Don Brown crafted an excellent game plan for the Michigan Wolverines defense when they faced the Iowa Hawkeyes on Saturday. The maize and blue forced 4 turnovers, tallied 8 sacks, and allowed only 1 rushing yard on 30 attempts by the Hawkeyes in the game.
A huge reason for their success was because of the different blitzes that Brown kept throwing at Nate Stanley and the Iowa offense.
The first sack of the game was by Kwity Paye (his first of 2.5 on the day):
Paye cuts to the inside on the All-Big Ten-caliber left tackle Alaric Jackson as Aidan Hutchinson loops around the corner from the nose tackel position for contain on the four-man rush. Paye pushes Jackson to the outside and then cuts in and has a free rush at the quarterback.
What is worthy of note here is Aidan Hutchinson moving to the interior of the defensive line. There were several defensive sets where Hutchinson was playing on the inside and it certainly made a difference in both the pass and rush defense. The sophomore finished with 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack to boot, earning him the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Brown also knew that Iowa would try to take advantage of the man-to-man defense that the Wolverines run on nearly every down. So, he put in some counters including a cover 1 man defense with Metellus helping the cornerbacks in coverage over the top. That earned Metellus an interception on this play:
Ambry Thomas had great coverage as is on this play, and the Michigan defensive line put some pressure on Stanley, causing him to force the ball into some good coverage by the secondary, resulting in a Michigan takeaway.
Since things were not opening up over the top, Iowa decided to throw in some crossing routes, which has been a huge weakness in Don Brown’s defense. This play shows exactly why:
Linebacker Jordan Glasgow is in man-to-man coverage on the outside against Goodsen, one of Iowa’s quickest receivers. Goodsen cuts in, and Glasgow runs into Metellus, giving the Hawkeyes an easy first down.
Last year, this kind of offensive scheme was what Ohio State ran in their annihilation of the Wolverines in The Game because Brown was too stubborn to switch to a zone defense (or he hadn’t implemented one to that point).
But, that changed against Iowa as the Wolverines threw in a couple different looks after the Hawkeyes offense committed to crossing routes and screens against throughout the 2nd and 3rd quarters. Brown called several zone blitzes throughout the late-3rd and 4th quarters and it worked to perfection.
Here is the first example of it late in the 3rd quarter when Iowa called a screen on third and long, the same play that burned the Wolverines earlier in the game:
The Wolverines stacked the box with seven guys and show blitz, but three drop back into coverage while only four blitz (three down lineman and a linebacker). The screen pass is thrown as Cam McGrone (the blitzing linebacker) puts pressure in Stanley’s face. LaVert Hill is covering the flat, reads the screen pass, and makes a play on the Iowa runningback. Even if he would have missed, Khaleke Hudson is also right there to make the tackle. It was a great play design that was shown throughout the rest of the game.
This next play is another example of the zone coverage, even though it was a pretty big gain for Iowa.
Hudson makes a mistake by taking a couple steps in off the snap, but recovers by leaping and putting a hand on the football. Unfortunately, it still landed right in the hands of an Iowa receiver, but if Hudson had not jumped up on the snap, it would have resulted in another interception for this Michigan defense.
This same concept was thrown in again which helped Cam McGrone (who had a monster game) get the first sack of his Michigan career.
The Wolverines put five guys on the defensive line, but both Uche and Glasgow on the top of your screen screen back off and sit in a low zone coverage. Meanwhile, McGrone, who had been playing back and showed coverage pre-snap, zips in on the right side and sacks Stanley after beating the runningback who was trying to pass-block.
Michigan does this again on this play:
No one block McGrone after Hudson and Uche back off after showing blitz. There are three offensive lineman on the left side, and four Michigan defenders coming, resulting in an easy sack. This kind of stunt was thrown in several times, and it confused the heck out of Iowa’s offensive line, which was a big reason that the Wolverines accumulated so many sacks on Saturday.
Obviously there were still a couple of hiccups with the Wolverines defense and attempting the zone coverage for really the first time this season. However, if they continue to learn and use the same zone blitz defense that they did on Saturday, they are going to cause fits for a lot more teams on their schedule in 2019.