don't we all
hybrid space players
After the spring game this year I was moved to write about the stuff Michigan was doing with Peppers. So moved in fact that I scrapped a "10 ways the NCAA can fix itself" feature for HTTV and wrote it on hybrid spacer players and how Peppers is a special type of that. If you'd like to read that, there are ways:
(not to scale)
e-Book version: Fewer photos, but a few paragraphs here and there that were cut for space. Now available from the Kindle store, working on iBooks.
Part of that article gets into how they aligned him (and Dymonte Thomas) in the spring game, but I wanted to explain more in detail what we mean by this:
Michigan will spend most of its time this year in nickel formations with Peppers acting as a hyper-athletic strongside linebacker. Against conventional sets they’ll be a base eight-man front with one deep safety (Jarrod Wilson) and Peppers acting as a maniacally aggressive strong safety, allowing the rest of the defense to play all kinds of tricks.
The gist is Michigan's defense, whether against spread or tight formations, is trying to have its run-stopping cake and eat the passing game too by putting Peppers in the slot, where his linebackerness can be brought to bear as well as his cornerbackosity.
Here's the Blue Team's first play in the Spring Game:
The soundtrack is off by a few seconds; sorry.
[There is Woodson after the jump]
Previously: the offense.
hello [Patrick Barron]
This is the good part. There were a few folks trying to find the nearest available ledge after yesterday's post. I'm not sure if they're wildly optimistic about HARBAUGH and expect next year's team to be year four Stanford or if I came off too brutally negative. Either way, this post will be a lot sunnier.
It's not a 3-4. Unless Michigan was sandbagging in their spring game they are running a defense quite similar to last year's—at least as far as the front seven goes. We have great experience with paranoid coaches as Michigan fans and not once has a major structural shift in the defense been concealed in spring. Even last year under Sir Puntsalot Michigan went full man press and that was their defense until circumstances dictated otherwise.
So we'll run with the assumption that what Michigan put out there was about what they'll run. This game saw Michigan run a 4-3—actually more of a 4-4, but more about that later—almost all the time. They went so far as to deploy Royce Jenkins-Stone as a weakside end because they were all out of weakside ends outside of Lawrence Marshall.
They will mix fronts, as all teams do. It is not a radical departure from last year's approach. And that's a good thing.
There is a departure. That is…
A hybrid space player is here. The biggest difference between Mattison's defense and Durkin's is at safety. Under Hoke it was difficult to tell who was the strong safety and who was the free safety. That will not be the case this year, as Jabrill Peppers was operating as a lightning fast outside linebacker for big chunks of the game. He tattooed running backs in the backfield more than once.
Peppers barely left that location. When Michigan went to a nickel package they did so by bringing in an extra safety and leaving Peppers over the slot, where he nearly caused an interception by breaking on a quick slant to Bo Dever.
[@ right: Upchurch]
If you were worried that moving Peppers to safety would make him a peripheral player who mostly shows up when making a tackle ten yards downfield, don't be. The vision of Peppers provided on Saturday was one of Tennessee-era Eric Berry or Packers-era Charles Woodson: an all-purpose sower of havoc. Berry had 16 TFLs his final two years at Tennessee. Woodson evolved into an NFL Defensive Player Of The Year as something beyond traditional positional definitions:
“They’re playing a lot of nickel, you know the old split six, so an eight man front,” said Mornhinweg. “They’ve got a good cover man with [Charles Woodson] down there who’s a very, very good tackler, so they sort of invite you to run the football into that base type personnel group however they’re very good.”
While that would normally be a successful strategy, Woodson’s ability to defend the run as a slot cornerback gives the defense some teeth.
“They feel very comfortable with him playing in that, which really is like a WILL linebacker position, he’s a physical guy,” said Eagles head coach Andy Reid. “He has great speed. He’s a great blitzer, great blitzer. So that’s how they use him.”
Woodson acted as that triple threat:
Woodson is fast enough to get to the quarterback in a hurry, but still strong enough to defend the run. Most of all, he’s a highly talented cover cornerback.
That is Peppers's role. Michigan's "nickel" is a base package with a hyper-athletic WLB; its base set looks like an eight-man front with a guy in that front who can cover anyone on the field. The defense is designed around his uncommon abilities.
