Picture Pages: Revisiting The Hash To Hash Drop

Submitted by Brian on March 7th, 2012 at 1:44 PM

Early in the 2011 football season I noticed an odd, seemingly-impossible task handed to one of the inside linebackers: going from one hash to the other while attempting to get enough depth to cover a receiver who's starting the play on the opposite side of the field from the linebacker.

Here's Brandon Herron trying this admittedly hard task:


This would end up a Western Michigan first down as the receiver would sit down at the sticks; you can tell that Carder has already identified the open man and is throwing before the WR makes his break. He'd do better on a subsequent attempt to cover this but still give up another completion. He got there, basically, but because of the angle he had to take to do so he wasn't in a position to do anything about the ball when it was in the air:


This was odd behavior to me. Most of the time a Picture Pages is trying to explain something; this one was just "I noticed this weird pattern… isn't it weird?" It seemed bizarre to ask a not-very-good coverage guy to make a very hard drop, especially when the quarterback is getting blitzed from the same side of the field and will naturally look for a hole in the zone from the direction of the blitz.

One of the ancillary benefits of checking out those coaching clinics, however, has been an increased understanding of what's going on when this happens. A hash to hash zone drop requires a particular set of circumstances:

  1. The defense is sending a zone blitz with a three-deep coverage behind it and three underneath defenders, one of whom is an inside linebacker*.
  2. The three underneath defenders are instructed to "drop off of" a particular receiver.
  3. The offense aligns or motions itself into a situation with three wide receivers to one side of the line.

In this situation… well, here's some Xs and Os that should help:


This comes from Coach Hoover via Smart Football and is a fire zone similar to one Greg Mattison explained at his Glazier Clinic talk. Michigan's running something similar above, with the WLB tasked with a "hot" coverage on a receiver. It is far from uncommon—the Coach Hoover post calls it "America's Fire Zone."

Our linebacker chugging across the field in a futile attempt to wave at a ball he's not looking at is "hot 3."

Hot 2? Hot 3? What? The goal of this defense is to get pressure without giving up big plays and often devolves into man to man coverage. Defenses number the opposing WRs from the outside. Above the two receivers are the #1 receivers and largely dealt with by the corners. The tight end is the field side #2 and will be the responsibility of the SS; the dropping "F" (in Michigan's scheme this would be the WDE, Craig Roh last year) is going to pick up any back coming out of the backfield to his side of the field; the WLB has whoever's left. Hot X defenders are supposed to get their man until he breaks to safety depth at 15 yards—again, pseudo man-to-man.

If you're running a three-under combo like this and you are facing an I-Form, no problem. The WLB is going to have to make up a yard or two of distance if he even gets a guy to play pseudo man-to-man on. He may watch a back stay in to block, in which case he's just an extra guy or becomes a delayed blitzer. If he does get a second guy leaking out of the backfield, he's probably a fullback. Crisis: not present.

Unfortunately for weakside linebackers everywhere, a million billion plays these days are run with three or four wide receivers on the field. This means the WLB is going to have to deal with a player who is a lot faster than a fullback and much farther away from his starting point, with results often like what you see above.

Brandin Hawthorne[1]

Mattison's video jockeys did find an example of the coverage working against a slot receiver, but where they had to go to get it was telling. It featured Brandin Hawthorne against Purdue running over the top of a seam route. It's not in the UFR because it was in garbage time.

Hawthorne took off for his drop the moment the ball was snapped without even thinking about the possibility of a run, which caused one of the coaches in the audience to ask after that odd behavior. Mattison hadn't selected the clips and this one did not jump out from his memory for obvious reasons, so he attributed it to Michigan's scouting and whatever the potential down and distance was.

He was right, but it doesn't take much scouting to predict a pass when the second team is in up 36-7 in the fourth. The one example Michigan had of this drop working against a spread formation was better evidence that it didn't work than it did.

His Rock, Your Scissors

Getting rained on like this is a frequent problem in the current college football metagame. Offensive coaches are always searching for ways to get bad matchups; defensive coaches are looking for free rushers and no holes. The hash-to-hash thing leapt off the page in the opener because it was strange and seemed really hard.

Unsurprisingly, it faded as the year went on. Like Mattison flipping his line every time an opponent changed its strength, it was a makeshift band-aid made necessary by a lack of experience with Mattison's defense. If Michigan's running a fire zone and gets a bunch of receivers to one side of the field, this year you'll probably get something like this:


That is from a post at Coach Hoover detailing a half-dozen coverage adjustments this blitz can undergo to combat bad matchups like you see above. Here the D sees a bunch of guys to the wide side of the field and switches the blitz, sending the WLB and giving the closer MLB slot duty. WLB high-fives himself, MLB grumbles, defense probably gets a better result.

