Friday, October 29, 2010

Penn State preview

After the transition from Lloyd Carr to Rich Rodriguez took place, Michigan lost its starting quarterback in Ryan Mallett and was stuck with the platoon of Nick Sheridan and Stephen Threet. The dearth of talent was understandable: Rodriguez brought with him a completely different style that didn't fit the players Carr had recruited. But the fact that Penn State, with the longest reigning head coach in the history of college football is facing this kind of quarterback crisis is incomprehensible. Tomorrow, PSU will start a redshirt sophomore walk-on at quarterback. Despite the program's longevity and stability, Nick Sheridan will be starting for Penn State.

But it's not like PSU has been very good this year anyway. To the numbers:
Passing117th nationally
296.29 YPG
39th nationally
250.43 YPG
Rushing54th nationally
144.71 YPG
7th nationally
281.57 YPG
Scoring80th nationally
28.43 PPG
17th nationally
36.00 PPG
Penn StateDefenseOffense
Passing29th nationally
187.86 YPG
71st nationally
208.71 YPG
Rushing52nd nationally
143.86 YPG
86th nationally
128.71 YPG
Scoring22nd nationally
18.43 PPG
99th nationally
20.29 PPG
Not exactly the kind of numbers you'd expect from PSU, especially after the last three years of relative dominance alongside Ohio State in the Big Ten. PSU's offensive numbers are atrocious. Not only has the passing game being non-existent (true freshman QB Robert Bolden has been exactly that: a true freshman), but Evan Royster is averaging less than 70 yards per game. This is not the Penn State you know.

After a concussion to Bolden last week, walk-on sophomore Matt McGloin is taking over the starting quarterback role, inexplicably surpassing one-time Michigan recruit true sophomore Kevin Newsome. McGloin's first action all season was last week where he went 6/13 for 76 yards, 2 TDs, and 1 INT... against Minnesota. He only threw two passes last year, both incomplete. McGloin is a bad quarterback as you'd expect a walk-on to be, making tomorrow's game one in which Michigan's defense must succeed. If McGloin is able to get any sort of rhythm against Michigan's wretched defense, it's a referendum against every player on Michigan's D. (As an aside, Newsome, who has now been surpassed by a walk-on, was a Michigan commit who would've taken the place of Denard Robinson had he not decommitted. I'm happy with how Michigan fared here. Aren't you?)

PSU's defense isn't even the dominating unit that they have been in years past. But at least there's an explanation for that: PSU has been hit as hard, if not harder, than any program in the country by injuries. Not only should Michigan be able to stop PSU's inept offense, but the thin, injured defense of PSU should be porous, enabling Denard Robinson to return to the form we saw earlier in the year. Again: This is not the Penn State you know.

This is, no questions asked, a must-win game for Michigan and Rich Rodriguez. Penn State's defense isn't very good and their offense may be the worst in the Big Ten. If PSU is able to put up the 500 yards and 24+ points that seemingly everyone can against Michigan, Rodriguez's job is in serious jeopardy. Penn State's offense is essentially Michigan's defense, except PSU is starting a sophomore walk-on quarterback, who has never started a game and has thrown 15 passes in his collegiate career. Michigan will completely shut down PSU's offense, generate a few turnovers, and show very few new defensive looks. With McGloin's inexperience and PSU's lackluster team, Greg Robinson will not waste new, effective defensive fronts against a team that Michigan should be able to shut down.

Any time Michigan gets a negative play (sack or penalty), expect them to get the ball back. PSU lacks the talent at quarterback to convert 3rd and long, and their run offense isn't strong enough to carry the team out of long-yardage situations. With a weak offensive line, look for Mike Martin to do a lot of damage and get to McGloin at least once. Otherwise, Michigan will probably bring more pressure than they have earlier in the year. Getting to McGloin and not allowing him to sit in the pocket will drastically increase the chance of a bad throw that results in an incompletion or interception.

Offensively, it's going to be much of the same. Michigan is going to primarily run at PSU's depleted defensive line and will do a lot of damage. Denard is probably going to break a few different runs of 20+ yards as he'll be able to get to the second level with relative ease. Expect Michigan's running backs to have a good day as well. With the bye week allowing Mike Shaw to get healthy again and, presumably, PSU forcing Denard to hand the ball of on the zone-read, Michigan should have an advantage anywhere they play. Expect Michigan to average 6.0 yards per carry against PSU.

Through the air, Denard should have a bounceback game. After two shaky performances against MSU and Iowa, due at least in some part because of a sore shoulder that should be (mostly) healed after the week off, Denard will be able to find open receivers as PSU has to overcompensate for being gashed on the ground.  Denard will finish the game without throwing a pick and will stop grounding a lot of those 7-yard hitch routes that he's been having trouble with the last two games.

As always, winning the turnover battle will be key. This is the first week in the last three that Michigan comes out on top here. McGloin throws two or three interceptions and we'll also see appearances by Kevin Newsome to try and keep Michigan's defense honest. The PSU offense should be in serious trouble, even against an awful defense like Michigan's. When Michigan has the ball, expect them to move as fluidly as they have all year but without the turnovers that have plagued the team in the last few weeks. Denard will rush for significantly more than 100 yards and breaks at least one long TD run. Michigan should win this easily. Michigan 35-17

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Demens debate (cont.)

Ed. note: I had contemplated doing a Where are they now? post on the special teams, but we all know how that would end up. So I decided to surpass that section of the team. Read: offense, defense, coaching

MGoBlog posted its weekly Upon Further Review Errata this week, much of which was about Kenny Demens' starting debut against Iowa. In it, he addressed the Iowa touchdown that we both analyzed, but which I felt Demens should've come in for more criticism for his pass coverage. Specifically, he says,
On the other hand, BWS took another look at the National Lampoon's Zone Vacation picture pages and suggested the blame was largely on Demens:
I disagree somewhat. Asking a middle linebacker to cover a receiver moving into the flat is either an incoherent defense that will get you killed long term or one of those pattern reading systems that require a ton of drilling. By appearances (and necessity) Michigan does not run fancy stuff; this was three-deep zone with four underneath defenders, except one of them was way, way out of his zone. One of them was somewhat out of his zone....

...It is likely that Demens wasn't supposed to re-route the TE because he wasn't going vertical, and he did drag out of his zone. The reason that's a fifteen-yard error instead of five isn't on him. I should have given him a –1; Avery still is the primary culprit IME.
This still seems like Brian making a few excuses for Demens. If Demens is relieved of the responsibility of guarding the receiver that runs directly through his zone, what exactly is his responsibility on this play? While I agree with Brian that having Demens cover a wide receiver is a bad idea, it is explicitly his job here. Except that he doesn't even have to "cover" the receiver so much as carry him through the zone that he has clearly vacated. If Demens is able to stick with this receiver even for a few yards in his zone, it's likely that Roh's pass rush gets to Stanzi and this is an incomplete pass, or at the very least, Demens is in position to make the tackle. It's easy to say things like "One of them was somewhat out of his zone" about Demens' performance here, but his poor positioning is what turned this play from an incompletion or catch and immediate tackle into a play that saw a lot of yards after the catch.

As to how far out of his zone Avery is: I still contend that Avery is not nearly as out of position as other people say. We can all agree that he has a responsibility to re-route the slot receiver. With two vertical routes heading at one safety, without that bump, this is almost certainly a completion in the end zone (or there will at least be an open receiver). However, if Avery plays at the same depth as the linebackers, there's a huge hole between the three deep safeties and the underneath defenders. The outside receiver is running a skinny post between two safeties, and it appears that the slot receiver is running a square in at the sticks. The slot receiver would be 10 yards from the closest defender if Avery hadn't carried him as far as he had. Furthermore, Avery runs no further than the first down marker, which I'm fairly certain is the depth of his zone. If he had turned back toward the sideline, rather than making a 360-degree turn back to the play, he's in perfect position to make the tackle. Whether or not he makes that tackle is beside the point.

