Neck Sharpies: Free Safety Economics, Part I

Submitted by Seth on March 9th, 2016 at 12:15 PM

The administration of D.J. Durkin really showed what can be accomplished when you let a safety play free. Unburdened from the strictures of run-stopping, Michigan's free safety in its Cover 1 system had the luxury of reacting to anything that could happen downfield. If you wanted to go deep, you had to test the corners on the sidelines. The defense put up some of the best raw passing numbers in the country, and but for an odd number of dropped interceptions and the weirdness against Minnesota the advanced stats would have matched. Then we met Ohio State, and the bubble burst.

The things we're hearing about Brown's defense is he's a bit more of a socialist when it comes to distribution of run responsibility. While he's happy to let the freedom ring against passing teams, against running teams he will keeps his safeties down where they can help. That doesn't mean he runs quarters like Virginia Tech or Michigan State or Ohio State, but it has led to optimism around these parts because we take it to mean Brown's going to have the same strengths against spread to run offenses that those defenses have.

I figured it might be good to show the two approaches. Let's start this week with Durkin's. Here's how not to defend a speed option:

That was bad. Letting the offense flank you is bad. Letting a running quarterback in a mostly running offense walk to your edge for 8 yards on 3rd and short and not even need his pitch man against your absolute base defense is bad.

If there was such a thing as program RPS this is where Urban Meyer dropped a +3 on D.J. Durkin. This blog's best X's and O's advisor Steve Sharik lost his excrement at this, and explained why at the time. I'll go over it again simply because it matters in what we're looking for from Brown.

[Why? What can be done? Well for starters you can hit the JUMP]

Here's what happened. Michigan was playing the variation of its 1-high coverage where the backside safety (as opposed to the linebacker normally) has the RB. That safety will come screaming off the edge as an extra attacker but with his eyes on the RB—if the back goes out in a pattern the safety has to re-route to cover. It's hard but Michigan's athletic safeties were a good fit for it. The other safety will stay high and has the tight end if he goes into a pattern. The corners and the nickel all have their guys in man.

The strategy is very strong against passing teams, especially since the corners are all very difficult to beat over the top. It's strong against under-center running teams too; the best run gaps have DL shooting them, two linebackers are hanging around in short zones, and there's a safety screaming in at you from the backside.


If the offense motions the TE across the formation, the safeties just flip jobs.


That's fine. But that's not quite what Michigan was lined up like. This is what Michigan was lined up like:


That's bad.


That far back Wilson can watch the quarterback then track the ball wherever it's thrown, taking away lobbing long balls over the middle and allowing the corners to play aggressive underneath. Having him nominally taking the tight end, who will be a blocker as often as not, frees up someone else to wander around sewing havoc.

Against this play however, both the deep safety and the blitzing backside safety are useless. The RT got a free release to cut Morgan, and Gedeon got caught behind. The quick upfield attacks of the DL just seals those guys inside. Barrett doesn't even have a defender to read for the option; he can sail out of bounds before Jourdan Lewis caps the gain. Urban Meyer, one week removed from the single worst game plan in Buckeye history, just ate Durkin's lunch.

So their scissors beat our paper. Happens right? Sometimes I'd say yeah but when they're shredding one of the base things you do, there's a deeper problem than "doh, wrong guess."

The structural problem here is Michigan taking luxuries it can't afford against an excellent rushing offense. Here the ball is in Barrett's hands, the OL have released with an outside step, and the defense has already been out-flanked:


Count our guys in the picture and count theirs. Ohio State, who is not likely to screw up an advantage, has a big one that every survivor of Hoke punting ought to be familiar with: they're playing 11 on 10.

Philosophical Elevens. QB rushing offenses (including options and early 20th century snap-to-run offenses like Michigan used in 2010) of all varieties make the quarterback part of the rushing team. Rich Rodriguez was fond of saying you're forcing the defense to play all 11 offensive players, suggesting that an under-center running team, by having the quarterback basically hand off then stand there, really only has 10. You'll note that Michigan stayed in its one-high defense against Florida and suffocated that (not very good) offense except when Florida's quarterback made a play with his legs. When those legs are built into the offensive system, a defense can no longer afford the luxury of burning a defender every play to stop deep passes. Bringing down the safety then opens up long passing. Perfectly executed there is no better offense in football.

But that execution is quite the operative caveat. Option football is expensive to learn. You can teach the basic plays easily enough, but to make it a base offense you need your quarterback to get very good at making the right reads against all the defenses in the world. You also need that quarterback's legs to be worth a defense's expenditure, while adding the quarterback's head to the list of things that could go wrong to ruin a play, and the quarterback's passing ability to be good enough to punish a defense for bringing the safety back down.

And it typically takes several seasons of snaps in the system to make a guy a savant. That's why Cam Newton—not just a generational talent but an upperclassman generational talent—was worth every penny that half the SEC offered him. It's also why Saban—who would eat however many puppy orphan nuns it takes to win—is loathe to switch over, since wasting a class or two of five-stars on a 60-ish offense is not an option. (Urban left Utah when Alex Smith did, tried to retire when Tebow graduated, then did retire after a 7-5 season, so we haven't seen him go through a rebuild cycle yet).

