Inside the Playbook: Michigan Defending Flat-Back Alignment and OSU/PSU Response

One of my favorite types of articles is discussing what one team does, and does well, and then seeing how other teams adjust to take advantage of that thing. I did it previously in the chess match between Wisconsin and Iowa that we saw in one game. In the future, I want to touch on Wisconsin's offensive gameplan against Iowa to see it from a scouting perspective. But this post is about the Michigan defense and how they tend to play a flat-back formation, and then the different responses we saw from it from OSU and Penn State.

I love Don Brown. I want to run through a brick wall for Don Brown.

Ok, let's talk some football.

Flat Back Formation
What is a flat back formation? A flat back formation is a shotgun formation in which the RB aligns directly next to or even slightly in front of the QB. The depth of the RB is often a pre-snap key. What you see from a lot of teams is an initial alignment like this:

This allows for a better angle to run inside zone or other downhill schemes. Indiana used to consistently align like that, and then utilize it as a false-key to run outside or opposite alignment. You have a key, which is a defense's advantage, and so you take advantage of that key by presenting it falsely. Same exact thing we'll talk about today.

But a flat back is a different key. If I'm aligned flat or in front of the QB, the timing of inside zone or other inside runs is all wrong. Most inside run plays are relegated to draws. More often than not, if I'm running the ball (flat back is good from a pass perspective because it allows the RB to release quicker or pass set) I'm running some sort of outside zone, Sweep (such as bash concepts seen here and here as "switch" reads), or Power Read concept. Here's what it looks like:

So the defense has a key when they see this sort of formation. How does a defense take advantage of this knowledge? Well, a main aspect to the success of these plays is the RB being able to break contain. So what does a defense want to do? They want to force the play into a box. One way that teams do this is to send pressure off the edge from the second level. Twist blitzes and games (scrape exchange) work wonders in shutting this down.

Watch here the DE toward the bottom of the screen spike inside hard while the OLB loops around to mess with any QB read and get two virtually unblocked defenders at the point of attack (the spiking DE picks off the pulling OG and blows the play up in the backfield).

But by doing that, you are often taking a valuable 2nd level player and turning him into a contain player. Those 2nd level players are needed to pick through the trash, to read and react and finish plays. First level players don't have the time or space to do that consistently, particularly against highly skilled inside runners.

So while Brown loves his outside dogs to force the play back inside, he has another technique that is incredibly valuable. Brown loves to Buzz down the weakside safety to allow him to be an added 2nd level defender. That part is pretty standard but allows an athletic player to play the backside alley against the QB run game and allows the other 2nd level LBs to kick over a gap to better defend the playside run fits (while the DL slants inside to take away and weakside cut back lanes).

But adding a safety to the box isn't really revolutionary and isn't really the point of the article. But it's what Brown (and other teams, like Alabama) do opposite the spun down safety opposite the RB's alignment: they "race" (also known as "rocket") the DE. What that means is that it is the DE's responsibility to contain everything inside. The DE is going to attack upfield first to get depth, then directly at the RB, and maintain outside leverage throughout. And on Power Read, where it is most common in today's game, it means forcing the "keep" read. And now, with the buzzed down safety, despite the "read" element of the play, you are 6 blockers on 7 defenders with a QB run play.

Now in Brown's case, even when he doesn't buzz down a safety, he loves to run the "race" technique to the field opposite the RB's alignment. It's an immediate upfield attack that very quickly limits the space that spread teams crave and allows the LBs to defend internal gaps to the boundary sideline. Similarly, the field typically has DB help, so even if you race and the RB is able to gain depth and outflank you, you have time for pursuit and support to cut the play down, often in the backfield. So even as an offense if you are able to win the 1v1 match up on the edge, it is to your own detriment. And back to the boundary you have numbers.

Here's an example against OSU where Michigan "races" the field side DE and it immediately kills everything as the OL has no idea who to block or read and they get crushes in the numbers game.

That's a cowabunga.

