Previously: Podcast 7.0. The Story. Quarterback. Running Back. Wide Receiver. Tight End And Friends. Offensive Line. Defensive Tackle. Defensive End. Linebacker. Cornerback. Safety. Special Teams. 5Q5A: Offense.
1. So what is this defense again?
Last year Michigan moved from the 4-3 under they deployed in Mattison's first three seasons in Ann Arbor to a 4-3 over. DJ Durkin seems set to return Michigan to a defense that's going to seem a lot like Mattison's earlier outfits. Whether you call this a 4-3 under or a 3-4 is mostly a semantic issue. However, it's one that's driving me nuts every time a writer for the Wolverine talks about Michigan's forthcoming 3-4 transition.
The disconnect here appears to be based on one spot, the "BUCK". Many, many teams have a fancy name for their weakside end. It often designates a guy who is a LB/DE hybrid:
"Watching film on Dante (Fowler) and experience this position has been a ton of fun," he said. " The BUCK is like the hybrid on the field. You're sometimes standing up and sometimes have your hand in the dirt. Wherever you're at at that position, you're expected to make plays. You gotta get to the quarterback as quickly as you can and make tackles."
Durkin apparently calls his fancy spot the "buck linebacker." Therefore 3-4. Durkin's buck linebacker last year was 6'3", 260 pound Dante Fowler. Fowler almost always rushed the passer from a three-point stance. Sometimes he would drop into coverage or fold back into a run fit.
In this he is exactly—exactly—like what Michigan did with Frank Clark in the under. We even have a mascot for this, Slanty The Gecko. Slanty was inexplicably the first hit in Google Image Search for "line slant football" and has featured in multiple posts that describe Michigan's nominal weakside end going SYKE LINEBACKER MORPH and dropping back as the SAM plunges willy-nilly into the defensive line. Here is an example:
According to Mattison, Michigan did this on maybe 40% of its snaps from a 4-3 in his first year at Michigan. I'd say the BUCK concept is that only more so, but I don't think it can in fact be more so.
To me the real distinction between a 3-4 and a 4-3 is in your interior line. Are your guys planet-shaped gentlemen? Do you have Louis Nix? You're probably running a 3-4. Do you have Ryan Glasgow? You're probably running a 4-3. People will talk about multiple fronts, and Michigan will run multiple fronts. All of those will be efforts to confuse the offense as they inject their DTs into gaps and get penetration.
The upshot: this is not a big change, if it's even a change at all. It is a nomenclature tweak.
[After THE JUMP: additional strategically located Peppers talk.]
No this isn't a "3-4"; well it is a 3-man front with the nose over the center,
but not a 3-4, let me explain.
Various people reporting back from practice have noticed three (or fewer) guys with their hands down, and said "oh they're going 3-4." Soon enough people pick up on this, figure a new DC means a new defense, and whiteboards across the state get sales points erased in favor of X's and O's with arrows diving between X's.
Mattison was asked about the 3-4 look in his breakout Q&A and had this to say:
"We ran that last year. What we're doing on defense is trying to see what scheme fits the players."
I know we've hashed the 4-3 under a bunch on this site but I could never walk by a boardroom with football drawings on it (this is probably why I lost that job) so here we go again.
Everyone Runs Everything. Calling a defense a "3-4" or "4-3" or any one thing at this level is not ever going to be accurate, because defenses change up gaps and show different looks so offensive linemen won't know exactly who's got what gap every time. In the process of showing that you might be running 3-4, sometimes you actually have guys two-gapping. If you have a really special player you might do that even more. But general rule is everyone runs everything, and the best you can do to describe any single defense is what their base is. Everything else will stem from the base.
Alignment vs. Philosophy
Alignment is where you put your players before the snap; philosophy is what they're being tasked with. The two-gapping philosophy has become synonymous with the 3-4 alignment, and the one-gapping philosophy is thus tied to the 4-3. The major difference between these philosophies is understood better by using the "gap" terms.
