Are Defense & Spec. Teams becoming a Positive?

Submitted by StephenRKass on September 19th, 2011 at 9:31 AM

There has been a lot of angst on the board over offensive play calling, whether Borges can adjust to the player personnel on hand, the spread vs. power & manball, protecting Denard, his passing skills and ability in the pocket, whether or not a "go-to" running back will emerge, whether the OL is creating lanes, etc., etc., etc.

I think these are legitimate concerns. But I also am reminded of something Hoke said in the pre-season, in so many words:  the offense is only 1/3 of the team. The defense and special teams also make a huge difference.

Even with our defensive liabilities, I see this side of the ball becoming a strength.

  • Mattison's ability to make adjustments to other teams and shut them down as the game goes on is huge. Against both ND & EMU, it looked bleak in the first quarter. But the defense adjusted, and gave our offense time to perform.
  • I haven't parsed the numbers, but I think our defense is way up over the last few years of Michigan teams in causing turnovers. Even with Denard's miscues, we still are way up on turnovers this year, a huge credit to the defense.
  • On the DL, the play of Martin has been great, Roh is finally healthy, VanBergen is solid, BWC shows glimpses of promise.
  • The secondary has been great, with Troy, Floyd, Avery, Kovacs, and Gordon bending yet not breaking, and stopping most of the home runs.
  • With the emergence of Hawthorne and Jake Ryan, alongside Demens, LB play has been solid. And Cam Gordon should be contributing anytime now.

Admittedly, there isn't enough depth. But if the defense stays healthy, I think they're going to be able to play with most of the teams we will face, and even win us a game or two.

Special Teams has been under the radar, but I am very, very encouraged.

  • Wile adds something to the mix, and has been solid, if unspectacular.
  • Hagerup will return in one more game, and will give us more range on punts.
  • Gibbons hasn't missed a field goal yet this year! Ok, this is overstating things, but at least this doesn't appear to be the huge liability of a year ago. Hoke sure doesn't seem concerned. Hitting a field goal last Saturday was a step in the right direction.
  • Gallon has done a great job in returns. It was beautiful seeing him return a punt a long way (only to have it called back by an illegal block to the back.)

With the return of Hagerup, we are going to see our opponents pinned deep more often, with a long field ahead of them. Sustaining a drive of more than 80 yards is not easy. If the defense continues to generate turnovers, this will be a great thing.

With the emergence of Gallon, and the ability of our defense to stop the opponent on 3rd and 4th down, we are going to see a short field for Michigan's offense more often this year.

Having a solid defense and good special teams play will make a huge difference in our overall play and record. Even with our offense stepping down a level, it is more than compensated for by our defense and special teams stepping up. As entertaining as it may have been, I don't want to see a repeat of last year's Illinois game, where our only chance of winning was being the last one to score a TD.


Sextus Empiricus

September 19th, 2011 at 9:38 AM ^

TOs and lack of penalties have become a plus.  Defense and special teams still have some points to make on the field.

TO margin really only says we played ND - I suppose, but I take the OPs point re: this D causing TOs as opposed to last years "Take it like a man" D.

This is a good post.

Mr Mackey

September 19th, 2011 at 9:48 AM ^

I would say yes if it weren't for kick coverage.. That's one of the biggest things we have to fix right meow. It's bad when EMU is getting to the 30/40 yard line consistently on kickoffs.


September 19th, 2011 at 9:52 AM ^

Both the kicking and receiving units are pretty bad right now.  Michigan is getting nothing out of its return team.  The kick-off unit is so bad that I'll be surprised if they don't give up at least one TD this year.  The fact that Wile has three more tackles than touch-backs is - obviously - a really bad sign (as much as I like his toughness).


September 19th, 2011 at 10:05 AM ^

I knew I was forgetting something. While I think that between Wile, Hagerup and Gibbons, kickoffs, punts, and field goals will be solid, and Gallon is doing well, our coverage is still not what it should be.

