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Inside the Numbers: Don’s Defensive Dominance

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Michigan’s 2016 defense was special. Thanks to Don Brown, Michigan’s 2017 defense could be just as special despite replacing 9.5 starters.

Michigan v Michigan State Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Michigan’s defense was supposed to take a step back in 2017.

I said it. You said it. We all said it.

How could we not? In 2016, Michigan had the nation’s second-best defense according to the primary metrics. They were second in scoring defense (14.1 PPG), yards allowed per play (4.21), and Defensive S&P+ rating (7.7), and only one school was better than them in all three categories (yep, Alabama). And this doesn’t even do Michigan justice.

The Wolverines’ defense wasn’t just the second best in the country. It was also the third best that we have seen in the past 12 years according to Defensive S&P+ ratings:

Best Defensive S&P+ Ratings (2005-16)

Rank Team Rating*
Rank Team Rating*
1 2016 Alabama 6.7
2 2011 Alabama 6.9
3 2016 Michigan 7.7
4 2011 LSU 8.3
5 2009 Nebraska 8.9
6 2015 Alabama 9.0
7 2012 Florida 9.4
8 2006 Virginia Tech 9.7
9 2009 Alabama 10.1
10 2008 USC 10.2
*Points allowed to an avg. offense on neutral site

It was a special defense. It was better than Michigan’s 2006 defense, and for a time there, an argument could have been made that it usurped the 1997 defense (which would definitely be considered blasphemous, so I’m definitely not saying that, nope).

But Michigan’s defense wasn’t supposed to maintain that level of stinginess and success in 2017. Not after Michigan lost 9.5 starters* on that side of the ball, all of whom ended up on an NFL roster, including Heisman finalist Jabrill Peppers, All-American and Thorpe finalist Jourdan Lewis, and first-round selection Taco Charlton.

*Maurice Hurst was a nominal starter, so he’s considered a halfie.

Michigan’s defense would need time to reload. The replacements were expected to be talented as many of them were extolled and supplied with four or five golden stars. But they were young, with six of them hailing from the 2016 class, which meant that they had only one full year under their belt. And they would be inexperienced, which meant they would be more prone to miscues as they learned and grew and became one cohesive unit. To expect them to be like the 2016 defense would be unreasonable.

But Don Brown believes in reason as much as he believes in a shaved upper lip.

Instead, Brown believes in excellence. And he is demonstrating why he is a defensive mastermind and has molded Michigan’s young defense into one the nation’s best units.

Again.

Through four games in 2017, Michigan is littered across the top of the primary defensive categories. The Wolverines are tied for 12th in scoring defense (13.5 PPG), but if Wilton Speight’s two pick-sixes are removed, they would be tied for fourth (10.0 PPG). They lead the nation in yards allowed per play (3.52). And they are tied for second in Defensive S&P+ rating (12.8), behind the one and only (yep) Alabama.

With a fresh 3-3-5 defense that Brown structured and implemented in the spring and summer, Michigan has stymied all four offenses it’s faced this season, as none of them have managed more than 14 offensive points or mustered more than 232 total yards.

That the Wolverines suffocated Florida and Cincinnati was not much of a surprise. The Gators and Bearcats were 88th and 105th in Offensive S&P+, respectively, last season, and no offseason developments indicated that either would improve enough to test Michigan’s defense much, particularly its brand-new secondary. Air Force would also not test Michigan’s pass defense, but that’s because its triple-option attack would present a different, unique challenge, forcing the Wolverines to remain disciplined and play assignment football. They did just that, holding the Falcons to just 13 points and 232 yards. And then Brown squared off against Purdue’s new head coach Jeff Brohm, an offensive mad scientist with trick plays, gadgets, and misdirection oozing out of every orifice. Purdue pulled off a few deceptive designs that were effective and led to an effortless, 75-yard touchdown drive in the first half. The second half, though? Purdue gained just 10 yards. That’s it. There is no doubt which coach won that match-up.

At first glance, it would be somewhat understandable if one questioned whether Michigan has inflated its defensive dominance by facing dormant offenses. However, the offenses that Michigan faced have not struggled in recent years like they did:

That is truly remarkable.

Michigan put a hurting on each of them that they won’t forget any time soon. And the Wolverines also added insult to injury by recording three defensive scores of their own (one vs. Florida; two vs. Cincinnati), which is one fewer than what they have allowed.

Michigan’s defense simply has been incredible thus far. They have been stout in almost every facet of the game. The three-man line of Chase Winovich, Hurst, and Rashan Gary has been disruptive, spearheading a defense which leads the nation in sacks (18), which is unbelievable considering that Air Force dropped back to pass only 12 times against Michigan. Winovich has been the recipient of the stats with his excellent technique and relentless pursuit (6.0 sacks), but Hurst and Gary have done unnoticed work up front, taking on double teams to open up holes for the linebackers. Speaking of which, Devin Bush has been a missile, shooting into the quarterback’s lap in an instant (4.5 sacks) or teleporting sideline to sideline to limit potential chunk plays to minimal gains. His instincts, speed, and ferociousness (I mean: watch this) have added another element to this defense, and there are not many linebackers playing better football than him. And then the secondary, which was finally targeted by Purdue, has held up its end of the bargain. Lavert Hill and David Long have mostly been connected to the hips of their assigned receivers, forcing frequent incompletions, while the safeties, Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus, have had few breakdowns in the back behind them.

And Brown deserves the credit for putting them in a position to succeed so quickly.

It’s still too early to declare that Michigan’s 2017 defense is as special as its 2016 defense, and the returns so far indicate that there is the slightest of regression.

But that we are even having this discussion considering the quantity and quality of talent that Michigan had to replace exhibits just how special Brown has been this year. If this holds up, this may be even more special than Brown guiding Boston College to the top spot in total defense (254.3 YPG) and yards allowed per play (4.07) in 2015.

Then maybe we’ll stop wondering if Michigan is supposed to take a step back on defense. Instead, maybe we’ll start wondering if this’ll always be the norm with Brown.