Neck Sharpies: Oh I'm Sorry Were You Keying That? Comment Count

Seth September 25th, 2018 at 4:12 PM

Nebraska fixed their atrocious linebackers by giving them aggressive reads. So Michigan unfixed them. [photo: Eric Upchurch]

I had a very hard time pulling anything interesting from this game. I wanted to see Michigan dominating with skill, speed, and play design, but the takeaway after a rewatch was Nebraska's linebackers were responsible for much of the Michigan offense's explosive day.

This was something of a surprise. In the film preview I thought the Huskers had found a good player in WLB Mohamed Barry (#7) and a serviceable one in MLB Dedrick Young (#5) by giving them easy Keys and telling them to play those aggressively. I think Michigan saw this too, and also a way to use that to make Nebraska's linebackers atrocious again.

So the play in question is the first snap of Michigan's second drive. They had already used it for a big Higdon run on the first drive but Nebraska did some funny stuff that time while this was straight-up pwnage.

Michigan is running two concepts on this play to screw with the Nebraska LBs' Keys. On the frontside it's Down G, and on the backside it's a Wham Block. Let's go over the bolded terms.

About Keys

One of the great things about about Down G is how it messes with "Keys." Keys are cheats that defenses use to get extra defenders to the ball faster by identifying what the play is by certain types of backfield action. Every defense uses keys, and the game that running game coordinators are often playing is identifying what the defense's keys are then using that against them. The defense meanwhile will have different keys for different looks to punish an offense that just sticks to the plays they run well.

A highly common Key against power teams is to read your guard. The backside LB ("W" in the diagrams below) is often Keying the backside guard to decide what to do. If the guard pulls, that LB can guess the ball's going that way too and hightail it across the formation, arriving in the intended gap before the pulling guard and mucking everything up.


If that backside LB reads a zone block he doesn't activate so quickly, since he's got to cover that lane in case of a cutback. For completeness if the guard steps back to pass block, the LB knows to sink into coverage, or if the guard releases the LB knows to get playside and dodge the block.

Keying is a slider; you can use it as information while staying on your assignments, or tell your players to go hell for leather whenever they read one. Where you set that has to do with what your players are capable of doing on their own. If you have a particularly fast linebacker or one who can diagnose more things on his own, you don't have to try to cheat him into the right spot so much. Think back to 2011 Michigan with Brandin Hawthorne, who could knife through for some key stops or get caught paralyzed, versus Desmond Morgan, who though a true freshman was more diagnostic and decisive in his approach.

Nebraska is at the Hawthorne stage of a similarly wholesale rebuild. They're not as blitzball as the WMU and SMU linebackers when they Key run action, but they're up there with recent Rutgers and Minnesota teams Michigan's faced who don't wait to see the whites of their blockers' eyes before firing at a gap. As you may have derived from those memories, playing blitzball against a Harbaugh run game can get you a few stuffs followed by a good view of the back of Higdon's jersey. Except with the Huskers, it was a different shiny thing.

[After THE JUMP: Michigan's getting good at this, Nebraska was REALLY bad]

About Down G


Down G, the concept I wrote about after Michigan used it to pulverize WMU, is a counter play to a common key against Power teams. If you don't want to read that whole thing again, Down G pulls the frontside guard to kick the edge, and blocks down on the rest of the frontside defenders like a power play, but plays zone on the backside of the play. What makes it a counter is it's messing with the backside guard's key (B" in the diagram above for the 3-4 term "Backer"). The linebacker is reading zone when there's a power gap happening on the other side.

By the time he reacts it might be too late: the fullback could be through the line to pick him off, the running back could already be beyond him, or one of the other blocks on the frontside might have created a wall that this unblocked guy can't get around. Speed to the ball is the ballgame. One second wasted reacting to a lying key and the whole world might have changed.

Since Michigan's been running Down G for big gains the first quarter of the season, Nebraska was well-advised to change up the linebackers' keys.

