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On the Defensive: Taking a Look at Michigan's Defense Versus Iowa in the Wolverines' 28-38 loss

Below is MGoVideo's outstanding video compilation of every defensive snap from Saturday. I couldn't break down last week's game without it so, as usual, my unending thanks for his seemingly tireless work. Watch it, review it, think about it. There were a lot of things to be encouraged about on Saturday, but some familiar bugaboos continued to rear their ugly heads. Every defensive play from Saturday's loss to Iowa:

Initial Thoughts 

First, the Bad. Holy christ was the pass defense bad. Not that this is anything new, but the timing of the breakdowns couldn't have been worse. In hindsight itooks like I hopped on the pass defense bandwagon prematurely... again. Cameron Gordon and James Rogers were clearly on two separate pages. The first time it was a touchdown. The second time, if Ricky Stanzi doesn't under throw the ball, it's probably six. Then there was J.T. Floyd getting torched in the fourth quarter. He was burnt crispy by Derrell Johnson-Koulianos on the same move at the same position of the field and gave up the same six point each time. Next, there's, of course, Courtney Avery's missed 3rd and long tackle that iced the game for Iowa.

It should be noted that the blame for the running game issues aren't in the secondary. Obi Ezeh was awful (when he was in) and Jonas Mouton didn't have a great game either. And let me be crystal clear on this point, Craig Roh should never be in as a linebacker. He's just not suited for the position. He's a defensive end. PLEASE let him play that position. And finally, WTF is up with kicking the ball out of bounds on kickoffs TWICE in critical situations!? Michigan's kicking game is a disaster right now and you can't continually put your defense on a short field. It just doesn't work out well when you do. One more thing, please stop grabbing facemasks.

Now, the Good. As much as everyone (including myself) wants to pile on parts of the defense, I think there were some really good things to come out of this game. The defense was put at a HUGE disadvantage by special teams play and turnovers. Iowa's starting field position was the Iowa 35 yard line. In comparison, Michigan's was the 23.4. You're going to have a long day when your opponent gets a third of the field for free. It gets worse when you consider that two kick offs in the second half sailed out of bounds, right when Michigan was mounting a come back.

Field position aside, I think everyone can agree that Kenny Demens was a clear upgrade at middle linebacker. Up until the fourth quarter, J.T. Floyd was one of Michigan's best run defenders and Jordan Kovacs is making his case to be the defense's MVP this season. For just the third time this season, Michigan held an opponent under 400 yards. I know this sounds like a bizarre thing to say, but when you've allowed 535, 439, 568 and 536 yards in four of the last five games, staying under 400 yards is an accomplishment. It's also an accomplishment because Iowa is a really, really good football team and Michigan came within a couple of stops of stealing a game from the #15 team in the BCS standings. Another point worth making is that the defense held a very good running team to 138 rushing yards, the least they've allowed against a team with a rushing pulse (Indiana and BGSU excluded). And they did it without Mike Martin, their best linemen and arguably best run stuffer, on the bench with an injury from the second quarter on!

Look, I'm not trying to tell you everything is Unicorns, leprechauns, and candy falling from the sky, but there were a lot of things that Michigan showed vast improvement in. Hopefully, with a week to build on those successes, Michigan will come out in the second half of the season and look as good as they did to start it.

Positional Reviews after the jump....

Positional Reviews

The Defensive Line: With Mike Martin this is, at best, an average unit. Without him... ummm... yeah. Even so, I have to admit that I was relatively impressed with how the group held up. Adam Patterson stepped in a did a relatively good job of standing up to the double teams. He didn't get a lot of penetration, he didn't get any pressure, but he held his ground. And after four years of nothing being able to do that at all, that's progress. Sadly, by the fourth quarter Iowa's veteran line was pushing him where ever they wanted to.

