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Film Room: Let’s Get Defensive (Akron vs. Michigan State)

Syndication: Lansing State Journal Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Let’s Get Defensive

There’s no secret that Michigan State struggled mightily on the back end of its defense in 2021. For many, it was startling to see what the legacy of the “No Fly Zone” days of yore had begotten. An understandable reaction to many was to direct anger toward defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton. Facially, that makes sense. At a program with the defensive tradition of Michigan State, having the 100th and 54th overall defense, paired with the 73rd and 130th(!) pass defense over two years is unacceptable.

Does it make sense that Hazelton, who kept some of the nation’s most electric offenses under wraps in the Big 12, can’t contain the generally staid offenses in the Big Ten? Perhaps if Michigan State was getting gashed on the ground one could point to the lack of an extra linebacker in Hazelton’s base 4-2-5 scheme. However, Michigan State had (in my opinion) the best defensive line in the conference last year, and drastically limited high-powered rushing attacks like Michigan. The front six played stronger as the sum of their parts, and forced teams to pass frequently, which they were happy to do.

Isolating the problem to the back end of the defense, especially contrasted to Hazelton’s relative effectiveness against the pass in the pass-happy Big 12, makes the pass defense an issue specific to his time at Michigan State.

So What Happened?

Looking at the film, I think it is a factor of multiple things. Firstly, it is important to understand the basics of what Hazelton is trying to do as a defensive philosophy.

Hazelton’s base defense is a 4-2-5. This consists of four down linemen (two ends and two tackles), two linebackers (a “Mike,” lining up generally in the middle of the field, and a “Sam” that is extremely rangy and aligns to the “strong” side of the field, or the field with more players), and five defensive backs (a free safety that specializes in coverage, a strong safety that specializes in run support, a “nickel back” or “rover” that is used as a hybrid player, and two cornerbacks). In alignment against a one back, one tight end set, it looks something like this:

From the 4-2-5, there are a variety of coverages that can be run. In identifying them, we run into the bane of football bloggers everywhere: camera angles. Without the benefit of all-22 film that shows every player on the field on every play, there is an inherent bit of guesswork in identifying coverages in the back end of the defense.

As far as I can tell, MSU under Hazelton mainly runs two zone schemes: cover 3 and cover 4.

Cover 3 puts three players in deep zones, each zone occupying a third of the field. This coverage either occurs in a “sky” concept (one safety and two corners deep) or a “cloud” concept (one corner and both safeties deep). The general responsibilities are outlined below.

Cover 3 offers the advantage of being extremely easy to understand, and allows for flexibility against the run. However, it leaves the flats (area by the sidelines five to 10 yards from the line of scrimmage) exposed as the cornerbacks (or single cornerback) retreats to a deep third zone, and it is vulnerable in the “seams” between the deep thirds.

Though Michigan State gets beaten to the edge here, this is a good example of what a base cover 3 looks like.

At first, it may be difficult to tell what to look at. In the below slowed-down clip, ignore the ball and closely watch the two cornerbacks and the deep safety, Angelo Grose (No. 15), retreat to their deep thirds of the field, while keeping their eyes in the backfield to activate against the run.

The faults of cover 3 are visible here, when Michigan State gets hit in the seam for a substantial gain, erased by a timely forced fumble by MSU’s Kendell Brooks (No. 33), which was recovered by Cal Haladay (No. 27).

The camera zoom is unfortunate for purposes of identifying coverages, but in the slowed-down clip below you can see how the area on the hash is open for the initial throw and catch.

The second main coverage that Hazelton uses is cover 4, also called “quarters.”

This consists of each cornerback and both safeties taking a quarter of the field, and the linebackers/rover playing zone underneath. While an effective zone, this is vulnerable to crossing or sit routes underneath.

Below is an example of cover 4 coverage. The Akron quarterback (Jeff Undercuffler Jr., No. 13) fits a ball into a receiver sitting behind the linebackers, but what is important is watching the corners and two deep safeties dropping to each cover one-fourth of the field as soon as the ball is snapped.

As a general rule, if you see two safeties deep, look for MSU to run a cover 4 concept.

In zone defense, a defense is coached in one of two philosophies. The first is called “spot dropping,” where at the snap each defender reads the quarterback’s eyes while dropping to a predetermined depth or “spot” on the field, then trying to drive on the ball or jump a route/receiver. The second is called “pattern matching,” where a series of complex rules and reads govern zone players switching to man coverage against certain receivers.

The below gives examples of pattern matching rules, including rip/liz match, a pattern matching defensive concept invented by Nick Saban and Bill Belichick for cover 3 teams to use against vertical routes.

Last year, MSU rarely pattern matched, and stuck mostly to simple spot drop coverages in cover 3 and 4 schemes. I contend that this was a large part of the reason the pass defense struggled. Running simple schemes with well-known deficiencies is a recipe for disaster without elite playmakers in the back end. While MSU had excellent playmakers in the front six, most secondary players were either young, athletically limited in coverage or not terribly effective.

