Picture Pages: Linebacker Hesitancy FML

Submitted by Brian on October 20th, 2011 at 3:46 PM

A little more on what looks to me like one of the major issues with the run defense: the two MLBs not reading plays quickly enough. This was one of the videos featured in the UFR, FWIW.

Michigan State has first and ten at the beginning of the third quarter and will run an inside zone from an ace formation; Michigan is in their standard 4-3 under with Kovacs rolled down:


On the snap State starts to develop the run action and the linebackers start creeping forward:


A moment later the handoff point is almost reached and the two LBs are still three and four  yards off the LOS.


Contrast this with the MSU defense on Michigan's first and five on their first drive:


Both are two yards closer to the LOS and rapidly approaching. This was a consistent theme: MSU linebackers, even when not blitzing, were screaming at the LOS.

At the handoff there is one blocker for two guys because Heininger was doubled on the backside. Martin is driving his single block into the backfield and Van Bergen is cutting off the outside. Kovacs is still hanging around for backside bounceouts.


The above is not a good setup for an offense.

But Demens does not get outside his block.. and Hawthorne starts moving up into a hypothetical gap that the RB is not headed to. Even if he wants to cut backside the Martin penetration means it will take absolutely forever. Still, he starts moving straight upfield instead of flowing to the hole:


By the time Baker manages to squeeze through the gap left by the DL, Hawthorne is hardly closer to him than when he was three yards behind the LOS and Demens is still two yards downfield, not funneling the play back to help.

Baker pops outside. Countess fills quickly, but can't make the tackle…


…and neither can Ryan.






Items of Interest

The DL cannot do much more than this. They got a two-for-one on the double that leaves a free hitter. On the frontside they drive into the backfield such that the tailback has one realistic option. Short of throwing offensive linemen into the RB, they have done all they can.

The linebackers are uncertain of what they are doing. This has been a theme all year: me complaining about guys pulling in front of the LB's face only for that LB move directly upfield instead of scraping over to the POA. Sometimes poor DL play has washed them out, but often it's just derp.

Both linebackers screw it up here. Demens has to get into his blocker further upfield; failing that he needs to pop outside of him to funnel back to help. He does neither. Hawthorne can't see that his assigned gap is not an option because of the penetration and slows up for what turns out to be no reason. Either could have made this play themselves; it takes both of them screwing up to send it to the second level.

I'm sure they're more concerned about play action than Michigan State was because of the quarterbacks in question, but they get blocked way too often for my tastes. Hawthorne had already given way to Morgan for a series or two in the first half; IIRC this would be one of his last drives before Morgan re-entered for the remainder.

Ed Baker is hard to tackle and fast. I wish he was on the football team I liked instead of one I do not.

Countess does a great job here. I know he misses the tackle but a cornerback impacting a tailback just outside the hash four yards downfield is quality run support. If the linebackers hadn't compounded their Keystone Kops impression by banging into each other and falling over Baker is gang tackled after a moderate gain; as it is only Ryan is there to tackle and he is run through.



October 20th, 2011 at 3:55 PM ^

With the way others on the defense seem to be improving as the season goes (Ryan), I am starting to wonder if maybe Morgan/Demens/Hawthorne just don't have good read/reaction skills?  You would think something that is apparent to a blogger (no offense intended) would be apparent to a defensive coordinator, especially one like Mattison and that it would be covered in practice but at this point, who knows?

Either way, it's concerning and I hope Mattison can either find a way to mask that and lessen the read/react for those guys or find guys who can read/react (not likely at this point).



October 20th, 2011 at 5:27 PM ^

The LB's hesistated because they are expecting a lot of play action (common for MSU). I've not looked at the numbers, but I watch every game of both Michigan and State and it felt as though State ran a lot less play-action than is normal for them. It seems as though the Michigan coaches prepared the team to expect and deal with a lot more play action and it kind of played into MSU's game plan which seemed to focus on more deliberate execution.


October 20th, 2011 at 4:19 PM ^

With all due respect that was not the LBers play to make.  Mike Martin had responsibility for the A gap where the play was run.  He wasnot doubled and was even lined up in that gap so he had the responsibility.  Demens had a guard coming directly at him and the best you could expect of him was a stalemate and try to restrict the hole.  Hawthorne actually had the A gap on the other side of MM, that was not his play to make.  MM should have made that play or bounced it to the other A gap where Hawthorne would have made it.

