We continue at Maize n Brew our series where Anthony Broome and Drew Hallett address what they believe are the 10 biggest questions and storylines surrounding Michigan football and whether the Wolverines will be successful in 2015. This is the seventh edition, in which Anthony and Drew discuss a defensive area where Michigan’s struggled for years: quarterback pressure.
Drew: Anthony, you touched on this yesterday in our discussion about how dominant Michigan needs its defense to be this season, but the biggest question mark about this defense is its ability to pressure the quarterback. Michigan’s defense should be one of the best units in the Big Ten, likely peaking at a level just a shade below excellent. The Wolverines return senior starters at all three linebacker spots and possess a secondary brimming with experience and talent. Michigan even has lots of depth at defensive tackle with Willie Henry, Ryan Glasgow, Maurice Hurst, Jr. ,and Matthew Godin despite the dark cloud hanging over Bryan Mone’s rumored season-ending injury. But Frank Clark (4.5 sacks in 2014) and Brennen Beyer (5.5 sacks in 2014) are no longer in Ann Arbor, and Michigan doesn’t seem to have certifiable threat to pose at defensive end or the new "BUCK" position. Can Michigan’s defense be elite without quarterback pressure?
Anthony: If we are talking elite, top of the line defenses, Michigan will not possess that if they are unable to pressure the quarterback. Like we talked about before, the defense has been good the last few years, but they have failed to deliver in a key category: causing and capitalizing on turnovers. These are key momentum shifts in a game that can absolutely change the complexion of everything on the field.
So they need to be able to get in the backfield and cause a quarterback to think on his feet. Even if you cannot get a sack, any pressure that is applied can change things in a hurry. We expect Michigan to clean up its turnovers on the offensive side of the ball, but the other side of that coin is creating more on defense, which to me is easily their biggest question mark where we stand today.
There’s a difference between a defense that can keep you in games and a defense that can win you games. Michigan’s will have to skew more on the side of the latter to really make this a team to be reckoned with as early as this season.
Drew: Pressure is the key. If Michigan can apply pressure on the quarterback, it will be the final step it needs to take to become an elite defense. Putting pressure on a quarterback causes that quarterback to panic, rush, and make mistakes. It leads to hurried, inaccurate throws, which in turn lead to interceptions. It leads to sacks and big hits, which in turn lead to more fumbles and a rattled quarterback in the later quarters. If Michigan can do this, its defense will be a force in 2015.
However, saying that a defense needs to pressure the quarterback is too basic. There’s so much more to it than that. The real key is whether Michigan can pressure the quarterback without blitzing. This is where Michigan has struggled for far too long. Any defense can pressure the quarterback when it brings six or seven players on a blitz. The risk, though, is that, during such a blitz, there are only five or four defenders in coverage behind the blitz. If that blitz doesn’t get home, that defense is in deep trouble. On the other hand, when a defense can apply pressure while rushing only four players and dropping seven into coverage, that defense is a monster.
Michigan hasn’t had that true pass-rushing threat that can win one-on-one match-ups on a consistent basis since Brandon Graham in 2009. In 2009, Graham tallied 10.5 sacks. Since then, no Wolverine has had more than 5.5 sacks in a season. The only way Michigan has been able to apply pressure has been with stunts, twists, and blitzes. That can work, but it leaves a defense vulnerable in the back. And I’m not sure Michigan can apply pressure otherwise. What do you think?
Anthony: If they have to blitz, so be it. We have not seen anything to lead us to believe that there is a pass-rushing threat on the current roster at defensive end, so if they have to send pressure from other levels of the defense, that is a chance they have to take.
What they have working for them here is that they have some nice pieces in the secondary that can help them have an extra second or two to get to the quarterback. It is risky, without a doubt, but it is a necessary risk for them to take. Maybe the unit gives up some more chunk yards this way, but I am not sure what else you can do if your defensive line cannot get pressure.
Risks can either pay off big time and win a game or backfire immensely and put the nail in the coffin. We *think* this defense is good enough to win Michigan some football games, but they can only win the big games with a disruptive pass rush. It may have to come from blitzing, but that is the group that DJ Durkin and company have to work with.
