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Film Study: Michigan Wolverines

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Are good running teams going to have their way with the Huskies this season?

Washington v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

After an off season where the entire narrative was about focusing on the rushing attack and stuffing the run, we did neither.

The offense’s struggles are well-documented, but getting out rushed to the tune of 293 yards is something to be ashamed of as a program that’s hung its hat on defense. Like seriously, its not like we played Navy (who coincidentally just fired their OC for non-performance...). It won’t matter if we hold teams to under 100 yards passing if we’re getting bowled over at the LOS, and there’s a long list of things we could’ve gone over regarding the defense.

But since the defense’s struggles are primarily about getting off blocks, and guys simply making tackles in space, Film Study again mostly focuses on offense this week.

To the tape:

1st and 15:

As if coming out on the very first play from scrimmage and getting a delay of game wasn’t good enough, we follow it up with this stinker of a play. We come out in 21 personnel, I-formation with both WRs stacked to the boundary against a surprisingly light 2-4-5 front from Michigan. The Wolverines line up in an “Over” front (both DTs lined up on the TE-side shoulder of the OGs), and the Wolverines rotate into a single-high safety look to drop Daxton Hill and RJ Moten up to the LOS as well. Watching live, it looks like we called some sort of inside run that gets blown up from 3 different angles with no movement generated on the line, but the replay tells a slightly different story.

Endzone Look:

On the replay, we can see that we called a split zone run concept with Westover being assigned the key slice block. The main differentiator that separates the oodles of zone variations is how teams account for the unblocked defender on the backside of the zone play to prevent him from chasing down the play from the backside. Split zone runs start out like any other inside zone run, but with one key difference. In a split zone run, our OL is running inside zone in one direction, and the slice blocker comes across the formation from the frontside of the play to kick out the backside edge player and create a backside seam for the RB to cutback to for a potential big gain. Other ways of accounting for the backside edge include the option (reading the unblocked backside edge), bootlegs (keeping the backside defender honest in his contain responsibilities), or weakside jet sweeps (also forcing the backside edge to play contain).

From a pre-snap alignment perspective, an Over front is ideal for a split zone run because we’d get favorable blocking angles for the OL (defense is shaded to the strongside where the OL is blocking towards) and the backside OT has a free shot at the LB near the point of attack since the slice blocker is picking up the backside edge player. So far, this play looks like a good call.

Then...problems start to pop up. With Giles Jackson set back as far off the LOS as he is, it’s pretty obvious that he’s going to be the motion man, not that it was a surprise to begin with since we had already tipped our first play prior to drawing the delay of game. We are using him in jet motion to keep the backside edge honest and take heat off of any backside pursuit he’d have as the unblocked defender. The Wolverines countered the jet motion by bringing Hill and Moten down onto the LOS. This provides the defense with multiple “overhang” defenders on the backside who can account for the backside edge while still crashing down the LOS.

Between the jet motion and Westover’s slice block, our play should have had answers for 2 of the 3 defenders on the backside (Morris & Hill), but since Morris could crash hard knowing that both Hill and Moten had him covered on backside contain, he became a disruptor. On the play, the OL had this play pretty well blocked up. Wattenberg & Buelow had the NT & SAM sealed off from the cutback lane (doing their job even if it didn’t look like they pushed him off the LOS), Bainivalu got great movement washing the DT down the line, and Curne was in position to seal the ILB at the second level. Where the wheels came off the wagon was in the backfield. Expecting Morris to be more hesitant with the threat of the jet motion, Westover carried out a counter step towards the strongside to sell the zone action before peeling back to kick out Morris, but by the time he came around to make the block, Morris had squeezed the cutback lane leaving Newton with nowhere to run.

This week in the film room, the coaching point for the staff has to be the sight adjustments when they see the extra backside defenders. Westover has to commit early to the slice block to keep the lane open as long as possible. There can be a disconnect between technique taught on the field and plays drawn up on a white board. Knowing why certain techniques or assignments are being applied in certain situations and when to change things up as you see it on the field is what defines a well-coached team, even if its generalized as having high “football IQ” players. Morris, Wattenberg, and Jackson also have to sync up on the jet motion timing this week. There were on-going timing issues where guys in motion regularly had to slowdown or run past Morris on the fake, which defenses will learn to read and not bite on.

