Film Review: How MSU Defends Power O

Michigan’s base run play is Power O. Over the past half decade, MSU has specialized in shutting down pro-style rushing attacks, and with that comes shutting down the Power O run play. It got to the point that Stanford, during the 2014 Rose Bowl, rarely even tried to execute their most standard play. In this post, we want to investigate what makes so effective against the Power O run.

Essentials to MSU’s Cover 4 Scheme
MSU is a 4-3 Over, Cover 4 team. The setup looks like this.

When talking about how LBs are supposed to play, Narduzzi joked about how he used to play. Narduzzi, and undersized and underathlete LB, didn’t have time for “reads”. Instead, he had to have a key and go, and go full speed and violently to the play. That’s the essential mentality here, though MSU's LBs are not what I'd consider undersized and underathletes.

The front 7 for MSU is going to form a wall. The whole goal of the defense is to play everything inside-out. “Leverage the football” and “force the bounce” and “trust your teammates to rally”. That means no LB is ever supposed to overrun the play. “The worst place on the football field to be is past the ball.” The DL will similarly squeeze and wrong-arm their way into forming a pile of bodies in the middle of the field to force the bounce. The bounce is where the pursuing LBs are going and where the crashing safeties are designed to be.

Everything is inside out, and that’s why an inside run such as Power O is so difficult to run against the Spartans.

DL Triangle Keys
Let’s start with the defensive line, specifically, the D-Line keys that help them get in position to shut down the play at the point of attack.

Let’s start with the NT. The 1-Tech is going to read from the outside shoulder of the Near OG, back to the back (FB or Single Back), to the inside shoulder of the Far OG. Anyone who enters this triangle must be read.

Why do this? Well, think of it this way:

1. If the center and the far OG block down, and the near OG pulls, you know you have to squeeze back to try to close gaps for Power O away.
2. If the near OG and the Center block down, and the far OG pulls, you know you have to fight against the near OG to try to reduce the run lane for Power O coming at you.
3. If the Center and near OG zone block away, you know you hold up to the double and maintain your gap.

And you can go on and on. You tack on the read of the RB, and then you account for all the possible wham and trap concepts, and allow your NT to stick in his A-gap.

That same philosophy is going to work elsewhere.

The 3-Tech is going to read to the near shoulder of the Center to the far shoulder of the Near Tackle, and back to the RB. Anyone that enters this triangle he must read.

The 5-Tech DE is going to read the outside shoulder of the Near OT to the outside shoulder of the Center back to the RB aligned behind the QB. Now, the 5-Tech’s visual key is the OT in front of him. He must maintain outside leverage on the OT. If the OT tries to reach him, he must maintain his outside arm free and anchor down. If the OT down blocks, he needs to look inside for pulling players or lead/kick blocks. He’ll squeeze down until he reads this, and then attack any blocker coming at him. More about this later.

Now, the 9-Tech DE is going to have essentially the same triangle, only it goes out to the TE. He reads outside shoulder of the TE, to the far shoulder of the Center, and back to the RB. And anyone that comes into his triangle, he has to key.

Here’s a bit of a rambling video, but it explains it in detail.

LB Keys
The LBs are going to have a triangle read of their own. They are going to read through the OL aligned between them and the RB. For the two OLBs – the Money (SAM) and Star (WILL) in the MSU defense – they’ll read either through the OG if they are aligned inside, or they will read through the EMOL if they are aligned in an apex position. The third point of this triangle is the football (the QB essentially), and that’s how they determine – along with the reaction of their first two keys (OL then RB) – their run or pass set. Just like the DL, they read anyone that crosses their sight path. Pulling players add gaps, and you have to account for that, so you must see them with your eyes.

The MIKE will make a similar read, but also must be able to check the OGs in his periphery. Again if anyone crosses his line of sight, he must follow to fill the extra gap that is being created.

Defending Power
Now we are going to go over the responsibility of each player to defend Power O.

Again, remember the DL triangle keys, it’s going to be important. For the 9-Tech DE, he’s reading from the outside shoulder of the TE, to the far shoulder of the Center, back to the RB. He has Power O coming at him.

The first visual key he has is the TE down blocking away from him. Immediately at the snap, the DE is going to stay square to the LOS but his eyes need to go inside and look for a FB or an OG coming his way. As soon as he identifies blockers coming his way, it is his job to pick them off. If there is one blocker coming his way, he needs to attack him. If there are two blockers coming his way, his goal is to take both out. To do this, he’s going to utilize a wrong arm technique.

Obviously though, he needs to take on the first blocker first. To do this, he’s going to work flat across the LOS, take his outside arm, and rip it through the FB’s inside arm, getting skinny so as not to give the FB area to hit or drive, and in general cause a pile up of bodies.

The goal here is to be able to fight inside of the FB and then into the pulling OG as well, forcing the offense to use two blockers on one defender. By occupying to blockers, the defense can regain the numbers advantage behind the play. At worst, you force the pulling OG to gain depth, which delays the RB as he waits for the OG to clear in front of him, and allows the defense to pursue and finish the play.

The 3-Tech has to take on the double team on this play. Both the OT (drive blocker) and the playside OG (post blocker) are going to try to combo block the 3-tech and work back to the backside LB. The 3-tech’s job is to get skinny at the snap and ripping his outside arm up and under. By ripping the outside arm between the two blockers, he remains skinny – only giving a shoulder – to the blocker trying to down block him, while allowing him to maintain his eyes in the backfield. Now, more difficult to move, the combo block has to decide whether they want to maintain the combo or settle for not getting any movement at the point of attack.

