Neck Sharpies: Whose Gap Is It Anyway?

Neck Sharpies: Whose Gap Is It Anyway? Seth September 24th, 2019 at 1:54 PM
I'm sure someone was supposed to be here. [Bryan Fuller]

It's very hard to find anything specific to talk about this week because of the wholesale disaster this was. I'm also dismayed to see the game was shot at such a bad angle, making it basically impossible for the people watching on TV to figure out what happened other than some bodies slammed into each other. I saw it from the stands in Madison, which apart from the opportunity to sit with the mostly congenial* Badger faithful, meant I got a good view of the Wisconsin gameplan, and how devastatingly effective it was on Michigan's approach.

It looked like the Badgers realized Michigan's defensive tackle situation was dire, and that Don Brown was going to have to roll the dice by slamming linebackers into gaps and living with the consequences of choosing the wrong one. It was the same analysis we had about this game before Army.

Chryst's response to it was to take the concept out of Dantonio's magnificent first drive in 2016:

  • Pack a lot of guys into the box,
  • Motion like crazy, and
  • Attack the gaps defended by defensive backs.

The more guys in the box created more of those lanes for Michigan's defenders to have to plug. The motions tested Michigan's young starters by moving their gap assignments around, like the ball in a cup game we got to play a million times during Fox's push to set a record for commercial breaks. The defensive backs were identified as Michigan's worst run defenders, excepting Josh Metellus.

[Let's look in after THE JUMP]

* [Travel experience side note: Gorgeous building, great tailgating atmosphere, enjoyed the students and easily the best bar scene in the conference. 'Jump Around' is vastly overrated; Penn State fans are three times as loud, and even Michigan Stadium, which is dug into a massive hole, moved more to the same song last year. Fans mostly awesome; there was one lady in her 50s—or perhaps aged so by drug use—who, after someone came up the aisle with the cleverest t-shirt she'd ever seen, took it upon herself to yell "Ann Arbor is a whore!" at us literally 50 times in a row until I shut her up by asking her husband why he brought the Buckeye (this, apparently, is just as outrageous a slander in Madison as anywhere else in the country). Other than her, the only time we had any issues was the 2nd targeting call, which the stadium didn't replay. Note to stadiums: replay the good calls that went against you please so your fans don't embarrass themselves by booing a textbook call while a player is lying unconscious because of it. Discovered a parking hack but sworn to secrecy on that one.]


The First Play

Right from the drop both teams showed how they wanted to play that afternoon. Michigan came out with a 3-3-5, affixing their defensive backs to the receivers they'd be covering in man (Viper—>Tight end) and their front six aligned to prevent off-tackle runs with Hutchinson and Paye. In the case of motion the defensive backs were prepared to flip with the single-high defender.


It's not a 3-3-5 stack but an Over shift. The defensive line is shifted away from the tight end's side and the linebackers are more or less centered, inviting a "bubble" to the frontside that they plan to attack with blitzing linebackers.

reminder you can hit <—arrow to slow it down, –> to speed it back up, and [spacebar] to pause

What's Wisconsin doing? They rolled out in their spread (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) personnel but bunched them with the slot receiver acting like an H-back. He crosses the formation on jet motion, and then they pull multiple guys from the backside. The ball is snapped low and the quarterback hands it the wrong direction—I'm guessing that was just Coan's dorf—but you can see how it was supposed to work: move the gaps with the motion, then move a lot of parts to put new gaps in new places.


They took this right out of Michigan's playbook last year (every power team runs it). The motioning slot receiver is going to get Ambry Thomas (#1) moving away from the attack, as is the RB's counter step. Then they swing two blockers from the backside around, the first kicking out the unblocked edge guy and the second leading through the hole to hit the unblocked frontside LB. The DT and MIKE LB are getting blocked down by a big guard and right tackle.

So Michigan is attacking the frontside, Wisconsin is attacking the backside and motioning to the frontside. So (other than the snap-fu) why is this a good play for Michigan? Because the defense has been coached to deal with curveballs. When Don Brown first arrived one of the interesting things we were writing about at the time was how he has his ends exchange gaps on the fly. Wisconsin's intended gap evaporates as Michigan flips the orange and green blocks.

Orange is the "kickout" block. Wisconsin wants to run inside of it and hit the green block. Michigan flips them on the fly to deny access to those blocks.

