Chalkboard Talk: The Michigan Offense

(GoBlueWolverine Magazine Teaser) It's that time of year! Back to school and back to Michigan football! In this issue we combine the two into our new monthly "Chalkboard Talk" series to let you the fan understand more of the in's and out's of Michigan football.

Michigan's Offensive Philosophy:

Michigan runs what is generally called a pro style offense, which basically means it's not that far off in terms of complexion and philosophy to that of an NFL style playbook. The Wolverines use a wide array of formations, shifts and a multidimensional passing attack. Michigan, for as long as I can remember, has always been a run oriented team. However, over the years, notably under offensive coordinator Terry Malone, the offense has grown in sophistication and the passing game has been much more incorporated into the game plan.

You can see the fingerprints of a ‘West Coast' offense in the passing game, though Michigan believes more in the run than most West Coast teams. Michigan loves to keep defenses on their heels with different formations, and the Wolverines love to get a mismatch in terms of speed, size, or number of receivers for defenders to have to cover. The offense has also evolved in its unpredictability over the years. Michigan was very predictable at running the football not too long ago, and although they still run the ball frequently they have opened up to passing on any down and distance; thus they have become more balanced and successful.

The Screen and Draw Package:

One noticeable facet of Michigan's offensive attack is their screen pass package. A well-executed screen package is the offense's best weapon to "tame" a defense and tone done aggressive defensive play calling, notably blitzes. Former Michigan running back Chris Perry was excellent at making the most of these plays and turned quite a few into large gains. The defense is given mixed signals by this play which makes it difficult to defend. For the screen play to work it needs the proper execution of just about every offensive player on the field. The first responsibility goes to the quarterback who must ‘sell' the drop-back pass by looking downfield; reading this the defense drops into coverage. Because the defense is dropping into their pass coverage, they are out of position to make a play on the screen and their pursuit becomes much more difficult. Then the offensive line/receivers must secure and maintain their blocks. Finally, the running back has to catch the ball, turn up field and follow his blocks to gain maximum yardage.

The offensive line are the biggest key to the play however, notably the interior guards and center, because they will do the pulling on the play. The three interior offensive linemen will setup a wall outside of the tackles and they begin looking for someone to block downfield. The screen-side offensive tackle will seal the defensive end from blowing up the screen. The tight end and receivers will initially sell a pass route then break off to block a downfield defensive back or crack-back block an interior defender.

The running back helps sell the fake by setting up in a pass blocking position, before releasing behind the wall of blockers and catching the football. The timing of the screen play is very critical. If the lineman release too early, the running back can be cut off by the defense and swallowed up in the backfield. However if the lineman release to late, the back will be on the heels of his lineman and their blocks will be too late and thus useless to the back.

This play is also key because it uses the defense's positioning against itself. If the defense sends multiple blitzers, they will be too far up field going after the quarterback to pursue the screen pass and they will essentially take themselves out of the play.

The same holds true for the draw play. Again, the quarterback initially ‘sells pass' before dropping back and handing the ball off to the tailback for an inside run. The offensive lineman set up in pass protection initially to help sell the fake before attacking the defender. The key for the interior lineman is to prevent inside penetration by the defensive line. The fullback's job is to check inside for a blitzing linebacker; if there is none he is usually designated to an inside blocking assignment.

The draw play basically has the same desired effect as the screen play; it uses defensive up field penetration against itself. The pass fake also gets the defense out of position, thus making blocking assignments easier and also allowing for natural running lanes to develop.

Pregame scouting allows offensive coordinators to best determine defensive tendencies including when a defense is most likely to blitz. If a defense is repetitive in blitzing on certain downs, distances or situations, an offensive coordinator is likely to call a blitz beating play such as a draw or screen pass in these situations. Michigan has been very effective at running these two plays in the past, and also knowing when to call them.

Using Motion:

Another unique thing you will notice about Michigan's offense is the amount of motion used, especially last season. The purpose of motion is to attack the defense in several areas. First and foremost it makes the secondary adjust to the offense. In this adjustment period the quarterback can better read the type of coverage the defense is playing. For example, if a receiver goes in motion and a defensive back follows him, this could indicate some type of man-to-man coverage underneath. If the receiver goes in motion and the defense shifts or doesn't follow him, this could indicate a type of zone coverage. This is why you saw so much motion by Michigan last season: it helped Chad Henne better determine coverage, something he was obviously raw at as a true freshman. Motion can also create mismatches. A motioning receiver is sometimes passed off to another defender or the safeties slide to account for the motion. If the offense can read the type of shifting the secondary does, they can set up a mismatch such as a slower safety covering a quick receiver or a smaller cornerback on a bigger receiver. Motion also creates better positioning for the offensive player, and it is much more difficult for a cornerback to get in position to press or jam a motioning receiver.

Hart, Martin and Grady:

Given the Wolverines' excellent stable of three running backs, one very interesting option for the Michigan offense this year is using dual tailbacks in the backfield. The loss of Kevin Dudley and injuries at the fullback position have left the position as somewhat of a question mark heading into the season. Given that situation I think you will see two of these backs in the game at the same time for at least a few plays a game. Not only is this an advantage in terms of rushing potential, but a two "running back" offensive formation is a big advantage in the passing game. Why? Because in most cases a running back is covered by a linebacker in man-to-man coverage. That is a significant mismatch when you consider that Mike Hart's shiftiness is extremely difficult for most linebackers to mirror, while Kevin Grady and Max Martin are no easy match-ups either. Instead of having to cover a fullback, now a linebacker will have to deal with another running back. Even against zone coverage, there are natural seams and open areas that will allow Chad Henne to get the ball to one of his backs ‘in space', where in my opinion they can do some damage.

I remember going to watch Kevin Grady in high school; he would line him up from time to time at slot receiver because he is very good at catching the football. Max Martin would be a nice option as a "super" back in a formation because he is much bigger than Hart and Grady and can pass block pretty well. Michigan in the past has subbed in backs for this purpose, as you saw with Pierre Rembert put in in passing downs last season because he was the best pass blocker of the running backs.

I would expect Michigan will try to get two of these running backs out on the field at the same time one way or another for at least five to ten plays a game, and it could become quite a weapon.

Final Thoughts:

Michigan should continue their high level of success on offense despite the loss of Braylon Edwards. Jason Avant is an excellent receiver for this offense because he is such a great route runner, which allows him to create separation without being a true blazer. Steve Breaston fits well because he has excellent hands and he can make a lot of things happen once he gets the ball, which is a big part of the West Coast type philosophy. This season I would expect to see a low risk short passing attack, a strong ground game and a "keep the chains moving" type offense, which plays into the teams strengths. Chad Henne will be looking to spread the ball around more which should be beneficial for tight ends Tim Massaquoi and Tyler Ecker as well as backup receivers such as Doug Dutch, Adrian Arrington and Carl Tabb. Overall, I think you will see more of the same as last season on offense, with some new wrinkles as noted above, plus a more ball-controlled system. That being said, I have no question that Michigan's offense will continue their high rate of production and be the strength of the team once again on 2005.

The Michigan Insider Top Stories