When multiple players in your secondary are either inexperienced or transfers behind the learning curve, playing very simple coverages (despite their drawbacks) is probably the safest move. The end result of this mess is Cade McNamara carving your secondary for nearly 400 yards, and Ohio State putting up a near 50-burger in the first half.

Hazelton made efforts to mitigate the obvious issues, such as stapling his cornerbacks at 10 yards deep to try to stop long plays and buy time for his pass rushers, and by attempting some pattern-matching activity. Going into this season, my biggest question for the Spartan defense was what further steps would be taken to shore up the pass defense.

But Chase, Didn’t Michigan State play a game this weekend?

Yes, the Spartans did. And while the score against Joe Moorehead’s Akron outfit wasn’t competitive, the game does inform how Hazelton is working to address the pass defense issues.

Looking into the film, it seems Michigan State is largely still playing spot drop cover 3 and 4, but with adjustments.

Firstly, there have been instances where players simply execute the same basic schemes as last year, but better. Defenses need not always be complex to succeed. Before his exposing at the hands of Ohio State (and later, Ricky White), Michigan’s Don Brown had one of the nation’s top defenses for four seasons while running a high school cover 1 defense.

In the second quarter, Charles Brantley (No. 0) made a tremendous near-interception in an excellent display of how cover 3 is supposed to be run. Akron’s quarterback (DJ Irons, No. 0) recognizes cover 3 as Ameer Speed (No. 6, corner at bottom of screen), Angelo Grose (No. 15, safety), and Brantley (corner at top of screen) bail to deep thirds.

Knowing the seam to usually be open against cover 3, he throws to his receiver down the hash. Grose and Brantley decapitate the route in the seam, with Brantley coming down with the ball. However, the play was reviewed and overturned, as the officials said the ball hit the ground, but it was still a beautiful play!

Watch it again, but slowed down this time. You can see the players at the linebacker level covering the flats, with the defensive line getting good push. The back end plays the ball perfectly. It’s unfortunate the Spartans didn’t come away with the ball here.

Another thing I noticed on film was Michigan State installing some form of split coverage. Split coverages generally refer to half of the defense doing one thing, while half do another.

In this case, it looks like MSU is having the boundary cornerback (the corner closest to the sideline) “squat” close to the line of scrimmage, playing man coverage. This is a marked departure from Hazelton keeping his corners 10 yards off the ball at all times. Look below at Ronald Williams (No. 9), the MSU corner on the top of the frame on the “0” of the 30, contrasted with Chester Kimbrough (No. 15) at the bottom of the screen. Kimbrough (No. 15) drops into a zone. Williams lines up in press man and follows his man on a fly route with no safety help.

You can see it again in slow motion here, and also watch Haladay take a man’s soul.

Below you can see another example of a split coverage zone. Watch the corner at the top of the frame diligently follow his man, as Brooks drops into coverage in the middle of the field, on the Spartan helmet logo.

Again, but slower:

Yet another possible adjustment is shown in this play:

You can see both cornerbacks and the rover play straight-up man coverage, while reserve safety Jaden Mangham (No. 1) and another safety (I believe it is Tate Hallock, No. 28) drop into deep coverage.

This is a drastic departure, and presages more complex coverages to come.

On the topic of complex coverages, MSU did attempt pattern matching on early downs against Ohio State last year. Referring to the pattern matching diagram earlier in the article, you can see the MSU corner and safety at the top of the screen convert to man coverage and run with the vertical routes of OSU’s receivers at the top hash.

This attempt at pattern matching went poorly (Chris Olave sliding basket catch), but I expect Michigan State to have workshopped these concepts for unveiling later in the season.

In any case, there is certainly an increased level of complexity in Michigan State’s secondary. The overall scheme remains basic, but I hold off on delivering judgment until next week. The secondary performance against Michael Penix Jr. and Washington will be highly instructive, and will go a long way in confirming whether or not substantial improvement can be expected as MSU approaches conference play.

Other Notes:

  • Attempts at getting gifs pausable are ongoing. I deeply appreciate the feedback. In the meantime, I hope the slow-motion gifs prove helpful in identifying the concepts laid out in the article.

I saw a fair amount of consternation about Payton Thorne’s completion percentage and overall performance. My gut tells me he will probably improve as the season goes on, but he has underwhelmed thus far. Frustratingly, he generally identifies the right person to throw to, but sometimes sails the throw. I don’t see anything schematic to process, as his issues appear either mental or mechanical. Some people more observant than myself have observed a lead shoulder dip, which could cause inaccuracy – I don’t doubt the veracity of that observation, but am not schooled in the finer aspects of throwing mechanics. I can say that Thorne looks uncomfortable in the pocket, and has happy feet. It is something to look at going forward.