But returning to the assertion that Demens shouldn't be forced to cover a dragging receiver, this is another bullet in my Play Man Coverage gun. With Michigan's insistence on playing zone, team's can find soft spots and mismatches on almost every play. Asking our depleted linebacker core to make plays like this is, as Brian said,  "an incoherent defense that will get you killed long term". What exactly about this year's defense doesn't make you think exactly that? Playing so much zone coverage necessitates that Michigan's linebackers play a lot of pass coverage and stick with a lot of receivers (see: Mouton's team-leading interceptions or Craig Roh attempts at coverage). I still contend that these schemes are flawed and the defensive results we've seen this year should be credited as much to Robinson's playcalling as they are to the lack of talent. But in the system that Michigan is currently playing, Demens completely missed his responsibility and Avery stumbled around helplessly like a true freshman often does.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Where are they now?: The 2010 coaching

Previously: The 2010 offense, The 2010 defense
This blog has spent most words this year discussing the highs and lows of the coaching staff. Rich Rodriguez has come in for a lot of praise because of the way he's manipulated defenses, while Greg Robinson has received the full brunt of the blog's force (intimidating, I know) for the utter lack of defensive competency. There's a lot to be said for the level of talent that each coach is working with, but when one of the units looks either entirely unprepared or gets crushed because of a poor play call, that falls to the coaches.

Rich Rodriguez/Offense
I'll start with the part that doesn't make me want to gouge my eyes out. Michigan's offense this year has looked exceptionally polished, much of which is Rodriguez's schemes. Though Denard Robinson has been the one pulling the trigger, Rodriguez has shown throughout the year a propensity to find and attack a team's weakness, and the ability to make in-game adjustments when a team is shutting down Michigan's primary form of attack.

One such instance that I've referenced several times is the QB draw play action that Michigan ran first against Notre Dame that saw Roy Roundtree run completely untouched into the endzone. This was a bait and switch that Rodriguez ran in an important game that Michigan needed to win and needed to score points in. I concluded thusly:
From the beginning of the game, Rodriguez knew this play would work. He must have seen something in the way Notre Dame/Brian Kelly teams defended similar plays in the past and knew how to exploit it. Denard's running ability and UConn performance went a long way in dictating the way that Notre Dame would defend, but credit for this play falls to Rodriguez's preparation and film study.
And though we haven't seen quite as many build'em up, knock'em down moments like this one, Rodriguez has still identified ways to attack over-compensating defenses. For instance, the Martell Webb touchdown against Michigan State that was successful because MSU was over pursuing the strongside of the field.

In response to that Webb touchdown, I wondered where more counters were in the Michigan offense. With teams running safeties downfield at the point of attack, finding a way to implement a few counters into the schemes could gash defenses and keep them honest, opening up the strongside for more Denard touchdown carries. Webb's touchdown catch explicitly attacked MSU's tendency to vacate the backside of the play by blitzing their outside linebackers.

Greg Robinson/Defense
Michigan's defense has been atrocious. Some of that has to do with the obvious lack of talent on the field. Michigan's secondary is either walk ons, position switch starters, or freshmen, with little or no depth behind them. The linebackers have been, at best, sporadic. And the defensive line has been the sole bright spot, anchored by the unstoppable Mike Martin. Regardless, that sort of talent will rarely translate to a competent defense. Robinson, however, hasn't done much to remedy any of these problems.

My big complaint this year has been a nearly 100% reliance on zone coverage. I've written post after post after post after post after post on why Michigan should incorporate more man coverage into their schemes. On the topic, I said,
After the Indiana game, I started yelling for a lot more man coverage. Teams (UMass and Indiana specifically) had been picking apart Michigan's zones and Greg Robinson's schemes looked less than sound. I went so far as to say,

No longer is this a question of defensive talent or improper personnel. No, sadly, this is far more systematic: Greg Robinson's schemes Do Not Work.

And I stick by that to an extent. It's not necessarily that his schemes don't work; it's that they're predictable and without variation they don't work. Until the MSU game, Michigan basically showed one look on defense with sparse blitzes and it showed up on the stat sheet.
Right now, Michigan's man coverage functions a little bit like the Roy Roundtree touchdown mentioned above: Michigan shows one thing over and over again until an offense starts to cheat on it, and Michigan changes things up. Unfortunately, a stop on one down on defense isn't like a blown coverage that results in touchdown.

Michigan doesn't have the talent to play much man coverage, I realize that. But unless the defense gives a team different looks (they haven't), succeeding against Michigan's zones becomes a function of patience and pass protection. Quarterbacks are shredding this defense, and at this point, it's time for Robinson to start showing more man coverage to try and mix things up and force offensive mistakes, rather than hope they occur.

If you're OK giving up 500 yards a game, though, Michigan is doing it in the most grinding fashion possible. Though I'm not particularly fond of Robinson's zones, they epitomize bend-don't-break defense. Michigan, with a seriously lack of secondary talent, has not given up that many back breaking touchdowns, opting instead for 10-yard hitch routes that teams use to march down the field. If Robinson's schemes are meant to wait for an offensive mistake, they're succeeding, but the Big Ten is too good to do that and expect to win.

What does it mean for the future?
Offensively, we're starting to see the promise of Rich Rodriguez, Godfather of Spread Offenses. Rodriguez has shown a penchant for finding the holes in a defense and exploiting them. Were it not for the team's self-inflicted wounds, Michigan's offense has been utterly unstoppable. As Denard begins to mature in the system, we can expect to see a much deeper and thorough playbook. I doubt that Rodriguez doesn't have counters and dozens of other QB run variations in his pocket, but as he attempts to bring along a true sophomore QB, those will have to remain out of the playbook until he has a better grasp of the offense.

For this season, however, expect to see maybe one more package per game, but the majority of the offense will be things we've already seen. Unless Rodriguez has been saving multiple sets for Ohio State and Wisconsin (unlikely as he needs to win now to keep his job, and saving new packages for games that are likely out of reach is a good way to find yourself unemployed at season's end), I doubt you'll see much that you don't recognize. That's not to say, however, that he won't effectively manipulate defenses like we've seen already this year.

On the other side of the ball, I don't know. Robinson clearly has Rodriguez's trust, and is on his good side after adopting the 3-3-5, a system Robinson hadn't run before coming to Rodriguez's staff. But Robinson is going to need to do something to help this defense succeed. With caveats about the dearth of talent noted, Robinson is going to need to do something to confuse opposing quarterbacks and probably take a few more chances blitzing if Michigan wants to create turnovers or stop the quality offenses on the schedule.

I do have faith that he'll try new things going forward. After complaining about the lack of man coverage for several weeks, Robinson showed a lot of man-to-man against Michigan State to positive, albeit mixed, results. And the defense's failures haven't been lost on anyone on the Michigan sideline. Frankly, if Robinson wants to keep his job, he'll have to start changing things up. (However, there's 0% chance he's fired at the end of the year granted that Rodriguez is kept on board. Rich Rod realizes the talent issues Robinson is facing and will afford him at least one more year.)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Where are they now?: The 2010 defense

Previously: The 2010 offense
Though Michigan's offense has been nigh unstoppable save for their own self-inflicted wounds, Michigan's defense is just as bad as everyone expected it to be before the season. When most of your lineup is made up of true/redshirt freshmen and walk-ons, you're bound not to be very good. But at times this season, it looks like the defense has regressed from the already unthinkably bad performance they turned in last year. Let's just get this over with:

Defensive line. The best unit on Michigan's defense has unquestionably been the defensive line, thanks in no small part to Hulk machine Mike Martin. Martin is proving himself to be one of the best nose tackles in the country and is living up to every bit of hype he received heading into the season. Without him, Michigan's defense crumbles, something we've seen with his recent time on the sidelines nursing an injury. Flanking Martin are a pair of league average defensive ends in Ryan Van Bergen and and Greg Banks. Van Bergen has been the more effective of the two, but he hasn't been particularly noteworthy. This unit is good solely because of Martin. In fact, the defense is only really functional because of Martin.

