(Author's Note: The Michigan blogatariat wrote quite a bit about this particular play in the wake of it essentially caving in their offensive game plan last year. As such, I've used some of their work/conclusions in spots, particularly the dudes over at MGoBlog. With that said, their analysis was from the Wolverine perspective of "Gah, why can't you beat this!" rather than the Spartan perspective of, "What does MSU do to make this play flourish?". So, I hope this provides something for Spartan fans and the fans of future opponents alike.
Additional thanks to: noonkick, YTSparty, MSUAndyHRCMB, and NFLDraftCutUps for the video clips.)
When I've done these posts I've tried to pick out concepts or plays that the team seems to use a lot, but at a certain point it's just guess work. You know, "Boy, Johnny Adams sure seems to be blitzing off the edge a lot." or "Man, we sure seem to be calling that mesh play a couple times a game." It's stuff you pick up from going back and watching game tape and spotting trends, but rarely do people in the program independently confirm specific plays.
Well, here's a couple of absolutely delightful tidbits from MGoBlog:
Recently Seth had the pleasure of spending some time at an airport with Michigan State LB Chris Norman. Norman, like any other high-profile athlete at a D-1 school, was well versed in giving vanilla answers to most questions about his experience as a football player, mostly some variation of "I'm just grateful for the opportunity, you know?"
No one had taught him how to respond to questions about the double A-gap blitz, though.
"Oh yeah, coach loves him that blitz!"
And also via MGoBlog Norman, again at these past media days:
I guess you could say our favorite blitz [Ed: loves him that blitz!] – double A-gaps, whatever you want to call it – was really effective against you guys and I don’t know what he saw that made it much more effective, but we did a good job executing it … That’s our favorite blitz, game in and game out.
The transcript then further proves that Max Bullough possibly has been prepped on how to give a vanilla response to a question about double A-gap, or possibly has spent time mastering the valuable sports media art of saying a bunch words that don't end up meaning anything at all:
On the double A-gap blitz:
"That’s all up to coach Narduzzi. He calls it when he thinks it’s necessary just like he calls any other blitz. That’s just another one of our blitzes. It’s not our base defense or anything. Coach Narduzzi scouts and thinks it should be called, just like any other play."
What is this blitz, what makes it work, and why do MSU's defensive coaches love it so much?
What is this blitz?
As the offense reaches the line of scrimmage, the two linebackers move menacingly into the A gaps. If the quarterback is under center, the 'backers are eye-to-eye with him. "At that point it's mental gymnastics," says Jon Gruden, the former Raiders and Bucs coach who's now an analyst on Monday Night Football. "There's no doubt there's going to be some penetration in the middle if they blitz, and it's going to mess with your blocking schemes."
Texans quarterback Matt Schaub says, "We don't want to have somebody in my face right away. So the first thing the offensive line is going to do is adjust to protect those A gaps."
As MSU typically uses it, it's a six player blitz with four defensive linemen and two linebackers. The linebackers will make a move up to the line and then, as the ball is snapped, each dive through one of the two 'A-gaps'.
What's an 'A-Gap'?
It's the space between the offensive line's center and the guard, meaning there's one A-gap on each side of the center.
What makes it work?
"The thing about the Double A," says linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, who was with the Eagles when Johnson installed the scheme and rejoined them this year for his third tour, "is that it doesn't really have a major weakness."
It heavily pressures one man (the center) to pick up two blitzers, something he will almost never be able to do if executed properly. Then once that free blitzer is past the center and into the backfield, he either has to evade the typically poor blocking attempt of your average running back or he gets a straight shot at an unprotected QB.
And double A-gaps is a blitz that is friendly with geometry.
1. Favorable angles
Due to the relatively straight paths of the blitzing linebackers, it's difficult for the center to kick them out to the rest of the OL for help, and a running back or fullback who is typically offset (particularly in shotgun looks), he has to awkwardly step in front of his QB to block the incoming linebacker, something both more difficult and less helpful than chipping or impeding the progress of an edge rusher. Additionally, because the blitzer comes up the middle of the field his presence disrupts the quarterback's primary line of sight straight down-field, forcing a impeded throw to the middle of the field or a longer throw to a sideline.
2. If the ball and the quarterback are points a and b...
The quickest way from any spot on a line running perpendicular to point b is a straight line from a. The A-gaps, because they are so close to the ball, offer (essentially) the mathematically fastest point from the snap of the ball to the quarterbacks standard passing position in the middle of his pocket (the only quicker blitz would be one that bowled over or ghosted directly through the center. This is unlikely, though, in a way, 'ghosting through the center' is essentially what happens much of the time with the second linebacker during double A-gaps). I would say that a blitzer through the A-gap generally gets to the QB quicker than a blitzer through any other gap in the offensive line.
