Michigan's defense adding dash of zone to recipe for success

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
“I’m not saying we’re perfect, but we’re gonna have an identity,” Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown says.

Ann Arbor — Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown always has his finger on the pulse of fan discontent, specifically that regarding his group. Rarely does he agree with the criticism, particularly if it is directed at any of the players, but he hears it and processes and sometimes, albeit infrequently, it makes some sense.

Brown has directed defenses at Michigan these last three seasons that have ranked, if not at the top, among the top five during his career here. He preaches aggressive press-man coverage that has, for the most part, yielded considerable success. But after a disastrous 62-39 loss at Ohio State last fall, one that has stuck with him each day since, he was criticized for not implementing more zone to counter the Buckeyes’ crossing routes that gashed the Michigan defense.

“I’ve had moments,” Brown said last Friday during a news conference to conclude spring practice. "We won 10 games in a row (last season before the Ohio State game). We had great moments. Then we have the Ohio State debacle. Don’t blame the players, OK?”

He referred to it as a “debacle,” and there’s probably no better way to describe it, but dwelling on the imperfections of the defense by talking about it and harping on it constantly changes nothing.

“You know something,” Brown said, turning philosophical, “you live in that world of negativity, are you ever going to get yourself out of it? You’re not. So we’ll be ready to go.

“When you succeed, you move on in a humble way. When you fail, you fix it. Or if you don’t fix it, then just lay in the weeds and feel sorry for yourself and fail again. Obviously, that’s not what you’re trying to do."

To be clear, Brown isn’t reacting to public sentiment. Yes, he’s heard it, but he’s a big boy, and at 63 with a long coaching career, has figured out a few things on his own. To be sure, it’s not about painting with a broad brush — need more zone! — but understanding when it’s needed and why.

“We’ve integrated a bunch of new concepts,” Brown said vaguely offering a hint of what's to come this fall. “I’m kind of excited where we are right now.”

Brown wouldn’t bite when asked about those new concepts, but he made clear he is open to more zone schemes.

“I think we’re playing a hair more,” he said. “We’ll never be a true zone team, but I think we’re playing some things that we feel really good about. We’ve got about nine different ways now to get you in coverage. I’m excited about where we’re at. I just want to say this, I don’t remember a secondary and back seven integrated in coverage playing as solid as this group. I’m just saying. As physical and as mistake-free as this group in the spring. One, it’s our fourth year, a lot of these guys have been with me since the get. Josh Metellus, (Brad) Hawkins, Ambry Thomas now three years, Jaylen Kelly-Powell, three years Devin Gil his fourth year, Josh Ross, coming up on his third year, and it’s the same guy (Brown) delivering the message. I think that helps you. This group is as connected defensively as a group I’ve been around in terms of trying to help each other out.

“You’ve just got to find out what you’re good at. There’s some trends that we’ve paid attention to, and I think fits our needs. Fits who we are. When you’ve got, for example, a number of linebackers I’ve obviously been complimentary about, well, you’ve got to find ways to involve them in the game plan.”

During his career at Michigan — Brown is entering his fourth season as coordinator — he said he has never had a group this deep at linebacker. He calls the overall defense “interesting” in its composition and said the players seem more interchangeable in the sense that, this player is really strong with this skill set, and this player is strong with another, so they can be swapped out to fit the need on each play.

He said repeatedly he feels very good about this defense coming out of spring practice and cautions that while he said there’s a “hair” more zone, no way will this defense be dictated by what the offense is showing.

“I’m not saying we’re perfect, but we’re gonna have an identity,” Brown said. “We’re gonna stand for something. I make that clear to the players and I think the players understand that we need that. I think if you went into the room and asked them, they’d be fairly strong on a couple of things, for sure. But I think you’ve got to be careful about being reactionary.

“Now, there’s all these runs from 2018, these different runs. From No. 1 through the last one. We have a way that we will defend each and every run. So, it’s not like, ‘Ah, you just don’t care? You just let it go?’ And they out-scheme you. It’s really not that dramatic. There’s a method to the madness on each and every run. Here’s the key, then just get your guys good at defending all the runs Now, how well you can achieve those two things will determine success or failure on a given Saturday. That’s just the way it is. So you’d better be right as much as possible in terms of A. this is what I think they’ll do against us. Now, we have the big decision — gap scheme versus zone scheme. My point is: are they zone blocking because they’re worried about all the penetration, because also if they gap scheme and stop pulling, they create holes, and then obviously, we put big smiles on our face when people do that.”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has often made the statement that “more is more.” Brown takes that to mean — have “enough answers.”

With Michigan’s new offense installed by Josh Gattis, the defense faced more run, pass options in practice. This is not unlike what most of the offenses the Wolverines play this fall will run. So how does a defense answer that?

“It’s very difficult to defend RPOs and play a lot of true zone coverage. So, do you think I’m worried about that?” Brown said.

“I’m not being a jerk. I’m being as honest as a heart attack. You’re defending zones against what Josh Gattis does? Hang onto your hat. You at least gotta have enough guys that can cover your run-scheme gaps and cover the guys. Now, that’s not the only way to defend it. There’s other ways to defend those RPOs. But my true point is, an element of that has got to be accounting for those guys and still have the numbers that are effective to stop the run. Because if you don’t have the numbers that are effective, cause they read the box, and you don’t have the numbers that are effective enough to stop the run or manage the run? They’re gonna run the ball up and down the field on you.”

A new season means new challenges and new faces. By no means is Brown’s defense a finished product entering the fall, not with players like graduate transfer defensive end Mike Danna and highly acclaimed five-star safety Dax Hill coming aboard this summer.

“We have the ’18 defense, now,” Brown said. “What are you going to be good at? For us to find that out, we’ve got to put it out there and do it. Coach (Harbaugh) is great about letting us do that. He never puts the handcuffs on the defense. He says, ‘Just go do your thing.’ That allows us to experience growth and find out what we’re good at.”

And find the answers.


Twitter: @chengelis