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Blame Shafer (But Really, Don't)

Michigan Defensive Coordinator Scott Shafer may be one of the least popular men in Ann Arbor right now, as the Wolverines' defense is reaching historically bad levels. Though I defended the play of the defensive unit last week, the performance against Purdue was bordering on inexcusable. However, the main recipient of much (often idiotic) blame has been Scott Shafer. Much of the knowledge form this post comes from the all-knowing gsimmons85, without whom I'd know even less about football than I currently do. I assume he'll be here to comment on this post, so if you have any specific questions that I can't answer, fire away.

Playing Only 3 Defensive Linemen

The argument is as follows: Michigan has good defensive linemen and bad linebackers/safeties, so you should want to get as many d-linemen on the field as you can, and minimize the number of linebackers and saefties. Au contraire, mon ami. If you have bad defensive backs, you should actually want to play more of them. Why is this? You're expecting bad players to make mistakes. Therefore, there is somebody to step in and cover for, say, Stevie Brown's mistake if there are three safeties playing. In most games this year (and the Purdue game in particular - more on that in a second), Michigan would get the same amount of pressure on the quarterback whether there were 3 or 4 defensive linemen in the game. In that instance, why "waste" a player on the field by putting in another end who won't increase the pressure at all, at the expense of allowing the secondary to be exposed.

Completely Switching Defensive Schemes against Purdue
I still don't believe that this was all Shafer's decision, as he's never really run the 3-3-5 extensively. However, what the headman says goes, and the base defense was indeed changed in the Purdue contest. This was also to get the most help possible for the secondary, as they would presumably need it against a pass-heavy team. One final factor to take into account in this game was the base offense of Purdue. As a spread team, their blocking assignments are much easier when facing an odd front.

Playing Soft Coverage on the Corners
Michigan doesn't have the cornerbacks to play tight man coverage. End of story. If they were trying to do this (despite their inability), we;d see teams going deep with much greater frequency and success against this team. If Morgan Trent and Donovan Warren were lined up a yard off the line of scrimmage, they would get blown past by opposing wide receivers a lot of the time. This would leave our questionable safeties to save the play, which we certainly don't want, at least this year. In the future, when Shafer has more of his recruits in position, tight man coverage with a reliance on the safties to prevent big plays will be much more of an option.

Too Much Zone Coverage
This is a similar reasoning: Michigan can't really cover that many teams in man. Boubacar Cissoko and Donovan Warren are the only ones on the team that are even particularly close to being able to do so. As much of a liability as John Thompson can be in pass coverage, do you really want to see him lined up in man coverage with a tight end or running back? If your answer to that question is anything other than "no," you are wrong. Unless you are a fan of the opposing team, in which case your answer is "Yes, yes, a thousand times yes."

Lack of Player Fundamentals
This may be one of the few legitimate gripes against the defense this year. Many of the players lack fundamentals, particularly in the "tackling" department. However, how much of this is the fault of the coordinator? Next to none. Some of the players (i.e. Brandon Graham) are trying to do more than they should to make plays, since they know that their teammates can't necessarily be counted on. This causes them to miss their assignments. Other players are simply not good physical matches for the positions they are playing at the Division-I level (i.e. Charles Stewart). Even if the coaching is poor, how much of that is on Shafer, and how much rests at the feet of their position coaches? Nearly all. Bruce Tall hasn't been a defensive line coach since 2002. Jay Hopson spent the last three seasons coaching DBs. With the linebackers and safeties the primary liabilities on Michigan's defense, they may be at least as culpable as Shafer.

The future is brighter for the defense, however. With such a quick transition to a new offense, little time in the spring was spent working fundamentals with the defense. Rather, they were often acting as a scout team for offensive execution drills, which hindered their learning. With an entire year of learning out of the way for the offense, even the defense should benefit (aside from the offense no longer harming the defense in game situations). Also, Shafer's second year has been a coming-out party at each of his stops, and next year should be no different. An influx of talent at key positions and a year of coaching up should mean vast improvements for Scott Shafer's defense next year.

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“Blame Shafer (But Really, Don't)”

  1. Anonymous Other Chris Says:

    I feel better already.

  2. Anonymous Anonymous Says:

    Really? Honestly as I read this entry I thought that it was a joke throughout. But it seems like you actually believe this. I am not saying that everything should be blamed on Shafer but some of these arguments are ridiculous. The only possible explanations for the three man line are: RR said so (purdue) or Shafer and other D coaches are horrible judges of talent (Hopson - last year Brown starting against App St/Oregon). It makes no sense any other way. The soft coverage is also unreal. I have always thought that Trent was overrated, but Warren/cissoko have been ok. YOur argument is basically that any other coverage would put our safeties in positions to have to make plays. I would argue that playing soft guarantees that safeties are going to have to make plays. You are asking for trouble if you expect a guy like trent to make open field tackles on a regular basis. This team should be playing press coverage non stop and just accept that big plays are going to happen. I know its easy to say right now, but the fact is our D causes no turnovers whatsoever, so might as well sell out on every play and hope for the best. Not to mention that our LBs suck and frequently either over run plays our fill the wrong gap, making it impossible for us to stop the run. The tackling has been a problem at Michigan for awhile now. I think most of that has to do with the players themselves, but at some point the blame has to fall on the guy organizing what is coached on D. This team should probably be in full pads every day and just tackling. I also dont think I would call Shafer's coaching at Stanford a coming out party. Pretty much every team had a good amount of success against them with the exception of San Jose State. Really two big wins over USC and Cal stand out, but they were also lit up by some pretty bad teams. He needs to take the blame. He wanted to be in the big time, and now he is. Lets see how he handles it.

