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'We're in a little slump': Wolverines working to fix porous pass defense

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich described his position group as going through “a little slump," and defensive coordinator Don Brown said they are working daily to sharpen their fundamentals.

First-year starting cornerbacks Vincent Gray and Gemon Green have taken considerable heat, not only from opposing offenses that have targeted and scorched them in the losses to Michigan State and Indiana, but also from outside opinions.

Bottom line, the Wolverines are 1-2 and are facing heat from every direction.

Brown was asked Tuesday morning on the “Stoney & Jansen” show on 97.1 The Ticket how he’s holding up through the first three weeks of the season.

“I don’t think anybody likes criticism,” Brown said.  “Sometimes I get a little disappointed, and I’ve been completely blindsided, stayed out of the social media circles during the season no matter what’s going on.

“I could care less for me. We have an outstanding coach (Jim Harbaugh) who does a tremendous job, and I just think he’s a perfect head coach, so that part of it, and I don’t like to see criticism of players. I just think that’s over the top when you’re talking about 18- to 22-year-old young men that are just trying to do the best they can for Michigan.”

Defensive back Vincent Gray (4) and Michigan's secondary have struggled the past two games.

Among the more glaring issues in Michigan’s start is its pass defense. Michigan is ranked 104th nationally in passing yards allowed, yielding an average 287.3 yards. The Wolverines gave up 323 passing yards and three touchdowns to Michigan State and 342 passing yards and three touchdowns last Saturday at Indiana.

“We’re just going through a little slump," Zordich said Monday night on the “Inside Michigan Football” radio show. "Guys are working hard. They’re working on their techniques. We’re going to get it fixed, for sure. You’ve got to take the good with the bad. Right now, we’re just in a little slump, but we’re fighting through it.”

As Michigan prepares this week to face Wisconsin in a primetime game Saturday at Michigan Stadium, national college observers point to the Wolverines’ inability to defend the pass as the glaringly obvious main issue, one of many across the team.

More: Jim Harbaugh on NFL speculation: 'I’ll let my actions speak as they have in the past'

Urban Meyer, the former Ohio State coach and now Fox Sports/Big Ten Network analyst, said the problem with Michigan’s corners “has to be fundamentals.”

“I’m legitimately worried after watching it again this week, their pass defense is very porous,” Meyer said Monday night on BTN. “They’re not in position to make plays down the field. You saw Michigan State, who couldn’t score a touchdown against Iowa the following week, throwing all over the field on the Wolverines. And then this past week, I’m sitting there like probably most of the country almost in awe of what Indiana was doing. They were getting behind the defensive backs, and the defensive backs at times are there, but they’re not playing the ball.

“What does that mean down the road? They’re in trouble. Whether it’s talent — I can’t imagine the drop-off is that significant — it has to be fundamentals. You have to play the football. When you start seeing Indiana, Michigan State just light them up down the field throwing the ball over 300 yards in each game, that’s very alarming.”

The fundamentals are what Brown identified as the priority in practices. He was asked how he can “fix” the secondary.

“Obviously, you’re attacking each practice, you go through each play,” Brown told the show. “You’re trying to make sure you’re clean, not only from a technical standpoint but from a fundamentals standpoint. The thing that’s hurting us is fundamentally at times when we come up short, it sounds like it would be an easy process — wedge and run, get your eyes back. That sounds like an easy deal.

“But you can’t play the ball unless you see the ball, so that’s a big piece. Making sure you’re straight in your zone coverages as well, so you can see the quarterback and see the ball out of his hands and respond with great breaks. So those are all technical and fundamental issues, and we’re working on it on a day-to-day basis. We can’t work any harder at it. We’ve good players, they’ll respond.”

Brown also used the word “slump” during his discussion of the secondary.

“Vince is in a slump,” Brown said. “We’ve got to get him out of it, and we’re working hard to do that.”

Brown said Green made improvements in the game at Indiana.

“Thought he played much better, I thought he played aggressively,” Brown said. “His attitude, his approach was much better during the course of the game. You could see he was playing with a degree of confidence.”

Improving the pass defense is not a one-dimensional fix, though. It begins up front with the pass-rush, and losing starting end Aidan Hutchinson for the season after he suffered a broken ankle during the first series at Indiana is glaring. Kwity Paye, also a starting defensive end, didn’t finish the game with an undisclosed injury. With Hutchinson out and potentially Paye, Luiji Vilain and Taylor Upshaw are now in bigger roles.

“Obviously (Hutchinson’s) a tremendous player, better person,” Brown said. “Affects us not only in the run game but in the pass game. He’s an excellent pass-rusher. But again, just feel bad for him. He’s such a great leader, great with his teammates, loves football, that’s infectious. We certainly miss him out there for sure.

“It’s next man up time. Luiji is vastly improved. He’s playing some of the best football he’s played since he’s been at Michigan. He had troubles with injury early which hampered his progress. He’s playing much better. Taylor Upshaw gets better every day. He needs the playing time to maximize his potential.”

Wisconsin did not play the last two weeks, pausing football activity for COVID-19 reasons. Quarterback Graham Mertz, who had tested positive for the virus, is expected to play Saturday. He was 20 of 21 for 248 yards and five touchdowns in his first start in Week 1.

One way to protect the corners is to shift to more zone. When it was pointed out to Brown that it appeared he switched from man to zone a bit during the Indiana game, he interrupted.

“Really not true, but that’s OK,” Brown said. “We play a good amount of zone. I don’t know where all that comes from. I like ‘em both, I’ll tell you that.”

Their focus in practice isn’t so much scheme, but figuring out why there’s a disconnect from practice to games. Coach Jim Harbaugh has said that’s been an issue in every phase of the game, and Zordich said he has witnessed that from the cornerbacks.

“The mindset is there,” Zordich said.

Now it’s up to the coaches to get the players to take what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis in practice and translate it to games.

“Why is it different? That’s something that I’ve got to figure out, and I’ve got to get these guys right,” Zordich said. “We’re going to do some different things in individual (drills) to help them fix that problem.”

Twitter: @chengelis