On the wings, Ryan Van Bergen was generally ineffective once Martin went out. Van Bergen is a difficult player to figure out. Sometimes he gets pressure. Most of the time he doesn't. Van Bergen recorded only two tackles on the day and, like Greg Banks spent a good deal of time getting pushed out of the way. To his credit, Van Bergen was relatively stout against the run, standing up the Iowa line, but this was not one of his better games. Likewise, young Jibreel Black was particularly ineffective against the run and Iowa seemed to delight at running his way. I think he'll improve as he gains strength and experience, but right now he's not making much of an impact.

There is one thing I don't think is getting enough attention: the progression of Greg Banks. Banks is starting to consistently get past single teams and putting some pressure on the quarterback, hence and surprisingly, he leads the team in sacks. Banks also led Michigan's linemen in tackles on Saturday. Banks isn't going to set the world on fire but he would be a good Tim Jamison to anyone channeling their inner Brandon Graham. Sadly, their isn't anyone doing that. Still, Banks has come from nowhere this season to be a decent starter and I don't think he's getting enough credit for that. Craig Roh, likewise had a decent day as a lineman. He was aggressive and moved his blocker inward and got some chances to put some pressure on. He was adequate on the line. At linebacker.... well.... Overall, the line gets a C-. The only sack was on a roll out self sack by Stanzi and they never really got any pressure on him after Martin left the game.

The Linebackers: So, shall we start the Kenny Demens fan club now? Yes. I think we should. Demens provided the first real excitement at middle linebacker Michigan fans have seen in almost four years. He was aggressive against the run. He showed good wheels in coverage. He uses his hands very well to stay off of blocks. He tackles people and pushes them backward. Basically the exact opposite of Obi Ezeh. But this isn't to say the kid is perfect, or even good. Demens bit on a number of play action plays, over ran a play or two, and was generally iffy in coverage. Still, he's a world better than we've had.

On the other hand, I thought Jonas Mouton had another off day. He over ran backside contain on several runs, got sealed off his gap on a few others, and was pushed backward on a couple of tackles. For me the biggest issue is the going backward on the tackle aspect. Mouton's a big dude. I don't know if it's an issue of not getting low enough, leverage, or what, but he's getting dragged and pushed a lot. No es bueno. I'm hoping a couple of days off to heal and some practice time will fix it because, overall, Mouton's having a pretty decent season and a genuine bounce back season from last year.

Then there's Craig Roh. Between Demens and Roh at linebacker, I'll take Demens every goddamn time. Roh just looks lost at linebacker and is clearly uncomfortable in coverage. If you're not going to play him at DE, don't play him. He's not suited for linebacker. Please stop making him play there. (J.B. Fitzgerald played a little bit at the De/LB hybrid, but not enough for any impact or criticism).

Moving to the LB/S hybrid, I thought Carvin Johnson and Thomas Gordon were serviceable. They really weren't attacked at all and didn't really fit into Iowa or Michigan's game plan. Basically they were invisible in both the good and bad sense. I can't really think of any screw ups, but they certainly didn't make their impact felt. Generally, I'm pleased with their performance since, after all, they're freshmen playing a hybrid position.

Overall, this is probably a C+ day for the linebackers despite Roh's LB play. Demens was good, Mouton was meh, Gordon/Johnson were there. Only time and games will tell if there was actually improvement or I'm just trying to make myself feel better.

The Cornerbacks: Sadly, a big ole step backwards for the corners. As mentioned above, Floyd was burnt crispy. Avery whiffed on a critical tackle and was otherwise invisible. James Rogers was getting lost in coverage. Terrence Talbott played, but not much. Unlike Michigan State, where safety play was primarily the culprit, Saturday's pass defense failures rest largely on the shoulders of the cornerbacks. Only only real saving grace was Floyd's run support. Otherwise.... yeesh. This is a flat out F for more reasons that are appropriate to type.

The Safeties: Let's be clear, Jordan Kovacs may be this year's defensive MVP if Mike Martin misses any extended period of time. He's second on the team with 61 stops (36 of them solo) and leads the team in tackles for loss with 6.5. Without Kovacs this would be even worse. How much worse? We'd probably be a game below .500 team right now. No. I'm not over stating that.

