at least it's not just us?
left: Upchurch, right: Fuller, not Jamar Adams.
After last week's roundtable, Heiko and I got into an argument over which safety position Gordon will play this year, and whether we've all been wrong to assume that the "Kovacs position" was indeed going straight to Jarrod Wilson. Let's investigate that.
Through various defenses this site has covered, I have kept defaulting to "free" to describe whatever guy is the deep man, and "strong" to refer to the one who typically plays up. With Mattison's—I'm sorry—Michigan's defense these days those terms are becoming such misnomers that we may want to stop using them.
Michigan aligns their safeties to the boundary, not the strength of the formation, so "strong" and "weak" stuff for Michigan's D usually means "field" and "boundary."
Using monuMental's program again. Beyer is at SAM just to avoid Gordonian confusion
With the offense on its left hash the "strong" side is to the field. Here's where you need your more athletic guys who can cover more ground. When the offense is on the opposite hash Michigan flips the personnel:
Everyone knows where to go as soon as the ball is placed, and then they'll move around to match what the offense shows. Whatever the offense may gain from constantly shifting the strength of their formation opposite what Michigan aligns to, the expectation is they'll lose that by squeezing their space.
The front seven isn't so predictable; most often they will align so that the strong side is with the Y tight end—usually the "strong" side of the formation—to preserve the appropriate matchups. However when the formation flips the safeties hardly ever go with it. The coaches have said they want the safeties to eventually be interchangeable, though with such a disparity in makeup between Kovacs and any other guy on the roster the roles have been more defined. The biggest change from 2011 to 2012 was Kovacs did progressively more and more in coverage. You could see it in the dramatic shift in Kovacsian tackles as the linebackers got better.
For the safeties this means the actual "strong" safety will align to the field. He'll have more space to cover and also more guys to deal with. He's more likely to end up one-on-one with a slot receiver. The boundary safety will be more likely to draw a tight end or someone out of the backfield.
What was Kovacs Last Year?
Kovacs was the boundary safety. He aligned to the weak side and usually lined up a few steps closer to the line of scrimmage than did Gordon. Here's screencaps from the first two plays of the Outback Bowl to illustrate:
That's not to say this was written in stone. Two snaps later SC aligned with trips to the strong side and Gordon came up to take away anything short and easy for the slot receiver:
No, the TE is not allowed to line up two yards behind the L.O.S. #SEC #CHEATERS
This screamingly illegal formation was a touchdown as Ryan and Gordon both followed the inside slot. Kovacs took the middle guy's post route and Raymon Taylor ended up 1-on-1 with the outside receiver and got burned.
This is a thing SC did a lot of in order to shift Michigan's defenders out of their core competencies. On the defensive last play of the game Kovacs again ended up the overhang guy where his speed deficiency could be exploited. You know how that ended. They weren't the only ones, though Michigan didn't always react the same way:
Same safety positions: Gordon is the deeper guy on the field side of the ball and the strong side of the formation—the position that's called "FS" on your EA Sports game—and Kovacs is the short, boundary guy that your game would call "SS." Note this time the front seven flipped so Morgan ended up over Eifert and Roh/Ryan were to the side of the Y tight end. So nothing is exact, but even when the formation flipped the safeties stuck to their roles. With the WLB to his side Gordon backed out to show Cov2 and ND ran a counter-right which picked on Clark; the linebackers shut it down.
Simple form: Kovacs was the boundary safety, Gordon was the field safety. What about this year?
What is Gordon This Year?
Sorry Heiko, but I think Gordon is still the nominal field safety. Here's the first snap of the 2013 Spring Game:
Gordon's the field, Wilson's the boundary. Jarrod Wilson has apparently inherited the Kovacs position while Gordon remains what he was. But something has changed. Spring Game play the fifth:
Yeah the front seven is flippy again but the safeties aren't: that is Gordon who has come up over the right TE (Williams) and is telling Wilson to "get back, get back!" Wilson then backed out of the screen. Now, the safeties switched roles plenty last year, but over the course of the Spring Game, I saw Wilson the overhang man more often than not, and this wasn't because the offense was overloading one side or another. I mean, this is a pretty straightforward Ace 2TE set.
