A new year. A new Wolverines squad.
Heading into year 7 under John Harbaugh, many of the Michigan faithful openly wondered if the former Wolverine star QB and acclaimed Stanford & 49ers head coach had lost his magic. The program had yet to break through after a hot start to Harbaugh’s tenure, Ohio State looked as dominant as ever in the B1G, and it looked like Michigan was heading in the wrong direction after a 2-4 COVID season. In what was essentially a contract offseason for him, Harbaugh was tossed a make-or-break lifeline by the administration, and he set about cleaning house trying to right the ship.
Despite Don Brown’s defense having been the foundation for much of Harbaugh’s success at Michigan, its performance cratered in 2020, and Harbaugh brought in former Baltimore Ravens LB coach Mike MacDonald as the new defensive coordinator. Harbaugh also brought in two new DBs coaches as part of the staff turnover. MacDonald has been tasked with overhauling Brown’s oft-porous, pressure-oriented defense with some of the lessons he learned working with Baltimore’s elite defensive staff, and the early results are promising.
Finding the Familiar in Ann Arbor
Funny enough, despite all the change during the offseason, the defense that we’ll face on Saturday will look oddly familiar to many Husky fans. Hailing from Baltimore DC Wink Martindale’s coaching tree, MacDonald brings a multiple 3-4-based defensive scheme back to Ann Arbor after years in Don Brown’s 4-3, but as a team in transition, MacDonald has had to hybridize his schemes to fit what the roster can do. The result has been a defense that looks strikingly similar to the Lake-Gregory defenses that we’re accustomed to at UW.
Michigan will play primarily rotate between a 2-4-5 look and a 3-4 look on standard downs with the base nickel personnel being their preferred defensive look in order to feature star DB Daxton Hill. Hill, a former top 15 recruit and 3rd year returning starter, is a dynamic playmaker that MacDonald has crafted his defense around. Moving Hill closer to the LOS in their nickel corner role and playing more 2-high safety shells will allow MacDonald to get his best DB more involved around the ball. Similar to Baker, Rapp, and Molden in UW’s defense, playing closer to the line will free Hill from conservative deep coverage responsibilities and him play both the run and pass aggressively.
Up front, star edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson will be the player that we’ll need to focus on the most. Manning one of the OLB/DE hybrid positions in Michigan’s front, Hutchinson is playing a Joe Tryon-esque role as the featured pass rusher on most downs, and as PFF’s highest graded Power-5 edge rusher in Week 1, he seems to have found his footing in this role. One key way that his role deviates from UW’s usage of the OLB/DE hybrid is against the run. While playing mostly on the boundary, Hutchinson is allowed to attack upfield and use his skill set as a disruptor to make plays in the backfield at all times. UW will want to attack this tendency with traps and counters if at all possible.
“Multiplicity”: Baltimore’s (and now Michigan’s) Spice of Life
Another focus of MacDonald’s defense is to maintain “multiplicity”. In the context of offensive football, multiplicity can elicit eye rolls as a term that describes schemes that are burdensome in volume and ineffective in practice. However, on defense, the multiplicity that MacDonald describes is simply schematically sound football.
Leaning on his NFL background, MacDonald’s defense will look to have as many answers to the offense as possible, and it will try to keep opponents on their toes by mixing up coverages and fronts. The old Don Brown defense had an identity that was based on blitz-heavy game plans and man coverage, but this new defense will lean more heavily on adjusting to the opponent while featuring their best players. Man, zone, and pattern matching coverages will all be prominent parts of the game plan this week, as will creative personnel substitutions to match offensive personnel. It’ll be on our staff to identify our most advantageous personnel packages to draw favorable match ups before the Wolverines make their adjustments. More up tempo might be a smart move this week.
Aside from mixing up coverages to be less predictable, the Wolverines will look to wreak havoc in the backfield to keep our offense off balance. Against less talented teams, Michigan could probably just line up and let their front 4 harass the QB or make plays in the backfield, but that’s just not in their DNA. Similar to the Baltimore defensive philosophy, and as we learned painfully last week, team defense and schemed pressure can be a force multiplier, and MacDonald will most definitely take pages out of the Montana playbook.
It’s hard for me to say that we’re gonna be a 3-4, per se. The thing about our defense that makes us unique is that it’s a series of concepts that we teach like, for example, there are things we teach our guys that there’s no call even involved with those concepts. We’re teaching this concept today, this concept tomorrow, we marry them together. There’s gonna be more of that and you marry it over time. Now that gives us the flexibility to build certain fronts, certain coverages and certain pressures that allows you to, one, for guys to do well what they do, and two, stop the offenses that you’re seeing. - Mike MacDonald
MacDonald seems to be a coach that does his homework to tailor his defense to the opponent more than most, so I’d expect to see zone blitzes an the defensive front stacking the LOS in passing situations like Montana ran. I also wouldn’t be surprised if we also saw a few man-blitzes out of the Don Brown playbook rolled out to pick on our thin WR corps and frazzled OL. Max protection and a renewed emphasis on the run game might be our best shot at evening up the odds against this defense.
Michigan will be a tough team for our offense to bounce back against. Especially so when they seem to be a defense that can play similarly to Montana while being infinitely more talented. Ironically, if I were Michigan’s DC, I would have been all-in on Don Brown’s pressure defense against our offense, but their renewed emphasis on fundamentally sound back end coverage paired with more measured pressure will likely limit our ability to hit the fluky big plays. We have the talent to have a fighting chance at winning, but it’ll revolve around our ability to coach up our comparable offensive talent.