to play football, not to play trumpet
Left: Walsh. Right: Wormley by Upchurch
A few weeks ago I stumbled onto a 1997 article by Bill Walsh where he explained how he evaluates talent at each position. I then applied those evaluations to Michigan’s offensive personnel, because Borges is supposedly transitioning us to Walsh’s WCO. People requested a defensive version so here you go.
It’s probably not as useful because the closest NFL comparison to the Mattison ideal is the Greg Mattison Ravens. But then when you read about the history of Mattison’s 4-3 under defense, you find (49ers DC under Walsh) George Seifert’s ideas peppered all over. And there’s a reason for that:
Offensive evolution doesn’t matter so much when you’re talking about going back to the offense that dominated 1997. The 4-3 under defense—or whatever you call what Michigan does by shifting the line toward the nearest sideline—is more akin to a 3-4 than the 46 defense Walsh used to deploy against the run-heavy offenses of his day, or the Tampa 2 stuff that owned the period which that article was written.
Walsh’s defensive opinions are geared toward a 3-4, and that’s perfect for our purposes, since the 4-3 under is similar in personnel. When you see it you can see why:
So in we go again. I'm moving right now so I can't do it all in one again. Here's the interior DL and I'll cover linebackers and defensive backs in later weeks.
Dana Stubblefield / Rob Renes / Pipkins via Upchurch
Walsh Says: 6’2, 290. As discussed in the article when I made all the DL recruits into Wii avatars, the NT should have his mass low; a pyramid is more difficult to move than a cube. Like Mattison, Walsh puts the hands at the very top:
Quick, strong hands to grab and pull are critical. This is common with the great tackles. The hands, the arms, the upper body strength and then the quick feet to take advantage of a moving man, just getting him off balance.
The Walsh ideal doesn’t necessarily have to take on doubles. What he looks for is the strength to not get knocked backwards, and the ability to move laterally without giving ground. The best can burrow forward and push a guard into the pocket.
Note that Walsh is inadvertently describing a 4-3 DT more than a 3-4 NT—he’s not asking for a two-gapper who sucks up doubles but a one-gapper who can’t be budged. However the first step to beating spread teams is an NT who requires doubles, since the spread 'n shred's base dive play is most dangerous when an interior OL is releasing into the linebackers.
Walsh's Favorite Wolverine: Rob Renes. NFL scouts want everyone to be Wilfork, but active, stout, and sound come first.
What to look for in a Scouting Report: "Crab person" a la Mike Martin, i.e. he plays low and with great leverage. Strength—opponents can't move him. “Has excellent hands.” Athleticism: Walsh didn’t mention this but guys who are ranked basketball recruits as well seem to have a high success rate; that's obviously a mark of quickness/agility being important.
What you can learn on film: Nose tackle recruits are often so much bigger than the competition that they can terrify offenses without technique. You can learn more from the plays where he flows down the line of scrimmage then makes the play. Leverage. Hands maybe but this seems to be something most will learn in college. It's paywalled (and there's a lot that's 3-techy about him) but if you have a Rivals account go watch Ndamukong Suh's high school film and how he uses his arms to dominate guys off the ball.
What could signal bust potential: We’ve seen our share of planetary objects who get lots of hype because they’re 320-pound creatures who pop average teen OL like so many zits. This is an effort position that scales dramatically with the transition from high school to Big Ten. An athletic man-child has a massive ceiling but is as likely to follow the career path of Richard Ash as that of Johnathan Hankins.
