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Film Focus: Michigan's Defense vs. Northwestern

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Northwestern obviously didn't read our Film Focus columns before trying to beat Michigan and Jabrill Peppers on the edge with speed options. That and more tidbits from Michigan's stellar defensive performance against Northwestern.

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Bryan Fuller-MGoBlog

I feel like I'm beginning to repeat myself when I write this column. Another week has passed, and, once again, Michigan's defense has hammered the competition. The Wolverines notched their third straight shutout in a 38-0 win over then-No. 13 Northwestern last Saturday, becoming the first FBS team to hold its opponent scoreless in back-to-back-to-back games since 1995. Northwestern had a chance to ruin that with a 42-yard field goal in the first quarter, but Jack Mitchell hooked his kick left of the uprights. And that would be the end of the scoring opportunities for the Wildcats.

Here is Michigan's defensive resume for the past five weeks:

Michigan's Defensive Dominance (Last Five Games)
Opponent Scoring Offense Rank Scoring Offense Average Points vs. U-M YPP Rank YPP Average YPP vs. U-M
Oregon State 115 19.8 7 t-115 4.71 2.60
UNLV 74 28.3 7 86 5.40 3.79
BYU 79 27.7 0 87 5.39 2.10
Maryland 98 24.3 0 99 5.25 1.69
Northwestern t-109 21.2 0 118 4.65 2.90

On the surface, none of these offenses that Michigan's defense has opposed look to be average -- though, because of its strength of schedule, BYU's offense is 36th in S&P+ -- but playing Michigan has had a large say in that. Teams haven't even neared their season averages against the Wolverines. And it's not because Michigan changes it up each week:

Pat Fitzgerald is right. Each week when I review the film, I scour to see if Michigan's defense is doing something new or adjusting its strategy. For the most part, I haven't found anything drastic. There have been a few changes like the personnel in Michigan's dime package, but, generally, Michigan just executes their schemes close to perfection.

Here's what stood out to me after watching the Michigan-Northwestern film:

Why Did Northwestern Believe It Could Beat Peppers on the Edge?

There were a few instances in the first half when Northwestern attempted to beat Michigan to the edge with speed options, and all I could do was wonder to myself, "Why? Did Pat Fitzgerald watch any tape on Michigan's defense before he put in the game plan?" Anyone that has watched Michigan's defense knows that such a tactic -- whether it be screens or speed options -- has met a grim end. And that's thanks to Jabrill Peppers.

Let's start with this 1st & 10 in the first quarter. Northwestern is in the pistol with trip receivers to the field sideline and another back to the left of Clayton Thorson. Michigan counters with its nickel package. The Wildcats will run a speed option to the field side. As you can see, they have a numbers advantage. The three receivers are assigned to block the three defensive backs Michigan has on that side of the field, the fullback will pick off Desmond Morgan, and the left tackle will attempt to seal Joe Bolden at the second level. That leaves Chris Wormley (circled) unaccounted for, but that's because Thorson and Justin Jackson plan to option him off. If executed correctly, this could be a touchdown:

FF - Northwestern - Peppers - First Speed Option - 1

Thorson calls for the snap and moves to his left. Northwestern's left tackle shuffles upfield and throws a cut block at Bolden. The block doesn't take Bolden to the ground, but it does delay him in his attempt to pursue the speed option from the backside. The receivers run out to block the defensive backs, and one is about to engage with Peppers. Morgan reads the play and begins to extend out to the sideline to avoid the fullback that is coming for him. And Wormley bursts a few yards into the backfield to force Thorson to pitch it earlier than he would like. But Northwestern is still in great shape for a big gain:

FF - Northwestern - Peppers - First Speed Option - 2

Jackson receives the pitch from Thorson, and, if Northwestern's receivers and fullback can maintain their blocks, Jackson will be able to sprint down the near sidelines. But Peppers has no intention of being blocked. Instead, in a heartbeat, he explodes to the inside of the receiver. The Wildcat tries to obstruct him, but Peppers is too dang quick:

FF - Northwestern - Peppers - First Speed Option - 3

And, just like that, Peppers has flipped the numbers against Northwestern and waits:

FF - Northwestern - Peppers - First Speed Option - 4

Peppers closes down on Jackson and makes the tackle behind the line of scrimmage:

FF - Northwestern - Peppers - First Speed Option - 5

This could have been a 10- or 20- or 75-yard gain. Instead, it was a loss of four.

