Stack To The Future

Submitted by Brian on March 24th, 2010 at 12:53 PM

Earlier in the year I took a cue from Michigan's odd announcement of Adam Braithwaite as an OLB/safeties coach to theorize that Michigan was adopting something half 3-3-5 stack, half 4-3. You can put whatever label you want on it, but it's apparently similar to what Virginia Tech runs. After yesterday's press conference, though, the prevailing opinion is that Michigan's defense is going to be half 3-3-5, half 3-3-5. This, for the Ohio State fans stopping by, is 100% 3-3-5.

Wha? Aigh! Justin Siller! No—


Evidence for the switch is plentiful. In this episode of "Inside Michigan Football," Troy Woolfolk talks about "the new defense":

In yesterday's press conference the players all made references to the 3-3-5. The usual array of practice reports coming from shadowy trenchcoated internet folk all say that not only is Michigan running the 3-3-5 in practice, that's all they're running. This is no longer in the realm of rumor.

Is it in the realm of sense? I don't know. The major reasons I and other tea leaf readers were banking on an aggressive 4-2-5 were threefold: it's basically what Michigan was trying to run most of last year, available bodies on the defensive line point towards an undershifted four-man front, and Michigan's latest recruiting class features a zillion guys who were told they would be "quick" ends a la Roh.

The 3-3-5 as a base set obliterates the quick. Michigan cobbles theirs together by dropping Roh back to one of the outside linebacker spots. The defensive end spot not occupied by Ryan Van Bergen is now going to be a Banks/Patterson platoon or a 294-pound Mike Martin. Since 3-3-5 defensive ends are not lumbering quasi-DTs like 3-4 defensive ends (more about this later), Martin seems like a questionable fit at end; the alternative is platooning Martin and Campbell, two of the most physically dominant players on the team.

The Unresolved Questions

Is this an alternate look or a base set? If it's a base set, how often will they deploy a four-man front?

Early indications are that Michigan will use it as a base set. One theory out there is that Michigan is running the 3-3-5 to the exclusion of other defenses because Mike Martin is out for spring. I don't think that makes sense. A team that spends all its time learning one set of responsibilities because one player is out for spring practice only to switch to a considerably different set in fall is a team that is going to get its coach fired at the end of the year. Teams don't devote the entirety of spring practice to a "new defense" that is then a changeup when the season comes.

Michigan used the 3-3-5 from time to time last year, most prominently in the Ohio State game when it was an effective base set that shut down Ohio State's I-formation running:

This is actually more of a 5-3 since the DEs are lined up over the guards and the box safeties are rolled up tight to the line of scrimmage, FWIW, but that's a matter of alignment against a run-heavy team. Note that Roh is an outside linebacker here.

This forced OSU into some bunch formations that forced Michigan out of the stack; OSU also attacked it by running single-back formations that are inherently strong against single deep safety defenses because of old-timey football wonk stuff. Buckeye Football Analysis has a deeper analysis if you're in the mood.

When OSU went unbalanced, Michigan responded by putting Roh's hand down and going back to their usual undershifted four-man line. For Michigan the personnel will be exactly the same, allowing them to shift between fronts at will. So if the 3-3-5 isn't working in a particular game or just turns out to be a bad idea, they aren't totally screwed.

They would be at least partially screwed, however, since they're piling more and more on the plates of linebackers who spent a lot of time last year wondering what to do (or decisively doing the wrong thing). The way West Virginia ran a 3-3-5 allows linebackers to be blitzing players who have to do a minimal amount of reading, but if it doesn't work then all that time will be time that could have spent fixing what ails Ezeh and Mouton in a 4-2-5.

I'm not thrilled that Michigan seems to be changing its defense again, especially since I've been pitching defensive coordinator continuity as a major reason Michigan's defense will improve in 2010, but given what they ran most of last year the only players who will be making major changes are the linebackers. In the West Virginia version of the 3-3-5, defensive ends are basically the same as they are in a 4-3. The nose tackle is more of a two-gap player if you can make him one, but that's not something that requires a lot of reading. So… yeah. Maybe it will work.



March 24th, 2010 at 3:34 PM ^

Has an excellent little post on the switch to the 3-3-5 as well, highlighting four players that should benefit from the change and why.

The more I read about it, the more I like it. This truly does simplify the defense, especially for the linebackers that had problems last year. It looks like the rule for them is "whatever gap your lineman doesn't go into, you do." So the only read they need to make is which way the guy in front of them runs.

