TEs & RBs in the passing game: a film session

Submitted by taistreetsmyhero on September 19th, 2017 at 11:52 PM

This game left a lot of people wondering what happened to the idea of passing the ball to our tall and talented TEs, or incorporating the RBs into the passing attack as Pep suggested during the off-season.

Well, the simple answer is that, in this game, Michigan's gameplan was to account for Air Force’s blitz-happy defense by leaving the TE (mostly to help Ulizio) and RB to block on many passing downs. This had very mixed results.

In theory, the idea of adding two extra pass blockers makes a load of sense. However, gbdub posited an interesting theory:

“this might be like the Borgesian ‘Tackle Over’ where in theory leaving extra men back helps you block, but in reality with a weak line just gives more potential gaps to screw up. Maybe you're better off just letting the TE run a route, at least then the LB has to account for his route rather than just pinning his ears back and picking a gap to rush.

So, I decided to look back at the blocking on a couple of passing attempts that failed to pick up Air Force’s blitzes despite the two extra blockers, as well as the 1 throw to our TE, Gentry, that went for a long gain.

tl;dr: I don’t really know enough about gap assignments to make an assessment of gbdub’s theory, but it’s clear that the extra blockers failed to help on several plays.


Play #1

1st & goal @ AF 9

Air Force has 7 in the box. Michigan is in the Gun with 3-wide and Higdon in the backfield. Gentry, who will stay in for pass protection, is split out in the backfield wide to Ulizio. Air Force will ultimately bring 6 rushers and leave 1 LB to spy Higdon.

Gentry and Ulizio double the DE, which leaves an Air Force defender unblocked. The play-fake takes Higdon to the other side of the line, where the OL is already holding up their 1-on-1 blocks perfectly.

Ulizio releases from the double team, but only sees the free rusher once it’s too late for him to make a block. The other side of the line is still holding up great. In fact, there is nobody for Higdon to block.

The free rusher gets into Speight’s face in a hurry, causing an already-difficult fade pass for Speight to attempt that sails over Crawford’s head incomplete.


Gentry is clearly assigned to help Ulizio on this play. The play-fake unfortunately takes Higdon out of position to block the extra rusher on the right side of the play. Given that Higdon blocks nobody here, it would be nice to see him release for a dump pass. Granted, there is an LB spying Higdon, but that’s a 1-on-1 match-up Higdon can win.

Edit: As UMfan21 pointed out, there's no way Speight would have time to make a progression here and check down to Higdon. In my fantasy world, where Speight is an NFL-level QB, he identifies the right-side blitz, knows that the blocking scheme is designed for Gentry and Ulizio to double the edge DE, flips Higdon in the back-field so that the play-fake takes him into a position to block the blitzing LB, steps into the throw in his subsequently Mary Poppins-level tidy pocket, delivers a perfectly placed ball to Crawford for the TD, and I sleep soundly for once in my life knowing that Michigan and the Lions are both winning it all this year.

(But, sadly, we live in a much more boring reality, where I post a Sp8 H8 rant blaming him for not being this fantasy QB, and you downvote me to oblivion. As if you didn't wish you lived in my Michigan Utopia.)

Play #2

2nd & 11 @ AF 25:

Michigan is in the Gun, again 3-wide and now with Isaac in the backfield. Eubanks is the TE du jour for this play, and he is on the line to the right of Ulizio. Air Force is sending 6 rushers, and again leaving 1 LB to spy the RB.

This time the TE, Eubanks, does not take the same rusher as Ulizio. And Ulizio subsequently gets punished by the blitzing LB. The LB feints inside, and Ulizio everrrrr so slightly turns to help out Kugler.

The LB then comes back outside, catching Ulizio off guard and making him lose his balance.

And the LB bulls right past him. Note that Isaac is in position to help out here, and isn’t blocking anybody. Isaac never sees the approaching doom.

The LB gets to Speight for the easy sack, and Speight compounds the errors by fumbling the ball while trying to throwing it away.


The TE doesn’t help Ulizio on this play, and Ulizio gets burned. Isaac is also left in for protection, but doesn’t see the impending doom and instead blocks nobody. This is another situation where the extra man didn’t help, but this time because of a mental error by Isaac rather than the blocking scheme (and, obviously, Ulizio getting burned. But we've all railed on the guy enough, already).

Play #3

2nd & 2 @ AF 39:

Michigan is in the I-formation with Gentry in the slot & Poggi + Higdon in the backfield. Air Force has 7 in the box and will run a well-designed man-zone corner blitz.

The entire OL shifts to the right, leaving 5 blockers on the 3 Air Force DL.

