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Deep dive into Michigan’s red zone struggles: The numbers are horrendous

NCAA Football: Air Force at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Only three games into the 2017 season, the Michigan red zone offense is still the biggest question mark for the team.

Against Air Force, Michigan was 0/4 for touchdowns in the red zone, bringing its total to 1/10 for the year. These are abysmal numbers and will need to be greatly improved if the Wolverines are serious about competing for a Big Ten Championship.

For this article, I analyzed what has been working for the Maize and Blue inside the red zone and where our problems have laid. First, here is a statistical breakdown of Michigan’s red zone production thus far:

Running Attack: Through three games, the Michigan Wolverines have run the ball in the red zone 19 times for a total of 37 yards. That is an average of 1.947 yards per carry. Even if we take away the fumble on the handoff to Ty Isaac, which resulted in a loss of 7 yards, the stat line is: 18 carries for 44 yards, which is 2.4 yards per carry.

More troubling, the rushing yards total in the red zone has decreased each week. The fact that the Wolverines ended with negative yardage on the ground in the red zone against Air Force, a team Michigan significantly outweighed, is not only embarrassing but also notably alarming.

Here are the individual stat lines for runners in the red zone:

  1. Karan Higdon: 6 carries for 15 yards and 1 touchdown
  2. Chris Evans: 5 carries for 21 yards
  3. Ty Isaac: 6 carries for -4 yards (5 carries for 3 yards without the fumble)
  4. Wilton Speight: 1 carry for 5 yards
  5. Eddie McDoom: 1 carry for 0 yards

Thus far, when running up the middle, Michigan has totaled 14 yards and 1 touchdown on 10 carries. When running outside: 30 yards on 8 carries. If you subtract one Chris Evans run for 6 yards and one Ty Isaac run for 7, the inside run stat line is: 8 carries for 1 yard. Plus, several of the runs to the outside were designed to go between the tackles, but the running back bounced outside when no hole opened.

So what do these stats mean exactly? The interior run game needs to be functioning for Michigan to succeed throughout Big Ten play. Before we ask why isn’t the passing game working or why have the play calls been questionable, the number one area of concern has to be addressing this lack of productivity on the ground. Passing in a thirty-yard window is difficult enough; if defenses are unafraid of the run, Speight’s and the receivers’ jobs become remarkably more challenging.

And this is an issue across the offensive line right now. Fans are pointing fingers at the inexperience in Michael Onwenu and Nolan Ulizio on the right side of the ball, but Patrick Kugler, Ben Bredeson, and Mason Cole, as well as tight ends, have all had serious trouble getting pushes at the line and maintaining blocks in the red zone. A major part of the reason that Ty Isaac’s stat line looks so bad is because on multiple runs, he was tackled in the backfield for a loss as soon as Speight handed him the ball. Crucial improvement needs to be made along the offensive line immediately if the Wolverines are going to become productive in the red zone.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Passing Attack: The red zone passing attack has received the most amount of condemnation from Michigan fans partly because Speight has been under a magnifying glass, but also because the statistics speak for themselves. One actual completion on 14 pass plays for -1 yards is horrendous. And the problem is not solely Wilton Speight. In fact, there are two serious issues that need addressing before Speight’s accuracy: blocking and route running.

To continue from the last section, Michigan’s red zone blocking has been far from ideal. Wilton Speight has had to throw half of his passes in the red zone under pressure. There have been misreads on blitzes, defenders running free into the backfield, lack of communication that resulted in unneeded double teams, missed blocks by tight ends, full backs, and running backs, and just poor blocking.

Every single lineman except center Patrick Kugler has missed at least one block on a pass play in the red zone. It is easy to watch a pass go high and put the blame on the quarterback, but more times than not, when Speight threw too high, he had a defender right in his face or on his back. The red zone blocking needs to improve considerably.

Route running has also been noticeably poor in the red zone throughout the first three games. A lot of this had to do with play calls, which I will discuss in the next section, but overall, receivers have been struggling to create separation.

