Inside the Playbook: MSU Play Action Blocking and the Wheel

Michigan State dug deep into their jet sweep package against Michigan, and the result was a wide-open FB near the sideline that would eventually go over 70 yards for a near TD. I want to look a bit closer at this play and why it is so successful.

MSU Jet Sweep Wheel
MSU has a fairly deep jet sweep and jet sweep action package that they deploy weekly as a means to attack the edge with skilled receivers. Recently, they pulled out the FB wheel. If it looked familiar, I diagramed it in October 2014 as a play MSU should add to their jet sweep package. It looks kind of like this, with an important addition that is the purpose of this article.

A Very Wise Coach Once Told Me: “If you really want play action, you better pull a guard”
This is a quote I stole from Smart Football when he reiterated former Jim Harbaugh assistant Greg Roman’s phrase. But in today’s college football, it isn’t the current Michigan coach that is king in this regard, as there isn’t a better team at selling the run by pulling OL than the Spartans of Michigan State.

Let’s clip like a few plays from this season, shall we...

Watch the RG outside

Watch the RG pull inside like Power O

RG pull across formation like sweep

LG and RG on sweep action (results in INT as D does good job)

Whole OL blocks stretch (RB aborts as defense comes on blitz)

They'll pull anyone, OGs, OTs, even the center. You get the picture, they sell run action hard in the play action scheme, and that starts with your protection schemes.

Why Pulling OL is Effective
All defenses and defenders have keys or reads that they are accustomed to reacting to, and in many cases, are required to react to in order to maintain a gap sound defense. When an OL pulls, it adds shifts gaps along the LOS, and LBs need to react to that pull in order to maintain gap discipline, just as if it were a run. Safeties often times have to do this as well in many defenses. This means that the defense must respect the run, and means they can't get into their pass drops as quickly. So that's how it moves and forces the defensive back 7 to react, and take their mind off their coverage.

It also can help your protection against the defensive line. In the case of roll outs, it gets a blocker on the edge to help protect the QB and help move the QB. I talked previously how MSU defends Power O and how their DL has triangles. That doesn't go away on a pass play, and it certainly doesn't go away on run action. The DL must maintain their run discipline when they see an OL pulling into their triangle. This prevents them from getting into their pass rush moves and lanes.

So you improve your ability to move the pocket, which slows the rush in it's own right and alters the aiming point of the rush; but you also slow the rush because they must defend against the run. On the back end, you force LBs and safeties to react to the run threat, often times forcing them to step toward the LOS or laterally, rather than gaining depth in their coverage or sticking with their man. That's the power of pulling OL in your play action pass scheme.

Why Doesn't Everyone Do This
Put simply: it's difficult. When you sell run, the OL can't immediately get into their pass drop because they need to leave enough room for the puller to get across the formation. This puts them at a disadvantageous angle at the snap before they can begin gaining depth. For the puller, he doesn't immediately have his eyes on his target pre-snap, instead, he has to move to a different location, find his target, beat him to a spot, get set, and then start his protection; and he also has to be a good puller.

So the reality is that it's a lot of moving parts, a lot of communication is required, great technique is required to get to your spot as a blocker to prevent defensive penetration. If you try to do this and you don't do it well it looks awful and it's very ineffective. Many teams simply don't have the technique and don't want to spend the time required to install such a deep pass protection scheme into their system. But if pulling OL are a big part of your run game, it really does make your play action pass attack that much more potent.

Jet Action Wheel
So back to that Jet Action wheel route I discussed previously, and how MSU one-ups it.

MSU this year has run a lot of counter action with their jet motion. But first they show an OL pulling to lead block to seal the edge for the jet sweep. Many teams react to the jet motion by rotating their defensive backs and having a safety fill the alley.

MSU will counter this action by attacking the opposite edge with the counter run. This looks something like this.

However, the Spartans do a few things here. First, the RB Power to the left, which pulls the RG, holds the right side of Michigan's defense. Then they slip the center in front of the pulling OG to lead the jet motion receiver to the edge. The LG and LT down block inside, the RT and TE down block on the right side, squeezing much of the gap that the defense could split the OL with (not that the DL is trying to work vertically with all the horizontal movement).

So the defense is busy reacting side-to-side with all the horizontal run threats and OL pulling. This pulls up LBs and safeties to account for the gaps. The FB that slips out simply looks like another lead blocker, one that the defense must respect as a lead blocker because he can insert himself on the edge and add a gap. So when the FB slips vertically behind where the power route just vacated, the defense is busy reading and reacting to all the horizontal run threats, forgets about the back slipping out, and it's wide open for a huge gain for the offense.

Note: the pulling RG takes the WILL, who has to account for the gap added outside. The MIKE follows the RB, who needs a defender to follow so that there is a defender to tackle him if he gets the ball. The pulling OC is accounted for by the SAM. The gap added by inserting the FB is handled by the SS. This leaves the FS to crash down to account for the jet sweep player. That leaves no body accounting for the FB as an actual receiver.