Neck Sharpies: The Beef Spread Offense Comment Count

Seth August 29th, 2017 at 8:05 AM



[QUICK HURRICANE HARVEY NOTE: Major ongoing natural disasters are usually beyond our scope, but Houston has become an all-hands-on-deck situation. MGoStaff writer Alex Cook is still holed up in his apartment and has assured us he is safe. Close friend of the site Jane Coaston has family there. Over 3,000 readers are in it too.

The charities out there to deal with such things are blowing through everything they’ve got. If you’d like to help, some good charities are All Hands (they train & equip volunteers), the American Red Cross, Samaritan’s Purse (Christian, International), Food banks (that’s a list from the Houston Press), Americares (provide medicine and basic supplies), SBP (ongoing recovery volunteering) the Houston SPCA (animal rescue—bc evacuation centers don’t let people bring their pets), and NECHAMA (Jewish flood response organization I volunteered with when Dearborn and Oak Park were inundated a few years ago).

If you’d like to go down there and help the Red Cross and others above are taking on-the-ground volunteers. I can’t think of a better way to justify making that Dallas game after all.]


a preview

They say football is a game of inches. But in football physics space and time amount to the same thing. The inches between a tackle and a broken one, or momentum vs time for the defense to rally, are the real difference-makers. All of that scheming, development, recruiting, and training is about finding those inch-seconds. And we’ve been telling you all offseason that we think the way Michigan plans to do that is to play with some gigantic dudes who will push you off the ball, and spread ‘em out.

Maybe we should explain why.

[after the jump]


Spread is Power is Spread is Power is Spread

Y’all know what Harbaugh wants to do with his offense. He wants to line up one ton of meat in an I-form with a TE on the side he’s going, motion another tight end over there, then blast open a hole between two linemen, pull a guard and shoot a fullback into the same hole with a powerful running back coming through it with enough steam to run over a safety.

(Unless that safety’s so messed up by everything else he’s seen that he’s in the completely wrong gap.)

Most coaches who hang their hat on the Power-I offense—and Michigan fans remember a few of them—are hoping to have that support a relatively simple passing offense: play-action to get the linebackers and safeties on their toes when they ought to be on their hips, and bloom all of those eligible receivers into simple reads. Harbaugh will do some of that, but his passing offense is way more NFL.

Now I want you to go to 2:46 of that Fishduck video and watch the rest. If you can’t here’s the basics: The first play they show Stanford lining up in a 5-wide (0 RBs, 0 FBs, 5 WRs):


then motioning that into a Power-I (1RB, 1FB, 2TE, 1WR).


Then they do the opposite: line up in a Power-I


then motion to a 5-wide set and run the same play I led off the post with.


At Stanford they recruited and coached the team with these concepts in mind: every skill position player is a receiver and a blocker.


Matching Scheme to Talent

That’s not really what we’ve seen so far at Michigan. In 2015 Harbaugh and his staff walked into a roster that had played together a long time and was built for going 2- and 3-wide. Darboh and Chesson were possession and speed receivers, respectively. Butt was receiving tight end, A.J. Williams a blocky one. Sione Houma was a running fullback, Kerridge a blocky one, and Khalid Hill a catchy H-back sort. De’Veon Smith was a good power back, and became an okay pass blocker, but didn’t read gaps well and was not a smooth passing threat. More or less these gentlemen played the roles they were recruited for.

Of course the rules of football don’t necessitate such specialization. People have passing plays with four blockers and one guy in a route, or five guys running routes. When deciding which abilities to feature, you’re looking at the personnel on hand and asking if this guy’s going to be more valuable doing one thing or another.

Recent Michigan State and Wisconsin for example both had just one receiver who could reliably get open, and quarterbacks who rarely came off their first reads.


This play is to get Z the ball. The left TE and the X receiver are running their routes like basketball picks.

Those passing offenses put fewer guys in routes, and those routes were often meshes (crossing routes) or rubs to get that one guy open.

For an example of the opposite extreme, think of Purdue with Drew Brees, or the modern NFL offenses where Tom Brady routinely has five slippery guys in routes and can tell by the subtle differences in a defender’s tooth enamel where he’s going with the ball before the pass rush arrives.

