More On Next Year's Front Comment Count

Brian February 8th, 2012 at 2:12 PM


no pressure, Ondre

As part of the run up to the Super Bowl, Smart Football posted a Grantland article detailing the Patriots' defense. It's not much good at football, that defense, but it is pretty interesting from the Michigan perspective for two reasons.

Reason one: it provides an excuse for Chris Brown to talk about techniques in an easy to understand way.

"Gap" refers to the area between offensive linemen. A 1-gap technique is just what it sounds like: The defensive lineman lines up in front of the gap he is responsible for and his job is to attack and control it. If nothing else, a defender must not allow a runner to go through his gap. While defensive linemen attack their gaps, the linebackers behind them are responsible for their own gaps. These are the defense's "run fits," meaning how they fit into an offense's blocking scheme to take away running space.

Diagram 3
Courtesy of Chris Brown

The 2-gap technique, by contrast, sounds physically impossible. How can one player occupy two separate gaps? He does it by controlling the blocker. At the snap of the football, a two-gapping defensive lineman does what Wilfork did to Birk. He leads with his hands, gets leverage on the offensive lineman, and takes control of the blocker. From there, the advanced techniques kick in. On run plays, the defender reacts to where the blocker tries to take him. If he is double-teamed, he'll try to split the blockers and either shoot into the backfield or occupy the blockers, thus freeing up his teammates to make tackles.

In short, while a 1-gap player attacks gaps, a 2-gap player attacks people. Football's conventional wisdom states that an effective 2-gap lineman, particularly one who lines up in the middle of the defense like Wilfork does, must be enormous. Coaches refer to them as "war daddies." But size is actually less important than athleticism and smarts. The line between touchdowns and stops in the NFL is exceedingly thin, and it's footwork and feel that are the difference. It is the most violent, most complicated, and most beautiful ballet I can think of.

Count the war daddies on the Michigan defensive line. You come back with a true freshman and an inconsistent former five star who can't play consistently without standing up straight. The other guy who would be two-gapping in a 3-4 is… Nate Brink? Jibreel Black? A true freshman? Not happening.

This matters much more than a surfeit of linebackers when you're trying to pick a defense to run, especially when moving to a two-gap system does not get more of them on the field. The 3-4 is not coming to Michigan.

At least not in total. We might see bits and pieces, though…

Reason two is an interesting adjustment the Patriots have made to adapt to their personnel. Wilfork is a monster they would like to use to the maximum extent possible, which means two-gapping him. Asking him to be Mike Martin is a lot like asking Ondre Pipkins to run a bunch of goofy pass-rush stunts like he did in the AA game. But because of deficiencies elsewhere Bill Belichick (mainly a 3-4 guy) feels compelled to run a 4-3, which generally means one-gapping.

What to do?

The Patriots run a 3-4 to one side of the field and a 4-3 to the other, all on the same play. The key to all this is Wilfork. He lines up over the center and assumes his traditional spot of run-stuffing, blocker consuming, two-gapping war daddy. Belichick fills out the rest of the pieces based on the strengths and weaknesses of his other defenders.


Create a hybrid. This is the Patriots' under front, one similar to what Michigan ran this year except with one planetoid defensive tackle and one strong-and-good strongside defensive two-gapping. This might be something we see from Michigan next year. Getting maximum production out of Pipkins basically demands something similar.

The problem here is still the same one we have when we theorize about moving to a 3-4, though: there is no SDE on the roster with a prayer of being able to two-gap anything. If you try to get clever by flipping Campbell out there you're asking for it when that tight end goes in motion to the other side of the line and you're either rearranging the entire DL on the fly or running this:


Your weakside DE is not a pass rush threat at all. So don't expect this next year.

HOWEVA, even if you shouldn't go around calling the defense "basically Belichick's" yet, we should expect Pipkins' deployment to be radically different than Martin's. That should mean fewer blocks getting to the linebackers and more plays from that unit. If the ILBs find a surge in productivity it will be because of Pipkins—not because he is a better player than Martin, but because he's a different one.

You'll be able to tell if this is happening by Pipkins's alignment. Martin played a "shade"—he aligned in the gap between the center and guard. If Michigan wants Pipkins to be Wilfork they'll put him nose to nose with the center and say "sic 'em."


This is where disclaimers go. Even with New England doing this a major theme of the first half in the Super Bowl was that one-gap backside tackle getting doubled (often on zone runs) and blown up. It is never as simple as "this guy gets one on one blocking." All you can do is change the equation so that doing that exposes someone else to a tough assignment. You can't entirely cover up for a sucky player.

Pipkins may be talented but there's more to playing nose tackle than talent. You can dominate your guy, push him into the backfield, and still screw up if you lose control of one of your gaps. Usually this happens when the DT gets pushed too far in the direction he wants to go and opens up a cutback lane behind him. When one of these players is Gabe Watson and the other is Pat Massey, pain results. It's not too hard to envision that happening what with Will Campbell still a rotation player you're a little afraid of. At least he's not 6'8"*.

