Preview 2009: Five Questions, Five Answers, Defense

Submitted by Brian on September 4th, 2009 at 1:11 PM

Part eleven of the all-singing all-dancing season preview. Previously: The Story, 2009, quarterbacks, tailbacks, receivers, offensive line, secondary, linebackers, defensive line, special teams, offensive overview and predictions.

Note: video from last year is lightboxed; previous years will take you off the page.

shafer-utah Was Shafer just a scapegoat?

(The picture at right was snapped by MVictors after the Utah game and will be forever lodged in my mind as the definitive image of Shafer's brief tenure as Michigan's defensive coordinator. Its got pathos in spades.)

The second thing that leapt out at me after "Brandon Graham is re-damn-donkulous" when I went back over the defensive UFRs is just how much bitching about Scott Shafer was contained therein. (We'll ignore the Purdue game since that didn't appear to be his decison.) GSimmons forgive me—or at least don't Blount me—but here goes.

It started during the Miami UFR, when I noted Michigan's bizarre insistence on the 4-3 against spread formations when they had a perfectly good senior nickelback available. And don't get me started on three-man lines featuring a true freshman when your best players on D are your senior defensive tackles. Too late:

… Michigan can't hold up against the run against a poor MAC team in this alignment, and it's pretty obvious why: you're lifting Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson, seniors and the best position group on your offense, for a safety and a freshman who, while promising, remains a freshman. You are then backing him up with Michigan's pretty crappy linebacking corps.

So I would like to know this: WTF is Michigan doing with a three man line on the field on a critical third and one late? And why are they using it at all on things that aren't obvious passing downs? … I am in no way ready to render a verdict on Scott Shafer or even give him the internet equivalent of the evil eye, but I have to admit my opinion of the hire is slipping.

Shafer didn't learn his lesson by the Penn State game, either:

Said 3-3-5 has not been effective at rushing the passer and has been a complete disaster against the run, but it got rolled out on third and one last week and second and six this week, with predictable results.

I just don't get it, man. You cannot put five guys in the box on a potential running down, especially when two of them are defensive ends, two of them poor linebackers, and the other a freshman NT. And yet.

After Illinois I bemoaned Michigan's inability to play assignment football ("They did not stay in their lanes; they did not stay with their man. They attacked the ball, only to find the "ballcarrier" bereft when they got there.") In fact, the only half-decent defensive performances came after Shafer was (apparently frozen out) and common freakin' sense won out. The Minnesota UFR:

So what in the hell happened?

In the postgame players and coaches said that Shafer dumped anything resembling complexity and went with a completely basic nickel cover two scheme. The Okie made an appearance on passing downs, but other than that there were a grand total of two snaps in anything other than a 4-2-5 nickel. (One of these was a 30 yard run, natch.) There was almost no substitution. …

Does this sound suspiciously close to what you were complaining for earlier in the season?

Um, not to get all high and mighty, but… yes? I've always hated the lack of flexibility engendered by playing a 4-3 against the spread, especially when the third linebacker is a ponderous run-stuffer like Johnny Thompson. And I never understood the idea behind yanking one of Michigan's best defenders (pick a starting DT) off the field except on passing downs.

So Michigan goes to a nickel. Harrison's lack of size is not a factor in the run game, he plays well against the pass, and everyone can go back to the way they played much of last year. Confusion removed, Michigan dominates.

The picture painted by the above is, in retrospect, one of huge incompetence. Last year Michigan regularly removed functional veteran players in favor of crappy ones that made no sense given the down and distance situations or the offense on the field, and those things only got fixed (-ish) once Shafer was removed from the decision-making process. It's not like the position guys covered themselves in glory with that 3-3-5 against Purdue but at least they pulled their heads out of their butts afterwards and put in the defense Michigan should have been running from day one against spread teams.

Also, I've heard from folks closer to the program than I that the stuff about Greg Robinson teaching them how to tackle seems like more than standard new defensive coordinator hype. This comes paired with dark assertions about eyerolling and "tackling" education that consisted of "run up to them really fast and give them a shoulder block." That's strange given that the buzz in preseason was that the position coaches were just yellers and it was Shafer who was an educator.