…means you have one to three defensive linemen responsible for controlling a blocker instead of a gap between those blockers. His job is to get into that guy and be in a position to tackle if the run goes to either side. He's not left out to dry; the two-gap philosophy gives you a free hitter from the second level who watches the play then reacts. Think of it as man defense for run fits, i.e. the defenders all have a certain offensive player they're responsible for beating, the free hitter's being the ballcarrier.
You can do this if you have a super large nose tackle, the classic example being Wilfork on the Patriots. You can look at the above diagram and see the downside of two-gapping: if that left guard releases and the center holds up, you have a blocker eating your free hitter downfield. Two-gapping is a luxury you can have if the guy you have two-gapping is able to do it effectively.
A two-gapping defensive lineman needs to get that control established early, so lining up directly over the guy he's going to control is rather important. So a base 3-4, two-gapping defense will line up almost always with the nose tackle directly over the center, thus threatening the two-gap assignment, and still in position to change it up.
Remember that these are not set-in-stone gap assignments, just common ones. You change these up from play to play.
This is your basic "everyone has a gap" defense and the philosophy behind both the 4-3 even/over and 4-3 under. It is zone defense of run fits. Coaches who use this as their base, however, call it the more "aggressive," because football coaches describe the way they eat an ice cream cone "aggressive," yes, but also because the linebackers and linemen aren't diagnosing anything before taking their first steps of the play.
Instructively, one of the terms used often for the 4-3 over is the "Miami 4-3" because Jimmy Johnson used it to great effect when he had access to a lot of very athletic yet not very coachable defensive players. The concept was fast guys hitting their gaps and penetrating upfield to cause disruption.
You'll note that the 4-3 under picture is nearly identical to the 3-4, one-gapping example image above. That's pretty much what a 4-3 under is: a nose tackle and two large DL who set up in a position to take on double-teams so the LBs can attack their gaps. Philosophically everyone has one gap, but guys start taking on different roles: the NT is shaded to strongside so he'll need to be a bit more of a plugger; the SDE is further inside and has to be able to take on doubles like a DT; the other DT is further out and can be a little more end-ish; the WDE has a one-on-one battle with the OT, and can be a little more linebackerish; and the SAM has to be part-DE to compensate for the fact that he's the edge defender instead of the SDE.
Because it looks so much like the 3-4 defense it can threated to do 3-4 things. That gets us to the point of what Durkin does with his defenses, and what Michigan is expected to do this year: threaten two-gapping as a changeup.
Here's a play from Florida-FSU last year and you'll recognize the alignment as 3-4 (or would be 3-4 except weakside OLB is pulled for a nickel):
Nose tackle is right over the center. Ends are right over the tackles. You are thinking all sorts of Wilforky things. But this is still a one-gapping defense and you'll see why off the snap:
Right there is a good shot of the roles of 4-3 under defenders. The NT and 3-tech have double-teams; as long as they don't give up ground and stay engaged with those dudes they're keeping the LBs clean and keeping their holes closed. The five-tech has a guard (he'd be doubled if the run was going the other way), and the two MLB-types (the WLB and MLB) can flow into gaps (the MLB is blitzing his). The SAM has his edge. The difference here is the WDE has been pulled for a nickel, a dramatization of the fact that a 4-3 under WDE is often in coverage.
Here's how it's drawn up:
(orange arrow means player's in zone coverage and watching his gap; black=rushing).
On that play the nickelback (5'10"/206 junior Brian Poole, Florida's hybrid space player) came down inside and got blocked by the slot receiver, giving up the edge and leading to a big run since the free safety was deep in coverage. If not for that, Poole should have been in perfect position to hold this down.
You Sure Durkin is a 4-3 Guy?
Durkin likes to accomplish the base thing from a gazillion different looks; I predict defensive UFRs with regular opening shots of Brian trying to name things. Here are the formations for every play leading up to that one:
What defense is this? It's a philosophically 4-3 (one-gapping) multiple-front thing that likes to have speed on the edges, either from standup WDE/SAMs or putting hybrid space players in there with edge responsibility. IE what Michigan's been since 2011.
What About 3-3-5?
The 3-3-5 stack also uses two-gapping as a base threat, though neither Rocky Long nor Jeff Casteel have often had access to a nose tackle capable of doing it consistently. The point of the 3-3-5 is it gives up starting position for the threat of attacking from anywhere.
