Coaching Points: Michigan vs Utah, 2015

Melanie Maxwell | The Ann Arbor News
Offense: Almost even split gun and under center. Man blocking mostly. Lots of personnel groupings.
Defense: Single high defense, mostly Cover 1. Ran mostly nickel grouping with over front and 3 down DL.

  • Rudock overthrew all but one of his deep passes, but typically made right decisions, which is why Harbaugh left him in the game (pick 6 was wrong decision, FWIW)
  • Most of the run game issues were on the OL not identifying their targets
  • Starting receiver group looked really improved
  • Pass protection was very solid
  • DL was the strength of the team
  • LBs were hit or miss
  • DBs struggled early but rebounded, Hill was my standout performer.

Rudock did not play the way most Michigan fans were hoping, that is quite obvious. I'm going to start with a few caveats in defense of Rudock: it was his first game, at game speed, in a new offense; it was his first time working with these receivers at game speed; it was the first game of the season; it was an away game; there was a little bit of wind. To a certain degree, some mistakes were understandable.

Melanie Maxwell | The Ann Arbor News
But Rudock didn't play well enough even despite those reasons. For the most part, he made the correct decisions (outside the Pick 6 and the throw back screen and another poor decision to throw late over the middle), which is good to see in a new offense - and yes, this is a new offense, just because both Michigan and Iowa are "pro-style" doesn't mean they are the same. But I think he had 8 or so downfield pass attempts and overthrew all but one (the poor decision that resulted in a TD pass to a triple covered Butt). He overthrew the corner route to Perry in which Perry adjusted correctly, he overthrew Chesson twice or three times as he broke wide open deep, he overthrew Darboh in the same manner, he over threw Williams on what would have otherwise been a PI if he puts it anywhere near accurate on the seam throw (I don't mind throwing the Williams in the seam, defenses are going to squat on his routes because he doesn't have a lot of speed, you need to take advantage of that when you can or else they'll play him as they did on the Y-stick later in the game, but Williams also isn't very good at using his big body to help shield defenders). You have to give your receivers a chance. Let them go up and get it, let them battle for a PI, let them make plays, which they were actually doing in this game.

I touched on the 2nd INT. The first INT was on Perry, who didn't adjust his route correctly (as noted by the analysts in-game. The third INT - the pick 6 - was a poor decision. Rudock stared down his receiver on an out route and never really identified the coverage. He assumed a soft coverage and didn't get it, you can't assume as a QB, particularly on a quick out, because when you're wrong it's a TD the other way.

Other than that, he was inconsistent. He made some nice plays on the ground, made some nice throws, and also made a bunch of throws that could have been better. The first that comes to mind is a jump throw he made to Williams that was wildly off target, forcing Williams to stop his momentum. Those are small things, but in Harbaugh's offense, those small things that result in 2-4 yards are huge. You pump and go around or change your arm slot or lead Williams, and it's 3rd and 2 instead of 3rd and 5. I think they still got the first down, but those are the things that need to be cleaned up, and that's just an example of something that happened several times in this game.

Running Back
People are down on Smith today, I'm assuming there is a lot of talk about his lack of vision, but I really don't think that was even close to the primary issue. In one instance, on a 2nd and 2, it looked like Smith had a huge gap to the left if he bounced it and ran it up the back of his OL. I don't think people realize on that play that the defender had his outside shoulder free in that outside gap and was squeezing down. Smith had an opportunity in the open field, without about 15 yards open space and one safety, to make a guy miss, and he went right at the defender; he doesn't make guys miss, he makes contact. The point being, that he isn't going to bounce laterally into an occupied hole and get to the edge before he gets swarmed, he made the correct decision for himself in that instance.

Melanie Maxwell | The Ann Arbor News
Smith ran really hard, rarely going down on first contact and always fighting for extra yards. The problems are two-fold: Smith isn't a creative back that works well on instinct; and the offensive line did not perform well at all in this game (more on this later).  On the potential "bounce" play, Smith could have helped himself by threatening the outside gap in an effort to induce flow from the defender and give his offensive lineman some momentum to wash him outside and open up a hole inside. Those are instincts; those are things beyond the play; those are things Smith doesn't do. But when your OL isn't blocking well enough for you, you need more than that. I'm not sure Michigan has that on the roster right now.

