One of Michigan's biggest questions on defense happens to hang over the head of perhaps the defense's best player. Jake Ryan, a standout strongside linebacker who put up a huge 2012 season, but was sidetracked by injury last year, has shifted into the middle of the defense now that Michigan is running a 4-3 Over base defense. While he is still playing linebacker, Ryan's responsibilities have changed quite a bit. Instead of playing on one side of the formation and attacking, Ryan must read and react from the center of the defense.
Can Jake Ryan be the same impact player in the center of the defense as he was in his more natural position on the end? Is Michigan better off with Desmond Morgan or Joe Bolden in the middle? In an effort to figure it out, I've watched every Michigan defensive snap from Saturday (thanks to MGoVideo), and graded it. Grades will either be pass, fail, incomplete, or N/A based on my totally subjective criteria and limited understanding of the linebacking position.
But hey, maybe if we spend enough time with this we can all learn something together.
(For more on Ryan's play in the middle, check out MGoBlog's always excellent Picture Pages on the subject.)
Play One (0:00): ASU in shotgun with one running back. Ryan is lined up on the wide side of hte field and at first hangs in coverage over the slot receiver before dropping into the box and showing blitz. The run is away from him and he flows hard to the ball, getting past his blocker. However, he overruns the play, leading to a cutback lane for the back to head straight up the field. I put the blame for this one more on the DL. Clark gets a hand on the back, and Glasgow is too busy getting blocked to stay in his rushing lane. If those two do better, Ryan's set himself up well for help. Grade: Pass.
Play Two (0:16): ASU in shotgun, no back. Ryan is once again on the wide side of the field. Pass goes to opposite sideline. Grade: N/A.
Play Three (0:24): ASU in shotgun, one back. Ryan is opposite the back but only a couple yards off the DL. On the snap Ryan comes along with a 4 man rush. Quick pass out before pressure can get there. Grade: N/A.
Play Four (0:34): New drive. ASU in shotgun with one back to the QBs left and an H-back behind the RT. Michigan has its over personnel on the field but goes with a even front 3-man line with Frank Clark standing up as a MLB of sorts. He rushes and gets into the wrong A-gap on the other side of Glasgow, opening up a hole on the other side. Ryan does a good job taking on a block and disengaging, but because Clark's blitz left the opposite A-gap open, he isn't able to help as easy. He derfs the tackle attempt and the back scampers for 27. I think this one is a combination of Clark, Glasgow, and the playcall. I don't know why he is there. I think Ryan could have done a little better, but its close. Grade: Inc.
(At this point, Desmond Morgan subs in for Ryan for a few plays).
Play Five (1:47): ASU in a pistol formation with an H-back behind the right tackle. Michigan has a three man even front with hands in the dirt, Morgan and Ryan outside them in two points stances (they both back off momentarily at the snap) and DEs outside of them in two point stances to blitz off the edge. Ryan stands on the line of scrimmage as the QB looks to throw from the pocket. He jumps to swat at the pass right above him, but to no avail. My guess is he was a spy here so that ASU couldn't run a draw. Kind of a waste, but whateva. Grade: Pass? I guess.
Play Six (1:53): ASU in shotgun with an H-back outside the RT. Ryan in coverage on him. Looks good initially but the play goes the opposite way. Grade: N/A.
Play Seven (2:01): ASU in shotgun five-wide. Michigan in its dime package with three DL and Ryan the only LB in the box initially, but then Michigan shifts its D and sends Wilson out wide in coverage, puting Morgan in the middle of the box and lining Ryan up on the edge on the LOS. All five guys in the box rush. Ryan's rush is inconsequential because Morgan is through completely untouched, and with bad intentions. Grade: N/A.
Unrelated, but, you probably shouldn't let Desmond Morgan blitz untouched through the A-gap, App State. I doubt that works out well for you.
Play Eight (2:30): Shotgun one-back right, H-back left. Michigan in its over formation. Looks like a midline veer from the shotgun, but I could be wrong (paging Space Coyote). The DL stands up the OL and creates a pile of bodies that the running back just runs into. This one is dead before Ryan gets involved. Still, his first couple steps are a little more hesitant than I think you'd like to see. Grade: N/A
Play Nine (2:42): App State flips the same formation with the H-back to the boundary but Ryan stays field side. App State shows a run fake toward the boundary and Ryan bites on it, taking himself across the formation where he eats a block. You would expect your middle linebacker to do a better job recognizing the play action and getting back over to where the play is going (field side dump off to the TE). Goodnight, sweet prince. Grade: Fail.
