After the spring game this year I was moved to write about the stuff Michigan was doing with Peppers. So moved in fact that I scrapped a "10 ways the NCAA can fix itself" feature for HTTV and wrote it on hybrid spacer players and how Peppers is a special type of that. If you'd like to read that, there are ways:
(not to scale)
e-Book version: Fewer photos, but a few paragraphs here and there that were cut for space. Now available from the Kindle store, working on iBooks.
Part of that article gets into how they aligned him (and Dymonte Thomas) in the spring game, but I wanted to explain more in detail what we mean by this:
Michigan will spend most of its time this year in nickel formations with Peppers acting as a hyper-athletic strongside linebacker. Against conventional sets they’ll be a base eight-man front with one deep safety (Jarrod Wilson) and Peppers acting as a maniacally aggressive strong safety, allowing the rest of the defense to play all kinds of tricks.
The gist is Michigan's defense, whether against spread or tight formations, is trying to have its run-stopping cake and eat the passing game too by putting Peppers in the slot, where his linebackerness can be brought to bear as well as his cornerbackosity.
Here's the Blue Team's first play in the Spring Game:
The soundtrack is off by a few seconds; sorry.
[There is Woodson after the jump]
The offense came out in a 2TE twins formation, motioned the U-back to an offset-I, and tried to run power [offense's] left. Shallman finds that wadded up with bodies, tries to cut back to the open side, and is cut down by Peppers.
The defense in the video above gives a classic example of its alignment theory. The offense has packed its strength to the boundary side, leaving two receivers in a ton of space to the field side. So the defense does likewise, shifting both the DL and the LBs to that side, putting the SAM at the edge.
Because the running threat and the passing threats are so obviously separated and pronounced, the run and pass coverage likewise will be more obvious than usual. It probably won't surprise coaches—base defensive alignments are known-knowns and often lie. But how any defense aligns to this will tell you a lot about what their thing is.
For example Michigan State would probably do this:
…because their SAM is a kind of hybrid who'll cover sideline to sideline but not vertically. Their specialty is (was?) having that free safety come down into the box and help choke off the running game, trusting he'll be able to range deep if a TE runs a flag or post on him. Having the safety insert himself lets the two middle linebackers squeeze into the middle and attack interior gaps. The same play Maize Team ran would have seen the free safety (Drummond) come down aggressively, the yardage contingent on how quickly that happens; the SAM is out where nobody can block him so the backside is sealed.
Michigan by the end of last year probably would have looked like this:
That's two high safeties and James Ross playing a similar safetyish linebacker hybrid space position to State's and likewise has a cutback closed down. Note that both are basically splitting the difference between the formation and the slot receiver. When Power came you'd see Beyer set an edge, the NT fight to get playside of the center, and yards dependent on how fast Jake Ryan and Joe Bolden went screaming toward the playside.
I'll show one more pretty good defense's alignment for comparison: If you remember when Woodson murdered a screen against Baylor in 1997 it was almost exactly this same offensive look:
This is the nearest example to the Maize Team's alignment in the video: the front seven are packed tight against a power run and the strong safety, Marcus Ray, is splitting the difference between the slot receiver and the box; he would actually blitz until changing direction when he saw the pass.
This thing Michigan was asking Woodson to do was hard. With Ray blitzing, until Hendricks can actually scoot over there it's Charles versus two receivers. Lo and behold, they were actually running a bubble screen on that play—the very thing to screw with an aggressive slot defender—and yet Woodson stopped it for a loss because he read the play off the snap, closed most of the yards during the dropback, and by the time the quarterback actually turned to pass Charles (blue blur at the bottom of the image) was already accelerating toward the same target the ball was:
This is all about using your safety to lighten somebody's load. While the 1997 alignment looks like this year's, it's very different. That defense was leaving Woodson alone on an island so the rest of the defense could choke off the run. Woodson held up to this so consistently that you still fondly remember Keith Jackson's exact intonation of the front sevens' names when they made a tackle short of what would be considered offensive progression.
(You may take a moment now to reflect on how Woodson is the greatest football player ever; we shall never see his like again.)
