Will Mattison Bring the 3-4 Defense to Michigan?

[Bumped. TuffLynx rocks the knowledge on the 3-4 in College and the NFL. My only reservation here is the comparison to Texas Tech. Michigan is not particularly deep at DT, DE or LB, which you have to be to run the 3-4. I think with Mattison's recruiting this could change quickly and become a recruiting bonus for Michigan, but I suspect we're going to run the 4-3 next year just to stop the bleeding against the run. Great stuff contained herein. - MnB Dave]

The recent hiring of Greg Mattison to be the defensive coordinator of Michigan has been very well received.  His previous experience at Michigan and three seasons in the NFL have made Mattison the ideal pick for the job.  But there is another aspect to this hire that is very intriguing and many Michigan fans may not think about.

While Greg Mattison was the defensive coordinator for the Ravens he coached a 3-4 base defense that sometimes switches into a 4-3 formation.  That is usually accomplished by having an outside linebacker move up onto the line and play a defensive end.  This assignment on the field is often referred to as the "Joker" position.  If Mattison introduces this defensive scheme to Michigan it could produce some significant advantages for the Wolverines.

One example of a team that made a transformation to this same defense last season is Texas A&M.  By switching to the 3-4 the Aggies went from the #105 ranked defense out of 120 in 2009, to the #55 ranking in 2010, an improvement of 50 spots.  Michigan is currently ranked #110 so they are in a similar position to where the Aggies were in 2009.

One of the reasons that the 3-4 defense fares well in college football is that very few teams run it.  Last season only 14 teams used the 3-4 defense as their base alignment and half of those were using it for their first season.  So it is unusual for college players and offensive coordinators to face it and have to prepare for it.

Initially I thought that the +50 position improvement by Texas A&M might be an anomaly, so I looked at all of the teams that switched to the 3-4 defense last season, the results are:

Georgia improved from #38 to #23 (+15)
Georgia Tech dropped from #53 to #64 (-11)
Houston improved from #111 to #103 (+8)
Notre Dame improved from #86 to #51 (+35)
Stanford improved from #90 to #21 (+69)
Texas A&M improved from #105 to #55 (+50)
Texas Tech dropped from #49 to #114 (-65)

I have to admit that the precipitous drop by Texas Tech was a scary thing to discover.  After looking further into this issue I discovered that the drop in defensive ranking was not just because of the change in defensive scheme, but also due to a rash of injuries on the defensive side of the ball.  The Red Raiders did not have enough depth on the bench to fill the holes and the defense suffered.  This was an anomaly created by poor recruiting on defense and too many injuries.

Once you understand what happened with Texas Tech, you also can see that switching to the 3-4 defense often resulted in a significant improvement to the defense.  It is quite possible for Michigan to make an improvement of 50 spots or more in the defensive rankings.  That would result in keeping the Wolverines more competitive against good opponents. 

The advantage in playing a 3-4 defense could be even more pronounced in the Big Ten where no other teams play a 3-4 scheme.  Michigan would be at the cutting edge of this movement instead of lagging behind.  That would be a refreshing change for Michigan.  It is more legitimate than the move to the spread option because they are moving to a scheme that is used in the NFL and would not hurt recruiting or draft position.  In fact it would enhance both.

Sixteen of the 32 NFL teams run the 3-4 defensive scheme.  They are often forced to draft linebackers and defensive linemen that do not understand the scheme because only 14 of 120 division 1-A colleges play it. This conversion process is sometimes a factor in defensive players being unable to adjust to the NFL and washing out.

College teams that play a 3-4 defense will gain some draft preference from NFL teams that play the same scheme.  A perfect example of this factor is Von Miller from Texas A&M.  His experience in the 3-4 defense has helped vault him up the draft boards of many NFL teams.

If Mattison plans on converting Michigan to the same defense that the Ravens play, that will be an additional recruiting tool.  Michigan will be able to claim that they play the same defense as one of the best defensive teams in the NFL.  Defensive recruits will love that they are prepared for an NFL career at Michigan, and get some advantages in the draft as well.

We don't know if Mattison will convert Michigan to the 3-4 defense yet.  But if you hear people talking about this don't be worried.  It really could be a good thing.  It could be a sign that Michigan will be on the cutting edge after all.

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