The defensive line backups have proven themselves worth little more than to give the starters a breather. A serious lack of production means the continued health of the starters is critical. If Martin or Van Bergen go down for any length of time, the defense will struggle even worse than they have already. The only real bright spot is true freshman Jibreel Black, who has been deployed primarily as a pass rusher (and occasionally in a stand up linebacker role). Black won't be a real impact player this year, but he could very likely turn into one next year. 

Linebackers. MGoBlog has led a fairly extensive crusade against the linebackers for the last three years and for good reason: they're not very good. Obi Ezeh has officially been supplanted by Kenny Demens as the starting middle linebacker. Ezeh has been flamboyantly bad to anyone who watches the games, and Demens provided a much-needed lift from that position--although I still feel he was a bit shakier in pass coverage than MGoBlog.

Jonas Mouton has been the most productive linebacker this year, recording a number of interceptions on nice zone drops. However, he's shown flaws in run defense and is best described as inconsistent. On the other side of Ezeh is converted linebacker/defensive end Craig Roh. Roh's skillset is not quite as suited for linebacker as the coaches want to believe. His coverage skills are sub-optimal and attacking the line of scrimmage from the linebacker position has been underwhelming. Fortunately, he has the build to also drop down into a defensive end position, which he has been deployed as more frequently in the last two weeks. With his success as a pass rusher in his freshman year, the move to linebacker (especially as we see how he struggles in pass coverage) was a peculiar one.

The other two hybrid linebacker roles (a linebacker/safety position) have been played by Jordan Kovacs on one side, and a mix of Thomas Gordon and true freshman Carvin Johnson on the other. Kovacs, who this blog was firmly against last year, has established himself as a non-liability--the biggest compliment I'm comfortable giving him. Kovacs has been primarily assigned to linebackers in pass coverage on underneath routes, which he has done a good job defending. On the rare occasion that a team sends a linebacker deep on him, however, he's been thoroughly beaten. But Kovacs makes smart plays and is good in run support. He is not a liability anymore.

On the other side is the Carvin Johnson/Thomas Gordon platoon. Johnson was the started at the beginning of the season before an injury sidelined him and opened the door for Gordon. But Johnson has returned and reclaimed the starting role. Neither of these players have excelled. They've both been responsible for some blown coverage, and both have been pancaked on various running plays. That said, they've also shown flashes of being able to cover receivers in man coverage, increasing the flexibility of the defense. Since neither have separated themselves as the clear starter, I expect we'll see Johnson as the starter for the rest of the season, barring injury.

Secondary. I mean, what do you want me to say that you don't already know? The transfers of Vlad Emilien and Justin Turner, and the unfortunate loss of Troy Woolfolk in a non-contact injury have left this position group wholly devoid of talent. JT Floyd is your starting cornerback alongside James Rogers. While Floyd has shown flashes of functionality, the fact that Rogers is still on the field is a referendum against the freshman cornerbacks that Michigan recruited this year, primarily the highly rated Cullen Christian.

Speaking of the freshmen corners, Courtney Avery has seen the most time off the bench, coming in on the nickel package and to relieve Rogers. Avery has shown a tendency to vacate his zone in pass coverage, but I think he's taken a little too much heat for his play. I'm encouraged by his performances and think he'll shape out to be a quality contributor next year when Michigan gets Troy Woolfolk back and Floyd continues to progress as a starter. The other corners are the aforementioned Christian and fellow true freshman Terrence Talbott. Christian has shown a lot of technique issues in pass coverage, and Talbott has been almost completely non-existent in his playing time, which is just about the best thing you can say about a defensive back, especially on Michigan's roster.

Michigan's safety position has been the same barren wasteland that it was last year. The starter and seemingly only viable open has been wide receiver position switch Cam Gordon who has shown an inability to read passing plays, tackle, or cover receivers/tight ends. Gordon is the biggest liability in the defense, much like Kovacs last year. Michigan hasn't given up quite as many huge passing touchdowns as they did last year, but that's because the coaches are terrified of them and willing to give up 10-yard hitch routes to anyone who can complete a pass. Our only hope is that true freshman Ray Vinopal or Marvin Robinson find a way to supplant Gordon and prove to be remarkably better at all the things Gordon isn't any good at.

What does it mean for the future?
For the rest of 2010, it means Michigan's defense is not going to get any better. This is a bad defense with bad defensive players. But in the next few years, there may be hope. Michigan starts countless freshman and has only freshmen to back them up. If some of these players can live up to or out grow their modest recruiting hype, Michigan's defense could turn into something resembling functional. But you know all of that. For now, when Michigan's defense is on the field, your best bet is to pray for glaring offensive mistakes.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Where are they now?: The 2010 offense

After seven games, Michigan sits at 5-2 with losses to Iowa and Michigan State that rank somewhere between disappointing to soul crushing. Denard Robinson went from Heisman front runner to footnote. And Michigan's defense is quickly proving to be even more inept than last year, although with the attrition and God-hates-us loss of Troy Woolfolk before the season, this could be expected. Now it's time to take a look at how the team is performing as a whole through the first seven games of the year and where that puts them for the rest of the season. First up, the offense:

Quarterbacks. Denard Robinson has planted himself firmly in the starting position with his other-worldly performance early in the year and his promising, albeit mistake prone games against Iowa and Michigan State. When Denard has been on his game, he's more or less single-handedly carried Michigan to victory. Unfortunately, he's been sporadic of late. When Denard has been out of the game, Tate Forcier has relieved him to resounding effect. Which is to say that Michigan finally has depth at the most important position on the field. Behind Forcier, we've seen brief, unimpressive appearances from true freshman Devin Gardner. Gardner now has some injury concerns and may be able to apply for a medical redshirt which would be best for all parties involved.

Denard still has a lot of work to do. His recent plague of interceptions in the last two games show his infancy in the passing game and will present problems going forward against defenses like Wisconsin and Ohio State. So while Denard has shown he can lead Michigan to extraordinary heights, he also presents the same problem that Michigan encountered last year: You live by the Focie... Shoelace, you die by the Shoelace.

Running backs. Michigan's running backs have been, in a word, unimpressive. This blog projected that Vincent Smith was going to come into the season as the starter, but an off-season ACL surgery put him behind the 8-ball. Mike Shaw has been the nominal starter and has fluctuated between mediocre and pretty good. Smith, meanwhile, hasn't shown much aside from showing a few flashes of Mike Hart-itude.

On the more positive side, Stephen Hopkins has come on in the last two games and shown that he's more than just a short yardage back. Hopkins provides the size that Michigan's other backs can't, but more impressively, he's shown unexpected quickness and good lateral movement. If Hopkins continues to improve the way he projects to, he could be Michigan's starter next year (alongside recent verbal commit Demetrius Hart, who looks to make an immediate impact on a lackluster backfield).

Wide receivers/Tight ends. This could look identical to the running backs section above. Michigan has a bunch of Big Ten average wide receivers that all get the job done. Roy Roundtree, as expected, has been the most targeted receiver of the year, as he was at the tail end of 2009. Darryl Stonum has also improved from his sporadic 2009 season and become a consistent threat. The most encouraging sign in recent weeks, however, has been the emergence of injury-plagued Junior Hemingway. After recovering from yet another injury, Hemingway has proven that he's the most consistent downfield threat for Michigan and might have the best hands on the team.

In less encouraging news, frequent workhorse Martavious Odoms broke his foot and will be out for most, if not all of the season. And Michigan's other receivers (Kelvin Grady, Jeremy Gallon, Terrence Robinson, Je'Ron Stokes) have made very little impact.

Michigan's tight ends have been largely removed from the passing game and have been used more in the H-back, linebacker-clubbing role. Kevin Koger and Martell Webb have both become some of Michigan's more effective downfield blockers and are vital in Michigan's short-yardage package. This isn't much of a let down as Michigan's offense has enough weapons without them, and they've both been performing exceedingly well in the running game.

