Neck Sharpies: One Dead Zone Run Comment Count

Seth October 11th, 2017 at 10:27 AM

There was a rather long twitter exchange earlier this week between BiSB and former player/regular MGoBlog reader Jon Duerr about this play, a ho-hum split zone that Michigan State swarmed. Both guys saw things in this play that somewhat characterized the Spartans’ approach this game, and why Michigan had to pass to counter it. So I thought I’d draw it up.



This play has been an effective counter to the base inside zone run all year. Rather than making the tight end block the DE lined up over him, the TE releases into a linebacker, leaving that end to get clobberated by a crossing TE or FB. Defenders who think they’re trying to defeat zone blocks to the frontside suddenly find themselves sealed in place, and linebackers who thought they were flowing to frontside gaps are just putting themselves in position to be blocked by free-releasing linemen who shouldn’t have an angle on them:


Regular zone rules are otherwise in effect. The covered linemen and the next closest uncovered linemen will try to combo the DTs then work their way to the Mike and Will linebackers. With split zone however play is designed to seal the tackles—who think they’re winning at preventing themselves from getting reached—in place and release the covered guys to the linebackers, who will naturally try to flow to the frontside of those blocks. Then—“whoops”—the linebackers are on the wrong side.

What you do with your receivers is up to you (and what your opponent is doing). The tight end’s crack block on the SAM is mirrored by the split end (X)’s attack on the Will, which mimics a mesh play. Michigan added the flanker (Z) cracking a safety rather than running off a cornerback, since the CB might take himself out of the play by playing man anyway.

Michigan State snuffed it out by playing super-aggressively against the run. They’re doing three things to blow this up.

[After THE JUMP]



This matters in how Michigan State’s defense uses its safeties to free linebackers from having to patrol the edges, letting the front seven concentrate on bottling up interior gaps. Note it’s 2nd and 10, Michigan is down by 11, and this safety is still putting himself at 6 yards at the snap.

This puts the safety in a better position to defend the run, while making it harder for him to get over the top of a deep route to his side. This allows the SAM (their spacebacker, Dowell) to attack an interior gap, and the end to crash inside aggressively, since the safety should be not that far behind to clean up, if, say, the QB rolls out.


It is hard to run against MSU because they have all of those guys involved in the run game. But—and remember this is 2nd and 10—State made it even harder.



This was the crux of Duerr’s argument: that this walk-on DE (Willikes) read the play correctly when he noticed he wasn’t being blocked, dove inside to close down space for this backside run, then got low so that when Khalid Hill impacted him, he didn’t get shoved backward again.

Duerr called this “kicking Michigan’s ass.” I called it a rock-paper-scissors loss since the design of the play, and Dantonio’s coaching, has this DE doing something normally unsound because he figured out (or knew) he was going to face a kickout blocker.

Nobody’s arguing the DE made a good play here:

That takes out two gaps: since the DE still has leverage outside of Khalid Hill, but has closed all of the space on the C gap behind Hill’s block so that Evans can’t attack it. That’s too bad because McKeon did momentarily win his block against the SAM, who started trying to attack a frontside gap when he read the RB’s handoff coming down the QB’s other side, and thus got hung up inside. Another angle:

Dowell did eventually fling McKeon off (and popped him in the helmet after the whistle as Spartans are wont to do), and Hill chucked Willekes to the ground, but neither thing mattered because of where the DE’s making an impact with Hill.

That’s pretty aggressive stuff by the SAM, but this goes back to #1: Michigan State can do that with their linebackers because the strong safety is hanging out there, first getting on top of McKeon, and then once he sees the TE blocking, setting back up outside to contain a bounce.

However this is still a zone play, and with the SAM’s false step putting a TE between him and his gap, there are still yards to be had in the B or A gaps. What happened there?



It’s 2nd and 10. Michigan is down by 11. I keep pointing this out because this behavior is only called for in situations when you expect a run:


Look where those linebackers are and the ball hasn’t been handed off yet. How’s anybody supposed to run when linebackers are flinging themselves toward the line of scrimmage all willy-nilly like that?

