Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Progress report: The 2011 defense

Since it's Michigan's bye week, it's a good time to take stock of where the team is currently in relation to where we expected them to be preseason. Previously: Where are they now: The team, the team, the team
Preseason expectation:
Mattison will do wonders for this defense, not only teaching the fundamentals, but also varying up the playcalling with zone blitzes, man and zone coverage, and various personnel groups. If I had to put a number on it, I would guess the defense leaps to somewhere around the 60th best defense in the country. The talent and personnel are mostly in place with a few exceptions, and the defense should be able to hold itself together because of it. There will still be a number of forehead-meet-palm breakdowns, but not nearly as many as there have been in the past few years. Barring injuries, this will be a competent unit that will keep Michigan in games and won't explicitly lose any for the team.
For the most part, this has held true. A quick glace at national rankings shows just how much Michigan's defense has improved under this new staff:

Rush Def Pass Eff Def Total Def Scoring Def
2010 95th (188.92 YPG, 4.43 YPC) 103rd 110th (450.77 YPG) 108th (35.23)
2011 62nd (153.5 YPG, 4.68 YPC) 36th 36th (345 YPG) 8th (15.5 PPG)

With essentially the same personnel, Mattison has turned what was one of the worst defenses in the country last year into a defense that's decidedly above average. While Michigan's defensive numbers haven't taken the logical hit they will once their schedule evens out, this sort of improvement speaks bounds for Mattison's skills and reputation. One of the reasons for this success, as indicated by the image above, is Mattison's innovative blitzes. Especially early in the season, Mattison showed stunt blitzes and zone drops to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. Occasionally, this cost the team, but the numbers speak for themselves.

Unfortunately, as the lead image also indicates, the defense is not without its flaws. Certain players and position groups, in spite of the defense's overall success, have been struggling through the year. Let's recalibrate our expectations and see where the defense stacks up to their preseason hype.

Defensive Line
Preseason expectation:
As for production, this unit should be far more effective than they were last year. For the most part last season, Michigan rushed three down linemen and let the crippled secondary deal with endless coverage. It did not go well. With a four-man line and Roh's move back to DE, the defensive line should be able to create pressure by themselves. Even last year, with an incoherent defense, Martin and a four-man line were able to generate some pressure. Add in Mattison's blitzing tendencies, and we should see a far more productive unit.

Speaking of which, there have been plenty of rumors, pictures, and even footage (the spring game) of the defensive line dropping into coverage on zone blitzes. This is something that Greg Robinson dabbled in last year, but it never became a staple of the defense. It looks like Mattison is going to bring plenty of pressure from the linebackers and have the defensive line dropping into coverage. Given Martin's experience with this and Roh's time at linebacker, this could be a devastating change up.
Like the general preseason defensive projection, this is about 70% correct. Though this unit was expected to give the team a lot of production, slow starts by the defensive ends coupled with Will Heininger's uninspiring play as the starting 3-tech have created a fairly lackluster group. To date, the defensive line has recorded only 5 sacks (Martin 0.5, Roh 2.5, Van Bergen 1.0, and Will Campbell 1.0), one of which came from a backup. In addition, they've only amassed 16.5 of the team's 31 tackles for loss. While those are decent numbers, I think more was expected of this unit coming into the season.

There are mitigating factors: many of the zone blitzes that Michigan runs are intended to open up lanes for linebackers and safeties to blitz (Kovacs, for example, has 3 sacks and 4 tackles for loss), but the production from this unit has been meager.

Grand Statement of Optimism: Michigan's defensive rushing numbers haven't been great, largely due to inexperience in the linebacking corps (about which more in a minute). As such, the defensive line has struggled to make plays because their help defense isn't in the proper position. As Michigan's linebackers improve, so too should the output from the defensive line.

