Peppers-s-s-s-s in-n-n Spa-a-a-a-a-a-ce

Submitted by Seth on June 18th, 2015 at 10:38 AM

peppers in space

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)

Actual book: Free for a first-time Draft Kings user with $15+ deposit, or pre-order from our online store. ETA ~July 4

Digital book (a PDF version of the above): Draft Kings deal but $5+, or available now for $5 from our store.

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.

The next was the failed transcontinental; Peppers is the nickel:imageimage

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.



June 18th, 2015 at 11:07 AM ^

Seth - love these reviews  and...

Peppers IMO will be outstanding, he absolutely has the wind at his back

If Dukes had even tried to do something then Peppers would not have made that play and been burned.  That play was Dukes not making a key block.  Also if that had been a set up or very aggressive play action to the RB then Peppers may have been caught quite flat footed.

Again, Peppers should be a staple for us but on that play it was a bit of a gift.

Space Coyote

June 18th, 2015 at 11:29 AM ^

That's why the FS is over there. If that slot goes immediately vertical, and there is boot action, Peppers can take the boot, he doesn't have to be concerned with the receiver going vertical. His assignment isn't to carry the man, it's to wall off inside, take care of the gap, and play the flat. FS has vertical.

While the block attempt wasn't great, he also can't get a block in the back. Nominally, he isn't even going after Peppers, he's going after the deep safety because the play succeeds on the front side (and therefore, Peppers on the backside of the play isn't a threat).


June 18th, 2015 at 8:45 PM ^

was that he wasn't aggressive enough. It's a clear run read and he should go to where he has to get to. If he gets blocked and even pinned, it's not a big deal because you have a safety hopefully coming up by that time to get involved.


June 18th, 2015 at 11:17 AM ^

regardless of what went on around him, but he was helped immeasurably by a defensive line comprised of three guys who played in the NFL—Hall, Williams, and Steele—and a short, squatty fireplug at NT, Renes, who was All-American two years later. Not only did this DL make it extremely difficult for anybody to run on Michigan, they also relentlessly pressured opposing QBs, who were already facing the fact that half the field was taken away by Woodson's coverage. Getting our DL to be as dominant as the '97 DL is key to how well our overall defense will play, and to how effective Peppers will be.


June 18th, 2015 at 11:53 AM ^

this is important about Woodson: other guys have had his talent. Watch Antonio Cromartie in high school. Or Donte Whitner. if you give me time I'm sure I could think of a few others.

What Charles Woodson has is not just ungodly talent plus size; he is also the hardest worker in the NFL and one of the smartest guys to ever play the game. he studies offenses the way a famous professor studies his field. this comes from public analysts and guys who played with him and after him at Michigan. his physical abilities are truly amazing, what makes him truly uncanny however is his brain and how he uses it.


June 18th, 2015 at 12:58 PM ^

I think it's too early to say on-field Peppers will be comparable to Woodson, but everything I've heard about Peppers is that his game prep is comparable.  He hates losing and is very accountable to himself.

While Woodson's on-field responsibilities were dizzyingly complex, more often than not people remember him covering the opposing offense's #1 receiver with no safety help, which was the simplest way the safety to his side became an extra run defender.  Things got complex when there were more receivers to his side, as detailed above.  Then his reads had to be perfect, because the receivers' job was to get Woodson 20 yards from where the ball was going to go.  His consistency was absolutely amazing.

You guys at MGoBlog have already covered all this, I know.  I bring it up again because in defense of Peppers, I think asking Peppers to do what Woodson did is impossible because what Carr asked Woodson to do just wouldn't work against a spread.  The slot receiver these days is a specialist, not the #3 wideout.  There's a reason why RichRod loaded up on slot bugs; he was trying to make the space between the EMLOS and wide receiver impossible to defend.  The 1997 alignment vs. a slot monster, if it's not a screen, Woodson can't cover two receivers effectively and the safeties can't get there in time.  That's not a knock on Woodson at all; it's why Carr struggled against the spread.  The 21st century formations have two defenders between the tackle and the wideout, and like the slot bug, the nickleback/HSP is now a playmaker, not the backup corner.

Both guys are being asked to do stuff that's really, really hard -- essentially the closest thing to in two places at once.  It's very dangerous unless the coaches have the utmost confidence they can do it consistently, which speaks volumes about what the coaches think of them.  But both defenses still have to account for mortality, which combined with evolutions in offense forces incomparable differences in how Woodson was and Peppers will be used.

Space Coyote

June 18th, 2015 at 11:37 AM ^

The way they appear to be playing the bunch formation, based on alignment, is a "Press In/Out" or "Press Banjo" type coverage, essentially a match up coverage.

It's a common way to prevent be rubbed out of the play that I wish Michigan would have run more last year (they typically just played lock coverage, meaning they stayed with their man where ever they went).

For the coverage, you have the CB - used to press technique) lining up directly over the on-receiver (receiver lined up on the LOS). In my early years, we used to stick the SS there because he was a little stronger at the point of attack, but with the emphasis on technique, it makes sense to have the CB continue that role. The CB is going to lock onto that receiver.