Why does MSU love this blitz so much (other than the reasons above)?
A. It's variable
The basics (DURR SEND TWO DUDEZ UP THE MIDDLE) belie the various ways MSU can deploy this blitz.
Base 4-3, typically run with blitz responsibilities given to the MLB (usually Bullough) and the SAM, or strongside, LB (Usually Allen). The left linebacker goes through the left A-gap, the right linebacker goes through the right A-gap.
This variant is run out of MSU's base 4-3 Over defense, with the 'tech' positions across the defensive line being 5-1-3-5 (or 5-3-1-5).
The positioning of this extra player in the A-gap (the 1-tech DT) both disguises the blitz (provided the linebackers aren't tipping the blitz too hard, at the snap, it looks no different than any other defense MSU will run all game) and also gives the center another variable to consider when determining his pre-snap block.
This is essentially the vanilla look. Corners are showing press coverage. Safeties are showing a two deep shell. There's nothing really here to indicate MSU isn't playing a cover-2 man look, or even a straight up cover-2/cover-4.
This subtle surge forward by the linebackers just as the ball is snapped is the sole tipoff of what's coming. Whoever teaches the MSU defenders to figure out and jump opposing team's snap counts should get a big gold star, as Worthy was obviously extra-special at it, but lots of MSU players share lesser versions of the trait. Many times they are able to wait to show blitz until the last second.
Greg Jones hits the line and makes contact with the center from the left A-gap. Beacuse the LT and LG are each occupied with a player, Norman is now able to slip through the other A-gap untouched.
Is this a zone read by Purdue? I think so, and the Purdue QB, Rob Henry, wisely decides handing off into the teeth of this blitz is a bad idea. Jones quickly disenages the center and slips by him into the backfield as Norman flies through the other A-gap. As this zone read is being made, two LBs are now hurtling towards the exchange point, one reason why this blitz is also so effective against the preponderance of shotgun running spread that have proliferated in the Big Ten recently.
The Purdue QB is forced outside on the zone read keeper by the pressure, and heads for the sideline with green jerseys in hot pursuit.
MSU swarms, and chases the Henry out of bounds, where Johnny Adams delivered a totally unnecessary shoulder nudge that got him flagged for a 15 yard penalty. I'm glad Adams mostly got stuff like that out of his system in '10.
b. Wide DTs
Defensive ends still are at the 5 tech outside the tackles, while defensive ends have split out to the 4 tech outside the guards. This big hole in the middle will be filled with a swarm of angry linebackers. What this alignment does is basically eliminate any chance that the OGs will be able to assist their center in pass protect (as their attention in consumed by the 300 pound man across from them) while the unprepared offense can be baited into running a dive up the gut into the teeth of this blitz.
Notice the wide splits, not only of the DTs, but also of the two blitzing linebackers situated over the defensive ends.
Because UM has chosen to go 5-wide here, meaning they have only five blockers for these six blitzers while MSU still has one man in coverage for every UM wide receiver. This is, for a couple of reasons, a really bad decision on UM's part, particularly this close to their own goaline. Double A-gaps is essentially the rock to Five WR's scissors.
Denard walks up to the line and is like, "Oi! What's all this then?". I like that MSU's safeties take this opportunity to walk up and talk to the OLBs, first of all, just because defensive communication is a good thing in general, but also because it's not good to let the other team have the last word in these sorts of cat and mouse audible games.
Bullough and Allen blitz. At the top of the screen Chris Norman's eyes are staring into the backfield Bullough looks like he will be first through the hole, but UM center David Molk has his eyes locked on to Denicos Allen. He probably has figured out that the arithmetic is not in UM's favor here and is choosing to block the more dangerous pass rusher, but he's also blocking the rusher who is further away.
Which means that Allen isn't even there yet when Bullough is screaming untouched through the middle. A UM receiver is running a fairly wide open slant that would probably be worth a safe 5-10 yards but Robinson is all "Long hair, don't care" and has clearly tunnel visioned in on the receiver at the top of the screen. Norman, who's been watching Robinson, sees this and reacts accordingly.
Denard releases the ball and Bullough crushes him about a half a second later. Norman has this route jumped for the world's easiest pick-6. But...
Even when Denard steps into his throw he sails the ball. In this case, he puts it about, I don't know, 6 inches over the outstretched hand of Norman. Sigh... if this throw is actually on a rope like most of Robinson's short throws it's likely a PBU at worst, and a Pick-6 at best. Instead, the UM receiver makes a leaping grab (#JumpBall) walks through a bad tackle by Darqueze Dennard near the 1st down marker, and scampers for a 29 yard gain. Nice play for UM, right?
