...talks about how UConn hasn't been in contact and how they're out. (HT: UMHoops)
Defense 2008: Five Questions and Five Answers
What does this defense have to do to drive Michigan to wins?
The worst thing you can do in a defense that loves quarterback pressure is to allow the sort of consistent gashing up the middle that Michigan did last year. Any time the opponent had a decent interior line and a between-the-tackles runner it got ugly last year. Michigan State, Illinois, Oregon, Ohio State, and Wisconsin pounded Michigan up the middle.
Those were three losses, a miracle Robot Henne comeback, and a muffed-punt-trick-play victory over an Illinois team determined to give the game away. This is probably not a coincidence.
Meanwhile, the pass defense was excellent, about which more later.
The interior run defense was the third most obvious weakness on last year’s team behind Ryan Mallett’s center exchange and Steve Schilling; repairing that is going to be job one for Scott Shafer.
Can the interior run defense rebound?
Ask Obi. In this reporter’s opinion, Obi Ezeh is the most important player on this year’s team. The quarterbacks are going to be bad, the line tetchy even if Steve Schilling takes a quantum leap forward. Other positions have multiple options and any one player’s failure isn’t that devastating.
Linebacker, however, is short on options and has a potential breakout star. If Ezeh makes a great leap forward he can almost singlehandedly stiffen the entire defense. And he can make that leap forward. Most of his problems last year were mental. He was hesitant, slow to the ball, etc. He was stupid in the ways freshmen are stupid. This is the sort of thing that gets much better over time. He appears to have physical attributes similar to David Harris, blessed be his name. He’s getting the wide-eyed preseason praise that often precedes a big year but sometimes precedes Johnny Sears.
Devoid of onfield evidence, we just have to hope on Ezeh. The rest of it should get better what with the defensive line returning intact minus 20-30 pounds of flubber each and—not to be overly cruel—the replacement of Chris Graham.
So… I think so. All the key actors are back and better.
What can we expect from Scott Shafer?
This has been documented several times before, but to recap: all defensive coordinators, when hired, are reputed to be blitz demons with Brawndo—it’s got what plants crave!—flowing through their veins, all the better to WIN at AGGRESSION. No one has ever been hired and declared his intention to play a soft bend-don’t-break cover two.
But Scott Shafer backs it up. It’s hard to quantify this over the course of his career because the NCAA only started tracking sacks recently. Here’s the transition he wrought on defense (all numbers except turnovers are national ranks instead of raw yardage because of the evil distorting ‘06 clock changes):
In one year Shafer’s aggression shot the Cardinal from 111th in sacks to 11th; the near-doubling of turnovers acquired was obviously related. Quarterback pressure is the one thing that consistently produces turnovers. Shafer also famously turned Western Michigan into the top-sacking team in the NCAA and OLB Ameer Ismail, who no one will confuse with Lavar Arrington, into the nation’s leading sacker.
(I wouldn’t put much into the radical drop in pass defense; the 2006 Stanford rush defense was so unbelievably bad that opponents just plowed into the line for their 5 YPC. Despite playing in the pass-wacky Pac-10, Stanford opponents threw the ball 38% of the time.)
Expect Michigan to use their outside corners aggressively, pressing frequently and daring quarterbacks to try the difficult fade routes that Morgan Trent has been excellent on thus far in his career. On passing downs Shafer wants to deploy an “Okie” defense that’s a nominal 3-4 with safety/OLB types threatening blitz from all angles. The idea is to get opponents into unfavorable down and distance situations, then deny them the time to bail themselves out on third and long.
Steve Brown ack.
I mentioned this a bit in the D preview: people have a tendency to remember and overrate unusual events, especially if they’re traumatic. Steve Brown’s disastrous first foray as a safety was the most unusual and traumatic debut for a new player ever. So we remember the slipping and the falling and all that. That doesn’t necessarily represent his true ability.
What information we have on Brown, from his impressive debut on special teams to his recruiting rankings to the practice buzz, is encouraging. And he ceded the safety job to Brandent Englemon, who was totally functional. He wasn’t stuck behind someone who was struggling.
Brown’s ascension into the starting lineup isn’t cause for enormous concern, IMO, no more so than any new starter at a position where slip-ups mean long touchdowns.
Add it up and you get?
The striking thing about last year’s defense is their lack of suck. This would not be remarkable if Michigan hadn’t ceded 73 points in a disastrous opening two weeks. Look at the conference rankings: second in total defense, pass defense, and scoring defense. First in pass efficiency defense. Fifth in rushing defense. And Michigan missed the worst offense in the league (Iowa).
Some caveats do apply—Ohio State quit playing after getting their second touchdown—but a quick review of last year’s events also reveals two useless Purdue touchdowns, a useless Wisconsin touchdown, and a whole lot of awful Ryan Mallett play leaving opponents with short fields. Michigan was better than its eminently respectable numbers last year.
Now eight starters return (if you’re counting Brandon Harrison, which you should). Many of them are in clearly better shape. Obi Ezeh should be much better, and there’s not likely to be much dropoff from Chris Graham to whoever replaces him on the weakside. My accounting goes like this:
- Better: DT, DE, MLB, CB
- About the same: WLB, FS
- Worse: SLB, SS
That looks like a significantly better defense, especially since strongside linebacker is probably less relevant than nickelback these days. Replacing Crable’s 28.5 TFLs will be tough.
Anyway: I expect a significant bounce in the rush defense, even more sacks, and a defense that challenges OSU for the best in the conference.
BONUS: a quick review of last year’s stupid predictions. This is perhaps the most accurate thing I’ve ever pulled out of my ass:
- 23rd in scoring defense.
Michigan was exactly 23rd last year. But, uh:
- Aw, hell: Brown has a great debut and gets everyone totally excited about his potential. The safeties are good.
This could not have been more wrong, obviously.
On with the variably accurate show:
- Brandon Graham has monster year and departs for the NFL draft after it.
- Ezeh does get much, much better.
- The other linebackers are a persistent issue.
- Trent makes All Big Ten and goes in the second round of the draft.
- Michigan has a top 20 run defense and top 15 overall defense.
- Boubacar Cissoko is fun to say.