About Wham Blocks

A wham block is a trick that teams with extra running backs in the backfield use to get a block on a lineman without using a lineman. I wrote about it in 2016 after Iowa used them too effectively against Michigan.

You can't do this all the time of course but in this day and age when linemen treat not being blocked as being optioned you can get a really good ol' fashioned fullback thwack on a guy.


The advantage of this should be quite apparent. You just took out one of their 300-pounders with your~240-pound linebacker, and you get to spend those ~60 extra pounds by immediately releasing your 300-pound lineman on a 240-pound linebacker.

Now imagine your lineman is #DIV/0! pounds and their linebacker is a modern barely 230 former safety-type who's standing flat-footed because he's reading the wrong key.

About this Play


Watching the game I'm pretty sure Nebraska's plan against Michigan's two-back formations was to have the linebackers read the fullback instead of their guards. That makes sense given what Michigan had put on film so far. Ben Mason is a true sophomore who was mostly buried last year behind two seniors. This year he has mostly run directly at the gap and hit the first thing in the wrong shirt.

Take this Down G from the WMU game:

This was WMU adjusting to the play that was killing them. The edge OLB, #57, dove inside Bredeson's block to blow up the play, and Mason still ran head-first into the intended gap while Bredeson tried to kick out the guy who wasn't actually the kickout guy (that's the overhang S who crept down). Nebraska played it that way on Michigan's first drive and got the same blocking: Bredeson didn't redirect, Mason plowed forth.

The scout on Michigan 2018, then, was don't watch the backside guard: he's a liar who Down G lies. Rather, watch the 19-year-old fullback constantly throwing himself into the gap the running back is taking. And if this was expected to be another SMU I bet Harbaugh comes out in an I form and burns a down to establish the key. Since he thought Scott Frost would give him a game, Harbaugh came ready for the counter to the counter with a counter to that. Second play from scrimmage:

Nebraska's running an exotic here with their front. The nose and backside DE are twisting and the frontside is slanting with a safety blitz added as contain, giving the defense an extra guy inside against the run. It should be a Rock/Paper/Scissors victory for Nebraska DC Erik Chinander. Not only did he buy an extra unblocked defender for this play but he prevented Michigan from getting anybody to the second level:


Onwenu can't release because the DE he was supposed to leave for Mason to Wham is instead twisting right into Onwenu's path. Ruiz sees the nose disappear to the backside and looks for work, catching the slanting frontside DE. Runyan has to pick up the SAM who darted in. Gentry also has his release delayed by that guy slanting across his path. By the time that's happened Gentry has no idea what to do and just helps seal the guy who's already sealed himself. So Nebraska has four Michigan blockers tied up with their three interior guys, and an extra run defender, freeing up BOTH linebackers to flow to the ball unimpeded. If this is Wisconsin it's a play going nowhere. It's not Wisconsin.

Watch the two inside linebackers here. One has both feet just outside the hash marks, the other has his inside foot on the bottom of the midfield 'M'.


Coming up to the mesh point the MLB (#5) steps wide with Bredeson's Down G pull and the WLB (#7) leans that way. They're now both a bit playside: #5 is in the middle of the M's serif and #7 is on the hash. If they diagnose the play and attack it's over. What are they looking at?


Let's hand off and see if they continue to head in the correct direction? Uh…nope.


It looks like #5 was keying on Bredeson. He's alone in the gap since Gentry didn't bother to try to block him. But the guy's answer to this, rather than running into the lane that's all his, is to really wide, like not even on the serif anymore.