Let's fast-forward to the next quarter, when Northwestern has fallen way behind the chains. It's 2nd & 17, and NU is in a three-wide shotgun set with twin receivers to the far side (one not pictured). Michigan is in its nickel. Like before, NU will run a speed option to the field sideline. This time, though, the Wildcats will option off Ben Gedeon (circled):

FF - Northwestern - Peppers - Second Speed Option - 1

Thorson receives the snap and moves to his left, which notifies Michigan that this will be another speed option. Royce Jenkins-Stone tussles with the tight end blocking him on the edge, Gedeon starts to sprint down, and Peppers heads for the outside of his blocker:

FF - Northwestern - Peppers - Second Speed Option - 2

Thorson puts Solomon Vault in a difficult position by pitching too early. Thorson needed to hold onto the ball and force Gedeon to make a decision: attack Thorson and open the pitch or run out to Vault and force Thorson to keep. But, because Thorson pitches too early, Gedeon has not been optioned out of the play. At this point, the speed option is dead. However, Jenkins-Stone, who has disengaged from the Northwestern tight end, and Peppers, who is flying to the outside, don't know it. They're still executing their jobs:

FF - Northwestern - Peppers - Second Speed Option - 3

Jenkins-Stone and Gedeon continue to pursue Vault, who continues to run horizontally. Vault's only hope is that the Northwestern receiver can get out on Peppers and lay a block that may open a lane on the edge. But, just like last time, Peppers is too dang quick:

FF - Northwestern - Peppers - Second Speed Option - 4

Peppers and Gedeon smother Vault in the backfield for a three-yard loss:

FF - Northwestern - Peppers - Second Speed Option - 5

The impact of Peppers' presence in this defense can't be stressed enough. Last season, once Peppers was injured, the nickelback was a position that was used as a landing spot for starting corners that were demoted. It was where the third-best corner would play when offenses brought out a third receiver. It wasn't used or designed to be a weapon.

Peppers is a weapon. He cannot be blocked in open spaces. He's so quick to react to the play that he just burns right by the receivers that attempt to engage him and blows up the option or the screen behind the line of scrimmage. It's gotten to the point where offenses are asking to lose yards when they call these plays to his side of the field. And, because they keep doing so, Peppers continues to tally tackles for loss (4.5 in 2015) and be recognized as a fringe top-10 player ... in the country. Now, we know that isn't the case. Peppers' coverage technique improves each week, but he still was beat on a crossing pattern over the middle for 20 yards on a 3rd & 15. Nonetheless, he looks realllllly good.

Jourdan Lewis: All-American Cornerback

Good luck finding a better cornerback in the nation right now. What Jourdan Lewis continues to do each week simply is stunning. Against Northwestern, he tallied four tackles, a tackle for loss, a pass break-up, and an interception that he returned 37 yards for a touchdown. Not only was he the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Weekhe was named the Jim Thorpe Player of the Week -- given to the nation's best defensive back.

The pick-six was incredible, even though I don't think it was the best coverage from Lewis. As the Northwestern receiver streaked down the field, Lewis could have done a better job to force him more to the sideline. This would have prevented the receiver from being able to turn back to the ball, which was thrown to the outside, for a back-shoulder reception. But Lewis still was right there to stick his hand between the receiver's arms to ensure that the receiver would not be able to secure the reception. Luckily, as the ball dropped right through the receiver's arms, it got pinned between his and Lewis' hips. Lewis quickly brought his arms down to corral the football and then took off for glory:

However, there was a play later in the game that best exemplified Lewis' coverage this season. Similar to the interception, Clayton Thorson tossed a long ball to a streaking receiver down the far sideline. Lewis is right in his hip pocket. I mean, look at this:

FF - Northwestern - Lewis - Coverage

That receiver is at his highest point, with his arm fully outstretched, and that's the only place where he can make a catch against Lewis down the field. No, the receiver wasn't able to haul in this pass for a spectacular catch because he lost it as he fell back to earth. This is what I mean when I say that only the most-perfect throws can beat Lewis deep.