There's no guarantee that Michigan could have shut down Ohio State whatever they did. Bringing a safety down opens up vertical passing, on a chilly but pleasant enough day, with Michael Thomas roaming around out there and J.T. Barrett a quite efficient passer. I doubt Michigan would have been let off that particularly hook to anything approaching the degree to which Dantonio was.

And it's not like stacking the box guarantees a stop. Two plays later Michigan brought down both safeties on a 2nd and 3 from the 13, got a zone read, and got a freebie when the center released into air. Granted Gedeon should have been there then, but with Boren off balance this could have been a stuff at the line if Gedeon could just have his eyes in his hole. Instead he's watching the hole that Henry, Taco (the optioned guy) and to a degree Peppers are all sitting in:


Back to the original play, even playing 11 on 10, there's no guarantee Ohio State has success. Maybe Peppers can get off his block and squeeze it. Maybe Morgan will hightail it outside and the RT will miss his cutblock. Maybe Taco will shoot through his gap so fast that Barrett will have to pitch early and the rest of the defense can string it out. There are ways to beat this play, especially if the offense screws anything up.

Being good at football matters as much or more than scheme. Morgan getting cut was bad. Gedeon taking a bad route to the football was bad. But at least give your linebackers a chance to screw it up.

So Cover 1 sucks? Knocking Durkin for playing all year with the luxury of a so-deep-he's-not-in-the-picture free safety all year is incorrect. For most of the schedule it was a good strategy to spend the extra value the DL was generating elsewhere. But walking into the Ohio State game with that plan was the football equivalent of keeping your lunch money in inside-out pockets. The bully might take it from you anyway—he's one of the best lunch money extractors in school after all—but make him work for it! Argh!


Cranky Dave

March 9th, 2016 at 12:30 PM ^

is that Brown will be less dogmatic in playing a 1-high look making things more challenging for offenses.  seems like a good idea to me, but I'm no DC. 


March 9th, 2016 at 12:31 PM ^

was poor LB play. Too many times taking poor angles, getting caught up in the wash, not shedding blocks and reacting too slowly. It seemed those things plagued their play most of the season.

As far as stopping the option it comes down to discipline assignments. Everyone picking up their man and the defense trusting their teammates to do their job. DL filling their gaps, backside LB is taking the fullback on a triple option, playside LB is blasting the QB even after he pitches and safety picking up the pitch man. Players have to turst their teammates are doing their job, because if the LB picking up the QB peel off to get the pitch then QB keeps the ball and has a huge gain. Can't worry about where ball is, just doing your assingment. It is tough discipline and can be almost as tough to learn as a QB who runs the option.

Crisler 71

March 9th, 2016 at 3:00 PM ^

Back in the 70s when Oklahoma and Nebraska were both running pure triple option offences they used to practice defence against the scout team offence with no ball.  You learned who you had to tackle and the goal was to tackle everyone.  If your assignment was the pitchman, you took the pitchman.  The when the game came around you still took the pitchman regardless of where the ball was.


March 10th, 2016 at 6:34 AM ^

If you keep doing what you've proposed, coaches will figure out the defensive assignment and instead option off the LB or S and just go for a big play. Not easy to say do 1-2-3 and expect it to work all game long. I've seen variation of options like midline read, veer, inverted veer, straight zone read, triple option, and ton of packaged plays.

Sent from MGoBlog HD for iPhone & iPad


March 9th, 2016 at 12:41 PM ^

Thank you Seth!

Incorporating the QB into the run game is the single best thing an offense can do in my mind.  I love it when Michigan does it, I hate it when opposing teams do it.  So of course OSU has to be THE team that does it, well, perhaps best in the country.

I hope Brown is scheming to flat out neuter OSU this year.


March 9th, 2016 at 12:53 PM ^

Being at the game and watching Barrett seem to not even have to consider pitching it on several read option plays was beyond brutal.  And to have the most talented team on our schedule start out with a schematic advantage in some instances, is even worse. Finally, how the Indiana game wasn't a wake up call regarding the defensive game plan for OSU is really puzzling. Still really have not cleared on either of those.

I'm really looking forward to seeing what coach Brown can do with the talent, especially with what he achieved at BC.


March 9th, 2016 at 1:07 PM ^

"Ahem, excuse me professor" (raising hand from the back of 1800 Chem). 

"Do we really NEED to re-watch that OSU game video, or can we just remember from we watched it the first time? Asking for a friend"


March 9th, 2016 at 1:12 PM ^

Wasn't the issue on that play they weren't even lined up properly shouldnt there have been a defender on the left instead of the extra on the right? I recall there were mutliple times this game that the defense was not lined up properly.    

Maybe it was a play call but that would be a terrible play to call considering the situation. Backside blitz in obvious run down.  It is like we were playing rock paper sissors but revealing our rock before hand.

