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Thursday, September 13, 2007

A dual-barrel guest post on some theories why we suck so bad at defending the spread. I was at a bit of a loss to explain exactly why Michigan was getting gashed by lowly Appalachian State and not-so-lowly Oregon. These gentlemen take shots at the question.

First, Alan Weymouth:

Well, the scheme in the first game to twist the LBs was not well thought out, or executed. Twists and stunts are designed to confuse the blocking assignment of the offensive line, even just a little hesitation up there can doom a play. But its a gamble by the DC, as it makes you very vulnerable to certain kinds of plays.

Let me pause a bit to say, that stopping a run/pass QB is the toughest job in sports right now. It essentially breaks the game down to a one on one matchup, and makes things much easier from an offensive standpoint. It's hard to find guys who can really execute the scheme though (like Vince Young), and in my opinion, it's a huge gamble for a team. If your QB goes down, you tank, because you most likely don't have another guy like him on your team ready to step in.

The team was poorly prepared to play Appalachian State. It didn't look to me as if we had actually scouted them much at all. So the stuff they showed us offensively, we weren't prepared for. That is why the adjustments and personnel changes made at halftime had the impact they did.

I really can't point to a single unit on the defensive side of the ball, that I think is performing well, but LB play and Secondary play stood out against Appalachian. During the Herrmann era, our front four basically functioned as blockers if you will, to keep offensive linemen off our LBs. Our recruiting at the DL positions suffered, because no one wants to play that way anymore. The DLs want to make plays too. With English, the DLs have a little more freedom to attack their gaps and make plays...but this means your LBs have to play at a new level. They must diagnose plays early, and be responsible for their gaps, and then flow quickly to the ball. We aren't getting any of that done. In addition, our tackling has fallen way, way off. I miss David Harris more than any of the other guys who left last year.

Our overall defensive effort against Oregon was pathetic. We had very few of our players who managed to play with proper technique. DEs running around blocks instead of covering their responsiblities .LBs who won't or can't properly fill to the ball. Safeties and CBs who don't understand their coverage properly, and know where help is and how to use it. Honestly, I can't believe English still has his job.

As an example, our DE play against Oregon was really poor. Crable at DE is not the answer against a D1-A team. He's too light. But our other DEs just don't play with the right technique. When rushing against a guy like Dixon, you push up field until your even with the QB, then you must check the gap inside of you to see if he runs. If you can't disengage from the OT in time, it's easy pickings for a running QB. Our DTs against Oregon couldn't push the pocket back and help. At DT, you have to maintain your rush lane and "push" the pocket backward..if you don't, you open up a large gap in the middle..with apparently noone to fill it. By pushing the pocket backward, you narrow the gap between DT and DE and make it easier to defend.

I'm not a big fan of rushing only four guys against a run/pass QB. In my opinion, you try to force a guy like that to make quick decisions with the ball, and force him into errors. I'd never rush fewer than five. But, that means your secondary has to cover well, and...well...ours doesn't. We saw blown coverages against Appalachian, and we saw more of them against Oregon. Either we've become "Herrmanesque" in the number of coverages our players are expected to learn, or we've got a collection of dunces unparalleled in the history of football playing in our secondary. Those guys don't understand what they are doing. If we have trouble with zone, you usually go to man...but we didn't do any better there either. Simple pick plays caused us all kinds of problems.

Defense shouldn't be this hard. It's really pretty simple. Cover your gaps, get off blocks and move to the football.

Our weak LB recruiting over the last several years is hurting us. C.Graham isn't very good and won't ever be. Mouton will replace him as soon as he's healthy I think. Thompson is okay...but hasn't tackled nearly as well as I hoped. Ezeh must get more snaps. Panter must be a total bust. I'd still try him at some point though.

We won't see a huge improvement on this defense, until the staff gets these guys to play the correct techniques, and find the best 11 to put on the field. To me, it's like they accomplished nothing in camp.
Ah... grim.

Meanwhile, frequent commenter DanK makes a convincing case that Michigan's issue with the spread can be traced to their decision to run a standard 4-2-5 nickel against these spread option offenses instead of the 3-3-5 that was so frequently successful a year ago. This isn't blockquoted because of killer graphs and charts, but here goes:

That book I told you about [Obscene Diaries of a Michigan Fan -ed] contained some interesting thoughts about the spread offense NW, Purdue and later MSU ran a few years ago. That specifically talked about the even-man front vs the odd-man front on the Dline. From what I recall in the book, we used an even front vs NW in 2000 (L,54-51) and they absolutely shredded us in epic proportions. The most points & yards given up by a M defense in like 50 years, if not ever. Sure, there were other factors like youth on the M defense (especially @ LB, iirc) and maybe NW was truly an NFL-level-talent filled offense that year (not so much). Yea, they could have executed perfectly and yea Herrmann was the coordinator. But 600 yards & 54 pts? The book's thesis then, as is mine now, is that scheme had a vital role in the epic failures of the D in these games (NW then, ASU & UO now). And although I have no evidence, the author recalls games subsequent to NW2000 in which the scheme changed to an odd front vs spread teams (not a 3 man Dline scheme exactly, but more like a 4-2 with the front 4 shifted to an unbalanced 4-man line). The point was that Herrmann (& Carr I assumed) learned something from that NW2000 game. Again, since I don't have film from the Herrmann era and I haven't figured out the whole torrent/seed thing, I can't speak to that 1st hand. I would trust the author simply b/c he seems to have taken good notes from each game he mentions.