Depending on the opponent, Brown often has his ends and outside linebackers coached to "crash/replace" when they see the end unblocked, sort of like how Army's scrape exchanges are built into their base defense. Kwity sees he's unblocked, looks for someone coming to block him, and spotting LG #78 coming his way, crashes inside. Hard to kick out when you're already in the intended gap, right? Kwity's job is then taken by Jordan Glasgow, the WLB. This is all done on the fly, between players who are using their eyes, making their correct reads, and reacting in time for the offense to have nowhere to go. Even if this handoff is made, the play is forced back to the side where Uche and Ross were blitzing.

This is the kind of stuff Don Brown has been doing since he was at Maryland to cover up for talent deficiencies. He's getting aggressive in places where he knows he's outmanned, and trusting his better players to make difficult read-and-react plays when they're about to be put in bad positions.


The Second Play

Unlike Michigan's offense last week against Army, Wisconsin immediately knew what to do about this scrape exchange behavior. They ran split zone, which seals the crashing guy outside lets the replacing OLB stay out there too, and runs right down the middle where both of those guys aren't. But first they have to do some motion. Michigan's response to the starting on the right, motioning to the left, then returning to the right after the snap  is pretty basic and can be covered by getting inside Khaleke's head.


Again, Michigan is simply flipping the jobs of the backside safety and the viper. Tight end comes to you: act like a Viper. Tight end goes away from you, act like a Safety. The more interesting response is what they did when they saw the first motion. The RB coming down to the right set off a flurry of Michigan pointing:

Since the shifted RB's alignment suggests more of an attack to the left, I believe Michigan's check when they saw that was to switch to a slant to the (defense's) right with the defensive line and use the MLB, Josh Ross as the backside crasher, and Uche replacing him on the edge.

If that's what's going on, this is a well-practiced call to get into a very different post-snap front. The ability to do that however would make a defense quite strong against the games offenses play with their running backs. No matter how you align, we're using the fit that works best against your alignment. Hard? Yes. Worth it? Well, if you're already short on ability this is a way to make up for it.

The playcall however wins an RPS for Wisconsin. Michigan's slanting to the frontside and using that replacement strategy on the outside. As long as the offense can cut off the crash in time, both he and the exchange are going to wind up on the outside, and the run can go as far as the guys blowing out the frontside blocks can get it to:


Now the exchange is working against Michigan. Ross gets cut off, Uche is blocked by nobody, and now it's up to a slanting Hutchinson and how quickly he realizes by trying to travel toward the sideline with his slant gap, he's running himself right past the only running lane. It doubly hurts that he gets absolutely owned, the beefy Wisconsin RT turning Chris's boy into a pancake on the G. Watch the two key blocks unfold: the kickout on Josh Ross and the block down on Hutchinson.

Here too there's a Don Brown coaching point that could have saved us. Over the offseason Brown went on an unfortunately named podcast and got into how he has his defensive linemen play gaps. At 49:18 he talks about "Denting" the run game and that dovetails into how he fits gaps. In that Brown talked about he has his linemen "1.5-gap." In other words, your job isn't to just get into your gap but to also be controlling your offensive lineman so you can squeeze off the gap to the other side of him too. This play is a great example of NOT playing 1.5 gaps. Hutchinson didn't have the strength against this OL nor the recognition at this stage of his career to stop when the play was coming towards his butt and make the gap behind his behind a bit smaller.

Again, schematically, the defense has answers. The offense is also party to this and has their ways of screwing with you. And the defense has mitigating coaching points built in as well. Is it hard to play this way? Yes. But when you're already sure your nose tackle versus these guys is going to be a loss, you put more on other guys. Maybe Ross can angle in and get under that tight end to make a play in the backfield. Maybe Hutchinson can hold up to a right tackle and hold position once he realizes the guy blocking him wants him to go where he's heading.


So here we are, two plays into this game with the new defensive tackles, and already we're at the spot we were two plays into Notre Dame last year with the offensive tackles. It's a Flaw, in the worst place it can be on defense. Either you accept it and plan to lose to a team like Wisconsin, or you try to get cute. Wisconsin had this scouted, and has no other difficult games for a month to either side of this, and came really prepared to inflict maximum damage on cuteness. They're just getting started.