So while Gordon's position hasn't changed, his role may have. Kovacs last year would often come down then have a deep cover responsibility. Or he'd be given complicated reads and be responsible for changing coverages on the fly much as an Air Raid offense changes receivers' routes based on what the defenders are doing after the snap. That's because he's Kovacs. The expectation this year is that Gordon will be doing much more of the fancy stuff while Wilson's job on most plays will be to not let anything over his head. The more Jarrod progresses, the more Michigan can have him do the fancy Ed Reed things and the less predictable the defense will be. Wilson may have taken Kovac's position, but for the most part Gordon has his job.
One of these is Jamar Adams, the other Jarrod Wilson (by Fuller)
Here's a little tradition from around these parts that you're not happy to bring back: who's going to be the new safety starter? Yeah, remember that conversation? Remember how it went around picking up all the we-hope-he's-at-least-an-Englemons out of Gibson'ed secondaries?
The best of all that. This last bout of hand wringing finally ended with the best safety tandem we've had in the Cover-2 era. In their two years together Kovacs and Gordon were the first capable pair since Brandent and Jamar, easily the best since Marlin and Ernest, and probably ranked higher than any since Marcus and Tommy or earlier. We can actually chart the stuff since '07, thanks to Brian's Upon Further Review charts (which total up the plusses and minuses accrued in each game into a rough net contribution stat). I've got my UFR database now updated that far (any further and the knowledge isn't really there to make it relevant or comparable). Remember this is a game-by-game exercise that wasn't meant to remain standard across the ages; that said the Chart?-Chart! chart totals for Michigan safeties in these six seasons very much fit your recollections:
|Jared Van Slyke||0||0|
Chart notes: maize is positive, blue negative so that can stand out more. Time spent at the Spur in the 3-3-5 years was counted as linebacker, likewise Brandon Harrison's 2007 at nickel, which was a starting position on the English defenses. I tried to separate Woolfolk's corner games from his safety games; for the record here's the breakdown for 2009:
…when he was obviously a better corner than a safety but as you can see from above, was needed more at the latter.
Still the totals at the bottom tell a story of a moderately positive '07 (Stevie Brown—0/-8/-8 in The Horror) did most of his damage in one game, which itself did plenty of damage to that season), three years of atrociousness, and dramatic improvement under the new staff. If you remember 2010 as worse than '09 that's because the cornerbacks were just as bad. The disparity between Kovacs 2011 and 2012 is easy enough to explain by there being far fewer opportunities for him to make those Kovacsian stops after 7 yards as Michigan faced either Alabama or teams who either didn't test or schemed against him (Air Force, Nebraska).
Also I had to chart The Horror myself because Brian didn't at the time. Thanks Brian.* Anyway the charting says Thomas Gordon (!) was the best safety at Michigan in the last six seasons. Should we be talking about all-conference stuff for ol' Prison Abs in addition to the leadership stuff? Gee, maybe. He had a spectacular spring game, which I don't think many people noticed.
As for what's opposite him Michigan has to find something out of the blues above plus another year of progression.
*Had this been done under modern UFR standards it would have doubled any record for RPS debacles. Just to know I tried doing that, handing out the remainder of expected points for any play that weren't on the players as Brian does in UFR-ing and came out with this staggering figure of +23/-46/-23. RPS is never that much of a variable, except in this game it was the alignment of linebackers, stunts (!), not stacking the box, and not responding to the QB draw even though they only ever ran one play out of that alignment.
[After the jump: Candidates]
Background image by mgouser hillhaus
A thing I noticed this offseason while going over the depth and usage of various Michigan defenders is that Mattison used a lot more nickel than we gave him credit for. One thing Ace noted was that we're (finally) recruiting more cornerbacks. We shrugged a bit while losing two more CBs to playing time transferitis this fall, but I don't think we should be shrugging so much.
