Neck Sharpies: The Five-Tight-End Train to Trips Mesh Buttdown

Submitted by Seth on October 25th, 2016 at 4:00 PM

We were cheering so much when they brought out the train that we missed how cool the play design was that they ran with it. It’s not the most complicated play to break down, but it’s certainly the most fun I’ve had breaking one down.

All aboard:

The Train


Other than looking cool, the train formation does actually accomplish something. The defense is trying to figure out who’s got whom, but can’t actually line up and sort out the offense’s look until this weird huddle has broken. It’s hard to catch numbers with all those other dudes in the way. It might not even dawn on the defenders until the snap that all the skill position players are tight ends (or in the case of Hill, a quasi-TE turned fullback). The train doubles as a huddle—Speight walks up the line giving the playcall—but preserves a no-huddle offense’s confusion factor.

If you’re an opponent, you don’t have a lot of time to dissect the various shades of blocky-catchy. And down near the goal line you’re not going to have the luxury of playing cover 2, since any underneath dumpoff is a touchdown. With a weird formation, the simplest thing to do is call a man defense, and everybody line up in their spots.

Then Speight claps his hands to break the huddle, and everybody rushes to his spot.


[After the Jump: Why five tight ends, why mesh, and how the rule that spread teams proved unfair is also unfair for teams that run out lots of TEs and crossing routes]

The Five Tight Ends

Why tight ends? Other than tight ends love to hear there’s a program that runs a 5TE set, Harbaugh has a good reason: they’re wild cards. The train thing makes it hard but not too hard to figure out who’s who, but if they’re all tight ends it’s impossible to know who’s what. They could come out in a super-heavy formation and blast their way into the end zone, or in a five-receiver spread, or anything in between.

This formation is a trips 2TE, except with the three most blocky guys acting as receivers. You don’t see trips 2TE very often even against spread to pass teams. You see it in Hail Mary situations.

Again, it’s about confusion. The defense is thinking about matchups going badly as cornerbacks and linebackers and whatnot are matched against tight ends with varying degrees of blocking or catching skill. They’re trying to figure out what it all means. And the ball is snapped before they’re really sure. A thinking defender is not a reacting defender.

And getting the right matchup can make a play. Jake Butt versus a tiny cornerback or a linebacker who’s weak in coverage is an instant #Buttzone TD. Devin Asiasi blocking a defensive back could get your defender blown down into the other defenders’ paths to the ball. Pull the beef out of middle and you’ve got 200-pound dudes trying to stop a hammering panda. Hybrid players let you put odd skills in odd places. Of course they still have to execute with those odd skills to get a win from that.

This time the matchups were mostly for show. Wheatley ends up blocking a cornerback—that was fun—and Butt winds up in a footrace with a coverage-y linebacker, but that’s nothing you wouldn’t get if Michigan put three actual receiver-type things in the trips formation. Burly receivers.

The Mesh

And this play needs some quick reactions to stop. Mesh is the classic man-beater. The receivers run drag routes across each other, presumably with their man-to-man coverage trailing behind them. At the crossing point, the receivers pass, the coverage gets caught in the wash, and somebody’s open.


This close to the goal line they can also take advantage of college football’s extremely kind three-yard downfield blocking rule. After three yards from the line of scrimmage if you block a guy on a pass play it’s (supposed to be) pass interference. But inside three yards it’s blocking, even if the only point of the block is to interfere with a guy in pass coverage. In his Colorado FFFF Ace caught them running a “drag screen,” dispensing with the pretense of receivers passing each other and just having one guy block the man covering the other guy:

Wisconsin ran it against us too—on one Stribling managed to fight through the mesh and break it up; on the second a Wisconsin TE made a block five yards downfield, it wasn’t called, and Jazz Peavey got a 14 yard gain. Michigan downloaded it too:


Wheatley (turquoise route) is lined up on the trips side and will block pick accidentally run into the cornerback who’s covering Butt (red route) coming the other way. The other three tight ends are coming inside to draw their defenders away from Butt.

If they do catch zone, those routes should find holes between them as the inside routes become a flood concept. Wheatley is down low, Asiasi is attacking the level between the LBs and safeties, Hill is crossing in the back of the end zone, and Jocz’s job is to find a spot to sit behind anything that gets run off by Hill and Butt. If they catch a blitz, Asiasi or Jocz’s routes are “hot”, i.e. they’re running basically slants and looking back for the ball (if neither’s open the ball gets thrown out of the endzone).

Is There a Way to Defend This?

