After getting stretched time and again by Indiana, one of Penn State's first plays sprung excellent freshman RB Saquon Barkley for a 56-yard gain. Terror struck. Michigan then proceeded to hold the Nits (shout-out to RoUMel) backs to just 17 yards on 15 carries. What happened on that one run? Did it happen again? Did we learn to stop this all of a sudden, or maybe Franklin shelved it the rest of the game because it wasn't sporting? Let's find out.
What were they doing?
he can cut into any gap
And to zoom in on the important part:
Zone stretch or outside zone is a basic part of any zone running offense. Teams that use it most effectively are those with nimble offensive linemen. Where inside things are about blowing the defense back to make holes, stretch plays try to flank the defense.
For the OL it starts with the same rules as inside zone: if you're "covered" by a defensive lineman you block that guy, if you're not you release to block a linebacker, and if you're lined up playside of a DL you combo then release. Then you block depending on what those defenders are trying to do: if they shoot inside you seal, if they slant away you shove and make them over-slant—they'll really have no choice but to try to ride you and stay playside. Then the RB picks his hole based on whichever block went the best.
[After the jump: Michigan had a solution, which had a problem.]
Penn State had been doing mostly inside zone and power runs this year, so this was definitely installed after they watched Indiana rip apart Michigan with this play, like so:
That's virtually the same play from the same formation (except a pistol instead of shotgun) that Penn State used. It punishes a few things that Michigan does.
1. It's a kind of man beater. Our favorite coverage is man-free. Michigan has been getting away with using six guys against the run all year, with the other five guys taking care of coverage. Man defenders can't help in the run game until it's mitigation time; their first order of business is go with the receivers. Steve Sharik this week wrote two excellent diaries on that business; the short of it is if Michigan could throw some scissors at this once in awhile to cut down on the instances of paper. Paper in this case would be more zone coverage, which allows you to activate the safeties (e.g. Peppers) in your run fits. With the man free Michigan's playing, there's no edge help for the DL; Wormley has to get that on his own.
2. It's not killed by M's DL being so good off the snap. Michigan's rock has been beating up opponents' rock all year because our DTs get upfield hyper-quick, especially Maurice Hurst. Indiana mitigated that somewhat by having the handoff so deep; the RB is lined up 8 yards off the LOS and gets the ball 7 yards in the backfield. But mostly they managed to use Michigan's upfield aggressiveness against them.
Here's a snapshot of the Indiana run above right before the handoff:
We are less than a second into the play and already Hurst has pushed the center two yards behind the LOS. Blow a fool back like that against any inside run and you've cut off ever direct route downfield.
But that also requires the discipline to still have your lane, either by controlling both sides of your block (arms extended) or just fighting over there and trusting your buddy's got your back. On a stretch play that's hard because the OL are moving laterally. Hurst may be in the backfield but he's about to be…
…reached. Remember Hurst lined up playside of that center. This is bad. Aside: it does happen, though. When Ryan Glasgow would shoot upfield he was excellent at keeping leverage using his arms and ripping free to playside. Hurst is still working on that.
Since Hurst shot upfield the guard got a free release on Morgan, who's got the next gap over, but that's going to be very hard to close down. A lot of defenses will prefer the NT delay a guy who's lined up playside of him from getting the LBs instead of trying to get upfield as soon as possible. Northwestern's NTs for example tend to do a lot of little holding to keep the LBs clean. That's a 3-4 mentality, though, and Michigan's defense is very much the opposite. M wants to get into gaps quickly. The above is fine as long as everyone stays in his gap.
If Morgan sees the play he can shoot the gap or at least bang the G back into the hole. He does what he can, engaging, staying playside, then disengaging and shooting into his gap. For a gap-sound defense Morgan did his job.
Wormley did not. The LT, Jason Spriggs, gave ground to get playside, and his feet and hands are so quick that it's all Wormley can do to stay with him. Jordan Howard further complicated matters by making this little false step inside.
I think Wormley saw that and started playing both sides of his block. As soon as that happens, against an OT with feet as quick as Spriggs, Wormley has been edged.
This happened a lot against Indiana. It's also a thing Ohio State does a lot of. Penn State certainly saw it and adapted. Michigan certainly needed a plan for defending it. We'd have one.
So what about Penn State?
Other than running from a shotgun, they increased their splits.
Those are huge gaps between the linemen, a thing a lot of spread teams like to do to widen those running lanes and force burly run defenders to cover more space. Michigan responded by widening the DL; the NT is almost head up with left guard to make it more difficult for that guard to release and the center to reach him.
Michigan's also going to call a slant here. Remember above vs. Indiana where the strong safety (Delano Hill) was just kind of sitting back in man on the TE and wound up being mostly useless to the play? Well PSU's TE isn't much of a downfield threat, so Michigan's going to risk leaving him open to have Dymonte Thomas come on check-blitz (he's gotta re-route if the RB leaks out that way). This will let the other defenders slant right toward the direction of the play. The plan is everybody's moving that way, all gaps get covered, and the RB has nowhere to go.
This time the plan did not go so well. Off the snap the OL get an excellent jump. M's slant is already out-slanted.