Questions:  how much can the coverage units improve at this point in the season? Do we risk our depth by putting more defensive starters on the field for covering punts and kickoffs? (or are they already there?) Also, is there a list somewhere that shows who is playing on the kicking and receiving units? I glanced back at UFR, and don't see any analysis ever on coverage heros and goats. Other than the bad sign, as you mentioned, the fact Wile has actually been forced to tackle.


September 19th, 2011 at 10:12 AM ^

I know that a good amount of starters have been on the kicking unit at times.  I also think that has a list of player participation, though I'm not sure that it shows who was on what unit.  I think the biggest problem is the kicks, though the coverage has certainly been lacking too.  I thought the coaches made a good choice to go with the squib kicks on Saturday.  Wile's line drives to the five are too dangerous.  Better to concede a return to the 30 that almost certainly won't go the distance (though one of them was returned to the 40 IIRC). 


September 19th, 2011 at 11:17 AM ^

I don't know if "Hagerup will be back soon" is a reason to say that's an area of improvement.  Hagerup was good as a freshman, but we'll see if he improves at all.  Based on his suspension, it wouldn't be a stretch to think his improvement might be less than expected. 

We've kicked one FG which was basically a PAT.  We can take nothing positive or negative from this, it shouldn't even be mentioned. 

As said above, our kick return and kick-off teams have both been horrible.  Vincent Smith can't even make it back to the 20 on most returns, and it's not like he's taking it out from 5 yards deep.  I don't know if that's on him or the blockers, but it's bad.  I like Smith as a back, but you usually want elite speed in a returner, and it's the one thing he lacks.  Put Odoms or Toussaint or Hayes or a DB back there. 

Kick-offs have been just as bad.  Wile hasn't kicked the ball within 5 yards of the endzone (not a single touchback I can remember) and even EMU is returning them out to the 35-40 on a regular basis.  With all of the athletes we have on our team, this should be a major strength.  Instead, we're one of the worst in the nation. 

I don't know why you think special teams have gotten better. 


September 19th, 2011 at 12:37 PM ^

I started to respond to the OP but then realized that I must've already done so under a different screen name cause your post is EXACTLY what i was about to write.

I was wondering if Mr Kass was watching the same games I was as it relates to Special Team play.  Defense yes - much better and much better in-game adjustments but Special Team improvement?  Not so much.


September 19th, 2011 at 2:01 PM ^

No offense to you or me, but I think my post was pretty blindingly obvious. A few times I was saying to myself that our special teams were looking awful. I'm pretty sure I texted it to someone even. Too many people think special teams = FG kicking, but we gave up 25 or so net yards on kick offs.


September 19th, 2011 at 2:02 PM ^

I agree that we can improve a lot in how we cover kickoffs and punts. Having said that, mgoblog is known for crunching numbers, rather than just speculation. I need to do research on several things:

  • Avg. kickoff distance this year (compared to last.)
  • Avg. return of kickoff this year (compared to last.)
  • Avg. punt distance this year (compared to last.)
  • Avg. return of punts this year (compared to last.)
  • Number of times a kickoff was muffed
  • Number of those times kickoff was lost.
  • Number of times a punt was muffed.
  • Number of times a punt was lost.
  • Avg. distance we return kickoff after being caught.
  • Avg. distance we return punt after being caught. 
  • Turnovers against UM on kickoffs.
  • Turnovers against UM on punts.
  • Turnovers for UM on kickoffs.
  • Turnovers for UM on punts.
  • Blocked punts, for and against, this year and last.
  • Number of field goals attempted/made.
  • Number of extra points attempted/made.

Anything I'm missing?

I will look around for this data. If any of you know exactly where it is, point me in the direction, and I can start compiling, for comparison's sake. That will give the data needed to comment more conclusively on whether or not special teams have improved or not.

However, I would say the following:

  1. I have been led to believe that Hagerup has more range, which led me to speculate that he will be an improvement on punts. There is no proof yet.
  2. Hoke has said repeatedly that he is confident in Gibbons. Maybe part of the problem with last year was being a freshman?
  3. Gallon has been praised as regards receiving, focus, and taking things seriously. He sure seems to be on top of things with punt returns. I haven't noticed many muffed returns.
  4. I can't comment on kickoff returns, don't have an impression one way or the other.
  5. As regards covering punts and kickoffs, I'll agree that Michigan could do a better job of tackling and pinning our opponent back. Having said that, no one has returned either a ko or punt against us all the way inside our red zone. We'll see whether this continues or not.