Play Ten (2:52): ASU in shotgun four-wide with a RB in the backfield on the wide(strong) side. Michigan uses Ryan to blitz down into the A-gap, allowing Bolden to stunt in behind him. Ryan nearly beats the guard to the inside and Bolden gets momentarily tripped up by the RB blitz pickup. If ASU's QB throws this a second later he is probably not getting it off. Grade: Pass.
That is it for the first quarter. ASU rushed 4 times for 36 yards (thanks to one 27-yard run) and passed nine times for four completions and five yards.
Jake Ryan, by my count has three passing grades, one fail, one incomplete and five N/A's. He spend the first couple plays of the second quarter on the bench.
Play Eleven (4:11): The strong side is clearly to the boundary, with ASU lined up with a TE and RB to that side of the formation. However, Ryan is on the field side, behind Frank Clark at end. ASU motions its innermost slot from trips wide around the back for a triple option. The RB gets it on the dive. Now, playing linebacker is hard, and I will claim to be nothing other than a novice when it comes to judging the intricacies of LB play past pee wee football, but for my money I think Ryan was way too hesitant on this play. He isn't the only one, as both he and Bolden eat blocks four yards down the field after hopping in place. I think this is the kind of thing both Ryan and Bolden mentioned when talking about still having to adjust to their new roles on defense. Grade: Fail.
Play Twelve (4:18): ASU in more shotgun four-wide. This time Ryan blitzes between the guard and tackle and nearly gets home before a quick pass is out. ASU's QB has been doing a pretty impressive job getting the ball away asap. Grade: Pass.
Play Thirteen (4:26): On third and seven Michigan comes out with its Okie package again, with three DL sandwiched between Ryan and Bolden, with the two Clarks (Frank and Jeremy) lined up outside of them. It is a zone blitz where Bolden, Bryan Mone, and Jeremy Clark drop into coverage. Ryan, at the top of the field stunts outside to open a lane for Frank Clark to rush inside of him. It works, but not before ASU's QB gets the ball away. Grade: Pass.
Play Fourteen (4:42): Michigan puts three DL down and stands Frank Clark up between the two interior linebackers. Ryan is lined up to the wide side of the field, away from the strength at the boundary. I honestly don't know what the plan was here, but Ryan immediately runs right for the B-gap up Glasgow's back.
The LT is more than happy to oblige, pushing Ryan into a big pile of bodies and opening up a big cutback lane between the aforementioned pile of humanity and Willie Henry who is holding down the backside. He can't make the play and the RB has all sorts of daylight.
This looks like a huge bust. It seems like Ryan decides from the outset that the ball is going to the strong side, and he over pursues, allowing the OL to push him past the play, opening things up for a 15 yard run. Unlike ASU's first long run of the day, this one is totally on Ryan, methinks. Grade: Fail.
Guess who isn't on the field for the next defensive play. Jake Ryan. James Ross actually comes in and plays some inside linebacker, which is nice to see. Michigan has a lot of versatility in these spots.
Play Fifteen (5:40): Same as it ever was. ASU in four-wide (trips to the wide side) shotgun. Ryan is lined up to the wide side. The run play goes up the gut opposite of him and his backside contain on the QB keeps him in place just long enough to make him a non-factor. Ondre Pipkins things doing Pipkins things helps. Grade: N/A
Play Sixteen (5:50): The offense stays shotgun four-wide but moves one receiver over so its twins to each side. Michigan's D stays the same as last play, with Ryan to the field. However, he is seven yards off the ball (a step behind Bolden). Probably a factor of it being third and nine. Both backers drop into zone and that's the last we see of them as the pass goes to the boundary sideline and Jeremy Clark makes a nice play to break it up. Grade: N/A.
Speaking of Clark, I was really impressed with his play in this one. That kind of size and speed is tantalizing, and it seems like he is pretty comfortable within the defense. Always nice to have other options at safety.