How our guys compare: The expectation here is for Quinton Washington (above-right/Upchurch) to reprise his role at Nose with Ondre Pipkins figuring in as a rotation starter and making appearances at the 3-tech spot as well. Q came to Michigan as a spread-style offensive guard highly sought after by all the right people. His switch to the defensive line was initially a swap with Will Campbell, except Washington stuck with it. It was a painful year and change waiting for him to catch up, made worth it last year when he was a pleasant surprise at nose. Listed at 6'4-300 he's on the plus side of the size curve but not to the degree Campbell was (Suh as a senior was listed at the same size). Where this project is concerned, Hoke seems to have had success in every facet except his stated goal of making Quinton two inches shorter; I like to mention that one of my favorite DTs to watch is Kawaan Short, who was listed at 6'5 as a recruit and 6'3 as a draft prospect. That upper body strength that Walsh covets in his NTs is what made Washington stand out as a recruit and contributes to the success he's had across the line.
left: Q.Wash's UFR totals for 2012. right: Pipkins's. Clicking bigs them.
Ondre Pipkins arrived looking pretty much exactly like an NFL nose tackle—6'3-340—and played pretty much exactly like a true freshman, as you can make out from the UFR chart above. That's technique (i.e. hands) talking—he got minuses for getting scooped and buried and eating doubles, and plus'ed for flashes of mobility.
Richard Ash has two years of eligibility left so you can't write him off yet but he came in a non-mobile planet and had to lose a lot of weight to uncover his playing body. The Walsh measureables are not favorable, at least not yet. The freshman pegged for NT (though either could play either) is probably Maurice Hurst, since he checks nearly every one of Bill's boxes, right down to a listed height-weight of 6'2-290. Mike Farrell on Hurst:
"He has a nice frame that can still add weight but what really stands out about him is his quickness off the ball and his light feet. Hurst beat most of his opponents with his first step and he was able to win the leverage game most of the time as well."
Watching his film you can see the hands (start at 0:48). The knocks are he needs to get lower (on film you immediately see that butt sticking out) and I don't see strength mentioned much. He played running back for his high school and wasn't so big that he could get by on size so Hurst probably appreciates technique. I would guess he needs some time to put on muscle before he can contribute.
[After the jump, moving down the line]
1. Is the defensive line going to survive?
Son of a bitch. I told you not to ask that. I don't know, man. I don't know.
On the face of things it's not completely dire. Michigan starts two seniors and two juniors. They're big. The backups aren't freshmen, for the most part, and when Michigan's in the nickel package they'll lift the dodgiest parts of the line for what promises to be a stunting, slanting, pressuring Ryan-Roh-Black-Beyer/Clark group. The starters are all touted recruits save Black. Meanwhile, Michigan has three DL coaches and coached Will Heininger up like whoah last year. BONUS: If you squint it kind of looks like "QWash" looks like "quash."
They're unproven, and the lack of playing time last year is a cautionary note. Defensive linemen rotate, and rotate a lot if their coaches have faith in them. Washington hardly existed last year. Campbell did, though, and to a lesser extent so did Black.
A potential problem is the swing in strategy Michigan has to undertake as they transition away from the best penetrating nose tackle at Michigan since NTs ballooned into the 300 pound range. Quinton Washington may turn out all right; he's not going to be Mike Martin. This means the linebackers have to take big steps forward, beat guys who are (hopefully) releasing late after Washington and Campbell shove them back, and fill impeccably. The linebackers' jobs should actually get easier since Michigan has a pair of guys who can demand doubles (hypothetically); they'll have to make a quantum leap in consistency if the rushing defense is going to tread water.
Add to that a non-nickel line that looks like it's not going to get anywhere near the quarterback and you've got a recipe for frustration, or at least a lot of bending as Kovacs and company make tackles to extend drives and the front four tries to put opponents in passing downs.
Verdict: meh, but no worse.
[After jump: more defense, more Mattison, more PANIC?]
I’m guessing you have received various emails about this subject, but I’m wondering if you are read anything into Coach Hoke’s comment in his 8/21 presser regarding BWC practicing at 3-tech? Do you think this is an issue of Campbell not producing at the 1, or is it Pipkins showing that he can play immediately? Is it more related to issues with Beyer (assuming Clark is out of the picture for the near future) or Black forcing a complete reshuffling of the line? Or am I completing overanalyzing as I haven’t seen an honest to goodness live Michigan football game in over 8 months? Is it best to seek therapy or self medicate with bourbon? Have I asked enough questions, or did you stop reading after the first 3?