September 19th, 2011 at 7:23 PM ^

I agree that, thus far, there have been fewer blatant fuck ups such as muffs on kicks and punts, but although those were very frustrating last year, they didn't happen every game and we're only three games in.  The major parts of special teams, though, we're lacking.

You don't need to look at that many metrics.  For kick offs, take a look at our starting field position after kick offs versus our opponents, this year to last year.  Just because a team doesn't break one long doesn't mean we're doing our job.  Since we've been using our back up punter, punt coverage isn't worth looking at, and punt returns have been mostly fair catches at this point, and our one good return was brought back by a penalty.  We've only kicked on FG and it was almost a PAT so there's no info there either.

My point - the only aspect of special teams where we have any data to look at, kick offs and kick returns, we've been near abysmal.  I suppose punt returns are an improvement because we haven't muffed one yet, but we've had one shortened game and one game where our opponent rarely punted.  Not enough to say that special teams have improved.


September 19th, 2011 at 9:48 AM ^

The offense is worse given the scheme, the defense is better due to great adjustments by Mattison.  I would say special teams are roughly the same with field goal kicking an unknown.

I like what I see though.  Borges isnt afraid to use the spread and there should be improvement in the punting when Hagerup returns which may let Wile get those kickoffs a little further.



Every Roh Has …

September 19th, 2011 at 9:49 AM ^

I don't know if I would call them a "strength" yet.  Are they much improved?  Yes.  Are they showing promise?  Yes.  Can they potentially become a strength, even later this season?  Yes.  But are they a strength as of this moment?  I'm gonna have to say no


September 19th, 2011 at 10:02 AM ^

One problem I have is the kickoff coverage.  It seems that we never stop them until they reach at least the 30, sometimes even the 40.  In contrast, our kickoff returns are usually brought to around the 20.  Giving teams that much extra field to start out with is huge, and we need to correct that somehow.


September 19th, 2011 at 10:03 AM ^

I hope they are both becoming positives.

Let's wait until we get into big ten play and see where they are. I have seen this movie too many times the past few years.


September 19th, 2011 at 10:09 AM ^

Kind of a yes and no.

When Notre dame marches down the field in 42 seconds and gets a TD, it is hard to say that the defense is improving.  I do think that Mattison makes adjustments that help, but that isn't the same as an improving defense.  That is what a good DC does.  I do think that some of the young guys that are playing will make much more progress than took place last year. 

The turnover margin looks good to date.  Some of that is attributable to the D, some to good luck, like when Rees drops the ball and we happen to recover.

There are some bright spots, like BWC.  Let's hope that trend continues as he could help us immensely if he finally figures things out.  I get the feeling, particularly when I listen to Mattison's pressers, that we are in much better hands than we have been in a while.



September 19th, 2011 at 10:21 AM ^

I thought I was going to be the pessimestic one on this thread, but I think ND might be the best offense we face all year. NU without Persa is having a lot of problems, Nebraska has Martinez and did just put up 51 on Washington but that all came late and it seemed like Washington didn't care, and ND just held MSU to 22 less points than they held us to.

Edit: Illinois belongs here too, but the overall point I think is solid. We probably won't face an offense significantly better than ND for the rest of the year.

One Inch Woody…

September 19th, 2011 at 11:33 AM ^

Notre Dame could have very easily put up 42 points on MSU. On their drives after getting turnovers in the 4th quarter, Kelly called 3 consecutive QB sneaks on 1st and 10 on both drives just to waste time/kick a field goal instead of moving downfield.

It's ugly when Notre Dame has to start going easy on you...


September 19th, 2011 at 10:09 AM ^

The real question is one of continued improvement in the defense and special teams play. 

My observation after watching the first 3 games is that the defense is still learning how to play this defense as a concept and where to line-up.  That being said, it appears that this set of defensive coaches teach better and identify talent and how to use it better than the last set of coaches.  At least, that is what the stats bear out so far. 