The Bounce

It's now a few plays later, and now we get to the part of the script they were hoping to break big. Michigan's pulled Uche for Donovan Jeter and gone back to their base 4-2-5. Wisconsin now executes a TE flip with some receivers moving around too to add to the confusion. This pre-snap stuff reminds me of Stanford Harbaugh, and if you're not on a mobile I really recommend playing this one in slo-mo:

Michigan sets the strength of the line to the tight end, and their base response to flipping the tight end is to flip everybody's jobs. You may remember this gambit from scripted opening drives such as Michigan State 2016, when pre-snap shifts were used to turn Peppers into an inside linebacker and McCray into the strongside edge protector. Since then Michigan's defense has gotten more generic: Kwity and Hutchinson aren't too different, Glasgow has been a viper nearly as long as Khaleke, and Kemp was at Jeter's 3-tech job last year. So the flip is taken in stride: Glasgow becomes the Viper, Hudson the WLB. Kemp is now the 3-tech, Kwity the Anchor job he played in Gary's absence. Even with the slant call on, they're all sure of their gaps. Until they aren't.

The playcall is the same as the first on the drive: Counter Trey. This includes a TE kickout on Glasgow and is meant to be run inside Paye.


But Michigan has the right call on. They're slanting to throw off the offense's blocks, and that has the result of slanting the unblocked Paye right past where the LG had any chance of kicking him out. That guy holds up in the hole unsure of what to do, the left tackle gets stopped behind him, and the guy the LT was supposed to hit—Josh Ross—now runs directly into the inside shoulder of the first lineman in the hole, popping both of them back. That's Wisconsin's inexperience showing a bit—if you get to the gap and find nobody to hit you're supposed to improvise not stop in the middle of the lane. In the Rock/Paper/Scissors game Wisconsin could have a victory merely by sealing Paye, sending the second lineman into Ross, and leaving Taylor alone with a cornerback.


Michigan's got an answer for that too: Josh Ross is coached to attack the puller when he sees him in the gap, specifically the inside shoulder of the puller, staying square (1.5-gapping team remember) in case it goes to the other side. Brown's defense wants to keep speed on the field and makes up for size differential using momentum. Wisconsin has mass in the hole, but by adding acceleration to the equation Michigan matches their force.

Glasgow has ripped around the tight end, effectively covering his own gap plus the one the overhang corner, Lavert Hill, was watching. That forces Taylor to cut into Kwity Paye. This play ought to be dead right there. Live it looked like Hill got caught inside but really it's Glasgow.

And you can't really blame him. He had the edge, won it in fact, and stayed there until there was a great big pileup that the best back in the country emerged from unscathed. Metellus compounds it by also heading into the middle, probably expecting a shoving fight. But this situation is mostly just really bad luck.

Lavert Hill is hanging out over the top of all of this, watching Glasgow enter his lane. Was he supposed to get outside? Almost certainly no: he has a lane and he's in it. But there are instances in Brown's defense where a guy where Hill is has responsibility for getting outside when his teammates wins inside. Again, I refer you to Brown's podcast, at 47:30, where he's talking about how he talks about always keeping an overhang guy protecting the edge.

The thing is Brown's talking about how they use the Viper, who plays off the Anchor (strongside end) and often has to react to what happens with the tight end blocking his teammate. When a defense end does what Glasgow does, Vipers are trained to be ready to play outside so the end can take a shot at a great play. It's part of how Brown uses the benefit of his overhang defenders to play aggressively on the edge.

Does Hill know that? I don't think so; this is advanced extra stuff that's only applicable for an extremely specialized position. There are much better examples this drive of having the absolutely wrong personnel on the field (and getting hosed by luck).


Speed in No Space


If you take away acceleration, you get mass on mass. If you put players into roles that aren't what they're usually doing, you get players who don't execute. This next play has just about everything this game did:

  • Michigan trying to play defensive line with a linebacker
  • Presnap motion that gets a defensive back discombobulated
  • A meatball playcall that plays to Wisconsin's strengths
  • An atrocious uncalled hold on Wisconsin
  • A Michigan player screwing up assignments that his position usually doesn't have.

The personnel for 3rd and 3 makes absolutely no sense to me. Michigan has two defensive linemen on the field: Kemp and Jeter. There's a DL/LB hybrid in Uche, one pure linebacker in Josh Ross, and their two hybrid-leaning-to-LB OLBs in Hudson and Glasgow, plus three safeties and both cornerbacks. This is their answer to Wisconsin, with a fullback and two tight ends? And no they didn't get trapped on the field; the last down was a 2nd and 8 slant that Hutchinson help tackle on.


