In Part 1 of MQ’s series on Michigan State, we discussed how the Spartans have adjusted over time to develop a base that can adapt to the Spread’s evolution to downfield RPOs and TE formations. The primary set being used in the game today is the Y-off formation group. Many times, the TE is in a slotted position (outside the tackle), either to the two-speed (3×1) or away (2×2). This is similar to the H-back offenses made popular by Gus Malzahn’s Slot-T scheme that uses 20 and 21 personnel formations from the “gun.”
The Big 10 is home to some heavy hitters in Ohio St. (Urban Meyer with Rich Rodriguez made the Gun Option a national staple), Michigan who has used Y-off formations more prevalently with a running QB, Penn State behind the dual-threat McSorley, and Nebraska with Frost’s adoption of the Chip Kelly system. Needless to say, the Spartans are well versed in the modern Spread game. The first part of this series focused on the foundational schemes within the Spartan defense. In part two, MQ dives into some game plan adjustments, pressures, and coverages that established the Spartans as one of 2018’s best defenses in the country.
Michigan St. bases out of a Press Quarters scheme. The CBs are pressed and responsible for the outside WRs. The Safeties are responsible for #2 with help from the overhangs (Star/Ni to the field and the Will to the boundary). One concept that the Spartans use consistently to combat 3×1 formations is Solo coverage. This is called a “safe” kick coverage because the backside Safety will kick to the front side depending on the release of the #3 WR.
In a 2×2 formation, that would be the Mike. In a 3×1 formation, the Mike will relate to the bottom of #3, but the Will must take the RB. If the RB were to push to the field or boundary, the LB to that side would take him. The ‘backers take the RB and the second takes the receiving threats. Unlike other two-high schemes that will drop in the backside Safety so the LB to the #3 WR can take him man-to-man, the Spartans opt to keep the Safety in coverage.
Below is a prime example of Solo coverage (also referred to as Poach). Nebraska is aligned in a Trips Slot Open formation (3×1). This particular Y-off set is a favorite for modern Spread attacks because the TE can stress the defense horizontally (Split Zone/Arc Option) and vertically (Y-pop/Arc Option) in any direction. The main issue versus this formation is who takes the TE vertically? If the defense sinks in the backside Safety, the Mike LB must now match-up man-to-man. This also gives away the intentions of the defense because the Mike must now cover down to the TE (most defenses are still setting the 3 tech. to the TE – Over). In the clip below, the Mike is in a 10 (“A” gap). There is little the Mike can do if the TE arcs vertically. This is where Solo comes in.
The Spartans Solo coverage is simple. If the TE arcs, the backside Safety will “kick” to top the route, essentially taking him up and back. This allows the Mike to concentrate on the box and fit his gap, or push with the RB. In the clip above, the Safety to the right looks directly at the TE once the ball is snapped. The Mike reads out of his gap (pass) and works underneath the near hip of the TE. The Safety, reading the TE’s departure, shuffles over to him, taking him man-to-man. Below is a look at the schematics of Solo:
Another concept used by the Spartans versus 3×1 formations is Mid-Point Coverage. This coverage scheme is similar to a coverage I have discussed on the site several times in Stress. In Mid-Point, the Safety to the Trips side will align in the apex of #2 and #3. His responsibilities will be very similar to what he would have in base Quarters. The difference is that if #2 goes away, he will leverage #3. The beater for Solo is a Corner or Sail (10-12 yard Out) by #3. Mid-Point negates this by placing the front side Safety leveraging #3.
In the clip below, Penn St. runs an inverted Flood concept. The #2 WR pushes the Ni out, clearing space in the Intermediate Zone. In Stress, the FS would have to chase the Sail, in Mid-Point, the Safety is already leveraged to the outside. If this was Solo, the FS would zone over the out or work to assist the CB on the #1 WR. Mid-Point attempts to get the best of both worlds. If #3 were to work back to the opposite hash, the boundary Safety would “poach” the vertical (Solo). Mid-Point keeps the Ni capped, or places a vertical helper on top of a LB. Stress leaves the Ni uncapped with only a late support player there to help.
The Spartans’ Mid-Point coverage is great versus nub-Trips formations because it creates a free player in the MOF. The Safety to the nub-TE is simply playing the Post and reading the #3 WR as he would in Solo. If the WR pushes out, he knows the FS has leverage and he can then read the QB inserting where needed (usually the “D” gap away). The inverted Flood plays right into the Spartans’ hands. The Sail is negated by the leveraged Safety resulting in an interception.
Another favorite coverage concept used by the Spartans against Y-off formations is a strong roll. This meshes well with their base alignments and Read Coverage which I’ve discussed before. With the Star (Ni) usually aligned in an apex position, this gives the Spartans an aggressive coverage option to teams that try to RPO the two-WR side or run the ball strong. On the QB indicator (the QB’s signal to the Center to snap the ball), the strong side Safety will roll down on top of the Slot, ending up around six yards and shaded to the outside. The point is to leverage any horizontal screen/route or press the Slot to the Safety’s help in the MOF (boundary Safety).
