Neck Sharpies: Counter Punching

Submitted by Seth on January 6th, 2016 at 10:00 AM

How does a mediocre running team do this:

…to one of the best run defenses in the country? Let's discuss.

Entering this game Florida was fifth in rush D to S&P+, giving up just 4.4 YPC with sacks removed, which means they turned their opponents' running games into basically Florida's freshman-infested running game. In our diagram for Ace's FFFF we gave 7/11 defensive starters a "dangerman" star, and three(!) got the shield that's reserved for the top players at their position in the country. Among them was end Jonathan Bullard, perhaps the best run-defending player in the nation, and strong safety Marcus Maye.

And yet Michigan, whose running game was barely better than Florida's this year, ran on that: 225 yards on 46 carries. Brian mentioned in the game column that a lot of this came from a reinvigorated De'Veon Smith, and from my rewatch I bet you the UFR will bear that out. There was also a little RPS, some great plays by individual offensive linemen (Mason Cole and Graham Glasgow had very good games), and some Harbaugh games.

Part I: Florida throws paper

The run above, which came mid-way through the 2nd quarter, must be taken in context. Smith by this point was already well up in +'s running Michigan's base stuff, and Rudock was well on his way to an excellent day.

Florida's pass defense is just as good as their run D, and in passing downs they're lethal. So it's worth it to them to try some surprising/a little unsound things on 1st and 2nd down to keep Michigan's offense behind schedule, and bring up those long situations. Against Michigan in particular it appeared Florida's gameplan was to take away inside runs, trusting the Wolverine backs not to find any holes that left elsewhere.

Let's first go back to an earlier thing Florida did that should have earned a TFL:

This is the one where the broadcast crew infamously put up the ND and OSU scores mid-play. What Florida called (I think) is below:


It's an under but the 5-tech is actually in a 7-tech.

Michigan tried to run "Power" into this, pulling Kalis, blocking down on the DL and using the fullback as lead blocker. Florida is ready, as the NT shoots up the back of Glasgow before Braden can get an angle on him; Braden blocks air, and Kalis runs into the nose in the middle of his pull:


Smith did a very good job to dance around that NT, then to bounce outside the unblocked MLB whom Kalis was heading toward, turning minus two yards into four.

The lesson: Florida was messing with Michigan's power running attack by sending rushers into the A gaps, leaving the 'B' gaps open, but only as a funnel directly to the linebackers. Yes, you'd like Braden to get a better block. Yes, that was a great play by the NT to get into the path of Kalis. But this was Florida's plan against Michigan's base thing, and they got the base thing. RPS'd.

[After the jump we RPS right back]

Part II: Michigan throws scissors

We're back to Drake's long run at the top of this post. Here's another angle:

Florida indeed has a blitz on, but it's not very blitzy: there's four rushers and two outside linebacker-ish dudes with man coverage on tight ends if the tight ends go in a pattern; the guy who drew Butt has help in the rolled up cornerback. Both guards are uncovered—this is an "okie" front.

The result is something very like what they got in the first play we went over: instant pressure in both A gaps, and a funnel to the frontside B gap.


(Florida aligns the secondary and the SAM/WDE strength to the field and the front to the offense, if you're wondering why "strong" and "weak" look mixed up. I labeled based on the personnel, not what they're technically lined up as)

I showed the guys rushing because it betrays Florida's intention: they're sending guys into both A gaps at the snap and rolling down a safety behind them, effectively stacking 9 guys into the box against those inside runs that are Michigan's bread and butter. Even if the MLB blitz is picked up, any run to the frontside will meet a lot of bodies. Anything to the backside has to deal with a nose tackle coming up that A gap as well.

And then the going gets weird.


Remember the last time Michigan was blocking down like on a power run? This time the OL release that same direction, but it's a side-step like they're running outside zone (aka zone stretch). If they were this play would be dead, since a well-timed MLB blitz before the center can reach him can really cause havoc with a play that's meant to be long in developing.