My hope is that it is Pipkins practicing well and a realization among the coaches that he is a talent that needs to be on the field now. Hopefully this would take some pressure off of BWC, who I think most would agree is the key to D-line play this year.
Anyway, thanks for all your work, you truly provide both great writing and pertinent information for all levels of Michigan fans.
Here's the quote in question:
Well, we’ve been throwing Will a little bit more at the three-technique … Richard Ash and Quinton Washington and Ondre and Ryan Glasgow have been playing a lot of the one. We felt we needed to -- Jibreel’s going to be able to play the three. At times you’re going to need a little heavier package in there, bigger guy, and Will gives you that. So we’ve kind of been trying to get as multiple as we can.
I read that as a short-yardage/goal-line/MANBALL offense package. In those types of GRAARGH plays Black's size is proving a liability and they want a couple of fire hydrant types at those DT spots.
Pipkins may be forcing that move, but remember that one of the surprises of the spring game was Richard Ash popping up in the backfield to blow up running plays a few times:
Richard Ash made a couple nice plays, which I was not expecting. One was an excellent string-out on a stretch play that forced the tailback to awkwardly cut behind him. I was beyond not expecting that. I don't think John Gasaway will get on me if I say I was shocked. Yeah. Later he showed up two yards in the backfield directly in the path of an iso; he got blocked from the side but the bounce he forced saw Marvin Robinson chop poor Vincent Smith down for a one-yard loss.
It's not out of the question that he turns into a player—as a recruit he briefly had big time offers. He's got a chronic medical thing that has slowed him, but if he's finally rounded into shape he retains the body type to be a quality nose tackle.
A darker possibility: Black is not cutting it and Michigan is preparing a backup plan in case an Alabama lineman sits on him for the entirety of the first drive. Any and all of these are possibilities.
CHL union business.
Would this have any effect on the NCAA hockey schools in terms of making the CHL more or less attractive to prospects? Further, whether the CHLPA succeeds or not, what kind of precedent could this set for NCAA athletes to do something similar? It seems the CHLPA's argument for more pay, etc, is pretty similar to what NCAA athletes could claim.
A semi-related question: Would you be for the Big Ten breaking off from the NCAA in hockey and forming their own semi-pro league similar to what you have proposed for baseball? I hate the NCAA, and Big Ten hockey is more competitive than Big Ten baseball, so I think they could actually make more money via BTN and other endeavors.
Go Blue from Cairo,
If a CHL union does get off the ground and forces the owners to pay them a reasonable amount, that could do any number of things to the NCAA's efforts to recruit against them. More money obviously makes junior more attractive, but if the end result of all this is some sort of strictly-enforced cap on how much any particular kid could get that might help the NCAA with the top end kids. Even if there isn't a hard cap, CHL teams forced to pay third-liners some variety of wage would have less to spend on the
Troubas Jack Campbells of the world.
Unless it's a lot of money I don't see it making a big difference. CHL kids are gambling that their hockey career will pay the bills; NCAA kids are betting the education they get is more valuable than whatever stipend they would get in junior.
I don't know what the NCAA's argument is re: the CHL, but they probably have a better leg to stand on because they're affiliated with nonprofit educational institutions instead of out-and-out businesses. IANAL.
About Big Ten breaking off in hockey: what? There are only six Big Ten teams, and going semi-pro only increases costs. Who would they play? Why would they make more money as semi-pro teams (more high profile players I guess, but I'm skeptical)? It only makes sense in baseball because NCAA baseball is stacked against Northern teams so insanely. Playing the first month of the season on the road and never ever getting a Southern team to come to your place is a handicap you just can't overcome. There are no similar problems in hockey, and it's tight-knit enough that Michigan has rivalries with North Dakota, BC, Notre Dame, and to a lesser extent others. I award you no points for this idea.