Space Coyote

March 9th, 2016 at 1:18 PM ^

Michigan's alignment is incredibly broken from the jump. This is a big reason why I think Bolden played so much last year, he at least communicated what he needed to. There is such an obvious communication breakdown on this play (no DC would ever have their team align like this on purpose).

Before the snap, Michigan is down 3 gaps, with Taco aligned inside the RT. C gap, D1 Gap, D2 Gap or E Gap (the option adds an additional gap playside). And if the RG can reach the DE, they are leveraged with 4 gaps. It doesn't matter if the FS is at LB depth, the alignment is just screwed. And likely it's a communication breakdown at the LB level. Gedeon should have communicated the motion, Morgan should have corrected if he didn't do his job. But Taco should have kicked out, or a LB should have kicked out, or the safeties should have flipped (such that the blitzing safety took deep center and the FS came up to play the edge), or Peppers should have blitzed and the FS cover his man, or some combination of all of those things.

I'm guessing Morgan was supposed to kick outside (Gedeon is yelling and pointing at him) and didn't. He would then maintain outside leverage on the TE, force the play back inside, where Gedeon and the rest of the defense was flowing from, or it forces the offense to stretch out really wide and allows the FS and other DBs to rally.

But this was so obvious I remember watching this live and immediately thinking "speed option right", OSU wasn't going to miss it.

Anyway, Michigan did something a lot last year called playing a "soft edge". They lined up the DEs head up or inside the EMOL. The idea was that Michigan's DE could essentially two-gap the EMOL. By doing this, they could control the edge and protect the LBs. They were able to force the ball to stretch really wide or go back inside and essentially play both all year except in two games: Indiana and OSU. It should come as no surprise that those were the games where Michigan went up against the best OTs (Conklin was banged up in the MSU game and the rest of the offense had enough issues that it didn't become a problem).

Personally, I prefer having a guy at the LOS maintaining edge responsibility. I get the point of a soft edge, but it really leaves you in a susceptible to getting leveraged and then the defense being immediately broken. In the above play, Michigan got leveraged by 3 guys, and the play is immediately broken and Michigan can't recover. Playing a hard edge can leave a guy not being in the mix to make a play, but it prevents busts in the run game and allows the rest of the defense to rally. I wish Michigan would have mixed it up a bit more last year to adjust to the level of the opponent in this regard. If they had a hard edge on the play above, the play at least needs to bounce farther outside or cut back inside into the flow of the defense, which is much better than the result we saw.


March 9th, 2016 at 2:28 PM ^

This is essentially what I was coming here to say. It sounds like something that Brady Hoke repeatedly over and over again, but this play was more about execution than scheme. You can play the option with a deep safety, or you can put 11 guys in the box; but if you don't execute, things will go poorly. Michigan didn't line up properly, and they got gashed. Whether it's Alabama or Clemson or Boston College lined up across from Ohio State, getting guys out of position pre-snap is a recipe for disaster.

This is why coaches preach Stance, Alignment, Assignment. And if you screw up your alignment (Michigan did), then you'll screw up your assignment (Michigan did).


March 9th, 2016 at 3:05 PM ^

on the money.  Great offenses will put you in these positions over and over every game and it is up to the coaches on the field to react, see it coming and make those pre-snap adjustments so we are not RPS'd repeatedly.  Urbz offense is predicated on finding the highest percentage play against the set defense and running the piss out of it.  You can't stop it, tough tits here it comes again.  Having Jake in the middle with his knowledge of the game and film study helped us mask what was a very so-so D Line in '14.  The fact that both Morgan and Bolden struggled with IDing play calls and formations is an absolute indictment of the prior staff, and you do have to point a lot of that blame at the feet of Mattison.  Not that he didn't properly tutor them, but too changes within the coaching groups and not enough 1-on-1s between him and those LBs.  

We got further and further exposed as the season went on last year because Durkin didn't have a counter punch.  It's fine to play cover 1 press man 90% of the time like we do, but you have to be creative with the other 8 guys on the field and they have to know their assignments and be downhill wreckers.  There just was not enough instictual play out there last season especially as the season went on.  Too much thinking and not enough reacting.

Wolverine In Iowa 68

March 9th, 2016 at 1:25 PM ^

What I want to see when we walk into the Whore's Shoe in Colon-Bus this year...


11 DUDES on the field stuffing those GUYS back into those inside out pockets and taking our lunch money right back


March 9th, 2016 at 1:49 PM ^

Durkin did a decent job last year, but he checked out the week of the OSU game.

I still don't know how/why he was given permission to interview with Maryland the week of the biggest game of the season.

I couldnt see Bo or Lloyd's DCs pulling that.  Some will say this is a different era...but its not that.  He could have easily told Maryland to wait 1 week.

Sextus Empiricus

March 9th, 2016 at 2:10 PM ^

The '15 OSU game is not lost in the current DC it seems if meta thinking the paltry info we get from Florida is possible.

It's frustrating when the film fans see is not centered on the D.