A Tale of Tackles: Assessing Michigan's Defensive Line Play vs. Alabama

Sep 1, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Michigan Wolverines nose tackle Ondre Pipkins (56) in action against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Going into the Alabama game, a primary concern on the defense was the line up front (duh). With but one returning starter (facing a position change), question marks were plentiful, especially when faced with the prospect of going up against the number one offensive line in the nation. An offensive line that will almost certainly send four, perhaps all five of its starters to the NFL. When running backs Eddie Lacy, TJ Yeldon, Jalston Fowler, and Dee Hart had a field day picking through gaps on the Michigan defense, many were quick to toss blame on the much maligned group. How much of it was on the defensive line? We at Maize n Brew wanted to take a closer look, breaking down the play of five key contributors on the interior of the defensive line. Before we start, a huge thank you to the guys at MGoVideo for the every snap videos. We'll be excluding Jibreel Black and Craig Roh (obviously) from this post, as both guys only slid inside on passing downs.

BIG WILL CAMPBELL

The senior big man was on the field for 61% of the defensive snaps, more than any of his DT cohorts. While watching the Crimson Tide find hole after hole on the defense, the gut reaction of many Michigan fans I encountered was 'BWC must be the same 'ol BWC'. So what does the tape say?

Will had a very up and down evening, but flashed a lot of promise. Take a look at the first play. Campbell gets thrown off the line by a double team. However, he finds his footing and pushes back, essentially clogging up the run lane before Lacy could find it. Morgan and Demens hit their gaps and clean up what's left.

And of course, his sack. Presented without comment.

In this play in the fourth quarter, watch him hold up and slice through a double team and make the tackle while flowing down the line.

As with everything BWC related, however, the good was mixed in equally with the not-so-good. I'm actually not too discouraged by this at this point, considering the competition. In this play, you'll notice LG Chance Womack completely seal Campbell out of the play, opening a huge gap for Yeldon to hit. It's a simple misdirection run, and true freshman James Ross is unable to get outside of the block by the LT, Cyrus Kouandjio. First down, 'Bama.

In this play late in the second quarter, LG Chance Womack once again manhandles Campbell, this time plowing him four yards downfield. Although Lacy would bounce out and Jordan Kovacs would come save the day for the D, it was the first time during the broadcast that I noticed Campbell getting thoroughly pushed around. You can see it again in this play, this time against a double team. He'd fare no better on the following play, leaving open a huge cut-back lane for Yeldon.

As the game wore on, he made a couple of mistakes as the fatigue set in. In this play, he tries to hold up against a double team, only to lose his footing and leave a huge gap on the left side of the line open. Kovacs is unable to fill, and Fowler gallops forward for another first down. On the play immediately before, Mattison ordered the line to slant, and Campbell hit the turf just as soon as Kouandjio got his hands on him. This may or may not be an equipment problem, but Campbell was standing straight up when it happened.

ONDRE 'OPTIMUS PRIME' PIPKINS

Ondre Pipkins vs. All American/Outland Award Winner Barrett Jones

Although Pipkins was only in on 19% of the snaps, I found him to be one of the most impressive DTs while reviewing the tape. He only spelled sporadically in the first half, but the coaches ended up tossing him out to start the second half. Quinton Washington replaced him, but Pipkins came in and played some more garbage time snaps, as well.

The first time I noticed Pipkins was in the second quarter. On this play, watch him hold up against Barrett Jones (!!) and flow down the line, forcing a cutback that Kovacs comes in to clean up. Again, watch him slice through Jones (!!) again in the third quarter, single-handedly forcing a bounce back that Jake Ryan cleans up, although Demens and Roh both had a shot at killing the play at the LOS. One more time, might I remind you that this is a Freshman against a Senior All-American.

While it was against Bama's second teamers, he still made quite the splash in garbage time. Watch him disengage the (admittedly weak) block by second-team OL Arie Kouandjio and (former Michigan recruit) Ryan Kelly, then flow down the line to help make the stop. On the following play, he pushes second-team OL Chad Lindsay back so far that Dee Hart is forced back into the waiting arms of Nate Brink. Finally, on the final play of the game, you can see him beat the aforementioned Kelly off the ball and slant inside, grabbing a hold of RB Kenyan Drake's jersey and slowing him down.

He wasn't perfect, but who in the world expected him to be? On this play, he gets double-teamed and pushed a few yards down field. Once the fullback seals off Demens, this leaves a wide open A-gap for Hart to hit. Later on this play in the second half, Womack gets a bit of a push on Pipkins, although Demens actually does a nice job filling the gap and forcing Lacy between Roh and Ryan. If that's the worse we're going to get from a true freshman facing the best position unit he might face in his entire collegiate career, I'm pretty happy.

In short, Pipkins was stellar. Despite only playing 12 snaps, he made a noticeably positive impact on 5 of them. Against Alabama's 'All-World' offensive line. Prediction: Pee Wee will continue to get mixed into the rotation over the next couple of weeks against UMass and Air Force, and people will be able to truly gauge the type of talent we have on our hands. I'd guess he's a starter by the Michigan State game, since there is a very real chance that Air Force and UMass could make Ash/Washington look like superstars as well.