Michigan Arrogance

October 20th, 2011 at 4:25 PM ^

uh, Martin did make the play. He persued Baker across the field better than the LBers did.

And how do we know what the responsibility of the DL is? In most defenses, it's the job of the DL to occupy the OL and let the LB make the play.

If MM makes that play, it's a +2 or 3. 1st round draft pick type of play. Expecting him to make this play is a bit much, unless we know for sure what the gap responisibilities are.

If KD leverages the football, Hawthorn makes the play OR if BH can just read the penetration by MM and flow a bit quicker it's a 2 yard gain and a plus 1 at most.


October 20th, 2011 at 4:53 PM ^

DL has the same responsibility as the LBers, they all have a gap they are responsible for.  MM had the A gap on that play and actually almost made the tackle for no gain.  I would add that Van ergen added to the trouble by getting pushed too far outside and helping create a bigger hole than there should have been.  Demens should have turned it inside for Hawthorne to make the play once it got by MM but MM should have made it initially and could have done so easier if Van Bergen had done a better job of constricting the hole.


October 20th, 2011 at 11:08 PM ^

And how is this MM's fault and not the LB's? MM blew his blocker up and the rest of the D-Line created a 2 vs 2 situation at the LOS if our LB's played better. Maybe they were hesitating to expect the Play-Action but this was still their play to make

Covering gaps works when you're only expecting a run, but our LB's have to worry about a pass too, and I would rather their first thought every play isn't Gap responsibility. It's a tough trade, and I think experience is the only way to fix it

Greg McMurtry

October 20th, 2011 at 7:35 PM ^

is that since the right guard has 3 yards to run before he even touches Demens, the back has a double-wide (trailer park) gap to run through.  The RB is essentially running through the A and B gaps.  Martin is there in A, but B is unoccupied at the LOS because Demens is not firing.  Demens should fire or realize he's late and force RB to RB's left where Hawthorne can clean up.  Demens does neither and Hawthorne is unblocked but useless.  I would have to put this on Demens not Martin.


October 20th, 2011 at 4:10 PM ^

that the constant hesitation by the LB's has to be due to constant coaching changes. This is the 4th DC in 5 years, and I believe 5th in 6 or 7 years (did English have one or two years?). I'm excited to see where players such as Jake Ryan, Desmond Morgan, Antonio Poole, Kaleb Ringer, Royce Stone, James Ross, and Joe Bolden do if they get a constant system for their entire 4-5 years.


October 20th, 2011 at 4:31 PM ^

What I took from this is that a pass to the middle of the field by Denard would have worked all day.

But I don't know how our LB are supposed to respect the play action and make Brian happy here. If they tear after the RB initially and Cousins pulls, we are toast. Someone with more FB knowledge than me needs to respond.


October 20th, 2011 at 4:37 PM ^

Usually the linebackers read through the Olinemen into the backfield so a play action is picked up by reading the Oline pass blocking.  If the Oline is coming off the ball they're reading the action in the backfield at the same time as to where the ball is going.

IMO this particular play was not on the LBers but on MM who had the A gap coverage and was even shaded into that gap at the time of the snap.


October 20th, 2011 at 4:43 PM ^

It's going to be an interesting evening on Saturday, to see how the Enabler of Thuggery (Narduzzi) decides to deploy his linebackers. Keep them back, and the Wisconsin O-line will carve out 5-6 yards a rush. Blitz Russell Wilson, and he'll likely torch them through the air.

A fascinating matchup no question, made even tougher for Michigan State without Thomas Gholston.


October 20th, 2011 at 5:06 PM ^

The above is not ideal, but we have to remember that these guys are playing in their fourth defense in four years (assuming they've been around that long)*.   More, they're doing a lot better than they did last year. 

*EDIT: As Brian mentions in the UFR. 


October 20th, 2011 at 5:16 PM ^

As to my original point, I was listening to Sam Webb this morning talk about how Stu Douglass was teaching Beilein's system to Burke and Brundidge and was thinking about the fact that the football team's upperclassmen can't do that for their younger teammates.  That's a big deal, IMHO.   


October 21st, 2011 at 8:21 AM ^

I agree, this team has improved a lot, and is still improving. I am far happier this year so far than the last 3 years combined. Give Hoke/Mattison/Borges time to get everyone up to speed and the right guys playing the right positions. I think we will be a good team.