So, no, Shafer wasn't just a scapegoat. His schemes may be awesome but his playcalling, roster management, and ability to identify third wide receivers were beyond poor.

obama-unicorn-300x450 Greg Robinson is our Obama on a unicorn*?

Well, I don't know. I was on record about being very on edge, man, about hiring a guy with one season that wasn't reason to cover your eyes to his credit in the past ten years, but Robinson wasn't working with much talent at Syracuse or Kansas City and his track record with more respectable outfits is a good one. Michigan certainly counts as a more respectable outfit than Syracuse, but that doesn't extend to that excellent Texas defense Robinson coordinated. Michigan hovers in-between.

Still, the opinion on the hire at the time doesn't seem insane from this distance:

Robinson walked into a good situation at Texas* and managed not to screw that up, then went to Syracuse, where he had an average defense on a horrid team (1-10), which he then proceeded to crater for the next three years. Before his brief, star-making turn at Texas—again, for doing nothing more than treading water—he presided over one of the worst defenses in the NFL, getting fired after three years. The last actual success you can plausibly attribute to Greg Robinson came during his tenure as the Denver Broncos' DC, when his defenses were top ten in the NFL and a significant aid in Denver's back-to-back championships. Since then it's been abject failure save the one year in Texas.

It's not like Robinson's never had success, but it's also not like he's shown much ability to take crap and shine it up even a little bit. From my perch as Google Master, I have really limited information, though, and when I went through Robinson's history, association with Pete Carroll, defensive philosophies, and all that stuff for Hail To The Victors 2009 I came out a bit more impressed. Robinson's move to these hybrids also seems like a forward-thinking move in an era of spread madness, something Michigan will now be more prepared for than just about any team in the country.

Rodriguez made the bed, and now we get to lie in it. I don't think it'll be as big of a deal as I did back then.

*(Obama drop not intended to express any approval or disapproval of current president; intended only to get the picture at right wider dissemination. Unicorn drop intended to express full approval of unicorns.)

Can Michigan sustain an injury anywhere without imploding?

Maybe one of the two interior linebackers can get hurt without a huge dropoff. JB Fitzgerald has some experience, practice buzz, and recruiting hype and should be okay if thrust into the lineup. And possibly a Ryan Van Bergen could be solved by sliding Martin over and sticking Campbell into the starting lineup. Neither would be good, but Michigan could probably live with it. Also, losing Mike Williams would probably be okay since he was battling with Emilien all year; that dropoff might not be huge.

Anyone else, though, and it's panic time. It is thin, thin, thin.

Okay, well, what if a couple freshmen come through?

Yes, there is the possibility Michigan's young bucks are of sufficient quality to stave off a defensive apocalypse. Roh, Campbell, Turner, and Emilien will all see plenty of playing time and are getting hype from all corners; by midseason if all pan out Michigan could be sporting reasonable depth at all positions not named Brandon Graham. Injuries early would be more harmful than injuries late, and God willing Michigan will be able to shelve the starters and blood the n00bs relatively early against Eastern, Indiana, and possibly Western in preparation for the Big Ten slog. The schedule sets up relatively well, I suppose.


This one I don't know about. I've been making the point for a while that Michigan's defense can run in place and look a lot better this fall just because it won't be on the blunt end of the country's 109th-ranked offense and 104th-best turnover margin. Michigan was 17 spots worse in scoring defense than it was in yardage defense last year, which ranked 15th nationally. This year an average offense, average turnover margin, and Zoltan point them towards finishing on the plus side of that metric this year. That seems something we can take for granted.

HOWEVA, that only gets Michigan to 67th nationally, their rank in total defense last year, and that's extremely kind given that two games were played in a monsoon, another was against a third-string quarterback at Purdue who had been moved to running back earlier in the season, and significant chunks of the season were spent with opposing offenses shutting up shop because the only way they could manage to blow the game would be to turn it over.