That adaptation is well underway at Michigan. Linebackers will look at each other, pat their helmets or cross their forearms or give each other finger gunz, and check into something less ostentatiously weird. Not every time, but enough to relegate those hash to hash drops into the realm of oddity. We'll see them from time to time as Mattison tries to bait opponents into big wrong decisions and not much more.


[Hoover HT: Smart Football.]

*[Nomenclature NOTE: the middle and weakside linebackers are almost but not quite interchangeable and I use this term to distinguish them from the SAM, who is almost but not quite a DE.

Also while you're down here: these Purdue plays were actually cover four but all of Mattison's clinic stuff assumed cover three so I'll stick with that for the explanations. I assume Michigan was intent on preventing big plays in game one or didn't think WMU could run the ball at all.]



March 7th, 2012 at 2:08 PM ^

If they're playing 4-wide as the O is in the bottom diagram, why are we in our base D?  Shouldn't we have subbed in to a Nickel or Dime package?  Aren't we already being RPSed just based on the packages we put into the game?  (I suppose a similar situation could exist with 3-wide and a TE or 2 backs, but even then, wouldn't a Nickel be a better defense?)

Seattle Maize

March 7th, 2012 at 2:19 PM ^

In many situations a nickel or dime defense would be better and would likely be out there but on running downs or if your calling a zone blitz (or something similar) and your SS can cover than this defense would work well I think. Because you're sending pressure you don't need to be locking down receivers for 4+ seconds. This is why it is so important to have players who can get to the quarterback

Blue in Seattle

March 7th, 2012 at 4:02 PM ^

making a personnel decision about nickel or dime is based on down and distance, or the overall makeup of the offense.  Check out the 1997 Rose Bowl when Washington State's running back was injured and they were almost exclusively in 4 WR sets.  I think Michigan had their WILL as the only LB, with 4 DL, and the rest DB's.

So 3rd and long will probably see a nickel package lining up against this, but if an OC decides to test the defense on first down, there isn't time to send a man onto the field and pull one off.  That's part of the reason why some OC's like to have a rapid play calling sequence from shotgun to "freeze" the defense into one lineup of personnel.

This breakdown is also interesting when you look at the recruits Michigan is picking from DL to LB.  The trend is definitely on speed, and is resulting in a lot of conversation about "we have too many LB's" or "this LB would be great at SS".  Instead what I think is that Mattison is recruting for speed and frame, and then as players develop he's making a decision of whether to "move them down" into a position requiring more mass, or leave them at their more LB/coverage spot.  Even in this post from Brian he states, "the WILL and MIKE are interchangeable, almost" and "The SAM is almost a DE".  Also consider Clark and Beyer, and how they were tested out in their first year, and add on top Black and Roh "moving down" from WDE to SDE.

This is why I think Mattison sticks to the 4-3 under even if it seems like he has personnel for a 3-4.  Because as these young bodies develop and add mass, he doesn't have to keep flip flopping from a 1-gap to 2-gap system.  Everyone on DL gets to learn techniques for a 1-gap (which is simpler to learn) rather than a 2-gap system.  increasing the speed of everyone on defense is going to allow this scheme to defend against spread formations and mobile QB's running options.  Despite it being a 4-3 under.  I think it also is the best scheme for a college team recruiting players who are still growing significantly.

and as stated above, this is a great post, and I can't wait for Spring Practice to start!

Seattle Maize

March 7th, 2012 at 5:21 PM ^

What you mentioned about the personell that Michigan is picking up is very exciting. I really can see this becoming an elite defense year in and year out. Combine that with the talent we are bringing in on offense and we will be competing with the Alabama's of the world for national championships.


March 7th, 2012 at 3:06 PM ^

Would dropping the SAM in coverage and blitzing the WILL from the backside also be a viable wrinkle to confuse offenses? Trying to learn about football more in-depth so I am curious.


March 7th, 2012 at 3:36 PM ^

No all I mean is that the SAM would drop into the Hot 3 zone where the WILL is supposed to go (or the MIKE in the adjusted one) and then you would blitz the WILL on the backside.

I don't mean leaving a hole in the middle of the field that caused everyone to have to shift to cover it and puts the SS or MIKE in the middle. 

Edit: An example would be the SAM could line up with his hand on the ground showing rush and at the snap would run backwards into the zone while the WILL who looked like he would be in coverage would then come blitzing in.

Patent Pending

March 7th, 2012 at 3:43 PM ^

I know that's what you meant, but if you look at the diagram, the "S" (sam) has outside contain in every one of the situations, if he's immediately dropping into pass coverage, the TE is going to have a perfect angle to block either the Mike or End trying to get outside at the snap to contain an outside run.  is your wringle possible in certain situations, sure, but it doesn't seem defensively sound in general.


March 8th, 2012 at 8:25 AM ^

it really depends what that inside WR is going to do.  On the odd chance the WR sees the sam blitz and tries to slant behind him, the will can maybe undercut for the breakup, but yea, it's suboptimal coverage for most routes.