Grand Statement of Pessimism: With a mostly veteran defensive line, the chances for significant improvement (with regard to getting pressure from a four-man rush, for example) are slim. In addition, it may be time to stop piling heaps of praise upon Martin who has failed to live up to the lofty expectations we have for him every season. Yes, he plays out of position, but not significantly so. When's the last time you remember Martin beating a double block against anyone other than a cupcake? He's a solid Big Ten starter but not much more.

Wet Owl sez:
Preseason expectation:
Like the defensive line, the change in scheme should be beneficial for this unit. MGoBlog spent much of last year criticizing Greg Robinson's deployment of the linebackers at an inadequate depth. Mattison's schemes likely won't put the linebackers in such harrowing positions, decreasing the amount of frustrating pancake blocks and loss of contain. I expect this unit to be significantly better against the run and filling gaps, and their pass coverage should be adequate. If Demens can stay healthy, this should be a functional linebacking corps.
So, urm, that's wrong. Though Mattison has created plenty of opportunities for the linebackers to make plays and amass stats, they've unquestionably been the worst unit on the defense to date, largely responsible for opponents uptick in rushing YPC from 4.43 last year to 4.68 this year.

The stalwart of this unit was supposed to be returning starting MLB Kenny Demens who, despite showing signs of inexperience last year after overtaking Obi Ezeh for the starting spot, appeared to be the best middle linebacker Michigan had fielded in a quite some time. This season has been less promising. Those moments of indecision have persisted, opening up running lanes through the middle of the field. He's also struggled in pass protection and is responsible for the little red line on the play diagram above which means Screw Up. That said, like last year, he's shown an ability to learn from his mistakes, prompting me to write yet another apology post that isn't really an apology but more a Thank You For Doing Your Job.

Demens is not the worst part of the linebacking corps though. That designation would fall to the revolving door at weakside linebacker where Brandin Hawthorne, Brandon Herron, and recent "starter" Desmond Morgan have been rotating through. I don't have any picture pages of any of them screwing anything up, but I also don't have any of them doing anything well. These three take turns ghosting around the field and being total nonentities.

On the other side of the formation is Jake "What Have You Done for Me Lately" Ryan who vacillates between recovering fumbles and getting tackles for loss, and making crippling mistakes by letting ball carriers outside of him. Ryan has competition on the depth chart with Cam Gordon nipping at his heels, so if he begins to really struggle, at least there are other options. But Ryan makes enough good plays that it'll be tough to pull him off the field completely.

Grand Statement of Optimism: Youth and inexperience. Michigan's linebackers are either young, haven't had much playing time, or both. As they get more time in the system and in the film room, the hope is that keeping contain will become less and less of an Achilles heel for the defense.

Grand Statement of Pessimism: Demens isn't the All Big Ten linebacker most assumed he was coming into the season. In fact, he's shown so many mistakes that had Rodriguez recruited a single competent linebacker, his status as the starter would be seriously in question.

Wet Owl sez:
Preseason expectation:
Troy Woolfolk returns from purgatory as the experienced veteran. Were he around last year, the defense might have begun to resemble competent. But there's no use crying over spilled milk. Woolfolk proved himself to be a decent Big Ten corner in 2009 when he was moved from free safety, and I expect he'll have a successful year, possibly good enough to make people realize that the hype poured on Donovan Warren was terribly misguided.

Opposite Woolfolk will be true sophomore Courtney Avery. Despite the depth chart giving the noncommittal "OR" to the starting position, Avery is your starter...

The backups will be precisely that: backups. There are young guys on the two deep that will, with any luck, spend most of their season on the bench. The Woolfolk/Avery starting tandem should provide Michigan will a decent set of corners that can cover man-to-man or zone, allowing the front seven to attack the quarterback and stop the run.
Corner has been a weirdly average position for Michigan this season. Despite not fielding anyone who's been all that good, the team hasn't been exploited. Woolfolk has been injured the entire season and it has shown. He's visibly slowed, has trouble in coverage, and just generally doesn't look anything like he did two years ago. It's possible that the time off took a lot out of his game, but he still looks hampered.