And #7 wasn't keying the guard. He had his eyes on Mason. Mason was going backside for a Wham block. It's not the DE who was there initially but the nose who replaced him. Doesn't matter to Mason, but the linebacker here is so Keyed on Mason that the idea of a Wham block hasn't entered his mind. He cuts back to reestablish the backside gap. And then…


Too late. The MLB is now half-way up the M with a ton of space to either side of him. He's also flat-footed. A TFL is out of the question, stopping the first down is out of the question, and reversing his momentum in time to at least funnel back inside is really the only thing left he can do. Meanwhile the WLB right back where he started on the hash mark, moving laterally, and Gentry has finally popped off and come down to seal inside. Higdon gives  a fake cut outside to keep the MLB frozen on the M, then dashes inside of him as Gentry seals.


And just like that:


He's gone. A safety gets added to Karan's kill count, and MLB #5 finally chases out of bounds within Ben Masonball range of the end zone.

Run It Again

Fast forward to the first play of the next drive. Charles Woodson and Lloyd Carr are just leaving the field after a standing ovation that was only mostly for the recently inducted Heisman winner and College Football Hall of Famer. Let's see if Nebraska's linebackers have learned anything:

Uhhh…nope. Watch these same guys reacting to Ben Mason.


Quick rule of thumb: Unless they're both unblocked in the RB's face you never want to see both of your linebackers squeeze together like this at the snap. It means at least one of them is not reacting correctly to the run action in front of them. It also means the incorrect one is going to end up blocking his buddy a bit.


Doink. The replay angle was bad because nobody on this production team knows anything about football but you can see the MLB (LB who starts in the upper-right) vastly overreacting to the fullback.

Gentry takes out the MLB. The WLB has to work his way around that block while Higdon makes his cut.


With the cornerback playing so far off Michigan added a crack from DPJ to take out the safety Karan decleated on the last one. That crack occurs, and the guy loses his shoe again, and when he stands up his first thought is he'd better tie them.


Then Higdon outruns everybody down the sideline and it's 14-0. Nebraska pulled #5 for the next drive, replacing him with #3 Will Honas, a JuCo I thought was a major downgrade when he played against Colorado. At least this time he knew what to do:

This time Nebraska twisted, which again prevented blockers from releasing to the OL level and this time the NG got a little chip on Ruiz to prevent him from sealing the looping DE, who'll become relevant as Ruiz has to zone block him all the way through the gap. The new MLB however made the play by stepping into the gap when he saw Bredeson pull. WLB #7 again hung out backside for the fullback but was more ready to spring frontside. Michigan finally had to move on to the rest of the script.

The Rest of the Script

I think Harbaugh got through just half of his opening script before shelving it for a more worthy opponent. The only other wrinkle from their Down G game was a play the next drive where they convert kickout block from Bredeson to a true crack-replace pull:

They also debuted a run-screen option version with it:

And ran it from a pistol with a TE to either side so there's no fullback to read:

Again, one of the LBs just had to get into his gap and make a tackle. Again, Higdon wasn't even slowed. Nebraska linebackers: bad at football.

The staff probably expected to get Nebraska with the fullback action once, not get 90 yards running it twice. No team in the history of football can "prepare" for the opposing middle linebacker to walk himself out of a play then get so mesmerized by the same play two snaps later that he bonks into his fellow ILB. Michigan probably came in thinking they would futz with the linebackers a bit to get them to stop trying to cheat toward things they see in the backfield. While you can't expect opponents with decent linebackers (e.g. Northwestern) to completely short-circuit, convincing LBs to be more cautious about reacting to their Keys is certainly translatable, and also paid off in this game:

watch #7 , the WLB just to the right of the hash mark

Michigan happily futzed with their fullback reading the rest of the day.

What We've Learned:

While Down G is a counter play (you see how it can be beat schematically if your LBs aren't busting everything), Michigan was able to once again use it as a highly successful base running play, identifying the Keys that defensive coordinators meant to use against it and taking advantage of that. I don't think it's going to work nearly as well against Northwestern, whose best player is a 4-3 strongside end who can probably win most snaps against a Michigan OT or tight end block, and whose next best player is heady old fashioned linebacker Paddy Fisher.

