Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison didn't even need to take a question Tuesday before he addressed Michigan's anemic pass rush, and Mattison pointed the finger squarely at himself.
News: The Wolverines have just five sacks in three games, failing to record a QB takedown last week against Akron (though the Zips gave up four to Division I-AA James Madison a week earlier). Linebackers Cam Gordon, a senior, and junior Brennen Beyer both have two sacks, and a single defensive lineman (sophomore Mario Ojemudia) has recorded a sack.
Mattison: "The answer I'm going to give you is they kept backs in a little more in passing situations than I expected, and the other thing I will tell you, is I have to coach it better. Our guys are working hard at it. I'll put that on me. We have to get better at it. We started working on it on Sunday, and we will be able to rush."
Views: In the preseason, Mattison and Brady Hoke were almost giddy with their excitement for the defensive line and the Wolverines' ability to rush the passer with four, allowing Mattison to be creative with his blitz packages and go to them in situations that would keep offenses guessing. But Mattison will likely have to rely more and more on them until at least redshirt junior linebacker Jake Ryan returns to the lineup and infuses some life into a defensive line lacking confidence.
Maybe we bought into the hype too easily (though Mattison and Hoke do not throw praise around without belief) and maybe we just underestimated how much Ryan meant to this team. With him on the field, U-M has a go-to pass rusher that rises up in the big moments and doesn't shrink from them. He also commands so much attention that it frees teammates to make plays in one-on-one situations.
In his absence, Michigan doesn't have a legitimate and proven pass rusher. The hope was that junior rush end Frank Clark could be that guy but he hasn't lived up to his promise this season. The Wolverines needed someone like Clark to emerge so that others had a role model to look to. In his absence from the stat line, it could have been senior tackle Jibreel Black or Ojemudia, but no one seems to want that type of responsibility.
Well, actually Beyer seems to be embracing it, but he's playing strongside linebacker, splitting reps with Gordon, and must remain doing so until Ryan returns. When that does happen, perhaps Michigan can feature Beyer at rush end, and with Ryan opposite him actually boast two capable pass rushers. But no one knows exactly when Ryan will be back, and his teammates need to step up. Now.
News: In three games, Michigan has used three different cornerbacks to supplement junior Raymon Taylor and redshirt sophomore Blake Countess - going with freshman Channing Stribling in week one, junior Delonte Hollowell against Notre Dame and rookie Jourdan Lewis last weekend.
Mattison: "Every day in our defense, you have to do it the right way. And if you're not 100 percent consistent, the next guy will get his opportunity. Our guys in the back end have done some good things but they've also done some things we can't accept.
"You have to be a really disciplined guy that concentrates. You cannot go on a practice field or a game field and say on this play you're not going to go as hard as you can because you'll get beat. Until we get guys that do it every time right, we won't be happy. It's always that way on our defense. The film doesn't lie and whoever does the best in practice is going to play."
Views: With senior Courtney Avery's continued return to full health, this position is only going to get more crowded, putting everyone on notice - even Taylor and Countess - that starting jobs are up for grabs. That wouldn't be the case if the Wolverines' secondary was suffocating opposing receivers, but in three games, the Maize and Blue have allowed 14 pass plays of 20 yards or more.
Certainly a more capable pass rush would help, but the defensive backs are playing too soft and still allowing balls to go over their heads. In Mattison's defense, surrendering the big play is unacceptable, and the rotation in the secondary should serve as motivation to all six defensive backs that they will not play if they cannot keep the ball inside and in front, and make a few plays too.
News: In his first three career starts, sophomore safety Jarrod Wilson has been solid, recording 15 tackles with a pass breakup and an interception.
Mattison: "He did play some last year but last year he was a freshman. He's had a whole offseason, the spring, and when he's played, he's responded. The one thing I'm proud of, among other things, is he's become very studious. He really works to make sure he knows all the checks and where he's supposed to be. And that held him back his freshman year."
Views: Wilson has always possessed the physical talent, but like most young players, had to develop the mental side of the game. It appears he's coming along well there, instilling confidence and trust in his coaches.
In three games, he's shown an ability to make plays on the football, and come up to lay a big hit, proving that with a little more experience, he could be the difference-maker the Wolverines have lacked at that position in almost a decade. He's not a complete player yet. He still gives too much space underneath and he's been late to a few balls over the top so, like the rest of his teammates, he remains a work-in-progress.
News: With Akron facing fourth down at the Michigan four-yard line, and with only five seconds left on the clock, Mattison called for 'cable zero train' and the Maize and Blue executed the play-call perfectly, creating pressure on QB Kyle Pohl and forcing an incompletion to win the game.
Mattison: "That means all out blitz. We're bringing everybody. Everybody has a responsibility. Everybody has a gap. Everybody has to execute that defense, and they did. That's zero coverage. Man-to-man, no help. No free safety. Brennen Beyer and Jibreel Black are the two guys inside and they executed their technique perfectly.
"In that defense, if you take a false step you're a second late. If you're not perfect, you put that secondary in a real tough position."
Views: Some may ask why Mattison didn't dial up that particular blitz earlier in the game (he didn't say if he did but it didn't appear so with a film review), and the answer is simple - with U-M's backs up against the goal line, there is no threat of a receiver beating a defensive back deep for a long bomb. Instead, the box is crowded, and the defense can get after the quarterback with everything it has.
That's what happened on the final play. Give credit to Beyer and Black for finally getting home and for the defensive backs for holding up their men just long enough to force the incompletion.
Mattison did try other blitzes throughout the game, but whether it's a safety or corner off the edge, or linebackers up the middle, the Wolverines just aren't getting off blocks or slipping through creases fast enough to sack the quarterback.
Everyone can look to the four-man pass rush but when the blitz isn't working either, it reveals a larger-scale problem - a lacking confidence individually to win the one-on-one battles. Akron was supposed to supply that confidence, but instead made it worse when the goose egg went up. For U-M, it better find some swagger quickly or the Maize and Blue may be in trouble even when Ryan returns.