1st and 10:

This was a blow that really got me worried about how our defense was going to hold up for the rest of the game. Michigan comes out with 11 personnel in shotgun wing trey strong formation (TE attached to the formation in a wing alignment, 2 WRs to the TE-side, single WR to the boundary, RB aligned towards the strongside) against our 2-4-5 aligned in an Over front with single-high coverage. At first glance, we’re matched up reasonably well. We aren’t trying to stuff one of Michigan’s jumbo sets with 5 DBs or anything like that, and we’re rotating down into a +1 box defender situation. The problem is that Williams is no where near the right position to play in run support at the snap.

At the snap, Michigan runs a variation of the counter trey that they ran repeatedly, with the center and H-back pulling instead of the usual guard or tackle + H-back. The OL blocks down to the strongside (wash everyone to the right), the pulling center kicks out the edge (Trice?), and the H-back leads the way through the hole and takes out the LB.

This play should look familiar to Husky fans (and the Husky defense) because UW has used a variation of this play regularly.

Otton leads the way through the hole vs Arizona in 2020 here:

Michigan executes this play much better than UW did above. Against a run front that is playing 6v6 without Cam Williams playing much of a role we don’t have much of a shot at stuffing this run. (not that he’d be close to the play even if he were in the box all the way on the backside). Even numbers in the run front puts the RB in a 1v1 with our safety (KamFab) and with a whiffed tackle he’s home free. The tackling angles (and tackling for that matter) from the safety position the past two seasons has not been good. Mostly Asa Tuner a year ago, now Kam Fabiculanan this season.

Endzone Look:

A number of things stand out when rewatching this play. One is, why we are playing so much single-high if we aren’t going to bring our other safety into the box to provide some much needed support in the run game? We were playing man on the three receivers who were attached the formation, and Michigan’s H-back wasn’t so much of a vertical threat that Williams needed to play 10 yards off the LOS. By playing in no man’s land, Williams basically takes himself out of the play. Even if he were in the box at the snap, Williams doesn’t look like he’s been coached to flow to the ball once he sees pulling linemen, which is a core principle in run defense. The pulling linemen would’ve drawn him to the point of attack and there’s an outside chance that he would’ve been able to make a play on the ball carrier. Between him and KamFab taking a terrible angle to the ball, why even play with safeties? Kidding of course, but we’re questioning how disciplined our safeties are playing right now.

Also, why would Tafisi be widening out a full 3 yards out of his gap if the OLBs were committing hard to outside contain to allow our LBs to focus on the interior? All he’s doing is widening the lane in the second level for when the H-back pulls through the hole. Either he’s overcommitting to a non-existent perimeter run threat that should be covered by Trice, or he has poor feel for the flow, which is completely coachable.

Finally, we wondered why we are playing so much man coverage if we aren’t going to be bringing our LBs on a blitz? It might seem obvious that run blitzes would be a straight forward play calling answer to stopping the run, but the alternative (more zone coverage) is actually a good response to the run game if we don’t want to blitz. Zone coverage keeps all eyes in the backfield, and it allows the secondary to be much more reactive to the run game and come up in run support. With man coverage, receivers can simply show an outside release and the CBs won’t be able to read run or pass because their backs will be turned to run with the WR. Zone would help us take advantage of any negative blocking match ups the offense might have on the perimeter, and it helps to bring greater numbers to the ball. Not sure if it’s the best option for us, but its something for us to try if nothing else is working.

MGoBlog.com had an excellent breakdown of this very concept and how Michigan ran all over us with it. Highly recommend checking it (as well as their charting/film review article) out if you want an obscenely detailed review of Michigan’s offense vs our defense.

4th and 4:

What a comedy of errors... if only it were funny.

This play, as well as the 3rd down play that preceded it, were pretty much DOA, and they left every Husky fan watching openly questioning the competence of our play caller. On the play, we’re rolling with 12 personnel in a tight bunch formation against an 8-man box that stacks almost everyone on the LOS. To be honest, we have no idea what run play we are trying to run here. We’d assume that it’s some sort of gap play like duo since it doesn’t look like the OL is taking any concerted zone steps, but its also possible that the play call was botched in the rush to get the ball snapped.

We have the numbers to match up with the defense on a run play, but we wouldn’t call this a favorable front to run downhill on. With everyone on the LOS, our OL doesn’t have the ability to get combo blocks. For those who are unfamiliar with OL play, these are just double teams, but instead of two OL just driving one defender into the ground, they have two defender that they are assigned (one on the LOS and one at the second level). A common combo block would be a “duece” block (OC & OG double team) from a DT to the MLB. The guard and center would double team the DT for a beat or two and then depending on the MLB’s flow, either the center or guard would peel off the double team to block the MLB. Combo blocks can only be executed when there is a second level defender, and since everyone was on the LOS, everyone was stuck in 1v1 blocks or else leave one of the defenders unblocked. 1v1 blocks might not sound too bad if it puts an iOL on a LB, but it also means that we don’t get any positive match ups on the DL. Double teams are almost always a win for the OL, even if its only for two or three steps before one OL peels off for the LB, because it gets the DL off the LOS giving the RB room to work. Conversely, because of holding rules, solo blocks are typically wins by the DL. Rewatching the play, not a single down DL that had a 1v1 block was moved off the LOS.