The defense’s best hope, other than playing a game of chance with zone or blitzing, is to tie up the mesh receivers at the snap. If their routes are delayed, the mesh won’t happen at the right spot, and the pass rush has more time to get home against a five-man protection. If you can jam either drag guy on his release, it can put him off his route, creating space for defenders to slip between the mesh.

Illinois did try that here; they just failed, in part because the TEs ran good routes, and in part because the Wheatley assignment isn’t as reactive to timing—he’s blocking the cornerback on Butt, not trying to rub him off and get open at a specific spot. Here are the respective releases:



butt release wheatley release

Michigan gave Butt some extra space by having him align in a bit of a Flex position, i.e. a couple of yards off the edge of the line. Butt’s first step was wide outside and he sold it so well the cornerback froze. The next step used that plant to jet inside and create the crucial cushion.

Wheatley had to deal with the SDE providing a chip before getting into his pass rush—that’s usual for a defensive end with a tight end releasing into him. Wheatley creates space to get into his route by getting off the line of scrimmage quickly, getting his arms across the shoulder of that DE, and using his size to bounce off without getting knocked into the wash or onto the ground.

Butt’s release was that of a good wide receiver; Wheatley’s was a great example of why size and hand development are important for effective tight ends. It’s questionable whether either would have been as good at executing the other guy’s release.

Behind Wheatley you can see the Illini linebackers (illinibackers?) Asiasi’s route crucially kept the SAM lined up over there inside. Even in Man 1, the linebackers will be playing short zones. As you can see the linebacker over Asiasi got his arm out to route Asiasi inside—if he gets behind the LBs then he’ll get open or get another guy open, but as long as he’s in front of the LB level he can be passed off.  A good LB will route Asiasi inside, step down in his pocket until he gets to the next LB’s zone, then fire out to next threat.

Asiasi himself got an arm out and muscled the SLB back some. In the 2nd square below the SLB should see Butt coming across and let Asiasi take himself to the MLB. Instead he got caught up handfighting to prevent Asiasi from getting depth on his route, and didn’t react to Butt coming until way too late:



It’s still Butt versus a linebacker in acres, but it’s wide open because illinibackers.

Watch again:



October 25th, 2016 at 4:17 PM ^

Great breakdown. My second favorite play of the game, behind the McDoom fake reverse that turns into a misdirection screen. My only fear is we run this and someone gets called for offensive PI for setting a pick.

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October 25th, 2016 at 9:15 PM ^

For one, like the article says it is very close to the LOS. Secondly, it us not exactly a block he runs into the guy for sure, but he is running a legit shallow drag and clearly tries to continue the route on contact. Whereas, colo, in the play mentioned in the post, has wr actually blocking and not running patterns, and that play is very rarely going to even be called for opi.
Now, state runs plays where there tes don't look for the ball or even pretend to run a pattern, instead just blatently running into defenders to free up wr from man. It happened 2 times in last year's game, with no calls despite it being down field. However, they have been called for it thus year.


October 26th, 2016 at 7:34 AM ^

Exactly right. State has been doing that a ton this year since their quarterbacks don't look for 2nd reads, so they just get the first one open with OPI. They got two OPI calls against Maryland, one pretty bogus, which suggests coaches have been complaining about it. ND lost in part because there were so many uncalled OPIs.


October 25th, 2016 at 4:19 PM ^

Why did we waste this genius call on a team like Illinois? I know we can run it again and have the same success, but wouldn't it be better not putting it on film for an opposing team? Would have loved to see this as a new play against OSU if it's a tight game.

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October 25th, 2016 at 4:32 PM ^

Because now they have to devote some of their 20 hour limit to decoding this and practicing a counter.

And I think we're already anticipating that counter. If Lovie or his DC had said, "fuck it, just blitz the shit out of them", this particular play already had two hot reads built in, a shotgun snap, and a deep drop by Speight to buy time.

Not only are we running a play designed to confuse, but we have designed it in a way that the two easiest counters (man coverage and blitzing) will still ensure the play's success.

I love Neck Sharpies. It's like pulling back the curtain.


October 26th, 2016 at 9:39 AM ^

...if they ran the train huddle with Peppers in the train, then lined up in a pistol but have Peppers and Speight shifted such that Peppers is actually reeiving the snap but Speight still does the cadence (is that even legal?). It would be one more layer of the play the defense would have to diagnose and react to. I can only imagine how many plays could be run off that either using Peppers as a true wildcat or as a decoy to get the ball back to Speight for a pass. Things that make you go 'hmmmm...'.