October 20th, 2011 at 5:23 PM ^

A few guys had a decent shot at a tackle.  No one made one.  So, that didn't help either.  I agree with Brady that the tackling was not good against state.  A guy making a tackle can help make up for players missing assignments.

Eye of the Tiger

October 20th, 2011 at 6:34 PM ^

Brian's comment about Baker makes me realize how frustrating our RB recruiting has been the last few years.  McGuffie...well, that was something no one could have anticipated.  I don't know if he would have ended up being a star here, but at least he showed promise.  Shaw has been mostly a disappointment.  Smith has been a trooper, but isn't Ed Baker either.  Fitz, we still don't know if he can hang with good defenses, and Cox wasn't very good.  

Not sure why this worked out the way it did, but it's frustrating.  A lot of our problems would be...well, not solved, but easier...if we had an elite, or at least better-than-solid, tailback.  


October 20th, 2011 at 6:53 PM ^

Looks to me like Hawthorne is hesitant, and by the time he starts pursuit, MM is already en route and pushes Hawthorne down.  I can just imaging hime saying "Sit down linebacker, I got this".


October 20th, 2011 at 7:42 PM ^

Is linebacker a position where true freshmen can come in and make a serious impact?  I know that the skill positions such as WR, CB, and FS can have true freshmen immediately come in and be studs, while the bigger positions generally see guys finally make an impact after a year or two and 20 pounds.  What about linebackers?


October 20th, 2011 at 7:48 PM ^

Are physical enough, but what you are suggesting is true, I think. They are not certain enough on their reads and keys and the one position you can't afford that is linebacker. I would rather have them aggressively commit and be wrong, call them freshman and move on, rather than consistently get caught in between. I agree with Brian that there were many instances in that game where the line did a pretty decent job, but LB support was late, or not aggressive enough. Good news is, this likely gets better with coaching and experience, and all told, I would rather have a guy with physical attributes who can learn. Hopefully, we don't end up with experienced guys with physical attributes that make the same mistakes a la last year.


October 20th, 2011 at 10:04 PM ^

The fullback leads to the play everytime!!! What were these guys watching? Wasn't that scouted and evaluated in film? Key the fb and we would have been right there on every play...

G Money

October 21st, 2011 at 1:15 AM ^

...When the qb is a passing threat, LB's can't break on running plays for fear of play-action.

...MSU's LB's, DC's, fans, and the MSU popcorn vendor were all hoping Denard would go play-action.

2 dimensions is a good thing.


October 21st, 2011 at 5:11 AM ^

i guess i would be interested in a defensive UFR of an Alabama or LSU game just to get a comparison to U of M. I obviously know that they are much better, but it would be entertaining to see what their scores would be.


October 21st, 2011 at 9:21 AM ^

I'm no football guru, but does Van Bergen actually do a good job here? It seems to me Jake Ryan is on outside contain, Van Bergen looks like he's simply run himself out of the play. He almost has his back to the football; his man is driving on his shoulder. If he is supposed to funnel the run back inside it certainly isn't by the threat of him tackling, I don't know if he even really gets a look at Baker. Watching the replay again, Baker runs pretty much directly at the hole were Van Bergen was.


October 21st, 2011 at 11:04 AM ^

Our LB's had a reason to fear Cousins - their LB's did not have a reason to fear Denards arm.  1. MSU's secondary was a little better than ours (although, I think Countess is gonna be GOOD) and 2. Denards accuracy all year has been pretty bad - couple that with strong winds and he's gonna have a tough time.

Interesting shots though, but I think their LB's knew we'd go more run (which, in Borges's defense, maybe part of the reason we started throwing the ball more? Constant LB pressure at the LOS.


October 21st, 2011 at 6:15 PM ^

First of all, you don't know what their keys were, so you're assuming that all MLBs should react the same way.  You show the MSU still picture as a contrast to what our guys are doing, but that's not correct.  MSU probably does a lot more play action than UM, so there keys were not to blirz up the A gaps upon the snap.  It two very different types of offenses.


Secondly, the real problem is the two DL not disengaging from their blocks and making the plays in the backfield.  That gets compounded by the LBs holding in the middle and then taking bad angles to close the holes.  I agree they should be closing in to close down the holes, but the DL needs to play with better technique and not let those blockers get into their bodies so much they cannot disengage and tackle in the backfield.