Offensive line. Aside from Denard's early-season emergence as a Heisman hopeful, Michigan's offensive line has been the most encouraging part of the year. Though they've shown flaws in the last two weeks (primarily issues with stunting defensive linemen and some pass protection issues), the O-line has solidified themselves as possibly the best unit in the Big Ten. Redshirt freshman Taylor Lewan's emergence as a force at left tackle is a huge win for the future of the program. Meanwhile, the healthy return of David Molk has been a godsend (despite, ya know, his injury against Iowa). Steven Schilling was talked up by most media outlets before the season, but he has been thoroughly just-OK. Patrick Omameh has shown some pass-protection problems, but is unstoppable in the run game. And Perry Dorrestein has been unremarkable, meant in the most flattering way.

What does it mean for the future?
Michigan's offense is in line to be arguably the best in the Big Ten and one of the best in the country. With the health of Denard, however, goes the health of the offense. Despite Forcier's ability to move Michigan up and down the field against quality opponents, Denard is the electricity that makes it run.

Surrounding Denard is now a squad that not only has good starters but often equally as good backups. In two years, the offensive line went from one of the team's biggest liabilities to one of its biggest strengths. And at the other skill positions, Denard has playmakers that can do just enough to make this team truly dangerous. However, the lack of a game changer at either the wide receiver or running back position is going to hurt the team down the stretch.

Next year, Michigan is going to return almost everyone on the offense (the joys of having a young team) save a few offensive linemen whose backups are firmly entrenched and have shown promising upside. Long gone are the days of the Nick Sheridan/Steven Threet monster that made the future of the program looks hopeless. If nothing else, Rich Rodriguez has turned Michigan's offense into the relative juggernaut everyone expected when he arrived in Ann Arbor, and has the team poised to get stronger on that side of the ball in the coming years.

Up tomorrow: The 2010 defense

Friday, October 22, 2010

Kenny Demens hype check

MGoBlog's defensive Upon Further Review against Iowa was overwhelmingly positive about the performance of Kenny Demens at middle linebacker. Demens may have actually played as well as the metrics there indicate--I don't know because I haven't gone back and watched him specifically yet--but I can't help but feel like Brian isn't a little Any Port in a Storm about the position. One such example comes on a play that MGoBlog broke down in which Iowa scored a touchdown largely because Courtney Avery did his Courtney Avery thing where he vacates zone in favor of carrying receivers too far. Of Demen's performance, he says:
Demens is fine here, I think. Mesh is tough on LBs in zone. Here he lets the receiver outside of him but he has to expect Avery will be there. He also knocks down the other guy running a drag, which is a bonus.
While I agree that Demens wasn't the main culprit on the touchdown, he was largely responsible for the blown coverage that led to the touchdown.

Michigan is in a 4-2-5 look playing cover-3. They rush four and drop the linebackers and the two corners into underneath zone coverage. Iowa is in a three-wide set with a tight end on the strong side of the field and one tailback. Iowa sends two vertical routes at Rogers on the strong side of the field, while the weakside receiver and tight end run crossing routes below the linebackers.

Right as the ball is snapped, you can see a problem with Demens' position in relation to the play. While Jonas Mouton is scanning the field and looking into the backfield, Demens has his back mostly turned to the weakside of the field. It's because of this positioning that Demens fails to see the crossing receiver until it's too late.

Demens comes up to re-route the tight end, which I don't think is his job. The tight end is very clearly dragging across the field and Demens has Mouton next to him to carry the tight end in the zone. Demens still hasn't seen the crossing receiver.

This is where you can see the difference in how Mouton and Demens defended this play. Mouton is on the balls of his toes, taking a step back as the tight end crosses into his zone. Demens, meanwhile is pushing the tight end to the ground. This is the first time that he sees the crossing wide receiver. Courtney Avery is still in good position right now and has effectively re-routed the slot receiver.

This is the "uh-oh" moment for all relevant parties. Avery who was in position in the last screen has decided that, rather than turn back to the quarterback, he'll keep his eyes on the slot receiver. Demens, meanwhile, is a statue as the weakside receiver runs right by him. A fairly conservative estimation for Demens' zone is the red spot on the field--it may even be further to the boundary as he was the strongside linebacker. As you can see, he's nowhere near it, and worse still, he's standing motionless. Avery is actually still in his zone, albeit fairly deep. The bigger problem with Avery is that he didn't turn around. Demens actually hasn't moved horizontally since the play started, and with Avery looking the wrong way, there's essentially an entire half of the field that's open. Stanzi sees this and makes an easy pass to a completely unguarded receiver.

This is how the play ends: The weakside receiver, still in the middle of Demens' zone, catches the ball completely unabated. Avery, meanwhile, has just not gotten his eyes back to the play and eventually slips trying to get back upfield. Avery wasn't in great position here, but he also wasn't in terrible position. If he hadn't fallen, he might've had a chance to make the play. Demens, on the other hand, has completely blown his assignment that would, even if Avery had played this perfectly, netted at least five or six yards.

What's especially disappointing is that, as you can see in the final screen, Craig Roh had gotten to Stanzi on the pass rush. Had Demens even feigned coverage here, it would've made Stanzi hold onto the ball longer and either make a poor throw or eat the sack.

I'm going to go back and watch the game to see how well Demens did overall. I'm fairly certain he did better than Ezeh (something that the Michigan blogosphere is mostly in agreement about), but I think MGoBlog's UFR probably overlooked a few plays like this out of sheer excitement and hope.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Denard INT: It was Denard's fault (2)

Earlier today, I broke down Denard's interception against Iowa on Saturday. Now let's take a look at how similar it was to the 2009 interception.


Here are the two pre-snap alignments. In 2009, Michigan was in a five-wide set, whereas in 2010, Michigan showed three receivers, a tight end, and a running back. The scheme behind the play is essentially the same, however:


As you can see, in both plays, Michigan begins with four vertical receivers and one player running an underneath route. Instead of Vincent Smith running a route from the backfield, last year, Michigan had Martavious Odoms running a drag route below the linebackers who were carrying their receivers. But the scheme of each play is the same: put pressure on the two deep safeties by making them choose between two different receivers, and trust your quarterback to make the proper read on the defensive coverage. Both times Denard made the same mistake.


This is the read that Denard missed both years. As you can see, Hemingway in 2009 and Stonum in 2010 are both pulling up on their fly routes. They are very likely instructed to do so if they see the deep safety keeping everything in front of him. Meanwhile Odoms and Smith are both open underneath. If Denard has more patience, necessitating the playside corner to cover the underneath route, the hitch that Hemingway and Stonum both ran will be open. In 2010, Denard wasn't afforded that time, but he certainly had it in 2009. Regardless, the correct decision on both of these plays was the check down pass.

This is what Denard needs to improve on more than anything: advancing his understanding of the complex passing game and reading defenses. This is one of the biggest jumps from high school to college, and given how behind the 8-ball Denard was coming into Michigan, it's understandable that he wouldn't be able to make this read properly. This is the decision a true freshman would make. We can only hope from now that Denard starts to improve on this kind of defensive reading.

The Denard INT: It was Denard's fault

Last year's Iowa game ended with a Denard Robinson interception that was nearly identical to the interception he threw on the first play of the second quarter in Saturday's game. Last year, despite what appeared to be a significant overthrow, I still questioned whether or not the interception was Denard's fault or a poor read of the defense by Hemingway, who sat down in a zone that didn't exist. I concluded thusly:
Had Hemingway kept running, would this have been a great pass? I don't know. Maybe? It looks to me like it was probably a little under thrown, but even so, Hemingway could've been there to knock it down. So whose fault was it? I'm not sure, but after watching the play again, I'm inclined to say Hemingway...

The only way I can see this being Denard's fault is if Hemingway's route was a called comeback that Denard missed in the play calling. I find that hard to swallow though. Hemingway wouldn't have gotten behind his corner so quickly or with so much ferocity if he was going to run the comeback route. Also, he never came back.
After looking over this year's interception, however, and being more confident in my ability to identify defenses and routes, I'm fairly certain that last year, like this year, the pass falls squarely on Denard's shoulders. Let's take a look at this year's interception first and then see how it compares to last year's:

Michigan is in a three-wide set with Martell Webb lined up on the line of scrimmage on the weakside of the field (top of the screen) and Vincent Smith in the backfield next to Denard. Iowa is in their base 4-3 set with an outside linebacker shaded over Roundtree in the slot. Iowa is in a cover-2 look.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Slow posting day

Due to a combination of my new job, the schedule that living 30 miles north of Los Angeles has forced me into--waking up at 5:30 every day so my commute to aforementioned job is only an hour--and how comfortable my couch is, I wasn't able to put anything together last night. I planned on comparing Denard's INT from Saturday's game to the pick that ended the 2009 contest. I will try and write it up when I get home. Unlikely to be any new posting until 9 or 10 p.m. EST.