October 25th, 2016 at 5:19 PM ^

We've barely scratched the surface of what train can do.  As Seth wrote, all the eligible receivers are blocky/catchy hybrids.  Which means they can break out of train into a goal line set or five-wide or anything in between.  Here we blocked them, but we can also just blast them off the LoS and #PANDAHAMMER into the endzone.  It's not merely a gimmick.  It's a bad, bad situation for the defense.  Note that Butt was so screamingly open he probably could've gone 40 yards if it was 3rd-and-2 from midfield.

There's also a symbolic element.  You're about to get hit by a TRAIN.



October 25th, 2016 at 9:20 PM ^

Prepare for more than one type of play coming from the train formation. Michigan can now do the train with big boy personal and quickly get to a power run set or a shotgun 5 te set.
It is pretty much an nightmare for d cordnators because they already know harbaugh will make wrinkles in their normal formations to attack the defense they play. But now they know he is doing it with the train as well. In other words, he has more than one cool play out of the train in this offensive personal package.


October 25th, 2016 at 4:35 PM ^

I feel like the student section needs a train cheer....something like when the phone used to ring at Yost...- "PHONE" hey goalie - it's your mom, she says you Suck!


Maybe - "TRAIN" - hey (insert team) it's your mom - she says CHOO CHOO


okay- it needs work....but it's a start.


October 25th, 2016 at 5:05 PM ^

run the thing all the time. It's a different type of huddle. A lot to think about. I will say this is the start of something. Everybody's going to run this. Coach Harbaugh is a trend setter.


October 25th, 2016 at 10:29 PM ^

Elder Harbaugh gave credit to the younger for this play.  Which me thinks there is more to come from the younger in regards to out of the box thinking.  I see the play on TV and then this breakdown and I haz legitimate excitement for our future offensive packages.  Which will translate to being very inviting to recruits.  


Go Blue (let there be blue Panda monium in EL this weekend)! 


October 25th, 2016 at 5:20 PM ^

What kills me is, when you see this diagrammed, it not only makes total sense, but it's completely logical that the play will work basically no matter what the D does.  So that leads me to ask the obvious:  WHY HASNT EVERY COLLEGE TEAM SINCE FOREVER BEEN RUNNING THIS VERY PLAY?  It's as if JMFH and Drevno just discovered this tasty brown substance and they have called it "chocolate."


October 25th, 2016 at 5:47 PM ^

Teams run the mesh concept all the time and if 33 reacts better then Butt is less wide open but still probably open. I'm like 80% sure this exact play is in madden or ncaa14 but the 5 TE with the train combo is a definite harbaugh twist.


October 26th, 2016 at 9:43 AM ^

Took some nerve for Harbaugh to give his son a spot on the staff, but gotta give him credit -- Jay is doing a bang-up job.

Others have noted in this thread that Jay got the train formation idea from a Colorado high school named Chatfield that has a TE whose film he was scouting. Chatfield uses the train on occasion but their coach's father, also a coach, used it for every play back in the day (to answer another question in the thread).…

[Coach] McGatlin said Chatfield calls the play their Speed Line, and it's part of their Pyscho offense. The Chargers typically it run a few times a game, depending on the situation.

It originated from McGatlin's father, Don McGatlin, the legendary former coach at Green Mountain. Don McGatlin and Green Mountain ran it "every play," Bret McGatlin said, during the 1999 season when they won the Class 4A state title.

Chatfield is known for its fast-paced spread offense, which Bret McGatlin specializes in and is a leading proponent of in Colorado. Psycho is actually a separate offense Chatfield runs and is designed to not allow the defense to make pre-play adjustments.

"What Michigan was trying to do and what we try to do is we line up so quick that it makes it difficult for anybody for adjust to it," McGatlin said. "Our goal is to line up in less than three seconds. You really catch teams off guard. We run maybe two-to-three different formations out of it. It really is crazy."

[...] Michigan had been recruiting Chargers tight end Dalton Keene recently, McGatlin said, and actually just offered him a scholarship. Jay Harbaugh complimented Chatfield's offense, and "He just asked me to make sure we watched the game this week," McGatlin said.

"They were watching (Keene's) film. He told me they had watched every single one of our plays," McGatlin said. "Jay Harbaugh texted after the game and he said, 'Did you see it?'"

Oh, he saw it.

"I got a little emotional. I was like, 'That's my dad.' He's put that together over the course of two decades," McGatlin said. "My wife was like, 'Are you crying?!' 'No. This is just really emotional!'"


October 25th, 2016 at 5:22 PM ^

Maybe somebody who knows somebody can get the stadium music guy to play "c'mon ride the train" by the Quad City DJs when we get down to the goal line. Let's make this a thing!