Since the NCAA does not count our stats against Western Michigan, we are currently ranked 76 out of 120 teams in total defense, 103rd in rushing defense, 26th in pass defense, 92nd in passing efficiency defense, 35th in scoring defense (bend but don't break? and turnovers!), tied for 11th in turnover margin.

As the season moves on, these are the stats to watch as both we and other teams play more games and get a larger sample size.

We still need to get deeper kick-offs and better kick-off return coverage, and continue to avoid any killer turnovers.

Here is the website where you can get the stats for parsing....…








September 19th, 2011 at 10:43 AM ^

Thanks for Link . . . Interesting to see OSU at 67 (0 TO Margin) and ND literally dead last.

Regarding TO margin, I am pondering how much blame you assess Borges and how much Denard for Interceptions (and I suppose, how much is on the receivers?) To put this a different way, how much can be expected of Denard by Borges? I think it is fair to expect more, but the question is, how much more? Honestly, games against directional Michigan universiities are exactly the place to find this kind of thing out. Even if the stats are lousy, you know you should win, and so, why not use these largely as "pre-season" games to figure things out before conference games?


September 19th, 2011 at 11:47 AM ^

In the Spring, I was among those on the fence about Hoke. As someone who liked RR, Barwis, and Michigan in general, I was disappointed in the way things played out. The tag was my way of saying that I felt reassured in the direction Hoke was going, and that I was no longer withholding judgement on him, but was a fan of his leadership. It's time to change/delete the tag. One of those things you kind of forget is there.


September 19th, 2011 at 11:48 AM ^

I think we did not pass as much against EMU simply because they talked about Denard's arm being hurt and how he did not throw the ball during Thursday's practice before this game.

In terms of interceptions, we are watching Denard learn on the fly how to be a better passing QB when his wide outs are not so totally wide open because people are scared to death of his running ability killing them.  How much is on whom is a case by case basis, but in the final analysis most of the time it will be on the QB because he makes the decision of when and where to throw.  Borges job is to call plays that Denard can be successful with, one thing to remember is how much Denard faded in terms of passing as the year went along last year mainly because people decided to do what we can expect this year as well, say in so many words to us that they will dare Denard to beat them throwing the ball.

Again, key is improvement in Denard's footwork and decision making on passes, and structuring a passing game around his strengths....We'll see how he does as the season moves on.  I think he will continue to make strides and we will see Borges continue to adjust and learn same as Denard.

We are a work in progress, and I am encouraged so far.....

One Inch Woody…

September 19th, 2011 at 11:40 AM ^

It should be noted that while most other teams in the country have played 2 cupcakes and 1 strong team, our stats are indicative of 1 strong team and 1 cupcake so everything should be taken with a grain of salt. Our stats after next week will be more indicative of what our season will be like.

I'm guessing 30ish in scoring defense, 60-70 in total defense, 70-80 ish in rush defense and 40-50 in pass defense.

blue in dc

September 19th, 2011 at 12:42 PM ^

One thing I am excited about is that we are not jjust hoping that because Mattison is Mattison and Hoke poops gold, there will be continued improvement. There are actual roster related reasons to believe more improvement is possible.
<br>- still have not seen what kind of an impact Woolfolk can make, hopefully he can avoid further injury and we will see more from him
<br>- nickelback - seems to be an area where experimentation is still going on, maybe one of the freshman will step up
<br>- d-line - if they start getting more pressure, that can only help the secondary
<br> - While Hawthorne and Ryan have really stepped up, we still haven't gotten to see Cameron Gordon. He could further solidify this unit
<br>- it's a great sign to see Roh stepping up. Hopefully he is over whatever ailed him and he'll continue to contribute as the competition gets tougher
<br>- think we all are excited about what it would mean if BWC continues to step up
<br>Field position
<br>- while I can't think of roster reasons that the kickoff units will improve, Hagerup is certainly likely to help improve field position on punts

Mr Miggle

September 19th, 2011 at 10:17 AM ^

Good post. One thing you didn't mention is that we've already seen a lot of change in personnel on defense through three games. Guys buried on the depth chart in week one like Hawthorne and now Taylor are getting a lot of snaps and have looked good. I expect the defense's performance to improve as the season goes on. It looks like we do have some depth this season.