Nah, this is fool's gold. Either Robinson calmly surveyed the field, noticed Norman's positioning, and finessed a precise touch-pass in heavy wind, right over the LB's hands, to where only his receiver could get to it, just before a 235 pound linebacker crashed into him, which:
MSU countered this play about as well as you could reasonably expect them to, only to be undone because the QB's throw wasn't good enough. Basically, UM calls a bad play for this situation, gets countered, but makes it work anyways due to a factor outside of MSU's control. Sometimes these things happen. (*spoiler alert*) They won't get away with it twice.
c. Stunting LBs
This involves crossing the LBs over each other as they blitz the A-Gap, meaning the right linebacker blitzes the left A-gap and the left linebacker blitzes the right A-gap, confusing a center or running back who might be picking out the more dangerous man in a specific gap, before the snap. It also imprints the same trickery when you run the vanilla A-gap as the center can now expect the linebackers to cross.
UM has trips to the bottom of the screen, so MSU's defense is heavily shifted to reflect that, with the LBs shaded to the right and the boundary corner (!) at the top of the screen rolled up right outside the DE.
Just before the ball is snapped, Denicos Allen walks into the gap between the DTs and, though MSU jumping the snap count lead to the greatly increased success of this blitz vs UM, Molk clearly gets a good look at Allen here,
And doesn't do anything to change things up, even when Bullough also walks over.
By the time the snap gets to Robinson, Allen has already burst by Molk (watching Allen scalp offensive linemen is like, my favorite thing in the world). Bullough has stunted behind Allen into the left A-Gap and with Molk's attention consumed by Allen, he will also get a free run at this read exchange.
Digression: MgoBlog has repeatedly made the claim that Will Gholston is over-hyped and only makes plays when unblocked. Because when MgoBlog catches a cold, the blogosphere can sneeze, I feel the need to push back against this. I think this view is heavily influenced by his performance in the UM game, where he made very few noticeable impact plays. Here's the thing though, Gholston is the DE that Robinson is reading on this play. If he crashes down to attack Vincent Smith, Robinson is likely going to pull the ball out and run to the outside, meaning the ball is in the hands of one of the scariest runners in the Big Ten. If he stays where he is and plays contain, Robinson will hand-off to Smith, who is probably one of the least scary runners in the Big Ten.
So, Gholston played a ton of contain in the UM game, meaning at times he looked like he wasn't trying or was being dominated by UM's tackles when really he was just playing the strategic cog that would limit the outside runs of UM's most explosive player. End result: UM's team rushing yards- 36 carries for 82 yards (2.3 YPC), Denard Robinson- 18 carries, 42 yards (2.3 YPC). I mean, mission accomplished, right?
I think Gholston's commitment to contain Robinson, as well as forcing hand-offs on zone reads, played a good-sized role in funneling UM's runs into the middle of the field where the rest of the defense was waiting. It was also a role he NEVER would have been able to properly handle his freshman year, when he was constantly losing contain on the edge. Will did his job for the most part, I don't get this criticism.
Anyways, Robinson makes the correct read in theory, but in practice, Molk has toppled over after being twisted into a pretzel by Allen, and two hungry linebackers break fast at Vincent Smith's pad level for the easy TFL.
And double A-gaps can be easily run out of MSU's 3rd down 'Delta' package, with the NT's zero tech position in that package, right over the center, providing another headache for the center as it is now eminently reasonable for him to think that their are now three blitzers on his plate instead of two.
3-3-5, Bullough is sitting behind the NT, Allen is coming off the edge at the top of your screen, Elsworth is preparing to blitz the gap to the other side of the NT while MSU's third safety has walked down to watch this weird WR stack Michigan has going on.
Center puts his head down to signal that he's just about to snap the ball. Elsworth and Bullough are showing full blitz now. MSU's third safety bails out to provide a deep umbrella as the motion man comes down to form a trips set at the bottom of the screen
To their credit, UM's OL actually picks up this blitz pretty well, but the arithmetic means Smith is stuck blocking Allen, which, Advantage: Allen.
Denicos bumps Smith out of the way, forcing Robinson to evacuate the pocket. Some UM lineman is on poor Strayhorn's (?) back like a backpack, just how they teach you to do at Offensive Line School.