A little background (skip this if you already know personnel terminology and usage): Defensive coaches tend to match their personnel to the types of players on the field for the offense, NOT the formation. In general the number of backs and tight ends will be matched by linebackers, and the more that come out for receivers the more DBs the defense will send out. Three wide receivers generally means five defensive backs (i.e. nickel), two wide receivers equals four DBs (e.g. 4-3 or 3-4), etc.
The classic personnel shift is on 3rd and long, when the steady rock-pounders make way for the seven-yards-or-bust fellas. But it happens so often despite the situation that it's more accurate to see the game of matching personnel as another strategic aspect of the master's football game.
The offensive personnel is usually expressed in three digits meaning # of RBs, # of tight ends, and # of receivers, respectively. So 113 means 1 RB, 1 TE, and three WRs. Sometimes they'll call that same "eleven" personnel, referring to the first two digits. Examples below; click embiggerates.
How the matching up occurs is up to the coach. You could, for example, play a run-first OLB whenever a fullback is in, and sub him for a more rangy linebacker when the the fullback runs off the field for a tight end who's a known receiving threat. This happens all the time, but it's hard to track the defenses' reactions since we can't tell one linebacker in a formation from another in UFR. We do have data from which we can determine how many receivers were out there at any given time, and it's clear from these data that the more receivers the more defensive backs.
|WRs in Game||DL||LBs||DBs|
The last row is important because it shows Michigan left its base 4-3 Under set for an extra defensive back far more often than otherwise, usually at the expense of a linebacker. We didn't go to a nickel every time three receivers stepped on the field, in fact there were 22 plays charted where Mattison put his 4-3 personnel against four-wide (mostly against Northwestern and Purdue). But the charts not only say that Michigan was forced out of its base 4-3 set often; it says we played more Nickel downs than 4-3.
|Receivers in Formation|
If I remove 4th quarters and all plays that occurred when Michigan was up by more than one score, the 4-3 just barely edges the Nickel, 147 to 140. This isn't opponents trying to play catch-up. It's two things: the personnel that Mattison inherited, and the spread offense forcing Michigan to adapt to it.
Why all the nickel and diming? The first part is a story about outside linebacker. Early in the 2011 season Michigan played Brandon Herron and Brandin Hawthorne at WILL, while at SAM we lost Cam Gordon to injury and his backup was a redshirt freshman. That freshman, Jake Ryan, was earning his way toward more playing time, but in the meantime we still had Carvin Johnson taking snaps at free safety while Thomas Gordon was in at the nickel role. Watch what happened at about mid-season:
That is Gordon moving to free safety and splitting time with Woolfolk, while the freshmen linebackers had their usages increase. Greater faith in Jake and Des explains some of the variance, however the real story is matching personnel:
|San Diego State||2.51||4.38||1.88||43.21%||44.44%||6.17%||6.17%|
I pointed out the two extremes on the schedule with boldation: Northwestern used about twice as many receivers in their formations as Iowa did, but there was a limit to how many defensive backs Michigan would counter with. The nickel served as well for 4 WR as for 3, yet accounted for 4 in 5 plays. However when the opposition went to 2 WR (Iowa), Mattison could spend a majority of the game in the 4-3.
When Michigan's on offense. Nothing is out of the ordinary yet, but when we turn the tables and show how defenses have reacted to Michigan's personnel it gets interesting:
|Season||Avg. Receivers in Formation||Avg. DBs in Formation||Difference|
This is not including anything when Michigan was more than a score down, but the season averages counting everything say about the same thing. I went through the plays and even a few youtubes and yes, in 2010 they played one-high against us despite spreading the field to pass as much as Purdue. Michigan went bigger in 2011, and got more defensive backs, which is counterintuitive except for one factor: opponents in 2010 really really really feared the running game, and tempted Michigan to pass.