Play Seventeen (6:37): After the punt block/return touchdown, ASU gets the ball in pretty much the same spot (only ten yards back) and goes with the same formation in shotgun, four-wide. Ryan is field side again. The zone-read gives the back the ball and Ryan doesn't really attack or do much else, becoming a non-factor on the play. He wasn't needed, but he didn't look all that clued in to what was going on either. It almost looked like he changed his mind and thought the QB kept it. Weird. Grade: Fail.
Play Eighteen (6:43): Everyone lined up the same. ASU runs the zone-read again, Ryan attacks the right spot, engages the LT about a yard off the LOS and disengages the block enough to make first contact and help bring the RB down short of the first. Nice play. Grade: Pass.
That's it for the second quarter. Morgan and Ross start the second half on D and get a few plays before Ryan and Bolden come back in for third and seven.
Play Nineteen (7:31): Shotgun four-wide. Ryan is lined up to the nominal field side (the ball is close to dead even between the hashes). Ryan blitzes between the RG and C. Willie Henry keeps the C occupied and Ryan beats the G to the inside to get pressure and force the QB to get rid of it. He does and completes it a couple yards short. Grade: Pass.
Play Twenty (7:42): ASU in more shotgun, and this time they try a speed option to the field side. Ryan does a good job swimming past a block:
...but this takes him just a bit too far upfield and he has to readjust his angle. Unfortunately, this gives the RB just enough space to work inside of his blocker on the outside (who Delonte Hollowell at least gets outside contain on), and the coverging group of defenders (Ryan; Beyer, who had the keeper on the option and is flowing hard down the line after the pitch; and Jarrod Wilson coming down in run support).
On first glance I was going to ding Ryan for taking a bad angle, but his jump cut past the blocker was the only way not to be taken completely out of the play, and it sets him up a little too far upfield to pursue in an optimal way (attacking inside out, moving slightly upfield instead of coming back from behind). I think Wilson is a little more to blame for not screaming down faster on this once it was clear what was happening. But this was just a well run speed option and the back did a good job turning upfield and working off his block on the outside. It may have even been a generous spot. Grade: Inc. (I punt on this one, I think Ryan did all he could, but I don't want to give out a pass on an important play like this).
Play Twenty-One (7:51): App State comes out with shotgun trips to the wide side of the field. The zone read goes to the boundary, and whoa-ho-ho, we already have an issue.
ASU has walled off the entire front side of this play, leaving just three guys: two defenders and one blocker. The beauty of the zone-read is that Beyer is essentially blocked without taking contact. He has to account for the QB taking off for the wide open field side. That leaves Jake Ryan alone with the RT. Ryan, at the snap, takes a couple strong steps toward the boundary side because the RB action is going that way. He then totally plants and tries to reverse course to get upfield on the tackle and make a play. He tries to hop outside, which sets the RT up for an easy block and opens up a big hole for the runner to waltz through for a first down.
Playing middle linebacker is hard, and all it took was Ryan taking just one extra step toward the boundary side to remove his ability to get leverage on the block and try to make a play.
Herein lies the biggest problem that Ryan is going to have to confront as a newly-minted MLB: deciding on play direction. As an SLB his job was to attack upfield, hold the edge, and move largely in one direction. Now there is an extra step, one more thing to try to glean in a split second before you have to be in the optimal spot or a guard is going to take you for a ride. This is why Desmond Morgan is so good on the inside. He makes up for any athletic deficiencies by being a step quicker in his mind. Losing him for six weeks is going to be a big deal. So yeah, this was a big bust by Ryan. Grade: Fail.
Play Twenty-Two (8:02): Let's play "guess the formation". If you had "shotgun, four-wide", you are correct. You win my admiration for being awake and having eyes.
Last play we talked about Ryan's biggest problem moving to MLB. Now its time to talk about problem 1B: zone drops. Look at the direction Ryan is moving. Now look at the direction the receiver is moving.
If you guessed that this is going to end poorly, well, you're right on. Zone defense is zone defense: you have a certain area of the field you need to cover. Ryan, moving out to his underneath zone probably thinks that he is setting himself up well. And if the swing pass goes to the RB out of the backfield, that kind of parallel motion to the LOS sets him up well to make a play. Problem is, zone coverage is very dependant on where the man is in your zone. It is hard to adjust to because it depends on exactly what route a receiver runs. In this case, ASU is running four verts and Ryan playing seven yards off the LOS is equivalent to him heading to the bench to get a glass of water.
