Film Review: How Don Brown Adjusted Cover to Defend Slants

In the first half of the Michigan-Northwestern game, the Wildcats repeatedly dialed up crucial  gains on simple slant plays. From Michigan's Base Cover 1, this caused coverage problems, especially in the slot where a safety matched up on a WR. In this post, we're going to look at why the early problems existed and what Don Brown did to stop the success of slants while staying within his scheme.
Maize and Blue News

Example 1 - Completion

Northwestern in a 3x1 formation and are going to run a bubble with #3 with slants behind from #2 and #1. The item to watch here is the FS, who retreats at snap several steps to protect vertical.  But that immediate backpeddle opens up the field underneath because how the LBs attack when they read pass pro.

Coverage in the slot isn't bad. Michigan traditionally plays with outside leverage in the slot to help protect against some of the vertical game, and the fact that the FS is designed to be there to provide inside help. The coverage here isn't bad, as the defender is right on his back and challenges at the catch point, but an accurate ball and a nice job by WR to shield with body and reach out with strong hands results in a completion with no real threat from the inside help.

Example 2 - Completion
Here, the Wildcats motion from a 3x1 to a 2x2. UM plays their standard Cover 1 with SS in outside leverage, expecting inside help. But motion across the formation by the TE flips the SAM LB and the two ILB don't shift at all back to the field. Similarly, the FS stays near the shortside hash. Now, he can't defend a slant from both sides, so it's not his fault for not breaking immediately to the field. But he should understand the tendencies of what it means to have a TE-WR side and two-WR side and get out a bit better than this. 

But let's also touch on the SS in coverage here. He again has outside leverage expecting inside help, but the slot has a pretty wide split to the wide side of the field. There is too much grass to cover to give up inside leverage here. While the SS is there on the catch, you'd like to see him note the split and the open grass and work a little more inside. If Northwestern wants to throw an outside route from that starting split, let them, because it's going to the really wide side of the field.

Example 3 - First Attempt at Bracket
Brown's 1st attempt to squeeze out all slant offense: inside brackets. Northwestern is in a 3x1 set, so that means the defense will bracket #1 weak on the weakside of the formation with the CB and FS, and #3 strongside with a LB on inside leverage and the SS in outside leverage. FS too worried about vertical release when CB can carry, loses inside leverage. 

This play isn't actually a slant, but it's another example of a successful inward breaking route. To the bottom of the screen, the WR jabs outside and successfully stems inside the threaten vertical. But this inside stem is not adjusted to by the FS, and so as the WR works vertical, the safety doesn't maintain strong inside leverage. Furthermore, the FS quickly false steps to the first inside move thinking it may be slant, and then starts to retreat a bit as he's afraid the WR will get vertical. He needs to do a better job trusting himself to play flat footed because the outside leverage CB can run downfield on anything vertical. The combination of the reduced inside leverage and the vertical threat allows the WR cross the safety's face and get a reception.

Example 4 - Successful Bracket
In the second have, you can see how Michigan has adjusted their inside bracket leverage. The Wildcats are in a 2x2 formation. Look how far inside the safety is aligned of #2 witht eh CB now playing outside leverage on that same receiver. When the slant comes, the CB can pass off the inside breaking route and turn and look for an inside breaking route behind him. Effectively, UM has 3 over 2, with each receiver having an inside leverage defender and an outside leverage defender. Even if #1 makes the catch here, the CB is there for what should be a quick tackle.

Example 5 - Successful Cover 1
Sometimes, you still have to play your base, so Michigan didn't complete abandon their Cover 1. Northwestern comes out in a 3x1, the CB over #3 plays straight up and #3 runs a bubble. The safety, over #2, shows outside leverage. What really changes here is the reaction from the FS. The FS works flat toward the trips side and immediately attacks down hill at the sign of a throw. This quick reaction necessitates a low throw from the QB to help protect the WR. While the FS may not have gotten there on time, he forced a different, more difficult throw, which ultimately could not be completed.

Example 6 - Zone
Lastly, UM went to a 2-Read Zone. By doing this, they can retain inside leverage with the LBs, who can wall off any in breaking route and squat on any receiver entering their zone. Here, the VIPER effectively takes away #2. The CB jumps immediately inside (not sure that part was actually planned) and the QB ends up working all the way back inside to #3. But #3 has been passed off by the SAM to the WILL, and the WILL is able to lay the wood at the catch point and force an incompletion.

What's important here is that Brown didn't drastically change anything he typically does. He runs brackets, he obviously runs a lot of Cover 1, and he runs 2-Read. But while he didn't change scheme, he made tweaks to alignment and formation to put his defenders in better position to execute. This allowed Michigan to play to their strengths, all while beginning to take away Northwestern's primary game plan. That's how good coaches make half-time and in-game adjustments: not an overhaul, minor changes to give you a leg up.