Countess or Lyons: Fight

Submitted by Seth on May 13th, 2015 at 12:00 PM

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I've written in various places, and Brian said again just yesterday, that Blake Countess is a very good zone cornerback who was exposed last year by being asked to do things outside of his comfort zone. Or outside his natural abilities. Or outside the capabilities of a guy his size.

The tape is the best evidence that he's not a fit for the aggressive man-to-man stuff Michigan switched to early last season, and will almost certainly try again this year. The best evidence against it was produced by Countess this spring, when he generated above the usual level of comments for controllable things like his work ethic, his knowledge of the defense, his toughness, etc.

But his size is a thing Blake can't change, and that plus the inability to shut down Tyler Lockett or William Fuller downgraded our hopes for a next-Woodson (leave him on an island) ceiling even before we discovered he's no MC5:

(you forgot to kick out the jams.)

That kind of thing can be mitigated by not lining him up so close—you give up that lock-down mentality for either soft coverage that lets the QB complete short stuff, or puts a safety over the top so Countess can break on that stuff.

Is Countess too small?

His size is below average for a guy who registered a play on a Power 5 roster, though not debilitatingly so. Here's how the CB depth chart stacks up against cornerbacks on all Power 5 rosters from 2010-2013 (#6 is Lyons):

sizedistribution-mich

Bubble size is more guys with that listed ht/wt. Avg height was 5'11", and weight was 183. Year-to-year differences were negligible.

If you need a roster refresher I put the tentative depth chart below-right. Our guys are generally on the line of distribution, with Richardson a wee little dude and Stribling and Dawson (and Keith Washington) on the edges of lankiness. I included Peppers to show just how different he is from most cornerbacks on this level of football, even as a redshirt freshman whose conditioning was hurt by a year of injury.

No. Name Elig. Ht. Wgt.
5 Jabrill Peppers Fr.* 6'1 205
26 Jourdan Lewis Jr. 5'10 176
2 Blake Countess Sr.* 5'10 180
6 Wayne Lyons Sr.* 5'11 190
8 Channing Stribling Jr. 6'2 178
28 Brandon Watson Fr.* 5'11 189
13 Terry Richardson Jr.* 5'7 170
30 Reon Dawson So.* 6'1 175

There were also quite a few teams who list all safeties and cornerbacks as "DBs"; indeed the cornerback sample we did get seems like it wouldn't change much. If you care here's Michigan's expected 2015 backfield rotation against the distribution of one year's Power 5 cornerbacks.

DBs by weightDBs by height

Interesting side-note: Florida's cornerbacks last year under Durkin were the smallest of any school in the Power 5. Using the formula from the chart above, Auburn and Minnesota were by far the biggest defensive backfields—both teams were about 6'0/200 with their cornerbacks. I know Minnesota at least is a man-all-day-long team. Nebraska and Ohio State were top five biggest, Iowa and Notre Dame around there and Stanford relatively big. Michigan was smallish—right around FSU and LSU. TCU was the second-smallest at CB.

Anyway Countess isn't the little guy according to the rosters; Lewis is. Jourdan's game is based on his recovery speed. He is just okay at jamming a guy at the line, but is so fast on a dead run and so quick to change direction that he doesn't have to stonewall his guy.

[Jump for what we've got in Lyons]

Blake isn't unathletic but neither is he so ludicrously physically gifted that he can make that his game. Neither is he big enough to make super-aggressive his life. Here's that distribution chart again with just some of the best recent I figured you'd still be familiar with:

sizedistribution2

Will Likely and Sojourn Shelton are athletic freak-types who are impossible to shake. Darqueze Dennard was one of the best at this. His lightness was a strength because it made him incredibly agile. He was also one of the handsiest, pass-interferenciest guys I've seen off a Pete Carroll team. Receivers could get a release against him, but he had such strong, long arms, and was so sound in technique, that he'd be right on them anyway. The arms also made him tough to block (I remember Jake Butt whiffing on him). I don't think anyone we have is comparable to that guy.

