Week 1 of the 2015 season is in the books, so it's time to resume our "Film Focus" series.
As a quick reminder, after each Michigan football game, I will watch the film and review each snap multiple times and often at slower speeds. Why? One view of a play in real time usually does not reveal what led to the outcome of said play. With 22 bodies on the field, most of which are colliding into each other in the span of a few short seconds, it's chaos. But it's strategic chaos. Therefore, my goal is to slow the film down, analyze the details, and discover what both teams tried to accomplish and whether either was able to do so. Then, I will share my findings with you in two columns each week: one that focuses solely on Michigan's offense and one that focuses solely on Michigan's defense.
Today, we evaluate Michigan's offense against Utah. Tomorrow, we look at the defense.
A Cohesive Offensive Game Plan: Constraint Plays
Successful offenses consist of a core group of base plays. These are the plays that offenses practice often because offensive coordinators know they will work against certain defensive schemes. But, unless a defensive coordinator enjoys having his lunch money taken from him, defenses adjust. This leads to the ever-important constraint plays.
As Chris Brown wrote in The Essential Smart Football:
Constraint plays thus work on defenders who cheat. For example, the safety might get tired of watching you break big runs up the middle, so he begins to cheat up. Now you call play action and make him pay for his impatience. The outside linebackers cheat in for the same reason: to stop the run. Now you throw the bubble screen, run the bootleg pass to the flat, and make them pay for their impatience. Now the defensive ends begin rushing hard upfield; you trap, draw, and screen them to make them pay for getting out of position. If that defensive end played honest, your tackle could block him; if he flies upfield, your tackle cannot. Constraint plays make them get back to basics. Once they get back to playing honest football, you go back to the whiteboard and beat them with your bread and butter.
This was one of the biggest criticisms of Al Borges' tenure as Michigan's offensive coordinator. He did not implement a base offense. Rather, he had a grab bag of tricks and random assortment of plays that didn't mesh well together. As a result, Michigan did lots of different stuff on offense under Borges but wasn't proficient at one particular thing.
This will not be a concern under Jim Harbaugh and Tim Drevno.
It's no secret that Michigan will run a power offense under Harbaugh and Drevno. This doesn't mean that Michigan won't incorporate spread elements into its playbook, but the Wolverines will be a team that has its quarterback under center, prefers man-blocking schemes, and, of course, utilizes multiple tight ends. This means that we'll see Michigan in lots of I-formation sets with one or two receivers, and, when this happens, Michigan will have a tendency to try to run the ball down the defense's throat. For example, during their opening drive at Utah, the Wolverines lined up in a one-wide I-formation set three times, handing the ball off to De'Veon Smith each time. All in all, the plays were not very effective -- Smith totaled just six yards on the three carries -- but Michigan had planted the seed in Utah's mind: expect Michigan to run any time it comes out in this formation.
Fast-forward to the end of the first quarter. It is the start of Michigan's third offensive drive, and the Wolverines begin on Utah's 41-yard line. Jake Rudock leads the offense onto the field and gets it into a one-wide I-formation set -- just like Michigan had three previous times earlier in the first quarter. All of those were runs, so, of course, Utah expects another run. How can I tell? The Utes have nine defenders in or next to the box:
The only Utah defenders not near the box are the cornerback slotted over Jehu Chesson to the far side and the deep safety in the middle of the field. At the snap, Rudock turns and looks like he will hand the ball to Smith on a stretch to the near side. The Utah defenders in or near the box, all of whom are expecting a run, begin to cheat in to it:
What they haven't realized yet, though, is that this is not a hand-off to Smith. This is a play-action pass, and Jake Butt has just snuck behind all of them to run a post route while Chesson will run an out-and-up on the outside:
This is the constraint play that we were discussing above. This is the play that punishes a defense for cheating. Michigan has two receivers down the field, and there are only two Utes, too. This forces the deep safety to roll down and mark Butt on his post pattern, unless he wants to allow a pitch and catch from Rudock to Butt for an easy 20 yards ... at least. What it also does is erase any help over the top that the Utah corner thinks he has:
The play has worked to perfection. Chesson has him beat. This should be a touchdown:
But it's not because Rudock overthrew Chesson, whom Harbaugh claims slowed down.
The outcome of the play is frustrating, but the play itself should be encouraging. Entering the season, one of the biggest red flags about this Michigan offense was the lack of a deep threat. Devin Funchess departed for the NFL, and none of the remaining receivers fit the mold of a No. 1 wideout. However, Chesson is a burner and has proven to be adept at the double move, and Michigan knows how to utilize it. The Wolverines will continue to lull defenses asleep with its big formations until those defenses stack the box, leaving Chesson alone in single coverage on the outside. And that's when Michigan will go for the kill shot, running a play-action pass that sees Chesson breaking free down the field. Then, defenses will re-adjust, which should open space for the inside running game.
Don't be surprised if Chesson gets a few touchdowns like that this season.
