Obviously Stribling had a really good spring, Clark had a good spring. What’s that battle like for the no. 2 spot right now?
“Well, all three of them had a good spring: J-Lew, Channing, and Jeremy. Really very competitive throughout the whole deal. We’ll just see how that goes as far as that second spot at corner as you were saying. But there’s going to be a lot of defenses where all three of them are going to be involved, so they all need to compete. Hopefully those younger guys we’ve got in—especially Keith Washington, Brandon Watson, now David Long, Lavert Hill—everybody’s pushing everybody to get better so just to make everybody better. I’m talking about J-Lew, I’m talking about Channing and Jeremy as well. Competition’s what we want back there.”
MGoQuestion: I know last year you kind of split half the field [with Greg Jackson]. Are you doing that again this year or are you working more with the safeties or more with the corners?
“You know, B-Smith and I, we’ve got a little plan together. We’re going to work more together, a little bit more together as far as meetings go so there’s going to be a lot of togetherness because the defenses we play, the communication is key and there’s going to be situations because of so much man we play where we’re going to need—there might be a safety involved in coverage, there might be a corner involved in coverage, nickel corner, safety involved in coverage so there has to be communication. That’s the biggest thing.”
MGoQuestion: How much more important, if at all, is run support from corners going to be this season compared to last season?
“Very important because of our trap system, the system that Don Brown brought in from Boston College. Our corners are going to be very much more involved in the run game.”
MGoQuestion: If we could talk trap for a little bit, how do you coach that for your guys? Is it brand new to them?
“I wouldn’t say it’s new to them. For them, it goes back to high school days when they were playing cover 2, when they were hard corners. Their read has got to be the end man on the line of scrimmage, so it’s really nothing new as far as they have to deal with. It’s just that it’s going to be more often than what they’re used to from I’d say a year ago.”
MGoQuestion: Who would you say is most advanced in run support right now?
“As far as a corner?”
“I’d say J-Lew and Jeremy. Yeah. We’ve got to get Strib more involved physically, but as far as eyes go I’d say they all understand what they’ve got to read, it’s just that those two guys are pretty much in it quicker.”
What do you think those top three guys improved most on from last season?
“I think, number one, their man ability. Big-time improvement. I think Jeremy really improved on his eyes. Strib, same thing with his eyes. Strib had a little situation last year with his feet; I think we’ve got that kind of, I wouldn’t say 100% squared away but little things like that they have worked on and worked on with a meaning. They knew it was something they had to improve on and I think I know that they came away from spring better off than they entered it.”
MGoQuestion: When you’re playing man free, I remember last year you were talking about how important eyes are. What do you teach guys to look at when they’re lined up across from a receiver? What’s the first thing you want them to look at?
“Well, if it’s press, it’s on the belt buckle. If they’re off, which we will be at times, it’s on the inside hip. It’s just belt buckle through the hip throughout the route. It’s pretty simple. Once the ball’s thrown, their hands go up, they know their eyes can go up with them.”
I think Jourdan Lewis has been on every list you can think of as far as preseason lists go. In particular, Pro Football Focus put him as the no. 7 overall player in the country among all positions. Do you think that putting him there is a true rating for him? Is he that good?
“He’s that good. Absolutely that good. He’s explosive, he’s tough, and he covers, so yeah. I think for his position, that’s spot on. Yep.”
[Ed-A: I eschewed labeling the rest of these MGoQuestions because they all are, as the other reporter left and I had a one-on-one talk with coach Zordich]
When you’re playing man coverage and the receiver’s coming at [the CB] and he turns with him, when do you then teach guys to get their hands up?
“As far as when the ball is coming?”
Yeah. Are they watching the receiver and then they put their hand through when--
“As far as when the ball’s coming, it’s belt buckle-hip-through the hands. That’s our little mantra as far as man coverage goes. And a lot of guys, guys like J-Lew, Strib, and Jeremy’s getting to that situation where it’s becoming instinctive. You know, J-Lew has it. He understands it. Strib has it, understands it. Jeremy’s getting it. You know, so a lot of the guys it’s just an instinctive part of their position that they get and understand. Some guys we’ve got to work harder on and teach them, but for the most part it’s an instinctive move.”
Is that something where when the receiver’s hands go up you want the corner’s hands to go up and through before he turns to look?
“Up and through, or pick it off. Right? Yeah. [/laughs] Generally that happens on a longer ball where your hand has got to go up and through. On the shorter routes, we’re trying to either bat it down or, if you can make the interception, go for the interception.”
