The University of Michigan run defense is ranked 5th in the nation headed into their matchup with Northwestern. Mark Schofield looks at their penetrating style and ability to clog rushing lanes.
When Northwestern and Michigan clash Saturday in the Big House, strength will meet strength when the Wildcats look to run the football. Northwestern sports the 14th ranked rushing offense in the nation, averaging 248.8 yards per game. But the Wolverines’ defense has been downright nasty against the run this season, allowing just 71.4 yards per game on the ground, 5th best in the country.
How does Michigan’s fast, attacking defense stop the run? By winning at the point of attack with penetration, regardless of the running scheme.
On this play against BYU, the offense has 10 offensive personnel in the game on 2nd and 7. Michigan has their 3-2-6 dime package on the field, with both linebackers on the line of scrimmage in blitz posture. The Cougars try an inside power running play, with running back Adam Hine testing the the left B Gap. Or trying to. Because big defensive tackle Maurice Hurst (#73) has some other ideas:
Watch how the DT splits the attempted double-team from the center and right guard and knifes into the backfield before Hine can get going:
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The quick penetration from Hurst forces Hine to make a cut in the backfield away from the DT. By this time, linebacker Royce Jenkins-Stone (#52) has scraped off his block and is waiting to wrap up the ball carrier, holding Hine to no gain.
Quick penetration can also slow down any outside zone running play. Here, the Cougars line up for 2nd and 6 with the quarterback in the shotgun and 20 offensive personnel on the field, with slot formation left and a single receiver split right. BYU has both running backs in the backfield flanking quarterback Tanner Magnum. Michigan has their 4-2-5 sub package in the game, with safety Jabril Peppers (#5) dropped down into the box in a linebacker’s alignment:
BYU tries an outside zone running play, with the offensive line sliding to the left in unison and RB Francis Bernard (#36) leading Hine to the left side. On this play, it is DT Ryan Glasgow (#96) who thwarts this play before it gets going:
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The DT shows tremendous strength here, locking up center Tejan Koroma (#56) with his left arm and maintaining leverage on the center while cutting into the backfield. Glasgow then disengages from the center and drags Hine down from behind with that same left arm:
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Against Split Zone
Having established in two pieces how Northwestern likes to use the split zone running scheme – with Dan Vitale entrusted with sealing the backside defensive end – we now examine how Michigan defends this scheme. Again, they start with penetration on the interior.
On this 1st and 10 play, Oregon State runs the split zone, faking a jet sweep before handing the football to Chris Brown (#1) heading to the right. The offensive lines blocks to the right on this play, while tight end Caleb Smith (#10) cuts across the flow of the play to take on the defensive end:
Again, it is interior pressure that prevents this play from getting going. Michigan gets tremendous penetration at the start of this play, effectively taking away Smith’s “bounce” read. Smith tries the “bang” read, but runs right into the arms of LB Joe Bolden (#35) who has flowed to the hole and is waiting to stuff this for no gain:
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(Apologies for the video starting after the snap: Blame the TV Networks for privileging commercials over football.)
The quick penetration works in two ways to slow this play: 1) It prevents combination blocks from being effective because the DL is now in the backfield and behind any help; and 2) It works to take away running lanes, forcing the RB into a spot where defensive help is waiting.
Here is another example of how penetration slows the split zone concept. The Beavers line up with 11 offensive personnel on the field, with a slot formation to the right and Smith in a wing alignment on the left. Michigan has their 4-2-5 defense in the game, with Peppers again down in the box in a linebacker’s position:
Oregon State runs Brown on the split zone play to the left, using a fake jet sweep to WR Victor Bolden (#6):
Again, the Wolverines win at the point of attack:
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Brown is prevented from bouncing this play to the outside, forced instead to angle inside on the bang read. But Peppers, starting the play in the box, explodes into the hole and stops this run from going anywhere.
Looking at the left edge, the outside penetration prevents Smith from bouncing this play to the left. Looking at the cutback possibility, the RB might be able to bend this backside, but both backside defensive linemen are already in the backfield, thereby cutting down that angle. Smith’s only option might be the bang read straight ahead, but Peppers is coming forward to read that hole.
Michigan’s defensive penetration poses a big challenge for the Wildcats on Saturday. If the Northwestern running game is to establish any kind of rhythm, linemen will need to win at the point of attack and prevent interior penetration from cutting down angles and options for the Wildcat running backs.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.
Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.
All video and images courtesy BigTen2Go & ESPN.