You’re not. Here we are at the decision point. The gap inside Khalid Hill is already d-e-d dead from the DE but not also how the blocks are going:


Ulizio and Kugler are the guys meant to get seals but the DTs didn’t bite. Both have been pushed back behind the line of scrimmage, limiting space, and their DTs are in position to shed and play either side of their blocks.

As for the linebackers, Bredeson couldn’t get playside of the Will, who flowed too quickly toward his interior to get caught outside. And Onwenu, who just let go of the DT he was comboing with Ulizio, squares his shoulders downfield just in time to see the MLB, Bachie, screaming by him. Onwenu had nothing else to do but tackle Bachie (fortunately he wasn’t flagged), who got into Evans’s feet and started the end of the play.

With Hill ultimately winning his battle with that walk-on DE and Bachie taken out with illicit countermeasures, Evans tries to cut off Hill and get what he can. But Ulizio’s DT ripped to the other side. Evans can now only fall off Ulizio’s back, where the landed Bachie can grab and Frey, the WLB, can prevent any forward movement


State seemed highly prepared for this run from this look, which isn’t that surprising since it’s a thing Michigan has run a lot, and Michigan wasn’t running the inside zone play that it works off of.

When linebackers are acting that aggressively you’d like to pass behind them. However State was prepared for the mesh too. Watch the SAM (topmost linebacker standing between the hashes) when he sees McKeon turn his way:

Dowell was reacting to the run action but because he’s got safety help above, he’s prepared to jam up the works for any receiver who comes into his area. McKeon was trying to initiate contact, but Dowell was also desirous of it. A hypothetical mesh play here sees McKeon jammed up near the line of scrimmage, and the free safety jetting down to cut off a crossing route by DPJ. Michigan State’s defense puts those linebackers right where you want to go with a quick pass over the middle, and they’re trained to stretch the bounds of legal contact to make sure you don’t cross them.

Which brings us back to what we were talking about all through the bye week and last week: you have to attack those safeties. Michigan in the past has had a play-action thing off this where Hill woops the crashing DE and heads out into open flat, while the TE and WR draw off the coverage. They can also try that play that almost worked against Florida, where the X receiver runs a post at the free safety and Hill goes out in a wheel. Or have Evans run the wheel. Or run flags. When quarters safeties aren’t being properly stretched, they’re going to sneak down into the slots, and the linebackers and edge defenders are going to pinch down and react super-aggressively to the run, and you’re going to have a bad time.


George Pickett

October 11th, 2017 at 10:40 AM ^

Michigan's inability to punish teams for this kind of crap has been going on forever.  It's so frustrating because when MSU actually faces a team capable of testing their safeties, they get destroyed.


October 11th, 2017 at 6:12 PM ^

Willekes take himself out of contain and you have run pass option.

The real play though is play action with intermediate over the LBs along with a deep over the safety both attacking the middle.

This is a classic example of bull headed coaching. Willekes is a walk on. It does not matter. If someone knows exactly what you are doing it makes no difference.

The greatest frustration for a defensive player is losing a step because you did not diagnose the play.


October 11th, 2017 at 12:25 PM ^

Its as if our coaches didn't know msu would do their homework... its just incredible how we were outschemed.... people here were often saying how we need to attack them deep and the safeties...and that is the one thing Harbaugh didn't do... just incredible.... our coaches seem to be in their own little bubble, and oblivious to the outside.....


October 11th, 2017 at 1:00 PM ^

I think Harbaugh hosed himself by bringing in Drevno as OC. It's clear his game planning is below average and overall behind the times. Harbaugh needs to stop the cronyism on the offensive side, stop the insane level of complexity that only works with all upper-classmen, and get a dynamic college OC like he did with Brown on the defensive side. 


