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How to Get Strip-Sacked: A TragiComedy in Three Parts

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Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Slightly different formatting on this breakdown than I have used in the past. First, I'm going to put the video of the play up top here, and get into the analysis further down below. Picture by picture stuff is also a little clunky in this case, just because of how I segmented my analysis of everything going wrong here. I'll also post this same video in the center, and at the bottom of the article, so you don't have to scroll so much to go back and re-watch as you read through each segment. Or, if you don't want to see the same 10 second ad three times, well... there's always the page up and down buttons to get you back up here and to where you left off.

Pass blocking

Four of MSU's linemen do a great job on this play

-Travis Jackson takes the nose tackle essentially one on one (he gets a slight boost from France at the start), seals him to the side, keeps his feet moving and maneuvers back around in front of him to wall him off. Great stuff. Some points deducted for 'giving up on the block' when he either hears the sound of Cook getting hit/the crowd that helps USF recover the ball.

-Blake Treadwell takes the other DT, and, also one-on-one, absolutely stones him cold, allowing him to push about three yards into the back but to get almost no side to side movement and is never in danger of getting beaten.

-Dan France does what you want out of the 'fifth' lineman vs a four man rush, in short he helps out the others in their 1 v. 1 assignment and is never standing around doing nothing. At the very start of the play he steps up and gives a little bump to make sure the NT doesn't beat Jackson to the side. After that he quickly slides over to help Conklin push around the DE, at one point fully engaging him as though he was France's man and not Conklin's.

-Jack Conklin shows part of why Calhoun raves about him, stopping the DEs first pass rush move with ease until France arrives and really helps him bully the guy. You can tell he moves his feet really well and he and France make this dude give up by the time Cook gets hit, with Conklin deliver the final 'mean streak' push to the guy everyone likes to see from their OL.

One does not

Donavon Clark is the 4th man tasked with a one on one assignment, and he has the 6'2 253 pound Julius Forte. Forte begins this play lined up over the TE (Josiah Price, I think?).

Forte appears to be trying an inside move and for the first two seconds of this play, Clark is having none of it and seems to be doing a good job. The DE leans inside, and Clark stands him up, retreating up-field but keeping himself between the defender and his QB.

Then the DE leans inside again, grabs Clark by his right shoulder and hurls him to the ground. Clark who, at 303 pounds, quite possibly hasn't been thrown around like this by anybody for a decade or so, seems a bit stunned by this turn of events. His body turns 90 degrees and he plops to the ground with his legs out in front of him as if preparing to stretch out his hamstrings.

To his credit, Clark fights to his feet about as quickly as you can ask from a 300+ man put in a sitting position, but the DE has already flown by him and is greeting Cook who is just turning to scan his options on the left side of the field. He hits him and causes the fumble, which we'll talk about a bit more later.

In fairness, Donovan Clark maybe should not, simply as a matter of his height/weight combo, be playing as a college offensive tackle (or so NFL scouts would certainly tell you), but because of well-discussed injury issues, it's where the team needs him right now. So he is stepping up and taking on a tough, important role, when he would perhaps be more suited at guard, or even defensive tackle.

But then, at a certain point, it's like, dude gets thrown to his butt by a guy 50 pounds lighter than him, who then hits and forces a fumble out of the QB. It's an embarrassing play for a lineman.

In Clark's four starts against Western Michigan, South Florida, Wisconsin and Michigan, the OL as a whole conceded 16 TFL, of which 6 were sacks. Those numbers are actually pretty good, as a unit. But more importantly, the MSU offense averaged just 18.3 points per game and 4.16 yards per play in those four games, meaning his tenure at left tackle might not be filled with many nightmare plays like this one, but nor is the offense gaining any sort of forward momentum when he is on the field.   He might not be a bad offensive tackle, but it's tough to argue he's a good one right now.

Is Donavon Clark the only problem with the MSU offense? Of course not, not even close (we're getting to that!). But should he feel good about keeping his starting job when Fou Fonoti returns to full health (next week?). Nope.

Routes and Route Running

It's 1st and 10. MSU sends five receivers out on this play:

-one of the routes, Riley Bullough's, is behind the line of scrimmage, out to the left flat.

-Two of the routes, MacGarrett Kings Jr 's and Keith Mumphery's, are within five yards of the line of scrimmage, Mumphery's is over the middle, Kings' out to the right flat

-Two of the routes, Aaron Burbridge's and Josiah Price's (?), appear to at least go past the first down marker, and probably considerably deeper, at least in theory, with the TEs going up the left seam and Burbridge's down the right sideline.


-Little separation

i don't particularly know what helps a receiver get open, but I do know MSU's don't here. Five routes, nobody looks all that open (Mumphery and Kings seem to get the closest) I'll scour the internet, world's greatest repository of knowledge, and hopefully find some sort of Grumpy Cat's Guide to a Big Play Passing Game, but as far as criticizing technique, I don't know man. If you played receiver or coached receivers in organized football and would like to offer some criticism/pointers down in the comments, I would sure love to read them.

Some schematic stuff I feel a bit more qualified to break down.

-Too many defenders to deal with.

When you allow pressure off a four man rush, even if you send out five receivers, there are two extra defenders you have to deal with, with a quarterback who's now got less than optimal time to look down-field. On this play, those two extra defenders are able to A. Double team one deep route (Price's) and B. (this is a guess, as you never see the deep cover-1 safety on-screen) have a guy ready to double team the other (Burbridge's).

