Fixing the Michigan Defense: Why Not Try a 4-2-5?

[Ed Note - Look. I'm not a football player. I'm not a coach. I'm just a fan who is desperately looking for solutions to a serious Michigan problem, fixing what may be the worst Michigan defense I've ever seen. So this is meant to be an open ended question. If you've got a better idea, put it in the comments or write a FanPost on what Michigan should be doing or should be trying to plug the gigantic hole in our defense known as our pass defense.]

Watching Michigan play defense this season has been like watching a Rocky movie. And not one of those feel good ones where Rocky raises his arms in triumph, drapes himself in the American flag and says something patriotic in unintelligible Jersey-speak to an audience that can't understand him. No. This is more like the original Rocky. The Rocky where Apollo Creed beats the ever living hell out of Rocky for 15 rounds and, eventually, Rocky finally falls down from head trauma and multiple concussions, while at the same time Creed collapses from sheer exhaustion. Creed kinda gets up, but doesn't. Rocky doesn't get up at all. It's kind of a draw, but Creed really did whatever he wanted.

That sound about right?

Going into this season everyone was aware that there were some serious issues at cornerbackand linebacker. We also knew there were some problems regarding depthat linebacker and defensive line. As a result, Michigan's coaching staff told us they were making the switch to a 3-3-5 (or some variation of a three man line) in an effort to protect what little depth they had and give the team the best chance to win. Five games into the season the results are not promising.

As detailed yesterday, Michigan is dead last in the nation in pass defense and 102 in total defense overall. And yes, Michigan is dead last in the conference in total defense as well. However, all is not totally lost, Michigan is 37th overall in rush defense. So, hey. Progress.Another thing worth noting is that this Defense, the 3-3-5 stack, or whatever you want to call it is not the baby of Greg Robinson. IIRC, Robinson said he'd never run a 3-3-5 stack before coming to Ann Arbor. Let's be clear, this defensive allignment is Rodriguez's baby. So as much as we want to ooh and aah over the beautiful baby that is our offense, we're going to have to deal with its fugly-ass twin, and pray that it outgrows this awkward stage of life. So let's move on to what we've got.

With accurate and veteran passers on the schedule, filling the gaping abyss in our secondary should be (and probably is) Michigan's biggest concern going forward. But how does Michigan fix it? The first step is to identify the problems, liabilities, and strengths of what you have before trying to implement a change, so that's what we'll endeavour to do here.

In terms of obvious pass defense problems, Michigan is giving up 7.47yards a pass and isn't getting any pressure on the quarterback. In terms of pressure, the metric I'm using is the percentage of sacks versus passing attempts taht the defense is registering. I'd like to use QB hurries as well, but finding a national list of QB Hurries has proven difficult, so I'm using sacks and pass attempts as a guide. 

So far this season Michigan has faced the most passing attempts in the FBS. 206 passing attempts to be exact, and for comparison, no one else is over 200. Five games into the season, Michigan has registered only registered 7 sacks. That's a ratio of 0.034 sacks per pass attempt. You've probably already figured out what that means, but if you haven't I'll translate: "It means you can throw the ball at will against this team, and only haveto deal witha sack once in approximately 30 passing attempts." And that's Michigan's performace based on mediocre competition.

Michigan's yards per completion have probably been skewed a bit by three humongous gaffes (two at Notre Dame, and the BGSU tunnel screen turned TD), but the numbers still look correct to me. Michigan's defense is getting dinked and dunked to death. As Brian said, it's death by 1,000 papercuts. Or in this case, 1,539 paper cuts (passing yards). Michigan's yards per attempt is actually less than Arkansas's, Georgia's, Indiana's, and numerous other units that are ranked higher than they are, but it's the sheer volume of short completions that is skewing the numbers. nothing's going deep (except for the aforementioned trio), it's all 5-15 yard competitions. As a result, Michigan is giving up a lot of yardage through the air and not getting any pressure. So we at least have a handle on the problems.

Alright genius, here's a cookie for stating the obvious. Now what?

Let's look at our strengths and weaknesses in pass defense. Obviously, when you've got four underclassmen in your coverage scheme and one senior who has never played a snap at corner before this year it's safe to put the entire secondary in the liability category. I'm actually of the opinion that J.T. Floyd, James Rogers, Cameron Gordon, Jordan Kovacs, Carvin Johnson and Thomas Gordon have all played pretty well given their inexperience, youth, and the scheme they're forced to play. When you're sitting in a zone the entire game, you're going to give up points. None of these guys are better than a second tier cornerback during Michigan's heyday, but they're playing hard and making tackles. They're also keeping guys covered for long stretches of time, which brings us to the other problem... the pass rush.

