The wizard at work. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Football is inching steadily closer -- eeeeeek its under two weeks away! -- and we finally get to focus on actual football-y bits rather than the mindless speculation and internet rumor-mongering that accompany the long, hot, miserable summer.
While I rather doubt that I will match the phenomenal job that Fouad did last week introducing Al Borges (seriously, read that because it is 4500 words of pure awesome football knowledge that will be extremely relevant this season), it would be remiss of me and this blog as a whole not to introduce the man with a defensive plan: Greg "don't call me GERG" Mattison.
There are a few men in Michigan football history that need no introduction. Greg Mattison is rapidly becoming one of them.
Mattison is an old Michigan name, having coached the defense in a couple different forms back in the mid-90's when Lloyd and Gary were still roaming the sidelines in those post-Bo days. Mattison first came aboard as a defensive line coach in 1992. At that point Mattison had been coaching the defensive line at various stops for 15 years, including a four year stint at Western Michigan where he would first come in contact with John Harbaugh, the man who would tap him to replace Rex Ryan in Baltimore over two decades later.
Mattison got the promotion to defensive coordinator when Lloyd Carr took the head coaching position in 1995, and he would spend two season heading up the defense. His first season would be a good primer on what Mattison would stress throughout his career as a defensive coordinator:
- Run Defense: The Wolverines held opponents to 2.4 yards per rushing attempt and just ten rushing touchdowns on the season. The total net yards gained in 13 games that season for Michigan's opponents was just 790. Mattison's 2011 Michigan defense allowed just 3.99 ypa, almost a half-yard improvement from 2010.
- No Big Plays: Not only was the Michigan defense potent against the run, the pass defense was ferocious as well, allowing just 6.1 yards per pass attempt. The 2011 Wolverines followed right in line with this allowing just 6.6 yards per attempt. The 2010 Wolverines? Allowed over eight yards per attempt.
- Third-Down Defense: Michigan held opponents to just 32 percent conversion rate on third-down. The 2011 Wolverines would hold teams to 36 percent. The 2010 Wolverines? Forty-three percent.
Mattison would head Michigan's defense for two years before leaving Ann Arbor for South Bend to take over as defensive coordinator of Notre Dame -- where his daughter was a student at the time and would get free tuition as a coach's kid (in the years before outrageous coordinator salaries, this mattered). The defense that Mattison had built would go on to win Michigan a share of the 1997 national title.
Mattison would lead some very strong defenses for the Irish before being bumped down to defensive line coach when Ty Willingham took over, and after three years running the line and serving as recruiting coordinator, Mattison would leave to join Urban Meyer's staff at Florida where Mattison served as co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach. Florida would win a national title during Mattison's time there, based in part on the impressive defense that he and co-coordinator Charlie Strong built.
Years later, when asked about Mattison, Urban Meyer would call him, "the best recruiter in college football."
After three years at Florida, Mattison left to join John Harbaugh's staff coaching linebackers for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens. One year later Mattison was tapped to lead the defense upon Rex Ryan's move to head the New York Jets. The Ravens would make the playoffs all three years that Mattison coached there, while continuing to play defense at a high level.
In 2011 Mattison left the job to return to Ann Arbor and take the defensive coordinator position on Brady Hoke's staff. It was there that he would engineer one of the most impressive single season defensive turnarounds in college football history.
Michigan went from 95th in the nation in rush yards allowed to 39th. The total defense improvement was even more stark: 110th overall to 17th in yards allowed per game. And scoring defense? That improved by 102 places in the rankings as the Wolverines moved to sixth in the nation and cut the average scoring in half (35.2 ppg to 17.4 ppg).
Even the advanced metrics trumpet a sea-change. Football Outsider's S&P+ rankings have Michigan 94th in 2010 and 36th in 2011. This incredible defensive improvement, coupled with a steady offensive output would help the Wolverines go from 7-6 to 11-2 with the first BCS bowl win in over a decade.