But this ain't OZ; it's a counter off OZ. You get the defense all shuffling one way to stay in their gaps like good little zone defenders, then the handoff comes right as the lead blocking goes backside and WHAPs the edge guy who thought he was gonna be unblocked. If you catch the defense sliding into their gap assignments, they discover too late that they've just been stepping away from the direction of the play.

Let's see that unfold. The alignment at the snap:


And then one step later:


Remember the point is to let those guys get into those zone gaps, then seal them there. If they go for it you've dealt with the line and now it's a hat for a  hat on the backside, the result balanced on the relative abilities of fullbacks versus linebackers.

The only flaws: 1) the MLB timed his blitz really well, and 2) that same dang NT—Brantley, who's deserving of that star—has watched the backfield action unfold rather than reading Braden's step and is setting up to get to the real playside of his block.

Glasgow has the first handled as best he can; he was planning on releasing on that MLB in the first place, and saw him come up before the snap, and knows all he has to do is keep that guy away from places he doesn't belong. Maybe it's the year they had under Nussmeier doing zone, but Glasgow does the zone thing: use that guy's momentum against him, shove him as hard as you can past the play, and hope he can't recover until it's too late.

As for the other, it's a problem:


Braden wants that guy out of that gap. You can see the head of Sione Houma behind Braden's situation, about to pop the linebacker staring at him. Also at the top of the screen Poggi has nailed his kickout block.

In another day and age, all this—Glasgow's expert handling of a hot A gap blitz, Poggi's thing, and catching all these other rushers heading to their own doom—might be wasted by an RB who abandons his blocking or can't see a hole, or maybe Braden's NT absorbing the lead block of Houma, leaving that linebacker free to go wherever the ball does.

But in this age:


Houma gets his guy (the middle of the three amigos there) and stands him up behind the line of scrimmage. And Cole is driving his dude into that pile. And Braden…


…does the thing he IS good at, which is being a huge, pancake-making lug when he gets into a guy. And Mason Cole does the thing he is good at despite being just a true sophomore, which is to use his hands to get inside, keep his hat playside, drive his man downfield to create the necessary space, then disengage once it's too late for that defender to do anything but pantomime a hold.

Run away, Drake Johnson. You are free!



Things: The execution part is what differentiates rock-paper-scissors from football, and here it played quite a role on both sides. Kalis maybe should have seen that MLB coming and the DE lined up over Magnusson's opposite shoulder and put two and two together. Florida's MLB and NT both went beyond the call of their duties, while that SAM got pwned. An inch or two less from Mason Cole and his DE has a beefy arm on not-very-beefy Drake Johnson.

When we look at what's materially different between what Harbaugh does and what Hoke-Borges were doing, the differences are not vast. They both called this play. But Borges would set this up with four useless outside zone runs while Harbaugh flashed an outside zone step once and trusted all the training the defense's have done against Rich Rod-like offenses to kick in and make them wrong.

What we saw a lot more of from Harbaugh's rushing offense is that execution, yes, but also guys put in positions where they can succeed. Florida wouldn't have gone Okie if Michigan loved to run behind its guards—the alignments and playcalls against them made things easier on the weaker points of the offense while the hard things were left to the strong points. Butt hanging out on the total backside of this play is a threat that sells the misdirection and occupies ANOTHER defender to protect against his passing threat. Poggi gets to do what he's best at—a kickout block of a guy smaller than him—and Houma gets to charge ahead like the dangerous run/block being he is.

It's all those little good things going on all over this offense that made all the difference between getting beat up by mediocre teams and matching wits, brawn, and skill with the elites.



January 6th, 2016 at 11:11 AM ^

That's largely true, but you don't get that execution without being able to teach your players what they should be doing, how they should do it, and why they should do it in a way that gets through to them.

Teaching is the essence of coaching, at least at the collegiate level, and it's not something the previous two staffs seemed capable of doing.

Drevno's career body of work is evidence that he is a master teacher of the offensive line, and the game against Florida is a solid indication of what we can expect in the future, especially as he's teamed up with Harbaugh. Losing Durkin was a disappointment in some ways, but losing Drevno would be orders of magnitude worse.