It may make more sense to start Pipkins off with the easier assignment (always one-gap) and hope to make him impactful in two gaps later in his career. That'll be one of the interesting tactical decisions we unveil against… oh, Christ. Alabama. Yay!

*[Who in the hell looked at a 6'8", 260 pound player and put him on defense? That is either a tackle or a tight end or a man who should be playing basketball.]


Fort Wayne Blue

February 8th, 2012 at 2:47 PM ^

It is for reasons like this that I think Pipkins is the most important recruit that Michigan brought in this year. He looks like a beast and hopefully can anchor the DLine for years(!).

[I remember rumors on the board that Pipkins wasn't happy that guys like Danny O'Brien were being recruited....perhaps the coaching staff back off of them to keep PeWee happy....]


February 8th, 2012 at 10:07 PM ^

In theory the 4-3 under would have the WDE and/or SLB on the QB, but there are two caveats:

1) The OL and OC aren't just going to sit back and passively let the QB get sacked.  They'll adjust their blocks for optimum protection.  So the Mattison credo here is, "At least one guy will be single blocked, and that guy has to beat that block."  Getting a consistent pass rush was a real challenge for Michigan because the 4-3 basically assumes your DL will beat the opposition's OL in the trenches.  If that doesn't happen. . . no pass rush.  The reason why some teams abandon the 4-3 isn't because of lack of faith in the philosophy, but lack of talent.  A good pass-rushing DE is really hard to find.  The 3-4 is vulnerable to the run, but it's relatively easy to find 3 big nasties and four good linebackers.

2) Depends on the QB's mobility.  Teams with quick QBs might double-team the ends (with the TE taking out the SLB) out of faith that the QB can scramble if the DTs collapse the pocket.  At that point the MLB has a difficult choice -- have the DTs deliberately open a seam for an inside pass rush, or drop back into pass coverage?

Blitzes, of course, are the X-factor, and by design -- they're not so much about "getting the QB" -- they'll take that, of course, but the obvious gap in coverage is often a downside that makes it a wash.  Rather, a well-executed blitzing strategy confuses the OL about where the pressure's going to come from to keep them from "cheating" and getting single-minded on assignments.  For example, if the TE always takes on the SLB who suddenly drops into coverage while everyone else slants the other way, the TE is a wasted blocker.

Depending on the talent, sometimes it's easier to just send four and blanket the receivers, in which case whoever gets the QB is just whoever gets there first.


February 8th, 2012 at 2:53 PM ^

Count the war daddies on the Michigan defensive line. You come back with a true freshman and an inconsistent former five star who can't play consistently without standing up straight. The other guy who would be two-gapping in a 3-4 is… Nate Brink? Jibreel Black? A true freshman? Not happening.

Has the Ash ship sailed?

Blue in Seattle

February 8th, 2012 at 3:49 PM ^

Straight up one gap, because it's simpler to teach.  All of the coaches from Hoke on down emphasize technique as the first priority for any player to be practicing.  Learning the scheme and adjusting was always second.  Considering that college players progress through much faster year to year than NFL players, and are developing their bodies at a much higher rate, I don't see Michigan trying to get complex just because they finally have a true 1-Tech as a freshman (well since Will Campbell, who unfortunately did not receive consistent coaching, but is a 1-tech body/resource more than Marting ever was or will be).

The advantage of having DL two gap is that it removes gaps from the LB's responsbility.  In a pass first league like the NFL, you need every possible NON-DL back in coverage.  Fortunately the player resources at hand are physically completely developed, highly experienced, and most importantly available for practice as much as possible!  Or look at it the other way, not taking classes in addition to weight lifting, practicing and reviewing film.

For Michigan, keeping it simple means that Pipkins has a better chance of seeing the field as a true freshman.  Continuing to keep it simple means Pipkins has the best chance of dominating the 1-tech and thus forcing opposing offenses to dedicate two blockers to try and remove him from his 1 gap.  That is one less blocker on Demens, etc.  But that doesn' mean Demens doesn't have the other gap, he will, and will control it easier being unblocked.

The other constantly repeated theme of the coaches was "consistency in practice gets you on the field for the game"  Based on who was on the field for the first half of the season compared to the last half, it definitely seemed like lower talent players were out there.  Quite likely because they provided a constant "B" effort in comparison to younger higher talent options who provided alternating A and C effort (Will Campbell).  On top of that, Mattison wants 7-8 starting level players to rotate on the DL, which to me means they are hoping that Will Campbell is the starting 1-tech with Pipkins as the relieving 1-tech on the rotation.

At the end of the season, Campbell was clearly the sub for Martin, and depending on the game he saw varying degrees of time.  But you did not see him next to Martin except for the Bear and Goal line packages.  I'm sure the upcoming Spring Game won't provide any resolution, since these coaches seem to like experimentation over Fan wowing performance.  Just compare the response to the 2010 Spring Game review versus the 2011 Spring Game.  Everyone was sure that Denard couldn't do anything right and Gardner was going to start.  Ignoring the statement by Coach Hoke that his goal was getting as many plays on film as possible so the players could review it on their own time from Spring to Fall camp.  Mike Martin intercepting a pass because he dropped into coverage, etc.

