Five Questions And Five Answers: Defense 2014

Submitted by Brian on August 29th, 2014 at 3:18 PM

Previously: Podcast 6.0. The Story. Quarterback. Running back. Wide Receiver. Tight End And Friends. Offensive Line. Defensive End. Defensive Tackle. Linebacker. Cornerback. Safety. Special Teams. Five Questions and Five Answers, Offense.

1. CAN WE BE AGGRESSIVE MAN I JUST HAD EIGHT RED BULLS AND I'M FEELING RATHER AGGRESSIVE

I think so! I mean, if they're not radically changing their approach to defense they're doing the best job ever of faking it. They have been in the grill of receivers at the spring scrimmage, at both fall scrimmages, in the practices our insider got to check out, and at the coaching clinic. Either they've wasted a lot of time or the passivity we saw last year is out the window.

Jourdan Lewis:

“We have a new scheme and a lot of in your face coverage … With this new style of play, let’s ball and see what we got. …

“Last year we were a little bit conservative," he said. "We have talent... let’s use it. You put your best against our best and let’s ride out -- lets go get it. That is the mindset that our coaches have instilled in us for this season. Our practices are more intense -- we go hard, we go faster, and our coaches are really pushing us more. It is not just for the starters but for the backups as well -- everyone is getting pushed and that is what we like about it."

This is not a situation where this is meaningless blather from a new defensive coordinator before he knows what he's got. Mattison knows his personnel and this is what he thinks they'll be best at. It's happening.

The upshot: a lot of man coverage, more man blitzes, many fewer cushions, and a lot of pressure both ways. This is in part a reaction to Michigan State's success with an aggressive, handsy secondary, and it will draw flags. Mattison:

We want to be so physical that it is going to happen… you’re going to get a penalty.  That’s going to happen. As I mentioned, I think Coach Nussmeier… I think they might have thrown the ball 200 and some snaps this spring.  We have officials every practice.  I think in the spring we had a total of 20 interference penalties. …

An official calls (interference how many times?)  Is he is going to call seven, eight, or nine times?  It never happens.  We would never let you do that.  So why not be aggressive?  The only reason you wouldn’t is if you’re worried about well, the coach may get mad at me if I get a penalty.  You’re not going to be disappointed with the young man unless he did a stupid thing when he didn’t need to do it.

Michigan took some silly ones in both the spring and fall scrimmages, something that has been expressly tolerated so far. When the live bullets start flying that may not be so easy to let fly—some of the flags were completely unnecessary.

So it will be a work in progress. It is still a terribly exciting idea. We're coming at you.

[After THE JUMP: is this it? Is this the leap?]

2. Why will this be the defense prophesied in the beginning times?

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[Fuller]

Well… I'm not saying it will be. I think there's a good chance, though. For one, this defense was already quite good a year ago, with three prominent exceptions: Indiana, OSU, and Kansas State.

The defense's quality was disguised by the offense, which went three and out a ton, putting Michigan back on the field in bad positions frequently. By the end of certain games they simply ran out of steam. MSU:

But they crumbled at the end.

Yes, the air went out of their balloon after they set up Michigan in MSU territory and the offense lost 21 yards on their last best hope to score. On the ensuing drive, MSU got Bolden lost in pass coverage on a fullback, got a facemask call on a long handoff, and then ended up in third and long, whereupon Michigan got heavy pressure on Cook, leading to a back-foot floated throw as he was getting hit that went over Desmond Morgan's hand by about six inches and went directly to a WR 25 yards downfield.

Sometimes you just get beat. Also, FFFFFFUUUUUUUU.

Be mad about if you want something to be mad about, I guess. Before that [final, meaningless] drive, MSU had 68 rushing yards. I mean… save for some throws Connor Cook made, that game was almost exactly what I expected.

Iowa:

That's 15 drives faced. After 12 of those Iowa had netted 7 points and turned the ball over three other times besides despite Michigan facing consistently awful field position since their offense couldn't move the ball. (If you want you can give Iowa credit for the first missed FG drive; the defense still was kicking ass.) If the offense had gained more than six(!) yards in the second half by the time drive 13 happens, you win and the defense goes home heroes.

Obviously that did not happen. On the final three drives they ran out of steam and Iowa started grinding it in an F-U kind of way: five straight plays on the game-winning field goal drive were zone stretches from a big formation on which exhausted DL just could not prevent Iowa players from sealing them to the inside.

Iowa's first 12 drives netted 260 yards, and with any sort of offense Michigan leaves that game thumping their chests about how they obliterated the Hawkeyes. It was not to be.

From that defense, Michigan lost the two Gordons, Jibreel Black, and Quinton Washington. Oh and Avery and Furman, but… yeah. That's it from the two deep; meanwhile Michigan gets back their entire starting linebacker corps, all of their corners, three of their DL starters, and their free safety. To this add Jabrill Peppers.