UPDATE: Blogger is doing system-wide maintenance today and disabling image upload from 5-7 p.m. Pacific, meaning I won't be able to get any new content up today. Denard's INT comparison will come tomorrow a.m.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why you shouldn't be encouraged by 383 yards

After reading through the myriad game recaps yesterday, something that The Wolverine Blog said stuck out in my mind:
Sometimes I think I’d be able to make a better assessment of this team if I didn’t watch the games... I’d even be encouraged by the defense, which faced a senior quarterback and a very good pair of receivers and allowed under 400 yards — that would qualify as progress this season...

Watching the game, however, it’s tough not to dwell on the bad penalties, shanked kicks, turnovers, and far-too-easy Hawkeye passing touchdowns and think this team is just spinning its wheels, especially when placed in direct contrast with an Iowa team that played mistake-free football and capitalized on Michigan’s mistakes time and again.
When you look at the box score, Michigan dominated several offensive categories (522 total yards vs. 383 total yards, 4.5 YPC vs. 3.8 YPC) and were close in most others (10.3 YPA for Iowa vs. 7.6 YPA for Michigan). And at face value, that's a pretty significant upgrade from the Indiana, Michigan State, and even UMass contests. But for those actually watching the game, the defensive performance looked just as soul crushing as it had earlier in the year. There's only one reason the numbers don't agree: field position.

Iowa starting
field position
Iowa 387 yards, punt
Iowa 445 yards, punt
Iowa 1684 yards, TD
Mich 4949 yards, TD
Mich 4848 yards, TD
Iowa 11 yard, End of half
Iowa 297 yards, punt
Iowa 144 yards, punt
Iowa 3763 yards, TD
Iowa 4060 yards TD
Iowa 205 yards, punt
Iowa 4060 yards, FG
Mich 43End of game
Surely penalties and the four turnovers Michigan coughed up also played a big role in the difference between total yardage gained and points scored, but more importantly, Iowa just didn't have to go as far to score. The chart on the right is Iowa's starting field position and the result of the ensuing drive. If you exclude the two "drives" to end the first half and the game, Iowa's average starting field position was at their own 34 yard line. Michigan's average starting field position, meanwhile, was at their own 23 yard line.

While that 11 yards may not seem like a ton, extrapolated over the course of a game (and especially one in which each team saw double digit possessions), that amount of yardage really adds up. For example, Iowa had 11 real drives, meaning that the 11-yard difference in field position equaled 121 yards difference. And when you add that in to Iowa's 383 total yards on the game, that gives them 504 yards, a mere 18 short of Michigan's total.

This is obviously not an exact science. You can't just add those yards onto Iowa's total and come out with Why It All Happened, least of all because that extra yardage could've changed the complexion of the drive--Michigan might've forced a stop. But given that Stanzi completed 70.8% of his passes and what we know about the Michigan defense, it's safe to say that moving Iowa back 11 yards on each possession likely wouldn't have changed the outcome of any of those drives. It may seem encouraging that Michigan forced 5 punts on the 11 drives, but they also forced 4 punts on 10 Michigan State drives. The point being, there wasn't really anything about the Iowa game that should inspire confidence in this defense.

Fortunately, the difference in field position has no bearing on how well Michigan was able to move the ball offensively. It was clear that Michigan was marching up and down the field against Iowa and were it not for turnovers, the score likely would've been much different, and may have even swung in Michigan's favor. Then again, without those same turnovers, Iowa's advantage in field position shrinks, they probably hold onto the ball longer, rack up a lot more yardage, and lower the amount of possessions by each team, all of which is to say that Michigan was decidedly behind the 8-ball in this game. And for as much as we'd all like to use this game as a stepping stone for the defense, it's really difficult to look at the numbers and do so. This defense is sunk.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Iowa: Where there's no quarterback controversy

Despite what are sure to be countless columns that will be written this week about a quarterback controversy, Denard Robinson is firmly your starter. Tate Forcier entered the game after the Denard injury and did an admiral job bringing Michigan back. But it wasn't so much Forcier's doing as a schematic change that jump started the Wolverine offense.

I've given Rich Rodriguez a lot of praise around these parts for the way he's manipulated defenses this year. But Saturday's game was the second in a row in which Rodriguez looked far too stubborn concerning his play calling and schemes. Michigan saw a lot of success early in the year with Denard running roughshod over defenses, finding holes where there weren't holes. But against MSU and Iowa, Rodriguez has insisted on the same plays over and over again despite them being only moderately effective. It may be a difficult suggestion to make--Denard still averaged 5.8 YPC and completed 13 of 18 passes--but after two straight games of nothing even resembling the big-play ability that made the offense so effective early in the year, Rodriguez needs to come in for some heavy criticism.

Forcier, however, was effective largely because Rodriguez calls a different game with him on the field. Iowa was clearly selling out on the run against Denard and looked ill-prepared for for the five-wide passing schemes that Forcier was so successful with. Denard has proven through the last two games that he may not be able to handle a complex passing game, but without implementing the full playbook against opposing defenses, especially ones that are more sophisticated and talented than the Indianas of the world, Denard turns into Denard2009 with a bit more passing skills.

One of the things that should make Denard more effective is moving the pocket more often and giving him the run-pass option. Denard's I-formation passing downs and on plays with only two receivers looked disjointed. Denard needs options and an open field to really be successful in the passing game. When he's forced to make sit-in-the-pocket, Hennebot throws, he's rarely effective. Opening up the field for him the way Rodriguez does for Forcier is going to be one of the ways to make Denard's running attack more potent again.

  • Despite Forcier looking good for most of the game, his two interceptions looked distinctly like 2009 problems. He still looks indecisive a lot of the time and doesn't know when to throw the ball away (e.g., the sack he took in the fourth quarter in which he scrambled for a few seconds and decided to keep the play alive rather than throw it away).
  • Speaking of 2009 problems: The Denard interception looked like the exact same play that ended 2009's game in Iowa. I'll very likely compare the two sometime this week.
  • Stephen Hopkins is the real deal. He doesn't have the breakaway speed or shiftiness of the other backs on the depth chart, but Hopkins is going to be a major part of this offense going forward. I expect to see him get at least 10 rushes a game, including all short yardage carries. He's clearly being molded into the Brandon Minor role of the last two years. If he can improve his speed, Hopkins might eventually find himself in a starting role.
  • Turnovers and penalties killed Michigan in this game. The Vincent Smith fumble was a serious blow to Michigan's momentum and was the point of no return for the game. Michigan doesn't have the defense to play from behind, so losing the ball on a drive in which they should have scored was a major shift in the game. Michigan was bound to fumble the ball a bit this year, but that was an especially damning turnover.
  • Mark my words: Michigan will not try another field goal this year unless they have to.
  • I'll have to rewatch the game to see if Kenny Demens was any more effective than Obi Ezeh, but even if he was only slightly worse, Demens needs to be on the field to get in-time experience and possibly improve. Ezeh is likely a lost cause. Regardless, there didn't seem to be too much of a fall off except a few times that Demens got beat badly in pass coverage, resulting in a few 1st downs that should've been stops.
  • Michigan needs to find a solution at free safety. Cam Gordon is no longer cutting it and is a huge liability. Other defensive problems: JT Floyd was embarrassed on man coverage in this game. Twice he was absolutely torched on slants. Getting to the line and jamming receivers is one way to mitigate that issue, but Floyd's technique was beyond bad. Despite that, I'm still bothered back the lack of man coverage shown by this defense. The zones are clearly not working and I'm still not convinced it's all a personnel problem.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Iowa preview

The good news against Iowa: Tony Moeaki (MOEAKI!!!; above) is currently shredding the NFL and won't be able to make Jordan Kovacs look silly this year. The bad news: Michigan State and 176.84, which is Ricky Stanzi's passer rating in 2010. The numbers:
Passing28th nationally
179.00 YPG
32nd nationally
254.20 YPG
Rushing2nd nationally
63.20 YPG
45th nationally
172.20 YPG
Scoring1st nationally
10.20 PPG
33rd nationally
33.60 PPG
Passing119th nationally
304.33 YPG
46th nationally
236.33 YPG
Rushing55th nationally
146.33 YPG
6th nationally
297.33 YPG
Scoring75th nationally
26.83 PPG
14th nationally
37.33 PPG
So... it looks pretty grim. And, well, it is. (Hey, at least we're not last in passing defense anymore. That distinction goes to Tulsa. Woot?) But Iowa's schedule has been one of the easiest in the country. They've played Eastern Illinois, Iowa State, Ball State, a crappy Penn State team, and--their only loss--Arizona.