So a position-by-position eval:


  • New Brandon Graham > Brandon Graham
  • New Obi Ezeh > Obi Ezeh
  • New Jonas Mouton > Jonas Mouton
  • Stevie Brown, LB > Johnny Thompson, LB – probably by a lot
  • New, Healthy Donovan Warren > Donovan Warren
  • Troy Woolfolk > Stevie Brown, S


  • Mike Martin = Terrance Taylor
  • Boubacar Cissoko = Morgan Trent
  • Charles Stewart = Mike Williams


  • RVB < Will Johnson
  • Brandon Herron < Tim Jamison

Those are big drops in the worse category and only incremental leaps in the better category, but I guess IME the starting talent on this year's defense is better than it was last year. That's not too hard to believe. Add in something less than total incompetence, insurrection, and chaos in the coaching staff and this should also be a step forward unless injuries strike Michigan down.

So… yeah. Michigan's defense improves in real, non-running-in-place terms. Maybe not much. But given the schedule they should claw their way to slightly above average, just like the offense.



September 4th, 2009 at 1:21 PM ^

I'm personally excited about the defenses flexibility.. I think while it's less experienced than last years, there is a bit more athleticism spread around.

We'll see how it goes.


September 4th, 2009 at 1:30 PM ^

we are talking about a guy who didn't get drafted, despite two years of starting time and an ungodly bench press. i thought Johnson had a rather meh career. while RVB is certainly more of an unknown quantity, i'm not convinced the drop from meh to ?? will be all that big (if at all).


September 4th, 2009 at 1:43 PM ^

"Obama drop not intended to express any approval or disapproval of current president; intended only to get the picture at right wider dissemination."

Still, I just ate lunch, that isn't pretty to look at...


September 4th, 2009 at 1:44 PM ^

This comes paired with dark assertions about eyerolling and "tackling" education that consisted of "run up to them really fast and give them a shoulder block."

This explains so, so much. "No seriously Doug Dutch, what the fuck kind of tackle was that." Now I know why.


September 4th, 2009 at 1:47 PM ^

I know that Robinson has to work with the players he has, and that as a paid professional he should always do his best to produce a great defense, but I hope that there's some sort of hurt ego/pride intangible in there that causes him to work extra, extra hard to show folks he "still has it" as a D-coordinator. And, in turn, that will bring about much better results than from a man not some similarly possessed.

I can't wait for Saturday.


September 4th, 2009 at 1:47 PM ^

It's kind of interesting how Rodriguez sticks to his guns and runs his system w/o ideal players at every position to get the whole offense reps in the system and get's somewhat of a pass but Shafer sticks to his schemes despite not having ideal players at every position and is labeled a complete failure.


September 4th, 2009 at 2:06 PM ^

Rodriguez didn't have "ideal players" for ANY scheme last year, so he might as well go with what he knows, right? Would Threet or Sheridan have done any better in a pro-style offense (particularly without the benefit of an offensive line)? The defense, on the other hand, returned a bunch of guys from the year before. Not to say I agree that Shafer was a "complete failure," but there is a difference.


September 4th, 2009 at 2:53 PM ^

Last season in 10 games Johnson had 12 tackles, 17 assists, 3 TFLs and 2 sacks. I haven't compared that with other DLs we've had, but those stats don't strike me as particularly hard to reach, especially if Graham is being routinely double-teamed.


September 4th, 2009 at 2:08 PM ^

uses is from coach bill williams

is pretty good stuff, its not the end all, but you can def. see bill willimas hand in a bunch of michigan's stuff. After all G robinson has subsrcribed to his stuff since his NFL days. this 'teaching the basics' is something that i have been saying michigan defenses have missed since Lloyd stoped being so active with the actuall coaching...

i think you would have scene a big time commitment to it over the spring and summer had shafer stayed. but whatever doesnt matter..

Robinson will do better this year for several reasons,

1. he has a resume that players/position coaches respect and will fall back on even when things get tough (shafer did not)

2. He has position coaches who know the strengths and weanesses of their players (shafer did not), and for the most part the kids will be coached by the same guy they were last year, most players get 90% of their coaching from their position coaches.