To be fair, getting open in the red zone is one of the toughest tasks for a receiver because of the shortened field. But having to throw into double or tight coverage on fade or post routes is not doing Speight any favors. The only passing touchdown in the red zone this season, the one to Crawford called back because of an illegible receiver, was not even the result of good route running; Crawford simply found himself open while the play was designed to go to Khalid Hill on a rub route. Now, this will be an area of natural improvement throughout the season as Michigan’s young receivers gain more experience, but their route running against easier secondaries has been underwhelming so far.

Wilton Speight’s passing game has been the most widely discussed aspect of the Michigan Wolverines this season. Especially in the red zone, Speight has looked lost and deeply lacking in chemistry with his receivers. Boasting a stat line of 13 passes with 1 completion for -1 yards, Speight has a highlight reel of overthrown balls and mishaps. But, hopefully this article has shown that the lack of red zone productivity has not been entirely Speight’s fault.

Yes, Speight’s accuracy looks much worse than last season. Yes, he has not been careful with the ball in the red zone. And yes, several of the incompletions were the result of bad reads by Speight, not poor route running. These are all issues Speight needs to address immediately so Michigan remains a top ten team. But, poor blocking, an ineffective run game, and inexperience in most of the offense’s positions are not a combination for success. Though he has been far from perfect, Speight has looked better in every consecutive game. He will continue to find his groove as the run game and play calling improve.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Play Calling: After the Air Force game, red zone play calling has left much more to be desired. As we have learned throughout the past two years, Coach Harbaugh likes to save the bulk of his playbook for conference games. So, it’s possible the questionable play calling so far has been the result of the offense trying to limit what it shows on film for future teams. I think that is partly true. But, there are still serious questions that need answering about the red zone passing game.

First and foremost, as has been shown throughout Speight’s tenure as starting quarterback, he has difficulty hitting fades and post routes along the sideline. He has a tendency to overthrow the ball, making the cornerback’s job easy by using the sideline as an extra defender.

And while Speight has been accurate this season in hitting go routes down the middle in the open field, he has struggled to make those throws when the receiver is pressed against the back of the end zone. Yet, we continue to run these routes when inside the twenty-yard line. Speight’s red zone production last season came from hitting TE Jake Butt on a dig or curl route. Or, he was successful when passing to his three receivers – Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh, and Grant Perry – when they had cut across the middle of the end zone or ran a comeback to the front corner. Where are these routes? We seem to only want to call fades or shallow passes into the flats. Why not run more routes that Speight is comfortable with and has excelled at?

Additionally, where are the tight ends in the pass game in the red zone? Through three games, only one pass has targeted a tight end. Speight has had accuracy issues, throwing too high and having difficulty threading the ball into tight windows. Utilizing 6’6 and 6’7 tight ends to create mismatches could not only help minimize these mistakes, but also aid in Speight gaining confidence back in his throwing ability.

We have already seen Speight complete several good passes to tight ends Zach Gentry, Nick Eubanks, and Sean McKeon. And last season, Speight played well passing to Tyrone Wheatley Jr. and Ian Bunting. Where are they in the red zone? Perhaps this lack of tight end productivity is simply a result of Harbaugh limiting his playbook. Or, maybe passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton wanted to use these out-of-conference games to build chemistry between Speight and the young receiving core. Probably both. But, Michigan fans cannot help but wonder where the gauntlet of athletic tight ends has been while the red zone passing game has struggled.

NCAA Football: Michigan Spring Game Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Special teams: This whole article has been quite pessimistic, so I wanted to end on a high note. Looking at that statistical table, the one aspect that positively stands out is Quinn Nordin’s 8 field goals on 9 attempts. Long snapper Camaron Cheeseman, holder Garrett Moores, and Nordin have been superb as a unit this season. Three games into the year and Nordin has already been Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week twice. The praise is well deserved, and the Wolverines should be real excited to watch Nordin continually progress. Hopefully, though, Michigan will not need him to kick five field goals in a game again.