Most head coaches have a preferred side of the ball — usually the side they worked on while making their name — and their strategies tend to lean on that unit. There are countless defensive coaches who never seem to be able to field great offenses, and then there are the offensive coaches whose teams always seem to have to win shootouts because their defenses are weak.
The exceptions to this rule often follow a pattern, such as the aggressive defensive coach who always has an equally aggressive offense like Bob Stoops, or the tough-minded offensive coach who’s always fielding a strong defense, like Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh.
In his first year at Michigan, Harbaugh was lucky to inherit a loaded defensive roster and a brilliant defensive line coach in Greg Mattison. Harbaugh initially brought in D.J. Durkin from Florida to install a defensive scheme from the Saban/Muschamp school, and they found immediate success, even shutting out three consecutive opponents.
Durkin moved on — he’s now the head coach at Maryland — so Harbaugh needed to replace him with someone who could make the most of a fantastic defense loaded with experienced upperclassmen. He chose Don Brown from Boston College, fresh off a year in which his defense finished first nationally in total defense.
Not only did Harbaugh make a fantastic hire by bringing Brown aboard, but he also landed a coach whose preferred style perfectly matches the Michigan roster.
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Brown’s defense at Boston College was defined primarily by its aggressive secondary combined with the defensive line’s sound, physical play. Up front, the Eagles were built around nose tackle Connor Wujciak and defensive tackle Truman Gutapfel, two fighters who excelled in the run game, holding their ground against double teams, and in the pass rush, executing stunts as a part of the multiple Eagle blitz package.
Like Durkin, Brown’s style of defense is a hybrid between the 4-3 and the 3-4, with the nose tackle, defensive tackle and strong-side end all responsible for plugging interior gaps and occupying blockers to allow the linebackers to make plays.
Brown has a variety of fronts in his defense, but they all revolve around the play of the interior line, while pressure tends to come from the pressure package rather than a pure, four-man pass rush.
The Brown blitz package is a very aggressive and multiple collection of man and zone blitzes. It includes pressures that bring four or five rushers backed by Cover-2 from the secondary as well as six-man blitzes that drop five defenders into coverage — a la Michigan State.
This was made possible by the brilliant play of the Boston College secondary, a collection of hand-picked recruits whom Brown fashioned into an aggressive group that could play man coverage at every position. You could call Brown’s approach to building the secondary a “four-corners” philosophy, and indeed both of the Eagles’ starting safeties in 2015 were converted cornerbacks.
While the Brown playbook was fairly extensive, for the CBs a great deal of it consisted of playing tight man coverage and pressing opposing receivers, either in pattern-matching Cover-3 schemes or in Cover-2 change-ups. The safeties, meanwhile, carried different assignments such as man coverage, deep half-field zone, or dropping into the deep middle.
Because they were effective in man coverage with a pair of athletic and versatile safeties, BC could execute Brown’s vast array of blitzes without fear of getting burned in the passing game.
The two key ingredients that made Boston College’s defense so effective — brilliant interior line play and an excellent coverage secondary — were also true for Michigan in 2015 and will likely be true in 2016 as well. If you were describing the ideal roster to suit Brown’s scheme, you would start with those interior linemen and stress the importance of having sturdy yet mobile players up front who could hold the point of attack but were good with their hands and capable of getting involved in the pass rush. It just so happens that Michigan is returning its top five interior linemen, including star nose tackle Ryan Glasgow, tackle/end Chris Wormley and potential breakout end Taco Charlton.
You’d also want a secondary with good press corners and a pair of rangy, athletic safeties, which again perfectly describes the Michigan roster. Last year, the Wolverines spent a lot of time playing nickel and dime packages in which cornerback Jourdan Lewis would shadow the quickest receiver while Delano Hill or Jeremy Clark would often shadow the bigger receivers. Press-man coverage was a big part of the game plan every week, and everyone was cross-trained to allow the Wolverines to match up individually with opposing lineups.
Under Brown, Lewis may be more likely to stay outside at corner rather than tracking receivers inside to the slot, but the Wolverines’ ability to play tight man coverage across the board will be extensively utilized.
The most exciting question for Michigan might be how Jabrill Peppers — perhaps the best athlete on a team filled with great athletes — is unleashed in this scheme. The plan is to deploy him as the Sam linebacker, a position that accounted for 17.5 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks last year at Boston College (Matt Milano). Since Brown protects his linebackers with his DL, Peppers’ lack of size shouldn’t hold him back.
Indeed, because Peppers is such a versatile athlete — equally comfortable playing on the edge as he is in man coverage or zone — his deployment at the Sam position may prove devastating for opponents. He’ll align around the box in this position but it’ll be hard to for opponents to discern where he’ll actually end up after the snap.
Here’s an example of how that could play out against one of Ohio State’s favorite formations (diagram 1). If you’re an Ohio State QB trying to keep tabs on Peppers (the S in this diagram), there’s a wide range of possibilities to account for.
Perhaps the most likely is that he’ll be an extra defender in the box keying the TE, helping the Wolverines control the edge and outnumber the run game (diagram 2). If that’s the case, the Buckeyes will find the run game to be tough sledding since Peppers is faster than Ohio State’s own fearsome offensive skill players, and his presence as an extra defender allows the linebackers to focus on plugging holes inside.
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If the offense should audible to a passing play? Now they have to worry about the wide variety of blitzes and coverages they could be facing, all of which are made more dangerous by Peppers’ presence. In addition to being in position to blitz, Peppers could also slide out late and replace the corner, allowing the DB to run free off the boundary in one of Brown’s Cover-2 blitzes (diagram 3).
Peppers can play some man coverage, especially in these sorts of Cover-2 trap blitzes that Brown uses regularly, and he could also drop into deep zone and allow the Wolverines to roll the safeties over to the field to shore up what appears to be a soft spot with a max coverage (diagram 4).
These examples represent just a fraction of the possibilities that opponents will have to consider, and we haven’t even mentioned the many scenarios in which Peppers will be blitzing.
Brown is inheriting a secondary that can match up and allow him to bring disguise and cause disruption, and he’s taking over a defensive line that can excel at plugging the interior and protecting the linebackers. He’s planning to supplement both with creative uses of Peppers, one of the Big Ten’s best players. The results should satisfy the hard-nosed Jim Harbaugh and provide plenty of excitement for Michigan fans.
– By Ian Boyd, SB Nation