Thursday, September 27, 2012

Notre Dame's corner blitzes

Update: The player identified as Gardner below is actually Jerald Robinson as pointed out by Tim Sullivan in the comments. Confirmation bias and etc. The thrust of the post still applies. That receiver needs to block the blitzing corner.

When Michigan played Alabama, the Crimson Tide cornerbacks spent a lot of the game ignoring Michigan's receivers or blitzing off the corner with abandon, so much so that both MGoBlog and myself wrote different posts about the aggressiveness. Alabama is known for blitzing its boundary corners. Notre Dame, to my knowledge, isn't, but did so at least once against Michigan with similar effects.

It's first and 10 late in the first quarter and Michigan is in a four-wide, one-back set. Notre Dame comes out in a 4-3 nickel package.

As the ball is snapped, the boundary corner (bottom of the screen; covering Devin Gardner, more about this later) immediately blitzes.

Denard is reading the strongside defensive end (highlighted) and hasn't seen the corner coming on a blitz.

The defensive end stays high, forcing Denard to hand the ball off, right into the blitz. Elliott Mealer is also getting put on skates and rolled into the backfield.

Fitz Toussaint is wrapped up in the backfield by the blitzing corner. Mealer's inability to hold up here probably stops Toussaint from making any moves on the corner in the backfield, but I don't think it would have changed the end result much.


The Takeaway
A lot of what went wrong here is just Al Borges getting beaten on a playcall, but it's distressing that corner blitzes appear to be a surefire way to shut down Michigan's running attack. The other thing that bothers me: Devin Gardner. Watch the rest of the wide receivers. Each one of them heads downfield to block a Notre Dame defender. Just like in the Alabama game, Gardner runs right by his blitzing defensive counterpart. Even worse, the player he eventually identifies to block is 10 yards downfield, not the linebacker that would be waiting for Toussaint if he were able to dodge the blitzing corner. With other wide receivers, you might assume that this blocking assignment might be incredibly difficult or unrealistic, but with someone who is a) new to the position and b) admitted that he doesn't like blocking, this is more evidence of an emerging, disturbing theme. (Also note that teams appear to only be blitzing the cornerbacks that are covering Gardner. I assume this is not coincidence.)

Defenses are not worried about blitzing corners because Michigan never calls audibles/checks at the line, so showing the blitz before the snap is not a concern. More importantly, no one is worried about Gardner as a receiver or Denard as a passer. Corner blitzes against most teams result in good matchups for the offense and easy completions. Against Michigan, you can gamble by putting your safety on a wide receiver because Michigan's wide outs can't get separation.

More importantly, if Gardner is not actually supposed to block the corner here, this offensive scheme is broken, or Borges is incredibly predictable. For example, on this play, which appears to be a traditional zone-read (RB goes one way, the QB goes the other), a corner blitz from the side opposite the RB looks like this:

More commonly this year, michigan has run the inverted veer zone read (below), which leaves the playside DE unblocked. That play is designed to get the running back outside or the QB running vertically. A corner blitz with the same principles (DE staying home on the QB and a corner blitz from the side opposite the RB) produces the same result.

As long as the defensive end is instructed to play the QB on this zone read, the blitzing corner will always have a free shot at a running back in the backfield.

So corner blitzes are bad for the zone read. This doesn't surprise anyone. But I can't see any way that Gardner is not supposed to at least try and block the blitzer. That's his assignment before the play begins and should be his assignment even if the player decides to blitz. If he can't make the block but attempts to, fine. That's just another blown blocking assignment; we've seen plenty of those this year. But his refusal to even try is what's bothersome here.

The real problem is, Borges doesn't seem to have a fix for this and without game-breaking wide receivers or a consistent QB, this is an effective way for teams to force Denard to throw the ball. You can put a fullback in the backfield on Denard's right, but this is twice now that we've seen Gardner completely ignore what should be his blocking assignment because of a blitz.


Mark said...

I don't know if there's an easy fix to any of this. Gardner is a QB playing WR, but, without the ball skills and insticts of an actual wideout. We lack any playmakers on the outside. Nobody is scared of Jerald Robinson, Roy Roundtree or Jeremy Gallon beating them. Our lack of a consistent rushing attack from anyone not named Denard is just compounding our problems. Boy, did we all underestimate the importance of Molk in this offense. I think he covered for average at best play from our guards the last couple of years. It's too bad that we have no other options at OT or I would say that we should move Schofield back to LG and put someone else in at RT. I thought Michael did very well playing next to lewan towards the end of last season.

Tim Sullivan said...

I don't mean to only comment to complain, but that appears Jerald Robinson, not Devin Gardner at the bottom of the screen. Not that it's any less depressing, because Gardner still sucks at blocking and apparently J. Robinson does, too.

Also, the playside receiver's assignment is (still) almost always to run off the corner. That appears to be the case on this play, as well. If the defender had been a little more obvious about his blitz (he honestly does a great job disguising it until right about at the snap, making it impressive that he closes so quickly), maybe Robinson would have changed what he did there, but he's executing his assignment properly.

More than anything, Notre Dame just made a good playcall that beat Michigan's play.

Chris Gaerig said...

Yeah, I'm kind of in the same place that you are: how do we fix this? I think the easiest fix is making Gardner do blocking drills all week in practice. If he doesn't learn to block, teams are going to do this all season.

Chris Gaerig said...

You only complain! (I kid).

I think you're right. Confirmation bias, here. That almost certainly is J. Robinson. But yeah, it seems like it is still his job to try and run off the corner. Notre Dame beat Michigan on this playcall, but this is twice now that it's happened. It's a distressing trend.

Tim Sullivan said...

Distressing indeed, but more a matter of scouting and gameplanning than individual effort (although Robinson's actual blocking effort downfield is laughable in its own right).

Asgardian said...

I haven't gone back and rewatched the game, but I think I noticed live and Ace/Brian made the same comment on their Podcast:

When Jerald Robinson was in the game it seemed to be a pretty heavy run indicator (and often we ran to his side of the field).

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