Preview 2011: Five Questions On Defense Comment Count

Brian September 2nd, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Previously: The story, the secondary, the linebackers, the defensive line, the offensive line, the receivers, the running backs, the quarterbacks, special teams.

1. How does the shift back to the 4-3 under fit the personnel?


left: stack no blitzy. right: 4-3, though an even 4-3, not the under

Better than the 3-3-5-type-substance but it's not going to be a huge difference. Fits:

  • BETTER: Roh (LB/DE to WDE), Demens (MLB to MLB with guys in front of him)
  • SAME: RVB(DE to SDE/DT), Martin (NT to NT), Heininger (DE to SDE), Gordon (spur to SLB), Jones (WLB to WLB), Gordon (FS to FS), cornerbacks
  • WORSE: Kovacs (bandit to SS)
  • Craig Roh and Jibreel Black were men without a position last year. Though Roh actually help up pretty well when he moved to the DL late, he was still miscast as a DE in a three-man line. Black just got crushed. This year both will be playing weakside DE, where they can get after one tackle.

Kenny Demens will be shielded by two senior defensive tackles, allowing him to flow to the ball like he did against Iowa. Michigan set of small, quick WLBs is better suited for the 4-3 since it will be harder for opponents to get a hat on them.

The major negative is not finding a way to keep the two safeties near the LOS. Both are effective blitzers who are a little dodgy in a deep half.

2. How big is the coaching upgrade? Will the transition hurt more than it?

The Mathlete's numbers suggest a coaching change is a drag on the improvement of very bad defenses worth about eight spots. It seems flabbergasting that that could be the case for this specific situation, however. dnak438 found a GERG effect of approximately negative 30(!) spots. While you should take that with a grain of salt because the sample size there is extremely small, each grain adds to a pile threatening to eclipse the Schwarzschild radius. Going from Greg Robinson not running a system he knows to Greg Mattison teaching exactly what he's taught for a zillion years has to be a positive even in the short term.

What causes that drag? Probably a system change. How long has Michigan been running its current system? Six games. They've probably got more experience running the under than the 3-3-5.

Then there are the position coaches: Adam Braithwaite was a grad assistant promoted to LB coach without the usual stops at East Nowhere State. Tony Gibson was reputed to be mostly a recruiter. Bruce Tall seemed pretty good but in his place Michigan has Hoke, Mattison, and Jerry Montgomery. That's an upgrade across the board.

3. Why is everybody so suicidal when the personnel doesn't look entirely doomy?


doug karsch interviewing popular perception about the defense. via firstbase

Slap me for saying this but the starting lineup isn't that scary save for two spots: SDE, where walk-ons Will Heininger and Nathan Brink are backed up by Nobody At All, and WLB, where four cats are fighting in a sack. You know what they say about WLBs: if you've got four you don't have any.

The rest of the line is Martin, Van Bergen, and Roh. Demens is promising at linebacker and they've got a couple of good options at SAM. And the secondary isn't awesome but Avery/Woolfolk/Kovacs/Gordon looks like it could be below average, which will seem like heaven. This year's edition of "Are You Experienced?" sees Michigan move towards average. There's still a gap, but it's narrowing. The Decimated Defense series also sees its Michigan number creep towards sane.

So why is everyone, including myself, afraid of going 7-5 this year with just about everyone back everywhere?

Well, there's depth. Once you get past those starters its scary. There are three backups I wouldn't wince upon seeing enter on the field: Black, Jake Ryan, and Carvin Johnson. I guess Brink fits in there as well but only because he'd be spotting another walk-on. Everyone else on the line has been beaten out by Brink and Heininger, I have little faith in JT Floyd, and even if Marell Evans was injured at Hampton he's done little in four years of football. When injuries happen the dropoff will be severe. It won't even take injuries for the defensive line to wane in effectiveness. Modern football rotates the DL. Michigan has a choice between tired starters and ineffective backups.