QUINTON WASHINGTON

Washington. Occasionally solid, if unspectacular

Although many people were looking forward to getting a chance to see Big Will Campbell and Pee Wee in action, Washington represented as much of a question mark, having ascended into a starting seemingly from nowhere. Although Michigan trotted out a line of Ryan-BWC-Roh-Beyer for the first series, Washington would come in and play the second most amount of snaps behind BWC, at 38%. He mostly played the 1-technique, while being frequently spelled by Pipkins and Richard Ash.

Predictably, he struggled some. On his first snap of the game, he gets sealed out by a double team of Jones and Womack, and (with Demens eating a block at the next level) opened a cutback lane for Lacy. On this play midway through the first quarter, Barrett Jones seals Washington out of the play and opens up the A-Gap for Yeldon to dash through. As expected, he didn't provide much of a pass rush for most of the game, either. On McCarron's 50 yard bomb to DeAndrew White, Washington loses his footing and collapses in a heap, catching BWC's feet under him.

But it wasn't all bad for the former offensive lineman. In the fourth quarter, he fought off a Womack single-block to clog up the gap Hart was looking at, and allowing Cam Gordon to come in and clean up the play. Later on that same drive, Washington held off a Jones block and held the LOS, giving BWC ample space to make the play. On this stuff at the end of the first half, he manages to get back into the play despite being blown off the ball, and get in on the tackle. On BWC's sack, he fights through a double team and looks to be in a position to make a play if Will doesn't get there.

It wasn't a great day for Washington, but it certainly wasn't as bad as some expected. He'll look much better over the next couple of weeks, and should probably hold his own against some of the tougher lines left on the schedule. Still, he'll have to become a more active playmaker if he hopes to hold off freshman Ondre Pipkins.

RICHARD ASH

Falling behind on the depth chart, but flashes quickness off the snap?

Ash only registered on about 14% of the defensive snaps, and wasn't able to make quite the impact of an Ondre Pipkins in that time period. Unfortunately, when he was noticeable, it wasn't for a good reason. This fourth quarter snap sees him get driven down the field by Jones, as Ash flails his arm in a vain attempt to stop or slow down the play. During 'Bama's first scoring drive, he loses his balance and leaves a lane open for Yeldon to exploit. One positive to report, though, as Ash was able to simply beat Womack off the ball and get himself in a position to slow down this second down run.

Despite a promising spring, Ash seems to have fallen firmly behind Pipkins and Washington on the depth chart. Taking advantage of the undersized Air Force line this week while spelling the aforementioned two might earn him a place in the rotation, but the window for Ash is closing at Michigan. Unless he's able to impress on Pipkins' scale soon, he may spend the rest of his career as a backup.

NATE BRINK

Explosion? Maybe. Technique? Yes.

Brink was talked up in Spring of last year as a potential answer at the 5-technique, but he saw time primarily at the 3-tech during the 'Bama game, playing in about 17% of the snaps. While lauded for his technique and underrated athleticism, Brink is simply too small at 275. As a result, he was not the most promising run defender. This second quarter play saw Brink get manhandled by the least hyped of the Alabama linemen, RG Anthony Steen. On this third quarter run, Kouandjio once more tosses Brink to the ground.

Sometimes, however, Brink is able to use his refined technique to compensate for his size. On this first down run, he gets under Steen's pads and flows down the line, getting in the way of Dee Hart, although Gordon ultimately makes the play. He also turns around another pummeling from DJ Fluker by using his awareness to grab Jalston Fowler's legs as he tumbles to the ground. Grit? Check. This garbage time snap shows his excellent technique and get-off, as he explodes from the line and drives the backup LG four yards into the backfield. He also shows above great hand usage on this fourth quarter run, where he holds the guard in place and tackles (with the aid of Marvin Robinson and Ojemudia) the ball carrier.

Brink is Brink. He's probably close to his ceiling as a football player. If inconsistency continues to plague some of these guys, it wouldn't surprise me to see his snap total increase from what it was against 'Bama (17%). He's not explosive or overly athletic, and he'll always be undersized for the 3-tech spot, but he's a known commodity. Against spread teams like Notre Dame, he should see his snap total rise, as Michigan moves to a smaller, more athletic line (Roh-Black-Campbell-Beyer/Clark).

CONCLUSIONS

A lot of people (myself included) jumped on the interior DLine for Saturday's game. While they were nowhere close to perfect, breaking down the tape gave me a much more optimistic view of the situation. Going forward, I expect a leap in production (or at least, play) from here on out. Nowhere on the schedule will they encounter an opponent with quite as talented a line as Alabama. Prediction: Michigan reverts to their big line against Michigan State. By that point, the lineup is as follows: Roh-Campbell-Pipkins-Black/Beyer.

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