January 6th, 2016 at 11:31 AM ^

Drevno's career body of work is evidence that he is a master teacher of the offensive line

Drevno is my favorite coach under Harbaugh.  Ever since I saw his introductory video I was hooked.  The famous Harbaugh/Drevno fist-bump gif sealed it.

Huge man-crush on my part.  I want Drevno to stay around a long, long time.

Coach Carr Camp

January 6th, 2016 at 12:11 PM ^

I recently thought about how awesome it would be if 6-8 years from now we are reading "Jim Harbaugh to NFL: will be replaced by long time OC Drevno".

Imagine our next coahcing search will last 1 minute, no change in culture, no taking chance on hot name at mid tier school. Whether Harbaugh stays until he retires, or eventually takes another shot at NFL, I assume he would be leaving the program with someone whom he trusts to continue the exact same tradition. 


Ali G Bomaye

January 6th, 2016 at 5:04 PM ^

"Execution = difference between 5-7 and 10-3."

I disagree. Better execution is a part of it, but a significant part of that difference in wins is that Harbaugh's schemes put players in a position to succeed, unlike Hoke's.  

If the success of your play depends on lots of players doing very difficult things, like running a zone run into a stacked defense when you've only practiced zone blocking for a few weeks, then it's no surprise when players don't execute.  But if the success of your play depends on players making simple blocks against a defense that is expecting something completely different, like the Johnson run sharpie'd here, then execution is a lot easier.

This is why the "we just didn't execute" excuse given by Hoke at pretty much every press conference is bullshit.  It's the coach's job to put the players in a position where they can execute.


January 6th, 2016 at 10:29 AM ^

I wonder if this is something the staff saw on film when Florida played LSU.  During the game the announcers said the Michigan staff noted that they saw what LSU did to Florida, which showed them how they would be able to run between the tackles on this defense. 


January 6th, 2016 at 10:31 AM ^

I get lost in a lot of this talk tryign to identify who is who (I have a real problem figuring out a 5T vs a 3T and the Sam vs DE as well as all the outside zone step), but the diagrams and pictures helped out a lot. I am always amazed how many moving pieces on both sides are required to make a play go right or wrong.

All I saw on the initial play was the crazy block by Glasgow.  It seemed like a really fast first step for a lineman.  I hope he gets a chance to play somewhere.

Hail Harbo

January 6th, 2016 at 10:35 AM ^

The first play I like to call:  Shift right, run left, get stuffed.

The second one was the dropped snap play.  It was goal to go from the two or three yard line and it looked like they were lining up to run a QB sneak into the EZ.

Pepto Bismol

January 6th, 2016 at 11:03 AM ^

Unless they were going to do something extremely wild, it looked like that was going to be a quick hitter to Houma.  Looked like Glasgow double-clutched the snap and Jake was pulling away turning to his left - which I assume would've resulted in him shoving the ball in Houma's gut for a dive. 


January 6th, 2016 at 12:57 PM ^

funny on that fumbled snap i didnt even notice untill watching later.. the nose tackle had jumped offsides and made contact with the center who snapped the ball early causing the fumble.. of coarse the anouncers were to busy making the point that michigan tried to get too fancy with the shifting they were doing.


January 6th, 2016 at 10:41 AM ^

Sweet audio on the slo-mo run video. Every breakdown from here on out should have it's own soundtrack. That was one of the plays that stood out to me while watching the game realtime because of how Glasgow handled that blitzing LB. Thanks for the analysis. Keep up the good work!


January 6th, 2016 at 11:06 AM ^

I actually watched that kickout by Graham multiple times in the first clip. Holy hell that was a great response to the perfectly timed blitz... just used the Florida guys momentum to divert him away from the run instead of trying to stop him.


