Coaching Clinic Notes: Mattison And The Defense
A guest post from Craig Ross, who took in the coaches' clinic this year, as he does most years. If you're not sure what "technique" means or the basics of cover X defenses the UFR FAQ should be of some assistance.
Greg is not impressed, GERG
On a personal level Mattison is charismatic and impressive. I can’t imagine that he won’t be a absolutely great recruiter. His enthusiasm is manifest. He isn’t a defensive personality (I don’t mean football defense) in the slightest. Media guys kept asking him about his salary (incredibly rude, I thought) and he just said he didn’t want to talk about. Not mean. Not tired. Not nasty. Just matter of fact. But after the second “no,” these reporters got it.
Unlike GERG he has patience with questions, especially football questions. GERG wanted little to do with the press and had no patience with anything resembling a football question. [I asked whether he would be playing “one or two gap” a couple of years ago. He looked at me like I was crazy (maybe I am/was, probably the question was idiotic) but he responded (and repeated himself) with “Let’s just say by the end of the season you’ll be happy with our defense.” Uh, well, not exactly.
I don’t want to beat on GR. The media can be pretty awful and he had a right to some disinclination to talk about anything other than superficial sound bites. But even in coaching clinics he seemed loathe to talk about defensive structure, which he perceived as overrated (maybe he is right). His obsession was technique, notably tackling technique—stunning given what our defense did the last two years. But Mattison is a whole different deal. He gives smart questions their due. He gives sloppy questions more thought than they probably deserve. And, yeah, he isn’t above the ordinary sound bite to the ordinary sorta-non-question.
The Ravens were a 3-4 team until Mattison took over the defense. In 2009 he changed the Raven to a 4-3 look and there is every reason to believe he will attempt to mimic the success he had in Baltimore. Mattison’s overall philosophies are
- stop the run,
- take away the offense’s best receiver (I assume this means the D may tend to roll a bit to the best WR’s side of the field), and
- keep the defensive formations stable but mix pressures and coverages.
Mattison will run a 4-3 with some nickel as a primary defense*. He was adamant about four things.
- Martin (or any NT) will never play right over the center, zero tech, that he will be shaded into the A gap, even if slightly**.
- He always wants four guys down. Always. He said “If I have to limp in there we are playing 4 guys on the line.” (A couple of times in the spring game it looked like we had three guys down. Reviewed this. On play one he had Big WC at NT and Mike Martin standing up on the edge. Denard breaks the play for 55 yards. Of course, we did have 4 DL in the game so he didn’t violate his abstract principle. Also, as noted, against spread looks he went with three DL. [Ed: my impression was that these sorts of games were reserved for passing downs, when run soundness goes out the window and you're just trying to hassle the QB.])
- GM prefers (strongly) that the defense generally have the same look. He stated that his defense will not “stem” into different looks. That said, he wants the defense to have variations out of the singular defensive formation.
- As every coach on the planet says and means, he wants the D to pressure the QB.
Mattison stresses that he has been left with attentive kids. He talks about their seriousness, that they have behaved and been supportive of each other. Unlike Borges, who spent a lot of time looking at last year’s offense, Mattison claims he did not watch “one minute” of last year’s tape. (I wish I hadn’t.) There are two reasons for this. First, he didn’t want to bias his impressions of the players. He preferred that he and his staff make their own valuations, as opposed to those that accrued in a different system. Second, he was going to run a different system anyway. Looking to last year’s model wasn’t going to provide any information likely to have value.
This is a treacherous judgment—my understanding of the lingo may hamstring my perceptions—but it looks to me like Mattison will to use a 4-3 under as his base defense. The NT will be shaded into the A gap toward the TE, the defensive end in 5 technique but slightly shaded to the outside, and the SAM lining up near the LOS outside of the tight end, assuming there is a TE on the field. On the weak side the tackle will be in 3-tech and the rush end will shaded slightly outside of the offensive tackle***. Basically this:
I think Michigan will look like this a lot but the black “elephant”—the rush end for UM [ed: around here we called it Deathbacker when Greg Robinson was trying to use that guy as in coverage more]—might be a bit closer to the tackle. Mattison’s drawing also had the Mike (Middle LB) and Will (Weakside LB) slightly more shaded to the TE. In the diagram above the Mike has the strongside B gap and Will the weakside A gap. The Will just has to make sure his gap isn’t threatened and then can flow to the ball.