October 11th, 2017 at 3:54 PM ^

This idea is ridiculous. For two years Michigan has been, by the admission of our opponents, top-notch at scouting opponents and attacking their weaknesses. We've thrown out dozens of plays and dazzling arrays of formations to take advantage of the defense.

It's not happening now. The "below average gameplanning" / "behind the times" idea doesn't explain it, though, because two out of the three offensive guys were miles ahead of everybody last year and the year before.

So perhaps other things have changed. Perhaps Harbaugh isn't managing his staff well. Perhaps the combination of struggling QBs and OLs is making the coaches gunshy (and perhaps that's a mistake). Perhaps the QB is making bad calls at the line. For anyone outside of the room to suggest that they KNOW that it's Drevno that's the problem and that they know why is silly. 

Could he be the issue? Maybe. But maybe the issue is just the use of a three-headed monster. Maybe Pep came in and argued persuasively against the proper gameplan that Drev put in. Maybe they practiced some of those counter plays and found that the OL couldn't block them or that O'Korn kept throwing picks. 

You don't know. Neither do I.


October 11th, 2017 at 6:01 PM ^


The "below average gameplanning" / "behind the times" idea doesn't explain it, though...

It does explain it, at least to a large extent, the exact amount of course no one can know. Last year's playcalling was pretty iffy at times. This year the playcalling and plan of attack appear to be downright head-scratching in many instances. What's changed? Fisch is gone, Wheatly is gone (how much impact did he have in planning and playcalling??). Pep has been unispiring in his career up until now, how much influence does he have on everything this season? Drevno was the one who, according to insiders, cut out a lot of the great passing concepts that lit teams up at the end of 2015 in favor of more traditional concepts. While those things can work, they generally require tons of experience and a high level of execution from everyone on the offense to succeed consistently, and UM doesn't have that right now. At all. That's on the coaches for not adapting the plan and plays/playcalls to the extremely young and/or inexperienced guys on offense that we have this season. 


October 11th, 2017 at 10:57 AM ^

I wonder if the end is crashing so hard, is there a counter where you let him take himself out of the play. Hill runs by him not on a pass but to either seal that end, a releasing safety or linebacker and have the play go outside.


October 11th, 2017 at 11:09 AM ^

I would guess zone read. If he's always crashing down and the linebacks are shooting the interior gaps, then the QB keeper option should be good for 5 even with a terrible WR block on the CB. Get a good block on the edge and you might be forcing the safety to make a TD-saving tackle.


October 11th, 2017 at 11:30 AM ^

There are plenty. My favorite that I know for certain is in Michigan's playbook is the one that gives John Gruden a chub every time he sees it: Spider 2 Y Banana

End sees the fullback and crashes down, then the fullback is just like "Oh I'm sorry I was heading into the flat, pleased to introduce you to my friend Mr. Tailback." and then WHOMP the running back takes out the DE's knees and he's done. Now you've got an easy 1-2-3 half-field read for the QB with a 4th level of "ha ha I'll just run" if all three are covered.


October 11th, 2017 at 12:16 PM ^

the walk on DE did a great job at crashing down hard and lifted Hill off into the hole.That play was dead because of the DE.

It's also a RPS by MSU defense on shutting down the play but the DE was the big reason why.


October 11th, 2017 at 11:31 AM ^

A PA slant and go to Perry at the top of the screen seems like a walk in touchdown. If you pause at the moment of the handoff, the CB is passing him off and the safety is already stepping up for the run. They finally capitalized on this for our only TD. 


October 11th, 2017 at 11:37 AM ^

I don't recall a single play where we tested the deep middle of the field with a wide receiver or a tight end.  Or maybe we tried a few times and O'Korn never had enough time to sit in the pocket and make the throw.


October 11th, 2017 at 1:18 PM ^

We did this and scored a touchdown. A beautiful play call that had MSU completely disoriented in the secondary and left a man wide open. We threatened the middle and broke it back to the corner. The WR was wide open and we were all cheering an excellent RPS killshot touchdown that punished Sparty's weakness. Much better call than the MSU screen.