Meanwhile, those exceptions:

  • INDIANA: a wholesale tempo failure in Michigan's first game against the hyperspeed offense in Bloomington that should be fixed by Michigan's increased attention to game speed under Nussmeier and the realization that they were just not good enough in this department.
  • OHIO STATE: Michigan defensive tackles and 250-pound quasi-DT Brennen Beyer are obliterated by the best rushing game in the country. Pipkins, Henry, and a ton of DT depth should address this issue while the move to the over helps Beyer.
  • KANSAS STATE: desultory nothing-bowl featuring the backup quarterback in which Tyler Lockett exposed Michigan's corners as not elite and Michigan was unprepared for pop-pass type spread elements.

Two and a half of those issues should be fixed: tempo failures outside of the normal ones tempo imposes on any team, the DTs/SDE, and maybe cornerback, depending on just how good Lewis and Peppers can be. (Spread elements like pop passes are tough to fix in an environment when offensive linemen can go downfield with impunity. That's what Bielema and Saban should have been bitching about, not the playclock.)

3. What is the thing that could prevent the defense from being the prophesied defense?

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needs moar boom [Fuller]

On a defense-wide level the main issue was an inability to get to the quarterback consistently. Michigan was just about average in sacks at 25; to become elite they will need to ramp that up significantly.

Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer have flashed pass rush ability but never been consistently imposing, and Jake Ryan may not be able to reprise his sophomore form from middle linebacker. On the other hand, having a true triple-threat nickel will diversify blitz packages, and a fully healthy Jake Ryan is better than having a still-recovering half Ryan.

But really, it comes down to Frank Clark and Willie Henry. Frank Clark can be electric if he takes another increment forward. Just a little bit more technique and quickness turns Clark rushes from "I flushed this guy" to "I crushed this guy."  Willie Henry promises a guard-flinging bull-rush power to blast the pocket from the interior, easing the DE's jobs and turning more pressures into sacks. A great pass rush has not one but two guys who consistently disrupt pockets. One guy you can move around. Two and you're going down.

I don't know if that'll happen. It might. It might not. Other than that, I'm just like… everything seems in place. I'm not even worried about what happen at strong safety because that guy is going to be headed to the box frequently, so he won't be frequently exposed to plays on which he might give up a 70-yard touchdown.

All the pieces are in place. If they can just get to the QB.

4. Don't you think you're being a little optimistic here?

gauds

You know… it's not just getting a bunch of starters back. Michigan got a ton of backups back as well, and some of them are pushing through good Big Ten players to stake their case. Joe Bolden and Jourdan Lewis must be good, because there is no reason to even talk about them if they are not. Willie Henry is exciting, and he is backed up by Chris Wormley.

At almost every spot on the defense Michigan has a backup who's about as good as the starter. The primary exceptions are FS and DE, where Jarrod Wilson and Frank Clark are irreplaceable. And possibly Brennen Beyer, too. That is not a lot of positions to worry about.

I am slightly wonky about nose tackle, where Ryan Glasgow sits atop the depth chart, slightly worryingly. But again, if Glasgow couldn't play he would be fourth, and if it turns out he can't play they'll shove him down the depth chart. He can probably play.

I am assuming some levels of development based on offseason hype that are outside the bounds of what I would normally project. I am expecting Lewis, Bolden, and Henry to be night and day from last year, and this is a risky thing to predict. But I'm stuck here, thinking what I think even if I know a more conservative projection makes more sense.

So… maybe.

5. Well?

This should be the year the defense kicks ass.

With arrows:

BETTER

  • Sophomore Willie Henry >> Willie Henry
  • Senior Frank Clark > Frank Clark
  • Brennen Beyer in an over >> Brennen Beyer in an under
  • Glasgow/Pipkins/Hurst/Mone >> Black/no Pipkins/vaporware QWash
  • Bolden/Morgan > younger version of same
  • Jarrod Wilson > younger Jarrod Wilson
  • Lewis/Stribling >> Lewis/Stribling
  • Peppers >>> not having a nickelback
  • James Ross > younger James Ross
  • JMFR at MLB > weakened half-season JMFR

SAME

  • Blake Countess == Blake Countess
  • Raymon Taylor == Raymon Taylor

WORSE

  • Delano Hill/Jeremy Clark < Thomas Gordon 
 

Last Year's Stupid Predictions

There is no single breakout player from the WDE spot but overall production there is greatly increased. Clark is pretty good; Ojemudia presses him, and Michigan gets ten sacks out of the spot plus twice that number of TFLs.

Kind of. Clark averaged out to pretty good but was average and then near-great. Ojemudia did not press him much, and the TFL numbers were out of line.

Michigan suffers because they cannot adequately replace Kovacs. Avery becomes the free safety, and is run over a couple times to Michigan's detriment.

It took a while but this did happen midseason after the MSU game, when Furman and Avery were inexplicably inserted and run over. Jarrod Wilson was fine, though.

James Ross explodes into an All Big Ten player.

No. He ran in place, but I attribute a lot of that to the wrongness of the next bullet and what it mean for a guy who needs to be kept clean.

Quinton Washington should be All Big Ten and is drafted in the top three rounds in April.