  3. Anonymous AC1997 Says:

    I agree with the last comment - I disagree with many things in this blog post. I'll defer to people with more knowledge on defenses and I don't blame Shafer for the amazing lack of talent at safety and inconsistency at linebacker.

    Here's what I disagree with:
    -- You said that in most games Michigan would get the same amount of pressure with 3 or 4 lineman. I don't think there's any way that the numbers support that. Part of the problem with that statement is that we get run on very easily with three lineman too - not just the lack of pressure.
    -- I also don't agree with the statement that by throwing more bad DBs on the field that you help make up for the mistakes of the ones already out there. I suppose there is safety in numbers, but if your starters aren't very good, how could you benefit from playing the guys who aren't even good enough to supplant them in the starting lineup?
    -- Man-2-Man play at the corners is a tough debate. Maybe the CB tandem was over-rated to begin the year and maybe Warren is hurt. But both played quite well last year (in both man and zone). One of the things that I like about playing them in man is that they don't have to think as much, they just read their guy. I still think we should do this more since I don't think it has been proven that they would be beaten consistenty in man situations.
    -- Zone Coverage is a necessary evil. If they've played it too much it is because so many of our opponents spread the field and use the short pass. This problem may not be Shafer's fault. In a zone you are asking the LB and S (which stink in our case) to think a lot and play in space. This does not suit their talent.

    Shafer isn't entirely to blame, that's for sure. But even as mediocre as Brown, Thompson, and Ezeh may be - these are guys playing in the Big Ten. You can't tell me that with 7.5 starters returning and two other players with decent experience that this team has suddenly gone from competent to horrible on defense. Something is broken, and at least part of that is Shafer.

  4. Anonymous santoro Says:

    I wish I shared your optimism for next year, but I really, really don't. The only bright spots that give me any hope for next year are that Trent (worst CB I have ever seen, at any level) will no longer be around and hopefully one of the younger, talented safteys can supplant Brown (worst saftey I have ever seen, at any level). While I certainly dont think Schafer is worthy of being a DC at Michigan, and we could do MUCH better, I dont shove ALL the blame on him. Many players on this defense are just not any good, never have been and never will be. Nevertheless, I (hope) dont think he will be back next year..

  5. Anonymous santoro Says:

    Safety, Safties..sorry I must have had a buckeye moment..

  6. Anonymous Anonymous Says:

    In past years, the complaint was always offensive predictability, and how output suffered because of it. This years defense is now no different. 3 man front, 4 man front... doesn't necessarily matter. Opposing teams have to scheme for zone and soft man coverage only, and accordingly, it becomes easier for them to come up with "solutions" for 3rd and long situations, which has been the D's achilles heel all year.

    The other issue: Great D lines can generally mask weak secondaries by creating pressure. The problem is that M has been timid in applying pressure coverage when they are "bringing it" which allows opposing QB's easy outs when they see the pressure coming. You have to take the risk that when you are bringing the pressure that your bad DB's will be able to apply tight coverage for the decreased amount of time that the QB should have. But in M's scheme, the D line can never get to the QB because he has multiple easy outs available.(Sometimes you do mix applying pressure with softer coverage if you suspect the O might be trying to beat the tight coverage by throwing to a "spot" on a fly or post route, but you can't be effective doing this all the time).

    The point is, you have to switch up what your are doing, mask what you are doing, but always be aggressive with the scheme. Even if you think you may be missing the playmakers, hanging back all the time results in making a bad situation worse. My opinion, non aggressive schemes result in non aggressive play, which is never good for a D... players thinking and not reacting. Sound familiar.

    The defensive schemes under Carr's regime may have had weaknesses against spread offenses with highly mobile QB's, but they rarely gave up 30+, and when they did it was generally against some very talented teams (Florida, Oregon, Ohio State, USC) This years D is getting beat because they are playing on their heels, and they are doing so because the overall schemes are not aggressive, and are predictable. Where the blame lies is subject to debate, but no one without real insight into the coaching decisions that are being made (and who is making them) can truly answer that question.

  7. Blogger Paul Says:

    One reason why the scheme is so vanilla could be because it's new.

    Defense isn't as obvious as offense, but installing a new scheme is probably just as difficult. Players have to learn new assignments and techniques. If you think this is Shafer's scheme, then you also think he's completely changed his philosophy in the past few months.

    Give the defense some time.

  8. Blogger gsimmons85 Says:

    This years D is getting beat because they are playing on their heels, and they are doing so because the overall schemes are not aggressive, and are predictable.

    they are doing so because its a new scheme new techniqes, new pace, new everything. oh and because we are weak in the middle of the field. and that is where if you miss tackles, it turns into a lot of points. Look im not trying to convince anyone of anything, you guys believe in what you believe thats fine, enjoy.

  9. Anonymous Anonymous Says:

    I appreciate VB's attempt to figure out what's up with the defense, but come on. The reasoning of this post just doesn't pass the smell test.

    Last season, U-M faced a Purdue team that ultimately finished 28th in total offense. Purdue gained 292 yards. This season, U-M faced a Purdue team that is now 55th in total offense. Purdue gained 522 yards.

    Maybe Crable and C. Graham were far more indispensable than we thought. Maybe Adams and Englemon were too. And maybe the players simply aren't playing as hard now, having little to play for. Obviously, none of these issues fully account for what's happened to the defense, but at least such suggestions are logical. Asserting that a worst-than-last-year Purdue offense nearly doubled its '07 U-M yardage total for reasons that had nothing to do with Michigan's all-new defensive schemes is not.