Xs and Os Tour: The Michigan Defense

By Ross Fulton on July 11, 2013 at 2:00p

No opponent looms larger for Ohio State then the Michigan Wolverines.

All eyes turn towards the annual grudge match the last weekend in November, and for good reason. The two schools have been slugging it out – often with huge ramifications – for over a century.

With both schools soon to join the new "East" division of the Big Ten in 2014, this could be the only year where the Buckeyes and Wolverines square off twice. It is therefore worthwhile to examine Michigan's schemes, starting with the Wolverine defense.   

The Key Cog

In just two seasons in Ann Arbor, Brady Hoke has already worked a minor miracle, reversing the funk accumulated during the Rich Rodriguez era. Hoke's early on-field and recruiting successes and refusal to say "Ohio State" have all added heat to what had become a one-sided rivalry. Theatrics aside, Hoke's most important decision since he became Michigan's head coach was his hire of Greg Mattison as defensive coordinator.

Mattison is not only a great recruiter – Urban Meyer says he's one of the best he has ever seen – but he is a coach that consistently gets the best out of his players.

Mattison's scheme is relatively straightforward. Michigan bases from a 4-3 under defense with their front set to the wide side of the field. When faced with a spread team using three or four wide receivers, Mattison often does not bring in a nickel defender but instead walks his Sam (strong-side) linebacker out over the slot receiver, as demonstrated below.

The primary focus in first and second down is run support. The walked-out Sam linebacker will often cheat off the slot receiver to apply an additional run defender. Michigan will generally play cover-1 "robber" or cover-4 to involve their secondary against the run.

These coverages allow one or both safeties to quickly come downhill when they see run.  

Sittin' Back...Or going for Broke

Mattison's goal through aggressive run support is to get the opposing offense into third-and-long situations. He can then seek to keep the offense and its quarterback off-balance by mixing and matching conservative coverages one play with aggressive blitz packages the next.

Specifically, Mattison will mix and match zone defenses such as cover-2 or cover-3 with "psycho" blitz packages. With the latter, the defense will stand up and amass around the line of scrimmage, trying to confuse the offense as to where rushers are coming from before using some form of a zone blitz

Playin' Fast

The simplicity of Mattison's scheme belies its effectiveness. Mattison was able to take largely the same defensive unit that was the primary cause of Rodriguez's demise and quickly turn them into one the Big Ten's best. He did so by ensuring that his defenders are fundamentally sound through taking proper angles and form tackling. 

Mattison's scheme also allows his unit to play aggressively. Whether it is bringing additional defenders against the run or attacking the quarterback, he's betting that his defense can make a play before an offense can exploit openings. Most college quarterbacks cannot successfully stand in the face of unblocked rushers and consistently deliver the football.

Mattison – and Michigan's – goal is to force the opposing offense to make mistakes while allowing his defenders to play aggressively and build confidence. The Michigan defense versus Urban Meyer's Buckeye offense will be a battle of strength-versus-strength in the years ahead.


Comments Show All Comments

TBDBITL0509's picture

I'm a big football fan, but I've never played or made an effort to truly understand schemes/strategy. I really value these write ups - makes me feel like a better, more knowledgeable fan. Thanks for making these easy to digest, Ross!

BierStube's picture

I certainly agree with Ross that Meeeeeeshecan't will be a battle.  I am far more concerned with Northwestern at this point.  While I do feel we are a better team top to bottom than most if not all of the Big Ten on any given Saturday, that road trip scares the heck out of me.  On paper, we should easily (relatively speaking) beat everyone on our schedule.  Meyer will have the boys ready for "The Game", but if we fall asleep (like Purdue '12) NW will not be as kind as the Boilermakers!

"No matter where you go, there you are." B. Banzai

nmaxwell's picture

the only thing that's nice about playing in evanston is that it's barely an away game.  when michigan played there 2 years ago, they started off slowly, but pitched a shutout in the second half while scoring 28 points to beat dan persa and NW pretty easily.  osu fans definitely travel well, so the away environment will not be nearly as hard to deal with as many other places

BierStube's picture

I am not worried about Buckeye nation showing up, they will certainly represent.  NW can play.  I won't go back two years for my example, but they did take you guys to OT in your house last year (as did Purdue with us).  My point is I am more concern with the mindset of the team coming off what will be an emotional / high energy game (Da Badgers) at home and then going on the road to NW with a bye week following.  To me that is a trap!

"No matter where you go, there you are." B. Banzai

Psychranger's picture

You're exactly right. Playing Northwestern at their place when they've had 2 weeks to prepare is gonna be the first real opportunity to stumble. Hopefully by that time, the offense will be running on all cylinders and the defensive front 7 will have started to gel.


EvanstonBuckeye's picture

I've been to several Buckeye games here in Evanston. It is very much like a home game and, when the game is under way, is way, way more scarlet and grey in the stands than purple.
With the fact that every pundit has noted this is as trouble game for the Buckeyes, though, I think we'll be focused.

ColerainBuckeye33's picture

Walking that SAM over the slot should provide us with many many exciting mismatches in the future considering some of the speedsters we brought in for that position.Cant wait to see Marshall,Wilson,and Clarke blowing by the weasel defenders making them look like they are playing in concrete boots.

A wise man once said "success is not final and failure is not fatal"

Hovenaut's picture

Agreed....that just seems like a big gamble if the offense has burners/guys who work well in space at the slot.

Like Ohio State.

Going to have some real chess matches the next few years.

Michibuck's picture

Great breakdown as always, Ross.

BeijingBucks's picture

This is interesting but I hope Ross drops the nolidge on the very intriguing silver bullets vs the 'we're gonna win' jump ball offense (aren't all their receivers like 6'5" now?).

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

yrro's picture

So they're playing a base 4-3 under, but what is their personnel? Are they doing the same kind of hybridization as OSU at the LEO and SAM/Star spots in this base defense or still keeping the big but slow traditional guys at those spots?
This feels like the kind of defense which will do very well and consistently against the majority of teams but could be vulnerable against the top tier quarterbacks/WR talent. If they don't bring in some kind of speed on the edges I feel like Oregon would destroy them.

Ross Fulton's picture

They are similar to OSU in the personnel they use at that position. They are effectively two outside linebackers. Their SAM last year was Jake Ryan, who was their best defender.