Opposite Woolfolk, I expected Avery to start and excel. The opposite has been true. Avery similarly has struggled in coverage and has seen his playing time significantly reduced as JT Floyd locked down the second CB position.

The bright spot from this unit comes from true freshman Blake Countess who has replaced Woolfolk in the starting lineup each of the past few weeks. Aside from showing quality coverage skills, Countess ranks sixth on the team in tackles, even after zero starts and playing only six games. Though he's been beaten deep on a few different routes, Countess breaks on the ball well, wraps up his tackles, and has shown ample ability to break up passes. Unless Woolfolk's lingering injuries subside by the end of the season, Countess should take over the starting position.

Grand Statement of Optimism: Blake Countess roolz.

Grand Statement of Pessimism: The technique that the corners and safeties are using to defend the pass (face guarding, explained in depth at MGoBlog) is unsustainable and implies that they aren't in the proper position yet to make a play on the ball.

Wet Owl sez:
Preseason expectation:
This is where things get hairy
If you need me, I'll be in the stockade for the next week while Jordan Kovacs hurls rotten passionfruit at me.

The unequivocal best unit from Michigan's defense this season has been the safeties. Take a deep breath and read that again. Kovacs and free safety Thomas Gordon have been somewhere between good and great in relation to the last three years. The team hasn't allowed any play longer than 40 yards, largely thanks to the sure tackling of Kovacs. The biggest play of the season (the late non-game winning touchdown to Notre Dame) was the fault of Marvin Robinson, not either of the two starting safeties.

Kovacs has been the real breadwinner though, racking up 4 TFLs, 3 sacks, 1 interception, 1 pass breakup, 1 forced fumble, and 1 fumble recovery, all while being tied for second on the team in tackles. Simply put, Kovacs has been everywhere. Much of that is due to Mattison's schemes, which give Kovacs clear lanes to the backfield and put him in positions to break up passes. Regardless, Kovacs still has to perform and in that regard, he's done swimmingly.

Grand Statement of Optimism: Jordan Kovacs roolz. Also, no long touchdowns.

Grand Statement of Pessimism: They haven't made enough interceptions?

Wet Owl sez:
Mid-season report
While some units are under- and over-performing, Michigan's defense is about where we expected it to be before the season: an above-average, blitz-heavy defense that shows obvious signs of coaching and discipline. The problems that ill this defense are more experience based than talent based, as they have been in the recent past. Michigan appears to have depth in the secondary for the first time in four years, two competent safeties, and a few young prospects in the front seven (I'm including Will Campbell in this because I like his play so far).

The rest of the season is littered with unimpressive opponents, but many of them are built to exploit Michigan's biggest weakness: containing the edge. With option running attacks from Nebraska, Illinois, Ohio State, and Purdue, Michigan could be stepping into a perfect storm of teams that are uniquely positioned to punish the young Wolverine defense. However, given the excellence of the coaching staff, the team's issues with containment and discipline should be largely mitigated by the season's conclusion.

Grand Statement of Optimism: Greg Mattison

Grand Statement of Pessimism: Boy, that defensive line is thin. After this season, it's going to be hard to field a team that is even remotely competent against the run, especially given the lackluster performance by the linebackers.

Wet Owl concludes:


Zander said...

I love your stuff.....it's a great site to seek refuge when MgoBlog devolves into' random stream of consciousness' drivel fueled by too much alcohol, too little action, in terms of sex, and and perceived on the field performance.... but I digress.

An alternate hypothesis might be that the D is simply ( and marginally) better because of 1 year more of experience.

Your incite, that the real test will be next season, is spot on. That of course is when the last of Carr recruits are gone, and the RR kids enter their prime.

Hoke and Mathis see this and can without too much spin 'sell' freshmen 5* 's playing time on D.

MichiganMan77 said...

Good, as always.

Wet owls? I guess I haven't been around long enough to get that. :)

Chris Gaerig said...

Where it began.

Not Zander said...

Self-reference, anyone? Bueller?

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