Now, it isn't all Ryan's fault, as it looks like the CB handed off coverage to him despite this being a vertical route and likely meaning that the CB carries the receiver deep. However (and this is just my humble e-pinion), Ryan's zone drop is inconsequential. An eight yard zone drop against four-verts is irrelevant. You aren't even making the QB have to drop the ball in there. Even if the CB is in coverage, Ryan's positioning gives the QB more options on where to put the throw vs. the defense. If Ryan's zone drop is a little deeper, this throw becomes much harder, and possibly turns into an INT.
These are things Ryan didn't have to do much earlier in his career, and it shows. Grade: Fail.
Understandably, Ryan hits the bench for the rest of the series.
Play Twenty-Three (8:55): Ryan is back out to start the next series, and is lined up to the field side against, you guessed it, shotgun four-wide, with trips to the field. ASU tries to zone read with Ryan on the backside and he easily makes the play on the QB as he cuts upfield.
And thus is the Tao of Jake Ryan, Middle Linebacker. Matched up in space against a talented skill position player, Ryan makes a nice play to bring the ballcarrier down with no help.
But this kind of thing plays to his strengths. The hope is that he gets comfortable enough with the rest of it that he is capable of getting into the right place at the right time to turn 10-yard runs and 30-yard passes into two-yard runs and incompletions. Grade: Pass.
Play Twenty-Four (9:03): Shotgun four-wide. Michigan has three down linemen with Frank Clark a couple yards off the LOS in a two-point stance, but lined up where he normally would. Ryan immediately charges the field side A-gap and Ross follows, likely on a stunt. Ryan meets the blockers with enouogh of a head of steam to push them back (aided in part by Glasgow stoning the interior line and standing everyone up. Ryan disengages to help bring down the ball carrier. Grade: Pass.
Play Twenty-Five (9:10): Third and nine. Everyone lined up the same but the field side is opposite now. Ryan blitzes at the RG and gets a good push before pulling a nice spin move that would have got him a lane to the quarterback if the ball stayed in his hands long enough. Grade: Pass.
Play Twenty-Six (9:20): Can't see the formation, but I'll put a dollar on it being shotgun four wide with trips to the field. Judging by his motion after the snap, Ryan looks like he was hanging out to split the difference between the inside slot and the RT. He steps up but then steps around the blockers and isn't really a factor. I don't want to say anything definitive without seeing where he started and how he got on the wrong side of a pile of blockers. Grade: Inc.
Ryan wasn't out there the next play, so maybe the coaches saw something they didn't like? Who knows.
And with that, the fourth quarter starts and Mike McCray and Ben Gedeon take over at linebacker.
10 Passing Grades
7 Failing Grades
What Did We Learn:
Two things, really:
First, Jake Ryan is obviously still getting acclimated to his new position. He said as much himself after the game, and there was enough hesitancy as well as problems with zone drops and setting himself up to attack blockers that it is obvious that things haven't clicked into place yet. However...
Second, Jake Ryan can still be a devastating force. A lot of his positive plays came when Michigan used him to try and generate pressure, and when left out in space against the quarterback on a zone-read keeper he turned in a classic Jake Ryan play and managed a tackle when it looked like the QB might have a chance to squeeze past him.
Now that Michigan is looking at at least a month and a half without Desmond Morgan, Ryan's importance is going to grow even more. He and Bolden had some issues against App State, and when that happened, Michigan would turn back to its ILB combo from last year with Morgan taking over the MLB and James Ross shifting back to the WLB spot. Michigan just lost one of its bullets in a previously full linebacker clip, and this could press either Ben Gedeon or Mike McCray into larger roles if Ryan and Bolden continue to struggle.
Ryan had a quiet day, but it mostly seemed positive outside of a couple busts that are ultimately correctable. In the first game playing a new position, growing pains are expected. Hopefully a week of film review will help him clean up the mistakes. Michigan needs Good Jake Ryan pretty badly this week if it wants to win against Notre Dame in South Bend.