It's still nice to have that wham block version out there so future opponents won't be so quick to key Mason—that's pretty crucial for maintaining his viability as a regular lead blocker. There's more to explore off this play, using Bredeson as an arc blocker, throwing a slant off play-action, and running a fullback dive off the backside.

Also nice: Karan Higdon is VERY good at running this play. Twice Nebraska had this dead to rights by their playcall, and bad linebacking aside, Higdon's cuts were able to turn that space into big yards. The more they rep this, the better Michigan is getting at responding well to the curveballs defenses send at it, and that's already paying off.



September 25th, 2018 at 4:36 PM ^

So much knowledge. Why u spill our best plays to rivalzzz?

On a serious note; how many offensive lines across the nation run such variations or power, zone, down G. As in many? few? few elite? 

Can Michigan build a line that does sophisticated blocking schemes under harbaugh once tackles are solidified to screw with teams like all the time?


September 25th, 2018 at 4:49 PM ^

WHAM G ... another wrinkle in the arsenal !  Need to keep Ol' Murderface on the field as much as possible.  That is the Harbaugh offensive identity ... "inertia meets confused bodies".  I think we have the personnel to pull it off and get damn good at a multiple of run looks off of these power concepts.  Mix that with solid play-action passing from Shea and we are becoming fully weaponized to be Harbaughian.  


September 25th, 2018 at 4:51 PM ^

I think Ruiz completely made the first play. The way he releases to the linebacker and seals him inside allows Higdon to beat the other LB who went too wide. Not sure if that's Ruiz's responsibility or improvisation but it was critical.


September 25th, 2018 at 9:01 PM ^

I think Ruiz reacted perfectly to the nose twisting away from him (and from the play). With Onwenu handling his man just fine, he was left with no one to block and just went to the next level and did a great job of sealing the LB.  

I'm also really impressed by Bredeson on these plays.  He absolutely buries his man on the first kickout block.  Even on the last run that didn't work, he did a great job of sealing the end.  I expect him to have a big UFR score.


September 25th, 2018 at 5:40 PM ^

Thanks to these posts, I recognized the play as Down G immediately when watching it originally. It is also the play where I realized how bad Nebraska was -- ignoring the LBs, the entire secondary took horrendous angles turning a 10 yard gain into a TD. 


September 25th, 2018 at 6:07 PM ^

I was pretty sure they were reading Mason hard all game live and thought that contributed to an increased role for him. 

Very dumb to have that be your primary strategy against Harbaugh who would probably prefer to mess with you using a fullback to any other four hour activity. 

Ghost of Fritz…

September 25th, 2018 at 6:09 PM ^

1.  Nice breakdown.  Very useful. 

2.  Even in the stadium it was obvious that Nebraska LBs were terrible at getting to the correct gaps.  Now we know one reason why that was so.  After several runs I found myself thinking: 'If the LB had played that correctly, it would have been just a 4 yard gain.'

3.  This will not work nearly as well against better coached Ds.  Michigan should use the NW game to get the passing game going a bit more to deal with front 7 Ds that will be more fundamentally sound than Nebraska. 

Other related things:  Even when Nebraska LBs were able to get themselves sort in the area of the correct gap, they often over-pursued and took themselves out of the play.  Nebraska secondary also were very bad at taking the correct angles to limit the gain on runs that had gotten past the LBs. 

Nebraska's D looks sort of like Michigan's D under RRod--confused, unsound, and then after a few scores sort of discouraged. 

Finally, JH is the play caller.  So which of the coaches up in the booth is responsible for deciphering which keys Nebraska was using, and then letting JH know how to counter those key reads?  I would think it is much harder to see this stuff from the sideline, where JH is located.


September 25th, 2018 at 6:15 PM ^

One other useful note on the TD run: Shea's throw fake to a slant on the backside is what kills off the playside safety (#23), who takes a false step and lets Higdon outside of him.  Great play design.


