Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Orange Bowl defensive wizardy

Ed.: Not much is going on in the world of Michigan aside from a new Athletic Director who I have no knowledge of or opinion on. He seems fine. MGoBlog discusses.

It's no secret around these parts that I'm a somewhat irrational Georgia Tech fan. Before this blog became a Michigan blog (i.e., before anyone reading it now ever read it), I put up a post about the Miami/Georgia Tech game this year, focusing on how Miami managed to stop the vaunted GT offense. I wanted to do a similar post today about how Iowa did it, because it was absolutely brilliant. But lo, Georgia Tech fans want nothing more than to forget yesterday, Iowa fans post only videos of Ricky Stanzi not sucking, and ESPN doesn't really have the footage I need. So for now, mostly words will have to suffice with one or two images only.

What Iowa did on defense that was so brilliant was they mirrored Georgia Tech's A and H backs (those lined up at the ends of the offensive line and a step behind the offensive line) with linebackers and had them basically play man coverage--with a few interesting hitches. Since I can't find any video with both backs in the game for Georgia Tech, this pre-snap image will have to do for now.

You can see that Georgia Tech is in their typical formation with one change: Instead of having an A back at the bottom of the offensive line here, they have a slot receiver. This didn't change Iowa's defensive formation in the front seven, though, and that's the interesting part.

For basically the entire game, Iowa worked out of a 4-3 defense, with two corners and two deep safeties to help primarily in run support. Josh Nesbitt can't throw a football, so, like all teams, Iowa didn't fear one-on-one coverage with Georgia Tech's receivers. In this formation, one of Iowa's safeties has come down to cover the slot receiver. It doesn't matter, though, because that receiver is going to be used to block. But I digress. What's interesting about the Iowa defense is the way the linebackers are aligned: The middle linebacker plays where he normally would, but the two outside linebackers are shaded down toward the line of scrimmage and, when there are both the A and H backs in the game for Georgia Tech, the outside linebackers are directly over them, three yards from the line of scrimmage.

This is all well and good, but as Smart Football noted long ago, you can't just play man coverage against Georgia Tech. What Iowa did that was so great was, when the H or A back began his motion pre-snap--sweeping behind the B back (Jonathan Dwyer, lined up like a runningback) and play as the pitch man for quarterback Josh Nesbitt should he decide to pull the ball--the corresponding linebacker (who I will call, from now on, the in-motion linebacker) followed him and mirrored where he went pre-snap. This initially seems like it's kind of pointless but it's not, for a couple of reasons. The most important of which, is that the in-motion linebacker is now in perfect position to help plug up holes in the middle of the defensive line if Georgia Tech hands the ball off to Jonathan Dwyer for their typically effective dive play.

This play by the linebacker is no easy task, though. He has to look into the backfield and see whether or not Dwyer gets the ball. If he does, the middle linebacker and in-motion linebacker can crash down immediately on the dive play along with the four defensive linemen, slowing the play long enough for the safeties and other outside linebacker to get in for a gang tackle. Having the middle and in-motion linebackers being able to cover the dive play immediately creates a favorable matchup for Iowa. Georgia Tech can only block this play with five blockers while Iowa has six defenders to plug the middle of the field--this would be a good matchup for Georgia Tech in space, but in the limited room in the middle of the field, it slows the play to a halt. This also makes sure that the offensive linemen can't get to the second level to block the safties and anyone looking to help on the play.That's why Dwyer looked ineffective all day.

If Nesbitt pulls the ball and runs the option, the in-motion linebacker is already 5-10 yards further toward the play than he would be had he not motioned with the A/H back pre-snap. Along with this motion, the defensive lineman were slanting toward the run. This once again stopped Georgia Tech's offensive linemen from getting to the second level, because the weakside defensive tackle would slant hard and attack the center, the playside defensive tackle would take the playside guard, and the playside defensive end would take the playside offensive tackle (below... with lines).

This left the H back to block the playside linebacker. Usually, this play works well for Georgia Tech as the defenders are trying to get to the playside of the field to make a tackle, often leaving the middle linebacker in a position to have to try and defend the option pitch on his own. But because the in-motion linebacker was already on the playside of the field, this allowed the middle linebacker to keep contain on the pitch man, and the in-motion linebacker to play Nesbitt.

So yeah, that's what Iowa did to stop Georgia Tech's offense. And it worked really, really well. Georgia Tech was most successful when running out of the lineup they were in above (with a slot receiver), and just using their H back and occasionally Dwyer as lead blockers for Nesbitt. This way, they were able to stretch the field a little bit and get to the outside where one-on-one tackling is far more difficult against Dwyer with a head of steam.

(I know all of this would've been way better if I could actually show what was happening, but I hope this makes any sense. It does in my head. I'll keep a lookout for relevant video and bump this if I can put in pictures.)


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