Then we saw the flag.

This also may counter Brian's game column assertion that M didn't once attack the safeties. I thought it was Willis staggering around their in the middle of the field, but I could be wrong.


October 11th, 2017 at 12:45 PM ^

But you need our QB, who threw three picks that day, to throw an accurate well-timed ball to the middle of the field, probably while on the run.  I don't think they tried it in the game, because I speculate they saw the MSU film, tried it in practice, and eight picks later decided it was a bad idea.  There's a reason why MSU's defense dares you to beat them over the top:  it's hard to do.

I DO agree with Brian on one thing -- if it's third and long, send your ents down the seams and chuck it up.  You might get a long completion, you might get a PI, but even if it's a pick, well, it's a pick 40 yards downfield and you were going to punt it anyway.   But I think after the two-pick-six Florida game, the coaches would be shy to try that even if it occurred to them.  Harbaugh in particular seems to have an allergy to turnovers even when it makes some sense to risk it, and last Saturday was a really bad day for turnovers.


October 11th, 2017 at 12:38 PM ^

Year 3 is when you are supposed to start playing guys you recruited who specifically fit your scheme and system. What is our system? We are an offense without identity. For those who are better at studying formations and such, do we even make adjustments on game day? It appears to me we just hammer away with what we think will work prior to the game and if the defense shows something different we don't adjust to counter. Whats even worse, in this case we knew msu's weaknesses before hand and chose not to attack them. We also knew their LBs would be very aggressive in the interior gaps because they are every single year. If that's the case defenses can play chess to our offense's checkers. The offense has been underwhelming every outing this season. Against Purdue we showed signs of life but very little elsewhere.


October 11th, 2017 at 4:11 PM ^

We seemed more run focused last year compared to Pep's spread pass this year. Next year do you think it will look like a new offensive focus or the same O as this year? We all expected a Standford O when Harbaugh arrived. But now I don't really know what we are or hoping to be.


October 11th, 2017 at 5:14 PM ^

Based on how things are going I think Harbuagh is trying to realize what Nussmeier envisioned but for lack of time -- build around inside zone however long it takes, just not to the extent of getting crushed by ND and friends.  The offense is still very much under construction, so he could go the Borges/Purdue route and spend all the practice time repping hijinks, but then there's the dilemma that Borges himself aptly pointed out -- when do you get to install your base offense?  If Borges' all-frippery 2013 offense is a 10 and Nussmeier's all-IZ 2014 offense is a zero, I'd say this season's Harbaugh is about a 3.  He's got an eye more toward 2018 than this year.

That's not to say Harbaugh's peaced out of this year, but I'm sure he knew going in that the offense was going to struggle.  I sense that he's very carefully working out how to score juuuust enough points to win, ride an obviously stellar defense, and otherwise run the base play with every practice rep and game down he can afford.  This seemed evident to me right from the Florida game, and has held up since.

So -- and I'm warning everyone here -- he's not going to stop smashing that inside zone into stacked boxes every chance he gets.  The plan isn't to set downs on fire but to rep rep rep inside zone, use just enough frippery to win, and ride the defense.  If the backs go 60 yards on 40 carries but we win 15-10, he'll take it, by design.  He's been cutting it pretty close, though, kept gambling and finally fell short last Saturday, because the rain restricted his options and, well, five turnovers.


October 11th, 2017 at 11:59 PM ^

I wouldn't say the rain restricted his options. If the rain restricts any option its the pass. If there was ever a time to repeatedly run your IZ into a wall...this was it. Instead we threw often with very little probability of success which should of been obvious. Our weather was worse than 2016 Notre Dame NC state game where the starting QBs threw for a combined 14 for 38 and QBRs of 3.3 and 2.2


October 12th, 2017 at 7:04 AM ^

Rain was MSU's ally.  They loaded up against the run to begin with, and when it rained, the falling water was basically an extra defensive back.  And of course our offense was butt to begin with.  At some point the suck just snowballs and it hardly matters what plays you call.