September 19th, 2011 at 10:20 AM ^

Special teams and defense seem to be improved over last year; on the other hand, they had nowhere to go but up. To call them positives is an exaggeration.

Kickoff coverage and kickoff returns are still mediocre. Gallon has shown some signs on punt returns, but he isn’t yet a consistent threat. Matt Wile’s punting hasn’t hurt the team, but he hasn’t been strong, either. It is too soon to tell about FGs, as the team has attempted only one short kick, offset by a missed extra point in the first game.

On defense, Michigan gave up over 500 yards and over 30 points to the only non-MAC opponent it faced. After a slow start, Michigan dominated Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan, but bear in mind the Wolverines did the same two years ago.

Yes, there is improvement. The defense is showing good mid-game adjustments, isn’t giving up as many big plays, and has been strong on short-yardage running downs. But you can’t call the defense an asset until it shuts down a good opponent.


September 19th, 2011 at 10:40 AM ^

After having seen 4-0 and 5-0 starts most Wolverine fans can be a little hesitant if not skeptical to declare any major improvements in the defense until the Big 10 season starts. By the standard of whether we won or lost the game, at this point in the season, the defense is the same. If one uses other statistical parameters like yards yielded, it still has major issues. YET having acknowledged all of these concerns, the verdict is probably YES that the defense is better - the positive turn over ratio, fewer penalties and seemingly fewer blown coverages are all positive trending signs. The best sign is as you noted, the noticeable improvement and adjustment during each game. We all wish the defense would be like a wall from the first series, but it is heartening that it seems to get better with each successful series. Maybe that is something from Mattison NFL background where making adjustments and realizing what is happening during the game may be more important (just speculating).

Special teams are harder to assess. Hagerup hasn't played. Gibbons has not been put into any real pressure situations except making the PATs in the ND game.

Since you also mentioned the Illinois game, it is OT but is Nathan Scheelhasse adapting to throwing better than DR? DR is clearly the more explosive player, but throwing the ball, Scheelhasse seems more comfortable.

El Demonio

September 19th, 2011 at 10:45 AM ^

I think that the significant drop (and this may only be my perception that the drop is "significant") means that this team is showing a bit more indvidual discipline and maybe knowledge of what their roles are.  Confidence in one's role and responsibilities on the field, which are probably enhanced when fundamentals of football are reinforced, is leading to guys making fewer mental mistakes.


Promote RichRod

September 19th, 2011 at 10:50 AM ^

Unless things improve quickly our D is going to get exposed by a mediocre opponent in the short term.  Bullets:

  • Our run D is terrible.  No sugarcoat--it's really bad.  Every team we have faced has run the ball at will.  This has been covered up by turnovers and bad decisions by the other temas' offenses to date.
  • Our D Line is nowhere near where it should be with the players and coaches we have.  We can't get pressure with 4 and run D is bad.  That's on the D line.
  • Linebacker play is spotty but probably improving.
  • Our pass D is improving in most parts and an upgrade over last year so far.  We protect the deep ball pretty well but I am concerned about the short passing game torching us.
  • The turnover margin will not stay this way.  A good chunk of the turnovers have been unforced errors by the other team.  Once these stop or we finally play a team that plays closer to error-free, watch out.


September 19th, 2011 at 12:32 PM ^

Our secondary was going to get infinitely better this year no matter what. Getting two 5th year seniors and leaders on the defense back from season ending injuries goes a long way for our depth. This defense was going to get better no matter what bringing back 10 starters and most of your 2 deep, but it is promising to see what Mattison is doing.