3. He was able to sit down with a staff, that was already complete, and talk about what they want too do together..(shafer didnt have that)

4. He isnt trying to replace 2 of the best safties michigan has had in the past decade..(shafer did)

5. He will have an offense that will be able to move the ball. (shafer did not)

Yes things will be better this year, i sure hope so, but it WONT be becasue

1. his schemes are better or more ingenious
2. shafer isnt a good DC

last year was bad... but shafer was really in a no win situation..


September 4th, 2009 at 2:50 PM ^

Shafer had plenty of ways to "win." It wasn't a "no win" situation at all. The defense SHOULD have been the strength of last year's team. It wasn't great, but it could have been good.

The defense was loaded with seniors who had talent (Johnson, Taylor, Trent, Jamison, Harrison) and then some younger guys who were inexperienced but talented. As Brian explained, he used the guys at his disposal poorly.

I can't blame everything on Shafer, and he may not be a horrible defensive coordinator overall - but he was last year.


September 4th, 2009 at 3:08 PM ^

as my above post suggests...

i think i validated my opinion with several points...

but in addition,

the weakness of last years team was lb's and safeties, and that wasnt going to change..

you could have put 11 of the best dlinemen in the game out there, and it woudlnt have helped cover the middle of the field, it wasnt like we were getting beat on 5 step drops, and flea flickers, we couldnt cover the middle of the field with quck drops and 3 step basic protection drops, "QB pressure" would not have made it easier to cover a quick seam....

as i have illistrated before, when your problem is lack of ability to cover the middle of the field, you have to have MORE of the people assigned to do that on the field not less..


September 4th, 2009 at 3:49 PM ^

I'm not sure why the argument of Shafer versus his players keeps getting rehashed on the boards. The head coach of the University of Michigan football team clearly believed that Shafer was not a good defensive coordinator, or at the very least, was not a good fit for the team. Rich Rodriguez's opinion is really the only one that matters, and he fired him.


September 4th, 2009 at 3:54 PM ^

i didnt know i made it about shafer vs players,

i appologize..

obviously shafer and RR agreed to part ways, and agreed that it was what was best for all parties.. it might have even come from shafer first, after the purdue game.. but thats not important..

again though

i appologize that, and for disagreeing with brians assesment.


September 4th, 2009 at 4:12 PM ^

I'm not asking you to apologize for anything, certainly not for disagreeing with Brian's assessment. (Brian actually apologized for disagreeing with yours.)) But any time Shafer gets criticized, you, without fail, launch into this explanation about how last season wasn't his fault because he just didn't have the personnel. Whether or not your assertion is correct, my point is that Rodriguez clearly disagreed, and so the empassioned defense is unnecessary.


September 4th, 2009 at 4:20 PM ^

only alerted that my name was used in a post, i was just merely elaborating on what my position was, since it was obviously directed at me. and if you look back at my points, i dont think i said a whole lot about players...

i dont say he was blameless, obviously, but he resignation is not an indication that RR disagrees.

again i appologize if it came across as me saying anything negative about the players... i will bow out now..

im sorry that the only thing you think i add around here is shafer excusses... i feel like i show up when i need to show up...


September 4th, 2009 at 4:34 PM ^

im sorry that the only thing you think i add around here is shafer excusses...

Give me a break. That's neither expressed nor implied anywhere in my posts above. Saying that you always say something when Shafer is discussed is far different that saying that's the only time you say anything. I certainly recognize the value you add to these boards. Your football acumen is far higher than mine.


September 4th, 2009 at 5:27 PM ^

That sure would cut down on the unnecessary posts around here, and make MGoBlog a lot easier to read and follow, if we wouldn't keep "rehashing" decisions once Rodriguez or someone else in the football program made them. How dare we debate a topic once "the only opinion that matters" has been declared!


September 5th, 2009 at 12:32 AM ^

I still don't understand the reasoning behind having Trent, Warren, and Cissoko bailing out immediately. I know part of it was running a cover 3 scheme, but if his linebackers weren't fast enough to get to the flats, then he shouldn't have been playing cover 3.

