Check The Tape - Spring Game (Part I)

Apr 22, 2021

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The plan for last season: bring back Check The Tape. The execution of that plan: F-minus. From launch day in September to my crash the week of the NCAA Tournament, this first year of doing this full time could best be described as "all of the spinning plates crashing to the floor".

BUT, I'm developing a plan to fix it. First year: survive; second year: thrive. Or something like that. I heard it in a TED talk.

The first step: putting together a CTT post worthy of being called a CTT post. By far the loudest feedback I hear is "bring back Check The Tape", so... let's bring back Check The Tape. This time with a dial-up warning. There are so many gifs below that it's possible this post might crash the website. Gonna feel like Desmond when I press the "publish" button.

And this is just part one of two. I spent the better part of 12 hours watching the game and making the gifs and screencaps below. I ended up with this massive folder that would take me 8-10 hours if it was one post. So I'll get halfway through, publish, and then start working on the second set of images.

OK then, let's.... check the tape.

Three Dimes

Let's start with Isaiah Williams. No one had it worse on Monday night than Isaiah Williams. This was as unbalanced as a Spring Game can get, so the second-string QB was going to have it rough.

But in the middle of all that "running for your life 0.9 seconds after receiving the snap", he had some really great throws. Let's look at them.

This is the one you remember:

OK, yes, that's when he got some time with the first-string offensive line in the second half. So he had time to make that throw. But still, this was the best ball thrown by any of the quarterbacks that night.

This one wasn't bad either.

No idea why Dalevon Campbell tried to bring that in with one hand. The pass was right there.

Well, I guess we have some idea why. Campbell, you might remember, was a track star in high school who only played football his senior season. He's a very fluid athlete for someone who is 6'-4", but he has to learn that nothing matters besides catching the ball there.

This third IW throw was great as well. Maybe a little too far outside, but if the feet don't get tangled up here, I think this is a catch.

What I love about all three throws: they're all "only the receiver can catch it" throws. Sure, on the first one, maybe the safety reads it early and instinctively fills that soft spot in the zone anticipating the throw. But even the top two cornerbacks in the Big Ten would not get to either of the other throws. IW puts the ball out there where only the receiver could get it.

Synchronized Swimming

Let's go back to the traditional "freeze frame" CTT format for a bit. I think the first time I started doing CTT posts was 2011 so let's call this a 10th Anniversary post or something.

(Quick note: if you're between the ages of 45-54, when I wrote the words "freeze frame" above, you heard the J. Geils Band synthesizer in your head. You're welcome.)

If you want to know why a "ones vs. twos" game is so lopsided, it's usually the line play. It's very rare for a second string offensive line to be able to handle the first string defensive line. And that's usually as simple as "juniors and seniors against freshmen and sophomores".

Let's look at one play from the first half. Here's the alignment:

The OL is Brevyn Jones at left tackle, Verdis Brown at left guard, Josh Plohr at center, Jordyn Slaughter at right guard, and Moses Okpala at right tackle. Michael Marchese is also lined up as the H-back for additional blocking support.

The DL: Owen Carney at right outside linebacker (closest to us), Jer'Zhan Newton at right end, Calvin Avery at nose tackle, Keith Randolph at left end, and Isaiah Gay at left outside linebacker.

Here's everyone's assignment on the snap:

Josh Plohr (at center) heads to the middle linebacker (large arrow). Everyone else, including Michael Marchese at H-Back, has a guy in front of him (small arrows). But, uh, it doesn't go well.

Remember Tecmo Super Bowl on NES when the other team would pick your play and immediately blow up your backfield? It looked like this:

I mean, in no way should Jones (76), Brown (52), and Okpala (69) all be turned around looking at the guy they were supposed to be blocking at this point.

Now, yes, when a defensive line crashes inside as hard as this, have the QB pull it and run forever. Football isn't as simple as "everyone block the guy in front of you". Sometimes you're chipping him because you want him to crash inside so that Williams runs for 45 yards. But in this instance, Jakari Norwood at tailback had a 0.07% chance of making anything happen.

This is what I mean by Williams pulling it, by the way. If he disguises the handoff and they all think it went to Norwood, look how much room he'd have:

But the DL correctly identified the handoff and completely enveloped Norwood.

Now let's watch the whole play in motion. Take note of Carney and Newton (the defensive linemen in orange closest to you) and you'll see why I called this one "synchronized swimming".

I probably watched that 30 times just now after uploading it. Brevyn Jones (76) and Verdis Brown (52) even executed identical pirouettes.


Speaking of videogames, something weird happened when I compressed this next gif. But that's OK. Makes for a perfect setup.