There are some out there [coughs] Michigan State fans [coughs] that argue that, while great, Lewis is not as impressive as the local media makes him to be. Well, for starters, according to Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks have completed only 11-of-34 passes thrown in his direction for a grand total of 67 yards. Those out there counter that Lewis has not yet faced a quarterback-receiver tandem like Connor Cook and Aaron Burbridge. While true, if Cook and Burbridge hook up for a big performance against Lewis, it will not be because Burbridge shook Lewis while running his patterns. It will be because Cook threw perfect passes through minuscule windows that Burbridge snagged.

And, if that happens, that shouldn't be a knock on Lewis or what he's achieved this year.

Additional Tidbits

I didn't have as much time to write this column this week, so I'll keep the rest short:

  • Best Defensive Line in America: The Wolverines' defensive line manhandled Northwestern in the trenches. Ryan Glasgow has transformed into one of the best defensive tackles in the Big Ten. He's no longer just a solid run-stuffer. He can stand up to double teams, clogging up holes and keeping Michigan's linebackers clear, and he can rush the passer. He had yet another sack where he engaged with the center and ripped through before bulldozing the quarterback. Maurice Hurst, Jr.'s first step still is unstoppable. Willie Henry turned in another great performance, though his sacks can be attributed to superb coverage and a great stunt. Chris Wormley may not have tackle for loss in the last three weeks after earning seven in the first three, but he's still as solid as they come. Even Taco Charlton displayed more promise than usual. He used only one move against Northwestern -- the bull rush -- but neither NU offensive tackle could stop it. Charlton just shoved them into the quarterback's lap, and the final time he did it resulted in a sack. With the questions surrounding the health status of MSU's Jack Conklin, Kodi Kieler, and Jack Allen, I'm not sure how the Spartans will contain the monster that's become Michigan's defensive line.

  • Royce Jenkins-Stone: Solid. Other than on a reverse where he was caught over-pursuing, Jenkins-Stone remained disciplined on the edge. He also did a nice job stringing out plays to the sideline while trying to fight off blockers. He's not Mario Ojemudia, but he's also not a liability. Michigan will be fine at the BUCK with RJS.

  • Jarrod Wilson: I thought Wilson had a rougher game than usual against Northwestern. It wasn't because of his coverage when he played center field. Like usual, Wilson hasn't been tested back there often because Michigan's corners have been masterful with their trail technique. However, with Channing Stribling's absence, Wilson was forced to cover some slot receivers in man in nickel and dime packages. The Wildcats had some success attacking him in these situations, which isn't a surprise given that slot receivers are shifty and should be able to shake a safety on a slant or crossing pattern. Stribling is expected to return this weekend -- though the same was said last week -- and, when that happens, Michigan will be able to drop Wilson back and slide Jourdan Lewis inside on the slot receiver.

  • Jeremy Clark: Barely tested, which begs the question: why in the world did Northwestern continue to throw at Jourdan Lewis? My guess would be that Michigan's pressure upfront was so instantaneous that Clayton Thorson rarely had time to go through his progressions. But still. The Wildcats can't let that happen.

  • Who Replaces James Ross III: We may not like the rule, but I thought James Ross III's ejection for targeting was the correct call. The question now is whom does Michigan have fill in for Ross III. Against Northwestern, Allen Gant stepped in for one or two snaps when Michigan was in its 4-3. That's important to note because Michigan will run more 4-3 against Michigan State than it has all season. The first six teams that Michigan has faced have all been spread offenses. The Spartans will use more tight ends and heavy packages, which means that Michigan likely will counter with more 4-3. But does Michigan trust Gant enough to play him quality snaps in the first half, even if it's only on first downs? Will Michigan try Ben Gedeon there instead, even though SAM is not his natural position? What if Michigan slides Jabrill Peppers down to SAM? He would continue to be a terrifying force on the edges, but will he get crushed between the tackles? I want Michigan to put Peppers there and keep Michigan's best 11 defenders on the field with Jarrod Wilson and Delano Hill still back at safety. I think he can hold down the fort till the second half.