January 6th, 2016 at 11:21 AM ^

Thanks Seth.  Very informative.  It also seems like the improved passing game made a huge difference by forcing the defense to play honest.  Have you noticed any indications that this did indeed change the dynamics for our running game over the year?  (e.g. differences in how opposing safeties lined us and where they were assigned)


January 6th, 2016 at 1:39 PM ^

balance is massive - gotta keep Ds honest and guessing.  most everyone across the board improved and developed as the season progressed and the team improved in kind - how good to great teams operate but impressive nontheless.

rudocks accuracy, confidence, decision making, etc cant be praised enough, particularly given his first half of the season.  the passing game was lethally efficient over seasons second half (for most part) and really elevated this team.  and rudock and his guys were usually pretty efficient in the scoring area which also proved huge.  

the run game vs florida was impressive and step in right direction (and balance, efficient and excellent QB play, development over the season and during bowl prep, etc all played a part) but they still have a ways to go to reach the desired 200-300 yard rushing O machine.   good news is this staff def has the coaching chops to accomplish their goals with the right guys (and theyre recruiting those talented guys willing to work)


January 6th, 2016 at 11:44 AM ^

Awesome stuff Seth - and further validates Brian's (? Maybe yours) previous comment about how Harbaugh loves messing with a defense's run fits. Rest assured that posts like these greatly assist individuals such as myself who would absolutely miss a. the subtle deception (counter/literal faux pas), and b. the previous plays used to set it up.


January 6th, 2016 at 12:03 PM ^

Hm. I wouldn't label the Drake Johnson play a "counter," and I also wouldn't label it a zone play. Really, it's a pretty simple play where the line is blocking down (with some combo blocks), the FB kicks out, and the other FB leads on the playside ILB. 

Mainly, I think it's interesting that Florida had no idea how to line up against it. It looked like they weren't prepared for three backs to line up in the backfield.


January 6th, 2016 at 12:44 PM ^

It's not a zone play it's a counter off outside zone. Backside ISO with zone stretch action? Labeling isn't my department. I was trying to convey that the counter here is that he shows the DL stretch action from the line, even though M doesn't run stretches much, which gets DL to start fighting to what will be the wrong side of their blocks.

Rudock makes a frontside pivot to help--if the WLB is supposed to be watching for an FB dive as I imagine he would, that should convince him to take a step to the frontside and maybe pull his eyes off Houma and stick a toe in the direction of that frontside B gap.

The sell of the zone stretch only has to last for that one second. Then the OL cut off their slides, let the DL win their race to the frontside gaps, and seal at the same moment the RB starts coming down the backside with two blockers.


January 6th, 2016 at 12:55 PM ^

Question? I can't see a better view of the field. What if "The Drake" takes a few steps towards the tackle then cuts back right up the middle of the field? Kalis seals off #42, is there a FS right there I can't see? I wonder which hole that play was designed for? Or his hole designation only for pop warner ball now. 

Space Coyote

January 6th, 2016 at 1:18 PM ^

Some people call it "Lead Queen" because of the king block that happens with the FB and OT combo on the DE to the playside LB (King is TE-OT, Queen is OT-OG (you're subbing the FB in "lead" for one of the linemen), Jack is OC-OG; difference between King, Queen, and Jack and Trey (Counter Trey), Deuce, Ace are who you block in the second level from the combo block; the former attacks frontside, the latter the backside). FB kicks the end.

I don't like names like "King" or "Counter Trey" because the blocking changes based on the front. Some a "Lead Gap" or something similar is my preference.


January 6th, 2016 at 1:33 PM ^

Are they playing poker now?

I hate it when coaches try to get cute.  Football is hard enough without introducing jargon that has nothing to do with your actual assignment.  And if the nicknames are based on who blocks the DE, god forbid the DL stunts or you've just coached your players to run into each other.  Yeah, the offense dictates where the gaps are (by definition, really) so hey let's keep it simple.

Space Coyote

January 6th, 2016 at 1:43 PM ^

They really aren't at all creative, they are simple names to give certain calls. Trey, Deuce, Ace are all essentially the same combo block (it doesn't need to be a DE, it's whatever defender has gap responsibility between the two blockers), just between different blockers (so the names relate, and they work in progression down the line). King, Queen, Jack is the same way. So are TAG, GATE, CAGE, EAT, which are also combo calls (TAG = Tackle and Guard, CAGE = Center and Guard, etc). They are calls to make the game easier.