LOInjury. That's LOI, not LOL.
With all the early offers out there, this seems like it is a discussion worth prepping for. what happens if a commit who has not yet signed his LOi has a career ending injury prior to joining the team? Would UM honor the commitment somehow even if he cant play? Is that allowed by NCAA? Is there a track record of this? Formulate a response now and pray we never have to use it.
We'll get to see how Michigan responds to this next year when Austin Hatch does or does not join the basketball team. It seems like a pretty easy solution: sign the guy and medical him as fast as possible. If you have to carry the guy for a year, that doesn't seem like a huge burden—most of the time you're just throwing that scholarship to a walk-on anyway.
In his interview with Grantland, Coach Hoke revealed his music tastes. "To this day, those records are the ones I still listen to — Hall & Oates, early Stones, REO Speedwagon, Aerosmith. I love Hall & Oates. "Rich Girl" and "Sarah" can bring a tear to my eye."
It's now clear who Hoke learned his epic point from:
Coincidence? I think not.
Jake, on the other hand, gets sixty-seven points.
A note before we start: this preview relies heavily on the defensive UFRs of last year because there’s a convenient numerical system that does a decent job of summing up a defensive player’s contributions. One caveat: the system is generous to defensive linemen and harsh to defensive backs, especially cornerbacks. A +4 for a defensive end is just okay; for a cornerback it’s outstanding.
|STRONG DE||Yr.||NOSE TACKLE||Yr.||THREE-TECH||Yr.||WEAK DE||Yr.|
|Craig Roh||Sr.||Quinton Washington||Jr.*||Will Campbell||Sr.||Jibreel Black||Jr.|
|Nate Brink||Jr.*#||Richard Ash||So.*||Ryan Glasgow||Fr.#||Brennen Beyer||So.|
|Keith Heitzman||Fr.*||Ondre Pipkins||Fr.||Matt Godin||Fr.||Frank Clark||So.|
Okay okay okay. Breathe. Breathe in. Breathe out. Feel the lung expand and contract, and feel a calmness wash over you. Yeah. Calm. Calm.
Michigan lost three starters, may be starting a 280-pound three-tech, moved the only returning starter, and has a walk-on seriously pressing for playing time. If they're not starting a 280-pound three-tech, they're starting a 280-pound WDE. Will Campbell inherits a starting spot essentially by default.
No no no no. Calm. Callllm.
The big piece of news that hit when the Big Ten Network was let inside the velvet rope at Michigan practice was Jerry Montgomery naming Quinton Washington one of his starters instead of Brennen Beyer. This was followed up by a depth chart confirming this fact.
Clarity came Monday when Hoke made an appearance at the UM Club of Greater Detroit's kickoff dinner that I was at, waiting for the Q&A session with Greg Dooley and Angelique Chengelis. Hoke took questions, someone asked him about the defensive line, and Hoke gave a straight answer. To paraphrase: Michigan is planning on rotating six guys. Washington will be the nose in certain packages with Campbell at three tech and Black at WDE. In other packages they'll remove Washington and slide everyone down, inserting Beyer at WDE and going with Roh-Campbell-Black-Beyer.
Who's the sixth guy? You got me. I'd guess it's Nate Brink, but it didn't come up.
this year he'll totally live up to this image. really! (probably not really.)
This time we mean it, Will Campbell: it's now or never. The one-time five-star recruit is now a senior. He's been handed a starting spot by the graduation of three DL starters and Rodriguez's crappy recruiting. This makes everyone nervous because obviously.
There is some good news on this front. After a couple years in which Campbell appearances were all but guaranteed to draw this sort of commentary…
I'm not at the point where I can tell you the ten different things Campbell did to get blown four yards downfield, but I can blather on about pad level: man, pad level. Am I right?
