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.]