Coverage: The field (wide side) corner and safety will often play “quarters,” while the other safety will be responsible for half the field. [ed: This is also known as quarter-quarter-halves. It's a cover three that splits the field unevenly. Hit up this Smart Football post for more detail—look for the first diagram with color in it.] If there is a receiver to the boundary (short side) that corner will squat, but if there is no WR he may have a “fire” read, rushing the passer or having weakside run support.
A couple variants: A primary variation of this will be the DL all slanting to the weak side of the formation, the Mike and Will dropping into hook and curl coverage, with the corners and weakside safety splitting the field into thirds and the strong side safety having responsibility in the flat. Note that this comes out of the same 4-3 under look. I assume, on this choice, the Sam (Strongside LB) has edge integrity and the Mike and strong safety have primary run support to the play side.
Mattison didn’t mention the 4-3 over but they definitely played a bit of that in the SG. In that the NT shifts to a shade into the weakside A gap and the linebackers are more balanced. I have to look back at the tape some---pretty sure they played a bit of it, at least late in the SG.
It also looks like they will play some “Bear” defense, bringing the Will down into the gap between the End and the SAM. In such instances he said they will always be in man defense, they won’t try to zone. Mattison also stressed that “setting an edge” to the defense is always important and on their base defense that’s up to the Sam on the field side. He said this was “a huge deal.”
In terms of personnel note that Troy Woolfolk and JT Floyd were out in the spring, as was Kenny Demens. In a surprise Marrell Evans started with the ones (I didn’t know he was on the team until 10 days ago) in the Spring Game. Herron was there, too. Herron was shucked by Cox on his long run. I thought Evans played pretty well.
Tony Anderson and Avery both played pretty well at corner (or was this just the weakness in our passing game?) so with Floyd and Woolfolk healthy in the fall, there should be a lot of competition there.
In a huge surprise to me, I saw some really good play from Greg Brown—at corner—in the last Saturday scrimmage [ed: ie, the Saturday before the spring game]. This was mentioned by the coaches, so it is not a secret or my insanity. Brown did give up the TD near the end of the spring game but he was in great position and just misplayed the ball. Right now Carvin and Kovacs are running with the ones at safety, but Marvin Robinson is going to be a monster if he can learn the D. Parents of a player mentioned this to me, that Marvin had the chance to be awesome, once he steps up his understanding of the playbook. Josh Furman made a couple of plays but I didn’t focus on him so I can’t evaluate his play yet. Marvin made numerous big plays in the last weekend scrimmage.
The DL looks set with Van Bergen at DE, Roh at rush end, Big Will at the three tech and Martin at NT. However, Martin was moved around a bit in the SG so I have to look at the tape of that. Depth is thin, but I saw some good play from Black (inconsistent, but flashes), Wilkins (big plays in the SG) and the other Will (Heininger) who has been moved inside to NT.
The LBs were Jones (Will) and Cam Gordon (Sam) and I thought they did OK. Jake Ryan just stood out on the last scrimmage (with the 2s)—he made play after play—and he did the same thing in the SG. He was a way under the radar recruit but he really looks like he will be a player.
This was the worst defense in the history of the galaxy (maybe not universe, there may be a planet where some team was worse) last year so I am surprised by what I saw this spring. It was a more ordinary spring--- the UM defense making the offense struggle to get any run game going (except for Denard), though maybe two big plays were broken by the RBs. I predicted before the SG (based on the prior week’s scrimmage) that this would be an average or above average defense. I still think that. Something in the back of my head thinks it might even be an “almost good” defense but I suspect this is delusional. Now the coaches seem nervous. Mattison was unhappy after the SG but they sure seem ahead of anything I have seen for a few years.
*[Editor's note: given how much we saw Thomas Gordon in the spring game I'm guessing the nickel will be the base defense against spread looks.]
**[During the spring game it seemed like were pretty close to a zero technique at times, something he seemed to disavow. From the endzone, where I sat, there always seemed some shade. But on the Tivo of the game (from the side) of course, it seemed like we had a NT in zero tech every now and then. I reviewed it. Seems like this was when the offense was in a spread, when GM went completely odd with a 3 man front—as George Halas suggested against the single wing.]
***[Mattison is concerned that too many rush ends tend to get too wide as they attempt to speed rush the tackle. He thinks this is too easy a mark for an offensive tackle unless the end is a blur. He wants him closer to the tackle. He especially wants Craig Roh to not get too wide, allowing him to probe in either direction.]