If the 3-Tech makes a great play, he can pick off the puller or at least force more depth (again, delaying the run or making everyone else’s job easier). At worst, he should maintain his ground and fight against the block of the OT, maintaining his B-gap responsibility and squeezing the C gap closed between his work and the 9-tech’s work.

The NT will feel the Center down block on him and see the OG near him pull away. As soon as he sees that, he wants to stay square to the LOS, but he wants to fight through the Center’s block and maintain his outside arm free.

If he fights around the Center’s block, he may be able to get back into the play, but he widens the playside A-gap, which the RB can threaten. By working to fight through the block, he squeezes the playside A-gap closed, while maintaining an outside arm free to account for his A-gap.

The backside DE is simply going to anchor and squeeze back against the play. Because the OG near him is pulling away, there no longer is a B-gap. Between him and the NT, they can occupy both gaps to the backside of the play. This allows the LBs to flow to the play.

Money (SAM)
The Money LB is going to make the 9-tech right. We’ve discussed how inserting FBs and pulling OGs adds additional gaps for the defense on the playside. The 9-tech tries to take out two players with one play to reduce the number of gaps the defense must face on the playside. To do that, he must go inside the FB’s kick block. If outside the TE is the D-gap, the pulling OG adds an additional gap outside of this, a gap we’ll call C2. Additionally, the FB kick block adds another gap to the playside outside the TE and outside the pulling OG, a gap we’ll call D2.

By wrong-arming the FB and destroying the pulling OG in the process, the 9-tech can defend the C2 gap and D1 gap. That still leaves the D2 gap unoccupied. So, that responsibility falls to the Money LB.

The Money LB is going to read through the playside OG back to the RB. The RB steps his direction and he takes a read step, then the OG is going to cross his field of vision, that will give him the key he needs to attack. The LB wants to get downhill fast and square. He’ll set the edge as tight against the EMOL as he can, leaving no gap inside of himself to cut through. This forces everything to bounce to the additional defenders (alley filling safety) and gives the defense leverage.

The MIKE is going to read through the ball, and in his line of sight he’ll see the pulling OG cross his field of view. At that point he wants to attack downhill and get to the point of attack. He wants to take on the TE as near to the point of attack as possible.

Now, sometimes the 9-tech doesn’t make the outstanding play and pick off two blockers with one play. That’s alright. Let’s just assume he picks off the FB. That takes care of the D2 gap. The Money LB takes care of the D3 gap. That leaves the D1 gap and the C gap that don’t have bodies in them. But these gaps are squeezed by the 9-tech wrong arming and the play of the 3-tech. So the MIKE filling down will initially take on the TE square, because he’s only trying to form a wall at the point of attack.

Star (WILL)
If the Star LB makes an excellent read, he can attempt to “shoot the gap” that the pulling OG is vacating. There are only two backside blockers, and it is very difficult for the backside OT to get inside and prevent the LB from shooting it. If he sees his key immediately, he can attack and track down the play from the backside and get a TFL.

If he doesn’t get an immediate key, that’s fine. He’ll work over the top and work to fill the playside A-gap.

What this does
This forms a pile of bodies and a wall at the point of attack. It squeezes out any gaps by forcing them to form in a constricted area, and that never allows the play to develop or the additional gaps to become meaningful.

Countering the Wrong Arm
There are a few ways to counter the Wrong Arm technique from the 9-Tech. First, you can offset your FB toward the play, thus getting him to the edge faster and keeping that gap wide enough to allow the wrapping OG to strike a match off the double team and get up into the LB, who is now forced to play the gap inside the FB.

Some teams will go as far as to start cutting the DE as he charges fast because he doesn’t put himself in a position to take on the cut with his wrong arm technique.

In addition to offsetting the FB, you can tweak your scheme to treat your FB like an H-back. By this, I mean you are essentially using the FB to down block. Whether you actually align the FB in a Wing position, or just aim for the outside shoulder of the DE and flip and seal him inside is up to the scheme and alignment. When you do this, you must meet the DE as near to the LOS as possible so that you can drive him into the LOS. This allows the OG to come off this block tight without losing ground.

If you do align in a Wing position, the added benefit is that you may widen the DE as well, in the case that you utilize a H-back and a FB, the FB can now meet him before he gets inside. But more often than not, he’ll remain in the gap between the TE and the Wing, and the CB will roll up on the edge. The CB is less of a threat to wrong arm successfully.

Another thing to try is a Lead G scheme, or some sort of pin and pull scheme. This will give the same look on the front side (down blocks from the TE and playside OT, and FB to), but the goal is to get outside from the start. The OG can then be the block that seals the DE inside, while the FB now acts as a BOSS block and goes straight to the SS. The wrong arm technique actually takes the DE out of the play.

Or you can run Down G to try to get a short trap out to the DE before he can read the pull.

Lastly, you can influence wham. I talked about the backside NT trying to squeeze out the playside A gap. The offense can still pull the backside OG, they can still pull the frontside OG or OT. All these pulls are designed to influence the defense, the LBs and the DL. The LBs commit to Power O or Lead G, and take themselves in that direction. The DL is also influenced. The NT, trying to squeeze what he thinks is the playside A gap, is only widening the backside B gap. The wham block adds the B gap back into the play, and there is an opening to attack.