Cole and Bredeson end up double-teaming the same DE. Poggi steps up to block the first blitzing LB. Higdon gets in position to block the corner blitz. This leaves nobody to block the delayed blitz.

The delayed blitzer gets in Speight’s face in a hurry, forcing Speight into an incredibly difficult pass off his back foot.

The ball sails ~25 yards in the air perfectly into Gentry’s awaiting hands for the big gain. Great throw.


This time, the extra blockers do their jobs perfectly, as Poggi and Higdon pick up big blocks. But miscommunication on the line leaves Cole and Bredeson blocking the same man, and another free rusher gets home to Speight. This time, Speight makes a play in the face of immense pressure.

Bonus film:


@5:22 seconds in...

1st & 10 @ the 21: Speight makes a crazy impressive throw. Another play where we keep in the TE (Mckeon) and RB (Higdon) for pass pro. Air Force brings the house and its 7v7 for the first time. But Ulizio and Mckeon block the same guy so Air Force has an extra rusher. Luckily, the pass pro is otherwise solid, so the free rusher takes quite some time to get there. This gives Perry enough time to do his thing, getting open on a slow-developing scissors route. Speight does a great job to stay in the pocket (especially given the pressure he’s previously faced), and makes a crazy throw that I don’t really understand the physics (looks like he throws sideways) that hits Perry in stride for 13 yards. Really amazing throw.


The blocking on this play was designed similar to the first play, but this time Air Force sends the house, and the pressure is going to get there by default. However, the OL does enough as a whole to give Speight the bare minimum amount of time he needed to deliver a really amazing throw. Interestingly, Speight missed this exact same throw in the first half--and from a much cleaner pocket (Air Force only brought 4 rushers while we kept in the RB and TE on that play).


Marley Nowell

September 20th, 2017 at 12:02 AM ^

Obviously Harbaugh and his staff know what they are doing, but the lack of passes to Evans and the Hammering Panda (except for the downfield wheel route) makes no sense to. I would think short passes like that would mitigate the OL blocking issues. Am I missing something obvious as to why this isn't happening?


September 20th, 2017 at 7:40 AM ^

extra blockers to help protect isn't clicking for you? I mean, when we have TEs and RBs staying back to protect and the OL is still missing assignments...... why don't we just have the coaching staff running routes from the sidelines? Certainly a 12th and 13th man can be integrated into the gameplan! Where's the ingenuity? Am I missing something?


September 21st, 2017 at 8:09 AM ^

While your sarcasm is well noted, I think the idea behind involving the TE's, Hill, and RB's in the passing game is to mitigate the ineffectivness of the OL. If the initial read is to the TE or back coming out the backfield, the OL shouldn't need to hold their blocks as long and the missed assignments may not have as much of a negative effect.

So yes, you may be missing something.

Prince Lover

September 20th, 2017 at 12:26 AM ^

Brought a good point about looking at a team after the fourth or so game of the year and looking at the same team at the end of the year. And maybe this can help the majority of UM fans teetering on the ledge....

Last year, PSU started the season barely beating Temple. Then they lost to Pitt. A couple more games later and they were TROUNCED by UM.....
How many people anywhere in this country who have believed the day after the UM game PSU would win the B1G?!?

There's a lot of season left. And there is A TON of room for improvement. Maybe, just maybe....

Go Blue!!
And stop booing!!


September 20th, 2017 at 12:36 AM ^

As much as I want to agree with the board about PSU winning critical games on sheer luck last year, I have to say it was quite impressive how Franklin n co turned the team around midway through the season and adjusted their strategy during halftimes. If I recall correctly, those guys had an insane amount of 2nd half come backs last year including one that fell short in the Rose Bowl. 

Granted having the best RB in the country helps (when can we have one of those?) along with a QB who will throw 50/50 bombs down the field trusting his WRs to beat out the opposing CBs. 



September 20th, 2017 at 9:08 AM ^

I mentioned in your other post that looks like it got deleted that I hope you feel better and find more of what you're looking for after leaving your residency. Kayaking is good for the soul. Michigan football this year might throw a few dong punches our way.


September 20th, 2017 at 12:56 AM ^

It clarifies a few things regarding offensive strategy. My biggest takeaway is the opportunities to dump it to the RB. I just get the feeling the coaching braintrust is working toward something good, building one block at a time to unleash when needed most. Of course I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy.


September 20th, 2017 at 1:20 AM ^

disagree about the analysis on the first play. that Blitzer gets in so fast, Higdon hasnt even cleared out of the box for a pass. i dont think he could viably be a receiver. the only option is for Ulizio to recognize the blitz sooner and peel off the double team.