Initially, I thought that the defensive line depth was so poor that we had to play a 3-3-5. Five games in I'm fairly certain that is not the case. Our current starters Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen, and Greg Banks have been serviceable to good. They're just getting outnumbered at the point of attack. The one thing I've noticed, Michigan does have defensive line depth. A lot of it. Adam Patterson hasn't been bad. Renaldo Sagesse is the same. William Campbell is great in pass rush or goal line situations. And Jibreel Black has been outstanding as a pass rusher. Then there's Craig Roh, as pure a Defense End as you'll find. That's eight guys that can cycle in. Depth IS NOT an issue. This is actually a pretty strong group, and they've been strong against the rush.

The liability in the pass rush is Michigan's linebackers. Well... that's not fair. Mouton has been pretty good this season. But Craig Roh and Obi Ezeh have been downright awful in pass and zone coverage. Ezeh just looks lost. Roh is NOT a linebacker, no matter how much Robinson or Rodriguez want him to be. Neither Ezeh or Rohconsistently drop to the proper depthin coverage and both are easily drawn in on play action. In Roh's case, it's inexperience. In Ezeh's case.... well.... yeah. At this point there's really one serviceable linebacker, and that's Mouton. Sure he's had a bad game against UMass, but he's been solid otherwise.

In that case our liabilities are secondary in long time zone coverage, our linebackers in coverage and pressure, and our line getting pressure on the quarterback so that our inexperienced secondary isn't exposed. That about sums it up.

The next step then is... what?

Call me nuts, but I'm okay with the majority of the play of the defense at the ends. The secondary isn't great, but they're in a soft zone and will remain in it the rest of the year. Why? Because they're young, small, inexperienced, and all of those things times five. The Line is actually pretty good, we're just not playing enough of them. The issue, and this is a shocker, is Roh and Ezeh at Linebacker. The fix is actually pretty simple.

We saw a little bit of this against Indiana and I think it's a good idea: Sit Ezeh, move Roh to full time DE, play four linemen, move Kovacs to MLB.

The alignment would then look like this:

Safeties: J.T. Floyd and Cameron Gordon. We saw a lot of this in the nickle set, but I think it works. Floyd's got much better wheels than Kovacsandthat takes some of the pressure off Gordon. It also puts an experienced hand at Safety until more depth is game ready.

Corners: James Rogers and/or Terrence Talbott and/or Courtney Avery and/or Cullen Christian. Right now Rogers looks cemented at one of the corner spots. He's not good. He's mediocre, but given the distance he's covered and the consistency with which he's mediocre, this is 100% WIN. If he gets replaced it's because one of the young guys stepped up. Terrence Talbott saw all kinds of playing time against Indiana and I thought was decent. Likewise I think putting Courtney Avery out there might not be a bad idea either. Christian looks like he'll need a little more seasoning/film study before he makes the leap, but it's always a possibility. This isn't ideal, but neither is our defrense at the moment, so what the hell.

Another fun thing about this is it also frees up Thomas Gordon or Carvin Johnson to either go into press coverage at the line or blitz like demons. Thismakes the "spinner position" much more dangerous because both of these kids have been good in rush defense and are more than adequate in pass coverage. By moving Kovacs to MLB, we're assured of having that position in the right place, or a tight end actually covered, thus freeing them to cover the slot or bring a delayed or snap blitz. Imagine! Pressure!

Linebacker: Jonas Mouton and Jordan Kovacs. Mouton needs no introduction. He's been great this year. Kovacs may be teeeeeeny, but the man just makes plays. He's a natural ball hound and has an uncanny ability to find the runningback and make tackles. He just can't be blocked. I don't know how he does it, but he's always shedding blocks, usees his hands effectively and smacks a mofo upside his head. He's also faster and better in coverage than Ezeh is. The fact that he's great in the box and knows the defense from the safety position can only help Michigan. If you need more bulk, play Brandon Herron at this position and shift Kovacs back to Safety and Floyd to CB. Michigan does have options here, and most importantly (and I really do feel bad about saying this) it gets Ezeh off the field when Michigan needs to play pass defense or defense in general.

The Line: This isn't revolutionary at all, but for pete's sake, play four down linemen. The original justification was depth. That justification is incredibly hollow now. You have nine capable players for four spots! USE THEM! Michigan isn't getting any pressure with three down linemen and Rohis a liability in coverage at linebacker. He is a dominant player on the line. So start the line with Van Bergen, Martin, Banks and Roh. You get two good pass rushers and two space eaters inside. The nice thing here is that you can sub in Jibreel Black on pass rush downs, Will Campbell for pressure up the middle, Adam Patterson and Sagesse to spell Banks and Martin. All of a sudden you're getting more pressure, and you're getting your best two run defenders, Kovacs and Mouton in gaps.

Based on what I've seen, this seems to make the most sense. Michigan State has bothan excellent ground game and a veteran passer with talented receivers. If Michigan is going to be able to hang the the Spartans, they're going to have to get pressure on the quarterback. Based on what I've seen, I think this would do it, especially against MSU's somewhat shakey line. But then again, what do I know? What do you guys think. Would this 4-2-5 system work?

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