…his cameos were fairly effective last year. He got limited snaps, of course, but only ended up negative against Iowa, when he got cut twice on big Coker runs. He had a +5 against ND, a +3.5 against SDSU, a +4 against Minnesota, and a +4 against Illinois, three of which came when he blew up a third and one by himself:
Unfortunately, these positives and highlights are all against the worst offensive lines on the schedule (and ND, oddly). Michigan didn't put him out there much against tougher competition; now they've got no choice.
"The most dramatic change I've seen in a body on our team is Will Campbell," said left tackle Taylor Lewan. "His body is transformed. He was a sloppy 350 and now he's a toned down 308 kind of guy. He looks real good. His conditioning shows it. You should see him run. He's like a gazelle. It's unreal. I think Will is going to do some special things this year."
Come on, baby. He's getting the full-court press from Michigan's three-headed DL coaching staff, and I wished and hoped my way to thinking he was a lot better this spring:
Last spring game guy was a lump who managed to not get blown off the ball most of the time and just about never did anything. During the year he was largely that with some nice plays mixed in, but too infrequently to be encouraging. In the spring game he had clearly progressed enough to actually beat his man to the gap more than once.
You know all those runs Rawls had where he had to abort mission and find another hole? Most of those were headed at Campbell. Since we got a baseline for Ricky Barnum in the time he got before his ankle injury last year—decent Big Ten player even then—that's a hopeful sign.
While that hasn't kept the coaches from grousing about things, their expectations are not my expectations.
Finding out that Campbell will flip between three tech and the nose is probably a positive tea leaf. Leverage has always been a problem, and at 6'5" he's never going to be a great burrower. Get him one on one and he can deposit folks on their butts. That is what he'll generally be allowed to do at the three. His ability to do that on passing downs is going to be a huge factor in how effective that line configuration is—three techs can get good rush, and Michigan's ability to get pressure out of the WDE spot is very much in doubt.
What to expect here is a mystery. My WAG: adequate play that's on average a few points to the good on UFR charts (which is average for DL, as it measures MAKING PLAYS more than not doing so). Maybe a fringe draft pick if Michigan is pretty lucky. I don't think he'll be worse than Heininger, and he was pretty decent by the end of the year.
[hit THE JUMP for the GREAT MYSTERY beyond the KEN OF MAN (and Craig Roh)]
♪ Well a whole season played with the first string guy is usually quite lucky.
And a squad who plays with the second team out can be anything but fussy.
But a team whose seen an important guy down—head concussed, knee on the ground!
If they ain't got depth around, then all goes to poopie.
To poopie, to poopie, to poopie, but depth is hard to get!
To poopie, to poopie, to poopie, but we can get there yet! /♫
This is a continuation from last week when I went through the expected offensive depth chart and tried to predict what would happen—what's the dropoff? how do we react?—if each starter is injured for an extended time. Now, I'm not here trying to roll into town and stir up trouble, see? I'm a purveyor of portents and hedger of predictions only. What I seek to do is prepare us for any one of these dings, so that if one occurs we can say something intelligent like "it hurts to lose Roh but Black is probably the less replaceable!"
Why not all defense? Things slow down from here because the defense has a lot of intermeshing parts, and because there actually is depth in places to speak of.
Mattison's er Michigan's defense has been characterized by interchangeable positions but really each spot is more of a sliding scale from NT to field corner where each one overlaps the things on either side of it. The listed spring/recruiting weights play this out (click e-bigitates):
Quickly again. Photos are all by Upchurch unless otherwise noted. Ratings are given in Saturn-punting Zoltans. Think of them like stars except more heavenly. Five is an all-conference-type player (Denard to Kovacs); four is a guy you'd call "solid" (RVB to Demens); three is an average B1G player (Morgan to Hawthorne); two is a guy with a big hole in his game (freshman Kovacs); one is trouble with a capital T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for Poole.