Kovacs is the only sure tackler on the defense, he's got the best grasp of the defense, and he's actually getting better in coverage. He's still small and slow, but he's somehow finding ways to overcome that. Yet again, he turned in another Kovacian day with 8 tackles (2nd on the team) and lead everyone on the field with 2.5 TFL. He missed one tackle I can count and dropped an interception that Michigan desperately needed. Other than that, he was really good.

On the other side, Cameron Gordon was Cameron Gordon. He had a couple of great hits in run support, a couple of hits where he didn't wrap up, he made some questionable plays in coverage (one that cost Michigan a touchdown), and missed an INT on a poorly throw Stanziball. This is kind of what we're going to get from here out. My guess is that if we see any improvement, it will be marginal at this point. He'll probably play better against Penn State and their awful offense, but to expect him to play at a consistently high level from here out is basically wishing for the improbable.

Sigh. D for Gordon, B+ for Kovacs. C- overall.


Despite the negative summations above, I see a lot of reasons to be hopeful for the rest of the season. Michigan gave up 536 yards and 383 yards to the #23 and #39 offenses in the country. Thankfully, they did show improvement in their defense against Iowa, though the pass defense did take a bit of a hit. Coming up, Michigan faces the 85th, 72nd, and 84th ranked offenses in the country, all of whom are not captained by multi-year, upperclassmen quarterbacks with dominant offensive lines.

One thing that has to get fixed, and I mean immediately, is the kicking game. Michigan is giving up more than a third of the field before their defense even gets on the field. Kicking balls out of bounds, poor field goal coverage, etc. While it didn't cost Michigan the game, it certainly put another nail in coffin. Unless Michigan manages to fix their special teams issues, and quickly, they very well could drop a game they should've won. And when you're coming off a 5-7 season and staring down 5 games in the Big Ten, that's a luxury Michigan just doesn't have.

Another thing that's certainly worth considering at this point is playing either Marvin Robinson or Ray Vinopal a couple of series at safety over Gordon. "But they're freshmen!" Yes they are. But they're freshmen who played safety their entire lives and should have some instincts at the position. And it's not like Cam Gordon is a senior starter, he's a redshirt freshman who converted to safety last spring from wide receiver. I think the results would either be the same or, god forbid, be a little better.

I have no suggestions for fixing the cornerback position that doesn't entail patience, recruiting, and an act of God. It's going to be rough.

That said, and returning to the positives, Kenny Demens arrival is a very, very big deal. Sure Iowa ran for some yardage, but when Demens was in the game Michigan finally wasn't getting gashed up the middle anymore. Iowa made its living on the ground on the edges counting on a bad day from Mouton, which they got. Kovacs and Demens meant that Iowa could not run at will, and that forced Iowa to the air to use their duo of very talented receivers. Sadly, Michigan's pass defense wasn't up to the challenge. But progress is progress, and I'll take what I can get out of this defense at this point.

Another thing to consider is that Michigan played 3/4th of this game without Mike Martin, their best lineman. Assuming Martin is healthy for the stretch run, his presence combined with improved linebacker play could dramatically improve Michigan's defense. The other thing that warrants mentioning is that Michigan was finally in position to make the plays it needed to. For a myriad of reasons (youth, inexperience, size), it didn't. But for the first time in three years Michigan was in position to make plays. This is a big step. Finally, we're not asking where the F is the defense on a particular play. They're finally in position. The next step is making the tackle. I know that's a strange thing to get all excited about, but after so many frustrating years of watching Michigan woefully out of position I'll take this as progress.

I'm extrapolating quite a bit from a loss where we gave up 38 points, but I'm hopeful we saw some things on the field that will make a big difference the rest of the year. Saturday's performance wasn't great. It wasn't pretty. But it was better tahn against MSU. It was better than against UMass. It was better than against Notre Dame. I believe it'll get there. It's just going to be an excruciating until it does.