July 31, 2011

Big Ten opponents talk Michigan defense

Michigan ranked 11th in the Big Ten in 2010 in total defense (447.9 yards per game) and 10th in scoring defense (33.8 points per game). U-M held just a single opponent (Purdue, 16 points) below 30 points. Yet there were some pieces to the puzzle opponents respected ...

TheWolverine.com spoke to three Big Ten opponents, on the condition of anonymity, for their honest assessment of the Maize and Blue.

On Michigan's defense in 2010 and expectations for 2011: "I think we were pretty surprised just how easy it was to go up and down the field against them. You're always supposed to respect Michigan and Ohio State, but there was nothing to fear about Michigan's defense last year. They had maybe one or two guys you had to account for but we didn't think those guys alone could slow us down, and they didn't."

"I remember looking at the stats and watching some film and our coaches kept saying, 'It won't be like this when they line up against us. They'll be ready. They'll be motivated. This is a big game for them.' But then we went out and did exactly what everyone else was doing to them.

"The two things I always notice about defenses is if they're rallying to the ball - because then everyone is on the same page - and if they're hitting you hard. They'll really hit you with everything they've got if they're confident their teammates will have their back if they miss. I didn't see Michigan doing either of those things last year.

"That'll be the first thing I look for this year. If they've got five, six, seven guys in on every tackle and when they get to the ball, they're giving you everything you've got - that's when I'll know it's different."

On U-M's defensive line: "I felt bad for Mike Martin. He was the best defensive lineman in the league last year, for me it wasn't even close, but on that defense he wasn't going to put up numbers and he didn't get any recognition. But poll the guys that played against him and I bet 80 or 90 percent would say he was the best.

"He's so strong. I don't know how he can be that strong. It's freakish. And he's really quick too. I expected him to bulrush every time, but he has great anticipation and at the snap, he was off. Boom. Like he was blitzing and had three or four steps of steam behind him. I couldn't believe how quickly he was on us.

"You had to block him with two guys. You have an ego and in meetings early in the week, you're like 'Coach, I've got this,' and they look at you like you're crazy. If you blocked him with two guys, you could neutralize him most of the time, but it wasn't easy by any means. He'd still knock you back or slip through the cracks.

"Normally, to win any one-on-one matchup you have to play perfect technique every snap but with him, you had to have two guys playing fundamentally perfect on every snap or he'd beat you."

"I thought [Ryan Van Bergen] was a decent player. He had some strength to him. He was really good with his hands and didn't let you get into him like you want to. When he got lower than you, he'd be a really tough out, but in their alignment we could commit two guys to him and he wasn't like Martin - he couldn't beat two guys."

"I'll be really curious to see what they do this year. That scheme last year - we went against 3-4s but the 3-3-5 didn't scare us. When you play against an odd stack like, you still have to have some size up front and some strength but the key is those linebackers because if they can give you fits, with at least two coming on every play, you can't commit double teams to offensive linemen because a linebacker will blow right by you.

"But we didn't have the same problem with Michigan. There wasn't a linebacker you had to fear and their blitzing schemes were so deliberate you could pick up on who was coming before we hiked it."

On Michigan's linebackers: "We saw them early in the season, and this isn't meant to be an insult, but they didn't have anyone. You play Ohio State or Penn State or Iowa, and you have to game plan every play for two, three linebackers, but with Michigan there wasn't anybody.

"I saw a game of theirs later in the year, and it looked like they had some new guys in there and they were more effective, but for us, we had to block Martin up front and the rest of the defense we just attacked."

"I really like their middle linebacker, [Kenny] Demens. He was a player. I don't know why he wasn't playing early in the season. We watched film of games where he was in there and games he wasn't and it was night and day. He gets to the ball. Even with offensive linemen having free reign at him, he finds a way to get to the ball. He just seemed to have great anticipation skills and he was really, really good at slipping in and out of the traffic.

"A lot of linebackers, even if you're not blocking them, if you're in their way, they have no idea how to get past you in time to get to the ball. They may go this way when they should have tried this or they simply run into the side of you. It's sort of funny but the best linebackers can move through all that stuff like offensive and defensive linemen aren't even there. He was like that."

"They didn't have a pass-rush threat at linebacker last year. You have to have that. You really have to have two because if it's just one guy all the time then you can keep an eye on him. You have to have two guys and there's a real knack for it. You have to know when to go, when the offensive linemen are engaged and they take their eyes off you for a split-second because that's how you get to the quarterback. But they didn't seem to have anyone with those instincts.

"Even their pass rusher, No. 88 [Craig Roh], he didn't have much feel for it. You could sort of tell he was unsure of himself because he'd go power against a guy he couldn't overpower but could have probably beaten with speed. And then he tried to outquick a tight end. He had all the ability but he didn't know how to use it.

"I'll keep my eye on him for film this year, though, because sometimes it just clicks eventually and he really has that look, his body type, his natural skills, to be something pretty darn good. If he can put it together."

On Michigan's secondary:

"They played really soft coverage. Really soft. That tells me the coaches have no confidence they can defend the deep ball, either because their corners will get beat or their safeties will. They played off us all game, eight, 10, 12 yards, but we still went over the top of them. That just can't happen but it shows really bad fundamentals and really bad awareness out there.

"We didn't see their No. 1 corner [J.T. Floyd] because he was hurt. I saw [Courtney Avery] and he was a young guy but he played with something to prove. He would get his hands on you, when his coaches let him, and he'd do everything he could to stick right on your hip. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't but that aggressive mentality will help him going forward as he learns the position better."

"I matched up against their safeties a lot in coverage and you could tell that didn't come very natural to them. The one guy, [Jordan Kovacs], really reminded me of someone I would have loved to have had as a teammate because he was all hustle all the time. He was in the right place at the right time and he'd hit you with everything he had.

"He wasn't very big and he wasn't very fast and you could get past him but you just loved his attitude. But in the Big Ten, the best defenses are the ones with the 6-2, 210-pound safeties that can run 4.5s and can lay you out when you come across the middle. Michigan didn't have that guy last year. I'll be curious if they have that guy this year."

On overall expectations for 2011: "You'd think they'd be better. They had a lot of young guys last year and it always helps to have experience. I know they brought in the coordinator from the Baltimore Ravens and he's supposed to be a great coach.

"I don't think they could be like last year. We went into our meetings and our coaches would say, 'Okay, we're going to do this and then this and then this. And we'll do this at this time.' Most of the time there are a lot of contingencies like, 'If the defense does this and has success then we're going to counter with this.' But it was like they didn't think there was any chance we wouldn't be successful."

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