What it comes down to is this:

With the talent and experience we had on defense last year, we should NOT have been one of the worst defenses Michigan has ever fielded. Regardless of whether it was a 3-4, 4-3, 4-2-5, 3-3-5, cover 3, cover 2, man free, whatever - Shafer didn't make the proper adjustments to make it even a serviceable defense.


September 5th, 2009 at 2:06 AM ^

the flats were our problem early on, it was the seams...

in shafers drop 4 you ahve to have lb;s that can run with vertical releases of number 2's we werent there at the begining of hte year, then the coaching staff panicked... i think the cover three stuff was a reaction to the fact that they couldnt do what they wanted to do... again, for all the reasons i indicated earlier..

but ill say the same thing to you magnus, you guys were right about shafer obviously, if they arent good at syracuse you can rub it in mine and his face, and even if he has any success later, it will just prove that he wasnt right for michigan. sorry for responding to my name being called out, and responding to my friend brian..


September 5th, 2009 at 2:02 AM ^

i realize you are either trying to bait me into a fight, or just redicule me, but thats cool man..

i think shafer is one of the best secondary coaches in america, but i also realize it takes more than 3/4 of a year to really show that as well. I wouldnt still be coaching if i got judged soley on my first year as DC.

but thats neither here nor there, in the end you all were right and i was wrong, so thats water under the bridge...

hope i can bring some positive things still around here, if not, ill just stick to what i do best...


September 5th, 2009 at 2:30 AM ^

is trying to bait you or ridicule you man. Just because myself and (relatively few) others think that you were wrong about Shafer doesn't mean we think that you don't do anything positive or that all you do is defend Shafer. No one is attacking you. I don't think that Shafer did a good job last season. I don't think he is one of the best secondary coaches in America. You disagree with me, urging that he needed more time before his good coaching produced results on the field. And so we argue (and have argued). People aren't ganging up on you to show that we "all were right and [you] were wrong." If anything, most who are critical of Shafer, Brian included, are exceeding deferential to your opinion in the criticism. Yet this oddly ends up with you threatening to leave the board, taking your ball of football knowledge and going home. I don't think anyone (even me) wants you to do that, but like the song goes, "that's your prerogative."


September 4th, 2009 at 2:29 PM ^

When Robinson indicated he would coach from the sidelines and not in the booth like Shafer, that was the first indication that he can help this defense.

Defense needs to be played with emotion and Shafer upstairs hiding behind his clipboard did nothing to rally his troops when they needed it.

Jim Herrman had passion on the sidelines and his defenses played with some great physical intensity.

Let's hope the swarming Michigan 'D' is back!


September 4th, 2009 at 3:02 PM ^

that i wish shafer would ahve been on the sideline..

he is very passionate and in your face. I think someone made a comment about him chasing down a pick 6 and cleebrating with the D in the spring game last year...

but there have been succesfull dc's that have gotten it done form the box, its really more a bout having a good staff that can fill every role...

bad robbie

September 4th, 2009 at 2:42 PM ^

... that horrible D from last year, but they were handed more combined turnovers and "3 and outs" than any team in the nation (ok, I made that stat up ... but it must be close to true)

IOW, even a moderate improvement in the offense should have a big positive impact on the defense.


September 4th, 2009 at 2:47 PM ^

I'm not sure how Campbell would be inserted into the starting lineup if Martin moved to DT, considering that Sagesse is second on the depth chart behind Martin.


September 4th, 2009 at 3:27 PM ^

a bid drop from Jamison...Jamison never really improved. Combining Herron/Roh, likely is not too great of a drop from what Jamison gave as a senior.

And the potential is there for Martin to be better than TT even this year.. Will be a better effort and attitude regardless...


September 4th, 2009 at 8:17 PM ^

Hiller will have a brief and unsuccessful day. He'll have one drive that ends up with a field goal. Michigan will drive to a TD on its first drive. There will be big plays galore on offense and defense for Michigan. UM will be hungry, they will show no mercy on WMU. Score UM 31, WMU 10.


September 5th, 2009 at 12:03 AM ^

that first year at Cuse was actually very good. Take into account how miserable the offense was. I was very impressed with that group at the time. Dude's a miserable HC though.