Weak Links And The Destruction Of Everything

Weak Links And The Destruction Of Everything

Submitted by Brian on January 20th, 2010 at 3:00 PM

Pro Football Reference has a post up that's the flipside of an equilibrium concept that Chris Brown of Smart Football has pushed a couple times. Brown's idea is that you should pitch your playcalling so that you are gaining the same number of yards whether you pass or run*. If you've got a powerful run offense and a crappy pass offense, "balance" is running enough for your passing game to be an effective freak occurrence. Think Georgia Tech of late.

On defense, though, you aren't given the option of what to run. The equilibrium is forced on you by the opponent, and if you're just terrible at one thing you don't have the option of usually calling the other thing. This is most clear when teams have just terrible rush defenses, like Stanford a few years ago. This is interesting but not directly relevant until this section:

Defenses are like chains: they're only as strong as their weakest links (for the flip side to this argument, see Brian Burke's article that offenses are like chains). Picture an unbelievable run-D teamed with an awful pass defense. That defense isn't going to be very good, as almost every team in the league could pass on them all day long. Flip the script, and nearly every team could control the game with power football against a defense that can't stop the run. On defense, if you have a weakness, almost every opponent can exploit it.

What's this offensive flipside, then? There is math integral to the post that doesn't need to be repeated here, but let me reassure you that there was consideration and multiplication before Burke arrived at this point:

So, in a very simple way, a passing play is like two chains under strain. One chain is the pass protection, and the other is the pass defense. Each link is a player vs. player match-up, and it has its own probability of breaking based on the abilities of the respective players. The first chain to break loses.

Can you imagine a football team with a starting player who is a point-failure in nearly every play? He'd be a lineman who always gets beat by a pass-rusher or a defensive back who always gets beat by a receiver. It would be ugly. …

So far, I’ve left out the most important player. The quarterback has to see open receivers and throw accurately to make big plays. He has maneuver in the pocket, and scramble from pass rushers. The QB is a big wildcard in my chain analogy.

Sweet hot Jesus in a pickle bun.

jordan-kovacs-vs-michigan-state nick-sheridan

While the above-pictured players are fine young men headed for productive lives, they share two traits: they were starters at Michigan and they were underclass walk-ons at the time. Sheridan was honorable mention all-conference in high school.  Kovacs had just rolled in from an open tryout and the defensive coordinator thought he was another anonymous walk-on. And the thing about Kovacs is that I'm not sure he's the guy pictured here if he's got a scholarship. If we cast away notions of who's going to school for free and who isn't, Mike Williams or JT Floyd or Boubacar Cissoko could just as easily been featured in the uncomplimentary photo.

The crotchety variety of Michigan fan—correction, all Michigan fans are crotchety these days: the crotchety and impatient variety of Michigan fan—likes to point to the recruiting classes under Carr as evidence that Rodriguez should be on the first trash barge out of town. What ho, a graph!

2009bargraph_medium

There is also a table in that post in which various teams finish a lot better than you'd expect based on their recruiting rankings because Illinois is five spots lower than they should be and Michigan is eight. Last year they were nine back. The charts strongly support the idea that recruiting rankings matter. This is a strong surface-level case for strapping Rodriguez to a donkey, putting the donkey in a catapult, putting the catapult into a rocket, putting the rocket into another really unbelievably large catapult, and firing the whole mess into the sun.

Anyone who's read this blog since the wheels fell off in the Utah game can probably recite counter-arguments to the whole catapult nesting doll idea in their sleep. Hell, MGoBaseballCorrespondent Formerlyanonymous provides a link to Misopogon's definitive study of Michigan attrition in the very comments of that post. If you were to revise the recruiting rankings by hacking out everyone who is no longer on the team and weighting the remaining players by age, Michigan would plummet.

Your personal agony is reminding you that they wouldn't dip to Indiana's level or explain the terrible in-conference numbers the past two years, and it's correct. Even a hypothetical attrition-and-youth adjusted recruiting ranking probably wouldn't see Michigan dip much farther than the middle of the pack. So Rodriguez should still be strapped to a donkey, catapult, etc, even accounting for the raw hand he's been dealt? Maybe, but Michigan had four to seven reasonable receivers last year. They had a decent backup or two on the offensive line. They went four to five deep at running back. A lot of the reason Michigan would be in the middle can't get on the field without other bits of it coming off.