What gets forgotten is Isaac on the play right before this, on 1st and 5. He catches a swing pass and jogs out of bounds toward the sideline as a defender flows from inside to out... hit someone! Attack a defender, make contact, make him tackle you, pick up two or three more yards. Isaac should have gotten the first down before that play, but in this game he didn't look too interested in contact. Isaac also missed a huge pass pro pick up, when he started leaking before actually identifying if his defender was dropping or blitzing. Have to clean that up; ensure the protection and the dump off will still be there if the QB gets to it in the progression.

Wide Receiver
I was actually pretty impressed with Chesson and Darboh in this game. Darboh looked a lot more explosive this year than he did last year. He looked like he could threaten DBs in and out of cuts and was a really strong and smart runner after the catch in this game. He read the defense well on his smoke screens and read his blocks from Perry really well.

Chesson showed improved route running, getting behind the defense a few times. Still not a great natural catcher, but if he can keep threatening over the top and if Rudock can finally hit him, then he has provided a need for this offense simply with the threat of going deep.

Perry, as I said, didn't seem quite ready. It's a huge change from High School to college in terms of what you have to see as a receiver. All the route adjustments, complex defenses, faster moving parts, it's a lot to take in. I don't really fault him for having to be in that position at this point in his career. He did make a nice catch late and some nice blocks, I'm interested to see his development over the course of the season.

Everyone else is still a complete unknown, which doesn't say much for depth.

Tight End
Jake Butt is for real. He runs good routes, has great hands, and does the things you need out of the position. He's going to have a good year, and I think the WRs helped him out enough to prevent him from being smothered by bracket coverage. I didn't notice (didn't look too much) how well he blocked in the run game. I know the young guys, like Poggi, struggled a bit in that regard. The biggest issue is their feet: they anticipate where the defender is going and stop moving their feet. Once you lunge, if you guess incorrectly, you're toast. That needs to get cleaned up.

Melanie Maxwell | The Ann Arbor News
Offensive Line
This was a mess. Let me start with the good: pass protection was for the most part very good. Cole struggled a little bit on the edge, sometimes catching the bull rush a bit too deep and so that a nice clean pocket didn't form, or getting beat a bit by the speed rush. Cole didn't have his best game overall. Braden still struggles in pass pro and got whipped on one really badly. But for the most part, the pass protection held up really well. That is easily the biggest improvement for the OL, and an important one. If they can get the run game going at all, that really opens up the field to threaten the defense. Hopefully the protection can lead to some downfield completions that loosen up the defense underneath.

But after incrementally improving over the course of last season, Michigan's OL took a fairly significant step back with the switch to mostly man blocking schemes. Some of it is expected, it's still a new scheme, and they are going up against a defense with some moving parts that frankly, is a very good defensive front 7. But they rarely got good first level movement and failed to identify second level blockers consistently. I'm going to show that with a "Film Review" post as soon as I get video to do so, because the second level blocking was awful. Cole missed and obvious kick block early on a Lead T that forced Isaac to cut inside and turned a 8 yard gain into 4. Braden jumped up through the wrong hole and never even got through to the 2nd level a couple times. Kalis didn't get his eyes to the right spot on several pulls, meaning he never blocked the ILB when he was pulling. Etc. And it was consistent. Too often, defenders were flowing freely because the OL wasn't on the same page, and because of that, and Utah's attacking style, they were essentially able to form a wall at the LOS. That was, by far, the biggest reason for the lack of run game success. And it's damn frustrating to watch.

Also, Braden got submarined on a QB sneak. How the hell, as a LG, do you get pushed 3 yards into the backfield, into your QB, when the only thing you have to do is fire off the ball low and hard and you get a first down. That's just lazy, and that's a serious issue. And it was consistent (getting blown up and shoved into the backfield on run plays). He just really struggles to get low, and I don't think he's the answer at LG (not sure there is one, unfortunately, Dawson didn't look ready in spring either).

Defensive Line
For the most part, the DL was really good. Wormley had a lot of early success spiking inside (slanting a gap inside on the snap). He showed he could fire off low and hard and have the strength to hold off the block and get into the backfield. Along the DL, Glasgow, Henry, Hurst all showed they could get penetration and used their hands extremely effectively. And through all of that, Godin may have been the most consistent. A few chunk plays, and a few key missed tackles, but I thought they performed as the best unit easily.

The Buck position was not so good. RJS had a really rough game, not only getting driven back several times, but also missing tackles. Mario didn't perform consistently, which is against his nature. Most frustrating was the missed tackles behind the LOS. There were opportunities left on the field for quite a few TFL from this position that were missed. Have to finish plays.

