Say uaaaahhh [Upchurch]
Last week when I was talking about the position moves—Jake Ryan to middle linebacker, Roy Manning to cornerbacks coach, etc.—I was mostly positive in the analysis portion, explaining the move as a reaction to having their best defensive player at a defensive role that's quickly becoming as defunct as the spinning fullback.*
In the podcast Brian and Ace expressed some heebies and jeebies over the moves. I can't speak to all of those worries; who knows whether Jake Ryan can read run/pass, or if maybe Desmond Morgan's pass defense was a gaping hole the coaches were covering up in other ways. I can't even give a full answer since Brian didn't do defensive UFRs for Michigan's last three games. But I thought we might use the data we have to see whether the strongside linebacker position in Michigan's defense has been phasing out.
Spread level: rising. The vagaries of year-to-year scheduling and missing UFRs may throw off the data but Michigan's opponents indeed have been throwing out more wide receivers in their base sets as of late.
|Average WRs in Formation by Situation**|
2008 was thrown off by teams going uber-spread: Minnesota, Northwestern, Utah, Illinois, and Miami (NTM) all averaged more than three wide receivers on normal downs, the former three going 4-wide more often than not. That's not too surprising given that defense had a plausible 4-3 run-stopping depth chart, but a huge dropoff if you could mitigate the DL and get past Warren and Trent on the CB depth chart. After that things normalized to a spread-leaning mix of 2- and 3-wide sets until last year.
I wish I had complete numbers. I can tell you that next year Michigan replaces CMU, UConn, Akron, Nebraska, and Iowa with Appalachian State, Utah, Miami (NTM), Maryland, and Rutgers. I can use 2013 stats (from cfbstats) to show you the playcalling breakdown of these offenses:
[If you jump first]
|2013 Opponents||2014 Opponents|
|Opponent||Pass||Rush(RB)||QB Run||Opponent||Pass||Rush(RB)||QB Run|
Sacks counted as passing plays above. Of the teams Michigan is replacing on their schedule, only Nebraska made runs with their quarterback a significant part of their offense. In contrast Miami (NTM) is the quarterback-runningest team in FBS, and Maryland and Utah (and Appalachian State) run spread 'n shred offenses akin to Ohio State's.
That doesn't necessarily mean you get rid of the SAM, since holding the edge is a huge deal when stopping an option offense. But the point of the spread option game is to take the playside linebacker out of the running game without having to block him, either by making him the player optioned, or putting a receiver out of the box and thus forcing the SAM to cover him out there (the safety to that side is then the run defender).
This, at least, is my understanding for why Michigan's coaches are trying to get Jake Ryan into the middle of the defense and, presumably, go with a more safety-like object in his former spot. The idea is to put your best guy at getting off blocks at a position that actually takes on blocks.
Nickel and Diming. Many times last season Michigan didn't have a SAM in the strongside/slot area at all. Rather they went to a nickel with 3-3-5 personnel in which the nominal SAM was actually the weakside defensive end, right down to having his hand in the dirt. Michigan's avg personnel (all charted plays) by game are at right. Most games they spent at least half of the time with a fifth defensive back out there.
Ryan spent much of the year coming back from injury and wasn't 100% himself; in 2012 he was an effective edge rusher with his hand down. Nickel DE isn't a bad spot for your best defensive player, since nothing can disrupt a pass play like pressure. From recollection though our nickel defense gave up a lot of first downs right before the pressure got there.
To get more scientific with this I broke out long (3rd/4th down 6 or more) situations and two minute drill plays, broke those into "Win" (got less than 6 yards) and "Loss" (gave up 6 or more yards), and looked at which players Brian tagged as the key to that play. W-L results:
Of course DL are going to chart better—a loss for them is giving up contain, and their pressure metric isn't counted. Corners left 1-on-1 are going to be targeted. I think that 15 and 13 record for the middle linebackers is pretty ugly both in results and frequency, though it's no different than the previous year with Demens. Michigan's success rate on 3rd and long and two-minute drills wasn't any different (about 60% all three years). Most notable actually is how little the SAMs figured into it versus the year before, when Jake Ryan was a high-frequency contributor.
Conclusion: Michigan probably needs more than one Jake Ryan.
* [This position keyed the Mad Magicians offense back in the 1940s. Think of it as 35% quarterback, 35% blocking fullback, and 30% running back. Jack Weisenberger was born to play spinning fullback in Fritz Crisler's offense like Jake Ryan is made to be a SAM in a 4-3 under, but if you have Weisenberger on your team in 2013 you don't make him a fullback.]
** ["Long" = 3rd or 4th down and >5. "Short" = 3rd or 4th down and <3 or any down inside the 3 yard line. "2 Min" = situations where the offense was obviously in hurry-up mode at the end of a half.