September 20th, 2017 at 1:34 AM ^

Very true. Didn't think that one through all the way.

Alternatively, if Speight sees the blitz coming, he should probably know that Gentry and Ulizio are blocking the same guy, and he can flip Higdon and have the play-fake bring him into the necessary side of the line.

But that's a very high level read, I'd assume. (*Dabs sweat from forehead while trying desperately not to fall into another nonsensical Sp8 H8 rant. Reassures himself that if Speight isn't making that read, there's literally no way that O'Korn or Peters would, either.*)


September 20th, 2017 at 8:52 AM ^

Speight is the best Michigan has. Nobody else is going to do as well with the offense and reading defenses. Speight is having trouble this year... But nobody else on the roster is doing any better. Or probably nearly as well. I've been railing on Speight for inaccuracy and high throws, but that's a response to people saying he's doing great things every play. He isn't. But it could be worse. Speight at least knows the offense and has great pocket awareness. He also doesn't just give up on plays.

Nick Sparks

September 20th, 2017 at 1:52 AM ^

Am I crazy for thinking that we're mainly running plays that our offense needs the most work on?

Harbaugh couldn't care less about running up the score on AF. All he needed was a win. The only thing he cares about is beating OSU and securing a spot in the playoff.

Spring/Summer/Fall is for evaluating what your teams does well and what it doesn't do as well. Harbaugh has a huge playbook.. probably the biggest in college football.

I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that after spring/summer/fall evaluation they see that there is a certain chunk of the playbook that their guys excell at, a certain chunk that they're mostly solid but still inconsistent at, and a chunk that shows promise but still needs work.

Based on that, the coaches build out their best plan for beating OSU. The thing is, the optimal scenatio for doing that will be running some of those plays that show promise but need work.

That optimal scenatio also includes holding as much back as possible before OSU. Like Gary said in his recent interview (highly entertaining), "y'all ain't seen nothing".

For games like Florida you have to show more of your "good" basket than you'd like, but against Cinci and AF, the optimal scenatio says that you exclusively use plays that show promise but need work. This gives your young team as many live reps with them as they can get before a W is on the line.

I feel like we won't get a glimpse of what this offense is actually capable of until Harbaugh feels the threat of losing a game. That's the only scenario he'll dip into the plays we don't need as much work on and flex his (and his staff's) superior coaching abilities.

Tl;dr I could be the homerest of homers, but the offense will be fine and it's kind of silly to judge it until probably PSU


September 20th, 2017 at 2:52 AM ^

but I don't necessarily think it's an issue of Michigan opting for a simplified playbook in this game.

I think several plays were designed to utilize max protection and run routes that take time to get open, and can lead to big gains. These plays and routes don't seem fundamentally simpler than quicker passes. Michigan clearly trusted the OL going into this game. Or maybe they were testing the profession of the line against a physically inferior opponent. The OL just didn't deliver.

The adjustments seem simple enough. Either the OL improves and all the problems are solved, or the offensive staff judges the line more harshly and adopts some shorter routes that get the ball out of Speight's hands quicker.

Hopefully we see one of the two (or both) on Saturday.

Nick Sparks

September 20th, 2017 at 11:48 AM ^

I'm saying Harbaugh has a bunch of "A" plays -- not based on simplicity or complexity, but on how consistently the players he has can run it well. 

It could be a complex play, but it plays to the strengths of the players he has and when they run it in practice they usually all hit their assignments and get yeards against our beast of a D.

Then you could have a more simple play, but it requires blocks, technique, or manuevers that some of the players still need more work on. A different collection of young players could maybe run this play well most of the time with their skillsets, but not this team.

So again, I really think that Harbaugh is limiting his playcalling in these games where there's basically no threat of loss to plays that his guys still have trouble running consistently. 

Maybe all we have is plays the offense runs inconsistently, but I think he's saving the stuff we run consistently for when it matters.


September 20th, 2017 at 1:45 PM ^

This is the biggest red herring in football fandom. Coaches are never holding anything back, at least to any considerable degree. They might have a play or a wrinkle they're saving for a specific opponent, but they would have no compunction running it in another close game against a scheme they believe it would work against.

The element of surprise is vastly overrated by fans. It can be important in the context of a game -- run a play you don't think they expect at a certain time. But it's not really important in the context of a season -- you don't hold anything back and risk a loss against Air Force so that you have a chance to surprise Ohio. Lose enough games and you might not get to coach against Ohio.

What you're talking about is Harbaugh calling plays he thinks his team can execute. That's just run of the mill game planning. That's not holding anything back.


September 20th, 2017 at 2:52 AM ^

and running up the score is not an objective.  But on the other hand we have been one fluke play away from turning games into real nail-biters.  However, I don't envision the coaching staff running around with their collective hair on fire at practice. 