The rest of the man-to-man merchants: big dudes. Super-Watsons plus the speed we've kind of gathered Watson doesn't have. Woodson and the next-Woodsons were that type of player: big enough to reroute you automatically, and fast and agile enough to beat any route by any receiver. We have a guy who's kind of like that but his other skills have him being used elsewhere.

Is Lyons a Bick and Thig Stick-You-in-Da-Nose-Guy?

Let's define what that is: in the Spring Game Brandon Watson—who is listed about the same size as Lyons—5'11/190—lined up about an inch from various Borges receivers' facemasks. Several seconds after the snap, a receiver occasionally squirted out of that area. Watson spent his entire high school career in press man, and showed he is exactly that. He still well within "average" for a cornerback, though on the plus side of weight. Fuller caught him against Da'Mario Jones doing his thing:

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A Lyon in Winter

From the limited video I've been able to find of Lyons (mostly from the ND game) he's not at all a Watson stick-'em-at-the-line type of player. In the Rose Bowl vs. MSU he played field corner and almost exclusively with a 5- or 10-yard cushion.

lyonsoff

This is one he broke up over top on a 15-yard out. State tested Lyons deep early in the 2nd quarter and Wayne stayed in Burbridge's pocket (Burbridge knocked his shoulder at the end to unsuccessfully try to draw a PI).

But on the next play Lippett beat Lyons on a post by yards.

lyonsbeat

Lyons is the guy standing on the 50 yard line by the sideline. He should have been the guy standing in the green guy's shadow.

This was a hard thing to do that Lyons didn't do: the linebackers aren't giving protection underneath, and the Cover 3 means Wayne is supposed to be extra careful not to give up outside leverage. But he gave up way too much inside. You can see Lyons was getting over the sluggo (slant 'n go) so when Lippett cut inside the safety should have come down.

But there was tons of space because Lyons didn't have the quick-twitch to stay close the gap when Lippett cut up. Here's 2012 Alabama star Dee Milliner doing it correctly from my article a few weeks back. Zone coverage isn't just a "do your job" kind of thing; sometimes you have to have the awareness of what else is happening. That's the thing Countess brings in spades.

Later on this drive Lyons did pick up a pass interference in the end zone. It shouldn't have been called because the ball was a good 6 feet above the receiver and really all Lyons did was trip over his feet. This was a thing repeated a few more times as I found video of him, and a thing a Stanford fan site said about him: he's not a crazy athlete and this tends to screw him up right when the ball is arriving, drawing flags or missing a rake-out; but he has the straight-away speed to be there.

The other thing Lyons seemed to do well was the thing Stanford does particularly well: tackle in space. Other than that he seemed to be about Countess's speed or a bit more, and minus the uncanny understanding of coverage that Blake used to create this:

Don't get me wrong: I love that Michigan picked up Wayne Lyons—the first backup for a top five defense is a huge asset to have for what we're hoping will be a top five defense, and it's not like Countess (should he win the job) and Lewis could play every down. I do think a senior version of Countess is better than previous iterations of Countess, and that even his weakness will be less glaring, though it's doubtful Michigan can deploy him to his strengths when the rest of the defense is moving away from them. If watching Lyons changed anything it's that Countess is probably a surer bet to start with, since he's got the defense down as well as anyone on the team while Lyons is just now allowed to officially call himself a Wolverine.

I think from the tape and makeup of these guys that Michigan's defense should play a little softer on the boundary side than they did last year, and/or give them more safety and linebacker help. I don't believe that Lyons is going to be the press-man guy Michigan tried to have Countess be last year. I think the defense will be fine anyway.

Comments

Lanknows

May 13th, 2015 at 12:34 PM ^

We have a new coaching staff, so doesn't the "he's got the defense down" argument fall by the wayside?  Sure, there's going to be some schematic overlap with Mattison retained and Hoke-Harbaugh vision-consistency, but Lyons is coming over from a Harbaugh-inspired system at Stanford under Anderson who is (VERY) closely tied-in with Harbaugh. To me, it's not clear that being an incumbant is that meaningful in this context (likewise at QB).

