Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cover-2 and the inability to play anything else

As I mentioned in my Wisconsin recap, Nick Toon ran free through the middle of Michigan's secondary on Saturday and was largely untouched before getting 20- and 30-yard gains. Michigan never changed their defensive scheme even though Wisconsin had clearly figured it out, and it finally hit me: Michigan has been vulnerable in the secondary because they're unable to play anything that's not a cover-2--or zero blitz, when they bring the house--due to the lack of talent at safety and depth elsewhere. Take a look at the pre-snap alignments from a few of Michigan's big disaster passing plays:

The first one is from MOEAKI!!! and the birth of our inability to stop tight ends, and the second is Penn State and one of Andrew Quarless' scoring plays. Against Quarless, Michigan is sitting in a base cover-2 set, and the opposing tight end split the middle of the field. I think a lot of this falls on the linebackers who need to drop back into coverage and make sure that the pass to the tight end doesn't get there, but we all know how our linebackers play in coverage. Against MOEAKI, Michigan played in this really weird quasi cover-2, quasi man, quasi cover-1... I don't now. It's definitely one of the formations we had heard about preseason. As you know, it was a disaster. So as Michigan experiemented with different formations to try and get everything right, the need to go to a cover-2 arose as Michigan continually gave up huge, crushing plays.

Wisconsin saw Michigan's trend to play cover-2 and started to exploit it. (With MGoVideo down and, apparently, no where else to find the game, I can't really bring you any images. If I find some video in the near future I'll post some pictures.) You may have noticed that in the second half, Wisconsin started a lot of plays by showing a two-wide, max protect set. Before the snap, they would motion Nick Toon from one side of the field to the other to, presumably, see how Michigan's defense would react. And what did they do? The corner that was initially on Toon would slide over to the end of the LOS on the side of the field he was on--presumably, he was then in charge of covering the weakside flat, but that move completely tipped Michigan's defensive alignment. This was a glaring signal to Wisconsin that Michigan was playing zone. Tolzien only had to do a pre-snap read on the safeties to see if they were playing a cover-2 (they were), and Toon simply ran skinny posts through the middle of the zone. This play happened exactly this way at least 4 times during the Wisconsin game.

As I mentioned before, this is the biggest condemnation of Greg Robinson this season. He's been working with a relative lack of talent and the poor performances are at least moderately acceptable given the depth and physical limitations of his players. But when you're outwardly outschemed and unable to react to it, that's a problem. I've been fairly forgiving of Robinson this season because of the personnel trouble. This, however, was ugly.

But maybe this scheming (or lack thereof) can't all be blamed on Robinson. For starters, it's not as if Michigan had been succeeding with the cover-2 they'd played all year. To give the secondary a completely new look would probably be disastrous (think 3-3-5 stack against Purdue last year). But what needs to break first: Being bad at playing cover-2 and changing to something else, or trying to get good at playing cover-2? At this point, you almost have to say the former.

But that's where the problems really begin. With Michigan's lack of any depth in the secondary, it's difficult to play anything but cover-2. And the lack of talent that the current set of safeties has makes playing cover-1 a worse gamble than they're current formation. The only reasonable compromise would be to play Williams, Kovacs, and Brandon Smith at the same time in a cover-3 and sacrifice one of Michigan's linebackers--but given their trouble in run stopping with the personnel they have currently on the field, one less linebacker would probably spell doom in the run game.

If all of this sounds like I'm talking in circles, well, I am. The fact of the matter is, the lack of any respectable depth or talent in the Michigan secondary makes it exceedingly difficult to counteract opponents attacks. I'm not implying that Robinson shouldn't try. He has, to relatively poor results. In the end though, the inability of the linebackers to stop the run, the lack of depth at safety, and the fear of the big play if Michigan strands Kovacs, Williams, or Smith in the secondary alone, all contribute to a defense that's behind the 8 ball. This isn't supposed to come off as an excuse for this defense. A plea for understanding and an explanation as to why Michigan is unable to stop, well, anyone.


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