By Ashley Dunkak
ANN ARBOR (CBS DETROIT) – After a sub-par 2013 season for Michigan, the defensive coaching staff got a shakeup, and so did the scheme, and so did the positioning of one of the team’s best players.
Maybe the splashiest shift is the move of Jake Ryan from strong side linebacker to middle linebacker. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said the switch made sense because it puts Ryan in the middle of the action more often.
“My feeling on Jake has always been that he’s one of our best defensive players. He’s a guy that gets to the football, and he’s a guy that’s a really good blitzer,” Mattison said at media availability Thursday. “The problem with our defense is the way offenses are going now, his position, he was always out in the flanks, and he’s spread out, and so if they’re not running at him, your best player’s not involved in the game as much as he should be.”
In a broader change, the Wolverines will play more over defense than under this season, head coach Brady Hoke said in his press conference Tuesday. Mattison said that adjustment will put some of the team’s better players in positions that allow them to maximize their abilities.
“When you play an under defense, the person who you call a defensive end is on an offensive tackle with a tight end outside of him, and what happens is that’s a lot of weight and a lot of size coming after a guy,” Mattison explained. “Well you’ve got to have a real big guy right there to be able to withstand that. We feel like some of our best football players, Brennen Beyer for example, he’s a better guy on the edge. He’s a better guy that’s a six-technique. Last year he played a five-technique in the Big Ten conference at 255 pounds, and played his heart out.
“To get our best players in that position – Frank [Clark], Brennen, for example – on the edges is better,” Mattison continued, “and therefore if you go to an over defense, you have a six-technique and a five-technique without tight ends outside of them, and that kind of gives you the start of it.”
The coordinator used Henry Poggi as another example of a player who would more likely excel in an over defense.
“He’s 260-some pounds, 265 pounds. That’s great size for a six-technique in an over defense,” Mattison said. “As he moves inside more, that’s not big enough, so that allows a guy to be able to play maybe at a faster rate than he would have had he been a five-technique or a three-technique.”
An over defense also puts a team on more solid footing when it needs to combat high-powered passing attacks. Michigan gave up plenty of big plays through the air in 2013, and limiting those will be an area of emphasis for the Wolverines this season.
“So much of football today is three-wides, and that’s why you go to a nickel defense,” Mattison said. “A nickel defense is almost always over. Therefore you’re not changing from a regular defense of under to an over whenever that situation happens. You can play more of an over throughout the game, and they become better at that position.”
In addition to allowing fewer big plays, Michigan will also strive to be more effective in its pressure, the coordinator noted. The Wolverines ranked 66th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in sacks, averaging 1.92 per game. They also ranked 66th in passing yards allowed, giving up an average of 231.3 yards through the air.
“The biggest thing we have to do is be a better blitzing team,” Mattison said. “The only thing a blitz as you would know it or a pressure does, is it gets people one-on-one. You can’t do any more than that. When you send an extra person, you’re trying to ensure that, all right, somebody in this group that’s coming is going to be one-on-one. You’ve got to beat somebody one-on-one, and that’s something that at times we didn’t do a very good job of.
“When you send people and don’t beat somebody one-on-one, that secondary, now everybody goes, ‘Why is the secondary so poor?'” Mattison continued. “Well maybe they aren’t poor. Maybe the guys who are blitzing or the defensive line or whoever was one-on-one didn’t get home, so that’s a big emphasis now is we’re going to pressure, but we’ve got to make sure when we do pressure, whoever’s the one-on-one guys got to beat people.”
Blitzing effectively is more easily said than done, of course. Mattison said the execution comes down to technique, experience, speed and strength – all of which come with maturity.
“I think it’s probably believing that that’s going to be the emphasis so therefore you practice it more, and you say, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this. Now let’s make sure we do it right and get it done,'” Mattison said.
Though Mattison acknowledged that maybe the secondary got more of the blame than it deserved in 2013, he said the team’s corners and safeties – along with players at other positions – need to amp up their level of play.
“We all have to be a lot more aggressive,” Mattison said. “As you become more experienced, as our philosophy may change a little more, as we feel like we can get pressure and things like that, we’ve got to play more aggressive on the receivers, tighten the coverage up. That’s kind of a big emphasis for us this spring and as we go through the fall.”