However, the following file contains a few slides representative of what I saw in the ASU & UO games this year. It certainly confirms what I & the book's author recall about the NW2000 game: even-man fronts (4-3...well 4-2-5 Nickel is more precise) vs the spread-option offense. clearly, the results were the same: namely, AAAAAARRRRGGGGG!

The assumptions:

1) the purpose of the spread (especially the spread-option) is to obviously spread the defensive personnel sideline-to-sideline. BUT, the primary goal is NOT to throw the ball downfield or throw the ball all around the field. The primary goal is to run up the middle, between the tackles. Logically speaking, why design a formation that guides the ballcarrier toward the bulk of the defense (toward the outside in this case)?

2) the even man front (usually the 4-3, but vs the spread it's 4-2 b/c of all the WRs on the field) is fundamentally ill equipped to defend against this attack. I think this formation is best suited to defend a pro-style offense with the fullback/multiple TEs for reasons I don't want to get into now. I will show in the slides exactly how the even man front fails based on the film i've seen in the ASU & UO games. In spite of the fact that the Dline in the odd man front has fewer linemen (3, not 4), it seems to actually be more equipped to handle the inside run game. Basic reasoning:

a) even-man fronts don't put pressure on the center. the DTs line up in the 1-technique (over the A-gaps between the center & guards). This makes the center's life pretty easy compared to, say, knowing Terrance Taylor was about to SMASH you as soon as you moved. In the odd man front, the DT (NG) lines up over the C and engages him immeadeitely. In this case, the C needs to execute a good shotgun snap and hold his ground. Anything less is failure for him. b/c of the snap itself, at the instant of the snap the DT is the only lineman with an advantage over his counterpart on the Oline.

b) as will be seen in the slides, the DEs in the even man front tend to run themselves so far up-field that they take themselves out of the play.

[SLIDES! -ed]

  • 4(even front)-2-5 (Nickel).
  • DEs line up wider than tackles (5-technique); have contain responsibility.
  • DTs line up at C-G gap or over guards(1-technique or 2-tech); have 2-gap responsibility.
  • No man over center == easy job for center; can snap ball & release easily toward MLBs.
  • No other defenders within 10-15 yards of ball: thus ‘spread.’ Key here is to spread the field in order to make it easier to run up the middle, not pass or run E-W (where the rest of the D is positioned).
  • Nonetheless, looks like 6-on-5 in favor of the D.

  • Ends run themselves out of the play! Now it’s 5-on-5!
  • No man over center == easy job for center; can snap ball & release easily toward MLBs.
  • Guards contain D tackles, I think b/c each DT has 2-gap responsibility, thus they can’t overwhelm the guards.
  • RT ignores Crable for the MLB: Crable has contain & QB keeper responsibility, so he can’t pursue too aggressively.
  • Tackle & guard wash out MLBs: the middle is a free 5-8 yards since the secondary is spread out: RB has choice to follow the center or take the huge hole on the left.

c) in the odd-man front there seems to be less opportunity for linemen (interior linemen especially) to release and engage the 2nd line of defenders (namely, the LBs). this is partly due to the C-NG dynamic, but there's more to it, I suspect.

[more slides! -ed]

  • 3(odd front)-3-5
  • Taylor lines up over C (0-technique); has 2-gap responsibility.
  • DEs line up between tackle & guard (3- technique); have 1-gap responsibility.
  • OLBs have contain responsibility.
  • Man over center == center not happy; must snap ball & prepare to be demolished. I think just holding his ground here is a win for the center. Demand for double team also likely.
  • Still, 6-on-5 in favor of the D.