This is a play which works 100% of the time. You have an athlete like Luke Ford who can gain separation from nearly every Big Ten linebacker. The cornerback is up on the line with no receiver on that side and Peters notes that the corner is not dropping into coverage. Safety is elsewhere in a formation like this so with a good throw, this is a 10 yard gain every single time. Facing that formation and no corner dropping, I'd run this play 144 times in a row until they do something to stop it because there's very few Big Ten linebackers who can race Luke Ford to the sideline. With a QB who can put the ball right there (and I'm not saying Peters can do it, but if he can), this is a "guaranteed yards" play.

Shown in videogame form with weird-looking shadows and everything:

Now, obviously, if we saw the OL play from the screencaps above, that pass isn't completed because Peters would be running for his life. And Peters might sail the throw. And Ford might drop it. Maybe some defensive lineman bats it down.

But if you can block it and throw it, no linebacker is sticking with Ford on that play. 10 yards over and over and over and over.

(Very) Soft Spot

Here's another "execute it properly and it's guaranteed yards" play. I mean, I guess that's every play on earth. But still, this is one of those "exploits exactly what it's supposed to exploit" plays.

First off, please note that it's three walkons being exploited. I feel bad about pointing out said exploitations. They signed up to help the team and now it's "hey, because of all these injuries, all three of you are responsible for that entire side of the field where you'll have to defend scholarship athletes much bigger and stronger and faster than you".

Here's the play, and then I'll describe it:

Jaden Jones-Watkins (37) is at cornerback here. Zone coverage. So the little DJ Barker curl from the H-Back position is designed to force him to process things quickly. Is he supposed to stay in that area and pick up Barker or run with Hightower going past him?

Sean Coghlin (51) is the linebacker on that side so he peels right to shadow Barker. If this was the first string defense on the first play against Nebraska, you'd see Jake Hansen peel with Barker very quickly while Tony Adams would instinctively run with Hightower. These two walkons hesitate just a moment, and that's all that's needed to move this play from "open" to "WIDE open".

Same thing holds true of the safety (Ben Schultz, #36). If that was Sydney Brown, he watched a lot of film, kinda knew what was coming, and is racing to the sideline immediately. Probably isn't going to get there if it's thrown and caught correctly, but he won't be that late.

If you want to know how football games are won or lost, it's offenses being able to exploit soft spots like that (and defenses being unable to harden them). This defense here, obviously, is three walkons forced into action, so I don't want to "what the hell are we doing here?" that one. However, it's probably worth noting this:

In my last post I noted the 3-4 defense (which I'm calling 5-2) and how starting with five guys on the line of scrimmage sometimes gets opposing offensive coordinators excited. If you rush five, it means you have one less guy available for that zone. The soft spots double.

Now, as you can see from the gif above, the defense doesn't rush five on this play. Marc Mondesir (#54, left outside linebacker) starts to rush and then backs off into a zone. Had it been Ezekiel Holmes backing off on the other side (ROLB), he could have taken the Barker route away and the corner could have just turned and run with Hightower. So there's flexibility here. And you can disguise all kinds of things (if, you know, the OLB's are athletic enough to drop into coverage).

But on a play like this, with Mondesir joining the zone "late" and only two linebackers doing the "backpedal and sit down" thing, hoo-boy are there some soft spots.

Free yards. Get your free yards here.


"Robert, what's a key part of football that no one really talks about?"

Great question, Bobby. That's easy. No one ever talks about how hard it is for a defensive lineman to identify the play. Everyone always thinks that defensive line is like offensive line where they know what to do because the coach made a play call. NOPE. Offensive linemen know what to do; defensive linemen have to react (immediately) to what the guy in front of them is doing. When they put their hand in the dirt, they have no idea if they're rushing the passer or chasing a running back.

Sometimes the offensive lineman in front of them will fire off the line and block them. Sometimes they'll immediately go into a pass-pro stance. Sometimes they'll pull around to the right side and leave a gap open. Run through it or nah?

As you learn football, you start to get a feel for things. That pulling guard means the play is going left so flow to the left. And as soon as you do that, the OC will call a play with a pulling guard that gets you to flow left and then they'll run some kind of counter to the spot you just vacated. Getting you to flow left was a trick. So the next time you hesitate... and it's not a trick - you really did need to flow left as fast as you could.

That's a very generic way to talk about it. But it's the answer to about 80% of the defensive line questions that come my way. Nearly every "why didn't he...?" question has some kind of "because they showed him that look three times just to set up for this fourth play where they enticed him to make the wrong move" answer. Football is basically "he thought he should be rushing the passer but it was a screen" on every play, but no one ever identifies it besides screens where the linemen go rushing past the offensive linemen. Defensive linemen live in this constant state of "it's a trap!".