October 12th, 2017 at 12:47 PM ^

Higdon was successful 4 straight run plays when the rain started. Then we abandoned him and that success. Not to mention we have Hill who is a under utilized weapon. We used Houma as a tailback with success a couple years ago. This weather would have been ideal for Hill dive and traps or putting him at tailback.

Also their punt returner muffed 2 punts this game. This is another reason why running the ball and playing field position should have been an obvious decision during the monsoon.


October 11th, 2017 at 1:06 PM ^

Fine.  So they get us one time on this.  It seems that we ran this play several times while never going back to the TD play that was called back.

How is it that Iowa and Michigan have offenses that insist on running bread and butter staples into a stacked defense licking its chops, rather than do things that go to gaping holes because of the licked chops?  Fuck me...


October 11th, 2017 at 1:20 PM ^

This play was actually blocked well on the left side of the line. The problem is Evans just runs as hard as he can into the line behind Hill and there is nowhere to go. This is the issue with not having a real RB coach. The RB's show no patience, they don't jump cut, they don't show like they are going to attack one hole and then bounce into another, nope, they just run right into the line everytime and hope there is something there.

The RB's have left a lot of yards on the field this year. Even that toss sweep to Higdon on the front page that went for 12 yards should have gone for anther 20-30 more but he waits way to long to make his cut inside and instead runs right into an MSU defender who slows him down.

It's easy to blame the OL, and they haven't been great, but the rest of the offense needs to do their part too.


October 11th, 2017 at 1:37 PM ^

I played FB at a small college and what we were taught in the backfield when the DE pinches on power or other play where you usually have a kick out for a DE playing edge, you try to log him when he pinches (e.g. take the outside shoulder vs. inside shoulder) and cover him up. Then the TB was supposed to bounce outside that block. If you look at this play, due to the way the corner played man on DPJ, there was space vacated on the edge/flat here. Might've been a 5 yard gain or more with evans' speed/shiftiness. since the LBs were all caught inside and IMHO, Hammering Panda could've covered the DE vs. continuing to try the kick out. There are "in play" counters depending on how the defense plays a particular play like this. I wonder how good our young O is at understanding these nuances and if they are coached to..I drew a picture, will try enbedding, later. 


October 11th, 2017 at 3:03 PM ^

Absolutely! This is also a good time to counter with Auburn's Pin and Pull play or a version of the bucksweep. If the WR motions and cracks that DE, you don't need a terrific block to keep him inside because of his momentum. Pull the playside guard, and get your runningback out in the flat.


October 11th, 2017 at 2:38 PM ^

The OL not getting push is a problem, but the biggest issue in my opinion is easy to fix--the alignment of the TB. He's too tight to the LOS--toes at 6 1/2 yards. He has no chance to actually see anything when he makes his cut and by then it's too late--he's gobbled up. If he's a yard farther back he will have the space to cut back behind the DE (who is in no position to force the ball back inside) and force the corner to make the play. The DE is actually poor here as I'm sure he's supposed to spill the play outside and doesn't actually do that--the 3-Tech bails him out by manhandling the right tackle. He's the guy who actually makes the play for the defense.

As an aside, does Michigan not hard double team the DTs in their base inside zone play?



October 11th, 2017 at 8:44 PM ^

it's so frustrating to see our Offense getting outschemed by MSU. Running this play is fine to establish the tendency and probe the defense, but the constraint never seems to materialize this year.

Harbaugh's approach (or Drevno's playcalling) are not a good matchup with Dantonio. Dantonio is fine with crashing LBs, playing the game in a phone booth and then holding/interfering with the DBs on deep passes. Until Harbaugh develops an effective constraint or changes his offense to more motion/option, the UM-MSU games will be ugly slugfests.

What offenses have punished MSU's approach? Baylor spread, PSU spread and Bama's vertical game. It is imperative to create pressure on the safeties for sitting 8 yards deep by using motion, flare passes or deep passes.


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