Four-three under. Period.
The years before Mattison arrived, the defensive scheme was hardly defined. It was a rapidly evolving (devolving?) series of adjustments and overreactions that culminated in three years of steadily worsening defensive output. Rich Rodriguez couldn't settle on a defensive coordinator, then he couldn't settle on a defense to let that coordinator use. Assignments and responsibilities shifted on a game to game basis, players were constantly miscast and misaligned.
When Greg Mattison got to town he was clear about what the defense would be. It would be a 4-3 under intent on stopping the run.
The 4-3 under is a slight variation on the 4-3 defense. For the layman, a straight 4-3 utilizes four defensive linemen and three linebackers. That is an easy place to start. The difference between a regular 4-3 and a 4-3 under is in the position of the strongside linebacker, or SAM. Check out my crude paint diagram below:
MS Paint, baby.
The SAM -- labled SM on the diagram -- has walked up to the line and is lined up on the strong side, outside the tight end.
This defense is very adaptable to run support with at least four (most often five) defenders on the or near the line ready to take on blockers. As I said before, Greg Mattison is a big proponent of stopping the run. One of his most important defensive principles is to always line up with four down linemen. Craig Ross explains:
He always wants four guys down. Always. He said "If I have to limp in there we are playing 4 guys on the line." (A couple of times in the spring game it looked like we had three guys down. Reviewed this. On play one he had Big WC at NT and Mike Martin standing up on the edge. Denard breaks the play for 55 yards. Of course, we did have 4 DL in the game so he didn't violate his abstract principle. Also, as noted, against spread looks he went with three DL.
While the 4-3 under is a great way to constantly keep four defensive linemen on the field, the true beauty of the formation is the adaptability of the system. Moving from the NT out all the way to the WLB, each position has slightly different size and speed requirements, and the formation allows a defense to get a lot of different players with a lot of different talents all on the field at the same time while not being too dependent on certain types of players (i.e. if you want to run a two-gap 3-4 system you had better have at least four 300lbs-ish defensive ends that are strong enough to hold up against double teams but athletic enough to hold the edge against the run game -- but that is a different post). Small personnel changes allow the defense to bulk up to stop the run or drop players and focus on the rush in third-and-long situations. Chris Brown from MGoBlog's great preview magazine, Hail To The Victors:
The 4-3 Under is also an extremely versatile defense, a particularty important aspect in today's football when it's unlikely that any opponent will line up in a traditional pro-set with two running backs and a tight-end every snap (or if at all). The strongside or "Sam" linebacker, weakside linebacker ("Will"), and safeties can all step out of the box to cover slot receivers, and even the weakside defensive end, depending on the abilities of the players, will often drop into coverage on certain zone blitzes.
What this gives Mattison is the ability to constantly match his base defense up against the wide variety of looks that the different offenses on the schedule will present, all while keeping four guys on the line on the majority of snaps.
However, that isn't enough. Few defenses in this day and age can afford to stay in the base defensive set all the time, and Mattison has shown that he understands that his defense needs to adapt to the multiple spread looks that will see most weeks. Last week Seth at MGoBlog laid out just how often Mattison shifts the defense to a nickel look to match the three- and four-wide looks that an offense might present on any given play. In fact, Michigan was in some variation of the nickel formation more than any other -- including the base 4-3 under defense -- during the 2011 season according to Seth's research.
If you check out those charts in Seth's post, you'll also notice that right below "Nickel" and "4-3" is "Okie", a defensive formation that Michigan fans have grown to love over the course of the last year.