So let’s go over the composition of Michigan’s 2017 offense:

  • Their offensive line is young and bulky. If they can surprise you they’ll maul you; if you surprise them, or, like, speed rush, they’re liable to crumble.
  • Their top tight end (Bunting) is primarily a receiving threat. Behind him is tackle-shaped, inconsistent Wheatley Jr. whose best highlight so far is as a receiver at Ford Field, then several more even more extreme receiver types.
  • A quasi-slot receiver starting at running back.
  • A slick-receiving former tight end starting at fullback
  • A starting receiver whose freshman year was mostly blocking highlights, followed by a ton of scary-raw freshmen
  • A ton of slot receivers, led by a route artisan out of Birmingham Brother Rice.
  • A Roethlisbergerian quarterback whose best assets are staying alive in an iffy pocket and going through a full set of reads (like the video at the top when Speight hit his FOURTH read)
  • Yo! Pep Hamilton is here. This is the dude who coined the “No Coast” offense, which defies every word used to describe passing schemes in the last three decades because it’s all of the.

Sense a theme? If you’re setting the slider on these guys, you probably don’t want to emphasize blocking, pinpoint accuracy, or one spectacular receiver. You want to get these guys out in patterns, get them working in space against a single defender, and you have the kind of quarterback who can work out where the open guy is going to be from the middle of a tempest.


Spreading from Power

Let’s now return to the play from the Orange Bowl that I led off the post with.

count how many beats he bounces in the pocket.

The play design isn’t itself very interesting. It’s a “Levels” concept (see the Packers Trips version in Chris Brown’s link). You can do a lot of different things with Levels but the most basic principle of this passing play is you run off the coverage with a vertical route then throw underneath.


This was probably designed to get Darboh open just short of the goal line, trusting that his uncanny YAC would finish the job. It worked perfectly, except Darboh slipped a tiny bit on his cut.


He’s open, but that doesn’t get the job done. Speight went to the next read, which was Wheatley (high) and Bunting (low).


The MIKE had dropped deep enough to take away Wheatley’s post, and SAM was following Bunting closely, so Speight went to his fourth read, Khalid Hill, who played the “I’m just a fullback out here don’t mind me” role so well that his cornerback was sitting way back in the endzone, more afraid of Wheatley running a fade than Hill getting the ball underneath.


Hill gets the ball but he’s a fullback and traffic is arriving. Think of this as Poggi, or Dudley, or some fullback who needs a half-second to make sure he catches the ball and comports himself before considering how to get downfield.


But it’s not. Khalid Hill is a former tight end, and a very smooth receiver. He catches it and turns upfield in two frames:


And Michigan gets to within six.


Let’s back up again and see who’s out there.


This isn’t “Be careful I might turn this into God’s play and thunk you for 5 yards” time. This is 3rd and goal from 8 yards out, and Michigan’s running out a multiple tight ends and a fullback. And it worked! And then when the original plan didn’t work it worked. It shows a trust in these players that they can run out there and do some pure receiver work, while also playing hell with the defense’s attempts to match skill and type. Michigan got Darboh versus a linebacker, then won on Hill versus a cornerback and a safety.

This makes the defense answer some tough questions. Do you leave your cornerbacks out there against a fullback and a power back, putting less cover-y guys on bigger receiving threats? Or have your linebackers follow them out there and take that meat away from the running game while blowing up your coverages? Those answers leave new gaps to exploit.

Now consider those backs and tight ends are actually scary receiving threats themselves? Is your 5’9” cover corner enough to stop Gentry? What happens to your stiff safety when Chris Evans puts a move on him? Remember when [FSU RB] Dalvin Cook got matched one-on-one with Mike McCray? Send out your nickel or dime personnel to deal with them and this can collapse again—and function like—a 2TE Bo offense. Have fun with that.



August 29th, 2017 at 10:34 AM ^

It seems the CB was all but explicitly told that the FB was not his problem.  His motion was like it was his job to keep the ball inside, which he did, and Hill just ran by him.  It's five wide but he played it like a run fit.  Safety did his job, tried to keep a hammering panda out of the end zone and the results are what you'd expect.  The linebacker's effort looked weak though; wasn't really his job but it looked like he gave up early.

My best guess is that the DC has some personnel-based principles in the defensive scheme, and this personnel/formation absolutely shattered those concepts because WTF, a fullback split wide?  LBs have coverage responsibilities so one stuck with Darboh, mismatch as that is, but when has any CB been asked to literally cover a fullback split out wide?  It's no secret Hill's more of a hybrid, but they can't have accounted for Hill being there, and doing that.  It would've resulted in conflicting responsibilities, so the poor CB divided by zero and crashed like he was running on Microsoft Vista.  Responsibility would tecnically fall on the DC, but again, this playcall was just evil.


August 29th, 2017 at 9:11 AM ^

Alex, Jane and readers in the affected areas in Texas, my thoughts and prayers are with you. Please stay safe and know allot of us are rooting for you as much as we root for our Wolverines!


August 29th, 2017 at 9:12 AM ^

I can see why Hill and Smith are a good idea v. a CB after the catch, but why is it a good matchup before the catch? I figure that a CB is much more agile and faster, so he can defense the ball. When you trot out slower/less agile guys, they're just usually huge (like a TE) to create the matchup problem.

