Coaching Clinic Notes: Mattison And The Defense

Submitted by Brian on April 20th, 2011 at 2:12 PM

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-robinson-fail032911_SPT_UM Football Practice_MRM

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.

Mattison's Philosophy

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

  1. stop the run,
  2. 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
  3. 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.

  1. 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**.
  2. 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.])
  3. 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.
  4. 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:


Via Jene Bramel

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.]



April 20th, 2011 at 3:43 PM ^

It's what the 85 Bears (the greatest defense of all time, try to argue with me) ran. Pretty much it's an aggressive defense where you send 6 and man up on the "skill" spots. The west coast offense was the offensive counter to it, quick passing was its downfall

"A hyper-aggressive variant of the 4-3 base set, the 46 dramatically shifted the defensive line to the weak side (the opposite end from the offense's tight end), with both guards and the center "covered" by the left defensive end and both defensive tackles. This front forced offenses to immediately account for the defenders lined up directly in front of them, making it considerably harder to execute blocking assignments such as pulling, trapping and pass protection in general. Moreover, the weak side defensive end would be aligned one to two yards outside the left offensive tackle, leaving opposing tackle 'on an island' when trying to block the pass rush."


April 20th, 2011 at 2:58 PM ^

I can honestly say I feel "safe" with mattison as the DC. I think he knows the ins and outs very well and will make our defense great.


April 20th, 2011 at 3:46 PM ^

Glad to hear the reports on Jake Ryan. The word out of St. Ignatius in Cleveland last year was that he was better than Scott McVey, a supposedly higher rated recruit also at St. Ignats who went to tOSU. They thought Michigan got the better of the two.


April 20th, 2011 at 3:58 PM ^

Loved watching Mattison during the Spring game. He always has that scowl on his face like he's not pleased. He appears to demand perfection. After one of Johnson's interception, he called him over to point out something to Carvin. Ends don't justify the means with GM.

Looks like the plan is to have Martin be the wildcard. He could play any of the postions along the d-line. Hopefully the other guys can be versatile enough (esp. Van Bergen) so Martin can find the mismatch. It's a similar concept to RRod's scheme. Keep the scheme simple and find the mismatch for your playmakers.

NOLA Wolverine

April 20th, 2011 at 4:02 PM ^

Marvin Robinson is the first safety I've seen to come up to the line of scrimmage, stick a runningback, and knock him back. I really hope he pulls it all together to start this fall, having a subdued Jamar Adams would be huge for this defense. 


April 20th, 2011 at 4:07 PM ^

I'm just happy to have Mattison back. 

The only comfort I could think of the last 2 years in regards to the defense was telling myself that they couldn't possibly play any worse.  And I was wrong.

Great post.   


April 20th, 2011 at 4:39 PM ^

should update the positions on the defense in our depth chart wiki link. Maybe we can break down the DT's into DT and NT. We also have the LBs all in one group right now. I suspect that some players are in the wrong spots. For instance, both Kovacs and Carvin are listed in the same safety spot.


April 20th, 2011 at 5:02 PM ^

Where did Mattison get that old school hat with the darker blue, big block-M, and no Adidas logo?  Doesn't look like anything they have available at M-Den or anywhere else selling new stuff.  Did he find that thing at the bottom of the closet or is this something I will be able to purchase in the fall?

True Blue in CO

April 20th, 2011 at 5:47 PM ^

In the diagram of the defensive alignment, I love to see concept that the CB's are only 3 yards off the line of scrimmage versus the 7 yards off the line we frequently saw next year.  Pressure the QB, the ball comes out quicker and less accurate and the CB has a much easier chance for an interception or at least a pass break up.  I truly hope we double our number of INT's next year.


April 20th, 2011 at 6:42 PM ^

Good to see that "Michigan Football" is on its way back.  1997 was the year that forever burned into my soul the essence of this thing which we speak of in such reverential terms.  Smothering, in-your-face, tough defence.  Woodson is still my all time favourite Wolverine.  Offence in those days always seemed to be a side show to the real heart of the game: defence.  Shut the opponent down and all you have to do is score just enough points to win.  Defence wins championships.

The experiment with having an offensive guru run a funky, trendy and "cool" offence that appealed to the statistics oriented computer science and engineering types was ok while it lasted.  It might have worked if they had understood that the heart of what we are about here is defence first. Good people all of them, but in the end, the wrong fit.  They were "system" and "scheme" first guys.  We are a "fundamentals" and "its about shaping young men" school.  The notion of the "Michigan Man" does mean something, an ideal to be striven for.  Scheme and system are secondary.  Great athetes, most of whom became great men, with sound technique are always sought after at the "next level."  Unfortunately we became about installing the system above all else.  And in the end this is not the first time a head coach with a "decided schematic advantage" failed to live up to the hype.

It is good to hear of the return of teaching fundamentals before scheme.  It is good to hear recruits talk about how the staff does not talk about football, but life and other stuff.  Its good to hear how much the young men in the program are buying into the new staff.  It seems that "family values" are back. 


April 20th, 2011 at 7:27 PM ^

Too funny.  I actually had "defense" throughout and went back and changed them all to "correct" them.  My time "south" of the border has messed me up that way.  I still have a bunch of words that I say with a Michigan accent even though I have been back in Canada for over a decade now.


April 20th, 2011 at 11:38 PM ^

This post was awesome. It's also comforting that people  who know much more about football than me also feel encouraged by the progress being made on the defensive side of the ball.