Remember how GERG was terrible at this? It's because he was a 4-3 coach teaching 4-3 philosophy, and that took away the unpredictability of this defense.
3-4, 4-3, etc etc
I've said this before and I'll probably say it again several times before the season starts: Michigan is not likely to be moving to a traditional 3-4 system. Nor will they spend a lot of time implementing a traditional 3-4 to mix in with a 4-3. The time commitment to do so is prohibitive at the college level, and the kind of personnel who can effectively do both are too rare.
So what's with all the discussion about moving to a 3-4? It comes from the top, as this Sam Webb interview with Marcus Ray indicates:
Sam Webb: Michigan is telling kids that they are going to be basically 50/50 as far as 3-4, 4-3. As best you can without having a visual aid or a grease board, explain to people, how that will come to pass and why Michigan is saying that, why that makes sense.
Ray describes the 4-3 under as something that could be looked at as a 5-2…
Brennen Beyer, the stand-up SAM in this picture, bounced between SAM and DE for his career
…and says that a 3-4 can look a lot like the under. Both accurate, and as I've mentioned before you can look at the under as a defense halfway between the traditional Miami-style 4-3 even/over and a 3-4.
But I think the distinction here is a bit of a red herring. I asked Spencer Hall what Florida ran last year and he replied it was a 4-3 with a standup end (Dante Fowler); my observations of the Florida defense rarely encounter a nose tackle lined up directly over the center. He's almost always in a gap.
Could it shade to a 3-4? Sure, I guess. Why would they do that? There are two reasons:
- To run a 3-4! Obviously.
- To disguise their 4-3. Gap-sound unpredictability is a major goal of all defenses. Putting a nose tackle over the center gives him an advantage if he's going to slant one way or the other, but the idea is still the same: get in a gap.
"If you line up in that A gap or that center believes that they know you have this gap then it is easier for them to block you because you‘re more of a standing target, they know what gap you’re responsible for, but in that 30 front, you can slant and angle in either way. They don’t know which gap you are responsible for and they have to guess and try to figure it out once the ball is snapped, but it gives the D-lineman the flexibility to go either way. And then let the truth be told, in that same 30 front, if you have a noseguard that is lined up right over the center and he slants to the strong side, then that is technically going back to under. If that noseguard slants to the weak side, in the weak side A gap, then that technically puts you in an over front, because the entire front has to shift along with him, so now that gives you some 4-3 flexibility from a 30 front if you just slant and angle, it puts you right into a 4-3 defense.”
If you believe that Ryan Glasgow will hold the nose tackle job, a 30 front featuring him is an undeclared 4-3. Michigan doesn't have a Nix or a Gabe Watson to hold down the middle of that defense and two-gap the center unless Ondre Pipkins goes from afterthought to superstar in his final year or Bryan Mone is terrific as a sophomore.
Michigan may run a bunch of different fronts but at its heart the defense is probably a 4-3. And judging from Florida last year it's not going to seem that much different than Mattison's fronts.
Lawrence Marshall is a name to watch. [Bryan Fuller]
Anyway this is all a lead-in to an assertion that for now I'm still assuming Michigan has a traditional 4-3 look this fall and I won't be changing up the nomenclature yet.
If and when we get enough data to do so it looks like the first change will be at WDE, which Florida folks sometimes call "drop end." Reports hold that Mario Ojemudia and Lawrence Marshall are frequently in a two point stance—something Marshall had never done and was taking some time adjusting to—this fall. Again, this gives the impression of a 3-4. In my mind it's taking the Mattison 4-3 under a half-step towards a 3-4 but whatever.
Marshall is doing well. His athleticism stands out and he's already about as big as Ojemudia. Ojemudia had to put on a bunch of weight and topped out around 250; unfortunately he hasn't displayed the explosiveness he had in high school at the bulkier number. A platoon is certain… unless Marshall wrests the job away and Ojemudia is again called upon to be a guy who plays spot downs to rest the starter. Michigan is trying out the occasional linebacker there as well, with Royce Jenkins-Stone the most prominent.