Okie dokie. | Greg Shamus via ESPN
One more table to break this down by Michigan's opponents last year, 4th quarters and two-plus-score leads excised:
|Opponent||WRs in formation||DBs in formation||Difference|
|San Diego State||2.44||4.89||2.4|
Nothing really jumps out except perhaps more spread in close games, and SD State's apparent paucity of linebackers (weird—didn't they just have that guy who recruits lots of linebackers there?) Actually that's Charlie Strong's 3-3-5, and the GERG numbers from 2010 are similar due to the same effect.
What it means for this year. Alabama and Air Force aren't going to be spread it out—their challenges are elsewhere. However the Big Ten schedule is spread-heavy, with Ohio State joining the ranks of the many-receivered. Due to recent attrition, Michigan goes into 2012 with just six scholarship cornerbacks for three positions that will be filled half the time. It's a good thing the coaching staff has four guys coming in at corner to replace the one expected departure. These days, in order to keep up with the Joneses, that nickelback position has to be considered as much of a starter as, well, a third receiver.
The 4-3 is back, like it never sort of left and then really really left against Purdue and then came back and then altered into a slightly different version of itself and then mutated into a bizarre thing that was like the thing against Purdue but wasn't really because the person doing the mutating spent all his time watching his "Best of Just For Men Commercials" DVD. It will not suddenly be replaced by things that start with the number 3 and end with razorblades and pain. In the long term, this is delightful.
In the short term… eh… there might be some issues. This series is an attempt to fit Michigan's noses, ends, spurs, bandits, spinners, deathbackers, doombackers, dipbackers and frosting-covered gnomes into their new homes.
The defensive line appeared last week. This post covers linebackers, hybrids, safety-type objects, and, you know, whatever. There will not be a post covering the secondary since it shouldn't change much [Ed-M: he means in their job descriptions -- back away from the ledge...].
What we were forced to watch last year
God, who knows? Let's go back to that Wisconsin screenshot from the last post:
So. You've got Kenny Demens, the MLB, lined up about a yard behind the nose tackle. The nominal SLB, here JB Fitzgerald, is actually lined up to the weak side. The nominal WLB, Jonas Mouton, is lined up to the strong side and gets to line up a little bit deeper. Michigan compensates by drawing cornerback Courtney Avery into the box as a sort of Bieber-backer and half-rolling Kovacs down into the box. You can see Cam Gordon's feet to the top of the screen, covering the slot receiver.
Questions immediately pop to mind: why? what? argh? This was not really a 3-3-5, at least not one as run by Jeff Casteel. This was covered in an extensive picture pages after Penn State obliterated Michigan's defense in the game that was the beginning of the end, but it seemed like Michigan was keeping Demens in the same place in all formations. Here's 4-3 and 3-4 alignments:
Demens spent his year a yard or two back of a nose tackle, shaded to one side. Casteel MLBs lined up 5-7 yards deep and ran like demons to wherever the play is going; Demens got swallowed by unblocked guards through no fault of his own and left Michigan vulnerable to counter after counter.
And then in addition to the 4-3, 4-4, and 3-4 looks above we also got some glimpses of something that actually looked like a 3-3-5, except with two deep safeties and the MLB still too close to the LOS:
So the answer to the strangled yelps of misery was "Michigan ran everything… terribly."
Outside of Demens, Mouton spent the year as the WLB (apparently unless teams were putting twins to one side), where he ran down stuff, plowed fullbacks at the line, crushed blocks to make great individual plays, and lost contain over and over. The SLB was some combination of Craig Roh, JB Fitzgerald, and Obi Ezeh. All were confused, slow, prone to get lost in space, and ill-suited for the spot.
Further outside yet, Carvin Johnson, Thomas Gordon, and Cam Gordon split time at the spur with the larger Gordon seeming to lock down the position after his move from free safety(!). Yes, Michigan's starting free safety ended the year as essentially a strongside linebacker. Jordan Kovacs's role as a tiny weakside linebacker was actually more safety-ish than people thought it would be, but he still rolled down into the box plenty.