I also like the 5 in the back with two playing up on the line. That'll be a big help to guys like Kovacs, who is very smart, but maybe can't run all that quick, and the deep field that will have a little less overall responsibility and should be able to play closer on their man.

Trust in RichRod

March 24th, 2010 at 3:52 PM ^

i.) I think we'll be running a combo of 3-3-5 and 4-2-5; the learning gap between the two is not that significant IMO.

ii.) I voiced this earlier (see video from first spring practice); Big Will was looking at the sky because he plays high, his technique is questionable, and his burst off the snap is not where it needs to be. In the M-Drill (again I'm not expecting the world, but I am expecting someone of Will's size to perform a basic bull rush) his feet weren't moving and he had no leverage.

iii.) my later point suggests that Martin will be nose....and that maybe Will's just not ready to be a consistent down linemen yet. Martin can hold his own in a bull rush....hell he can probably benchpress the weight of the opposing o-line in its entirety!

iv.) in a 3-3-5 I'm guessing you see the same DB's and maybe Roh/Martin/VB down, which with Will swithes to the 4-2-5 package. I know Roh practiced with the LB's so we could have a different end playing (i.e. Wilkins, etc.)

v.) BIGGEST ISSUE: we had a crappy secondary last year, talent has improved but will be young. . . .athletic enough to cover but smart enough (due to youth) to run playbook?


March 24th, 2010 at 4:50 PM ^

I think this can work because as people saw we did well against Ohio State running it. Also it puts players in positions to succeed because they will be doing what their good at. Hopefully all the speed on the field will make this defense better from last year.

2 Walter Smith

March 24th, 2010 at 4:59 PM ^

Using our defense's performance against OSU last year is misleading. OSU came into that game with a very conservative offensive game plan. They expected the young Wolverine team to make enough mistakes to beat themselves, and that is exactly what happened.

los barcos

March 24th, 2010 at 5:22 PM ^

i think our defense played better , however, when osu really wanted to have their way with us, there was not much stopping them.

to look at one game (the osu game) and say that the 3-3-5 is going to be successful as evidenced by that game, well, we better start preparing ourselves for a lot of crushed expectations.


March 24th, 2010 at 5:24 PM ^

the person who seems will be affected the most, and asked to ascertain spots/reads/formation quite a bit, is Craig Roh.

As in, 4.0 Craig Roh.

So, his ability to adapt worries me....nil.


March 24th, 2010 at 6:03 PM ^

If I remember correctly, this was RR's base defense at WVU, wasn't it? If so, is it really a surprise he would want to go to this?

Blue boy johnson

March 24th, 2010 at 6:41 PM ^

If I were on the team, I wouldn't give a shit what you call the formation. Gonna end up with 11 on the field no matter how you slice it
Just make sure the players know WTF they are doing. Could someone please pass this along to RR. I think a lot of this shit is coach speak and maybe a little psychological. Boys we have a new Defense so don't worry about the last one sucking, you guts will be great in a 3-3-5. Roh, son you are now a linebacker, but basically we are going to have you do what you did last year. Hawthorne be ready, you are playing one of our 9 hybrids safety/lindbacker positions.

Please don't reinvent the wheel, be fundamentally sound

Seems to me, if we want a big fast physical D, we need big fast physical players. When we get some play makers on the field blowin up plays, the D will be good, until then I hope the Offense keeps the Defense on the sidelines.


March 24th, 2010 at 7:38 PM ^

OSU ran a pretty vanilla offense, with TP only attempting 17 passes, completing 9, but we still gave up 250 yds rushing for a 4.7 average. The wear on our D as the game progressed was certainly significant due to the turnovers, but I'm skeptical we can draw any strong conclusions about the 3-3-5 from that one game. Given the players we lost and how many young guys are going to be getting large amounts of PT, I think it's crazy to confidently predict anything—positive or negative—about how the D is going to perform in 2010. There's way too many unknowns.


March 24th, 2010 at 8:21 PM ^

I'll pick out one point you made.......regarding the wear and tear on the defense in that Ohio State game.

This is point number one of many as to why I think the defense will be better this year: depth.

This was the group of available players Rich Rod felt comfortable playing in the secondary at the end of last year:

Warren, Woolfolk, Williams, Floyd, Kovacs.

Seriously. That's it. How effective can these guys be when they know they likely have to play over 75 snaps? How tired are they, how does their tackling technique suffer? Imagine if they had backups that could give them breaks during a game?

They will this year.