The LBs have to check the zone read before getting into their gaps. The frontside seems to be going well, with Hurst delaying the release of the LG and Taco's wide stance making it very difficult for the LT to do anything with him. Morgan diagnoses and high-tails it for his gap. Brian mentioned in the game column that he thought this was a little too aggressive. I defer to his judgment there, but take it as another example of why linebacking is hard, because that releasing guard is going to make a crease if Morgan can't get playside of him. What Hurst can do is delay that release long enough for Morgan to track the RB and make him commit to a hole. Given what transpired last week, I can't blame Morgan too much for shooting to the B gap as soon as he's sure the RB has it.
What's not going as well is the backside. I think Bolden needs to be getting aggressive as soon as he sees the slide action since Dymonte has the backside and that backside A gap was, by PSU's alignment, a dangerous spot.
Henry's job, like Hurst's, is to keep his shoulder aligned to that guard's so he can't get a free release. The RT is going to try to get to him of course but Henry lined up inside and is slanting—there's no way that tackle should be able to flank him. At most the RT will get a diving attempt at a cut.
And whaddaya know…
The RG has a free release, Henry is going down, and Bolden is still not reacting. The time for making a super play in the backfield is over; it's down to whether they can mitigate. Flash forward a few frames:
Huge gap. In fact the cut block on Henry essentially made both the backside A and B gaps into one huge running lane. The lesson is if you're going to play aggressive, get into your gaps no matter what it takes. If you can even delay the rest of the team can rally and mitigate.
They did it again, didn't they?
Yeah, though they didn't run it again until the 2nd quarter. This time Michigan had Strobel and Godin instead of Hurst and Henry.
It went slightly better but still not great. Godin got cut by the RT just like Henry did:
The difference is this time the nose, Strobel, didn't occupy the LG so much; rather he got upfield, which constricted the hole left by Godin (#99) getting knocked down. The downside of that is there's an LB releasing onto Gedeon (in for Morgan), and like Hurst in the first play vs. Indiana there's a chance Strobel could get reached by the center.
Strobel does lose his gap, only getting an arm out to delay, and the announcer gives him a hard time for that because these announcers are dumb and think a nose tackle two yards deep in the backfield with nobody guarding the gap behind him is being lazy. I think once Godin was down Strobel made the best of the situation; being upfield forced a quicker decision by Barkley, and not being too aggressive to the playside A gap meant Barkley couldn't take the lane he used last time. Instead it's Strobel's gap:
Gedeon did his job by coming up to pop the guard while RJS constricted space, but as always happens when blockers lined up backside get playside there's a lane. The RB is through. But this time fortunately Bolden was cheating a bit to playside instead of lining up directly over the RB. He manages to stay playside of that guard, and he and Gedeon should hold this to 4 or 5 yards, but…
…Bolden got egregiously held in front of a Big Ten ref. DLERP. 15 yards.
So tell me we fixed this?
Yup. Well kinda.
Sorry the video and sound don't line up
Let's follow Barkley as he probes.
Backside B gap (yellow): The backside tackle again tried to cut Henry; that's the guy on the ground on the upper hash:
But this time Henry is able to remain upright and continue flowing into his lane, which means there will be no backside A gap.
Frontside A gap (blue): Hurst fired into his slant so fast the center can do nothing but a subtle hold. Move along.
Frontside B gap (red): Morgan read the play as soon as his guard released so he's got that lane covered.
Frontside C gap (green) RJS has been controlling the RT and steadily moving the edge upfield. Barkley will have to cut upfield to go around it.
Everybody's playside. The RT rips RJS's jersey off his shoulderpads to give the edge, but play has been strung out long enough now, and Jenkins-Stone forced that OT far enough upfield that Peppers has had time to rip past his man and make the stop for no gain.
Lessons for Ohio State?
This is going to be way more Indiana than Penn State, and if the Buckeyes' hadn't gone into their last game like they'd never seen MSU play football before I'd say it's a 100% certainty they'll try this a lot. I mean, they've got Zeke Elliott and a strong zone read game to keep the backside from crashing.
An Eagles blog asked their DC Billy Davis about it when Philadelphia got torn up by it and I couldn't have said this better:
"It's gap discipline," said Davis. "The stretch run is all about gap discipline and having the bodies in the right place and everybody having their face in their gap and then holding it because it moves quick on you. So you have to keep your feet.
"That's the other thing when people start getting cut out in the stretch run... so you gotta be athletic enough and strong enough to continue to keep your face in the gap to make sure you have that gap integrity."
Michigan does seem to be a little weak against this particular offense, especially when the backup DTs are rotated in. It's just the makeup of this DL. Hurst is very quick upfield but his penetration becomes a disaster if Henry's cut. Henry is very strong but also very low-centered and not the fastest twitch. Morgan and Gedeon will pop a guard back but Bolden…I think he's been discussed enough.
The best thing you could do against zone stretch is not even let those guards release (from the Indiana UFR):
But that is hard to do and required an spread alignment for the DTs to get Henry in the right spot before the snap. Keep doing an unsafe thing and they'll burn you. You should still be able to just keep your nose in a hole and delay that release a little.
It'll just be up to Harbaugh to mitigate the times the backups are on the field; they did a good job of it against Penn State, but Ohio State does know how to use tempo. When they are, I fear there isn't an easy solution for this particular kryptonite. Those guys are good at getting upfield; they seem to have a longish way to go when it comes to keeping balance and winning the race to the gap. Neither were made to be DTs.