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Michigan Football Rewind: Analyzing the Defense’s Mistakes and Second-Half Adjustments

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NCAA Football: Michigan at Michigan State Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The first half of the game against Purdue on Saturday sent shockwaves of fear throughout the Michigan fan base as the Wolverine offense looked its worst and the stout defense appeared exploitable. The Purdue offense accumulated 180 yards and a touchdown on Michigan in the first half. That is a pretty productive two quarters.

But, the Michigan defense came back out after halftime and held Purdue to a total of 10 yards from then on. The whole team looked vastly improved during the second half of the game, and the defense was truly unparalleled. Here are just some facts from the game and current state of the Wolverine defense:

  • Held Purdue to a total of 30 yards rushing on 20 attempts
  • Purdue went 0 for 12 on 3rd down attempts
  • Michigan defense has now caused a turnover in every game in 2017
  • Chase Winovich earned Walter Camp National Player of the Week
  • Michigan now leads the nation in sacks
  • Chase Winovich leads the Big Ten in sacks, and Devin Bush is in second place
  • Michigan defense is now ranked #1 nationally in total defense

Despite these fantastic statistics and Michigan playing its most complete half of the year, Jeff Brohm’s offense was able to find some success against Don Brown’s defense early on, especially on the drive early in the 2nd quarter, which resulted in 75 yards and touchdown.

Now, an opposing offense having one positive drive throughout the whole game is not much to worry about. But, as U-M fans have seen, both Cincinnati and Air Force were able to exploit the defense in similar fashion, namely with tunnel screens and delayed tight end digs. Because Michigan plays such an aggressive style of defense, these will be the passing schemes continually used to take advantage of our system. For those reasons, these plays are worth looking at.

But, the adjustments Coach Don Brown made at halftime to completely stop these plays speak volumes about his ingenuity and the ability of the defensive players. Therefore, the goal of this film breakdown is to analyze how Purdue was effective against the Michigan defense and how the Wolverines adjusted accordingly.

First, the tunnel screens:

Tunnel screens are crafty plays to disguise a wide receiver and take advantage of a defense that depletes its men in the secondary through blitzes. The linebacker needs to recognize the play before it begins to know how to angle towards the receiver and anticipate shedding a block. This is even more difficult when 2 of the 3 linebackers are blitzing, as Michigan tends to do. In the first half against Purdue, the Wolverines had trouble identifying and stopping these tunnel screens. See below:

In this play during the second quarter, the Michigan defense follows its fairly standard scheme. Safety Tyree Kinnel is in man-coverage on the slot receiver and takes an outside blitz. Middle linebacker Devin Bush also blitzes. So, coverage of the slot receiver falls onto linebacker Mike McCray. Whether it was due to lack of communication with Kinnel or simply missing the assignment, McCray does not recognize the screen in time. He stays out of position, and then gets blocked by the left tackle up field, and the wide receiver gains 16 yards. It is a perfectly run tunnel screen.

Here is another. In this play, safety Josh Metellus lines up several yards off his man, the linebacker core is grouped on the other side of the field, and there is no safety help. This sets up an awfully easy tunnel screen for Purdue. The left tackle allows Carlo Kemp to blitz untouched off the edge as he runs out to block Metellus. He did not even have to touch Metellus, just gets in his way to disrupt the angle of pursuit. After Tyree Kinnel missed an open field tackle, the Purdue wide receiver gained 35 yards.

Again, these are the offensive schemes that Michigan expects opposing coordinators to draw up because they are effective against this defense. But, now watch Michigan’s adjustments to stop the tunnel screen in the second half:

During this play, Tyree Kinnel plays well off his man, like Metellus in the second gif above. But, Mike McCray is also present to provide additional coverage help. Notice how, unlike in the first gif, McCray reads the quarterback and quickly recognizes the tunnel screen. By doing so, he positions himself to always stay in front of the slot receiver and was easily able to shake the block from the left tackle. Although the receiver still gained about 5 yards, this is textbook coverage to stop a tunnel screen while still utilizing an aggressive defense. This small change in coverage as well as McCray’s ability to learn from his previous mistakes are exactly how the Michigan defense became so dominant in the second half.

Now, let’s look at the other effective passing scheme against Michigan, the delayed tight end dig route:

In this first play, Mike McCray blitzes, Devin Bush rolls into the strong side flats, and Khaleke Hudson maintains the edge after shaking a tight end block. At first, this play looks like it is going to be completely disrupted as Michigan has seven defenders pursuing the Purdue quarterback against only six blockers. But, the block by the tight end was actually a disguise to get him free into a passing lane. All the Purdue quarterback had to do was roll out and evade the pressure for long enough to then lob the ball back over the advancing Wolverine front seven. Hudson and McCray took too long to identify what was happening, the safety was deep covering a wide receiver, and all the Purdue tight end had to do was walk into the end zone. Easy touchdown.

Now, here is almost the exact same play on Purdue’s next offensive drive. Bush blitzes up the middle, Khaleke Hudson drops back into the strong side flats, and Mike McCray picks up coverage on the slot receiver who Hudson probably should have covered. Michigan is without a linebacker core. The Purdue tight end again blocks quickly to disguise his route and allot time to his quarterback, and then catches the ball on a dig route. After Kinnel, McCray, and Winovich all miss tackles, the tight end gains significant yardage into Michigan’s red zone.

But, now watch how Don Brown redesigns Michigan’s linebacker blitzing scheme to put a stop to these plays in the second half:

This time, instead of a dig route, the Purdue tight end does a quick out route on the strong side of the field into the flats. It is a bit less deceptive, but especially so with Devin Bush’s linebacker play. Mike McCray maintains coverage in the middle of the field for any kind of throwback pass. This allows Bush to roll into coverage in the flats, which he does as he immediately recognizes the tight end’s disguised block-route.

Truthfully, this still could have been a productive play for the Boilermakers. Both the corner and safety are occupied with their own receivers, and the tight end does get to the edge. But, Bush’s early awareness, pursuit angle, and unbelievable closing speed shut this play down as soon as it started. Don Brown’s decision to utilize the linebackers, especially Bush, more in coverage in the second half was the exact scheme adjustment that made Purdue’s offensive production between the first and second half so lopsided.

Now, the coverage scheme against these plays was not the only aspect that led to the second half domination by U-M. The front seven exploded with tackles for losses and sacks, and both corners, David Long and Lavert Hill, were fantastic in coverage. But, these are the offensive plays that will be continually called against Don Brown’s defense. Teams with faster receivers and better tight ends, like Penn State and Ohio State, will definitely be even more productive with them. So, it is important to recognize that possibility but also how the Michigan defense responds to these mishaps.

The fact Purdue had only one truly productive offensive drive against this defense speaks volumes about the men in Maize and Blue. They quickly learned from their mistakes, corrected them, and utterly dominated the rest of the game. That is how a highly talented defense grows to become a championship-caliber team.