Friday, September 19, 2014

Inside the Playbook - Michigan's Rushing Attack, 2014

Daniel Mears / Detroit News
Under Doug Nussmeier, Michigan has switched to a predominately zone scheme. There are two typical types of zone runs: Inside Zone and Outside Zone. But that’s not all Michigan runs. They also utilize several gap and man blocking schemes to counter the standard zone schemes. Furthermore, they utilize several pin and pull adjustments to their zone stretch scheme to attack the edge.

One thing I'd like you to do when looking at the diagrams is to split them in half through the center. Notice the playside and the backside throughout this post. What that will show you is what the defenders to that side of the field are seeing, and why it is difficult to defend all these concepts. The diagrams below are all from an I-formation with a FB. But it's important to note that these plays can all be run from a pistol set or a shotgun set, with a FB, or H-back, or even at times simply a TE, making them diverse throughout multiple formations.

Base Zone Runs
Inside Zone
Inside zone is a downhill rushing attack. The RB typically has three options on inside zone, playside B-Gap, bounce outside, or cutback.

Outside Zone
Outside zone works in tandem with inside zone. As teams begin attacking vertically in order to prevent the combination blocks from getting to the second level, outside zone seals them back inside. Note the first step for everyone along the line is still playside, making the initial read similar for the defense. The first read for the RB will be to “bounce” this play outside. Unless the defense is poor in gap assignments, however, that is unlikely. Therefore, the nominal play will see the RB “bang” the ball up-field behind the TE. If that route isn’t open, the play can “bend” backside, typically off the butt of the center.

Base Man Run
Power O
Power O works in tandem with the zone schemes because the playside for Power O looks like zone blocks on the backside of a zone scheme, down to the FB coming to what looks like the backside to seal the DE. By drawing the defense away from the play, the offense can gain numbers playside and seal most of the defense inside.

Gap Counters
One of the downsides of Power O is that the pulling OG can act as a key to the defense. Instead, lets say we simply want to seal the defense. To do that, we have two options: Lead Counter, and Belly Counter.

Lead Counter
This play is blocked the same way a Lead Iso play is blocked, as in the FB will isolate the WILL LB.  The front side of the play (toward the initial movement) looks similar to inside zone, however, the OL isn’t attempting to cross the face of the defender. Instead, their down blocking and combo blocking to the next level in a gap scheme. On the backside, the OL is simply down blocking in the opposite direction. Because this is an inside run (intended for the A-gap), standard counter footwork would be awkward. So the RB takes the handoff to the playside before intentionally cutting it back to the backside of the field.

Belly Counter
The Belly Counter works similar to the old belly play. Originally, the Belly play was a product of the T formation, and there were several variations you could run. There was inside belly (43/3 Belly), Outside belly (45/6 Belly), and belly option (47/8 Belly). Many times, these plays featured a Down G, where the playside guard kicked out the EMOL. But then as teams started utilizing split outs rather than TEs, another method was needed. In the old T formation, this meant the HB would kick out the EMOL, essentially leading for the FB.

With popularity of the I-formation, leading with the HB became difficult to do. So in order to run Belly, which people still wanted to do, they would now have the FB kick out the EMOL. Along with the counter step, you can see how this initially looks like zone.

Pin and Pull
Pin and Pull is an adjustment to the zone stretch. Rather than have the playside OL reach the DL on the otherside of them, they’ll make a change. If the offensive lineman has a defensive lineman lined up on the gap inside (away from the play) of him, he will down block, or pin the defender inside. If he doesn’t have a defensive lineman lined up to the gap inside, he will pull. The Pin and Pull can utilize one puller or two pullers.

Additional Schemes
These are some additional schemes that could potentially make the defenses job even more difficult.






F/H Counter


Fold G

Down G


Tackle Power


Why This Makes it Difficult for the Defense
For this exercise, playside (PS) will always mean the direction the play is intended to end up. Backside (BS) will be the side of the formation opposite that. The only exception will be for RB, where we’ll list his initial movement. Note that this is nominal for a 4-3 Over; some of the man blocking schemes will change based on alignment. It’s important to note that all of these plays can be run to and away from strength, and that on some of the man blocked schemes, the TE's direction will change based on if it's run to strength or away from strength. Green means the player will normally work Away from the playside, while yellow means they’ll nominally work to the playside, and orange means they will pull to the play (pin and pull, man pull, or trap pull are all considered “Pull” here).

