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Inside the Numbers: The recipe for improving Michigan’s defense

There’s work to be done

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

The Michigan Wolverines defense is very good.

Currently, the unit sits at No. 12 in Total Defense.

Don Brown is an excellent defensive coordinator.

With that said, they have improvements to make before some issues come back to bite them in a close game.

We’re going to look at what the Michigan defense can improve in this edition of Inside the Numbers.

Fix penalty woes

It’s happened more than once this year, where defensive penalties have extended drives and led to points being scored.

Through three games Michigan ranks 118th nationally in fewest penalty yards given up per game. While not every penalty in that statistic has been against the defense, the clear majority of the fouls have been by the D; be it targeting, roughing the passer, defensive holding, pass interference, off-sides, etc.

21 of Michigan’s 27 penalties have been committed by the defense.

Most of the time when you look at the box score and all the team stats therein, the team that comes out on top is the one with less penalties. Jim Harbaugh said the team has some things they got to clean up, and this is a concern, but one that could be bottled up as early as Saturday versus Nebraska.

The penalties have kept Michigan’s defense on the field longer, which correlates to the next thing they need to improve upon.

Win on third down and limit first downs

Michigan hasn’t been able to get offenses off the field quickly, ranking 79th in First Downs Defense, a stat they ranked 3rd in a year ago.

This becomes a domino effect.

When a defense is on the field too long, by the time they’re a couple third downs into the drive, it’s bound to get harder to stop the opposition.

After ranking 1st in the nation in 3rd Down Conversion Percentage in 2017, Michigan is just middle of the pack so far in 2018 at No. 57.

While plenty of throws have occurred on third down to move the chains against Michigan, a major reason Michigan is giving up third down conversions is because of scrambling quarterbacks. Both at Notre Dame and versus SMU the U-M defense didn’t contain the quarterback well outside of the tackles, or between them. Notre Dame QB Brandon Wimbush had a few key third down runs that really hampered Michigan’s chances of winning the game.

This is the type of stat that will motivate and piss off any defense, but this Wolverines unit has the ability to turn it around.

Red Zone Defense

The dominoes keep falling, and this time in the form of red-zone success for the opposition.

Michigan’s red zone defense comes in at 61st nationally and 8th in the Big Ten. U-M finished the 2017 season ranked 64th. However, after Don Brown’s first year as defensive coordinator, Michigan finished ranked 3rd.

There may have to be a few added wrinkles, a few change-ups when it comes to the Wolverine red-zone schematics going forward. 2016 showed that Don Brown can put together a highly reliable red-zone attack.


Chase Winovich has been just short of recording at least a half dozen more sacks than he currently has, but near misses are still misses. Michigan ended 2017 ranked 7th in Team Sacks, good enough for best in the Big Ten.

This year, it’s been a different story, Michigan is ranked 58th and 7th in the Big Ten.

Watching the film of the front seven is encouraging when evaluating the level of pressure they are bringing, so this looks like a stat that will likely balance itself out and the Wolverines will have a week with a huge sack total before long.

Stop giving up big chunk pass plays

Michigan will have great pass coverage, but then a big play is given up out of the blue. This has been the story of the unit more than halfway through September.

The secondary has let 4 receivers haul in catches of more than 25 yards.

Overall Outlook

All of the above issues can be corrected, and I expect most of them to be in the near future. A few games is not a large sample size, but still enough to point out where the defense can get better.

The Michigan D is a prideful and mostly veteran bunch who take the game of football very seriously. They won’t find any of the above findings acceptable.

Coming into the year many pundits felt the Michigan defense could or would be the best in the nation. If that will be the case, there’s some work to be done.

The recipe for improving Michigan’s defense is obvious and there’s a strong probability Don Brown already has this soup stewing. He has the right ingredients, and the right recipe.