose the plays on schedule) to react and flow to the ball from a defense that is completely sound against your paper and scissors.

Michael Vick/Tim Tebow/Denard Robinson: A QB who can make all of the passes AND is one of the best running backs in the country is virtually unbeatable in a Spread Option or a Spread-to-Power offense. This is because you're getting most of the function of a power running game that you normally get from 2 plays (the QB and RB) out of one player, meaning you now have an extra guy to use as a blocker or receiver or decoy. If you align to a 10 or 11 personnel you now have 6 in the box against a ManBall Rock. If you align against rock you now have just four pass defenders against a deep attack.


February 28th, 2012 at 11:13 AM ^

Well that is it for learning this week. Maybe with a vision quest and some Kate Upton Gif viewing I'll be able to recover from that. 

A very informative post, good job Seth. Now I can help my son out when it comes time for him to play football (I never did).


February 28th, 2012 at 1:54 PM ^

The more posts like this I read, the more I realize how little I really understood about football.

You've motivated me to learn even more.  So I'm soaking this stuff up.

Thanks ... you and others who demystify this thing called football.


February 28th, 2012 at 2:07 PM ^

Ladies and gentlemen of the board, I'm just a caveman. I fell on some ice and later got thawed out by some of your undergrad scientists. Your football frightens and confuses me! Sometimes the applauding of your fans makes me want to get out of my BMW.. and run off into Bloomfield Hills, or wherever.. Sometimes when I get a written committment on my fax machine, I wonder: "Did little demons get inside and type it?" I don't know! My primitive mind can't grasp these concepts. But there is one thing I do know - when a man like Seth breaks down the versions of offensive football, then he is entitled to no less than two million MGoPoints, and two million pats on the back. Thank you.


February 28th, 2012 at 11:29 PM ^

I find these kinds of posts utterly fascinating ... but I can't seem to find a way to find a catalog or listing of all the like-minded posts that have appeared on MGoBlog.

Suggestion -- these kinds of posts chock-full of technical explanations of football ought to be offered in some kind of master table of contents or something.  Off the main banner.  Hell, it ought to be published as a freakin' book, because I'm telling you there's nothing better on the web.

But they roll by and then I lose track of how to find them.  Maybe it's me.  Maybe it's the booze.  Don't really know.  All I know is I wish I had a listing of all these technical football articles so I could read them when I'm in the mood to learn more about all this cool football stuff I never knew existed.


February 29th, 2012 at 11:02 AM ^

Our cataloguing is done using the tags on top. I recently created a "football hmmm" tag for this sort of thing but i haven't gone back and added the tag to older stuff. if you find any let me know and I'll go back and add the tag.

Chris Brown's blog Smart Football is all about this stuff. Usually when we cover it, that's because we're trying to relate something technical that Michigan is doing. The Picture Pages series that Brian does is often used to explain these things.