The following players will likely be in the rotation for the defensive backfield in 2010:

Woolfolk, Williams, Floyd, Kovacs (notice the returning experience with these four), Emilien, Cam Gordon, Teric Jones, Justin Turner (look - a proper two deep!), Cullen Christian, Carvin Johnson, Marvin Robinson, Demar Dorsey.

And I didn't mention Vinogrit, Avery or Talbott.

Even if it's young, giving 10-15 of Woolfolk's plays to Dorsey, for example, will not only improve Woolfolk's performance, but it gives Dorsey that chance to work into the games over time (I expect him to get a lot of work v. Bowling Green and UMass. Christian too).

There are tons of options this year. There were hardly any last year. That alone should make us optimistic. All Michigan needs are four of the options to work at any time for the team defense to be just fine.


March 24th, 2010 at 8:38 PM ^

I don't think to many teams rotate their corners and safeties. They may bring in extra corners/safeties for nickel and dime situations but on most teams barring injury or subpar performance, the starting corners and safeties are on the field 100% of the time when the defense is on the field. The same generally holds true for LB's.

The only position group on the defensive side of the ball where the players rotate in and out is usually the dline.


March 24th, 2010 at 8:57 PM ^

For most of the game, OSU was very conservative and vanilla with their play calling. I guess one could look at it and say UM did a lot better in 2009 then they did in 2008 against OSU's conservative play calling. At the same time though, the one drive I remember where OSU opened things up a bit and did a lot of mis-direction, they were gashing UM's defense and moved right down the field for a TD.


March 24th, 2010 at 11:49 PM ^

1. Rodriguez really should have hired Jeff Casteel as Michigan's DC back in 2008 because he would have implemented the defensive system that Rodriguez already knows and trusts.
I don't understand what RR is thinking here.

I mean, looking back now does it make any sense at all to have hired a guy like Greg Robinson who was a good defensive coach at UCLA and various NFL teams and then charge him to "coordinate" a defensive scheme for which he is completely unfamiliar? Rodriguez simply hired the wrong guy (yet again).
You don't hire a guy like GRob and then micromanage him like a maniac. Imagine some company manager hiring you and telling you how much he respects your work history and your successful methods and then adding a comment on the side that you can implement things as you see fit when you come on board. Come Monday morning, however, this new manager of yours is arranging the very pencils and paperwork on your own desk.

2. This is a 5-3 defense.
8 dudes are now close to the LOS and leaving 3 Michigan defensive backs trying to shut down the opposing receivers of QBs like Zach Frazer, Andrew Hendrix, Ben Chappell, Kirk Cousins, Ricky "Your So Fine" Stanzi and Terrelle Pryor?
Boy, I can't wait to see how this works out, let me tell you.

3. And does it really matter so much whether Michigan's run a 3-4, 4-3, 5-2, 5-3 or 3-3-5 or 4-2-5? If you're linebackers suck or don't know what they're doing out there (or both), it's going to become abundantly clear in Michigan's game film. One way or another opponents are going to find ways to make Michigan pay for this chronic weakness of theirs.


March 25th, 2010 at 7:07 AM ^

1. He tried to hire Casteel. Casteel did not want to leave West Virginia. I see what you're saying about micromanaging Greg Robinson, but who's to say this wasn't a collaborative effort on Robinson's part? He has to know that there's no player who really fits the SAM linebacker profile.

2. This is not a 5-3 defense. It is a 3-5-3 or a 3-3-5 defense. The two box safeties can play safety or can play man coverage on slot receivers, so you have 5 defensive backs; two of them also have some linebacker responsibilities.

3. Our linebackers are now Craig Roh, Obi Ezeh, and Jonas Mouton. Isn't that better than Obi Ezeh, Jonas Mouton, and Brandin Hawthorne/Josh Furman? That's rhetorical, because the answer is clearly "yes."


March 25th, 2010 at 10:35 AM ^

our back 5 now consists of whom? Is this really better than turner/woolfolk/kovacs/demar dorsey? This question is also rhetorical as we have no depth at any defensive back position which is why continuity is a better strategy than mixing things up to fill another, similarly gaping, hole at linebacker.


March 25th, 2010 at 6:51 PM ^

There are going to be 5 defensive backs whether we run a 3-3-5 or a 4-2-5. The only difference (in personnel) is how we deploy Craig Roh.

So yeah, our defensive backfield is thin, but it wouldn't be any deeper if we ran a 4-2-5, and a 4-3 basically isn't an option.