by Mark Edwards
In the build up for the opening game versus Florida, many (and dare I say most) national pundits were quick to point out the youth factor of the Michigan defense. While I thought it was overstated, it really was true. While many Michigan fans took that as a slight on the talent of the players, the experience metric told all of us that there would be “growing pains.”
I can actually make the argument that Michigan’s defense has far exceeded national expectation. However, this column isn’t intended to rail on the Trevor Matich’s of the world. As of November 20, Michigan has the #1 ranked pass defense in the country. They yield 144.4 yards per game. That’s almost never going to get you run out of the stadium in college football. Couple this with the #15 ranked rush defense (115.6 yards per game) and I think it’s obvious that the defense has performed at a ridiculously high level.
As the offense has been “hit or miss” this year, the defense has taken the field and known that they would have to be “lights out” to have a chance to win. The youth metric should have told us that being dominant for the whole season was a pipe dream.
Couple that with the fact that offenses only need to hit a few big plays to turn the tide against Michigan has forced opposing offenses to look for their “one shining moment.” This article will show you what Michigan’s philosophy is, how teams shift personnel to try to beat it and how Michigan can adjust to the current attack by opposing offenses.
MICHIGAN’S BASE COVERAGE BREAKDOWN
Michigan has changed the defense constantly this year from a 3-3 to a 4-2 front. While that is not important to the pass coverage, it needs to be stated for the record. I applaud Don Brown for trying to get as many athletes on the field at once.
Michigan’s primary coverage is “Cover 10.” Cover 10 is a man-to-man coverage with a single-high safety in the middle of the field. Depending on the pressure/blitz that Don Brown calls, the free safety “may” have responsibilities in the run game. Why does this matter? The answer is that you really are playing with no “help over the top.” Lloyd Carr believed in safety help for corners (Charles Woodson excluded). Don Brown almost never does this.
In the diagram below, you see where a single-high safety defense is vulnerable.
Teams are targeting the Michigan safeties in man-to-man coverage. Whether it is Tyree Kinnel or Josh Metellus, most teams are running a three wide receiver set and isolating the non-cornerback on a wide receiver.
Let’s be honest here…Michigan’s David Long and Lavert Hill have been outstanding against the pass this season. Considering the fact that all five members of last year’s secondary are in the NFL right now, you have to praise the Michigan defensive staff for their development of so many young players.
However, safeties versus wide receivers are generally bad matchups for most defensive teams. Teams have figured this out and now they all are attacking Michigan in a similar fashion. Given the fact that they only need to hit a few passes to turn the tide, Penn State showed everyone how to do it and people are following their lead.
SHIFTING PERSONNEL HAS BEEN GOOD FOR OPPONENTS
While opponents have struggled to run the ball against Michigan, the passing games have attacked this coverage every week. This section will detail the adjustments.
Collegiate passing games come down to design and matchups. While the Green Bay Packers have been doing this for years (ever use the Packer personnel group on Madden?), college teams are starting to do it as well. Specifically, they are doing it to Michigan to really attempt to get their top receiver on a safety.
In the first clip, Penn State puts DeSean Hamilton in the slot as the #2 receiver. This gets their all-time leading receiver working against a safety (in this case Josh Metellus). The popular route combination is an outside release hitch by the #1 receiver and a fade route from #2. To be fair and give credit, Michigan State became elite doing this with Kirk Cousins and Connor Cook. Notice in the clip below that Metellus is giving a three yard cushion. Michigan is doing this to help the safety against a faster receiver. Why not press the #2 receiver? It’s an adjustment to give the safety a chance to run with Hamilton. The true breakdown is that Metellus never gets his hands on him during the entire route.
Michigan’s coverage technique is all about being physical with receivers and tugging the inside arm (think MSU 2013). This is a technique breakdown added to a personnel mismatch. Penn State, on that one evening, was good enough to do it.
In this example from the final minute of the second quarter, Penn State gets TE Mike Gesicki (6’6″) lined up versus Khaleke Hudson. Hudson, who has had a great season, is 6’0″ and has been more of a run player than a pass defender. Gesicki is runs a “sluggo”, which is a slant and go look at Hudson. Functionally, it is a fade.
Gesicki gets a back should throw from McSorely and as Hudson is trailing the route, the throw is indefensible. This isn’t horrible coverage but it certainly was an effective plan for Penn State.
This clip comes from the Maryland game. It would be easy to surmise that you’re only picking clips where the offensive talent is better than that of the Michigan defense. This is the example that should tell all fans that the offensive coaches in the conference are seeing the same thing.
Maryland lines up in 11 personnel (1 RB and 1 TE). So here’s your customary 3 wide receiver set with twins to the field. Maryland, on their fourth quarterback, decided that they also could get the fade route. While being incomplete on review, Maryland Taivon Jacobs beats Michigan’s best cornerback in Lavert Hill. This clip is tough because you can’t see the route. However, you can see that safety Tyree Kinnel almost got their from the middle of the field. Undoubtedly, the QB looking at the receiver the whole way let Kinnel get that close.
This is a breakdown in technique by Hill. Jacobs is a middle of the pack receiver yet still gets behind Michigan on the fade from #2 route. He couldn’t gain any separation on other Terrapin routes so you have to assume a weakness in the Michigan pass defense exists and opponents know it.
Maryland wasn’t going to beat Michigan so it’s a fairly forgettable play but if the talent of the two teams was closer, you would’ve seen Maryland try this a lot.
This past weekend, Michigan held a 10-7 lead near the later stages of the third quarter at Wisconsin. The Badger running game was fairly stifled so what did they go to to not only flip the field but also turn the tide? You got it. A fade route from #2. Now for the sake of transparency, they hit this pass on Michigan freshman Jaylen Kelly-Powell. Kelly-Powell was forced into duty because Michigan’s normal nickel defender Brandon Watson started at corner due to the Lavert Hill injury.
Wisconsin WR A.J. Taylor actually got off of press contact from Kelly-Powell and ran away from him while QB Alex Hornibrook threw a really good pass to the open receiver. Notice, this is a 51-yard connection that represented 33.3% of their passing yards for the day.
WHAT MICHIGAN WILL DO (AND WON’T DO) TO ADJUST MOVING FORWARD
The breakdown for Michigan is not corrected by scheme. Don Brown IS GOING TO continue to bring pressure and play man coverage. In all of these clips, the QB is not pressured. Hence, the defensive backs have to cover longer. Given Michigan’s propensity to bring the blitz, the pass rush has to get home and at least pressure quarterbacks. They’ve done a really good job but it’s when they don’t that we see opponents pass efficiently against Michigan.
Don Brown isn’t going to become a two-high safety team. I not suggesting that he should by writing this article. It’s never one thing that is the fix-all. Michigan’s defenders will get better at their press technique, faster due to training and more aware of what teams are doing to them. Michigan’s a single-high safety team 95% of the time. They will continue to be that.
In this current world of college football, offenses are scoring at rapid rates. So here we are breaking down a pass or two per game that hurts the Michigan hopes. Football is a team game and the stress that Michigan’s defense must feel is massive. This week in “The Game,” look for Ohio State to attempt the same attack. While each team is different, we are seeing this approach week in and week out.