All of that to talk about this play. Really, all of that was just to say "this is not as simple as 'Ford and Pearl cleared out so much space' even though they did do that". Let's just get to the screencaps.

This is the Chase Brown touchdown. Luke Ford and Julian Pearl will collapse the defensive line and leave Brown a clear lane to the endzone. It's up to the LOLB (Cooper Davis) to get there, and he doesn't get there.

Here's the main two blocks that need to happen:

Get those two guys moving to their right and Brown walks in. Remember, those two guys don't know if the play is going left or right. So there's about a dozen nuances at play here, all of them more or less falling under the Vizzini scene from Princess Bride. "Does he want to block me to my right? Or does he want me to think that he's blocking me to the right and I should go with him instead of fight against the block? Or maybe he thinks that I'll think that he wants me to resist the block when really he wants me to do the opposite?"

That's complicating things too much - it's really just "try to tackle the guy with the ball" - but I feel like before we get into this you need to know that for Sean Coghlan - a linebacker lined up on the line because it's goal line defense (between the two offensive guys with arrows above) - he doesn't know whether Luke Ford is going to try to block him to his right or if Julian Pearl is going to try to block him to his left. He'll have 0.19 seconds to identify what's happening and try to counter it.

Luke Ford is going to block him to his right:

I put a line there so you could identify where this block started. Ford is leaving the OLB (Cooper Davis, top of the screen) alone, which means he's free and clear to try to crash the play. Ford is going to try to clear Coghlin out of the play and Julian Pearl is going to try to clear Quinton McCoy out of the play.

And clear they do.

Pearl is just dominating McCoy at this point. Uses his length to get on his side and just drive drive drive. In the image above he's running parallel to the goal line.

Also, remember that Cooper Davis is left unblocked. This is why J Leman said "hit the hole fast" on the broadcast. This is about Chase Brown beating a crashing-down Davis to the line of scrimmage.

Actually, let me correct that. It's about the right side of the offensive line moving the DL so far left that it's impossible for Cooper Davis to beat Brown to that spot. And they're doing a great job collapsing that side:

Pearl has McCoy cleared completely out of the way at this point and Ford has Coghlan moving back and to the right. Back, and to the right.

Davis is trying to get to Brown before Brown gets to the goal line, but that's not gonna happen. I mean, in this next one, check out how far everyone has moved from the line I drew in the second image:

In a few years, once Cooper Davis catches up to the "speed of the game", maybe he fires off the line there and makes the tackle before Brown can get to the endzone. But here, as you can see, he's late.

Which mean Brown scores easily behind a wall of orange:

Just like the last one, let's take a look at the gif and watch it all happen. Thing to watch on your first few views: Ford and Pearl clearing out space. Thing to watch on your next set of views: Cooper Davis hesitating ever so slightly, eliminating his chance to meet Brown before the goal line.

Julian Pearl can move some people, man. I think I'm gonna regret that 1.5 Cruise rating.

Whose Side Are You On?

One last thing and then I'll publish and start on Part II.

You can put them on different teams - orange and blue - but offensive players are always gonna pull for offensive players and defensive players are gonna pull for defensive players. It's just the nature of practicing with these guys against those guys at practice.

So when there's obvious pass interference during a scrimmage, the offensive guys are gonna ask for the flag. Even when it's a flag on their own "team".

I only captured the corner of the screen here to show Chase Brown and Daniel Barker begging the ref to throw the flag on Orange Team teammate Devon Witherspoon. Because Blue Team receiver Owen Hickey - their opponent in the scrimmage, keep in mind - was hit before the ball got there.

Love that Barker had some words for Witherspoon (and Chase Brown yelled something to Tailon Leitzsey) after the play. Uh, guys? They're on your team tonight.

(But they never are, really. Football practice is always about offense vs. defense, and Brown and Barker will always stand up for their guy. It will never not be O vs. D, and I love it.)

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reykjavik2020 on April 22, 2021 @ 04:18 PM

LOVE the return of CTT, Robert! Say it with me: Just like old times. ;-)

ktcesw on April 22, 2021 @ 06:18 PM

Excellent analysis!!

Brave Illini on April 23, 2021 @ 09:50 AM

This really is useful and informative. I imagine the coaching staff employs this kind of analysis. Despite the challenge the D-linemen have because they are in a reactive mode, as you described, it was so disheartening over the past several years to see other teams' D-linemen often just crashing through our O-line and disrupting plays. We simply have to have big, strong, smart and dependable O-linemen in order to have a good team. As has been said so often, "It all starts up front."

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