Nope. Washington's drop off was mysterious and very problematic.

No one really takes hold of the SDE spot all year. It's a sore spot equivalent to WDE in 2012.

    Yes. Beyer playing there at his weight says all you need to know.

Ryan comes back a week earlier than expected and is basically Jake Ryan by November; even before that Cam Gordon and Brennen Beyer make that spot a pretty decent one.

    Ryan did come back earlier than expected but was not really Jake Ryan. Cam Gordon and Brennen Beyer did do a good job filling in.

Michigan gets back to their 2011 numbers in advanced stats, has a top 20 yardage defense, seems to improve noticeably, and remains obviously short of elite.

This was off by the numbers thanks to the offense's inability to stay on the field and injury issues on the interior of the line but I do think they improved noticeably when taken in context while remaining short of elite.

This Year's Stupid Predictions

  • Clark is not quite Brandon Graham but he is very good. Willie Henry busts out in a big way.
  • Ryan makes a ton of flashy plays and in general plays at an All Big Ten level but there are a number of chunk runs that Michigan suffers because he screws up a run fit trying to be a Viking.
  • Peppers has four sacks and seriously cuts into James Ross's playing time. We like him a lot and he is nice to have on the team. He starts off a bit shaky before rounding into a terrifying form midseason.
  • Jourdan Lewis does wrest a starting spot away from one of the incumbents by midseason and has a breakout season himself.
  • Michigan ramps up the aggression significantly. Sacks head to the top 20.
  • This is a top ten defense.

Comments

ND Sux

August 29th, 2014 at 3:54 PM ^

I'm all fired up for this defense, and if they don't live up to the hype, It's BRIAN'S FAULT!  /s

It'll be like that scene in Gung Ho, when the guys call Keaton:  "we just found out there's no raise for 13,000 cars, and we're coming to get YOU!" 

SteveInPhilly

August 29th, 2014 at 4:16 PM ^

After reading these overviews of the offense and defense, I see a real strong similarity with the M hoops team; A roster full of talent that could be a national contender without one gaping hole in the middle. 

For hoops, obviously it is the loss of Mitch leaving us untested options at the 5. For football, it is the question mark on the OL. Everything else for both teams seems great, and it is kinda sad that some bad planning/recruiting and a fluky suspension likely prevented the possibility of a glorious Michigan sports year. Should still be fun, though.

BraveWolverine730

August 29th, 2014 at 4:17 PM ^

Ok if Brian ends up being right and this is a top 10 defense andwe have a top 10 passing offense and the running game goes back to mediocre....That's a 10-2/11-1 squad isn't it? Especially with the Big 10 being not great and ND being so hurt by the suspensions. 

BlueLikeJazz

August 29th, 2014 at 4:30 PM ^

Combined with the start of the season, got me so excited I created an account.

I think 9-3 sounds reasonable, especially because apart from the MSU and OSU games, I don't see a clear loss on the schedule.  But realism compels me to assume one game will go pear shaped in a totally infuriating way.

gwkrlghl

August 29th, 2014 at 11:11 PM ^

This is the first time in some time where there's no obvious glaring weak spot on the D. Everything is somewhere between adequate and elite. The back 7 should be about as good as anyone's in the country. The front four has enough guys who seem to be fine or better that we should be able to get a good rotation out of them. I say top 10 as well

The fact that Mattison has churned out really good defenses in his time here with unit's that are either woefully youthful or playing with large questions marks (or both) that we should feel very comfortable in the fact that he can get this to be a top 20 D at worst with all the talent he has this year

charblue.

August 29th, 2014 at 6:26 PM ^

The good stuff for Michigan this year is the defense, and echoes of the Lost Ark of the Covenant found, meaning the Holy Grail is winning games no one thinks it can against the two heavyeight rivals in their backyard. We all know the difference in meaning those wins make compared to total gloom. 

I am with Brian on the any semblence of offensive punch based on Oline development. I expect nothing, therefore will be grateful for modicum growth. The defense I expect to be Thor-like with Thor being Ryan, and all the other guardians of the defensive galaxy led by Clark, and Mr. Peppers. I assume we will be addressing him as sir by season's end. 

Michigan is too good to not be great, actually. The schedule lines up great for them even if all the biggest games are on the road. Seriously, Michigan fortunes have been advanced during fall camp beyond their wildest imagination, even before they take one official snap. 

If you play Sparty like its for the championship, wjhich it is, then the end game is what it is and always has been. Anyway, the defense takes this team as far as it wants to go this year. And we are along for the ride. Go Blue! More excited about this team than 2006. 

Texagander

August 29th, 2014 at 9:37 PM ^

After all the pessimism this offseason, this preview is a breath of fresh air. I wanna defense that gives up less than 150 points this year.

Frank Clark make it so.

kb

August 29th, 2014 at 9:41 PM ^

is that we need to have a decent amount of interceptions from the secondary. Getting penalties by being more aggressive works best if you have guys that can generate turnovers. MSU got penalties, but the backs had a number of picks to make up for it.