Even so I still can't work up the same sense of bowel-crippling panic I had last year when I believed the secondary would tread "horrible, polluted, razor-blade-filled, despair-laden water." Let's poke around at


2010: Black, Gordon, Gordon, Johnson, Avery, Talbott
2011: Maybe Ash


2010: 4-3 under, 3-4, 3-3-5
2011: 4-3 under


2010: Third year running
2011: Hell no


2010: Rubbing a stuffed beaver in your face
2011: Navy SEAL tridents

Michigan wasn't just rocking an underclass two-deep, they were rocking a freshman-heavy two deep. This could work out! For a given definition of work out!

4. What is with Will Campbell? Isn't the situation at SDE just horrible?

Man, I don't know about Campbell. Maybe his center of gravity is just too high. Maybe he'll never learn technique in the same way Mike Cox can't remember to run into the hole.

The situation at SDE is caused by whatever it is with Will Campbell and will not be encouraging. Heininger was already a non-entity in the passing game and that was 28 pounds ago. And who the hell knows about Brink? I'm guessing Mattison is just trying to get that spot to hold up against double teams in the run game and will rely on Roh/Martin/Van Bergen to get the pass rush. If they can do that it's a win.

Can they do that? Why do I ask myself unanswerable questions? 

5. Well?

Michigan will be much, much better this year. How much better depends on:

  • The health of key, irreplaceable pieces. These are Martin, Demens, Van Bergen, and the starting corners.
  • The improvement of last year's freshmen. Avery, both Gordons, and Black all have the potential to leap forward Darius Morris style.
  • Nathan Brink. If Michigan's unearthed something here that not only makes SDE acceptable it means the guys he beat out are potentially serviceable.
  • Craig Roh. He could be anything from Tim Jamison to James Hall.

The first bit is unknowable but I can hazard guesses on the latter three: two of the four freshmen above will be startlingly good. Two will be meh. I'm guessing Thomas Gordon and Avery are the former. Brink will not be as bad as everyone feared but that SDE spot is going to be averaging +2 for the season, which is bad. Roh will be in the 75th percentile of his range, a fringe All Big Ten guy.

When I wrote that the D should improve but "not enough" I didn't account for a GERG/RR effect that is real. They'll be better than 82nd in advanced metrics this year by a long shot.

Now, behold the greater-thans and less-thans!


  • senior Mike Martin with ankles > Mike Martin
  • junior Craig Roh playing his actual position >>> linebacker Craig Roh
  • junior Demens >> sophomore Demens/Ezeh
  • sophomore Cam Gordon > freshman Gordon/Gordon/Johnson
  • Woolfolk >>> Rogers
  • sophomore Avery >> freshman Avery/Floyd
  • T. Gordon/Johnson >> Gordon/Vinopal


  • senior RVB == junior RVB
  • Kovacs == Kovacs
  • Heininger/Brink == Banks


  • Jones/Hawthorne/Herron/Morgan << Mouton

It's going to take two years to dig out of this hole completely but I think the defense will rebound more effectively than stats and conventional wisdom suggest.

Last Year's Stupid Predictions

Fumbles recovered double to ten.

Michigan recovered seven.

The secondary is actually better than last year's secondary because long touchdowns are less frequent. It will still be very bad.

First sentence: false. Second: true.

Mouton is much better, leads the team in TFLs and sacks, and is still incredibly frustrating.

Very accurate. Mouton led the team in tackles (117), was in a three-way tie for TFLs (8.5, Kovacs and RVB tied) and had two sacks. RVB (4) and Banks (3) beat him but not by much in a pathetic year for sacks.

Mike Martin is great and should get first-team Big Ten recognition, though he probably won't.

This might have actually transpired if he hadn't gotten laid up with high ankle sprains. Before he was chopped down against MSU he was playing very, very well.

Mark Moundros holds on to the starting MLB job all season.


Michigan manages a modest improvement in yards allowed, getting up to the 60-70 range nationally.

Not so much: Michigan dipped to 110th.


More accurate than anyone thought possible.

