Optimisim! Quantifying Michigan's Year In Defense So Far

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

I don't know about you, but after a week of reading about how ineffectual Michigan's offense was against Penn State for long stretches, some good news is needed.

Michigan let Penn State go 80 yards in five plays last Saturday to tie the game.  About a month before, Akron scored two second half touchdowns and nearly notched a third but not for a late goal line stand by the Michigan defense, and Minnesota peeled off the longest drive in the history of mankind going 16 plays in damn near the entire first quarter.

This is the bad news.  Michigan's defense hasn't been dominant.  It is susceptible to passes over the middle because of busts in coverage by linebackers.  The Right To Rush Four has mostly been the right to run 'em into a wall of bodies and not generate much pressure..  And I guess if you really want to split hairs, Michigan's defense hasn't been perfect when put in an impossible position thanks to an offensive/special teams gaffe that set the opposing team up in the red zone.  Like I said, there isn't much bad news.

Good news?  Let's break it down.

Drive by Drive Defense

I went through Michigan's 75 drives from this season's first six games (removing the end of half junk and other weird crap that the stats packet sticks on — no a defensive TD doesn't really count as an offensive drive of zero plays for zero yards).  Here are your numbers, all broken down and such.

Drive Type Number of Drives Avg. Drives Per Game Avg. Yards (Plays) Per Drive Percent of Total Drives
Three-and-Out 19 3.2 2.9 (duh) 25.3%
Punt 10 1.6 22.9 (6.2) 13.3%
Turnover*^ 17 2.8 22.4 (4.5) 22.6%
Short-Field FG Att. Drive (1)* 4 0.6 7 (4.8) 5.3%
Mid-Field FG Att. Drive (2) 4 0.6 13.3 (5) 5.3%
Full-Field FG Att. Drive (3) 9 1.5 51.1 (9.6) 12%
Short TD Drive (4)* 4 0.6 17 (3.5) 5.3%
Mid-Field TD Drive (5) 1 0.16 8 (56) 1.3%
Long TD Drive (6) 7 1.16 74.7 (10.1) 9.3%
Def. TDs Scored** 2 0.33 - -
Opponent Def. TDs** 3 0.5 - -

Some qualifications: (1) is drives that ended in a FG and started on M's 30 or better, (2) is the same but the drive started at the 31-50, (3) is everything from the opponents side of the field.  (4) is TD drives starting  between M's 1-30 yard line, (5) starts between 31-60, and (6) is 60 plus.  Drive categories with an (*) denote that the four PSU overtimes are factored in (two FG attempts, a turnover, and a short touchdown).  The last two categories marked with (**) are a) either included in the turnover category above or b) just tacked on for reference.  Don't consider them with the rest of the numbers, but as another piece of evidence on which to judge the defense.  The (^) means that 4th down stops are counted as turnovers, because obviously.

The first thing that jumps out is Michigan's success quashing one-quarter of opponent drives within three plays.  The Wolverines have held opponents to an average of just under three yards per drive on the 19 three-and-outs forced this season.  Michigan has also forced punts on another 13 percent of its drives, allowing teams to move the ball an average of just 23 yards per drive that ends in a punt but goes more than three plays.

That is all well and good, and would be better if numbers were more easily available for comparison (which I will look into, but need more time that I have), but another two things are nice to see.

First, Michigan is forcing turnovers on over one-fifth of opponent possessions, and while the average drive length is almost the same as on punts, the average plays/drive is lower (again, because obviously considering you have to go at least four plays to punt and not have it count as a three-and-out).  While Michigan forcing teams to give the ball back on three-fifths of all opponent possessions is nice, it leads into a larger point.

We now see more clearly just how successful Michigan has been at the bend-don't-break defensive style.  Michigan has been one of the best teams in the nation at limiting big plays (19 20+ yard plays, t-19th nationally; 5 30+ yard plays, t-5th nationally; 3 40+ yard plays, t-11th nationally), and what that means is that teams have to go farther and farther to score.  Forget the fact that Michigan has forced 29 punts to just 8 touchdowns that came from 30 or more yards out (that 30-yard mark being the Kirk Ferentz Line of Punting Demarcation), but look at just what other teams had to do to pull off those long drives.

Michigan only allowed one touchdown drive starting between its own 30 and the opponents 40.  That took eight plays.  For drives starting farther out than the opponent 40-yard line, it takes an average of 10 plays and 75 yards to score.  In fact, before Michigan gave up a five-play, 80 yard drive to Penn State, the Wolverines hadn't allowed an opponent to score from 60+ yards out in less than 8 plays.  Other teams are averaging just over one long touchdown drive a game.

Michigan's defense has also been very good at stopping things up before the end zone.  While opponents were able to score touchdowns on seven drives of 60+ yards, Michigan has stalled nine opponent drives originating on the opponent side of the field and turned those into field goal attempts.

This is where we get into the offense/special teams issues, which haven't been too kind to Michigan's defense.  Michigan's opponents are getting on average, two opportunities from inside Michigan's 30-yard line per game, and while Michigan has given up four touchdowns, it has also held teams to four field goal attempts (as well as forcing five turnovers^) in that range*.

