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.
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,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.
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.
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.)