This Year's Stupid Predictions

  • Courtney Avery busts out. Going into next year people are talking about him as an All Big Ten performer.
  • Kenny Demens leads the team in tackles with Northwestern-MLB-type numbers.
  • Brink is a legitimate player, better than Greg Banks was last year. The biggest source of pain on the defense is the WLB.
  • Craig Roh leads the team in sacks with eight.
  • Sacks almost double from 1.4 per game to 2.4. That would be a move from 98th to around 30th.
  • Turnovers forced go from 19 to 27.
  • Michigan noses just above average in yardage allowed. Advanced metrics have them about 50th.



September 2nd, 2011 at 11:46 AM ^

Because it's predicated on playing the same defense two years in a row, and getting better at it. It's the 3rd head coach for some, 4th defensive coordinator, but conservatively could be called the 5th defense they've had to play. (And that's not counting all the mid-season changes).  Because they changed it every year. So any increase in learning and growing in a system (like the offense has at least gotten to do) wouldn't exist for the D anyway, because they've switched every year, so there wouldn't be the drop off. The only way that's offset is by bringing the whole defensive staff back, which didn't even seem very likely under the old regime.  And if it had, I'm not sure that would be the road to more improvement on that side of the ball.


September 2nd, 2011 at 12:09 PM ^

And can't wait for tomorrow. I have a hunch that the "Offense" Preview could be a little less optimistic. Depends on how much we believe Hoke's Coachspeak vs. Borges's "Yay, I have a new toy who's from Tecmo Bowl!!"

I hope Brian's preview follows the latter

Blue in Seattle

September 2nd, 2011 at 12:37 PM ^

Backed by my belief in their intelligence and that these coaches like to practice the things the team is not good at yet.  I completely believe Al Borges eveytime out of the 248 times he's said, "I know Denard can run the ball from a designed run, and I know the defense can't stop it even with two hand touch" means that he doesn't need to rep that play more than once a day just to make sure everyone remembers how to block it.  Spring practice was ugly because they wanted to put as much of the unknown offense on film so players could practice on their own through the summer.  Now that doesn't mean they won't call the power run.  They will.  But when it doesn't work I'm very confident they are going to start calling shotgun QB run and Shotgun passing that looks a lot like QB Run, plus emphasis on "go ahead and scramble".

Yes, it will be a minot shame that Denard doesn't break all the statistical records written.  But the compensation of more drives ending in touchdowns and more wins will completely compensate for me.  Plus since we've watched pretty much the same 10 great runs by Denard from last season a thousand times or more, I'm betting Denard will create at least another 10 awesome plays this year.  And he will continue to state it was not him but his team who succeeded, he just happened to be holding the ball.

Will it get boring after we get a lead?  Yes, but Denard is going to end up with a lot of practice time on that footwork and timing, which is going to pay off toward the end of the year.



September 2nd, 2011 at 11:16 AM ^

I'm hoping the slow down on offense will also help out.  It seemed the defense performed worse in the second half all last year.  Whether that was due to fatigue or adjustments by the opposing offense, I'm not sure.


September 2nd, 2011 at 11:24 AM ^

are actually being taught where to be and what to look for instead of simply guessing (wrong) almost every time, will be a huge improvement.  The talent uptick at corner will help and Ezeh being gone will be huge.

Having this group being coached by true defensive minded geniuses must be worth 30 spots alone.  Combine that with more experience and talent at CB and a healthy DL I think this defense can grow into a top 50 defense by year's end.

If special teams simply holds onto the ball and the offense turns the ball hallf as often as last season, 8-9 wins is very doable.

I really need to see them in action tomorrow to be able to gauge anything.  Hopefully the defense contains Carder and WMU early so they can erase last season adn build confidence for this year.  I think that is a big key to their success.


September 2nd, 2011 at 11:25 AM ^

- Removal of the GERG factor

- No more 3-3-5

- Improved freshmen/walk ons

- Mattison

- Hoke

- Michigan pride

- Slowed down pace on offense

I can't see a situation that doesn't add up to at least an improvement to 70 nationally, 50-60 as others have hoped for is certainly possible.  All comes down to how quickly the personnel have taken to the system and bought in.