On the run from Allen and Bullough, Robinson throws a prayer down-field that Roy Roundtree answers with a quite incredible catch (#JumpBall). Props to him, but no big deal. Even when the pressure doesn't come up the middle if the opponent adjusts too hard, double A-gaps can put your best pass rusher one-on-one with the opposing team's RB to get to the QB. Bad outcome, but good stuff tactically.
e. Cover One Robber and other freedoms to jump passing lanes
Ready for a bit of Sun Tzu style 'no duh' war advice?
Your greatest weakness can become a powerful strength, as long as you're aware of just what that weakness is.
In the course of gnashing his teeth in frustration over the fact that MSU football's highly paid team of cryptologists cracked the Wolverine's snap count codes (which were basically the equivalent of having a password called 'password'), MGoBrian wrote this:
This is not a toughness issue... It's an inability for Michigan to deal with a simple, grandiosely unsound defense that leaves simple throws in the middle of the field wide open.
And he's right about the first part. And he's sort of right about the second part, in that the double A-gaps will have the one, maybe two defenders, who would normally be in the middle of the field be flying into the line of scrimmage, leaving a big hole in the middle of the field. But the way MSU commonly runs this blitz makes the gut reaction of, "C'mon, just throw the slant or hook route to your slot receiver or tight end, it'll be wide open!" wrong.
See MSU, clearly knowing that every QB worth his salt is going to first look to his checkdown when under a heavy blitz like this, and, knowing that a QB who's not worth his salt can be near guaranteed to lock on and throw to that check route under a heavy blitz, gives its defenders, in particular one of it's safeties (the 'Robber'), the freedom to read the QB and jump passing routes. This is Cover-1 Robber, some real Saban-type shit.
If this looks familiar, it's because in that earlier 5-wide play from UM that we looked at, both UM and MSU were basically aligned the exact same way. As far as Robinson knows, MSU safeties are playing two deep. The blitz action on this play is nice, but I really want you to watch Isaiah Lewis on this play (he's in the lower right corner of the screen).
To their credit, Allen and Bullough get a much better jump of the snap count forcing Molk to choose basically as soon as the ball hits Robinson's hands. Lewis has slowly began walking forward.
Molk chose Allen, meaning Bullough comes through untouched again. Trenton has dropped back to play the deep, centerfield, cover-1 zone, while Lewis is coming forward in earnest to jump this checkdown route, reading Robinson's eyes. Robinson's gaze and the slot receiver's route both say slant, so Lewis heads for a spot on the field.
Robinson is hit, forcing him to release the ball a little early then he would have liked, indeed before the slot has come out of his break. This football is heading to Slant City, but Isaiah Lewis is the only player who's bought a ticket.
He could probably not be in a better position, as he plucks this ball out of the air and heads off to chill in Club Endzone. Pick-6. Ballgame.
Lewis' Robber role on this play flips this seemingly safe checkpdown to the slant into a dangerous proposition for any QB and WR who aren't precisely in synch, and Lewis' instincts, in combination with the freedom the role allows, let him nail the coffin shut.
Additional video of Dennard reading the QB and jumping a intermediate route:
Additional video of Rucker reading the QB and jumping a deep route.
B. It messes with opposing offense's heads
The most devilish aspect of the Double A is that the linebackers don't even need to blitz to make the play effective. The offense must adjust its blocking scheme on the assumption that the A Gap rushers are going to blitz, and once it does, "the offense tips its hand," says Mikell. "That's the whole thing with the Double A—make them adjust and then attack."
Once you hit the point where every time you place a linebacker or two in between the DTs and the offense starts audibling out of pass protections, and changing pass routes, and expecting you're going to blitz right up the middle, you've already won a pretty significant victory, if you've prepared for this next step.
There are numerous other variations of the blitz. In '07 Spagnuolo rotated defensive ends Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora into the A gaps and linebackers Antonio Pierce and Kawika Mitchell to the edge, creating an even more daunting mismatch on the inside, with Tuck or Umenyiora on a running back or center. The Giants called that combination Bombs. Other teams drop both 'backers into coverage and rush a safety late, after the offense has adjusted for the A Gap rushers.
Here's an example:
The first 3-3 of the 3-3-5 are basically horizontal over the line of scrimmage. The two linebackers in the middle might as well be wearing big, flashing, 'DOUBLE A-GAPS DUDE!' signboards. The third safety is playing the nickel corner spot. Watch him, and watch Vincent Smith.
Center's head goes down before the snap, HEY WE'RE BLITZING, WE'RE BLITZING!!!
Oops, LOL, no we're not (well, one of us isn't). but Isaiah Lewis is, off the nickel corner.