What we were forced to watch the year before
Michigan was a 4-3 under similar to the one above. Here's that shot from the 2009 Iowa game again. While the line isn't undershifted it does provide a canonical example of what the linebackers usually do in the system:
Now we're looking at the linebackers so note that Stevie Brown is lined up right outside of SDE Craig Roh, ready to take on a tight end. The other linebackers are at the same depth (five yards) lined up over the guards. Michigan's rolled SS Mike Williams into the box. Iowa ends up running a zone stretch right at Brown; he keeps contain and allows Mouton/Ezeh to flow over the top of Roh, blow up the fullback, and make a TFL.
There wasn't much else as far as the linebackers. Brown hung out around tight ends and slot receivers all year and the two MLBs were pretty much just MLBs. There weren't dudes at different depths, dudes moving all over the place, dudes playing 4-3 on one snap, 3-3-5 on another, 3-4 on another. The LBs lined up five yards deep over the guards, end of story*.
*[of course this is not literally true, but on the vast bulk of snaps this occurred.]
What can't possibly be quite as bad next year
Again, the assumption here is that Michigan is going to be running a 4-3 under similar to what they did in 2009. This assumption is an easy one to make since the head coach said it point blank. Details on what that means for the line—the "under" bit—can be found in the first post in the series.
As for what that means for the associated linebackers, look above. Against pro-style teams one linebacker will roll down to the TE side of the LOS and the other guys will hang out about five yards off the LOS.
What you need at each spot
To refresh your memory, here's an aerial view of a 4-3 under:
The strongside linebacker needs to be a magical athlete made out of beef and lightning who can take on a TE effectively, contain runs, and move out into the slot to cover little buggers. Oh and if he's an awesome pass rusher that would be cool too. So Lamarr Woodley except faster. Maybe Shawn Crable or Prescott Burgess. Failing that, teams pick one of two paradigms and make do:
Lumbering quasi-DE sort of like Roh who can take pressure off the SDE and do more than just force running plays inside of him when matched up against a TE.
A sort of super strong safety who may not be able to take on TEs except by setting up outside of them but is a fantastic tackler in space and a guy who doesn't have to come off the field when opponents go to spread formations.
When Greg Robinson wasn't denying its existence, the "spinner" was obviously concept #2. Stevie Brown had an excellent senior year doing that. Johnny Thompson was concept #1, and that burned Michigan badly. With passing attacks so effective these days most teams are moving towards #2. If you worried they'll go with #1, don't be: they don't have anyone on the roster who can plausibly be that guy.
The middle linebacker is a middle linebacker. In the under he has to expect more blocks since usually the bubble in the line is the guy lined up directly over him, so he has to be smart about where his help is and funnel guys back inside. Quick decisions and the quickness to get on the side the OL doesn't want you on are at a premium.
The weakside linebacker is a weakside linebacker. He's protected by the three and five tech, usually gets a free run at someone or another, and has to be an athletic tackling machine plus blitzer. Mouton, basically.
Or at least that's the book. In reality it's nowhere near that neat. The Iowa play linked above that shows Ezeh charging downhill at a zone stretch, getting outside of the fullback, and allowing Mouton to tackle is a canonical example of the responsibilities these guys have:
Everyone says the MLB is going to deal with a blocker and the WLB is going to have the play funneled back to him. This is what happens here. But in truth I think the differences between the two guys are overblown. On the losing contain play it's Mouton who needs to deal with a blocker and funnel back to his buddy. Plenty of times throughout the year it was Demens picking through trash to get to ballcarriers or Mouton thundering into a fullback at the LOS.
I think of the 4-3 under as something halfway between a 4-3 and a 3-4. The SLB and WDE are kind of versions of 3-4 OLBs—playmakers who can drop into coverage or blitz. The one-tech DT is sort of a version of a 3-4 NT. He doesn't need to control two gaps, but he's a big guy who needs to eat up two opponents. Etc. In a 3-4 the MLBs are interchangeable. That's not quite the case here but the two MLBs are more alike than different in the under, especially with all the shifting and motion teams employ in an effort to get you off balance and maybe force that WLB to take on a block or that MLB to run. Playing SLB is a different world entirely.