September 19th, 2011 at 10:54 AM ^

I agree with most if not all of the comments made thus far.  However, my assessment of everything may be a little different to some.  I like what the D has done, in terms of TO's, however, when Mattison has to make so many adjustments in the game just to stop a team like EMU, is disconserting.  If we don't get more pressure from the front four, teams with a good soild accurate QB could give our secondary more problems.  Just look at the stats from ND, If not for the TO's ND suffered, we would have been blown out in that game.  Going back to the ND game, JT needs to be credited for doing an extremely acceptable job against one of the best WR's in the country.  I don't know how many yards after catch Floydd had after catch, but watching the game and everone knowing where the ball was going, I really think JT stepped up and competed very well against him.  Avery looks solid as well as Woolfolk and T.Gordon.  The LB's look years ahead of where they did last year, so yet another great positive for this D.  All and all, I am very pleased with this D.

As for the ST's I like what Wile has done, as a true frosh, punting.  I like everyone else am very concerned about our coverage teams, we are giving up way to many yards after catch.  We need to shore up quickly.  FG kicking is definetely promising.  I would like to see how well he does in a clutch pressure situation before I pass further judgement.

Section 1

September 19th, 2011 at 11:17 AM ^

What do you base that on?  What exactly is Michigan's kicking game promising?  I don't necessarily disagree with you, by the way.  I have some hopeful suspicions:  That Matt Wile will pressure Will Hagerup to improve his personal performance on and off the field.  Brendan Gibbons might settle down to be the kicker he "promised" to be in high school.  We might be able to build on some confidence, rather than get rattled by failures and fall into slumps of missed FG's.

But really, what true accurate measure of any of that is there at this point?

Six Zero

September 19th, 2011 at 11:58 AM ^

I've started to get the feeling that Mattison's defense will or may look like crap on paper, but will show up well on the scoreboard.  It's almost like an opposite of last year's offense, which featured unbelievable statistics, but didn't always equate to points... the defense leaks but, at least so far, it hasn't burst.  At this point of the game, I'll take it.

But obviously, at this point, it's too early to pass judgement, good or bad.

I don't care if the defense gives up 600 a game if Mattison can keep them under 17.  That, paired with the offensive production (aka Denard Robinson), looks like a pretty good recipe for success.


September 19th, 2011 at 10:56 AM ^

The ST's overall are much better, but as has been stated, Kick Coverage has been pretty awful.  It's amazing to me that this can be so bad. It doesn't seem like an overly complex discipline (though I'm admittedly ignorant on the subject so school me up experts if I'm wrong). 

Do we have a coach dedicated to this? We're losing the field position battle horribly on punts and KC. Punts should get better when Hagerup returns but KC has to be a matter of coaching, doesn't it? Surely we can find 11 athletes to stay in their lanes, run down there and make a tackle?


September 19th, 2011 at 10:58 AM ^

They are tackling better. Coverage is still awful and some of the play calls on defense are questionable. Seriously single coverage on Michael Floyd on that pass interference play at the end? Leaving whats his face wide open to score with 30 seconds?

This is a unit I see improving week to week unlike last year where it seems they only got worse as the season went on. LSU's offense could have moved the ball blinfolded on Michigan last season.


September 19th, 2011 at 11:17 AM ^

Anyone could figure out that the team would continue to improve just by having a majority of upperclassmen.  When you have true freshmen starting on defense and playing on special teams, along with a lot of standard underclassmen, it is never a good sign.  It works on offense with a good scheme, but the lack of maturity, both physical and mental, hurts the most on defense and special teams.

Having a resource like Greg Mattison available certainly didn't hurt, either.  It was pretty much a no-brainer that both teh defense and special teams would improve.  The real surprise is that Borges is still allowing Denard to be Denard while teaching him as much WCO as he can reasonably handle.

As for angst or criticism about Borges and playcalling, you won't find any in my posts.  I can't understand why anyone would complain about a team that is 3-0.  I hope people at least wait for a loss before they go too off the wall.  


September 19th, 2011 at 3:33 PM ^

We are older than last year, but overall it isn't really that experienced of a defense, especially given that many players have been moved around.  There are upperclassmen in the rotation who've basically never played before (Campbell, Hawthorne, M. Robinson), and there are a fair number of underclassmen playing, too (Black, Avery, Ryan, Morgan, Beyer).  2012 will be the first truly experienced D we've had in awhile.