Ohio St. attempts to run a Speed Option (Load) to the two-WR side. The TE dips around the DE (read man) and works to the Ni. The Ni, who has leverage, holds the outside shoulder of the TE. The QB pitches the ball off the DE, but the defense has leveraged the play. The dropping Safety is outside the Slot and the Ni outside the TE. The result is a tackle for loss.
One issue with the Michigan St. defense is there is not a lot of support for the boundary CB. In modern football, the boundary CB has to be your DUDE. A guy that can lock down the other teams main deep threat. Though there has been a shift to put the best WR in the Slot so he can move around or target a Safety, that role of Slot WR has grown to be its own entity and the role of “X” still exists.
In their game versus the Spartans, Ohio St. tried to take advantage of this soft spot in the coverage by running Slant/Flats to the boundary when they felt they were going to get a strong roll. Both examples in the clip are incompletions. The boundary CB must be a defender that can match up and live on an island, thus explaining why your best man needs to be there. Running a strong roll a reasonable amount and you can expect this route combo to challenge your Will in the TE and the mettle of your boundary CB.
The Spartans rarely bring max pressure, opting to challenge an offense with five and six-man looks. In 2016 I wrote about the unique way Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi (current Pitt Head Coach) tweaked their Zone Blitzes to max out the rush versus their opponents. Even in their six-man pressures, the edge rusher to the RB will “peel-and-eat” the flaring RB. This puts five-on-five with the Spartans betting one of their guys will win.
When watching the Spartans, one major pressure that pops up is a simple Nickle pressure off the edge with a simple variation. The Ni “dog,” or blitz, is one that is used in most defenses and forces “read” teams to hand the ball off. The blitzing Ni puts a defender in the face of the QB and makes him either throw over him (RPO) or give the ball to the RB who will insert into a loaded box. These simple five-man pressures keep pass distributions simple and similar to the Spartans’ base adjustments. These “safe” pressures create one-on-one matchups in the box or quick inaccurate throws into predictable spaces for the secondary.
Below is a look at a typical single-dog edge pressure. No full line movement, just a simple Pirate stunt (though the Nose does work to a 3 tech.). The stunt makes the Mike a free player and he is allowed to read the mesh. The Will is responsible for the TE, but he crosses the formation allowing the weak overhang to drop to the hook. Simple and effective. The play results in a sack.
Here is a diagram of the simple five-man pressure shown above:
Versus their contest with Arizona St. this year (2019), the Spartans chose to attack from the other direction. The clip below shows an edge pressure from the Will LB. This is the same pressure as the Ni one illustrated above, just flipped. There is limited line movement and no “long-stick” from the D-lineman. Long-sticking is when D-line attempts to reach gaps further than one gap over.
“B” Gap Insert
Another basic pressure the Spartans use quite often is a simple LB “pop” pressure. This refers to the LB in the open “B” gap inserting, or “popping” through his gap post-snap. I’ve stated multiple times on MQ about the reliance of the open “B” gap in Spread offenses. This is the whole reason the Tite Front is so popular. It closes the “B” gaps off.
Below, the Mike LB inserts post-snap and blows up the same-side Dart concept. The RB has to stop and redirect to the back door. The result is a minimal gain and the only adjustment is the backside safety replaces the Mike in the hook. This is a great run-down concept.
The “B” pop also works great versus option teams. Below, Nebraska is anticipating an edge stunt. To counter the Spartans Nebraska plans on running a Y-Flat screen. These screens became popular several years ago in the Big 12, using the H-back as the Bubble-man. The beauty in this blitz is that the motion doesn’t change anything, the secondary keeps its rotation.
The result is a big loss. The blitzing Ni replaces the DE, allowing him to arc out with the TE. This slight delay in the read causes the QB to eat the ball and run right to the leveraged DE. This is the same type of pressure, as shown above, just ran by the Ni. The pressure is a “play-it” call. Meaning no matter what, the defense will run it. The man to the open “B” will insert. Even with motion to 3×1, the Ni kept the blitz on.
Here is another clip of the same pressure versus a similar motion. The main difference is that the Spartans were expecting pass and the Mike worked out to his pass drop. In the previous clip, the Mike stayed in the box versus the run read. Even though the blitz was picked up, the blitzing Ni batted the ball down and was in the throwing lane.
Coaches Note: Above is another example of how a Tam stunt (3 tech. to the “A”) can open up rushing lanes. It is a great stunt versus the run and the pass. If using agianst the pass, the Nose or DT can naturally loop if one comes under the other.
Michigan St. is a must-watch for anyone wanting to learn Quarters and the nuances of the coverage. The Spartans have proved that staying the course and evolving the scheme can pay dividends. As top assistants have been poached from East Lansing, one piece has always stayed the same Mark Dantonio. What was once considered a “dying” scheme has shown it can last in an ever-evolving game. The key? Adapt what needs to be adapted, stay true to who you are, and apply simple and safe pressures to challenge the offense. Finally, execute!
Make sure to check out Part One of this series HERE.
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