Monday, September 27, 2010

Grades from the First Third: Defense

Before the season began, when this blog was still in its infancy, I decided the best way to jump in to my Michigan football blogging career short of doing a full season preview would be to look at the best and worst case scenarios for each position group.  I called this series "Half full/Half empty" and I used it to lay out what I thought this season might have in store.

Don't get too comfortable with this defense yet,
lest something like this happen again.
Now that we have made it through the first third of the season, it is time to offer some initial reactions.  Since I have already used the gimmick of "Half full/Half empty" I am just going to stay with it   dance with the one that brought you and all.  I will provide links to the original posts in case you feel like reading them for a little background.

Naturally, disclaimers abound.  This is only my estimation of how each position group has done compared to my preseason hopes and fears.  While we have some answers, a lot more will become clear the further this team gets into the Big Ten season.  (Offense Part I, and Part II found here).

Let's start with the defense.

(One note for those unfamiliar with UFRs, I will rely heavily on this performance based recap of the game done at mgoblog.  Any discussion of player performance is incomplete without taking into account Brian's UFR data.)

Defensive Secondary
Half full: (Marginally) better performance than last year.
Half empty: Burning pit of despair.

Ladies and Gents, your
#1 CB.  Who knew?
When I originally wrote my predictions for the season I started with the Secondary because it was unquestionably the bleakest unit coming into the season.  The linebacking corp had shown no growth over the last few years, but it returned upperclassmen who couldn't get any worse (right? right?), where the secondary was almost laughably young and inexperienced after a flurry of transfers, injuries, and early departures.  The oldest player slated to start was James Rogers, a senior CB who had switched positions back and forth his entire time on campus.  Opposite Rogers was JT Floyd, who was so bad as a RS-Fresh that the coaches opted to play Mike Williams at safety   remember how that worked out?  Cam Gordon won the starting FS job over the spring and held on through the fall, but he was a position switch from WR that lacked top end speed.  The only player with significant experience was Jordan Kovacs, the former walk on who was great playing in the box but horrendous at down field coverage.

Was it any wonder that I set the bar low for this group?  My best case scenario was for them to match the bad pass defense from last year, give up a few long touchdowns, and more than likely cause me to break a remote or throw a half full can of beer against a wall.

Well, this group has lived up to my, admittedly, low expectations.  There have been massive meltdowns (I'm looking in your direction Cam Gordon) and poor performances (UMass), but this group has yet to cost the Wolverines a game.  They are currently ranked 55th in Pass Efficiency Defense (which I would imagine puts them about the same as last years group at this point in the year, if not a little better).  If that isn't enough for a positive grade after four games, I don't know what is.

This young group has done a good job keeping teams out of the end zone   allowing only five touchdowns   while also forcing four interceptions (Mouton gets his two all to himself).  Considering the youth and physical limitations of this group, those are some very positive numbers.  JT Floyd and James Rogers have played average plus in pass coverage, although they have had trouble in run support.  Kovacs and Gordon on the other hand have had their share of struggles in the passing game, but have been very good in run support.  However, when this is all added up you have a group that has competently executed its game plan and somewhat covers for each others weaknesses.

Stronger tests await in the coming two weeks as both Michigan State and Indiana are capable of airing it out with experienced quarterbacks and deep receiving corps.  If the Wolverine secondary can keep this kind of pace through the next two games, it will go a long way toward getting this team to 6-0.

For now they get a grade of Half Full.  This one is subject to change, but you have to applaud the efforts of the kids so far.  They've been alright.

Half Full: The Robinson bump reduces the amount of facepalm errors.
Half Empty: EZEHHHHH!!!!

Ask Dayne Crist how things work out when you
overlook Thomas Gordon.
First of all I realize that in my original position reviews I made a couple mistakes.  Craig Roh was discussed with the defensive linemen, which, not that big of a deal I guess.  What was a big deal is that I totally forgot to mention the spur position in the linebacker preview, instead directing all my ire at Mouton and Ezeh.  I will argue that there was no real baseline for this position anyway, as the contenders for the spot were Thomas Gordon, an untested RS-Fr, and Carvin Johnson, a diamond in the rough safety recruit from Louisiana.  Luckily, after Johnson   the starter out of camp   went down with an injury in the UConn game, Gordon stepped in and played well (+1, +5, +2.5 respectively for the first 3 UFRs).  With Johnson slated to return soon, this position can hope to see solid production all year.  You know, barring the type of major catastrophe that usually follows any statement like "hope to see solid production."  Welcome to Michigan 2010.

As for the other two linebacker spots (we will be technically inaccurate and keep Roh for the D-line section) things are a little complicated, but they always are with these two beleaguered seniors.

During the first two games it was fair to say that Mouton had in fact made the jump that most of us hoped he would.  He was aggressive in run defense, and seemed to diagnose plays better.  His zone drops weren't always timely, but he picked up an interception against Notre Dame after initially being drawn in on a flea flicker.  Even his pursuit angles were looking correct.  It seemed like such a turnaround that legitimate questions began to come up as to whether he was the second best player on the defense.  Of course, that all came crashing down against UMass when he reverted to his Linebacker-Fail form of last year.  The mistakes weren't even excusable such as losing contain on the outside to a running back.  His performance against Bowling Green seemed to return to the positives of the first two weeks, he even got his second INT of the season.  The jury is still largely out on this one.  From his performance in the first two games it seems Mouton has finally gotten to a place where he can make plays without horrendous mistakes, but I refuse to buy this one without more evidence.  My gut says Half Full for Mouton, but my brain is yelling at my gut not to be so naive.