  • Ends do NOT run themselves out of the play: still 6-on-5.
  • Taylor has 2-gap responsibility? Maybe just ‘Taylor SMASH!’ Responsibility? Either way, with him over the nose, there’s a lot of pressure put on the center to execute a good shotgun snap and engage the guy 3cm from his face.
  • I don’t see how a successful inside run is executed here, b/c there’s less oppurtunity for interior linemen to advance to the 2nd level (to wash out the LBs). This is basically b/c no one has the opportunity to run themselves out of the play, and only the NG has 2 gap responsibility.
  • A double on Taylor allows a DE into the heart of the backfield (same if a guard immediately releases to the 2nd level).
  • Assuming Taylor’s goal is to SMASH!, major disruption in the backfield is likely w/o a double team.
  • Assuming Taylor’s goal is to control 2 gaps (no double needed), the MLB (and OLB) is free to flow to the ballcarrier. If there are no doubles at all, the tackles are free to washout the OLBs, allowing for a potential break in containment. BUT:
  • If Crable (or the other OLB) can get contain, the MLB is still free to flow to the ballcarrier. Plus, that safety has had more time to move up toward the LoS in run support since the RB has had to dance away from the point of attack & find another lane toward the outside.
  • Recall: the purpose of the spread IMHO, is to create more room to run up the middle, NOT to allow the ballcarrier to run outside (this is where half the defense lies). I mean, why spread the defense sideline-to-sideline just to have the ballcarrier run that way?
  • Isn’t it better to have the RB run E-W instead of N-S? Especially when the formation is designed to run up the middle?
3) the key to any defense is it's ability to stop the run, specifically and most especially up the middle. IMHO, everything else defensively is built on that single basis. It forces teams into 2nd & 3rd & longs, predictable passing situations. General discomfort. These of course lead to Turnovers & changes of possession. Certainly, if one can stop the run without creeping a safety up or all out run-blitzing, your D should be in good shape to allow your team to regain possession.

4) The LBs in the odd-man scheme should tend to crowd the line and not drop back too far into a deep zone on a pass. First, we'd rather have these QBs pass into 7-8 man coverage. Second, most pass plays in this offense are quick slants or hitches, not deep routes over the middle or the long sideline up & out where the QB needs a rocket to complete the pass safely. Third, the LBs need to be aware of the ISQD or scramble.

About the slides: the 1st 2 (pre-snap & post-snap) are representative of the formations when UO (or ASU, iirc) were in a 4-wide 2-back set (QB + RB). It's the Option run where almost every time, it was a handoff up the middle (especially in the UO game). We just got gashed. A few times UO motioned a 3rd guy into the backfield to disguise the direction in which the QB could take the ball (or to show the possibility of a traditional triple option). Results were the same: 2 OLs released to engage the 2 MLBs waaaaay to easily. DEs running up-field out of the play. The 2nd 2 slides show what I imagine would be the most logical way for a odd-man front to handle this offense. I haven't accounted for the passing options, but as I said, it's not the offense's preference to throw the ball and I figure no matter what D formation you're in, you need to cover the WRs pretty tight in zone, man or otherwise.

I do want to say that this theory is by no means foolproof. Hey, I'm no football coach, hell I never even played organized football. But I have read a few books and heard a few coaches talk (sometimes they let something slip that is more than fluff). This certainly doesn't guaruntee a win over UO. It probably doesn't do much to stop the perfect passes Dixon threw for long TDs, or the statue of liberty plays, taken on their own. But I do think the game would have at least been competitive. I mean, who knows, if they get 1-3 YPC up the middle instead of 5-8, maybe that's more 3rd & longs, more predicitable passing situations, more discomfort for UO: a kind of football butterfly effect. It might have led us to a win over ASU, but just about any single thing, if done differently, would have led to a win there (literally EVERY individual event in that game led to the worst case possibility for M). But I do think that this scheme gives us the best chance to win. Especially when you consider that it really just means playing Crable standing up off the line (no change in personnel needed- the last thing we need is more LBs on the field who couldn't beat out C Graham for PT).

I also can't explain why, if LC & Herrmann did indeed employ this tactic vs the spread 3-4-5 years ago in the aftermath of NW2000, they aren't using it now. Maybe LC is delegating too much to English, who really doesn't know about this idea. I do know that, after 9/1/07, anything is possible. It's not just the score of that game, but the decisions the defensive staff made: stunting Dlinemen every 3 plays in the 1st half against the spread-option, dropping Taylor off the line as a spy for the QB in that last drive. To me, it's these very specific, very illogical decisions made by the defensive staff that has led to the failures so far this season. Not so much the offensive predictability or play-calling or team speed. I think the coaches literally did not put the defense in the best position to be successful.

Well, I hope you find this interesting, if not comforting. I know that after the ASU game, I needed concrete reasons for how & why M could have lost that game. Good or bad, it led me to think that the coaching staff is not making the best decisions from a defensive formation perspective. For me, there's comfort in knowing how it happened. Plus, it gives me more hope that we can beat teams who don't run the spread-option.

So there you have it. I should point out that Michigan may not have the personnel to run this odd man front. Taylor can probably swing the NT and Johnson one of the DE spots, but where does Tim Jamison play? Not as a defensive end except on passing downs. And who is the second DE? John Ferrara? Who rotates in when folks get tired? Etc. Also, Michigan often went with an even front a year ago against spread option teams and crushed that all the same. (In no game did Michigan deploy the 3-3-5 exclusively or even situationally; generally Michigan would come out in it for one drive and then go back to the nickel, swapping off irregularly throughout the day.)

But... the arguments made *do* sound convincing, and I think a major problem with our run defense against both Oregon and Appalachian State was the inability of our DTs to control two gaps. The holes were usually between one of our DTs and our DEs running themselves upfield. Our linebackers hardly ever had the luxury of flowing to the ball without dealing with a blocker, usually one who got out to the second level in a hurry.