Last year, Michigan had a chance to win the game thanks in large part to the heroics of Denard Robinson running all over Iowa's supposedly stout run defense. Then they lost the game thanks to the inexperience of Denard. It was a heartbreaking loss, one that had it gone the other way, would've seen bowl eligibility and a significantly less hot hot seat for Rich Rodriguez this year.

Like last year, Iowa comes into the game with one of the most prolific statistical defenses in the country. They have a stout running defense that no one has scored on yet (like last year) and has a front four that's anchored by All Everything defensive end Adrian Clayborn. But as mentioned above, Iowa hasn't really played a quality offense outside of Arizona, who is currently 26th in total offense and 28th in scoring offense. And Arizona's schedule has been pretty soft this year as well (Toledo, Citadel, Oregon State, Cal, and Iowa). The point is, like last year, Iowa's defense is getting talked up a lot because of the numbers they've produced, but Michigan should be able to move the football against them.

On the other side of the ball, Ricky Stanzi seems to have fixed his pick-6 problem from last year and has become one of the most proficient quarterbacks in the country, which, yikes. Iowa's run game is unimpressive, especially by Iowa standards, which means they'll probably go to the air more often this game. You can imagine how that will turn out.

Prediction: After last week, it's difficult to see Michigan winning this game. Before the season started, I was fairly convinced that this was a W for Michigan, largely because no team in the Big Ten was hit as hard by the NFL draft as Iowa, who lost a lot of NFL talent. But with Stanzi turning into a better-than-just-functioning quarterback and Michigan's secondary being even more cavernous than it was last year, well, this game looks out of reach.

Denard will have a bounceback game of sorts. He'll rush for over 100 yards and a higher YPC than he did against MSU. He won't completely avoid mistakes, however, and he'll turn the ball over once. Winning the turnover battle will be key, but I see someone else on the Wolverines putting the ball on the ground and costing Michigan big time. Michigan will move the ball well despite playing against a good defense, but ultimately, there will be too many self-inflicted wounds. Michigan will score the first rushing touchdown against Iowa for the second year in a row, though, and probably score three times on the ground.

Defensively, it's going to look a lot like the Michigan State game. Iowa is going to pass the ball all over Michigan's secondary and they'll also gain good chunks of yardage on the ground, aided by a lot of missed tackles. Michigan will continue to show a fair amount of man coverage (probably about the same amount they showed against MSU), especially if Kenny Demens sees significant playing time. His coverage skills have been criticized, but if Michigan feels more comfortable with him on the field, we'll probably see more blitzing and man coverage from the defense.

If Michigan can find a way to create a few turnovers while holding onto the ball themselves, they'll have a puncher's chance in this one. The defense is set up to fail miserably here, meanwhile the offense should move just as fluidly as it did last year against Iowa with Denard in the game. Michigan will run away from Clayborn and also start running up the middle more. Unfortunately, Michigan is going to turn the ball over a few too many times and end up dropping their second straight to a chorus of "I told you the spread can't work in the Big Ten"s. Iowa 38-28

Thursday, October 14, 2010

MSU defending Denard and the Webb TD

Though there were a fair amount of missed blocking assignments on Saturday, Michigan State deserves some credit for the way that they defended the Michigan offense, particularly the way they tried to hold down Denard. Primary among their schematic counters to Denard was blitzing both outside linebackers and spying Denard with middle linebacker Greg Jones.

This strategy did a few things effectively: More important than the blitzes actually getting to Denard was keeping him in the pocket. The blitzing outside linebackers acted as contain players while also bringing extra heat on passing downs. This obviously leaves them susceptible to some passing plays (Webb TD below), but they more or less kept Denard in the middle of the field where MSU's best defensive player was waiting. The blitzes also made sure that Denard couldn't beat them on scrambles. With Jones spying Denard--and sometimes coming on a delayed blitz--the MSU defense was daring Denard to sit in the pocket and beat them through the air. We saw how that ended.

But that was only when the pocket wasn't moving. When MSU blitzed their outside linebackers and Michigan moved the pocket, it forced Greg Jones to track Denard to the playside of the field and essentially opened up the entire backside of the play. One of the ways MSU was so effective against Michigan on Saturday was because they were overselling to the playside. Michigan has almost no counter plays in their offensive arsenal, and on the zone read, MSU defensive ends were instructed to always stay high, forcing Denard to hand the ball off. So no matter what Michigan ran, MSU was flowing downhill into the play.

Michigan did run at least one counter, however, and it was the walk-into-the-endzone Martell Webb touchdown in the second quarter.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Freeing up Mike Martin

Mike Martin's superior talent and production are not lost on Michigan's coaches, nor is it on opposing offenses. As such, Martin has faced constant double teams to avoid his potential impact. Michigan coaches know that Martin is integral to the defense's success and have deployed a few different methods in the last two weeks to try and get him free. Against Indiana, Greg Robinson moved Martin to the defensive end spot in four-man fronts and put Ryan Van Bergen at the defensive tackle spot. It had middling results. Against MSU, Robinson showed a wonderful blitz/stunt combination that got Martin a free release at Kirk Cousins.

Michigan has their nickel package on the field against a four-wide set for MSU. The Spartans will motion a receiver across the formation who will set up as an H-back on the other side of the field. Michigan is showing a three-man defensive line, and Craig Roh is lined up behind Martin. Before the snap, Roh moves up to the line to show blitz:

Roh is now standing next to Martin on the line of scrimmage. His blitz is intended to consume two offensive linemen (the center and left guard):

Roh is highlighted in red here. You can see him slanting into the offensive guard and center. Jibreel Black is rushing on the outside on the bottom of this picture, leaving a hole between the left guard and left tackle. Mike Martin is beginning a stunt (essentially when he and Roh crisscross on a blitz) that will lead him through the gap that Roh's blitz created.

Now it's Martin highlighted in red. Roh has buried himself in the offensive line and drawn the attention of the left guard and the center. You can see the gap that has been vacated by the left tackle and left guard that Martin is stunting into.

Martin now has a pretty clear lane to Cousins. The right guard has tried to come across the formation and grab Martin from behind but it'll be unsuccessful. The only person standing between Martin and Cousins is Larry Caper who Martin... disposes of:

Martin grabs Caper and throws him into the right guard who was in pursuit. Martin now has a free rush at Cousins who is also feeling the pressure of Black and Ryan Van Bergen off the edges.

Cousins breaks contain and starts rolling to his left, but Michigan has good coverage down the field (and in front of Cousins, preventing a scramble) and is forced to throw the ball away.

This play obviously won't work this well every time, but it's clear that getting Martin free of double teams is a priority for the coaches. I've been down on Greg Robinson in the last two weeks, but plays like this and his move toward more man coverage make me think he's not hopeless. This is a really well designed play. Martin is far and away the most talented player on Michigan's defense, playing a position that typically sees the bare minimum of stat-sheet production. Getting him free rushes like this more often is another way the defense will be able be more effective.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Formatting note

Today I was made aware of the fact that my formatting is all screwy in Internet Explorer. As such, I'm going to try and go back and fix all of the posts on the blog. The life of a blogger...