But yes, the front dictates the blocks. Usually on "Counter Trey", there is a Trey block, which is why it's called Counter Trey (which differs from Counter F which uses a FB as a lead blocker rather than a backside puller). I'm the last to say that football jargon is simple at first, but almost everything in football is named a certain way because eventually it makes it easier.


January 6th, 2016 at 9:04 PM ^

There are different names for similar plays, but I just think labeling plays like this as "zone runs" can be somewhat misleading. "Zone" can mean several things, but the definition it has largely taken on is that of what we ran a lot of under Rodriguez (and some under the past couple staffs) - combo blocks in one direction moving up to the second level.

I guess I'm also confused by the terminology you're using regarding Rudock's footwork. On this particular play, Rudock "reverses out" or does a "reverse pivot" in which he opens up to the backside of the play. The "frontside" would be the direction that the play is run (to the left), so since he opens up to the right, it's a reverse pivot. Also, the back (Johnson) doesn't show any counter step to the right and simply takes a position step to the left, so I don't know how much deception is there. Truthfully, the only misdirection in the play is the reverse pivot.

Anyway, I'm not trying to shoot you down, because I appreciate the analysis. I like the diagrams and videos and such. It's just the terminology is a little confusing.

As I mentioned above, I think the really curious thing about a play like this is that with the way Florida aligned, this play was pretty much destined to be successful if the OL and FBs did their jobs adequately. Michigan has shown plenty of looks like this throughout the year, but they seemed completely unprepared to stop the Power I formation. As an offense, you generally want to have enough blockers to block every man in the box, or at least have your QB option one of them off. But in this alignment, Michigan has eight blockers (5 OL, 1 TE, 2 FB) to block 7 guys (3 DL, 4 LB). It probably would have been smart for Florida to roll one of the safeties up into the box, but they just biffed the call, I guess.


January 6th, 2016 at 12:06 PM ^

What I love about these two clips (and what was evident all game) is how fierce our blocking was. I don't think you could count how many times we laid out a Florida defender with our blocking. I thikn this is what makes a Harbaugh offense so efficient. 

How many times was Rudock sacked? Hurried? Knocked down?

How big were those holes for our RB's? How about our WR's picking up huge blocks as well?

Houma, Kerridge, Poggi, our entire OL, (heck, even Rudock laid some wood on a cut back run). 

Having players that know their assignment, and can execute (with authority a la Houma and Kerridge), are the differences between this team from the last decade (heck, even from the start of the season). 

It's amazing to have watch this team grow under Harbaugh and Co. 

With us returning 4 of 5 OL, the only question mark is can we replace the sheer power blocking of Houma and Kerridge. And I think we can. Poggi looks the part. And Harbaugh has been practicing that LB (blanking on his name) as a FB. 

Next year is going to be special. Can't wait to see a complete season mirroring what we saw against Florida. 


January 6th, 2016 at 1:01 PM ^

Harbaugh/Drevno also add little unconventional wrinkles that turn basic plays into big hits.  The 2015 Citrus Bowl is the first time I recall seeing a QB seal a guy.

It didn't take much.  He's taken worse hits.  Hell, as long as you're going to involve the QB in the running game, Denard and DG took much worse hits.  The Florida defender had to choose between going around him (leaving him no hope of catching the RB) or try to pancake a QB.  The latter sounds easier but Rudock's 208 lbs and wasn't defenseless.  Backside pursuit got stopped cold.  Either that's a heads-up play by Rudock or fiendishness by Harbaugh, but that wasn't a broken play (even without the block the play gets decent yardage) and I'd assume a QB (especially with bupkus behind him) doesn't blatantly block a guy without the HC's explicit permission, so I'm daring to think that may have been Rudock's version of a trap block.  It didn't look unsafe and he only did it once, so. . .

FB dive, QB blocking, WR crack blocking a DE. . . Harbaugh hasn't invented anything, but I'd hate to play against him because he'd find a way use my own shadow against me.