2011 Gator Bowl page in the sidebar. Previously: NCAA rankings, Defense vs. Auburn
I mentioned in the Mississippi State defensive overview against Auburn that the Bulldogs defensive schemes showed serious problems when handling the screen game. Presumably because of Cam Newton's running ability, Mississippi State continuously put six or seven men in the box and left themselves structurally unsound against screens. For example:
One of the more interesting plays is a screen/seam route similar to the Roundtree play-action that Michigan has shown this year.
with stand-up DEs) and have a linebacker shaded over the slot receiver. With a 15-yard cushion between the line of scrimmage and the deep, strongside safety, this play is certain to be a screen (or at least have a screen option, as we'll see).
Mississippi State spent the entire game in this sort of coverage. Not only did they leave either the H or Y/Z receivers open, but they failed to compensate for this by aligning their defense in a way that would shut down the screen. Auburn frequently went to the 3x1 alignment and ran similar variations, almost always to resounding effect--save one time, which I'll discuss later, when Newton threw the screen pass to the H receiver despite the linebacker crashing really hard on the play, almost resulting in a pick-6.
What does it mean?
Possibly a lot. Despite a slight alignment shift by Auburn, this 3x1 formation and playcalling have become staples of Michigan's offense, except when teams schematically limit it (i.e., committing another defender to the strong side of the field). If Mississippi State is going to allow Michigan to throw these sorts of passes all game, moving the ball against their defense should be simple so long as Michigan's slot receivers can hold onto the ball (Roundtree...).
This defensive alignment also gives a possible window into the disparity between Mississippi State's rushing defense (20th) and passing defense (89th): they simply sell out on the run. If that's the case, the ball will be put in Denard's hands and we have to hope he's fully healthy and making the proper reads. Then again, a Forcier cameo against this kind of defense would be ideal.
Unfortunately though, this was the second game of the season. I'll be watching many of Mississippi State's games over the next few weeks and looking specifically for their defensive alignment against similar 3x1 attacks. If they don't show any shift in their defensive philosophy against similar looks, expect Michigan to go to this play and variations on it early and often. Not only will it net yards and keep their linebackers honest in the run game, but these are relatively safe passing plays in which Denard won't have to worry too much about making the right read.