September 25th, 2018 at 6:22 PM ^

Poor damn Chris Evans, he would have had just as many yards if not more than Higdon on these plays considering they all featured giant holes and broken ankles and not powering through tackles.


September 25th, 2018 at 7:11 PM ^

Love that top video of Karan beating everyone to the edge and then to the end zone, despite LB #25 having the angle to stop him before the pileon.  Nope!!


September 25th, 2018 at 8:32 PM ^

Help me out. The DT should be reading his guard here right? Once he pulls he should be fighting over the face of the T to fill that gap. I'm old school and was taught to read through the guard to the backfield. What's the proper key here then?


September 25th, 2018 at 11:04 PM ^

Watch Shea....Brilliant.  

On the “run it again” clip Shea fakes the pass after the hand off and freezes the play side DB allowing Higdon to get the sideline.  

I love smart football and players that do the little things which amount to big things. 

Ron Utah

September 26th, 2018 at 2:09 AM ^

This is the running game we always wanted from Harbaugh. It’s smash mouth, but you don’t where the block is coming from. Getting defenders to hesitate for even a half second can create big gains. 

This down G play already has a QB read option as a counter if the defense figures out the keys. You could also run the speed option off the backside of the Down G action, though I doubt Harbaugh does that with Shea. 

Anyway, this series has been my favorite on the blog so far this season. Thank you, Seth. 


September 26th, 2018 at 9:08 AM ^

I was thinking the same thing though I expect we may see some of that this week w/ NW having presumably more disciplined LBs. My understanding is their secondary isn't the best so might be playing a bit soft to the outside. If that's the case, get the LBs chasing the pulling frontside down G action, quick pitch it to the flat (would love to see this to a late-breaking TE actually) out of a heavyset or 2TE formation. Don't know if the TE could get the backfield depth that might be necessary to setup the appropriate blocking from a WR on the outside, but I could see that as a cool play design.


September 26th, 2018 at 12:23 PM ^

I think there is a bunch of creative plays you can run out of the shotgun split back sets.  From a running standpoint you could give to the fullback instead of having him wham block the backside de. One wrinkle/clunter off it   could be a read option type play where the QB reads the linebackers instead of the de (like is traditional).  If the LB flow hard with the gaurd pull action the QB pulls and follows the FB. 

I also think there are RPOs and play action built into the playbook to go off the down g. However, I think a boot would work really well as a passing complement for the down g with FB wham action, because the FB can easily slip in the flat, and the te, on the down g side is sealing the LB, so him doing a drag would break wide open because the LB would just think he is coming to block him again. This can also be run without being on 21 or 22 psrsonpel by having the wr to the playside go in motion and fake that crack block and continue with the drag. 

There is so much you can do off the down g from a misdirection/ breaking tendancy standpoint. I can't wait to see what plays they come up with off the down g action. 


September 26th, 2018 at 9:41 AM ^

Is the next counter just following the wham block? Run Zone to the front side, Down G on the back and have Higdon follow Mason while the LBs flow the wrong way? On the play Nebraska blew up, it seems a run to the other side gets Higdon to the safties untouched again. 


September 26th, 2018 at 10:06 AM ^

Thank you, Seth for breaking this down. I love understanding why a great play worked and the chess game that is taking place between the coaches. It's pieces like this that elevate MGoBlog far above all the other football content out there. I actually am becoming a more educated fan because of stuff like this.

I mean this as the highest possible compliment when I say that you are my football sommelier.


September 26th, 2018 at 10:55 AM ^

Just in case it is not clear enough, when a lineman pulls across the formation to the playside, he creates one more gap to be defended on the playside, and one less gap to be defended on the backside. So a backer to the backside is the logical choice to leave the backside and come to the frontside, lest the defense become a man short.

A Wham (or 'Bang') block has a similar effect, of creating an extra gap by inserting another blocker.