September 2nd, 2011 at 11:29 AM ^

Should Countess be included with Ash as potential impact freshman? As the year goes on, it wouldn't surprise me if he pushed his way into the 3rd CB slot in front of Floyd.


September 2nd, 2011 at 1:46 PM ^

He is already on the two deep and was a pretty highly regarded recruit. I think he has a chance to supplant even Avery by the end of the year if he progresses. The other possibility I think could work well, is that if Countess gets good enough to start, put Woolfolk back at free safety because of his speed and let Avery and Countess start. Nobody wants to see a bunch of position changes but I still am worried about our speed at safety. One Kovacs is ok but two slower guys could be a problem.


September 2nd, 2011 at 2:16 PM ^

I don't think Thomas Gordon is supposed to be slow. His recruiting profile was something along the lines of "good athlete, changes direction well, has played very little defense and will take some time to get up to speed." I could imagine him not getting the nuances of playing deep safety but I don't think we'll see the same issues with raw speed that we saw last year with Cam Gordon, who just wasn't fast enough to play that position.


September 2nd, 2011 at 11:33 AM ^

This was one of my favorite posts in a while.  Hilarious, informative, and overall very enjoyable to read.  Your positive outlook for the season was refreshing.


September 2nd, 2011 at 11:38 AM ^

Why are you acting Luke mouton didn't miss ten tackles a game and trying to strip the ball instead of just making the tackle!!!!! I will admit I thought both would end up being beast but they both sucked and did not progress!!!!!
<br>GOOD BYE!!!!!


September 2nd, 2011 at 11:58 AM ^

You suck.

Mouton was a second round NFL draft pick.

Michigan got much more production from Ezeh than could have possible been expected given his recruiting profile. It's not like he was a five star recruit who underachieved due to lack of effort. It wasn't his fault that there was no better option until Demens's emergence.

Are they the best two linebackers in Michigan history? No. Did they play hard for four years for Michigan? Yes.

You can be excited about this year's defense without being a dick.


September 2nd, 2011 at 2:46 PM ^

San Diego's coaches have been impressed with Mouton so far in the preseason. He is hurt now though, so we'll see. But I think he'll be a productive NFL player.

But even if you're right that he "doesn't do shat!!!", so what? He was still a good player at Michigan.

And you're still a dick.


September 2nd, 2011 at 11:40 AM ^

I'm higher on Floyd than Brian.  It certainly would not scare me to see him on the field.  I think that eventually the light will go on for him and while he's never going to all Big-Ten, he will be serviceable (for recent M secondary standards, at the very least). 

As another example, I was never big on Morgan Trent, but by the time he was an upperclassmen he at least wasn't a liability.  Trent actually made some plays from time to time. 


September 2nd, 2011 at 12:06 PM ^

Trent was a very good athlete.  When the light went on for him he was able to combine it with solid-plus athleticism for the position to equal a good player.

If I may be so bold as to speak for Brian, I think the concern with Floyd is that even if the light goes on - heck, I suspect the light's *been* on - he doesn't have the natural athletic ability to develop into a guy you're not worried about replacing.

(I don't like saying anything negative about a kid...hope he proves me wrong.)


September 2nd, 2011 at 11:43 AM ^

can actually be a pretty good pressure heavy defense if run correctly. Something that RR and Gerg never figured out how to do. When Rocky brings Hoke's old boys to Ann Arbor we'll see someone that know how to run it. With that said I prefer Matty's 43 Under scheme.


September 2nd, 2011 at 12:54 PM ^

The 3-5-3? Now that would be an interesting defense to run.

And I agree that the 3-3-5 can be used effectively to pressure, but that comes from blitzing from multiple angles and keeping the offense confused as to who is coming when. However it seemed like Gerg never got the memo and didn't seem to do that which let QBs sit back and pick us apart.


September 2nd, 2011 at 11:43 AM ^

- what is the source of such optimism on Avery, however?  I think there are signs there of a good player, but all B1G (going into next year)?

- Brink, same question