This wasn't the only constraint play that Michigan used either. In fact, there were plays that had both base and constraint options, from which Rudock could choose based on his pre-snap read of the defense. On the play after Rudock overthrew Chesson, Michigan is in a three-wide shotgun set with Grant Perry in the slot and Amara Darboh to the outside in the field. The base play call is an inside run for Smith, while the constraint is a flanker screen to Darboh in the field. Initially, an inside run for Smith is the correct move because Michigan has six blockers for six Utah defenders in the box but only two receivers for Utah's three defenders towards the near side. Smith could reel off a big one:
However, prior to the snap, Utah's nickelback rushes in towards the box, showing blitz. Now the numbers have changed. With the blitzing nickelback, Utah has seven defenders in the box to just six of Michigan's blockers. Just like that, what could have been a big run for Smith looks like it will be stuffed. Rudock notices this, though, and he also notices that Michigan now has a two-on-two on the field side with both Utah defenders playing at least eight yards off the line of scrimmage. The flanker screen is wide open:
Rudock receives the snap, and the offensive line begins to run-block. However, based on his pre-snap read, Rudock doesn't give the ball to Smith and instead throws the screen:
As Darboh catches the screen, Perry executes a perfect block on the Utah corner to the outside, taking out his legs. All Darboh has to do is beat the slower safety to the sideline:
The result: a 28-yard gain -- the longest by either team in the contest.
Michigan did this a lot against Utah. In fact, the Wolverines did this five more times in the contest, whether it was a designed flanker screen or a quick screen to a lone receiver on the outside. None were as effective as this one, but, all in all, these six screens totaled 70 yards and picked up three first downs. And the last one should have ended in a fourth first down two plays before Michigan turned it over on downs if Darboh had cut inside:
These will work all season, and Rudock proved he can make the right pre-snap reads.
Stop Calling for Shane Morris to Start over Jake Rudock
Speaking of Rudock, he wasn't nearly as bad as everyone thinks. The problem is that, after an entire off-season discussing how Rudock is a game manager that will limit turnovers, his detractors can't stop pointing at the three interceptions he threw against Utah. For starters, the first interception was not his fault. That falls on Perry, who ran a quick hitch past the first-down marker rather than an out route to where Rudock placed the football. Harbaugh confirmed this. The next two were his fault. The second interception was an errant pass behind Perry, who was open on his corner route against Utah's Cover 2 zone. The third interception speaks to an issue that we must discuss.
Rudock threw lots of short passes in Iowa's check-down offense, and, after the contest against Utah, it seems apparent that he still loves to throw those passes. In particular, out routes on third downs. Seven of Michigan's 15 third-down pass plays ended with Rudock intending to complete a pass to a receiver running an out route. And, for most of these, the out route was where he was looking first. Utah's defense caught on, and it played a pivotal role when Michigan crossed midfield with nine minutes left, trailing Utah, 17-10.
After the snap, Rudock stares down Perry, who is running an out route to the near side. However, Utah's Justin Thomas know it's coming and is glued to Perry. Perry gets no separation with his inside-out cut, so Rudock needs to come off of Perry and look to his right, where both Butt and Chesson are open underneath for easy first downs:
But Rudock doesn't and tries to force the pass to Perry. You know the rest:
However, this one mistake -- albeit crucial -- does not mean Rudock struggled or should be pulled. He made the correct pre-snap reads to throw screens when Utah's defense cheated inside. He stood strong in the pocket when Utah's pass rushers did bear down on him. He hit small windows in the middle of the field, whether it be to Butt on posts or Darboh on slants. He kept Michigan moving as its rushing attack sputtered. Rudock didn't do enough to win the game, but he didn't do poor enough to lose his job either.
Last Season's Run Issues Rear Their Ugly Head
I predicted that Michigan would have moderate success on the ground against Utah's front seven. I was wrong. The Wolverines struggled, calling 26 runs -- so no scrambles -- that gained only 67 yards (2.6 YPC). Smith has received some of the criticism, particularly for his lack of vision on a few key plays in the second half. While I do think that Drake Johnson is Michigan's best running back, Smith was not the problem against Utah. Smith ran hard and churned out extra yards by breaking through contact and spinning off tacklers. Michigan's run totals would have been much worse without him.
The issue is the offensive line. Though the offensive line should be praised for its pass protection -- "Sack" Lake City didn't haul down Rudock once behind the line -- its run-blocking was awful. We shouldn't be too surprised because it'll take time for the line to become comfortable with the transition from zone blocking to man blocking and Utah had two terrific defensive tackles. But this means that we should not expect much from the rushing attack against quality defensive fronts any time soon. Center Graham Glasgow played well, but left guard Ben Braden and right guard Kyle Kalis underwhelmed. Whether it was Braden and Kalis keeping their pad level too high ...
... or not identifying the proper gap to hit when pulling on a power or counter ...
... it sabotaged Michigan's run success. Defenders also whipped past Braden on other occasions, and it would not surprise me if he is replaced by David Dawson at left guard soon. Nonetheless, because Michigan plans to run power and counters much more often under Harbaugh and Drevno -- Michigan called 11 of them against Utah, the most of any type -- it is imperative that the offensive line learn the timing and rhythm of these runs.
Until then, expect it to be a struggle between the tackles for Michigan's running backs.
You don't need X's and O's analysis to tell you that Butt ...
... is good. He will be a leading contender for the Mackey Award this season.