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Film Focus: Michigan's Defense vs. Utah

What defensive lineman shined against Utah? Which position struggled mightily, which Oregon State may exploit this weekend? And how did Peppers do? We watched the game film and have the answers.

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Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, we resumed our "Film Focus" series by providing an X's and O's analysis of Michigan's offensive performance against Utah. Today, we flip to the other side of the ball and evaluate how Michigan's defense performed in the season-opener. It's safe to say that the defense did much better than the offense.


Wormin' His Way into the Backfield

The position at which Michigan is the deepest is defensive tackle -- even with Bryan Mone missing the season -- and that paid off in spades against Utah. Regardless of whether Michigan rotated Willie Henry, Ryan Glasgow, Maurice Hurst, Jr., Chris Wormley, or Matt Godin onto the field, the Wolverines were stout up front and shut down Utah's inside running game. Each of them were disruptive and gained penetration. Some were more consistent than others like Godin, whereas others, like Glasgow, had more of an up-and-down game. Nonetheless, each of them graded out positively, which is not a surprise when Michigan held Utah's Devontae Booker to just 69 yards on 22 carries.

But no player was more disruptive than Wormley, who had a standout performance. He finished with career highs for tackles (five) and tackles for loss (three) but also made other plays that were not reflected in the box score. This is why Pro Football Focus, which graded the contest, named Wormley as Michigan's top performer against Utah.

As SpaceCoyote noted in his breakdown of Michigan-Utah, Wormley had success spiking inside, meaning he would slant to a gap inside and penetrate into the backfield. A perfect example of this occurred in the first quarter, when Utah had a 3rd and 3 at its own 21-yard line. The Utes are in a four-wide shotgun set, so Michigan counters with its nickel package. Wormley is the defensive tackle to the far side with Mario Ojemudia and Joe Bolden preparing to rush off the edge to his right. Utah has called a read-option and will option off Ojemudia, which is why Utah's left tackle will block down on Wormley:

FF - Utah - Wormley First TFL - 1

At the snap, Travis Wilson reads that both Ojemudia and Bolden are blitzing off the edge, so he knows that he must give the ball to Booker to run inside. Otherwise, Wilson would be hauled down for a loss. But this play is going for a loss because of Wormley, who stayed low when he fired off the ball and buried his right shoulder into the left tackle's chest. Not only does he have leverage to move the tackle, he has inside position:

FF - Utah - Wormley First TFL - 2

Wormley uses his leverage and strength to maneuver across the left tackle's face:

FF - Utah - Wormley First TFL - 3

And -- voila! -- Wormley meets Booker behind the line and slams him down for a loss:

FF - Utah - Wormley First TFL - 4

Michigan gets the third-down stop and forces Utah to punt.

Wormley also demonstrated that he can use his hands to shed blockers. On the first play of Utah's next possession, the Utes are backed up against their own goal line. Utah is in a three-wide pistol formation, and, of course, Michigan is in its nickel package. Utah plans to give the ball to Booker to run inside, with the H-back coming across the formation to block the backside while the center moves immediately to the second level to pick off a linebacker. This will leave Wormley with a one-on-one against the Utah left guard:

FF - Utah - Wormley Second TFL - 1

Booker receives the hand-off and sees that the middle is clogged. He also notices that there is space for him to bounce to the outside, so he prepares to cut it back. But Wormley has leverage once again and has knocked backed Utah's left guard a half-yard:

FF - Utah - Wormley Second TFL - 2

While engaged with Utah's left guard, Wormley peeks and sees that Booker is crossing from his left to his right. To prevent Booker from bouncing to the outside, Wormley uses his hands to rip the left guard to his left and disengages, shooting into the backfield:

FF - Utah - Wormley Second TFL - 3

Booker has no chance to evade Wormley, and Wormley smothers him for a loss:

FF - Utah - Wormley Second TFL - 4

It's hard to have better back-to-back plays by a defensive tackle than Wormley there.

Further, Wormley also demonstrated some pass-rushing chops, too. No, he didn't register a sack, but he notched a one-man quarterback pressure late in the first half. This is where we see Wormley's speed and burst on display. At the snap, Wormley sets up Utah's right guard by taking his first step to the left, shifting the guard's weight right:

FF - Utah - Wormley QB Pressure - 1

As Utah's right guard moves to his right, Wormley uses his first left step to burst back to his right before the right guard can recover. The right guard tries to get his hands on Wormley, but, because he is off-balanced, Wormley blows past him with a swim move:

FF - Utah - Wormley QB Pressure - 2

Booker tries to impede Wormley's penetration, but Wormley just tosses him to the side:

FF - Utah - Wormley QB Pressure - 3

Wormley gets right into Wilson's chest just after Wilson releases the football. Wilson had to throw off his back foot, which is why his pass sailed out of bounds for an incompletion:

FF - Utah - Wormley QB Pressure - 4

As you can see, Wormley was fantastic. Though Michigan has enough bodies at defensive tackle that it doesn't need one individual to perform consistently at this level in each game, it wouldn't hurt if Wormley could worm his way into the backfield all of the time.