The point here is to show you how hard it becomes for the defense to read keys. Nothing is similar between those plays. There is no perfectly defined key among the plays Michigan runs, and if Michigan were to add other man-gap schemes, the keys would become even more confusing for the defense.

On top of that, Michigan’s base play, the play they run most, is the play in which Michigan’s FB “breaks tendency” and acts different than on any other play. Furthermore, Michigan rarely utilizes FBs, instead preferring TEs and HBs, again reducing a main key.

What this shows you is that with five plays – Inside Zone, Outside Zone, Power O, Lead Counter, Belly Counter, and Pin and Pull – that Michigan can go against any defensive key. Now you can add in shotgun runs, QB runs, end arounds, etc, and you have yourself a very diverse run game with a simplified blocking structure.


  1. As a former head high school and college assistant football coach just wanted to say I love your work. Its nice to see something other then the coach stinks fire everyone that makes up 95% of the internet blogs. First saw you at the UM blog and worked my way over to your home blog.

    1. Thanks! It always means a lot when people understand and appreciate the goal of this blog. I really appreciate the support.

  2. Space Coyote- love your website. I'm a newb when it comes to the fine details of football but I'm really enjoying learning about it. Two questions when it comes to the inside zone. 1) as you draw it up, you have the FB blocking the backside DE. Why? Isn't the point of zone blocking to essentially leave one "unimportant" player and utilize a numerical advantage playside? and 2) in the I, it looks like you are precluding the optioning/reading of that DE and that it puts a premium on good blocking playside. It would seem that's where UM's problems w/ their OL lie-- they can't reliably fufill their assignments. True?

    1. 1. Typically on inside zone runs you'll always have someone blocking the backside DE from crashing down on the play. What that allows is for that cutback lane to open up naturally for the RB. If, say, the opponent walked down an 8th man in the box, the offense could succeed without blocking the backside LB, because he's what you declared the "unimportant" player, or the least threat to the success of the play.

      2. Yes, running the read option (as it's utilized in today's game: reading the backside DE), is essentially impossible from the I formation. FWIW, to tie into answer #1, the read acts as a block in many ways (it holds the backside DE to prevent him from crashing, otherwise the QB keeps; often times you'll still see the FB block to the backside, but instead of blocking the DE, he'll arch block to the second level). The read option really shouldn't have any effect on what happens on the playside, unless the defense is scheming to stop the QB run (scrape exchange, but even that's a backside scheme). What the read option does is instead of simply preventing the backside from crashing, it potentially punishes them for doing so.

      I think going to shotgun and read option can help in some ways and hurt in some ways. The reason the pistol exists is to provide a little more of a downhill threat, but on inside zone, the mesh point is a little more awkward, which is why you still see a lot of teams run it from under center. But the shotgun does allow for the read option, which potentially puts the numbers back in the offense's favor (because the QB is a run threat). But I don't think either system puts less importance on the OL successfully fulfilling their assignments.

    2. Makes a lot of sense and confirms what I was suspecting. Thanks.

  3. Space - can you comment on your perceptions of the ability of our primary backs to be successful in these runs (currently green/smith). Do their skill sets meet the demands of this type of running. Additionally there is some talk in certain areas that a predominant issue is actual strength (physical strength) of the O-line. Are there any indications that you see that some of the problems of moving the LOS is attributable to strength?

    1. I think they have skill sets that fit the run game well enough. I always viewed Smith as more of a man-blocking back over an IZ back, but it isn't all that different, especially when you start throwing in some gap schemes shown above. They need to improve, they need to continue to press the LOS and make the right cuts off of the right keys, that comes with reps more than anything (besides natural vision), but I think they can be successful in this scheme.

      I think some of the OL still has some issues with functional strength. Mags and Cole come to mind, probably still Miller as well. That's a combination of youth and body type a bit. Braden I think has plenty of strength, but is stiff. I think more than anything though, the problem is really consistency in technique. Where do you put your hands, how do you leverage a player, how do you move from a double or take over a double and continue momentum, what's your footwork after contact? Things like that are what need to improve more than anything, IMO.