Very hit or miss showing from the LBs. Bolden was either a heat seeking missile blowing up blocks or being left grasping at air. He also left his assignment a couple times to try to make a play elsewhere, which ended up costing the defense yards. He needs to stay within what he can do, and when he breaks down in a hole he needs to keep his feet moving.

Morgan had a great PBU at the LOS and was set up on his twist stunt well by the DL that occupied the RG to allow him to come clean. He's still a good player between the tackles, but he gets caught up a bit too often. Durkin's defensive design is for fast players everywhere. It's very multiple, with guys lining up in a variety of places to give the offense a lot of different looks. Unfortunately, for a guy like Morgan, sometimes that leaves them a bit behind the 8-ball. You're trading offensive recognition for not being in an optimal position at the snap, and Morgan struggles to make up for that.

Melanie Maxwell | The Ann Arbor News
Ross showed a few nice plays but didn't see much time with Michigan mostly in the nickel. Gedeon had some time, I expect to see more of him as the season progresses but he still has some work to do.

Coverage out of the backfield is something else they need to clean up. They missed assignments or didn't have the correct communication a couple times (not switching with DBs) that really need to be cleaned up, as Utah was able to run flare routes from the backfield way too easily too often.

Defensive Backs
A lot of people talking about Peppers today, rivals about his struggles in the first half, Michigan fans about his great play in the 2nd half. I want to talk about Michigan's best safety for a bit too. Delano Hill had himself a great game. Hill still has some struggles in zone coverage, but as a guy that comes up and sets the edge, fights through blocks, plays within the scheme and creates defense for others and himself, Hill had a spectacular game from what I saw.

As for Peppers, he struggled a bit early with some two-way releases in the slot. He needs to improve his technique as a CB type player still, that's just the fact of the matter still. He's used to being able to make up for it with his athleticism, but when you get some crafty slots that are good with their feet and good in and out of breaks, your technique (or lack there of) can set you up to fail, and that's where Peppers mostly struggled in the first half. It was corrected a bit in the 2nd half with a little friendlier alignment for him, which was nice to see, and he reacted with some really nice plays, submarining the WR blocks and making TFL on screens. And I'm not a fan of his PI call. I get it, because he didn't look back at the ball, which simply put you just need to do, but I thought he had very good position on the TE, was walling him off and leaning him into the sideline, and both players were kind of hand fighting and grabbing. But you need to look back for the ball.

Wilson struggled a bit in this one, particularly when they slid Hill back to FS and moved Wilson down over a receiver in man coverage. Michigan has to find ways to get him out of those positions, and that was exploited quite a bit. On a quick glance, it seemed that Thomas actually performed a bit better in this game, mostly because he's athletic enough. It's nice to see some things start clicking for Thomas, though he still made a few mistakes.

Stribling had and awful first series, failing to set the edge twice on two huge gains. He promptly got pulled for Clark. He came back in later, supposedly with the problem now corrected, which allowed for Peppers to submarine the WR blocks and make some really nice plays on the WR screens. It's good to see that adjustment and improvement happening in game, though there are still some concerns there overall (he wasn't great in coverage, but not awful, but Wilson - Utah's QB - also wasn't extremely accurate in this game and still put up strong numbers).

They mostly threw away from Lewis, and rightly so. He had very nice PBUs the three times (I believe) he was thrown at. Very good first showing for him.

One of the things that stood out to me was the multiplicity of the defense. I need to watch again to really get a feel for all that was going on there. Lots of moving parts, lots of subbing (and not platooning), lots of looks. Defense should improve as they get more comfortable with it, Michigan's defense certainly isn't as easy to diagnose as they were in the past, but that sometimes also leads to mistakes as they are now asked to do more.

Defense did have some chances at turnovers, a few tipped balls and one on the ground. They need to get some of those and help the offense out a bit more.

Overall, I think the better team won, but Michigan had their chances (plenty) to steal this game, which at least is some reason for optimism. This Michigan team is a lot like last year's team as far as strengths and weaknesses, but the nice thing here is it seems like the mistakes are much more correctable this year. The run game should improve, though as of right now it's hard to see it being above average even with improvement. But switching to a mostly man based scheme takes time, it's hard to execute it at a really high level (zone blocking is easier to pick up more quickly because the rules are more simple, man blocking takes more time, but in my opinion, becomes a stronger run style once it gets executed well). The overthrows, some of the mistakes on the offense, even some of the mistakes on the defense, seem to be correctable, which is reason for some optimism. But there are still some holes in this team, both offensively and defensively that the better teams can take advantage of. It's going to take time for Michigan to get back to where they want to be, but there does seem to be a path forward.