UPDATE: I've now gone through and changed the formatting on all pull quotes in my posts so that hopefully they look how I want them to in Internet Explorer.

MSU man vs. zone comparison

After the Indiana game, I started yelling for a lot more man coverage. Teams (UMass and Indiana specifically) had been picking apart Michigan's zones and Greg Robinson's schemes looked less than sound. I went so far as to say,

No longer is this a question of defensive talent or improper personnel. No, sadly, this is far more systematic: Greg Robinson's schemes Do Not Work.

And I stick by that to an extent. It's not necessarily that his schemes don't work; it's that they're predictable and without variation they don't work. Until the MSU game, Michigan basically showed one look on defense with sparse blitzes and it showed up on the stat sheet.

I was overjoyed, then, when I saw Michigan playing a lot more man coverage against MSU. And then the game ended and I wasn't sure if it was a good idea. So like the Indiana game, I rewatched the game and noted each time that Michigan played man coverage against MSU. (I watched it a lot more closely this week. Last week's breakdown included a few zone plays that I misidentified and talked about here. This also includes man coverage against the run as I suspected that at least one of those long MSU running plays was man coverage.)

In sum, Michigan played man coverage 24 times in the game. Against the coverage, MSU called 9 passing plays and 15 rushing plays. They gained 143 yards on the 22 plays that counted (one called dead on false start and one had a holding penalty), which amounts to 6.5 yards per play (MSU averaged 7.88 yards per play in total). After the break is a chart with every play on it (except for the very end of the game when they were rushing for 3 yards per play and running out the clock).

Monday, October 11, 2010

But the sky might be falling

Following Michigan's first loss, the Michigan blogosphere was bound to be ripe with consternation and anti-consternation sentiment alike. In Rod We Trust is decidedly on the "don't freak out" side of things, arguing that this is one loss and we're still on track to have a good season and Denard Robinson wasn't a thing of our dreams and etc. His main point:

In fact, for those of us who have actually been paying attention, this game did nothing but reassure us of things we already knew.
  1. Denard Robinson is a sophomore who had started only five games prior to MSU
  2. Our secondary is laughably young.
  3. Our defense as a whole struggles with tackling.
I must have missed the memo about how this team was supposed to go undefeated this year.  I mean, based on recent talk I have to assume there was one.   How the season plays out could end up proving some of these “Doomers” right, but the certainty with which they are making definitive statements about this team following one loss is outrageous.

I can get behind all of this in the long term. Denard is only a sophomore. The secondary is "laughably" (I would use terrifyingly) young. And our defense can't tackle, which might be symptomatic of being young. All salient points, sure, and if Rich Rodriguez was a tenured coach, these would all be mitigating factors in a down season. The problem is, he's not. And he needs to win now.

Make no mistake, I am firmly pro-Rodriguez. I've liked him since he was hired, totally understand his lack of talent, and think that given time, he'll turn this program into something great again. But he doesn't have that time, and if the team does start to spiral downward like it did last year, the worst case scenario (losing Rodriguez, probably a lot of his on-field talent, and starting at square one again) becomes reality and Michigan becomes the new Notre Dame.

Denard is a true sophomore. Denard's status as a true sophomore, first-time starter that, in his first year was almost completely useless as a "quarterback", actually argues pretty strongly for  the "sky is falling" meme, rather than the other way around. While his inexperience is encouraging--if he's this good now, think about how good he'll be when he has two years under his belt--in the present, it's a bad thing. Seeing Denard make an on-field production leap is basically impossible right now. Aside from the freakish numbers he posted in the first five games (and sort of in the sixth), seeing him become any more advanced is probably unlikely. In fact, I'd say he's more likely to have more MSU-like blow ups this season than world-crushing performances. Teams will figure out how to defend some of Michigan's plays, limiting what Denard is able to do and eventually, his effectiveness.

Our secondary is terrifyingly young. I can basically copy and paste the same explanation for Denard's inexperience here. The secondary is very, very young, and in the long term, that may prove to be OK--think about two years from now when all of these players have developed and matured. But in a very real, very current sense, they're just bad. Michigan (and Rodriguez specifically) doesn't have time to wait for this young secondary to develop. The team needs to win this year and Michigan's defense may not allow for that.

Our defense as a whole struggles with tackling. Is this even worth addressing? Michigan is through spring camp and six games into a season and they're still really bad at tackling. How is this encouraging? At all? Not only does this speak to the lack of talent on the defense, but it speaks to a lack of coaching as well.

In Rod We Trust asserts that,

You can’t turn the ball over three times and win when you are a team of Michigan’s caliber.

There were a thousand other things and a thousand missed opportunities, but the reason the game was lopsided was simply because we didn’t protect the ball. 

which is only true if you didn't pay attention to the game. Michigan had two turnovers in the endzone which cost them points, but they don't address the fact that Michigan was outgained 536 yards to 377 yards, allowed 5.9 YPC on 42 carries (!), and forced all of seven incompletions, allowing Cousins to throw for 11.4 YPA. Michigan was crushed in this game in almost every aspect. They hardly belonged on the field with Michigan State.

Given what we know about this team--that Denard is young and inexperienced, the secondary is young and starts walk ons, and the team can't tackle--there's very little to say that this was an aberration or that this isn't indicative of how the team will perform going forward, unsettling as that may be. The future of the program looks bright. it's riddled with young talent and should-be stars/contributors. But that's only if Rodriguez can hang on long enough to see the team to the promised land. And unfortunately, the future of this team isn't all that promising.

MSU: Where we should've seen it coming

All signs pointed to the outcome that delivered Michigan its first loss of the season. In my game preview, I said this...

But after watching the Indiana game, I've lost almost all confidence in Michigan's defense and Greg Robinson's ability to confuse a quarterback/offense.

...and this...

If Cousins is on his game, I think MSU walks away with the game.

...and this...

I think Cousins has a really good day in terms of completion percentage, but his YPA is low.

...and this...

Michigan gets at least one long touchdown in this game but I also expect Denard to throw at least one interception. As always, winning the turnover battle will be key if Michigan wants a shot at this game.

The point is, all of the signs were there. Michigan's secondary was bound to cost them a game against a competent quarterback and passing attack. The linebackers have been suspect in the run game all year and MSU features three competent-to-good Big Ten backs. MSU features a defense with an All American linebacker able to at least partially slow Denard. And Denard was bound to fall back to earth against a good defense.

The point is, all of the signs were there. We should've seen it coming.

My brother and I were talking before the game and he said, "When you know a team as well as we do, it's difficult to pick against them." And in toss-ups like this one, it's true: I know what Michigan is capable of. I know that they have young talent that you'd think might overachieve once. You theoretically know how to shred MSU's defense. And so it's hard to pick against them. But we should've seen it coming.

  • Despite the three interceptions, Denard had a fairly good day. He marched Michigan up and down the field and, were it not for two interceptions in the endzone, his stat line would look like this: 19-29, 235 yards (or thereabout), 3 TDs, 1 INT, 21 rushes, 86 yards, 1 TD. And everyone would be talking about how he's the Heisman front runner. He did look out of rhythm though. Part of that was due to poor protection from the offensive line; they looked bad in this game. Otherwise, Denard looked confused and lost on the field. He was double clutching on a lot of throws and just didn't look very confident. We'll chalk this up to growing pains and hope Saturday is better.
  • Michigan can't tackle. Like, at all. The amount of missed tackles and yards after contact were an utter embarrassment. That the defensive personnel keep talking to the media saying, "We're tired of hearing we're bad," is comedy. These defensive players are bad at defense. One of the most suspect is Cam Gordon. I know he's supposed to be a "big hitter", but I'd rather he be a "big tackler". He was responsible for a lot of unnecessary MSU yardage.
  • Greg Robinson played a noticeable amount of man coverage in this game. I'll have to rewatch the game to really see how it went. The only time it truly hurt Michigan was on the long touchdown pass on which Cullen Christian got beaten on a double move. But I was encouraged by the fact that Robinson realized his zones weren't working. Unfortunately, the poor linebacker play in man coverage also means that Michigan was susceptible to the long TD runs MSU produced.
  • Speaking of the defense, the injury to James Rogers is probably a blessing in disguise (though I wish him well and hope there was no serious damage). Rogers' injury necessitated that Courtney Avery, Terrence Talbott, and Cullen Christian got meaningful playing time. One of them will be starting alongside JT Floyd against Iowa.
  • Drops. The wide receivers looked bad. The whole offense was just out of sync.
  • Iowa, a game that I thought Michigan would win from the beginning of the year, will beat Michigan on Saturday. The preview will be identical to the MSU game. The result will also be similar.