Nose Tackle (Avengers)
Geeks / O. Ryan Hussain|TheWolverine / 247 Sports
In case of emergency: I'll be honest; this one is impossible to call straight. The 4-3 under is like the 3-4 in that it leans on the nose to suck up double teams and create mismatches elsewhere. The ideal is a superhero, and for the last few years we've had one of the best (by Ghost of Bo).
Hulk is gone but the franchise must go on, and for now that means we are 100% committed to making Thor work.
If the old 5-star takes up the hammer he's the pivot point of a great defense. If he doesn't then one of two mystery men could be anything from serviceable to disasters, and most things in between.
The upside on all three of Michigan's nose tackles is mighty. Weirdly, we think we know more about the true freshman, Ondre Pipkins, than the redshirt sophomore. Pipkins was a 4 or 5 star whose huge, squat, Tongan frame and jovial, Hoke-impersonating character made him and Michigan's need for nose tackle a cosmic destiny. If he's got the goods we'll see Pipkins early in spells of Campbell. True freshmen (Martin, Gabe Watson) of his caliber have fared well enough in rotational duty. The later this season goes, the more comfortable you can feel about Pipkins when he's called upon. Caveat: until he's called upon you have no idea if he can hack it, and for every huge dude you can name who could play right away (Marcus Thomas, Suh, Ngata, [sigh] Johnathan Hankins, DeQuinta Jones) there's 30 who need to spend a year as Ben Grimm before being The Thing. /metaphor used up.
In case of dire emergency: …break glass on Richard Ash. Nobody knows on this guy, who was recruited by Rodriguez as the last Pahokeeian project for Barwis to tear down and rebuild. The tear-down went unnoticed through 2010 and '11 and we caught a glimpse of possible rebuild when, 20 lbs. svelter, he made a few plays nice in the backfield. Ash could be anything from ahead of Pipkins to Adam Patterson. If that's where we are I could see Quinton Washington sliding down.
Rush Tackle (3-Tech)
Right: Dell Callihan|UMGoBlog
In case of emergency: The coaches have made it clear that Jibreel Black can play, and moving him two slots down the size/speed slide chart of defensive positions means they want him on the field, and that they want 5-tech-ish skills at the 3-tech. This being a swing position means the backups could be different things.
Quinton Washington is a big dude who was an offensive guard until he and Will Campbell were swapped for each other in that experiment. He still looks like a guard, and has yet show much at tackle besides easily dismissible coach hokum right after the move in 2010 so it wouldn't look like Rodriguez was throwing substances at surfaces to see what sticks.
Q stuck although the OL he left is now about as leaky as the DL he came to save. That the coaches moved Roh and Black down the line tells you something about their faith that Washington is ready, and going into his redshirt junior year that might mean he'll never be. He's seen time on goal line situations and is likely to again. Early in the year I wouldn't be surprised if he or Ash—whichever wins—is backing up both interior line spots, and that later on we see some Pipkins and Campbell together time.
In case of dire emergency: Ken Wilkins has been absent enough from chatter that people email me asking if he's still on team. Yes he is on the damn team, and he's still just a RS sophomore, but yeah, there's room for true freshmen on the three deep. Those two seem to be Godin and Henry, the lesser heralded of the heralded class, both of whom would benefit from redshirts. Henry is the larger. Chris Wormley, whom I rate at 5-tech, seems a more likely backup.
Strongside End (5-Tech)
In case of emergency: Craig Roh has to be the hardest four-year starter to project in history, thanks to many different careers as too-small WDE in a 4-3, a miscast OLB in the 3-3-5, then as the edge rushing WDE in Mattison's 4-3 under. Now he moves to RVB's old spot.
The backup here is almost assuredly Nate Brink, whom the coaches love but the fans hardly know because he's been hurt (he missed Spring because of it). When the coaches talk about the one-time walk-on they make sure to hit all of the Ecksteinian points: "coachable", "hard worker", "toughness", "great technique", "great motor." To that I might add he's 6'5 and 263, which is normal for the position. He's not Heininger (who as a sophomore backed up Brandon Graham), except in that he's some of the things you wrongly thought about Heininger. Then again I remember Brady Hoke making all sorts of guys into effect tech linemen.
