81 yard QB run? Try the zone read bluff arc. With Pics!

Submitted by stephenrjking on October 14th, 2018 at 1:05 AM

Like it or hate it, Jim Harbaugh likes to spend the season gradually developing certain concepts to spring surprises on key opponents. This year we have seen Michigan stubbornly continue to run the football from the shotgun and the pistol, frequently using zone blocking. Michigan has periodically used zone read option plays with Shea Patterson; the occasional keep that is wiped out by terrible holding calls aside, Shea has handed off a frustrating amount of the time on these plays.

All of this work paid off in a huge way tonight, most prominently on the second drive of the game. Shea Patterson kept on a zone read option play and ran for 81 yards, setting up Michigan's first touchdown.

The play was beautiful. And it's a Harbaugh classic: The zone read bluff arc, part of his pistol package that he used to great effect with the 49ers and QB Colin Kaepernick. 

zr bluff arc diagram.jpg

The key component is the backside FB or TE running across the formation to make a block. He isn't blocking the EMLOS, though; that man is optioned by the QB/RB mesh. Instead, the blocker arcs around this man and blocks the contain man, often a scraping LB or a containing DB. (Here are a couple of old articles about the concept and related stuff for those interested.

Michigan has shown this before; I know of at least one play against Northwestern where Shea handed off with an arc block being executed in front of him. And, importantly, I believe that Michigan has been sending blockers across the formation to block the EMLOS straight up. These plays have frustrated Brian in UFRs because the QB appears to be making a read, but there is no unblocked man to read. 

It all set the table for big plays in tonight's game, none bigger than the huge Patterson run in the first quarter.

It is Michigan's second drive of the game, first and ten from the 14 yard line. Michigan is lined up in the pistol formation with 2 tight ends and two receivers split wide right. Chris Evans is in the backfield. Wisconsin is in a base 3-4 with one high safety off screen.

zr arc 1.PNG

Michigan is going to run a read option play with down blocking from the playside OL and the weakside TE (others may have input here--it's possible that Bredeson is trying to get out to an LB and gets clogged at the LOS, a characteristic of the zone blocking I would normally expect from this kind of play, but the net effect is that the playside DL is blown out by two double teams). Interestingly, the RG and RT will drop into pass blocking stances as the wide receivers run a quick bubble screen action on the right side, a look characteristic of RPOs.

zr arc ink 2.PNG

The key play will be executed by Sean Mckeon, lined up in the H-Back position on the right side. At the snap he will run to the left to block for the run action.

zr arc ink 1.PNG

You can see in the image very professional diagrams of Wisconsin's defensive reaction to the zone read. The OLB will crash and attempt to tackle the RB. The WLB #43 will scrape outside to cover an upfield QB run; the DB lined up on the outside of the formation is responsible for contain.

At the snap, the OL is caving the Wisconsin DL. The EMLOS is already in the backfield, and Shea is looking right at him. Sean Mckeon approaches like a silent freight train. 

zr arc 2.PNG

The OLB instinctively looks to duck past Mckeon and make a play on Evans, who is his responsibility. Meanwhile, behind him the WLB is scraping down to play the QB run and the contain DB is charging in to play contain.

zr arc ink 5.jpg

But Mckeon is not blocking the OLB. He is arcing around to block the player filling the OLB's spot. In this case, the WLB is playing tight to the line, to ensure that the QB cannot run upfield inside of him; the DB is responsible for contain, and he is not expecting to see several hundred pounds of fast-moving beef charging in his direction.

Shea reads the crashing OLB, keeps the ball, and begins to run outside.

zr arc 4.PNG

By the time Shea has accelerated outside of the tackle box, Wisconsin is in deep trouble.

zr arc ink 4.PNG

Mckeon's arc block has walled off the contain man. Shea turns the corner and sees nothing but green plastic grass in front of him. Next stop: first and goal. 

zr arc 6.PNG

Some takeaways:

  • This is now a regular part of Michigan's offense. Other teams have to prepare for it, and Michigan can still run it for good yardage.
  • Those adjustments are ok. After Harbaugh eviscerated Green Bay in the playoffs with the zone read, he went to Atlanta with everyone buzzing about Kaepernick. The result? Kaep ran twice for 21 yards. But they ran Frank Gore down the Falcons' throat and won the game. Michigan will have stuff to exploit as teams adjust.
  • The OL is executing so much better than it was last year. This wasn't super-complicated, but they caved the Wisconsin line to create space for this.
  • It can be frustrating to wait for the offense to develop stuff, but Harbaugh has stuff in his toolbox and he can use it effectively.
  • Michigan is really committed to so-called "college style" concepts like this. 

This was a satisfying game for many reasons. One of the reasons was seeing concepts Michigan has been preparing for half a season come to fruition in brilliant fashion. 

On to MSU. 



October 14th, 2018 at 1:43 AM ^

Thanks for the post, man.  I really like that Harbaugh is implementing more and more spread/option concepts to compliment the pro-style stuff.

Very interesting write-up.  Seems like a cool wrinkle and they pulled it out at the perfect time (heh).  I'm looking forward to teams game-planning for zone read keepers & RPOs and then we throw Ben Mason at them.  The Harbaughffense is so fun to watch when it works.


October 14th, 2018 at 3:37 AM ^

McKeon with the great blocking not just on this play, but all game.  Haven't seen the tape, but it seemed he was blocking well on a few key runs this game.