Hurst was a regular annoyance to Morris [Bryan Fuller]
Activate DT depth. One of the striking things about the roster is that I had no idea who got struck first when drafting the defensive tackles. Glasgow and Henry were starters last year but both Mone and Hurst flashed ability as backups; a year later everyone's back and Maurice Hurst is in your base every play.
As a recruit Hurst was regarded as a lightning quick first step above all, with questions about whether he could hold up. That makes him an ideal three-technique. Three-techs get more one on one matchups if the nose tackle absorbs doubles, and Hurst is a good bet to shoot into the backfield. That was the case on Saturday. Hurst was a regular entrant into the land where TFLs are made.
He was going up against Ben Braden and David Dawson at guard, neither of whom is established as a starter-level player on the inside. But Braden did start all of last year and Dawson was a well-regarded recruit; neither is a walkon; both have been around a couple years. He was slicing through those guys with regularity.
Henry did well for himself after the first snap and should maintain the starting job. That two-deep looks set to be a high quality platoon.
I am ready to respect your authoritah [Eric Upchurch]
Inside backers are ready to rip. With James Ross out and Royce Jenkins-Stone drafted at WDE, the third linebacker in most sets was an odd duck. It did not seem to matter much, because the ILBs were filling with abandon. I have long been a skeptic about Joe Bolden's ability to hit people hard, but I thought he looked great.
There has always been a hesitancy about his play that has caused things like third and two conversions when Bolden goes entirely unblocked; that feels like it's finally out the door. Bolden showed up in the backfield a ton and hit guys hard when he showed. If that is not a spring mirage that sets Michigan up excellently for fall. Desmond Morgan's return gives Michigan another hard-hitting, dead-stop-tackler with a ton of experience, and Ben "Inexplicably Not Redshirted" Gedeon is ready to be the guy who spots both starters so regularly that he is a virtual starter as well.
The third linebacker should be Ross if healthy. In this defense I wonder how much run he'll get. Michigan has gone from a team that resigns itself to a ton of 4-3 sets against spread personnel (remember Jake Ryan walking out over three WR sets?) to one downright eager to play nickel.
In any case, two senior linebackers is a luxury.
Questions. The pieces are there for an outstanding defense. In my mind there are four main questions:
- Can anyone rush the quarterback?
- Can they find a second man press cornerback?
- Are the safeties reliable enough?
- Will the offense sell them out too much?
The last question is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that the last two years the defense had a tendency to collapse late after the offense's millionth three-and-out of the game.
Let's try to address the others.
Marshall is a breakout candidate and a 2015 key [Fuller]
Can anyone rush the quarterback? Michigan has not had a standout pass rusher since… Brandon Graham? Jake Ryan had a year in there but then he blew out his knee and wasn't an impact player as a junior; as a senior he had a distinctly muted impact (2 sacks) as a middle linebacker*. Brennen Beyer led last year's team with 5.5; Frank Clark had 4.5; neither was the kind of edge terror that needs to be accounted for every play.
Prospects are dim for that guy to emerge this year. Lawrence Marshall, a highly-regarded in-state recruit coming off a redshirt, has gotten a lot of hype. It would be a meteoric rise to go from not playing to being a terror. Mario Ojemudia is what he is at this point.
Michigan's best hope might be Taco Charlton, who seems set to move back to the weakside end after a season spent on the strongside in a 4-3 over. Charlton has a package of athleticism that is unmatched; this is a point where the proverbial light might come on. A spring injury prevented a hype train from building up steam; he'll be a guy you hope starts opening eyes in fall.
The defensive tackles also offer some promise here. Glasgow offered little pass rush a year ago, but Hurst, Mone, and Henry could be plus gentlemen, especially if they're all fresh because they can rotate freely without much drop in production. And the havoc Peppers causes might open up opportunities for other guys.
Even so this seems like the biggest gotcha in Michigan's quest for an elite defense.
Can they find a second man press cornerback? Michigan wanted to run an in-your-face aggressive defense last year and did so until it became clear that this was exposing Blake Countess to Spock levels of toxic radiation. Jourdan Lewis thrived, though, and returns as Michigan's #1 corner. Is there someone around who can let Michigan go Teddy KGB on opponents?