Meanwhile in the secondary, they had two players who were anywhere near competent. This was because the roster had exactly four scholarship defensive backs who weren't freshmen after Boubacar Cissoko got the boot. Unless every single one of those players was good—and at least two were run of the mill three stars—Michigan was going to be facing down trouble. Since two of the scholarship players were really, really bad, Michigan had the mother of all weak links, and the defense collapsed. The year before Michigan had the mother of all weak links at quarterback, and the offense collapsed.

What pockets of hope still exist in the Michigan fanbase mostly rely on Rodriguez's stellar performance at West Virginia and struggle to understand how a guy who was so brilliant there can be so stupid here. By no measure has Rodriguez met even the modest tasks his supporters retroactively set after it was clear how ugly it was. And it's hard to see the defense improving when its three best players are off to the NFL.

This is the hope: last year's weak link was a disaster and 2008's weak link was a disaster and Rodriguez is bringing in three cornerbacks and three safeties and getting two redshirt freshman at his disposal and there's no spot on the roster that looks as utterly bereft of hope as quarterback in '08 or the secondary in '09. When Tate Forcier came in and played like an average freshman—which is to say not very well at all—the offense went from worst ever to passable.

Football is a game of weak links, and Michigan has had downright vaporous links at position groups the last two years. This is the tenuous hope: that no walk-ons play and no group is a white-hot nuclear Chernobyl. If that comes to pass Michigan will be at least mediocre; if it doesn't then it'll be an offseason of knives.

*(Passing gets a risk adjustment built in because turnovers are more common on passing plays, so you're actually aiming for a point where your YPA is about a yard or so better than your YPC.)

Unverified Voracity Pulls Around

Unverified Voracity Pulls Around

Submitted by Brian on October 21st, 2009 at 4:00 PM

Programming note: the Martin news and AD search was clearly more important than slapping up half of the Delaware State UFR, so both halves will land tomorrow.

A couple AD clarifications. The thing about Dave Brandon politicizing the AD position was not meant to suggest a staunch anything couldn't run the department—Bo, good God. The thing is: Brandon almost made a run for senate the last time around and is considering a run for governor. If he's got political aspirations he'd have to resign to pursue them, and Michigan would just be at square one again.

Molk to return. It sounds like David Molk will return to the lineup against Penn State:

"Medically, everything has been cleared for him to go to practice, so I think it is just a matter of how comfortable he feels with that and getting back in action," Rodriguez said. “He really hasn’t done much football wise. He did a little bit last week, but nothing with full pads so tomorrow will be the truer test as opposed to today."

Moosman would slide over, leaving Huyge and Dorrestein to fight it out for the last spot. Everyone else is on track to go, with Forcier declaring himself "100%" yesterday. To steal some of Tim press-tweet thunder:

Molk healthy, will start at C. Moos to RG, Dorrestein or Huyge at RT // CBrown, Tate healthy. RB starter depends on Minor's health and play selection. Minor's injury day-to-day.

Everyone's full-go, then, except Minor, and that's just life with Brandon Minor.

Down, pull, tomato tomato. So that play that Michigan got burned on a few times against Eastern Michigan and exists as the staple of the Michigan State rushing offense has been called at least two different things around here. Steve Sharik calls it "Down G" because the line blocks down and a guard pulls around.  I've tended to call it "power off tackle" because it's a power run that usually goes off tackle. Chris Brown splits the difference, calls it "Power O," and breaks it down in the usual clear language that teaches you something:

The lineman to the side the run is going (playside) essentially “down” block, meaning they take the man to the inside of them. For the guards and center, that includes anyone “heads up” or covering them, but for the playside tackle, he does not want to block the defensive end or other “end man on the line of scrimmage.” These lineman use their leverage to get good angles to crush the defensive lineman, and the fact that they don’t have to block a couple of defenders on the playside frees them to get good double teams and block the backside linebackers. To use Vince Lombardi’s phrase, the idea is to get so much force going that direction that they completely seal off the backside.

There are four or five additional aspects to the play and accompanying cut ups. Every once in a long while Michigan will run this, but not often; usually they just zone to one side of the field or the other. They did bust it out a couple times against Delaware State; they use it as a short-yardage play. (As opposed to DeBord, who loved running the stretch on third and short.) They tried it on the goal line once but Vincent Smith didn't get the memo and ran directly into the space the pulling guard had vacated.

If they do run it in non I-form short yardage sets in the future, I'd expect it would be from a set featuring Robinson and Minor in the backfield.