Friday, October 8, 2010

MSU preview

The last two years have been sub-optimal in the annual Michigan/Michigan State game. In 2008, it was a catastrophe as most games that year were. Last year's game was utter heartbreak and the beginning of Michigan's slide into irrelevance. Let's hope 2010 is filled with less overtime interceptions and crushing defeat.

One thing that may determine whether or not this happens are the numbers:

Michigan StateDefenseOffense
Passing78th nationally
227.40 YPG
39th nationally
240.40 YPG
Rushing20th nationally
101.20 YPG
20th nationally
220.20 YPG
Scoring36th nationally
18.60 PPG
24th nationally
36.20 PPG
Passing120th nationally
307.80 YPG
38th nationally
240.60 YPG
Rushing37th nationally
125.80 YPG
3rd nationally
324.40 YPG
Scoring73rd nationally
25.40 PPG
9th nationally
41.40 PPG

Yep, you read that correctly: Michigan now has the worst pass defense in the country re: yards per game. And despite MSU being a run-first team, you can expect a heavy dose of Kirk Cousins torching the Michigan defense. Despite MGoBlog's assertion to the contrary, I expect Michigan State to greatly exceed their pass-to-rush ratio in this game. The worst passing defense in the country is not something that teams just ignore, and given MSU's obsession with beating Michigan and their preparation for the game, I expect to see more three-wide sets than I-formation tomorrow. That's not to say that stopping MSU's stable of running backs won't also be important, but Cousins has a few weapons around him to throw the ball to and I expect to see a lot more passing than you'd expect or that MSU has shown this year.

On the other side of the ball, the big matchup everyone wants to see is All-World Linebacker Greg Jones versus Denard. Jones might provide the greatest test to Denard all season, as an athletic linebacker that is great in space. If any Big Ten linebacker has a chance at slowing Denard, it's Jones. However, Rich Rod has proven an ability to get the matchups he wants. Michigan will probably run a lot of looks with one or two H-backs in the game who will be responsible for blocking Jones. Otherwise, Denard will probably look to get to the edge of the field and avoid running into Jones through the tackles.

Through the air, MSU is vulnerable, much like last year. Michigan's passing game has been shredding defenses because of their need to overplay the run. And with Denard's ability to throw the deep ball, it's his passing, rather than his running that could really hurt MSU. But a lot of that depends on whether or not Michigan can nullify Greg Jones and get a few 15+ yard rushes.

Prediction: Before the season and during the first two weeks, I felt confident that this game would be in Michigan's favor: aside from Michigan's offensive talent and apparent improvement on defense, the game is in Ann Arbor and is a redemption game for the last two years of MSU victories. But after watching the Indiana game, I've lost almost all confidence in Michigan's defense and Greg Robinson's ability to confuse a quarterback/offense.

Kirk Cousins has shown two sides of himself this year: a confident quarterback with a solid command of his offense, able to shred suspect defenses, and an inexperienced player prone to making the Big Mistake. Depending on which Cousins shows up to the game may very well decide who wins. If Cousins is on his game, I think MSU walks away with the game. If he makes the red zone mistakes that he's often made the last two years, Michigan could find their bend-don't-break defense coming up with a few important stops a la the Cam Gordon interception against Indiana in the end zone.

Despite Spartan fans feverishly waiting for Greg Jones to demolish Denard, that's not going to happen in this game. Rodriguez will be smart enough to get a blocker on Jones for most of the game and Denard will be able to move pretty well on the ground setting up some of the play action we've seen Rodriguez call. Michigan gets at least one long touchdown in this game but I also expect Denard to throw at least one interception. As always, winning the turnover battle will be key if Michigan wants a shot at this game.

I see this one going down as a little less shootout-y than Indiana with both teams getting more consistent stops. Michigan will stop MSU on a few drives when they decide to run the ball on first and second down, and MSU will get stops when Michigan picks up a penalty or has a negative play, which will happen far more often than it has earlier in the season.

It's difficult to imagine how this one will actually play out. There are a lot of things that could happen to change how it all goes down. In the end, I think Cousins has a really good day in terms of completion percentage, but his YPA is low. Michigan avoids letting up any big plays on defense forcing MSU to march down the field and hope for a few Cousins missteps. Combine that with a big touchdown play for Michigan, and I see the Maize and Blue coming out on top in a close one (despite my inclination to push here and not make a prediction): Michigan 28-27

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Man coverage example vs. Indiana

As I continue my crusade to see more man coverage from the Michigan defense, I want to take a look at a specific play from the Indiana game on which Michigan was successful running it and why it was successful.

Indiana is in a three-wide pistol look with with a half back and H-back in the game. Michigan is in their base formation with base personnel. Michigan is going to play straight man coverage with cover-2 safety help over the top. Jordan Kovcas is covering the weakside deep half and Cam Gordon is over the strongside deep half. JT Floyd and James Rogers are covering the wide receivers with Rogers playing six yards off the line of scrimmage and Floyd play bump and run coverage. Carvin Johnson is shaded over the slot receiver and will play man coverage against him. Roh is rolled up to the line of scrimmage and is responsible for the H-back. Jonas Mouton and Obi Ezeh are spying Chappell and the running back.

On the snap, the H-back releases right away. This is Roh's man to cover. The half back will step up in the pocket to help block. Floyd has jammed his receiver at the line while Johnson and Rogers are playing softer coverage and waiting for their receivers to head upfield.

Roh is engaged with the H-back and has defensive help from the other linebackers. Floyd is still jamming his receiver. Johnson is close to the slot receiver and in good position to make a play on the ball if the pass comes. Rogers looks like he's out of position but he's not: he's baiting Chappell to make a throw from across the hash to the other sideline, a long pass that he should be able to pick off. Ezeh and Mouton continue to spy the men in the backfield.

This is where the play  really comes together. Indiana had been running plays like this all game to great effect. They'd send multiple receivers into Michigan's defensive zones and have them sit down or cross through them (as the H-back is doing here). When Michigan finally broke that tendency, Chappell was caught by surprise. He was expecting to be able to find one of the various soft spots in Michigan's zones and pick up five yards.

Because Chappell was caught off guard and was unable to make the timing throw he expected, Michigan's three-man front is able to get pressure. Mike Martin gets off his block and into the backfield forcing Chappell to roll out to his right where Ryan Van Bergen is waiting. Though it looks like the wide receiver that Rogers is covering is still open, Rogers is actually continuing to bait Chappell to make the cross-field throw. In the end, Chappell throws the ball away.

This is a perfect example of why Michigan needs to play more man coverage: it's not necessarily that it will be more effective than the zones that they currently play, but it will make Michigan's defense less predictable, forcing QBs to go through more reads and give the pass rush more time to deliver. Imagine if a team ran an I-formation halfback iso on every single play on offense. They do it over and over again, game after game, and defenses start to adjust to it. Despite opposing teams figuring out the play and stopping it effectively, the offense keeps running it. Suddenly they run a play action pass and catch the defense off guard. It's the same concept here, except surprising an offense with man coverage once every 8-10 plays isn't going to get a team very many stops, and it's not going to return the same kind of results that a play action pass might. If Michigan can commit to playing man coverage more frequently, I think you'll see the defensive performance spike despite not having the kind of elite-level talent teams need to play a significant amount of man coverage.