If you'd rather see stars, Keith Heitzman is your guy. The beneficiary of the spring time Brink missed, the redshirt fresham was rated higher at tight end out of high school yet apparently good enough at SDE that the coaches moved Jordan Paskorz instead of him. Either this was a promise made at the time of his last-minute recruitment—likely since Tim reacted strongly when I say him and the TE depth chart together—or an endorsement by Hoke that he can play, or both. Best guess is it's both.
In case of dire emergency: Any of the freshmen linemen but Pipkins and Ojemudia are ready built for 5-tech. Of these Chris Wormley was a longtime high school star, which tells me he is probably physically ahead of the other guys right now. Tom Strobel is the other proto-RVB here. One day I expect we'll see the two of them playing next to each other at 3- and 5- respectively.
Backups: Mario Ojemudia ???, plus 5-techs
In case of emergency: Well if one goes down the other starts. Following a trend, both Clark and Beyer were OLBs last season, while this spot was rotated between Black and Roh. Though technically a unit change, the job they did last year—outside rusher—and what they'll be called on to do this year are not all that dissimilar. It speaks well to both that they played as true freshmen ahead of once-touted Cam Gordon. Read less into that, since Gordon was hurt to give them the opening and their skillsets are different from his.
They're also different from each other. Beyer was the more highly regarded and will get called "solid" more often because he's less eventful than Clark. Clark has the greater athleticism (see: interception in Sugar Bowl) though has been convicted of multiple accounts of giving up the edge, a freshman mistake repeated in spring. The rest of the D-line by design is meant to free these guys up for sacks, thus I see both rotating. If one goes down we lose the rotation.
The only other designated WDE is freshman Ojemudia, who is about 200 lbs. right now and would be 2009 Craig Roh'ed by most of the OTs and TEs on our schedule. Far more likely, in the event we lose one of the sophomores, we'll see one of the 5-techs or SLBs move in before the shirt is lifted from Mario. Craig Roh has played WDE more than any other spot, and Brink has the coaches' trust to fill in at 5-tech.
In case of dire emergency: Packaging still covers but there's Ojemudia if you need him. Packaging means in pass situations you just put Jake Ryan here and have Cam Gordon or Brandin Hawthorne or a nickel corner come in; otherwise go "big" (for a certain definition of such) with Roh back to wide and whichever backup DT/SDE in the game instead.
no pressure, Ondre
As part of the run up to the Super Bowl, Smart Football posted a Grantland article detailing the Patriots' defense. It's not much good at football, that defense, but it is pretty interesting from the Michigan perspective for two reasons.
Reason one: it provides an excuse for Chris Brown to talk about techniques in an easy to understand way.
"Gap" refers to the area between offensive linemen. A 1-gap technique is just what it sounds like: The defensive lineman lines up in front of the gap he is responsible for and his job is to attack and control it. If nothing else, a defender must not allow a runner to go through his gap. While defensive linemen attack their gaps, the linebackers behind them are responsible for their own gaps. These are the defense's "run fits," meaning how they fit into an offense's blocking scheme to take away running space.
Courtesy of Chris Brown
The 2-gap technique, by contrast, sounds physically impossible. How can one player occupy two separate gaps? He does it by controlling the blocker. At the snap of the football, a two-gapping defensive lineman does what Wilfork did to Birk. He leads with his hands, gets leverage on the offensive lineman, and takes control of the blocker. From there, the advanced techniques kick in. On run plays, the defender reacts to where the blocker tries to take him. If he is double-teamed, he'll try to split the blockers and either shoot into the backfield or occupy the blockers, thus freeing up his teammates to make tackles.