September 20th, 2017 at 7:44 AM ^

We have missed touchdowns because of individual errors on many plays. Not always the same individual, but I read we are 1/12 passing inside the 30 with 3 fumbles. Were we conservative in play calling last year when we scored 159 points in the first 3 games? Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?
Everyone loves to score points, but if we have to play, dare I say, "Tressel ball" (ducks), and rely on defense and a great FG kicker it will be a cardiac brick/ bite guard kind of year.


September 20th, 2017 at 5:37 AM ^

This is amazing. Thank you! It is encouraging that identifying right plays would eliminate some of the issues. I am looking forward to the development of the right side of the line.


September 20th, 2017 at 8:01 AM ^

I hate max protect.  I think it would be easier to shift into 5 wide and run more quick hitters and screens.  Let Speight get in a rhythm and make reads.  Obviously not every play, but going more spread would simplify things in the short term and you could diversify from there.

Cranky Dave

September 20th, 2017 at 8:05 AM ^

The game plan to max protect and let our more athletic WRs beat AF's corners 1 on 1makes perfect sense. However the execution not so good. Based on parkinen's post where Cole says there were communication issues hopefully those get fixed. I wonder if the separation in coaching the OL between Drevnoand Frey contributed to the communication issues between the interior linemen and tackles/TEs


September 20th, 2017 at 8:11 AM ^

There's a lot of angst over the OL, and rightfully so.  But keep in mind that this AF defense is more aggressive than any other defense faced yet, and probably will be the most aggressive defense faced all year by Michigan.  The max protect play calls were needed not only because of the OL, but also because AF brings someone from somewhere on every down.  If DB retires in the next few years, the obvious replacement is whoever is driving the AF defense.  That was a stout opponent - especially for an offense as young and inexperienced as Michigan's!

I don't think any plays are being held back, but I also don't think game situations have called for anything more exotic than the basic staple plays.  Those plays - the staples - need to be drilled in enough that the guys can run them flawlessly in thier sleep.  Because of the competition, I think Harbaugh is just bringing the offense along slowly, no sense in rushing things when you aren't really concerned about a loss.  Come PSU, hopefully, the OL will be a little more stable and the young pass catchers a little more reliable.


September 20th, 2017 at 8:34 AM ^

Good work Tai.

I'd encourage you so do some studying on protections. You make a lot of suggestions about what ou'd like to see, and a few of them just aren't practicable under the called protections. Also, on the play where you're hoping for Speight to change the protection, he can only switch into a protection that works for the personnel group on the field and the length of his drop.

This is how it starts. You'll never watch football the same way again.


September 20th, 2017 at 12:44 PM ^

I can swear Space Coyote did a primer on protections during the Borges era. I'd suggest looking for something on YouTube. Maybe I'll write something on here some day.

It's out there, you just have to find it. And it will greatly increase your football watching experience when you can look at a play and actually know what went wrong, immediately. Or see something executed just like it was drawn up -- that's the good stuff.


September 20th, 2017 at 1:38 PM ^

Start with this.


Most of our protections are the half-slide variety. Then determine on each snap if the TE is on the slide side or the man side. If he's on the man side, then you have to kinda guess whether the coaches want him and Ulizio doubling the end man or if they teach one of them to come off and block a blitzer (is there a RB to that side). Go down the rabbit hole, man.


September 20th, 2017 at 8:52 AM ^

It's weird how after the first game we saw Eubanks and McKeon break out but since then I'm not sure Eubanks has caught a pass and McKeon hasn't been featured as much, at least in the passing game.

Wheatley hasn't taken over like most thought he would, however he was banged up vs. Air Force. 

To me it still feels like the offense is trying to find their trusted guys and regular rotation. I would expect whatever we see over the next couple of games is what they'll roll with the rest of the season.


September 20th, 2017 at 10:28 AM ^

I'm no QB expert but I think this is an example of results-based charting leading to continued bad form. You and Spath claim it is a great throw. I agree the read was good and result worked out, but to me it is perhaps a sign of why he is not making good throws consistently.

Look at Speight's arm just after he releases the ball. He hears footsteps and cuts off his motion half-way through with no follow through and starts to turtle. It almost looks as if he changed his mind in mid-throw and tried to stop his arm? The pass gets there in this instance but that form looks like it is likely to lead to a floated ball more often than a completion.

The first throw in this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEzke7SkK4A is the identical pass you mentioned him missing in the first half. It is a clean pocket with good form and follow through but it misses the target. Is the later pass floated on purpose because he led Perry too much on this one? Shruggie.