Bending and Breaking: A Look At Michigan's Defense

Andrew GoodeCorrespondent INovember 3, 2008

Preface: I was thinking of writing this last week, but I decided to wait and see how the team did against Purdue.  I probably shouldn’t have waited.

Over the course of the 11 ¾ seasons that I’ve watched Michigan football, I’ve seen some great defenses (1997, first 11 games of 2006), some mediocre ones (most years), and some truly awful ones (2000).

After Saturday’s performance, however, I can say this with 100 percent certainty:  this (2008) is the worst Michigan defense that I have ever seen. 

Over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to some missed tackles, too much zone coverage, and 15 yard cushions on receivers.  I was ecstatic when Ron English replaced Jim Hermann, but the results turned out to be pretty similar. 

This year, giving up big plays has become not only commonplace, but as routine as a morning commute.  The veteran D-Line has not lived up to expectations, and the back seven has exceeded my deepest, darkest fears. 

Stats; Cold, Hard, Punch You In The Face Stats

For all you fellow masochists, I present the following numbers.

2007 Defensive Ranks: Rushing—58th (157 ypg), Passing—8th (179 ypg), Total—24th (336 ypg), Scoring—23rd (21.4 ppg)

2008 Defensive Ranks (thru Purdue): Rushing—64th (141 ypg), Passing—101st (253 ypg), Total—90th (294 ypg), Scoring—96th (30.9 ppg)

Just a bit of a drop off.  Everything outside of rushing defense has taken a Louganis-style plunge from a year ago.

What the hell happened?

1.  This year’s safeties—Brown, Harrison, Stewart—have played consistently terribly.  Last year’s starters—Jamar Adams and Brandet Englemon were unspectacular, but I don’t think many people (myself included) realized how fundamentally sound they were with regards to tackling and being in the right position. 

2.  Vance Bedford.  Okay, quick show of hands: how many of you have ever heard the name Vance Bedford?  Follow-up: how many of you who have heard the name know anything about the person it belongs to?

Mr. Bedford was the UM defensive backs coach in the mid-1990’s and was partly responsible for the growth and development of one Charles Woodson.  After a period of wandering in the wilderness, Bedford returned to UM last season and helped improve the pass defense from 89th (225 ypg) in 2006, to 8th (179 ypg) in 2007.

I’ve supported the vast majority of decisions that Rich Rodriguez has made during his tenure as head coach, but I think this is one where he flubbed up.  Rather than retaining Bedford, he brought in one of his guys—Tony Gibson—to coach the secondary. 

Where is Bedford now?  He’s currently employed by the University of Florida as the cornerbacks coach.  Last year, Florida had one of the worst pass defenses in the country—98th overall (259 ypg).  This year they are currently 32nd (186 ypg).

I really wish we would’ve kept this guy.

3.  Weird strategy.  Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer has tried some adjustments lately (playing a 3-3-5 against Purdue’s spread offense with Donovan Warren at free safety), but some of his other strategies have been questionable.

For the entire first half of the season, as well as times in recent games, he has refused to insert extra corners—Cissoko/Woolfolk—when the opposing team brings in three or four receivers.  During the Illinois game, I wanted to pull my hair out every time I saw our slowest linebacker—John Thompson—lined up in the slot covering Arrelious Benn (he ended up with six catches for 122 yards). 

Also puzzling has been Shafer’s use of a three man line on obvious running downs.  Luckily, this hasn’t hurt us that much, but it has allowed teams to pick up first downs and keep possession of the ball for extended periods of time (see: Toledo).

What Now?

I’m not going to call for Shafer to be axed, but I think RichRod should and will take a long hard look at all of his options this off-season. 

If I had to put money on it, I would bet on Shafer not being around for next year.  Unlike most of the other coaches on this staff, he has no history with Rodriguez.  Also, I don’t believe RichRod would put any personal feelings or loyalty over the success of the team.  If Lloyd was still the coach, Shafer would have a much better chance of staying on.

With all of the criticism being spewed in the general direction of Schembechler Hall, I fully expect Rodriguez to go all out when it comes to finding the right pieces to help him lead this team.  If he decides to make a change, I would implore him to look west.

I can’t look into the mind of John Tenuta, but I do know that defensive coordinator is a better job than linebackers coach.