It's a fun offseason topic I suppose, but I'm not sure that it matters too much.  We'll often (mostly?) play with 5 DBs and there is a good bit of positional flexibility:

Lewis:  Pure CB

Countess:  CB/Nickel

Lyons: CB/S

Peppers: Nickel/S

Wilson: Pure S

If you're talking about 5 guys the odds are that one of them will miss snaps at some point this year and then circumstances dictate who plays. It's unlikely we're talking pure meritocracy by midseason.  To me, it's less about Countess/Lyons and more about if one of the Thomas/Hill/Clark/Watson/Stribling group is ready to make a leap and push one of the above out of the rotation.  But hey, I'm a guy whose not willing to call a sophomore who has barely registered an impact play the most important guy on the team...

Great info and graphic on CB size Seth!

Reader71

May 13th, 2015 at 12:59 PM ^

Yes and no. Trends more to no for defensive backs.

Countess seems to just understand coverages better than most. There are only really a handful of coverages that a defense can use. If he gets them, no coaching change will be too much for him.

DBs aren't as involved in the run fits or the exotic blitzes that differentiate DCs. And defenses usually run far fewer individually diagrammed plays than offenses. DBs are probably the least affected players under a coaching change -- unless they switch from a zone to a man team, which we probably aren't doing.

Lanknows

May 13th, 2015 at 1:31 PM ^

You are saying that experience and awareness matter more than scheme for a DB.  If so, the edge goes to...tie.  I don't think Lyons is going to be suddenly lost because he's wearing blue instead of white.  Both guys are coming into some degree of change. Both will have a clean slate with the new staff and a wealth of experience to build off of.

I'm not saying I know who the better player is (my instinct is to favor Countess and view last year as a blip), but I don't see an advantage inhernt to Countess having been on last year's Michigan team instead of last year's Stanford team.  He may have some advantage in that he was here all Spring, but that'll fall away quickly IMO. 

...It may also be worth considering that Lyons' Mom is essentially on staff.  I don't think it will decide anything but you have to think Lyons will get a fair shot.  I wouldn't be surprised at all if he ends up getting the most snaps at safety (with Peppers playing closer to the LOS as the proverbial hybrid space player).  That makes more sense to me than Lyons bumping Countess out of the rotation.

dragonchild

May 13th, 2015 at 12:51 PM ^

You don't want to play a man/zone hybrid (it screws up the assignments), but I do think Countess is one of our best CBs if he's put in a position to do what he's GOOD at.  I know Durkin's all-in on press man but Countess is a hell of an asset to leave on the shelf.

So, we're not going all-zone to accommodate Countess, but how would any of you guys use him?

Magnus

May 13th, 2015 at 1:01 PM ^

I know it's not easy to sift through video of Stanford just to find a play or two involving Lyons, but I'm not sure that play #2 where Lippett beats Lyons is that significant. Stanford is sending a blitz there that leaves the short zones undermanned, and nobody gets underneath the post by Lippett. The only guy anywhere close is the OLB who backed off the LOS at the snap on the zone blitz. I can't tell who it is, but that guy's standing in the middle of nowhere while it's a very simple post route for MSU. Cover 3 isn't very effective if your underneath defenders don't increase the difficulty of hitting the guys on intermediate routes.

readyourguard

May 13th, 2015 at 1:54 PM ^

I agree.  The right safety (from the D perspective) bailed out at the snap.  He didn't need to based on his alignment and the fact that there was only 1 receiver to his side..  To make matters worse, he bit hard on the  corner route fake.  If you watch the other safety, he squats at the snap.

 

Jonesy

May 13th, 2015 at 8:43 PM ^

Hurry and change the conclusion to say that Lyons is the obvious choice to win the battle to make us all feel better about losing Countess.