While that was a problem, it also looked like our OL & TEs simply didn’t account for 3 of the 8 defenders in the box with #2, #6, and Hutchinson (of all people) were untouched at the snap. Buelow either whiffs or completely ignores #91, and Bainivalu & Curne needlessly double team #12 (a LB) while letting #2 come in unblocked. We simply find it hard to believe that either A) our staff drew up such a schematically flawed play, or B) our OL is so poorly coached that they couldn’t make the line adjustments to account for everyone, and yet here we are.

Regardless, this is coaching malpractice.

3rd and 6:

Finally, someone on the staff woke up and realized that we had Terrell Bynum on the team.

In one of the few explosive plays we got on the night, Morris connects with Bynum for a nice 22-yard TD on a fade ball that should have been wide open all night. Pre-snap, we have 11 personnel in a bunch TE-flex with the 3 WRs in the field-side bunch and Otton isolated on the boundary side. There’s nothing really complicated about this play (not sure if that’s good or bad), and its a simply mesh concept with a fade tagged as an alert. With Michigan again crowding the LOS and bringing their single-high safety up within 6-yards of the LOS, all signs point to a Cover 0 blitz. Morris recognizes this in time and immediately identifies the alert as a favorable match up.

At the snap, Michigan does in fact end up bringing pressure off the right side of our OL on an overload blitz with man coverage behind it. It’s actually a really well-designed blitz against our formation and play call because the defensive front runs the overload blitz with Ross (#12) and Hutchinson dropping into the shallow zone like a zone blitz, but the secondary go man-to-man across the board on the skill players allowing Ross and Hutchinson to play aggressively as lurkers on the hot throw. Fortunately for us, Newton recognizes and stymies the blitz from all the way across the formation to buy Morris time to loft the ball up to Bynum.

Replay

This ends up being a 1-read play for Morris because of the pre-snap alert read, so much of the credit should go to Bynum, who had a clean release off the LOS and got easy separation downhill. Bynum has sooo much more juke than Davis or Jackson, and his footwork is easily the smoothest on the team. That move was John Ross-like.

.

2nd and 7:

Down two possessions midway through the fourth quarter, our offense finally looks to liven things up with some up-tempo no-huddle after a 13-yard gain on 1st & 20. Sticking with 11 personnel featuring Otton, Bynum, Jackson, and Taj Davis, Morris gets the team hurried to the line in a shotgun wing trey strong formation (TE attached to the formation in a wing alignment, 2 WRs to the TE-side, single WR to the boundary, RB aligned towards the strongside). Donovan calls his favorite Cover 2 beater, China, to the field and a backside dig route to the boundary, all paired with a 7-man protection. Morris completes the pass to Taj Davis on the quick in on the field side for a gain of 3.

The story of this play isn’t so much what happened but what didn’t. The result of the play was fine. 3 yards to set up 3rd and manageable is pretty good for this offense, but its our failure to capitalize on the play that is frustrating. Having hurried between first and second down, the Michigan defense was scrambling to get set. Our 7-man protection was more than enough to handle the discombobulated defensive front and provide Morris with ample time in the pocket. On the back end, neither of Michigan’s safeties had their defensive calls set, and it looked like everyone defaulted into a drop Cover 2 look. As such, it was pretty easy for Bynum to get behind the second level defender on his corner route with what looked to be an easy 20+ yard gain if Morris had seen him. If Morris throws that toward the boundary away from the deep safety, there is even a chance Bynum wins the ball and that fast closing safety winds up on the ground. Really needed to try.

Instead, Morris rushed his pass, and he ended up missing his opportunity for a quick strike to Bynum. Not sure if his timing is being thrown off by the pressure he’s seen over the last two weeks, or if he’s just not going through his progression, but we can’t be passing up easy plays like this.

The offense couldn’t open up rushing lanes. The defense couldn’t stuff the run. It doesn’t look like we know where to go to fix any of our problems on the ground, but let’s hope the staff is trying.

On to Arkansas State.