We May See a Dire Wolf Who's Kind of Like Him Though
But did you notice the difference in alignment? See where the 1997 free safety (Tommy Hendricks) lined up against Baylor, and see where Jarrod Wilson was:
Wilson is lined up over the slot receiver in case that guy immediately goes vertical, but otherwise his job is to roam and react to where the play goes, just like Hendricks. Having that safety on the opposite hash, or more to the point having no safety over the formation is a dangerous game; the front seven plus the boundary corner had better do their jobs.
Like Ray, Peppers is out in the slot, playing an aggressive hybrid safety role Michigan called "Wolf" in the 1970s. But where Ray was splitting space like the SAM in the MSU and Michigan 2014 diagrams, Peppers is way closer to the slot receiver. Close enough in fact that he's nearly blocked by the slot before the handoff is made:
In a split second however Jabrill has read the handoff, accelerated past the attempted block, and set up to tackle for almost no gain. Until then, he was in perfect position to cover a drag or slant by that receiver.
If that sounds hard it's because it is. Not Woodson-hard, but again this is a redshirt freshman, not a guy so obviously good at football that Peyton Manning didn't win the Heisman. What separates Peppers from, say, how they'd align with James Ross, is they trust he can handle the cutback while lining up way out where he can cover the slot receiver horizontally.
Remember there's no "strong" safety behind the formation; if something were to break through the frontside, one of the defense's insurance policies is Peppers flowing down from the backside.
Nickel or Strong Safety: Still the Slot
We'd see this as they moved him around the formation. The next snap he was nominally the nickel, with a linebacker pulled for Delano Hill, but in the same exact spot he'd been previously:
That was a short out to the other side. Third down was that rifle pass to Bo Dever that Morris just barely got past Peppers' fingers.
This is 3rd and 6 so a run to the D gap isn't so much a concern. However with Hurst the SDE and engaged tight with the RT, and Butt's route dragging the linebackers inside, the quarterback taking off is a concern. Peppers watches the quarterback the whole time, dragging out with Dever but only breaking once the ball is thrown. I could be wrong but I think Peppers, not Wilson, has that D gap.
Dever's not much of a challenge for a Big Ten nickelback, but still, this is an interception if thrown where it could get 1st down yardage, and only a catch because Morris has a gun. Even so Peppers has a leg before Stribling (near by because Dukes's route didn't go deep enough) arrives to kill the drive.
He's actually lined up outside on that one, part of his instruction to be on top of the slot receiver I guess. I don't really know the rules for lining up against stacks or whatever that is. The next play (and last I'll diagram) had Peppers back to "strong safety", i.e. right in the slot.
I want you to note something from this formation: that fieldside DE (Maurice Hurst) is lined up on the left tackle's inside shoulder. Like the 1997 example of a very similar play that Woodson ate up, the defense is heavily shifted to the strong side to match the fullback and tight end over there. That's not a good spot for the DE to set the edge though, and the reason is because the strong safety, Peppers, way out by the opposite hash, is an 8th box defender. At least they are by alignment; the defense can slant or do all sorts of other tricks but at a basic level they're set up as if Peppers is a linebacker holding that edge.
Of course he's also the flat defender, and that means when this goes to a WR screen, it's the safety, not the CB, who's closing it down for a loss.
Stribling is not Woodson; he responded as quickly as you could hope for but still got blocked long enough for Darboh to escape inside. Except Peppers reacted to the play so quickly he's right there when the ball is, and with Stribling holding the outside edge, Peppers can close it down for a loss.
All day the Maize Team did this, and while you wouldn't expect much from an offense that's half-second teamers under a new head coach and coordinator in a Spring Game when nobody expects the offense to be very good anyway, the only times the Blue Team moved the ball was by passing to Borges-approved leapers over the head of Dennis Norfleet. By having Peppers cover what amounted to a huge lateral gap from his slot position, the rest of the front seven could cheat to the opposite side and suffocate the running game.
I'm anxious to see it against spreads. One of the main ways spread 'n shred kills you is that lateral stretch; if Peppers can hang out by the slot receiver and still shut down an outside running game (including a quarterback trundling downfield after erasing the end on a zone read) to his side, Michigan could have success against spread teams while still leaving two safeties back and clogging the best running spots.