The Okie package is one of pure havoc. Mattison likes bringing the heat (again from Brown's piece in HTTV: "Mattison frequently stated that on third down he believes in one thing: pressure"), and one of his favorite ways to do it is with mass confusion. The Okie package is a perfect example of that, as it is the kind of hellish, quarterback-nightmare inducing formation that can bring pressure from any of seven different defenders. Watch and laugh maniacally:
That just isn't fair. Seven guys on the line. Mike Martin in a psuedo-rush-end position, and a blitz designed specifically to bring loads of pressure in one area and drop coverage right into the spot where the quarterback wants to dump off the ball. What is more impressive was that Michigan constantly tweaked and shifted its blitzes out of the formation to keep the offense on its heels.
Greg Mattison's defense in just one year has blossomed into a diverse, yet fundamentally sound and forward-thinking scheme that keeps Michigan one step ahead of opposing offenses. If I wrote this post during the Greg Robinson fiasco it would have been 5000 words, every sentence would end in a question mark, and it would end in a jumble of unintelligible letters as I slammed my head against the keyboard until I passed out.
We've come a long way, baby.
So now on to year two of the Greg Mattison experience, what can we expect from the sage old wizard who turned the worst defense in the Big Ten into a top-25-ish unit that ended up almost singlehandedly winning a BCS bowl game by itself?
On one hand there are sure to be growing pains. Michigan lost the core of its defensive line -- and arguably its defense as a whole -- as both Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen graduated. Add in the loss of solid starter and longtime program guy, Will Heininger, and you have a defensive line that goes from being the unquestioned strength of the defense to a glaring weakness.
There is only one returning starter on the line, Craig Roh, and he spent last season on the opposite side at the weakside defensive end position. Now flipped to the strongside, Roh will be dealing with more double teams and direct run support instead of being primarily a pass rusher. The interior will consist of little used but certainly capable backups Will Campbell and Jibreel Black. Campbell is looking to finally deliver on even a modicum of the hype he rode into town on, while Black is just hoping to hold up as an undersized three-tech. The WDE spot is now Brennen Beyer alone, at least until some word comes down on Frank Clark's legal status.
Yet, the back seven returns completely intact and looks to build on a very good 2011 season. There is more depth at linebacker -- albeit young depth -- and a lot of experience in the secondary.
With the defensive line experiencing a lot of turnover as well as getting noticeably smaller on the whole, Michigan's run defense could see a regression. However, the one main thing the defensive line adds is athleticism, which could allow for more penetration and more pressure on the quarterback.
For the run defense to stay at the level it was last year -- or improve on that -- the linebackers will need to take a big step forward in run support as they will not only take on more blockers, but they will need to diagnose plays quicker.
All of this leads into the biggest positive of Greg Mattison's short term as defensive coordinator: game by game improvement.
That Michigan was able to improve as dramatically during year one of Mattison's time as coordinator speaks not only to the soundness of his schemes, but to the ability he has to identify mistakes and correct them in real time. One longstanding problem with the Rich Rodriguez era defenses was the fact that glaring mistakes often went unaddressed, which in turn made them even more glaring as the fans who paid the closest attention to these things were repeatedly bashed over the head with example after example of players losing contain or failing to execute a correct zone drop.
These problems aren't exclusive to just those Rodriguez defenses. They cropped up at times last year as well. The major difference was that once a problem was identified (and it was usually identified quickly) it was addressed and corrected. There was game by game improvement on a level that Michigan fans almost couldn't believe was possible.
You can talk about superior scheme and fundamentals until you are blue in the face, but in the end the real beauty of Greg Mattison's defensive revival in 2011 was that he got all the players to buy in to his system, he put them in the right positions to make plays, and then he gave them the knowledge to excel and grow together as a defense.
The high amount of turnover on the defensive line will no doubt lead to some sticky situations and mistakes. However, Greg Mattison and his staff have shown a remarkable ability to address problems and spur improvement. With everyone in the second year of the defense, look for a richer variety of blitzes and schemes, and the same quick diagnosis and remedy to the mistakes that this still young defense will inevitably make.
Michigan is still a ways away from being a top-10 level defense, but with Greg Mattison running the show there is little doubt that the defense will be prepared and capable on a game to game basis. In 2012 that should be enough.