In his "waiting for the
runningback" stance.
Ezeh is, well, Ezeh.  This position was always going to be a liability.  Ezeh has shown himself to be incapable of consistently good play at MLB, and this has continued this year.  He posted a +4.5/-12.5/-8 in the UMass UFR for his worst performance of the year and +7.5/-4.5/+3 for his best UFR against Notre Dame (his total against UConn was -3.5).  This is more than likely going to be the story for the rest of the year.  He will alternate slightly positive games with slightly negative games with EZEHHHH!!!!! games.  He still reacts as slow as he ever has to run plays, gets sucked up by play action, and gets blocked too easily.  For anyone still wondering if it was a bad sign that Mark Moundros was pushing Ezeh for playing time in the fall:  yes, yes it was.

The final grade for linebackers is:  Incomplete.  If the Gordon/Johnson combo continues to play at this level, Mouton forgets UMass happened and gets his act together, and Ezeh only makes me want to slam my head in the door 3 or 4 times a game, this unit will get a Half Full grade.  I think it is very possible, but I've been burned before.

Defensive Line
Half Full: Mike Martin and Co. kill people.
Half Empty: No, it was Brandon Graham who killed people.

This was unquestionably the strongest position unit for the defense this year.  The one unit where there was almost everyone back, adequate depth, upperclassmen starters, and promising backups.  The problem was, the player who left just happened to be Brandon Graham.  It isn't easy to replace a quality player at any position, but when that player is arguably the greatest of all time in a long line of talented players at his position, the hole he leaves becomes essentially too big to fill.  You don't plug in one player and replace Brandon Graham's production, you just hope that everyone steps up there game.

I'd just get out of the way now.  It's easier that way.
One player who has stepped up his game has been Mike Martin.  Martin has established himself as the premier player on the Michigan defense, and a force to be reckoned with.  He has seen a steady stream of double and triple team blocks this year and still either made plays or occupied so many offensive players that he set his teammates up to make plays.  This has been against a solid slate of offensive lines thus far.  UConn returned four starters, and weighed well over 300 lbs.  Notre Dame's line was not as seasoned, but was every bit as big with a great deal of recruiting pedigree.  Even UMass sported an offensive line that averaged 6'5 320 lbs and paved the way for a potent ground attack.  Martin was not so much as slowed by any of these.  His stats (10 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack) don't tell the whole story.  After putting up a +5 in the UFR against UConn Martin exceeded that with a total of +11.5 against Notre Dame, then smashed both of those numbers with an unprecedented +25 against UMass.  His overwhelming positive that day was nearly outweighed by the poor play of Ezeh, Mouton, Leach, Floyd, and Rogers, you know, everyone behind him.  Martin is playing out of his mind right now, to the point where it is almost unfair to ask just two offensive linemen to effectively block him.  If he isn't in the discussion for All-Big Ten honors, somebody at the league office is going to have some explaining' to do.  Seriously.  Beast Mode almost doesn't cover it.

The rest of the line has been varying degrees of Yeh and (respectable) Meh.  Ryan Van Bergen was able to shift to the outside, a more natural position for him, with the departure of Graham.  However, he hasn't been able to make the kind of impact that most people hoped he would.  This might have something to do with the fact that  most of us just stare at him, mouths agape stammering, "bu- bu- but, you aren't Graham."  Indeed he is not, but his play has been solid so far, with very few negatives.  If he continues this pace it is probably fine, mostly because he is playing next to Mike Martin.  However, the one place this line has struggled has been getting sacks, which is kind of what we have a guy like Van Bergen in there for.  So, you know, no pressure.

The other end position that Brian at mgoblog has affectionately named Bangesse for the two headed beast of Greg Banks and Renaldo Sagesse has been about as effective as expected.  They are there.  Defenses must block them.  Sometimes defenses don't, and then they make tackles.  Asking much more is foolish.  They have provided all the push that is needed, and have lived up to the modest expectations put forth.  Anything else they can provide is just gravy.

Hopefully Craig will be giving us something to
celebrate about for the next three years.
Rounding out this group is hybrid DE/LB and eyebrow enthusiast Craig Roh.  Roh has played very well at times and just OK at others.  The Notre Dame game was his highlight of the early season.  In that game Roh posted a +11 in the UFR, including a superb play where he split two offensive linemen and wraped the running back up for a TFL.  Problem was he followed that up with a rather pedestrian outing against UMass, neither great or bad.  Roh has lost some opportunity to pass rush as he has shifted back to a more traditional linebacker spot, but signs have been encouraging from this sophomore so far this year.

The raw numbers aren't there yet, and the lack of sacks from the defensive line is troubling, but both are probably more a product of rushing three and four players on a regular basis to allow the back seven to play lots of zones.  Martin and Roh have provided a good deal of pressure, but it would be nice to see them finish a few of these off with sacks.  Still, the Defensive Line gets the grade of:  Half Full (big surprise).


For this team to get to 4-0 it was pretty widely held that the defense would have to step up and play at a higher level than last year.  This has largely been the case so far, and early returns are promising that we could see continued production at this level.  With a competent defense the ceiling for this team is higher than the 7 or 8 games that is conventionally held.  Problem is, there is enough youth in the secondary that more than likely at least one game is going to the way of repeated breakdowns.  Such is life in the age of Michigan Secondary Apocalypse.  For now we should all enjoy the things this defense has done right and not worry about what they will inevitably do wrong in the coming weeks.  The real tests are upcoming.

Tomorrow:  Offense.  Try to guess how that one graded out so far.

1 comment:

  1. The optical illusion in that Thomas Gordan picture is fantastic