I mean…there had to be some thought to this right? Gun to head it was "Josh Ross is a lot tougher than you think; let's tempt them to run over him and show them. And if I'm Wisconsin I call two plays right at this and say thank you. The weird thing is it almost worked. Ross shot past the Wisconsin LG (that guy's not coming out great in a hypothetical UFR), who had to grab on with a hold that gets called 100% of the time I'm not rooting for the team it's happening to.[citation needed]

The motion this time isn't that special; one of the tight ends flips sides and draws a "travel" from Ambry Thomas (as opposed to flipping jobs with a safety) and alerts Brad Hawkins (#20) that he's now the inside overhang with Khaleke Hudson the edge. The play is a counter dive, i.e. a run straight up the gut with a step from the RB and a fullback going out to crack the backside DE in hopes the defense goes for the backfield action instead of following the line's blocking. Hawkins and J'Marick Woods are your quasi-linebackers and both bite on the counter action: Woods because he has to (the FB kickout has added a new lane that becomes Woods's responsibility) and Hawkins because he's watching the back's motion and trying to make a play.

So Michigan might have gotten away with Ross as a defensive tackle who's not even lining up at linebacker depth—or at least the reason they didn't wasn't Michigan's fault—but using a safety as a linebacker just resulted in a linebacker doing a Rutgers linebacker thing. What I don't understand is what the payoff is supposed to be here. If your linebacker's going to be up on the line he's got no acceleration to help him. If you're using two safeties to relate to the running back why have we stockpiled linebackers built to relate to running backs? The defense makes sense; the personnel doesn't.


Later on Michigan put Glasgow on the defensive line to try to stop a run from the 1 yard line.

Did Don Brown get exposed?

I think he got beat, but that's not the same thing. I've been hammering this and hammering this ever since we got our first glimpse over the horizon of life after Mo Hurst: good defense in modern footballs starts with the defensive tackles. When you have good ones, offenses have to burn resources and remove chunks of their playbooks to account for that, and you can pay off your pass rush by making sure there's no pocket to step into. When you have bad ones, the offense can use extra blockers for your pass rushers, send more receivers into routes, and force you into playing risky defense with your linebackers to make up for those deficiencies. If you don't roll the dice, they'll just shove you down the field five yards at a time. The more risk you add, the more you're likely to have failures.

Some of the risks Michigan took made sense, some paid off, and some were just goofy. With some better luck, and not having to face Wisconsin again, I don't think we're going to see them exposed again this badly. From the first drive it was Wisconsin was a bad matchup for a flawed defense. I didn't see anything to substantially change our opinions on Don Brown.

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September 24th, 2019 at 2:46 PM ^

I'm glad you agree Seth. I've been to Madison twice now after this past weekend, Jump Around has to be one of the most overrated traditions in college sports.

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September 24th, 2019 at 2:48 PM ^

Well I'm sure our thoughtful readership will take your measured response about Brown and the defensive staff at face value.

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September 24th, 2019 at 2:57 PM ^

  With some better luck, and not having to face Wisconsin again, I don't think we're going to see them exposed again this badly.

Man oh man I hope you are right Seth, but the BPONE is strong and doesn't want to believe right now. A bounce back domination of Rutger will help, but the Iowa game looms large the week after. 

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September 24th, 2019 at 2:59 PM ^

As always, great stuff. This is really interesting to get inside the head of Don.

Now, for all we have criticized the defense in the last few days, what I see is a coach who is using a vast expertise pool to try and give Michigan the best shot possible at a win. It didn’t work, and they seemed to lose morale at a point, but in a strange way, this almost comforts me. Brown wasn’t confounded and hopeless; he knew exactly what he was doing and what needed to be done to try and mitigate personnel issues. He’s not perfect, but it’s nice to know our D Coordinator understands what’s going on, even in a blow out.

love these posts: thanks again.

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September 24th, 2019 at 3:05 PM ^

Seth do you have any theories about that goal line play where Glasgow was lined up over a guard with his hand in the dirt and a massive bubble next to him, which didn't get filled?

I can't figure out what was even supposed to happen there.

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September 24th, 2019 at 3:09 PM ^

This leaves me somewhat encouraged that Don Brown hasn't been neutered, but confirms my feeling going into this game (and this season) that the DT situation puts a major limit on this defense. Wisconsin looked like the worst matchup on the schedule, and I saw this paving as probably inevitable. But those things are going to happen against quality opponents as with OSU last year, and I thought the point of going to an up-tempo (relatively) spread system was to give the offense more possessions and more explosive plays to keep pace with a high-scoring opponent. This offense could barely keep up with Army.

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