The other three spots have seen a ton of rotation, some of it involuntary. Injuries have held out big chunks of the line for a practice or three. When present, Willie Henry has been impressive. Chris Wormley is playing SDE again($), which makes sense given the depth chart (especially with Henry Poggi trying his hand at TE, and double especially if Michigan is moving back to more of an under). 4-3 under SDE is a better fit for him, as he can be that RVB type with a bit more pass rush.
There's as of yet no movement away from the presumed lineup of senior starters: Ross, Morgan, Bolden. With Greg Mattison still around I'm not surprised. 247 does mention a competitor to the presumed starters($):
[Ben] Gedeon has popped out early as a potential contributor in this year's defense. He has potentially the best combination of size, athleticism and intelligence at the position and it might turn into a situation where it's difficult to keep him off the field. For the second straight season, linebacker may be Michigan's deepest position, so if he stays on the field consistently, it will be because he's turned into a good to great player.
Scout also mentioned Gedeon as a potential breakout performer.
True junior Gedeon is a prime member of Team Why U No Redshirt who needs to start making an impact now. Michigan has rotated extensively in the past—not so much last year—and I expect he'll get playing time almost in line with the starters.
That is about all the chatter, with Ross/Bolden/Morgan the presumed starters. They look good when the DL isn't having them catch blocks all day, which has been something of an issue since a lot of guys have been out.
There have been plenty of reports on Jabrill Peppers, who is looking like the Jabrill Peppers everyone dreamed about when he committed. Peppers bounces from safety to nickelback and looks like Jabrill Peppers should. He is taking ownership of his unit even as a sophomore:
"He's a high energy, high motor guy and he's going to talk trash," Countess said last week. "And he's going to get everybody going. He's been one of those guys you want on the field.
"Even if he has a bad play, he's going to let you know. And if he has a good play, he's definitely going to let you know."
Countess loves the energy and the intent. But when asked if there is ever a time when he'd like to have the ability to quiet his younger teammate, he's quick with an answer.
"I love it," he says with a smile. "He says the stuff that I don't say, but everybody's thinking."
As Michigan State demonstrated last year, one of the most important positions on the field as an aggressive defense going up against spread offenses is the slot-side safety. He often gets tested deep in cover four.
It'll be interesting to see how Michigan aligns. I'm guessing Peppers just gets the field side as they rely on the restricted space to help Jarrod Wilson out. An observer from the coaching clinic did note that Peppers is usually "aligning to pass strength," so that is encouraging in terms of keeping Wilson in a FS-ish role he's comfortable with and maximally utilizing Peppers's skills.
Jourdan Lewis is also drawing consistent praise. He was Michigan's #1 corner by midseason last year, passing both Countess and Taylor; it sounds like he has picked up where he left off plus a little bit of tackling strength. With Blake Countess set to be a four-year starter the top four guys in the secondary are pretty set. The main question is: can Countess bounce back from some rough times last year and play man to man? 247 has heard he is in "lockdown" mode, so there's that. I'm reserving judgment.
Freddy Canteen is getting a few reps at CB, so… that's odd. Harbaugh loves flipping guys around to see what they can do, and Canteen is a guy who could theoretically be a good corner. Doubt it sticks, but whatever.
My biggest takeaway from last night is Michigan will need a very strong and well-coached front seven if Harbaugh is to pull a 1969 next Thanksgiving weekend.
The key to Michigan's dramatic defensive improvement in 2011 was that Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison gave Michigan's defense an identity. They went to a 4-3 under, single-gap run defense that Mattison brought from the Ravens, and over the course of the year found the best fits for the guys on hand.
|Durkin knew Mattison from his Charlie Weis pants days. [photo: Joe Raymond|Freep]|
You remember, despite the relative success of this transition, that some fits were more or less awkward than others. Jake Ryan was a perfect SAM. Ryan Van Bergen worked as a 3-tech or a 5-tech. Mike Martin played nose because nobody else could, and his disruption was deployed with a lot of stunts, or weird stuff like when they came up in an Okie and Martin dropped back to essentially MLB. Roh at WDE was a solid run defender but wasn't built to take advantage of that WDE-tackle matchup that's supposed to produce natural pressure.