And since it seems silly to break out another post for one position that's changing, the strong safety wants to be Jordan Kovacs running a 4.5 at 220 pounds. What Kovacs did with Michigan last year will be about what the strong safety does next year—the "bandit" thing was overblown. Kovacs played plenty of deep half zones over the course of the season. He also rolled up to the line and blitzed, covered tight ends in man, etc. He was a strong safety on a team that was aggressive with its safeties.
Who goes where
Kenny Demens is the middle linebacker. Attempts to replace him with Obi Ezeh will be thwarted by a pucky band of kids ripping off the Mattison mask, etc.
On the strongside Cam Gordon is the clear leader after finishing the year as the "spur" in Michigan's 3-3-5. That is a very close analogue to the SLB in a 4-3 under. The guy next to you is still a strong, run-defending DE with a little more pop than a 3-4 end. You're still taking on tight ends against run and pass… unless you're getting dragged into the slot. Gordon's got the biggest frame of any Michigan linebacker, ballooning and buried Isaiah Bell aside, and can put on a lot of beef over the offseason to help him in his dual roles as tight end defender and roving punch-the-slot-in-the-face guy. He's got a season's worth of starting experience. He'll have to fight for it but he's got the edge.
This is where the linebacker who wasn't Demens or Mouton probably ends up competing, so seniors Brandon Herron and JB Fitzgerald are tentatively slotted as the competition. Neither has done much so far. Other options here include the other two freshmen spurs, but Thomas Gordon and Carvin Johnson might be needed elsewhere.
Michigan has a surfeit of options on the weakside, where Michigan's attempt to move to the 3-3-5 has left them with a zillion kinda-sorta safeties who can run and maybe, hopefully tackle. Pick any underclassman listed at strong safety on the depth chart by class and there's a 50-50 chance you'll see him competing at WLB in spring. Mike Jones was Mouton's primary backup and seemed to be the leader in the race to replace him, but one season-ending injury later he's just another guy with no experience. He joins Josh Furman and Marvin Robinson in that group. Also, this could be the landing spot for the little Gordon or Johnson.
Some of these guys are ticketed for safety, but we won't know which ones until spring. Robinson and Johnson bounced back and forth as freshmen; Thomas Gordon spent his redshirt year there before getting the call at spur last spring. If you put a gun to my head I'd say Johnson and his tackling win the job, but this could be any of a half-dozen guys.
At strong safety, heroic efforts will be made to dislodge Jordan Kovacs. They will fail. The effort will be provided by some combination of Robinson, Thomas Gordon, and Johnson.
Awkwardness Rating On A One To Rodriguez-Interviews-Hoke Scale
Like the defensive line, operating in a 4-3 makes fine sense for Michigan's personnel. Ironically, it's the exotic wing guys with funny names who fit most neatly in to the new scheme, since they'll be doing pretty much what they were doing before. The biggest adjustment will be from the two middle linebackers, except the two middle linebackers did just fine as 3-4/4-3 guys—Demens, in particular spent two years playing MLB in 4-3 under schemes before last year's experiment.
Really, anything but the 3-3-5, especially the Robinson version, should be better. Michigan had their best day as a rush defense against Iowa when they replaced Ezeh and ran—drumroll—various 4-3s and 3-4s most of the day. Iowa couldn't get anything Jibreel Black being a freshman or Jonas Mouton losing contain didn't give them.
When they went to the bizarre non-stack it allowed Evan Royster to go from massive disappointment to massive disappointment with his usual billion yards against Michigan. In doing so stripped Kenny Demens of the ability he showed in previous games and put a ton of pressure on Mouton to do the contain thing he doesn't do so well. I don't think I'll ever understand it.
After a year of being "multiple" and cratering Michigan needs to establish a baseline defense that might be predictable and medicore but at least gives everyone on the team an idea of what they do, and if Gordon develops they should be fine in the front seven save the scary lack of depth on the DL.