You then want your NB outside the bunch, facing the on receiver at about 45 degrees. You and the SS will be playing the two off-receivers in/out. Outside defender takes first off-receiver outside or second inside; inside defender takes the first off-receiver inside or second off-receiver outside.

The reason you run it like this is because the outside defender is more likely to have to play in space: carry a receiver deep, set the edge against a screen, cover a drive route, etc. This allows the SS to still play in a tighter area with fewer places to release. It also allows him to maintain what he is used to in the run game in terms of filling forward.


June 18th, 2015 at 8:51 PM ^

but if you don't practice it a lot, there can be serious breakdowns resulting in wide open guys. How much bunch does Michigan see in a given year?

As a complete aside, how come you don't write this stuff for the blog? I don't know you from a hole in the wall, but you are or were a coach at some level and easily bring the most to the table when it comes to scheme.

Space Coyote

June 18th, 2015 at 11:41 AM ^

That is, taking the DE, and lining him up inside the offensive EMOL when you have a different defender to set the edge. It does potentially leave that defender (such as Peppers) exposed to a free release from the OT/TE, so the DE has to understand the OT/TE release and know when he now has to handle the edge, but...

1. The DE is likely going to have an inside gap responsibility anyway because of the Apex defender, might as well get him there earlier and without giving the blocker a chance to seal him outside

2. It defines the defenders release making the run/pass conflict easier for the defensive players to read

3. It makes it very difficult for the offensive EMOL to block the 2nd level without releasing outside (which means that gap that he is trying to keep wide, between the ILB and the Apex defender, becomes smaller as the defense has more time to react and flow before facing a block).


June 18th, 2015 at 11:44 AM ^

The "hybrid space player" always gets tasked with numerous responsibilities--responsibilities which lie far across the field.  Peppers can excel at fulfilling those responsibilities. 

But the whole defensive scheme is setting up to take advantage of Peppers' considerable talents.  If he should get hurt, no one else is capable of picking up the slack. 

The whole defensive scheme would be forced to change mid-season. 


June 18th, 2015 at 11:56 AM ^

I've read on other sites that the coaches are really high on Delano Hill as well at the safety position. They said it is possible that Hill comes in to play the box safety and they leave Peppers to cover deep. Peppers can cover so much ground that the coaches might use him as an eraser in these packages.

Sent from MGoBlog HD for iPhone & iPad


June 18th, 2015 at 12:20 PM ^

Do we have a reliable back up incase Peppers misses time (do not say the I word). 

My fear when you build sets around one player with skills no one else posseses is- well no one else can do it as well. Who is capable of filling this same spot or are we screwed and need to change D after all that practice time setting it up?



June 18th, 2015 at 12:37 PM ^

Dymonte Thomas was thought to have all the ability in the world to play in the hybrid spot like Peppers does. Too bad we wasted a RS, because him having 3 more years instead of two seems like it would help his career out. 

Back to the point, it would be in our best interest that Thomas gets over the hump and really improves now that he is a third year player, with what we are hoping is better coaching. I think he will do it.


June 18th, 2015 at 1:38 PM ^

If Peppers gets hurt it'll be a huge loss, but it won't fundamentally change the way defense is played.  Basically what Peppers is asked to do is wicked hard to execute, but conceptually it's simple -- extra responsibility.  Specifically, the safety/HSP covering the slot also covers the flat and defends the edge.  That makes the reads complex, but you don't just shift all those reads to another guy.  More likely one of those responsibilities will get shifted to another player, which simplifies the reads.

Seth drew up the third diagram to show that.  Unless the defense gets cute it's likely to flip the linebackers and overall reverts the formation to a conventional 4-3-4.  Specifically, the DE gets the edge, Ross gets the flat and the safety's there if the slot goes vertical.  (An alternative would be for the SAM to defend the edge, the SS plays the slot soft and the line shifts to the strength of the play -- there's no wrong answer here.)  The real headache goes to the D-line, looking at six down linemen and a U-back against four DL and two LBs with no help to the backside edge.  I think Seth is projecting Mattison's confidence in last year's D-line.

Going backwards, the HSP's edge responsibility taking pressure of the linebackers allowed them in turn to support the D-line, making that job easier.  But to answer to your question, while the D-line's job gets harder, it's just reverting to a base they should understand at that level anyway.


June 18th, 2015 at 12:33 PM ^

Gotta say, for how successful that play turned out for the defense, Peppers looks mighty hesitant trying to blow up that screen. I'm hopingit was that he didn't want to hurt the WR because that's his teammate. Because he could have lit that guy up.

Here's to having a SS who covers like Woodson, and attacks plays like JMFR.


June 18th, 2015 at 3:14 PM ^

Wait, is the book actually only as big as a Samsung phone?  That's what it looks like to me in the picture.  That's crazy small for a magazine.  How am I supposed to read that?