Drew: I thought Mone was someone that could generate pressure on his own from the middle of the line. He has the size and strength at 6-foot-4 and 325 pounds to bulldoze centers and collapse the pocket. That is why, even though Michigan has depth at defensive tackle, Mone’s loss still is significant. Henry has shown flashes that he can be disruptive, but he must be more consistent. Glasgow is solid and does his job, but he poses no threat as a pass-rusher. The tackle on whom to keep an eye is Hurst, whose explosive first step into the gap may catch offensive linemen off guard and give quarterbacks problems. He may create chaos from the middle this season.
The only piece that Michigan has in the secondary that can provide pressure is Jabrill Peppers. He will be that hybrid-space player, whether he is positioned at strong safety or nickel, that Michigan will want to attack off the edge on blitzes. For the most part, free safety Jarrod Wilson will stay deep and the cornerbacks will stay home. That’s not to say that defensive backs not named "Peppers" won’t be sent on blitzes, but I don’t expect it to happen often. And, when they are sent, I hope that, unlike last season, Michigan’s defensive backs don’t reveal their blitz before the snap. Michigan did it time and time again in 2014, and quarterbacks adjusted for easy completions without breaking a sweat.
At defensive end and/or BUCK, we’ll just have to see if Taco Charlton, Mario Ojemudia, Royce Jenkins-Stone, or Chris Wormley, all of whom were four-stars as recruits, elevate their games now that two will be thrust into the starting lineup. Whom do you think will contribute the most?
Anthony: I’m still of the belief that all of the guys you just named can get it done, but if I had to make a prediction on who will make the biggest impact, give me either Mario Ojemudia or Chris Wormley. Both have shown flashes at times. Charlton is a head-scratcher to me because he is so big and has the tools to be great, but we just have not seen it yet. I would love nothing more than to see him put it all together, but we will have to wait and see.
Wormley is a guy I like because of his versatility. He looks to be someone who can line up both inside and at end and anytime you have players like that on your defensive line, that’s valuable. He made six starts last season and actually played pretty well. I would like to see him carry that into the Sept. 3 opener against Utah.
Drew: I just don't have a good feel for who will step up here. I know this is supposed to be the space where I give my prediction about how Michigan's defensive ends will produce, but I'd rather be honest and state that I'm unsure rather than make a prediction in which I have no confidence. There have been conflicting reports about the BUCK spot. About one week ago, Michael Spath of The Wolverine reported that Jenkins-Stone had continued to be the most consistent player at that position ($), but Ojemudia earned more snaps with the ones there during Saturday's student-only scrimmage according to Wolverine247's rundown. Experience favors Ojemudia, who almost has as many sacks in his career (six) as Jenkins-Stone has tackles (eight), but it seems like it'll be a back-and-forth battle throughout the season in which neither is able to separate from the other.
The player I most want to see emerge is Charlton. As you indicated, Anthony, Charlton has all of the physical tools to be a star. He is 6-foot-6, weighs 273 pounds, and oozes raw athleticism. I mean, Charlton was hurdling six-foot tackling dummies in high school:
Good lord. That should be the next weaponized terror off the edge for Michigan.
However, that athleticism needs to translate to production on the football field. Charlton had a fine sophomore season, registering 5.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks with limited snaps, but he still had his fair share of technique issues and mental lapses. This was not unexpected. Charlton came to Michigan with a limitless ceiling, but it was understood that it may take some time for everything to click. Unfortunately, it may not have happened yet. Reports from the student-only practice were that Godin, not Charlton, earned snaps with the first team. This was one practice, but it's notable nonetheless.
Maybe Charlton will be a stud. Maybe Godin is about to break out. Maybe Wormley will be the guy. I don't know. Michigan has lots of options from which to choose at defensive end with little certainty. But I am certain of this: if Michigan cannot find one player to provide a pass-rushing threat off the edge this season, this defense will show its cracks.
Tomorrow, Anthony and Drew will debate whether the hype for Jabrill Peppers is justified and what fans should realistically expect from him this season.
Previous Installments of Michigan Football's Biggest Storylines in 2015
August 17th: The Impact of Jim Harbaugh's Return
August 18th: Did Brady Hoke Leave the Cupboard Bare?
August 19th: Jake Rudock vs. Shane Morris -- Who Wins?
August 20th: Will a No. 1 Receiver Emerge?
August 21st: The Running Back Rut
August 24th: Defense, Dominance, and Durability