clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Film Study: Breaking down the performance of Michigan’s defensive line against UNLV

A few games helped Michigan’s defensive line show tremendous improvement from Week 1 to Week 2.

UNLV v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

The Michigan Wolverines dominated UNLV for three quarters before coasting to a 35-7 victory in the final frame. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy continues to impress in historic fashion, running back Blake Corum found the end zone three times, and the Wolverines took a leap along both lines of scrimmage.

With the return of offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Sherrone Moore, the offensive line showed improved chemistry and cohesion, but the defensive line was the story against UNLV.

One week after posting only five tackles-for-loss and ZERO sacks against East Carolina, the Wolverines racked up 10 tackles-for-loss and five sacks (all in the first half) against UNLV. What made this turnaround possible?

Firstly, East Carolina barely averaged 2.5 seconds from snap-to-throw against Michigan to avoid sacks despite the strategy's clear inefficiencies. UNLV —like most teams— did not attempt to replicate this. Secondly, the Wolverines are running new, creative games along the defensive line this season to consistently generate pressure with only four rushers.

Games? Games are twists, stunts, and movements by one or more players to create confusion along the offensive line and free up a rusher without sacrificing players in coverage. I broke down three of my favorites from this week to help explain further.

To quote Pusha T, “These are the games we play.” Let’s check the tape.

7:06 First Quarter - Kenneth Grant TFL

Already trailing 7-0, UNLV took over at the 35-yard line for its second drive of the game. On the first play of the possession, Michigan is anticipating run all the way and UNLV is playing into their hand with an inside zone play.

The Wolverines have five defenders on the line of scrimmage with Jaylen Harrell (field-side) and Derrick Moore setting the edges, and the defensive-tackle trio of Kris Jenkins (three-tech), Kenneth Grant (zero-tech), and Mason Graham (three-tech) filling in between them.

On the snap, Graham (No. 55) launches into the center and Grant wraps around him into the B gap. Grant does an excellent job on his twist staying “skinny” on the back of Graham so he is not picked off by the frontside guard. By the time Grant wraps up the running back for the tackle for loss, there are eight total Wolverines in the frame all pursuing the ball.

One of the most important elements of this play is the play of the edge rushers. Derrick Moore sets a hard, play-side edge so the running back cannot bounce the run to the outside and forces him to run into the B gap.

On the backside, Harrell comes screaming down the line of scrimmage in run-pursuit because he knows the blitzing safety behind him (No. 3 Keon Sabb) has quarterback contain if he decides to pull the ball. But what happens if the quarterback does pull the ball?

14:26 Second Quarter - Jaylen Harrell Sack

Fast-forwarding to the second quarter –with UNLV now trailing 14-0– the Rebels design a counter play based on the play above. UNLV wants to sell the inside zone to the boundary side before the quarterback finds the second running back in the field-side flat. UNLV shifted its second receiver to the field side as well for an additional blocker in space.

Michigan is again lined up with five along the line of scrimmage, but Braiden McGregor has replaced Derrick Moore as the boundary edge rusher. This play call is almost exactly the same as the play above, except the blitzing safety (No. 28 Quentin Johnson) cheats down to the line of scrimmage and rushes off the hip of Harrell.

Graham again eats into the middle to try and free up Grant –who is picked off by the guard this time– while McGregor sets a hard edge and Harrell pursues from the field side. There was more running room this time if UNLV handed the ball off, but McGregor played this so well that it is unlikely the Rebels gained more than one or two yards.

The quarterback pulls the ball on the play-fake and Johnson is immediately closing in. Quentin Johnson does an excellent job with his blitzing composure here, by simultaneously maintaining his contain responsibilities –you can see his sidestep in the middle of his rush to ensure he is rushing the quarterback’s outside shoulder to prevent him from escaping the pocket– and obstructing the throwing window.

UNLV’s quarterback tries to evade by stepping through to the inside, but Jaylen Harrell is waiting. After recognizing the quarterback has kept the ball, Harrell returns in pursuit, but just like Johnson on the rush, does so with composure. Harrell hits the breaks, explodes toward the quarterback, before subtly breaking down, squaring his shoulders to avoid an over-pursuit mistake, and finishes with the sack.

This is a great example of a team sack with several players contributing and doing the little things to get the quarterback to the ground.

13:18 Second Quarter - Jaylen Harrell, Michael Barrett, Mason Graham Sack

Two plays after Harrell’s sack above, UNLV is facing third-and-13. The Rebels line up in a three-by-one formation out of 10-personnel (one running back, no tight ends). Firstly, this should have been called for illegal formation because the right tackle’s helmet is not breaking the waistline of the center. This is all too familiar for fans of the Lions, but like the Lions/Chiefs game last Thursday, this one wasn’t called either. I digress.

These three-by-one formations are where defensive coordinators earn their paychecks. Michigan’s Jesse Minter earns his by drawing up a unique four-man pressure involving one edge, one linebacker, and two defensive tackles.

Before the snap, the defensive tackles (Jenkins and Graham) are stacked next to each other crowding the field-side guard and leaving a hole in the boundary-side A and B gaps. Understanding the timing of the snap count, once the quarterback raises his leg for his center, Michigan’s field-side edge (Derrick Moore) raises his hand to signal to linebacker Michael Barrett that the snap is coming.

Barrett watches the center’s head move up and times up his rush into the vacant boundary-side B gap. On the snap, Moore bails into curl coverage on the field-side and Jenkins replaces his rush on the edge. Due to the movement and confusion, Graham draws a triple team (!!!), and the boundary side of the offensive line parts like the Red Sea for Michael Barrett.

Barrett flies through the B gap and Jaylen Harrell (boundary edge) stunts into the same gap right behind him. Barrett is chipped by the running back and Harrell has a free run at the quarterback. Harrell arrives first, Graham fights through the triple team and arrives second, and Barrett is third to secure the sack in the backfield.

This four-man pressure felt like eight to UNLV.

Last season, Michigan struggled to generate pressure without blitzing against top-tier opponents. This has clearly been addressed in the off-season and could be one of the biggest determining factors of success later this season for the Wolverines.