If you have DEs that are athletic enough to do this, to get upfield fast enough to keep everything inside, it improves the numbers game, it puts 2nd level defenders in a very standard, comfortable read, react, run fill scheme in a tight box that they can handle (minimizes conflict), and reduces these "spread" formations to small box, the very thing these "spread" offensive coaches are trying to avoid. On top of that, it also immediately puts the DE in a position to translate into a pass rush in the event it isn't a run. Wins all around.

Ohio State ID and Number Count
Here's the tween from Zach Dunn that preceded the diagram above

So what is Ed Warinner (Michigan's current OL coach now, previously OSU's) talking about? What OSU is running here is a "bash inside zone", where the QB reads the backside (away from the RB's initial alignment) DE; the RB runs a sweep, and if the DE crashes the QB gives, if he contains, the QB has inside zone blocking lined up for him. All Warinner is doing is acknowledging that Michigan likes to buzz down the safety as an additional LB when provided a flat back look, so he's simply going to account for him as a box defender, and add that number to the blocking scheme. So when you count your numbers in your blocking scheme (identify your MIKE), you aren't going to "combo to the MIKE", you are going to "combo to the buzz safety" (here, they adjust by still having the OG/C combo to the MIKE, but have the TE release directly to the buzz down safety).

What all this means is that they've evened out the box numbers and that has allowed them to leave the outside CB as the one unblocked. That is an advantage for the offense as it forces a wide CB to now be the leverage defender and make a play in space.

Penn State Swap Formation
I previously outlined some of what I expected out of the Nittany Lions formation in which they swap the roles of the QB and RB in the backfield and they eventually ran a pop pass off of it against MSU, but here, there are a few advantages I want to discuss.

First, you know to the weakside that you are going to have safety that wants to act as a LB. In this case, PSU is going to run counter (Dart) to the weakside of the play rather than the traditional front side Power Read. This forces the safety to better play a run fit and be the defender responsible for blowing up the lead puller.

(Diagram is only to show the Dart read)

The safety here at least attacks down hill, but for the most part this is pretty dangerous. If not for the backside DE defeating his block, this may have been a big play (note the DE pass setting to draw in the DE, I discussed that here).

So that's a means of taking advantage of a safety having to play LB to the weakside of the field. But also notice how the LBs, even with their blitz call, have more room to flow and are also able to backtrack to the ball.

An earlier example of how PSU attacked Michigan's standard scheme came on the second play of the game. Andy Staples incorrectly pointed to this as the DE being drawn in because of a false key pass block. But the backside OT here is only hinge blocking for Power as he always does. What sucks the DE upfield?

Here's what the DE sees when he gets into his 4-point stance.

The RB and QB sidestep, but notice that the alignment of the RB relative to the QB is still the same. The RB still looks like he's aligned to the boundary; and he is, relative to the QB. But he's actually behind the center.

That is a standard flat back alignment, and the DE at the bottom of the screen is the strongside DE away from the RB's alignment. He is to the field. He sees the early formation and knows his assignment is to 'Race'. Now try getting in a 4-point stance and identify the slight backfield movement that you've probably never seen before (not a RB swapping sides, that's easy to see and communicate, no, this is a subtle shift of the two backfield players that are still lined up the same relative to one another). 

Now, because of the formation, we don't have the weakside safety rolled down (the trips prevents the strongside safety from playing it over the top), so the weakside is playing deep center. That's fine, Michigan is going to scrape exchange to the top of the play. Your weakside safety, who typically buzzes down to the LB level on the weakside, still wants to play his run fit to the weakside, and he does... too far. Next, the Center logs the 3-tech and this isn't actually Power Read, it's a scissors play

PSU knows the strongside, field side DE in Brown's scheme often races this flat back alignment. They know the formation is going to pull out the strongside safety out of the box. They know the weakside safety is going to want to run fit down to the boundary in run support, even if he isn't buzzing because of the offensive formation. And they know the LBs are going to flow to the action of Power read because all the buzzing and all the 'Racing" allows them to do that. And thus, there is a huge cutback hole, and it's off to the races with one of the fastest RBs in college football.

This was a great scouting job by PSU that took advantage of an extremely nuanced tendency that was extremely likely from a young defense. They don't gotta go and do you dirty like that though...