The BUCK Stops Here

Michigan's defensive tackles performed well against Utah, but the Wolverines at the BUCK position did not. Neither Ojemudia nor Royce Jenkins-Stone had a positive grade. Ojemudia may have finished with five tackles and assisted on Michigan's only sack, but his sack was the result of two splendid blitzes by Jabrill Peppers and Desmond Morgan and he didn't even deserve credit for the half-sack. Jenkins-Stone didn't see as many snaps as Ojemudia -- he had only two assisted tackles -- and that was for good reason. One thing that the BUCK must be able to do well is to be disciplined, set the edge, and force runs back inside into the heart of the defense. Both Ojemudia and Jenkins-Stone were not adept at this, with Jenkins-Stone struggling more with it than Ojemudia.

For example, in the third quarter, Utah has a 2nd and 3 near midfield. The Utes are in a three-wide pistol formation, while Michigan is in its nickel package. Utah will run a read-option and will option off Jenkins-Stone, who is in a three-point stance, as Utah's left tackle will block down and its H-back will look to do an arc block on the far side:

FF - Utah - RJS Loses Edge - 1

At the snap, Booker runs to the mesh point, at which Jenkins-Stone is looking intently. Jenkins-Stone firms up in space, waiting for Wilson to make his decision, but Jenkins-Stone creeps too much towards the middle of the play. This encourages Wilson to keep on the read-option and follow the arc block, rather than feed Booker to the inside:

FF - Utah - RJS Loses Edge - 2

The problem, though, is that Michigan has numbers inside, which means Jenkins-Stone wants to maintain the edge and force the action back into the teeth of the defense where Henry is about to squeeze Booker's gap. Instead, Jenkins-Stone loses sight of the ball and crashes down on Booker, vacating the edge and giving Wilson a giant running lane:

FF - Utah - RJS Loses Edge - 3

Wilson hits the outside lane hard and scampers down the right side for 26 yards:

FF - Utah - RJS Loses Edge - 4

However, Michigan is fortunate because the play is called back due to a Utah hold.

Michigan needs more discipline from the BUCK against the read-option. Michigan's run defense is at its best when it is forcing teams to try to run between the tackles. But the run defense becomes vulnerable when it loses contain on the edge and allows offenses to pick up chunks near the sideline. I mention this issue because Michigan is about to face an Oregon State offense that will try to exploit Michigan on the edges. The Beavers will be starting a true freshman, dual threat quarterback in Seth Collins. Against Weber State, Collins completed 10-of-18 passes for 92 yards but ran for 152 yards on just 17 carries. Accordingly, Oregon State will use Collins' speed to try to test Michigan on the edges with read-options and jet sweeps. If Ojemudia and Jenkins-Stone consistently crash inside and leave the edge open, the Beavers could give Michigan a scare on Saturday.

Bolden's Bloated Numbers

Due to time constraints, I won't be able to provide annotated screen caps of Joe Bolden's performance against Utah, but I can state that it wasn't very good. Yes, Bolden was Michigan's leading tackler, making 13 stops, but, as I have written in the past, number of tackles has never been a proper indicator of success. One of the reasons I was high on Bolden entering the season was because, in the spring game, he seemed to trust his instincts more when making reads. However, that may have been the case because Michigan ran a vanilla offense -- one to which Bolden is accustomed -- in the spring game. Against Utah, he lacked those instincts yet again. He often hesitated at the snap, which allowed Utah's offensive line to wade into the second level and pick him off. And, when Bolden did have a quick burst at the snap, which was when he had a designed run blitz, he slipped off tackles and allowed extra yards. There were very few times when Bolden made the right read and stuffed a runner at the line of scrimmage. Many of his tackles were caught upfield. Michigan needs Bolden to change that -- starting this week.

Judging Jabrill

Jourdan Lewis was the best defensive back on the field for Michigan -- he looked good -- but the defensive back about which Michigan fans want to talk is Peppers, of course. Michigan was in its nickel package almost the entire night, so Peppers was Michigan's nickelback almost the entire night. As a result, we were able to receive an extensive look at how Peppers can handle the hyprid-space-player role. Initial returns were promising, but Peppers isn't an all-star just yet. He had trouble in the first half, particularly with his coverage. One reason why succeeding as a hybrid-space player is so difficult is that he must be able to cover a slot receiver that can release into open space inside or outside, whereas outside receivers generally are bounded by the sideline. This means that the hybrid-space player needs to understand and use proper corner technique. However, Peppers doesn't have that quite yet, and he won't always be able to make up for his mistakes with his elite athleticism. The biggest example of this occurred in the second quarter, when Michigan sent a blitz and left Peppers in man coverage on Utah's slot receiver. The receiver ran a crossing route but threw in a bit of a fake up the field to get Peppers back on his heels, which created enough space for the receiver to catch the pass and run afterwards for a gain of 20 yards. Peppers will learn how to stop this in time.

But you can live with that when Peppers can blow up screens and blitz off the edge.

FF - Utah - Peppers Blows Up Screen

His first half was worrisome, but his second half showed he can be as good as we hope.