Watcha doin' Vincent Smith? Cause, there's a dude-
Ah, too late. Lewis gets Robinson rolling out to the right, where he pump fakes a couple times and then unleashes a Glorious Armpunt, a duck so wounded that one hesitates to call it a duck. It tumbles out of the sky into a pack of MSU defenders where it's easy pickings for Darqueze Dennard until it hits him square in the, uh, facemask and then kinda DERP DERP DERPs harmlessly to the turf. Sometimes an arm punt is such a black hole of LOLZ that no ray of skillful play can escape its gravitational pull.
C. It lets your blitzing linebackers read the center and QB for snap counts
The further you get from the center and the quarterback, the more towards the sidelines, whatever your snap count cue is (whether silent or verbal) becomes harder for your linebackers to hear or read. Blitzing through the middle, and in some cases, sticking your LBs right over the nose of the center pre-play, gives them a niiice, good, look at the mechanics of the snap count, letting them get a better jump.
How can a team beat double-A gaps?
1. Get to the ball to the edge, quickly.
While double-A gaps spent most of the 2011 game obliterating any semblance of an offense from UM, the Wolverines had a great amount of success getting the ball to the edge quickly on jet sweeps to Robinson (an intelligent tactical stroke from Michigan OC Al Borges that only further accentuated how dumb the rest of his game-plan was during that contest).
The basic logic, MSU is sending linebackers up the middle, so I will go to the outside of the field where they, by definition, aren't, is sound, but it's also very important that the ball is getting into the players hand right away. If it doesn't, it's very possible that a LB will be in the backfield to make the TFL first.
Gardner is under center. Robinson is split out wide at the bottom of the screen. I think UM ran this earlier in the game faking the jet sweep.
Allen and Bullough head for the A-gaps as Molk lowers his head to snap.
Robinson is heading for the jet sweep action. I wish either Adams or Lewis would track him closer.
Robinson is getting the handoff as Allen rushes into the backfield. Can he get there in time?
Damn, not quite. Meaning, even though Allen got a great jump and blitz, it still wasn't quick enough to keep this play from getting to the outside. And to make things worse, Rush, the playside DE is getting kicked out by the UM RB, everyone else is getting sealed or is to far away to get there in time.
Which means Robinson gets to the edge with blockers, and this play ends up going for like, 12-15 yards. Not a huge gain, but compared to what Robinson normally picks up vs. MSU, that's really good work. They run this play later against double A-gaps again, and get another dozen or so yard gain. Hopefully Dantonio and Narduzzi can cook up a better answer to jet sweeps, a play that killed MSU pretty good all year, last year.
Or if jet sweeps aren't your game, seriously, just throw a bubble screen or other 'behind the line of scrimmage' pass to your slot receiver. or running back or whatever. It'll work, trust me.
2. Just max protect
Look, just do it.
Your 1st instinct as an OC is going to be to exploit the big gaps in the MSU zone. And because they're sending 6 blitzers, they've only got five guys covering the rest of the field, including likely only 1 player in a deep zone. Damn! Your players are going to have so much room! Go four, five wide, spread the field out, and turn those short, easy completions into long gains!
But if you think double A-gaps is coming, just max protect (meaning give yourself 7 or 8 blockers), at least at first.
Here's an example from Wisconsin.
Wisconsin comes out two wide I-form. MSU is in a standard 4-3.
You know the drill by this point. MSU double blitzes the two A-gaps with Bullough and Allen. WIS sends a tight end and two wideouts out to receive.
WIS does something pretty interesting with their FB and RB. They both crash into the center of line to gum up the works where Allen and Bullough are trying to come through. On the outside, Wisconsin has real, live, Offensive linemen blocking all the outside rushers. So the rush isn't coming up the middle, it's not coming from the outside. Which means it's not coming.
This gives Wilson plenty of time to scan the field, and gives his receivers time to get down field and work against the stretched MSU coverages.
Wilson ends up finding a receiver down-field for a solid first down. But the last cool little wrinkle from Wisconsin is Montee Ball sitting there on the line of scrimmage. Because he delayed his route until after he helped block, he not only stopped the blitz, but now, the robber MSU would use to stop this route early on is gone, his attention is elsewhere. And now the middle of the field really is wide open. I think if you want to beat double A-gaps, max protect blocking, followed by one or two of those blockers trickling out of the backfield on these delayed routes would be a good place to start.
What does this mean for Boise?
Double A-gaps puts a lot of pressure on the C, on the QB, and on the RB or FB. Where is Boise State breaking in new starters (among other places)? Center, quarterback, running back. I'm not guaranteeing you'll see double A-gaps attack these players in a raucous Spartan Stadium. I'm guaran-Sheed-ing it.
Loves him that blitz.