Space Coyote

August 29th, 2017 at 9:21 AM ^

You note the size difference. While Hill isn't huge, huge, he's still quite bit and can box out a CB. When you are used to going up against speed, going up against size is not always the easiest task. You think you can reach around a guy, but you can't. You think you are taking the appropriate angle to where the pass is going, but you're not. You think you can cheat off a bit more, but you over compensate. Etc.

In the run/screen game, you are also getting a good match up for Hill to get a block (think if Michigan runs a quick out to Hill's side with the TE running the quick out).

By putting Hill in the edge, you are forcing a CB to cover him, meaning he isn't covering someone else. This means LBs or Safeties on TEs or WRs. This is most evident for Speight's first read. A CB is covering Smith while a LB is forced to cover Darboh.

Space Coyote

August 29th, 2017 at 10:35 AM ^

You don't have to line up your CBs on the outside. That's just where they are more comfortable. Of course, not doing that is what leads to McCray chasing Cook on a go route too...

Most likely is to shade your safeties outside the slot to allow them to follow the play inside out and get to the screen a bit quicker. The CB will still have to hold the edge to a degree, but as long as he maintains outside leverage, that puts the interior DBs in better position to track down the screen. Still, it's something Harbaugh utilized quite a bit at Stanford (can't dig up the clip at the moment).


August 29th, 2017 at 9:13 AM ^

such a cool player and such a rare player. The ability to split out wide, play FB, play RB, play TE. If I ever got a M jersey with a name on it, I think it might be Hill.


August 29th, 2017 at 9:46 AM ^

He's less consistent at the pure FB things, but I think the coaches have figured out it's more effective to use his pass-catching to draw defenders away from the ball than ask him to pass block.  Even if he misses a blitzer he can just leak out into the flat, which matches Speight's qualities perfectly.  You can shake Hill and think "tonight I dine on QB soup", only for Speight to shrug off your hit, roll out of the pocket and pass to a wide open Hill.  So then what do you do?  Give up the sack to cover Hill instead?  They found Hill's niche.

A FB split out wide. . . that is just so amusing.  And effective!  But the genius of the scheme isn't so much "ha ha there's an FB out there", it's that the FB is Khalid Hill.  This is the best possible use of Michigan's personnel.

It'll be very interesting to see what they do with the folks that shake out of this year's submarine.


August 29th, 2017 at 9:17 AM ^

I think if Ty Isaac is really going to have a fifth-year renaissance, this is going to be the reason. Hopefully he's been developing his WR skills.

Rufus X

August 29th, 2017 at 9:33 AM ^

What most people miss is that when defending a conventional huddling offense, the defensive coaches have to make a split second decision on personnel based on several variables - including situation down/distance, score, etc. but that the one variable that they can glean from the offense is personnel. The defensive coaches have to react to to how many TE/WR/RBs sub into the game during the first 10 seconds of the play clock.

In the Panda TD, the personnel is TE/TE/FB/RB/WR but the formation is spread. And based on the situation - 3rd and goal - the defense has no choice but to stay in a base defense - and it's too late to adjust in any real way after the huddle breaks.  This puts incredible pressure on the defense once the formation is revealed out of the huddle when they have base personnel in the game.  The only thing to do is for the Mike to see there is no RB and drop a bit - which works and takes away the middle routes - but opens up the eventuall TD.  So smart by the Michgian coaching staff given the situation and the progression by the Harbaugh trained QB is executed perfectly.

Although lots of people think the "train" formation is gimicky, its the same basic idea - don't reveal the formation until the last possible second to make defensive calls and adjustments impossible.

And none of this is possible in a spread no huddle offense - it is deception and pressure of a different kind... The spread disciples in the MGoBlogosphere don't want to admit this, but deception and putting pressure on the defense is just as easy in Manball as it is in the spread when you have the right personnel and  coaches that know what they are doing.


August 29th, 2017 at 10:47 AM ^

There may be more practice time required for this than an offense like OSU where it's relatively simple concepts that get athletes matched up 1 on 1.  But Harbaugh is recruiting not only specific body types but also certain character traits and personalities.  He wants guys like Evans who love football, always have their nose in the playbook and will put in the extra time to get everything down.  He's also targeting smart players by pitching the academic advantages of Michigan.

Rufus X

August 29th, 2017 at 11:45 AM ^

... I think the meritocracy and the philosophy of constant competition at every position inspires learning by players much more than under Hoke or RichRod.  No proof of that, just antecdotal, but our year-over-year player development today vs those years is tenfold better, IMO.  If someone can't pick up the varying scheme then the second string guy will.