Last year of course they went to a 4-3 over base alignment, making Jake Ryan into an awkward MLB because the alternative was Beyer as a really awkward 5-tech. The kicker: offenses were forcing Michigan to play nickel 50% to 90% of snaps, which made Ryan into either an undersized defensive end, or a guy on the sideline.
JMFR is gone but Mattison will still be around, joined by new defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin. At the Cleveland event last night I suggested Mattison’s role will be as sensei to Durkin, who hasn’t really flown solo yet (Muschamp was very involved with that defense).
It adds up to a belief that Michigan won’t change its defensive style for 2015, but what is that style? Coverages are another matter; just speaking to the front seven: should they be the under that they recruited for, or the over they transitioned to?
Refresher on 4-3 philosophy
Mattison and Durkin both coached (Durkin as a graduate assistant for one year) under Bob Davie at Notre Dame, who with Jackie Sherrill developed the Texas A&M "Wrecking Crew" defense. Jimmy Johnson (another Sherrill acolyte) took it a step further in Miami, and Pete Carroll now runs in Seattle.
You’ll note that they used different alignments. Johnson’s defenses were the genesis of the 4-3 over, and so influential that this is what people usually mean by “4-3” defense, as opposed to Tom Landry’s base version. Carroll’s been coaching the 4-3 under since he learned it directly from Monte Kiffin, who developed it at Nebraska.
The under alignment was not the base concept; the real philosophy in Kiffin's terms was to give his defensive linemen simple assignments so they could play with aggression and disruption. The benefit of one-gapping is no defensive linemen stopping to diagnose the play. Once the ball is snapped, all of these defenses want those brains thinking "go!", "put my hat in a gap," "be a factor," and "attack that block!"
Mattison used a mix in Baltimore because he had Ngata, but at Michigan he’s had an almost exclusively gap-attacking defense. The question has been what alignment to run it out of, and that’s a question of which players fit it best.
(Start at 1:17)
So which alignment is Michigan going with this year? I think again it’s a question of personnel? I make diagram.
Michigan’s short on red dudes
The above is my attempt at showing the spectrum of qualities emphasized by the front seven positions in the 4-3 over versus the 4-3 under. I also gave a small approximation of color fits for guys I know something about (Spur-like objects like Gant and Wangler left out because I ran out of colors to depict DB-ness).
It's meant to show what we mean when we talk about the why nothing's a perfect fit for the talent on hand. Suggestions for improved shading are welcome. Takeaway from this experiment: Michigan's front the next few years may be better at throwing out different looks than it will be at rotating through shark teeth.
If you trust my judgment on the shading above, the over appears to remain the best fit for the guys we have, provided they can find some backup ends (the glut of DE/DT tweeners remains). As Mattison mentioned in the video above, the half of the time you’re in nickel to counter a 3- or more-wide look, you’re in an over anyway. D.J. Durkin used a lot of smaller players and changed things up a ton at Florida, and I expect the future will be a truly multiple defense with versatile front seven players. I expect when they can’t run Ojemudia and Charlton out there at the ends, Durkin will experiment with linebacker-ish dudes out there.
Those Van Bergenian thighs. That Clarkian pass rush. That responsible chin…[Fuller]
Final reminder to settlers along Lake Erie: We're coming to your Cleveland on Monday to talk about…I dunno…basketball or kickers or something. We've now added "Big Ed" Muransky to the lineup. Here's some footage of Muransky (#72 right, sometimes left tackle) as a sophomore against MSU, courtesy of WH. The rest of "we" are Brian, John U. Bacon, [huge gap in how much you care] and myself.
We've got the area reserved behind the bar through 11, and there's about 100-120 people coming, which means when the Ohio State fans show up later to watch the national championship game there'll be this wall of Michigan fans to greet them. And a bearded blogger guy rooting loudly for Oregon…while standing behind Big Ed Muransky.
Huge thanks to this lemon-eater for setting it up.
