Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Credit where it's due: Demens zone coverage

After Kenny Demens' first start against Iowa this year, I was skeptical of the amount of praise being heaped upon him. What I saw was a raw young talent that showed some problems in pass coverage. One play in question was an Iowa touchdown that came because Demens failed to properly cover his zone, allowing a dragging receiver to run unabated into the endzone. The incriminating moment:

The receiver skating past Demens was the slot receiver from his left. Demens failed to diagnose the play in time to cover him, and the receiver ran to the corner of the endzone with the help of Courtney Avery who had turned his head away from the play while re-routing a vertical receiver.

But against Illinois on Saturday, Demens showed that he's learned from his mistake and properly diagnosed a dragging receiver in what is a shockingly similar play--very likely designed by Illinois to exploit the same pass coverage problems Michigan's linebackers showed against Iowa.

There are a few subtle differences between the Illinois (bottom) and Iowa (top) plays in pre-snap alignment. Against Iowa, Michigan showed a four-man front, with four underneath defenders and cover-3. Iowa had three receivers, a tight end to the left of Stanzi, and a running back in the backfield, while taking the snap under center. Illinois had a similar three-receiver setup, but took the snap in the shotgun with a running back next to Nathan Scheelhaase. Iowa dragged its tight end across the formation, running a mesh route with the weakside receiver. Illinois runs a crossing pattern between the weakside, dragging receiver and the tight end.

On the snap, Michigan rushes the three down linemen and drops eight players into coverage.

A moment later, there are two things to watch. First in the crossing pattern by the tight end and receiver on the bottom of the screen. The receiver is crossing under the tight end and beginning to drag across the formation. The other thing to watch is Cam Goron on top of the screen, who is charged with re-routing the slot receiver, much like Avery was supposed to do in the same play against Iowa.

Gordon is still engaged with the slot receiver at the top of the screen. Demens is sitting in the middle of the field and looking into the backfield. But sometime between now and the next shot, Demens recognizes the weakside receiver dragging in front of him.

Here, Demens starts to run with the receiver before he's past him. This means that Demens saw the play developing and was in position to react at the right time. Gordon, meanwhile, has successfully re-routed the slot receiver (look at the two receivers at the top of the screen: they're within feet of one another because of Gordon's play). It's also interesting to note his depth: Gordon has carried his receiver all the way to the first down marker, much like Avery did against Iowa, which he was widely chastised for in the blogosphere. But the thing that Gordon did that Avery failed to, was turn the correct way back to the play. He's now looking into the backfield and able to stop anything that's coming through that zone.

A moment later and Demens is releasing the dragging receiver from his zone because he has more help underneath. Unlike in the Iowa play, Michigan has two defenders on either side of Demens, allowing him to carry the receiver for less time. Demens is properly passing that receiver off to Obi Ezeh.

Scheelhaase steps up into the pocket in an effort to scramble for a few yards. Demens' momentum is carrying him past the play, but it's OK because of the amount of help defense he has around him.

Demens is the Michigan player diving (and missing) for Scheelhaase here, which is fine. As you can see, Scheelhaase is contained by four different Michigan players in front of him. He'll eventually scramble for 10 yards, just short of the first down, but the play will be called back on a hold regardless.

The best part about this play is that it's obvious that Demens is learning, the lack of which was one of the biggest complaints about Ezeh's tenure as the starting middle linebacker. In the span of two games, Demens went from completely clueless to perfectly playing nearly identical plays. With continued playing time, this is evidence that we can likely expect Demens to progress in his pass coverage skills. Whether or not we encounter more crippling mistakes like Demens showed against Iowa in order to get to these moments is yet to be seen, but at least for now, we know his ability to recognize, diagnose, and execute plays is improving.

On an unrelated note, the play of Gordon here lends further credence to my belief that Courtney Avery might be a decent solution at corner, whether or not JT Floyd is healthy. Against Iowa, Avery made a bad play by turning his head away from the action, pulling him out of position on Demens' blown coverage. But it's clear that he correctly identified his assignment and executed it well, staying within his zone and properly re-routing the slot receiver. So while Michigan's defense is young, it appears as though there are promising prospects and, more importantly, they're actually learning from their mistakes, something we haven't seen in the Rich Rod era.


Anonymous said...

Nice article. Just wanted to say thanks for keeping up the picture pages on the blog. I'm a active reader but don't really post much. Just want you to know that the UM blogosphere appreciates it.

Its also good when you call out Brian at MgoBlog! haha. Its like scientific research and peer review. Either way it maks us UM fans fortunate to have the best Blogs on the web.

Go Blue!

Chris Gaerig said...

Glad you enjoy the blog. Sometimes I wonder if anyone is ever reading this thing.

And don't worry about not posting. The only time people comment is when they want to tell me how wrong I am about something. So you're not alone.

Anonymous said...

Don't worry, there are many of us out here that don't necessarily post comments. However, we are here and just like most die-hard Michigan fans we are desperately trying to evaluate the defensive talent and schemes being employed by the Michigan coaching staff. The Michigan Blogs provide invaluable information to assist with that endeavor, not to mention the only newspaper I deem worse than the Free Press (Columbus Dispatch), opps! BWS is a daily read for me and many of my Michigan friends who are dying as Wolverines down here in Suckeye land. I have an old football buddy living in St. Paul, MN and we discuss the information on the blog on a weekly basis. The readership is strong and we are thankful for the message. Keep up the good work!!

P.S.: Shout out to Jack in Minn.

Anonymous said...

How in the world did Scheelhaase pick up 10 yards on this play? He's surrounded by Wolverines! Must've been awful tackling.

Chris Gaerig said...

Poor angles, mostly. But Scheelhaase is a decent runner. Skirting through defenders isn't uncommon for him.

Andy said...

Question regarding the Illinois play vs the Iowa play. From what I can tell, the biggest difference in the defensive calls is that against Illinois, UM rushes 3 and rushes 4 against Iowa. Obviously, that puts an extra defender in the underneath zone, which is apparent when Demens is able to hand off to Ezeh.

So, if the defense had been identical to the Iowa game, Demens would have just had to stick to the dragging WR, right? Given enough time, I imagine a WR will get separation from Demens. Maybe this is also an example of the fact that rushing 4 seems to be better than 3, maybe that isn't always the case.

Andy said...

Also, thanks for all the work. There are definitely readers out there. I second the "peer review" comment above. Brian's contributions to UM football coverage are invaluable in so many ways, but there is some definite bias there that makes it hard to get much from some of his defensive analysis.

Chris Gaerig said...

The biggest difference is the amount of players that Michigan rushed in each play, yes. But I wouldn't use these plays as any argument for or against rushing three vs. four players. In the end, that doesn't really matter as much as the execution.

But to your question: No, Demens would've been responsible for the receiver as he crossed through his zone, at which point, he would have passed the receiver off to Gordon (or Avery as it was against Iowa) who carried and re-routed the vertical slot receiver. Against Iowa, Avery played his position really well and stayed within his zone. Unfortunately, he turn away from the play, taking himself out of position, and Demens didn't carry the receiver through his zone at all, resulting in the TD.

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