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 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!