Which brings us to the last two rows of the chart.  Michigan has scored two defensive touchdowns this year, but Michigan's offense has been responsible for three defensive scores by opponents.  Michigan's offense has put 3.5 points per game on the board for opposing teams on average.

Not only has Michigan's defense been good at stringing out drives and forcing mistakes, but with its back against the wall it has done well to turn great field position into stops or field goals rather than touchdowns.  The reason why happens on a more micro level.

*(Again, this counts four overtimes, so keep that in mind.  Those are still stops within the 30-yard line, but not quite the same)

Play by Play Defense

Some more numbers for you:

Third-down conversion rate: 37.08% (42nd)
Sacks per game: 2.33 (t-40th)

TFLs per game: 5.83 (67th)

This isn't surprising given what we know.  Michigan only just now got back its most disruptive defensive player from an ACL injury, and the defensive line has had an up and down year so far.  Michigan hasn't been able to generate many big plays on the ground, and therefore the Wolverines hover around average in not only negative plays produced, but in the rate of third-down conversions allowed.  How then does a defense that doesn't generate as many big plays or dominate on third down put together the kind of drive by drive numbers we see above?  More numbers:

Yards per play: 4.6 (16th)
Yards per rush: 2.9 (10th)

Yards per pass: 6.0 (t-16th)

That is Michigan's defense on a play by play basis.  The Wolverines are easily a top-25 team stopping opposing teams from picking up yards in whatever form you want to judge.  Granted, Michigan still has to face the three best offenses on its schedule (Northwestern, Nebraska, Ohio State), but halfway through the season, these are stellar numbers for a defense that has spent all year bailing out its offense.

The Michigan defense isn't quite good enough to win games for the team just yet, but it has proven remarkably good at keeping things close and giving Michigan's offense the opportunity to win.  If and when Michigan's offense gets its head on straight, that should be enough.

The Good News Going Forward

While Michigan will face tougher tasks ahead, there are a few things it has going for it that should help keep this level of defense up even against better Big Ten teams.

1. Safety Play. This was a major question mark coming into the season.  Thomas Gordon returned, but had played next to Jordan "Eraser of Big Plays" Kovacs for two years and it wasn't known how good he could be on his own.  Meanwhile, Kovac's replacement was Jarrod Wilson, who spent all of fall camp seemingly fighting a losing battle for the starting spot that we previously thought was his.  An injury to Courtney Avery near the start of the season might have been the only thing keeping Wilson in the lineup from day one.  He hasn't left since.

Michigan's safeties have been very good this year.  Wilson looks to have settled down for the most part, and while he still has the occasional bust (like he did on the 20-yard PSU touchdown pass early in the game) he has shown an ability to make solid tackles in run support, as well as great timing in pass coverage.  Thomas Gordon is still a thumping downhill hitter just like he always was.  Michigan's safeties aren't often called upon to make plays, but when they are, good things usually happen.

2. Interior Run Defense. The triumvirate of Quinton Washington and linebackers James Ross III and Desmond Morgan have been marginalized in a few games this year after facing quick spread passing offenses, but part of the reason that Michigan has had to rely so little on its safeties in run support has been the play of these three in the middle.  Washington has been very good, often holding the point of attack and demanding multiple blockers.  This has let Desmond Morgan and James Ross III do what they do best: flow fast and hard to the ball.  These two have been so effective at bottling things up, that Michigan has yet to allow a run play of over 20 yards this season.  Even keeping in mind the level of competition, Michigan not busting on at least one run play in six games on 188 opponent rushing attempts is very impressive, as is the fact that Michigan has only allowed 18 run plays of 10 yards or longer.

3. Jake Ryan is Back. The coaches kept saying it, but I don't know if anyone expected it.  Jake Ryan is back, and it is only mid-October.  Against Penn State he looked good, although he didn't play as much as normal.  With Indiana this week and a bye next week, Michigan should have adequate time to work him back into heavy rotation for the month of November.

With Jake Ryan back, Michigan's defense now has a number of new looks it can present to offenses.  Ryan is the football equivalent of a five-tool player.  He can rush the passer, defend the run, play in space, take on blockers, and force turnovers.  His replacements, Brennen Beyer and Cam Gordon, are both good but somewhat limited in what they can do.  Beyer is more of a WDE.  Gordon more of a hybrid linebacker/nickel corner.  With Ryan back, Greg Mattison can now show more looks to opposing offenses and do more out of them.  With Frank Clark starting to show a little more of the pass rush we were promised, Michigan could be moving closer to having the kind of line that can generate organic pressure.  Having Jake Ryan on the field, either rushing the passer himself or playing behind to clean up will only make this defense more effective.

--

After six games it is pretty clear that while this defense doesn't blitz as much as Greg Mattison units of the past, it is still a strong, fundamentally sound defense capable of keeping games in hand.  Last year the defense kept Michigan in games against Notre Dame, Michigan State, Nebraska, and Ohio State, and the offense was only able to pull out one of those.  This year, Michigan has faced more tough tasks, and the next month and a half looks to hold even stiffer tests.

Rest assured that at least one side of the ball will be able to handle whatever is coming.

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