The two main contenders here are Countess, a year wiser and receiving cornerback coaching from a couple gentlemen with a slightly better pedigree in that department than the departed Roy Manning, and Stanford transfer Wayne Lyons. Lyons started for large chunks of the year for a lights-out Stanford secondary; he was regarded as something of a weak link. He can be the weak link in the #2 defense in the country and I will find that acceptable.
I give the slight edge to Lyons here, as he is bigger and faster than Countess. The boundary corner slot beckons.
A darkhorse: Brandon Watson. The redshirt freshman spent some time at safety last year, which made no sense since literally the only thing he did in high school is line up with his facemask molecules away from the opposition and jam the hell out of them. He looked pretty good on Saturday.
Are the safeties reliable enough? Jarrod Wilson is probably fine. I thought Michigan's tendency to jerk him around because he gave a team a small window to hit a pass in was one of their worst qualities under Hoke. They played nonsense guys over him from time to time, seemingly out of pique, and the defense got worse. Anyway, he's back and he should be reliable to good.
The second safety is not really Peppers since Peppers is a destroyer-of-all-trades in or near the box. The second safety is the guy who comes in when Michigan goes to the nickel that we are all going to interpret as Michigan's base defense by midyear. That is some combination of Delano Hill, Dymonte Thomas, Jeremy Clark, and Tyree Kinnel. Clark and Hill are the favorites. The numbers there are reasonable; can they find a player?
*[A move that was way more bonkers than it seems in retrospect because of Morgan's injury. Michigan opted to move their only impact rusher to MLB when they had Bolden and Morgan at ILB.]
Last year we predicted Dymonte would seize the nickel job. It's still open. [Fuller]
While doing Draftageddon this year Brian told each of us to draft an extra nickelback, or hybrid space player, because these defenses face 3-wide sets (and beyond) about as often as 2-wide ones. Modern offenses were made to take advantage of the run-stopping linebackers teams put on the strong side of the formation, forcing them to cover a jitterbug in space in addition to the running game. Defenses have countered with linebacker-safety hybrids of various forms. We've seen it in practice, and for many schools there's now an official hybrid/nickel position: STAR at Illinois and Ohio State, F-linebacker at Wisconsin, nickel at Michigan, etc. The HSP is the defense's answer to the slot receiver. It's the position we've ticketed Peppers for this season, at least to start.
However as I keep trying to find evidence of this in the stats, they keep eluding me. See: the division of Michigan's tackles (counting assists as 0.5 tackles) between the levels since 1995:
(click does the big thing)
Outliers. Doing this with just one team means we don't get much of a sample; unfortunately cfbstats just got bought out by two dudes who want $7500/year from each blog to use the stats he used to put online for free (i.e. under creative commons). If you downloaded the old spreadsheets from Marty (who does deserve to get paid for the work he did curating them) he says it's fine to use them. If you visit the old site you'll get the most salesman guy in the world who acts all cagey before telling you the $7500 price tag. Such is life.
You'll note some years Michigan went to a 3-4 defense in 2004-'05 there's an uptick in linebacker tackles—that's Woodley being counted as one (for much of 1999 and 2000 they were a 3-4 but as often as not James Hall/Shantee Orr had their hands down, i.e. 4-3 under). And in 2009 and 2010 when Michigan went to a 3-3-5 (effectively three safeties) there's a safety hump. However the year with the largest % of tackles by DBs was 2011, the year Kovacs and T.Gordon were #s 2 and 3 on the tackle charts. Then it went down.
I think there's a couple things going on here. One, I think the transition to nickel happened longer ago than we gave it credit for. And two: Jake Ryan. Remember for the start of 2011 T.Gordon was playing nickel while Woolfolk was free safety. The typical configuration of Michigan's defense wasn't the 4-3 under we'd been told was coming; it was the same base nickel Michigan had before Rich Rod. The 2011 season's formations from the UFR:
|San Diego State||43%||45%||6%||6%||0%||0%|
It was highly opponent-dependent. You'll note the trajectory of the Okie as they debuted it, shelved it, then brought it back against Illinois. But you'll also see Mattison deploying 4-3 alignments more often against spread outfits. Against Kain Colter and Northwestern's spread-option offense they were 80% nickel; against Braxton Miller and Ohio State's they were 23%.