August 29th, 2017 at 9:41 AM ^

Correct.  It's the creativity/imagination part that so often seems lacking among the Manball coaching crowd.

I don't care which style Harbaugh recruits to, schemes for and game plans around.  He has my faith because he is committed to maximizing the Offense's greatest advantage over the Defense: trickeration.



August 29th, 2017 at 9:27 AM ^

So last I read on MgoBlog Zach Gentry is playing WR now. Is that correct?  How does that work with the influx of WRs and everyone switching to DB?  Are we going to have a 6'8" DB?    

I really liked Gentry as a prospect and remembered thinking "At last we have a real QB prospect instead of 3* Wilton Speight or flame out Shane Morris."  (Sorry Wilton  ...and Shane.)    Then I thought he would be Ian Bunting 2.0+ at TE.    Does this guy get to see the field? 


August 29th, 2017 at 9:38 AM ^

Gentry is, by all accounts, abnormally fast for a guy his size.  Not sure if he's at all shfty, but he can run.  Unless he has hands of stone, Harbaugh will use his tall, patient QB to get the ball to the tall, fast ball catcher (WR?  TE?  As Seth's post shows, does it matter?).  And it will almost certainly be someplace where him catching the ball is very dangerous to the D.




August 29th, 2017 at 10:42 AM ^

The knocks on Gentry have been that while he is a fantastic athlete, he isn't really a TE yet. Blocking is an issue as it is with many players moving to TE from WR, andeven more so if you're moving from QB.  There have also been comments about needing to work on route running and hands.  So it's possible that while they get him up to size, they've had him practice at WR to work on those skills and it's possible he could contribute there a bit as well this year.


August 29th, 2017 at 11:22 AM ^

So I'm curious what people think his upside is now that he's been in the program.  Sounds like he'll spend a year at WR/TE while he works on his routes and fills out.  Is he a back up TE his 5th year never to be heard from again, or does Frey turn him into a mutant TE who is a bigger-faster-stronger version of Jake Butt or Gronk?  What's his trajectory?  

Rufus X

August 29th, 2017 at 11:51 AM ^

Back in the 90s Jay Riemersma was a blue chip QB recruit who switched to TE after his freshman year. Took him a couple years but ended up with a nice NFL carreer at that position. His position coach? None other than Mike DeBord.  Yes surprising to most in this place, Mike DeBord is actually a pretty good coach.



August 30th, 2017 at 9:31 AM ^

Re Debord. He lost exactly one game at UM when the D held the opponent to 30 or fewer poins.

As OC.

Very smart and thoughtful guy. I had the chance to spend an hour with him while he tried to teach me the ideas behind zone blocking. Very patient man trying to teach a blockhesd.





August 29th, 2017 at 10:19 AM ^

I like this synopsis. It's an interesting view into how offensive minds think.

Rodriguez: make the safeties always wrong

Hoke (yes he had an offensive philosophy): make the linebackers always wrong...and let the DL through

Harbaugh: fuck with the defensive coordinator


August 29th, 2017 at 12:29 PM ^

I like this a lot. Though I would quibble that it seems like the stuff Stanford is doing in the described series requires players that Michigan doesn't have--catchy types that can block. Michigan's catchy-type TEs are as yet unproven as blockers, which is one of the reasons I think spreading things out can be useful. 

Still, I could see Michigan rolling out a package with 2 WRs, Bunting at TE, Hill and FB, and Evans at RB and doing something like this with Crawford as the guy outside the TE at the line. Not sure how well those guys block, but it would be murder for opponents to cover if they go 5-wide. 

Evans and Isaac are going to be huge assets for 5-wide looks. 

Rufus X

August 30th, 2017 at 7:55 AM ^

As stated below, having two WR and one TE  in the personnel package would not have the desired impact. Of course it's all about situation... At 3rd and goal from the 8, the DC has to put a nickel package in to mirror two WR personnel, negating the benefit by having an extra cover guy in for the "extra" WR.  Spreading the 2 TE/ 1 WR package puts their linebackers in a very tough spot when you have "catchy" TEs.  That's the beauty of the strategy... and matching the strategy to the people you have. And the genius of the current coaching staff.


August 29th, 2017 at 3:30 PM ^

Generally, I'm very excited by this. TEs are going to get less separation on the perimeter than the WRs. They can also get jammed due to being huge. Wilton Speight will need to be able to get the ball in spots to the take advantage of the catch radius of the TEs for this to work. It seemed to work last year on TE drag routes, but if we run more vertical route combinations, it will require really good timing and accuracy. Otherwise, this set will be limited to 3-5 yard completions while shielding off defenders.