Monday, October 17, 2011

Why Are You Playing Checkers With a Chess Set

Two weeks ago after watching Ohio State and Michigan State play in a game that was one giant bitch-slap to offensive football, I was bouncing around the usual Buckeye blogs to try to find something to help me prove a point to some MSU friends about just why I was still skeptical about the MSU defense being the best in the Big Ten.

What I found was an offensive review of the game that had three subheadings: Back to the Well: The Constraint Theory; Why Beat Your Head Against The Wall?; and Execution Mishaps.  After watching Michigan put up a similarly putrid offensive effort against the Spartans, I am so totally stealing those to help me make sense of just how the offensive game plan failed.

Why Beat Your Head Against The Wall?

Denard Robinson was 2/2 for ten yards after the first offensive series, and he turned the final pass play into a 15-yard scramble for a touchdown.  How did the Wolverines complete these two passes?  Both were quick outs thrown from a moving Robinson and designed to attack the safeties in a moment of indecision: "is he going to run or throw?"  Both worked for the obvious reason     completed pass, duh     but more importantly, both were designed to get the ball out to play makers in the flats and away from the mass of Spartan defenders in the box.

From that point on I can only remember running that play two more times (however, there might have been one or two more called).  One of them was run right into a blitz off the edge and batted down.  The rest of the 41 pass plays?  Straight drops by Denard Robinson and roll outs by Devin Gardner.  Those plays yielded as many completions for Denard (seven) as sacks allowed and as many points for the offense (six) as points for the defense.

Even more maddening?  On the first drive Michigan ran the ball six times for 47 yards (excluding the scramble and fake FG) on almost eight yards per carry.  That was six running plays in six minutes of game time for almost one third of the gained rushing yards on the day (NCAA stats list Michigan with 151 positive yards to 69 negative).  Michigan would go on to rush the ball twenty times over the rest of the game while passing 39 times into swirling 25 mph winds that made Spartan Stadium look like one of those tornado-in-a-bottle science projects you make when you're in middle school.

Would Michigan have been able to continue to run for 8 yards per carry.  No, Michigan State has a very good run defense and would have held the Wolverines to lower ypc numbers over the course of the game.  However, I vote we change the definition of insanity from "doing the same thing and expecting different results" to "running all vertical passing routes and five to seven step quarterback drops against six or more pass rushers in a howling windstorm."  Specificity, man.

Back to the Well: The Constraint Theory:

Two things were certain going into the game on Saturday:
  1. Michigan State didn't respect Denard Robinson's ability to pass down field.
  2. Therefore, Michigan State would blitz like mad to disrupt down field passes knowing that Robinson wouldn't be able to make the throws in time.
One of the interesting parts in the OSU offensive review a couple weeks back was a quote pulled from a longer piece by Chris Brown of Smart Football on The Constraint Theory*.  If you don't know constraint theory, just know this:  The crux of it is that every football team has something it wants to do, call it A, and every good defense will eventually adjust and cheat to take away A.  Therefore, an offense must have a game plan, B, in place to catch the defense overreacting to A, allowing the offense to go back to A until the defense cheats again.

Anyway, at the end of the block quote is one of the best summations of football I have ever heard, and a pretty good explanation of why I love the game so much, "That’s the beauty of football: punch, counterpunch."

If you watched the game on Saturday you saw the Michigan State defense slowly adjust itself to attack Michigan where it was the most vulnerable.  MSU sent blitzes from every angle, usually not well disguised, and bet that the amount of times Michigan would fail to take advantage of mismatches in the deep and intermediate passing game would cancel out any positive plays.  Weather, Mark "the revolving door" Huyge, and precedent all played into that decision, and it worked brilliantly.

The problem for Michigan was that the counter punch never came.

Take for instance the final play of the first quarter.  Michigan is in a shotgun trips formation with the receivers to the wide side of the field and a tight end on the boundary side.  MSU shows blitz with the SLB moving down so that he is shaded over Molk's right shoulder, then the MLB stacks behind the SLB just before the snap.  This is the area where Vincent Smith is about to go with an inside hand off.  The play gets stuffed.  

Meanwhile the MSU corner is two yards off the wide receiver and the WLB/NB is six yards off the line and over the two slot receivers.  Once the MLB commits to the blitz the next closest player to the flat is the safety eleven yards deep and standing inside the hash.  A quick throw to the slot receiver gets two on two blocking in the flat on the wide side of the field and instead of losing one yard on an inside hand off straight into two blitzing linebackers, Michigan gets at least five with a favorable match up in the flat and possibly more with a missed tackle.  

Michigan State did the same thing to Ohio State, and teams from here on out are going to keep players inside to bottle up the run.  Borges has to spread the defense out so that five blockers aren't taking on six and seven defenders in the box.  Bubble screens are a great way to attack the edges and keep defenses from sticking linebackers in the box and daring Michigan to run without numbers.  This is just one of the constraint plays I was practically begging for on Saturday.

The Spartans were able to stick eight men in the box all day and rush five or more because Borges didn't once call a play to neutralize the pass rush.  No throwback screens, no bubble screens, no shovel passes or draws.

However, the worst part about the offensive game plan wasn't that Borges refused to call any of those B plays to catch the defense out of position; it was that the base plays, the A's that a team relies on, didn't at any point seem coherent and well designed.

This team lacks an offensive identity and obviously doesn't have a solid plan other than, "throw shit against the wall and see what sticks."  Is Michigan a shotgun spread team that runs a lot of zone, or an I-form team that runs power.  Is the passing game based off quick reads and easy short and intermediate routes or attacking the field vertically with seven step quarterback drops.