[After THE JUMP: IT’S A TRAP]
When I talked to Ryan Glasgow back in November after the Minnesota game, he said that he had kind of been able to pick up on how the offensive linemen were standing and pick up some tells whether the play would be a run or pass. When you’re lined up across from a receiver, are you able to pick anything up from them during a game or from watching film? Do they have certain tells?
“Yeah. It’s always about feeling the game and just knowing what they’re going to do. A team always has a gameplan coming into a game, so it’s a script and sometimes they go off the script and then they come back to the plays that they hit you on so you know. You have a feel for what they’re going to do next, so honestly it’s just feeling that, what your receiver likes to do, and just getting in that feel.”
Do they ever tip what route they’re going to run based on how they-
“Yeah. Linemen always tell. The formation is a big teller, and it’s just…yeah, it’s pretty much the feel, honestly.”
You’ve played a lot of man-press this year and you’ve talked a lot about technique, and I know your coaches say it all the time too, that the most important thing isn’t size or speed but is technique. Walk me through that; when you’re lined up in press, what are you looking to do as soon as the ball’s snapped?
“Be physical at the line of scrimmage. Disrupt them. Just do anything I can to bother them at the line. Just being in his hip pocket—you know, that annoys them, just knowing that you’re always there and they don’t have space to move and the quarterback has to put the ball on the spot, so honestly that contributes to incompletions and pass breakups and stuff like that because once you keep getting that tight coverage you know sometime that line’s going to break down.”
What if you have to take a guy a little bit deeper down the field? Say you’re 15 or 20 yards down the field. What’s the technique then?
“You’re trying to push them to the sideline. You’re trying to get them to the sideline, and then you’re trying to stay up under the route and get up in his back hip and turn around and try and look for the ball.”
[After THE JUMP: how to break up a pass and not get burned, a Florida scouting report, and a week of preparation]
I asked coach Harbaugh about the final play in double overtime, the stop-and-go route, and he said that that was something you guys hadn’t repped [that week], wasn’t in the gameplan and wasn’t on the call sheet but was something coach Fisch saw from the box and added. How often does that kind of thing happen where the two coaches work something out that you don’t expect to run but you’ve worked on in the past?
“I don’t know. I’m not sure how often. It probably has been done but I don’t think very often, and I think that the protection was something that we’ve always worked. It was just a slide, you know. Just something very basic, very simple. I think it was just one of those things like if you see it why not take what they’re giving you. That’s just good coaching.”
We talked a little about it [this took place after the presser that ran this morning –A.] but Penn State has two great defensive tackles. What kind of challenge does that present to you when you’ve got a guy to the left who can do damage in the backfield and a guy to the right that can do the same?
“I mean, we’ve gone against them the past few years. Zettel’s a great defensive tackle and the other guy’s fantastic also. I literally always forget his name. I think it’s Hamilton.”
I think you’re right.
“I was gonna say, I’m positive because I went against him last year.”
I looked it up this morning and forgot, but I think you’re right. [Turns out we were wrong. It’s not Hamilton, it’s Johnson. Graham mentioned Hamilton in the media scrum earlier, and after I finished my interview a reporter asked whether Graham was still around; they wanted to tell him he got his presidents mixed up*. –A.]
“He’s also fantastic. He’s a good nose, but if we focus on what we need to improve on and what we need to do with good pads and good hands I think we’ll have a good day.”
What’s the key to that technique-wise? What’s most important when you know you’ve got a guy who can rush the passer as a nose tackle?
“Just not falling asleep on him. You want to make sure you’re always ready to go. A lot of times when you’re playing a nose you don’t expect him to really be able to rush the passer well so you’ll have bad technique or you’ll sort of just be lulled to sleep. He’ll rush the passer badly a few times, just like velcro up to you and then one time he’ll put a move on you, you know what I mean? You just have to make sure you’re ready for everything, and that just comes from studying film and looking at what he likes to do and being ready for it.”
[After THE JUMP: how to do the dead-ball pitch, and full-grown lion vs. bear vs. Houma]
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.]
The following article is a little old but I ripped it out of an Unverified Voracity a little ways back because Steve Sharik posted an excellent diary on what we can expect from the defense this fall and it felt like it would be a standalone post. (BTW: Sharik has posted another diary about the triple option, which Markus from Carcajous(!) has followed up on.)
So the quick/spinner lingo that we've been using ever since Greg Robinson was hired, confusion over which led to commenters on this here blog to coin the term "deathbacker" has been clarified. One term does not exist, and the other one has been superseded:
There’s not much hybrid about the linebacker-safety position Stevie Brown will play this year. Robinson said he doesn’t call the position “spinner” or anything else. “He’s our SAM,” or strong-side linebacker, Robinson said.
