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September 19, 2013

Secondary working on tighter coverage, big plays

The strategy was simple: don't get beat over top.

And all it took was one play from Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees to wide receiver DaVaris Daniels in the Fighting Irish's 31-24 win over Purdue last week to prove just how effective that game plan was.

After the Boilermakers had aggressively went after the Notre Dame passing game all night, Reese floated one over top, and Daniels beat out All-Big Ten cornerback Ricardo Allen for a game-changing 82-yard touchdown.

The Wolverines knew Notre Dame wanted to stretch the field as much as possible. They didn't let that happen, playing softer coverage outside and forcing Rees to drive the length of the field to win. Ultimately, Notre Dame scored just two offensive touchdowns, and Michigan won 41-30.

But last week's game against Akron? Not so much. Michigan played softer coverage against the Zips in a closer-than-expected 28-24 win - and it wasn't always by design.

"I don't think that was intended," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "I think we have to play a little tighter. I thought our eyes weren't as disciplined as they needed to be.

"I don't think it's confidence. It's concentration."

Akron quarterback Kyle Pohl hit 25 of 49 passes (51.0 percent) for 311 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 12.4 yards per completion.

Too often, the Michigan secondary played off the ball, and that led to problems.

"In the secondary, you have a job," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "For example, you might have the flat or you have the deep third or you have a quarter of the field. If you don't take that responsibility and do it on every play, there's going to be sometimes when you're supposed to be in the flat that you're not tight enough.

"I think that happened to us in there. We lost concentration and started playing all of it, not what our job was. That's why at times we were definitely too soft on guys."

Redshirt sophomore cornerback Blake Countess agreed.

"When you look at the film, it's all about alignment, assignment and technique," he said. "Where are you eyes? If you're not focused on your assignment, your eyes are going to wander in the backfield for a split second and that receiver is going to go right past you. It's about being focused and into the gam and staying on your keys and assignments. We have to get back to the basics.

"It was hard to watch the film, but it was needed. We learned a lot from it. Eyes. It's all about the eyes. One of the great things about the winged helmet, as a defensive back, is you can see where the stripes are looking. It was glaring."

The soft coverage - giving up a few dink-and-dunk passes in front of the secondary - was concerning. But the amount of long passes surrendered may by more troublesome.

In the fourth quarter alone, while Michigan was desperately trying to stave off the comeback attempt, Akron quarterback Kyle Pohl completed passes of 43, 40, 24 and 21 yards, three of which set the Zips up inside the Michigan 15-yard line.

Pohl also connected with wide receiver Zach D'Orazio for a 28-yard touchdown in the third quarter and on a 30-yard pass late in the second quarter that set up a 45-yard field goal attempt, which sailed wide left.

All told, a whopping 59.8 percent of Pohl's 311 total passing yards on the day came on those five throws, huge plays that kept the Zips hanging around far longer than anyone expected.

"There were other times we didn't concentrate and we got beat on big plays, which is unacceptable on our defense. That can't happen," Mattison said. "To give up big plays -- when you give up a big play on defense in our defense, there's no way you can have a good game."

Through three games, Michigan has given up 256.3 passing yards per game, four total touchdowns and picked off five total passes.

It seems well off the pace the Wolverine secondary set last season, when they limited teams to just 169.5 passing yards per game.

But it's not exactly fair to compare the numbers at that surface-type level. The Wolverines have faces some truly pass-happy teams in the early goings.

Central Michigan, Notre Dame and Akron threw an average of 43.3 passes per game against the Wolverines, as opposed to the 25.4 passes per game the Michigan defense saw last year.

The Wolverines have actually drastically improved their numbers for completion percentage (51.5 percent, down from 60.0 percent last season), yards per attempt (5.8, down from 6.7 last year) and opponent passer rating (103.7, down from 127.8 last year).

They're also on pace to allow nine touchdown passes in the regular season, where the Michigan defense allowed 16 last year (a touchdown every 12.4 completions). This year, Michigan is giving up a touchdown every 16.7 completions.

And at the current rate, the Wolverines could hit - or possibly surpass - their interception total from last season (seven) before they even hit Big Ten season.

Last year, Michigan's opponent with the highest-ranked passing offense was Purdue (No. 56 nationally with 238.8 yards per game). Nine of Michigan's 13 opponents had a passing offense ranked 86th nationally or lower.

This year, the schedule has seven teams that are currently averaging 238 passing yards or more per game.

Can the defensive backfield make improvements? Certainly.

But they're not playing as poorly as some of the numbers seem to indicate.

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