Michigan gets exposed to this play on defense a ton, though, and the key to it is for the unblocked defensive end to prevent this from happening:

First, the fullback (or, more often nowadays, some kind of H-back or other player) is responsible for blocking the otherwise unblocked end man on the line of scrimmage (”EMLOS”). He uses a “kick out” technique, simply meaning he blocks him from the inside to out, in order to create Lombardi’s famous “seal” going the other way.

EMLOS: football jargon or the cybernetic virtual intelligence gone awry that you must defeat to save the station and turn the zombiefied crew back into humans?

Er. Anyway: the defensive end has to get inside that block. If he does this he almost always turns the pulling guard into a useless hunk of meat stuck in the backfield and then "spills" the play outside, where an unblocked linebacker should have an easy time stringing the play out and tackling for a minimal gain. At least in theory. Michigan's done this a lot this year and sometimes the linebacker has not made the easy play on the outside. Por ejemplo:

That's JB Fitzgerald there but Mouton has also done that more than once. Not recently, though, so that's good.

Not exactly making a sandwich with someone else's cheese. I guess this qualifies as trash talk, but it has a decidedly Victorian air to it:

“I think we feel like we’re the better team and we can go out there and still beat them," Royster told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for a story published Tuesday.

Not one but two qualifiers there. Graham in response:

“He’s just going to have to show it,” Graham said on a teleconference. “We’re going to come. They better come hard, cause we’re coming. I just don’t think they really know. How much preparation and how much we’ve been waiting for this game since last year. If he feels pretty confident, they better prepare. That’s all I have to say.”

Good show, Mr. Graham. Your delicately phrased bon mot will be the talk of the salons this day! I daresay the viceroy's daughter may even catch wind of it and permit herself a lady-like titter. Write her a letter confessing your affections, but beware her devious half-brother's designs on the throne—and milady's heaving bosom!

Stat abuse. I mentioned the huge swing in Michigan's statistics after the Delaware State game in the game column; Ace has a fuller breakdown over at his site. My favorite line in the table is Zoltan & Co jumping from third in net punting to second on a day with no punts. More drastic than even the huge jump in offense rankings are some of the individual statistics. Denard, welcome to the realm of the statistically viable:

Denard Robinson’s season (and, therefore, career) passer efficiency rating skyrocketed from a paltry 55.39 (for context, the 100th best qualifying passer in the country, Clemson’s Kyle Parker, has a rating of 106.55) to a very acceptable 131.83 (which would qualify for 54th in the country, just above Northwestern’s Mike Kafka). David Cone’s season rating went from 0.00 to 150.72.

Meanwhile, Michigan has been outgained in four games against BCS opponents.

Understated positivity, also ROOOOONEY! You probably have no idea who Martin Tyler is unless you're British or have FIFA 200X, but even if you don't you have to understand this is good news:

SI.com has learned that Martin Tyler, the venerable British announcer who was voted the FA Premier League Commentator of the Decade, has been hired by ESPN to be the lead play-by-play voice for the network's English-language coverage of next summer's tournament in South Africa. The formal announcement is expected this week.

Guess who's not watching the 2010 World Cup in Spanish? This guy. This is going from Pam Ward and a howler monkey that spends 90 minutes screeching your embarrassing personal secrets to the world to Keith Jackson and a somewhat annoying Irish guy. The guy behind this delightful turn of events is the improbably-named Jed Drake, and he's possibly signaling a shift in ESPN policy away from "let's try to make Brian stab the cat":

"After the ['08] Euros we said, 'OK, let's take the presumption that we are going from scratch and start looking at those who can contribute at the highest level to our ongoing efforts in the world arena of football," said Jed Drake, ESPN's senior vice president and executive producer, event production.

Yes. Yes please.

Etc.: Cinci radio stations are getting uppity re: OSU. UMHoops interviews John Gasaway, the artist formerly known as Big Ten Wonk. Chuck Klosterman's new book is excerpted on Page 2; Michigan zone readin' it against Minnesota is a jump-off point for a Klosterman discursion into life, the universe, and everything. It probably says something uncomplimentary about me that I thought Klosterman's description of the play was irritatingly inaccurate in an article where Klosterman apologizes for the excessive football detail four or five times, even inviting readers to skip ahead.

Imbibe This Terminology

Imbibe This Terminology

Submitted by Brian on August 20th, 2009 at 12:53 PM

mike-martin 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.