I think what they discovered was they could get away with Jake Ryan as the HSP. Come 2012 and 2013 that was the base.
When did it get Nickel-y?
From personal recollection Lloyd used a lot of 3-3-5 nickel against spread teams after 2000, when his 4-2-5 nickel got shredded by Randy Walker's Rodriguezian offense. The tackling stats don't say. Even when I went through to identify who played "SAM" (Spur in 3-3-5, not the WDE in a 3-4) and nickel the tackle totals told no story:
I'm giving up on this route. Eventually someone will find something useful to do with tackling stats but this isn't that day. If someone has an idea for how to find the rise of the nickelback in statistics, I'm all ears. In the meantime let's watch defense porn.
Say AAAAAAHHH! [Fuller]
Guess who's back? Back again. Jake is back. We hope he's back. Hope he's back. Hope he's back, hope he's back hope he's back hope he's back…
|Look at these eyes, baby blue, baby just like yourself, if they were brown, Shady lose, Shady sits on the shelf, but Shady's cute, Shady knew, Shady's dimple's would help.
Slim Shady: Ace Anbender
The Real Slim Shady: Coach Brown
Almost Famous: Brian Cook
Big Weenie: Seth Fisher
Bad Meets Evil: Blue in South Bend
The Most Shady: Heiko Yang
Let's talk the return of Jake M.F. Ryan. Does it get us a pass rush? Do we give him a few weeks to regain his edge? What happens to the not-Ryans?
Mathlete: I think when JMFR comes back, we should play him both ways, solves the pass rush and the interior line issues at the same time. He doesn't even have to be a freakish hybrid. This coaching stuff is easy.
The key question for his return is whether or not we are getting the old Jake Ryan back. It seems like there are fewer and fewer cases every year of players who are coming back at less than their previous player. If he comes back at or near his previous level, there is no doubt he will be a big boost for the defense. Right now the defense is really good at one thing, not allowing plays down field. Michigan is allowing an average of 95 yards beyond the sticks a game, which is 15th best in the country. What the defense has lacked to date is much of a legitimate play making threat, and that is exactly what made Jake Ryan into JMFR. If Ryan can even generate a portion of the game changing activity he previously did, it would be a huge surge to a defense that could use a little jolt.
Previously: Podcast 5.0, The Story, Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Tight End and Friends, Offensive Line, Defensive Tackle, Defensive End, Linebacker,Cornerback, Safety, Special Teams. Five Questions: Offense.
Oh man that's brutal you just accidentally made me think about some combination of Novak and Kovacs that still doesn't have any eligibility you're a monster
It's bad you guys. I am admittedly super paranoid about this business. But you're a Michigan fan too. You are either super paranoid, 14, or not paying attention. In any normal situation I would be freakin' out you guys, and now you're telling me that the guy replacing Kovacs is either
the guy who couldn't play a deep half in the bowl game to the tune of 100 yards of doom, or
a 175-pound nickel corner who has never played safety in his life.
Excuse me while I eat balloon animals until my spleen ruptures.
Look… man, I am irrationally optimistic about Devin Gardner and the running backs and the receivers and even the offensive line. I am really into large portions of this team. And I cannot find any reason to not run around in circles perpetually about replacing Kovacs. God, I wish I could. God, I wish all sorts of things about Kovacs and his replacements. I just don't know man.
It should be Avery long-term, because you don't move a guy like Avery to safety unless you are just trying to get everyone aligned right on every snap and playing the right coverage. His main asset is experience. But Avery is hurt now, was hurt last year, and projects to always be hurt. The situation here is analogous to the one at left guard, where it seems like Michigan wants to play a guy they can't count on because of his injury history. The difference at guard is that they have another option good enough to go with. The tea leaves imply that that is not the case at safety.
Yeah, maybe it'll be okay. Maybe I'm making too much of limited snaps for Wilson and writing a guy off prematurely, but guys in the comments of the safeties section saying that the Avery move is a logical one to get your best four defensive backs on the field: you're these guys.
Hey, I'd love to be wrong here. I'd love to be more wrong about this than anything I have been wrong about, and hoo boy have I been wrong about some things.
[After THE JUMP: Papering over Novacs, and like I am so serene you guys. About other bits.]