But come Fall we will see Will Campbell at the 1-tech, and Pipkins will rotate in to relieve him.  The only guess is what the proportion of time will be between the two as the season progresses.

I think the bigger toss up is the 3 tech spot and the SDE.  But my money is on experience over talent/star ratings.

But why should I try to be realistic toward an untested recruit.  Clearly it's impossible for Pipkins to bust or struggle with the transition from high school to college.  Yes he performed well against the cream of the crop of his peers, but next year he goes against OL with 4 years experience blocking in college and four years of college strength and conditioning.  At this point, I don't see any difference between Recruit Will Campbell and Recruit Ondre Pipkins, other than who the coaches are who recruited him and will train him.


February 8th, 2012 at 3:54 PM ^

We've seen this show before 3 years ago with Campbell.   I'm pumped about Pipkins, but he's not even enrolled early.  To expect Pipkins to play at a level where he is not a huge liability is optimistic.  True freshmen in the middle who play well are just very rare.

I see a 1 gap defense like the Colts the past few years where you hope to get a lead and force teams to play catch up.  That way you can deploy a front with Black, Roh, Clark and just try to use your quickness to Fuck. Shit. Up.  

I think we're writing off Washington, Ash, Rock etc way too soon.   I would imagine Washington is much stronger than Pipkins and way ahead of him in terms of scheme.  I say Washington is the leader in the club house for that spot.

If he surprises me I'll be elated, but I still don't see them trying to deploy him in different situations.




February 8th, 2012 at 4:04 PM ^

The Colts play a very conservative Tampa 2 style defense. While it is a 1 gap system, they rarely put their corners in man coverage, and blitz much less frequently than other teams. That's not something I'm really expecting to see here.


February 8th, 2012 at 5:15 PM ^

What I meant is that they were an undersized unit that relied on being in front so they could utilize their strength rushing the passer.  Freeney and Mathis excelled at attacking the qb not stopping the run.   I agree the Colts rarely blitzed.

For Michigan I agree with your post that we'll see a bunch of 1 gap trying to blow stuff up and I could see some packages where Roh/Black drops down to DT and they just try and use their speed to attack gaps and cause havoc with Black and Clark, Roh, Ryan, Beyer etc...

Obviously if Washington, Pipkins and the rest excel it won't be needed but if they falter I'd rather see the best 11 on the field and attack.

We actually have a pretty decent roster to now unleash a 1 gap attacking 3-3-5 defense



February 8th, 2012 at 5:08 PM ^

I think that to expect Peewee to come in and anchor a D-line from day 1 is optimistic, to say the least.  Sure, he is a physical beast.  But how is his technique?  How well does he read the offense?  It is just not realistic to expect him to be the answer out of the box. 

I also see Washington as our best bet, at least early in the season.  Our D-line may not dominate, but I see them as being fine with many of the players that you listed.


February 8th, 2012 at 8:34 PM ^

This is why I said earlier that Mike Martin actually might surprise some people with productivity as the NT in a 3-4 scheme:

"In short, while a 1-gap player attacks gaps, a 2-gap player attacks people. Football's conventional wisdom states that an effective 2-gap lineman, particularly one who lines up in the middle of the defense like Wilfork does, must be enormous. Coaches refer to them as "war daddies." But size is actually less important than athleticism and smarts."

Conventional wisdom dictates that Mike Martin is vastly undersized as a 3-4 nose and will get PWND in the NFL (some are even saying he should convert to DE).  When I said Martin could play nose, this is what I had in mind.  He may be "small" but he's an incredibly strong for his size and a wrestler with the balance and technique to not lose leverage.  He's also very quick and -- if matched up 1-on-1 against a center -- can penetrate and cause problems, which is all the ILBs would need to make plays.  About the worst thing that can happen is a double-team, but if he's taking on two blockers then one of the ILBs should have a shot at the play.

steve sharik

February 8th, 2012 at 11:17 PM ^

A 4-3 doesn't have to be a 1-gap defense and a 3-4 doesn't have to be a 2-gap defense.

A head-up defensive lineman doesn't have to be a 2-gap player.  A shaded defensive lineman can't be.

So, just b/c we don't have a DL who can't be an effective 2-gapper doesn't necessarily mean we won't be an odd front.  (Although I would guess we won't be.)

In fact, the legendary Bo defense from the 70s and early 80s was the Michigan 5-2 slant/angle defense.  The defensive line always sparked (stemmed, stunted, whatever you want to call it) into a single gap, despite lining head-up over the OL.

Also, having a 2-gap defense not only requires "war daddies" but also requires highly instinctive LBs who can get into his proper gap.  This depends on the gap in which the 2-gap DL ends up.