There is, however, new terminology for the defensive line. Robinson calls those positions the quick, power, nose and tackle. The “quick” is the hybrid linebacker-end you’ve heard about (Brandon Herron); the “power” is an old-school defensive end (Brandon Graham); the “nose” is your typical nosetackle (Mike Martin); and the “tackle” can sometimes flex out and play end in four-man fronts (Ryan Van Bergen).
Wait, so Stevie Brown is a strongside linebacker? Um. I had assumed he was the weakside linebacker, who is a protected player in a 4-3 under and gets "his meat cooked." (That's how Jeff Casteel described the weakside LB/S in the 3-3-5 DVD I purchased when I thought Casteel was going to be the DC around these parts. The strongside linebacker "got his meat raw," which meant he usually had to deal with a blocker. Those terms have been rattling around in my head for two years now, and now they'll be rattling around in yours. Mwa ha ha.)
A protected player doesn't usually have to take on blockers and can just run to the ball and (hopefully) make a tackle. This fits in well with a converted safety at linebacker, but I'm (and we are, right?) pretty leery about Brown even if he's not taking on blockers every play. This won't make much difference against spread teams—it'll be worlds better than pretending Johnny Thompson can cover anyone—but if Wisconsin and Michigan State don't suck I can see him getting run over consistently. That's assuming they don't make a change for power-running teams, which was an excellent assumption under Shafer (Johnny Thompson third and long what?) but hopefully won't be one under Robinson.
Sharik talks about what he expects the defense to be in the diaries, and it's not a 4-3 under. It's kind of a 4-3 under, actually, but it's flipped:
I assume that Graham will most often be the weakside 5 technique. Not only that, he'll probably be a "wide" 5, meaning he'll line up a yard outside the tackle, angled in at the tackle's nose. This means two things: one, he won't be inside (generally) and therefore two, it will be virtually impossible to double him in run situations. (He'll probably be doubled in pass situations, but that's likely to happen regardless of his alignment. This tends to happen when you are a freak of nature and can make QB's look like Beetle Bailey after an angry Sarge has gotten hold of him.)
Mike Martin will play a weakside shade or 1 technique (usually), meaning those two beasts will be on the same side of the DL most of the time. I would think opponents would run away from those two, which is where Michigan will have a numbers advantage. So, the offense will have to chose between:
A: running at two future NFL 1st round draft picks at DL, backed up by a potential 1st team all B10 middle LB (Obi Ezeh) and a former 5-star recruit at weakside OLB (Mouton)
B: running where the defense has superior numbers
Michigan showed this formation for most of the spring game… sort of. Van Bergen went out early and Graham played sparingly.
Ezeh as a potential first team all-conference player is a considerable stretch, but the rest of it sounds good. In a 4-3 under the deathbacker sits even farther outside the tackle and is used as a freelance sower of chaos a la Shawn Crable; this is something I assume you'll see on passing plays. Having all the hybrids around allows Michigan to flip which side of the line those guys show up on without revealing a personnel change:
The "quick" can play strong side or weak; so can the "spinner." The "quick" can play w/hand down or not. The "spinner" can play on the LOS, at LB depth, or even in the secondary. The "quick" can play on the LOS or at LB depth.
This jives with comments from Van Bergen that he's usually going to be a three-technique defensive tackle but will move out to a five-technique defensive end from time to time when Michigan either goes with a two-gap look (infrequently, IME) or flips the deathbacker to the other side of the formation.
It certainly sounds good. Sharik details the various packages his high school team ran last year, which are customized to the opponent's strength and provided considerable flexibility. I'll be terribly pleased to see a defensive back-type object heading out into the slot against spread sets instead of Johnny Thompson. And opposing teams are going to have to prepare for a multitude of looks. In theory, it's a defensive equivalent of Michigan's offense and when it's had talent in the past it's been excellent.
Whether or not the Michigan defense has "talent" in the overarching sense is yet to be determined.
BONUS HYPE: I've been talking up incoming freshman Craig Roh for a while now, saying that despite his wiry frame Michigan will be virtually forced to use him because of a lack of deathbacker depth. And lo, it is so. Rodriguez on the crab man:
"It’s only been one week, but he’s got some natural ability, pass-rush wise, and we’re teaching him some different things in the scheme of our defense. But I think he could help us at least in a pass-rush mode and then as he continues to learn the defense he’ll do more and more of it."
Van Bergen, meanwhile, says he's "raw" but is a "really skilled" pass rusher. It might take him a couple games but I'd be surprised if he's not a part of the nickel package, and soon. If he's not that means Brandon Herron is way better than he has any right to be.