In short, while a 1-gap player attacks gaps, a 2-gap player attacks people. Football's conventional wisdom states that an effective 2-gap lineman, particularly one who lines up in the middle of the defense like Wilfork does, must be enormous. Coaches refer to them as "war daddies." But size is actually less important than athleticism and smarts. The line between touchdowns and stops in the NFL is exceedingly thin, and it's footwork and feel that are the difference. It is the most violent, most complicated, and most beautiful ballet I can think of.
Count the war daddies on the Michigan defensive line. You come back with a true freshman and an inconsistent former five star who can't play consistently without standing up straight. The other guy who would be two-gapping in a 3-4 is… Nate Brink? Jibreel Black? A true freshman? Not happening.
This matters much more than a surfeit of linebackers when you're trying to pick a defense to run, especially when moving to a two-gap system does not get more of them on the field. The 3-4 is not coming to Michigan.
At least not in total. We might see bits and pieces, though…
Reason two is an interesting adjustment the Patriots have made to adapt to their personnel. Wilfork is a monster they would like to use to the maximum extent possible, which means two-gapping him. Asking him to be Mike Martin is a lot like asking Ondre Pipkins to run a bunch of goofy pass-rush stunts like he did in the AA game. But because of deficiencies elsewhere Bill Belichick (mainly a 3-4 guy) feels compelled to run a 4-3, which generally means one-gapping.
What to do?
The Patriots run a 3-4 to one side of the field and a 4-3 to the other, all on the same play. The key to all this is Wilfork. He lines up over the center and assumes his traditional spot of run-stuffing, blocker consuming, two-gapping war daddy. Belichick fills out the rest of the pieces based on the strengths and weaknesses of his other defenders.
Create a hybrid. This is the Patriots' under front, one similar to what Michigan ran this year except with one planetoid defensive tackle and one strong-and-good strongside defensive two-gapping. This might be something we see from Michigan next year. Getting maximum production out of Pipkins basically demands something similar.
The problem here is still the same one we have when we theorize about moving to a 3-4, though: there is no SDE on the roster with a prayer of being able to two-gap anything. If you try to get clever by flipping Campbell out there you're asking for it when that tight end goes in motion to the other side of the line and you're either rearranging the entire DL on the fly or running this:
Your weakside DE is not a pass rush threat at all. So don't expect this next year.
HOWEVA, even if you shouldn't go around calling the defense "basically Belichick's" yet, we should expect Pipkins' deployment to be radically different than Martin's. That should mean fewer blocks getting to the linebackers and more plays from that unit. If the ILBs find a surge in productivity it will be because of Pipkins—not because he is a better player than Martin, but because he's a different one.
You'll be able to tell if this is happening by Pipkins's alignment. Martin played a "shade"—he aligned in the gap between the center and guard. If Michigan wants Pipkins to be Wilfork they'll put him nose to nose with the center and say "sic 'em."
This is where disclaimers go. Even with New England doing this a major theme of the first half in the Super Bowl was that one-gap backside tackle getting doubled (often on zone runs) and blown up. It is never as simple as "this guy gets one on one blocking." All you can do is change the equation so that doing that exposes someone else to a tough assignment. You can't entirely cover up for a sucky player.
Pipkins may be talented but there's more to playing nose tackle than talent. You can dominate your guy, push him into the backfield, and still screw up if you lose control of one of your gaps. Usually this happens when the DT gets pushed too far in the direction he wants to go and opens up a cutback lane behind him. When one of these players is Gabe Watson and the other is Pat Massey, pain results. It's not too hard to envision that happening what with Will Campbell still a rotation player you're a little afraid of. At least he's not 6'8"*.
It may make more sense to start Pipkins off with the easier assignment (always one-gap) and hope to make him impactful in two gaps later in his career. That'll be one of the interesting tactical decisions we unveil against… oh, Christ. Alabama. Yay!
*[Who in the hell looked at a 6'8", 260 pound player and put him on defense? That is either a tackle or a tight end or a man who should be playing basketball.]