In addition, one of the seven defenders is able to impede and throw off the timing of Mumphery's  drag route before also running up to cover Bullough's swing route. And Bullough is tasked with picking up a possible blitzer or free pass rusher before heading out for his check down route, so he too is slowed by that duty. This means of the five receivers the only one not being thrown off somewhat by the 'four rushers, seven pass defenders' math is Macgarrett Kings who, and I don't think this is a coincidence, is likely the only receiver who would safely pick up at least the 4-5 yards that is the bare minimum for a successful 1st down play.

-What's MSU strategy here?

As far as I can tell there are essentially three theories to how to schematically get your receivers open:

1. Get defensive backs to bite on the run

Play-action, safety or corner back comes up to stop the run and you have a player open or in one-on-one coverage. We've talked about why this has been underwhelming last week and in the past.

2. make defenders cover the entire football field

This is an old Air Raid concept, see all-curls for the cleanest example, but send out four or often five receivers spaced across the entire field and count on the other team not being able to stay with all of them.

3. Create traffic

This is the logic behind mesh and drag and crossing routes, where your receivers will run through the same zone and hope to get a defender picked or confused to free up a receiver.

There other ideas I'm sure, but I could probably file them into these three categories or a mix of these three categories (motion = if motion receiver alongside other receivers- create traffic; if motion receiver to open field- spread out defenders. have a player block and then run a delayed route? If delayed run block- trying to get defenders biting on run; if delayed pass block- spreading out defenders, the pass portion of packaged plays are about getting defenders to bite on the run, wide receiver screens are typically about spreading the field, RB screens are typically about creating traffic etc.)

Everyone probably runs some sort of mix of these ideas, leaning more heavily on one thing than the other.

What's MSU trying to do here?

MSU is just doing option 2 here, in my opinion, and is spreading the field. They've got two deep routes on more or less opposite sides of the field, and one short route on the left, middle, and right side of the field.
This would probably cut up cover 2 through its deep routes, and cover 3 with its short routes, but it only works vs cover 1 man to man like USF is running here, if your players are better than his. MSU's are not here. So far this year, MSU's often have not been, at all levels of the field.

QB play

Nice to see: Progressions

I've never really thought "locking on" to or "staring down" receivers was as big a deal as some people think it is (Cousins, for example, did it all the time, and was still pretty, pretty, good) But if you are someone who hates QBs locking onto receivers, you'll like Cook here. He very clearly and deliberately checks Burbridge on the fade, option 1. Then checks Mumphery and possibly the TE deep down-field as second options, then finally checks down and prepares to dump the ball off to Bullough out of the backfield as option three.

But despite this, I think Cook, despite the middling hand he's dealt on this play makes two mistakes, one big and one small.

Small mistake

Seems to me that on a four man rush with no linebacker intently tracking the QB, someone with Cook's skill-set should be counting one-two-three and, if the ball's not out of his hands on three, then he's tucking the ball and scrambling or rolling out. It's not that he doesn't do this in games, he does, but more that it should almost be an institutional rule with him until defenses adjust to take it away, at which point receivers should then be more open. A roll-out to his right here would give guys time to come free or possibly allows him to scramble for 3-6 yards or so depending on how his blocking is, and most importantly, evade this guy coming off his blind side, at least for a little while longer. I think a scramble up the middle could do similar things.
Or, on the count of three he should be throwing to either Kings or Mumphery short and seeing if they can't beat there guy for some YAC. Anything but waiting 4 seconds to get hit for a big loss. There's definitely still room for improvement with Cook's pocket presence.

Big mistake

Ball security. Pretty inexcusable. I understand that his other arm is getting held down by the defender's tackle, but still, he's holding the ball out super precariously with one hand as he falls, so that when he absorbs the hit, the ball fumbles out of his hand without actually being batted out by the defender. I mean, tucking that ball into his body has to be second nature if he's going to be heavily tasked with running the ball and playing behind a constantly shuffling line.

Everything that happens after that, the bizarre kick of the ball by Cook, and the tumbling recovery, well... yeah, whatever.

Destructive Feedback Loops

-Because none of the receivers are open in the first three seconds, Clark is beaten by a four man rush and Cook does not have time to get rid of the ball.

-Because the line is beaten in three seconds by a four man rush, none of the receivers have time to get open against seven defenders and Cook does not have time to get rid of the ball

-Because Cook can't buy any more time, he is given no open receivers and is under pressure.

-Because Cook is under pressure and has no open receivers, he can't buy any more time.

I think all four of these statements could be correct at differing levels from play to play, but seem to indicate the same cause of a bad passing game which is simply put, the different units are not doing their job good enough, long enough, simultaneously. When protection is good and receivers are open, the throws are bad. When the throw is good and the protection is good, the receivers haven't been open. When the receivers are open and the throw might be good, the QB is hit or put under pressure. Sometimes, seemingly many times, two out of three or all three are bad at the same time.

USF's Cover 1 man to man is a direct challenge to the opposing team's players to be better, straight up. It is, in many ways, not to be schemed around the way zone defenses are. MSU coaches can, and should, come in for criticism on ineffectiveness of teaching technique and we should wonder why they don't have specific plays designed to beat this defensive look from USF, or if this was that specific play, why it failed so miserably. But much more than average, when Dantonio talks about "players make plays" this is the type of thing he's talking about. A predominantly man-to-man defense and a four man rush should be a golden opportunity for a big play by one guy beating his one guy. And it was. Just for the other team.