OT don't care SVG is boss: The Pistons cut their best player then ripped off a seven-game win streak. To win #6 they had to preserve a 1-point lead from the defending champions on the road, so Van Gundy used the last rasps of his weakening voice to demand the stones "Just form a [bleep]-ing wall." So I formed an effin' t-shirt.
If you hate this one you're all fired. My "IT'S H4PPENING" shirt is gone now but we've got several other new offerings if you haven't been on the store lately:
Not this again! New coaches mean new schemes to learn and WMUKirk did an amazing job in two diaries of showing how Durkin likes to play chess. Part 1 got into the base stuff and Part 2 was about how he mixed those to stay one step ahead of Jameis Winston's reads. There's this from Part 1:
What I've noticed is he doesn't deviate from 4 basic coverages. Quarters, Cover 3 Press, Cover 1, and his favorite blitz is the Fire Blitz from the QB's blind side. He hardly ever runs Man Under, Tampa 2, or Cover 0. He values speed and isn't against running a 3-4 with 3-3-5 personnel.
Florida's 3-3-5 was lifting one of the middle linebackers for a safety/spur/hybrid space player dude, and looked thusly:
The WDE is a pass rusher type and is standing up. On 1st and 15 this is Xtreme speed.
That's a 3-3-5 but not a Casteel stack; it's more like one of Mattison's okies except the MLB is a LB, not Mike Martin.
[Cont. after the jump]
In honor of our annual right there -----> which I expect will get Kickstarted a third year in a row today, I thought I'd share a little sneak peak from it. Brian asked me to create these for the linebackers page:
Click to big. Right-click to open in a separate window so you can reference it as you go.
That's a side by side comparison of Michigan's prohibitive starters this year before and after the "shift" to a 4-3 over and accompanying position changes were announced. Seeing it you can start to appreciate how all of those announcements make sense.
For the lay, what you're looking at are alignments of the front seven. The "under" shifts the defensive line away from the strength of the defense and the linebackers swing the opposite way to compensate. The result is very much like a 3-4 (picture the WDE in the photo above as yellow) and plays like it. In this alignment the strong side is the left because there's a TE there. Michigan would often align this to the hash rather than the offense, shifting the DL toward the sideline.
The "over" shifts the line the opposite way, but not to such an extreme. The linebackers wind up centered over the ball, and the DL spread across the formation. There is nothing 3-4 about it except the nose tackle.
Let's run through the positions to appreciate what's changed and what will be expected of them.
Weakside Defensive End (Frank Clark/Mario Ojemudia)
Ojemudia lined up as a 7-tech in the under [Fuller]
In the Under: The WDE is the leading pass rusher. He lines up so far outside of the backside offensive tackle that he'll wind up getting a 1-on-1 battle with that guy all day. The tradeoff was being further from the point of a attack in the run game. The WDE is further from the run game but in position to drop into coverage, a thing he was tasked to do quite often as the DE-like linebacker opposite him charged into the backfield. Much of the good done by the over shift is it creates double teams elsewhere to preserve the WDE's ability to attack upfield.
In the Over: The weakside end is still outside the offensive tackle, but shaded in a "5 technique," i.e. over the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle.
If you remember your 5-techs from 4-3 under school, you'll get the difference, though unlike your Ryan Van Bergens the weakside end usually doesn't have a tight end lined up to his side (ace even, H-backs and the like do happen) so he needn't be a double-team-eating anchor. The new WDE's biggest change is he's not dropping into coverage all the time. He has to control that OT in the run game, and often he has to cover the B gap. The linebackerity of the position has been removed; this man is a defensive lineman, and not necessarily a flashy one—Michigan State's been plugging their workhorse DE Marcus Rush in this spot for four years while various SDEs make the highlight reels.
The fit: Clark showed signs of being a pretty good player by the latter half of last season and now up near 260 he is large enough to not get kicked by OTs. As a pass rusher he's only like fifth or sixth in the conference, partly because the interior DL couldn't push the pocket very often, and partly because he wasn't great at closing when he beat his guy. Ojemudia and true freshman Lawrence Marshall aren't large men in your memory, but both claim to be up to 250 now. They're all better full-time defensive ends than 3-4 OLBs.
[Jump for the rest of the DL—LBs coming up in Part II]