October 14th, 2018 at 10:18 AM ^

McKeon looked faster than Shea on this play. He stayed with him all the way down the field. There were two Badgers chasing Shea. While McKeon is putting the initial block on the safety, the ILB passes them and leads the chase. Then McKeon catches the ILB, and the safety passes them. McKeon keeps going but the safety gets Shea first.

Ghost of Fritz…

October 14th, 2018 at 11:09 AM ^

Yes, he is fast and maybe he gets to the spot faster than Gentry on that play.  Not sure.

Would love to see that play work with Gentry too, so teams don't just see McKeon check in and then look for that play. 

And I would also love to see some sort of TE down the seam wrinkle out of that look (McKeon or Gentry) after teams adjust to the QB keep. 

Blue In NC

October 15th, 2018 at 9:44 AM ^

That's interesting because I have (silently) been very critical of McKeon's blocking this year.  I thought he was good last year but this year he has had a number of terrible whiffs in previous games.  Now maybe that's because of a certain play design or because they are asking him to do difficult things.  But he has almost gotten Shea killed a couple of times whiffing on protection blocks.  Maybe he is better in open space.


October 14th, 2018 at 4:37 AM ^

I like how you incorrectly described that one vital player’s role in this so as to throw off opposing teams successfully cutting and pasting your work in to their pregame prep.  Nice work.


October 14th, 2018 at 6:14 AM ^

Jim Harbaugh likes to spend the season gradually developing certain concepts to spring surprises on key opponents.

Wait.  I was assured by a poster over on Touch the Banner -- in a most condescending way -- that holding back certain looks and plays was a really, really stupid thing to do, and that no good football coaches do that.  And yet here you suggest Harbaugh did just that. :-)

FWIW, I think Harbaugh did do that, and for two reasons: (1) to spring on key opponents, as you say, and (2) to allow the offense to mature to the point where the play could be successful.  The offense has come a long way since Notre Dame.  

Does "OMW" stand for "Oh, my word?" :-)


October 14th, 2018 at 7:33 AM ^

I agree with you about the necessity of keeping a few things in reserve.  For me, the important thing to remember is that these are college kids, who have a lot to learn and to then learn to execute in a few year some of them in a few months.  You make sure that you can execute the simpler things in your offense first before moving on to ask them to master more complicated things. 

Look at that "diamond" formation that we have shown, with 4 receivers split one way and one on the other side.  I am certain that there are a ton of things that can be done out of that formation, but, so far, we have yet to be very successful out of that formation.  Perhaps once we can get that formation down to the point where it's reliable, we can move on to something else.  Plus, just by showing MSU that formation and a few things that MIGHT happen out of it, that's more more thing for MSU to spend time preparing for AND one less other thing that we do that they can spend time preparing for.


October 14th, 2018 at 1:33 PM ^

The difference with the Northwestern game though is that we got away twice with illegal formations (those plays had the three of four in the backfield like tonight, but had Higdon in the backfield with Patterson putting five in the backfield).  Tonight, there was nobody behind Shea.

Ghost of Fritz…

October 14th, 2018 at 9:11 AM ^

Super opening post.  I wonder what JH will do with this concept against MSU.  Probably depends on how MSU decides to runs its D.  But this could work if they are going to play aggressive LBs crashing the double A gap.

On the theme of certain looks setting up plays for later in a game, or for later in the season...

The read option where Patterson kept for the TD run is one with a few different things that can be executed in later games.  Just one wrinkle:  Same play, but pass to DJP on a slant. 

Looking at the film of that play, a slant toss to DJP would have been easy money [edit: largely BC the read option action freezes the LBs--even causes them to crash the gaps--leaving DJP 1-on-1 on a corner with no help].  

TE slipping into the back of the end zone is another wrinkle that would work from that same look.  The read option aspect really puts stress on the D.  So many things that could happen.


October 14th, 2018 at 9:33 AM ^

Well done my friend.  I think the last few pics show that it was #5 that screwed that up.  He got inside of Gentry when he had outside contain.  If he stayed outside, he would have had a chance to make Patterson serpentine a bit to allow others to catch up.  To be fair, he's the guy who eventually tracks down Patterson.  And to be fair, Michigan executed as well as you can ask.

One item I would add in the great "keeping things in reserve/playing possum debate".  Practice time is limited, and there are lots of things you gotta rep.  So,

a.)  If you're going to introduce a new thing.  It has to be tooled to allow for a bunch of adjustments.  Otherwise, it's not worth the practice time.

b.)  I imagine that the adjustments are added after you get the initial stuff straight.  Maybe it takes weeks to get all the way there.  I'd be surprised if any team can walk into the season with the whole playbook down pat.


October 14th, 2018 at 9:33 AM ^

great write up

i use this at the coach where i am a OC

you can block the read

you can arc ( as Chris Alt would call it) to the force player

or play action off of it

very difficult to defend


October 14th, 2018 at 10:49 PM ^

Update: Upon watching the McCaffrey TD again, I can confirm the play is identical, flipped laterally. The run action is to the right, and the receivers are lined up to the left. 

The defense plays it slightly differently; DCaff still uses the arc block to knife in for a td. 


October 14th, 2018 at 10:31 AM ^

Came back to semi-correct something.  The McCaffrey TD was the same play.  In that case, however, the edge defender stayed outside.  McKeon adjusted well to then both seal him and widen him out.  McCaffrey cut inside for the TD.  Damned if you do, damned if you don't.  Sweet.