Up to this point it hasn't really mattered.  Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Minnesota, San Diego State, and Northwestern were the kind of defensive teams that are capable of various levels of resistance, but ultimately can't adjust fast enough when Borges flips to a random page of the playbook and points at something with his eyes closed.

And that is how the play calling felt this game.  There doesn't seem to be any logical progression through the playbook.  The best analogy I can think of is that Borges seemed to be playing checkers when he should have been playing chess.  Instead of just calling plays and trying to pick up yards here and there he needed to call plays with an eye toward the future; figure out ways to manipulate the overeager Spartan defense and find the weaknesses that are presented.  If Michigan State wants to blitz, find a way to set up a screen pass. If Michigan State wants to keep eight men in the box, throw the ball to the flat on a bubble screen.  If the defensive ends are charging off the edges and getting upfield too quickly, hand off on a draw to the halfback.  Chess.

Last week Burgeoning Wolverine Star looked at a nifty little two play progression that led to a touchdown.  Borges called a Maryland-I formation on the first short yardage play and motioned the full back directly over the intended hole before the snap.  Michigan is fortunate to get the first down.  A few plays later the same formation comes out, only this time the fullback motions over the same hole but then pulls across the formation as a receiver on a Devin Gardner bootleg.  Chris at BWS grants Borges some credit for setting this touchdown up with the first play.  I'm not so sure, and neither is Brian at MGo.  This seems to me like a very simple progression that doesn't really set the defense up to be caught off guard as much as it takes advantage of the defense being a bunch of Northwestern players.  Checkers.

My final piece of evidence in the growing case against Al Borges: various I-form plays have come on long down situations this season, and at some point I began jokingly saying to anyone within earshot "here comes the most surprising waggle in history," knowing deep in my heart just what was coming.  Over 75% of the time I was right.

When Michigan lined up in an I-from on fourth and one late in the game I couldn't get to my phone fast enough to text my friend and call it.  We all know how that play worked out.  Checkers.

Now, I don't hate Al Borges, or think I can do his job better than him.  However, these are real concerns as we approach a stretch of games that reads @Illinois, @Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio State.  These teams may not be as good on defense as Michigan State (with the exception of Ohio State, which I think is close), but all four are better than anything Michigan has seen outside of Notre Dame during the six game winning streak that started the season.

Al Borges got exposed on Saturday as a guy who still hasn't settled on what he wants this offense to do.  He has all these odd pieces at his disposal but he has this gnawing urge to line them up in two-tight I-form every once and awhile to see if the finally Get It.  There was no greater plan, no thinking a few moves ahead.  All it is is, "right, left, right, jump, left, king me."  Unless Borges can find a way to better play into this groups skill set while building a coherent offensive progression designed to set defenses up to fail, this offense is going to struggle against defenses that bring a lot of pressure.

He has all the chess pieces, he just has to stop playing checkers with them.

*(I have a general rule that you should follow as well: if Chris Brown writes something, you should always read it.  He is so knowledgeable and well written that I can imagine his grocery lists are encoded with keys to breaking down the Tampa Two defense with four verts.)

Execution Mishaps:

That isn't to say that the fault lies totally with Borges.  He isn't the one on the field blowing blocking assignments and under throwing receivers.  The players have to step up their games in times like these.
  • David Molk didn't have a great day.  He was the victim of a number of blitzes and stunts designed to trip him up and he simply couldn't handle the load.  This same thing happened to OSU center Mike Brewster two weeks ago, which means that either a) these guys had bad games, b) MSU sold the farm quite a few times on blitzes, or c) a little of both.
  • Mark Huyge isn't an offensive tackle.  He may be a guard, but when faced with speed rushers off the edge he simply doesn't have the athleticism and technique to hold up on long developing pass plays.  Despite having a pretty good core group of offensive linemen, this one is on Rich Rodriguez's inability to bring in offensive linemen the last couple years.  It is only going to get worse.
  • Omameh and Schofield both seemed to be pushed around by Michigan State's interior line and stymied by inside blitzes from the linebackers.
  • I can't fault the receivers much in this one because they were either dealing with good coverage or badly thrown passes.  I would have liked to see Gallon get a few shots to make people miss in the flats on bubble screens.
  • Denard.  First, let me preface this by saying I don't think he needs to be benched.  You don't take your biggest offensive weapon off the field, you give him ways to succeed and reap the benefits.  Although in this one his production was sorely lacking.  Now, disclaimers abound: the wind was an obvious factor on a number of throws and Michigan State spent most of the afternoon drinking his milkshake right up.  However, there were a few downright awful passes and a few potential scrambles that became sacks because of Robinson's indecision.  If he doesn't adjust to this kind of pressure the rest of the season is going to go about the same because you know teams are going to bring the heat from here on out.
  • Other dings:  Vincent Smith's failed hot route on the pick-six, Grady's drop, and Lewan's face mask pin (you're better than that, son.).

This game needs to be a wake up call for everyone involved.  The offensive coaches need to readjust the way they prepare this team as well as build a cohesive offensive identity.  Brady Hoke needs to go for it on fourth down in the opponents territory.  Denard Robinson needs to settle himself in the pocket, set his body to throw, and take off when he feels pressure.

This offense isn't hopeless, but only if Al Borges starts using the pieces he has in the proper way.

Besides, chess is a better game, yo.

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