As a Michigan observer it’s been hard not to notice all the fanfare regarding the team’s move during Spring Practice to a 3-3-5 scheme on defense for 2010. The coaches have downplayed the change in various ways to assuage the skeptical Wolverine fan base who doubt it’s usefulness in the Big 10. Last year, the defense played a base 3-4 scheme but often deviated from that set to match up with the offense to little success. This year the scheme change has people wondering what’s different. It depends on who you ask.
Defensive Coordinator Greg Robinson said. “We might have some different terminology where I think we can all talk on the same language together. But I think that you’re going to see that there’s a lot of things that are very, very similar (to last year). That’s what I would tell you.” (http://www.annarbor.com/sports/um-football/michigan-defensive-coordinator-greg-robinson-talks-3-3-5-defense/)
Michigan supporters hope there’s more different than there is the same in regards to the end result. The Wolverines have been known for stout defensive units over the years; it’s how they compiled the most victories in college football history. The advertised move to the 3-3-5 this year, also known as the Odd Stack in some coaching circles, should produce some changes that hopefully will translate to less points for the opposition. As the Big 10 evolves through expansion so should the defense on the field.
“We got to have enough in our package that it’s simple enough for our guys to understand yet have enough schemes to be in the right type of defense to face (a variety) of offenses,” Rich Rodriguez said during Spring Practice. (http://www.annarbor.com/sports/um-football/michigan-hoping-3-3-5-defense-solves-some-of-its-issues/)
It is my belief that fans are too caught up in the scheme and the alignment. It is a rabid fan’s role to question and debate everything that happens with their team, especially a Michigan backer, but I think the negative energy is misplaced when it comes to the new defensive alignment. What the 3-3-5 brings to the table is versatility and in today’s world of college football is that such a bad thing?
Michigan ran a base 3-4 defense last year and would alter its appearance depending on foe, but do we really care what the defense is called as long as it’s shutting down opposing offenses. That base 3-4 defense was used in 2009 mainly because of the lack of numbers on the defensive line, and that is true again for the 2010 version of the UM defense. Rich Rodriguez has tried to address the situation through mustering talented prep players, and the recruiting is evidence of this move to a 3-3-5. The emphasis is on bringing in hybrid athletes who bring speed and versatility to the field and fill multiple roles in the defensive bulwark.
The defensive front in the 3-3-5 is occupied by the traditional Big Uglies in the trenches that will resemble the 3-4 front in many ways. In any 3-man front the nose tackle is the key to a strong run defense and that is the case with this alignment. A stout nose tackle is a must to make the 3-man front work because he needs to tie up blockers while the defensive ends perform much like defensive tackles in the 4-3 system who can play the run. These ends aren’t built to rush the passer like Brandon Graham did in 2009, when he lead the country in tackles for loss and parlayed that performance into a First Round selection in the NFL Draft. Graham played the position admirably, but moving forward you’ll see players more concerned with tying up the offensive lines’ blocking schemes allowing the mobile players behind them to make plays on the ball. In an odd man front there is a lot of options to slant and stunt to disrupt the offense’s blocking schemes and create a different look on every snap more so than with a 4-man line. The ability to disguise the fronts makes it tougher for the offensive line to key on their assignments openings up opportunities for big defensive plays behind the line of scrimmage.
The defensive secondary still has cornerbacks on the edge and a free safety on the back end to prevent the big play. Good safeties are important no matter what you’re running, but in this defensive set you need this person to be very good in the passing game because there’s others committed to stopping the run and covering the flats where spread offenses can do a lot of damage. The free safety can still come up and play close to the line of scrimmage, but as we saw last year Michigan’s safeties had trouble containing the passing game. This is where a ball hawking safety would be valued more so than an ‘in the box’ safety.
The middle linebacker in the 3-3-5 plays much the same way as in a 4-3 defense. Weak of heart need not apply because this player will need to take on blockers and eat up ball carriers. Generally, the middle backer has more size than his counterparts, but that goes with the job. The other linebackers can fill different roles in run support or in providing additional pass rush. Michigan will offer up Craig Roh at linebacker in 2010. The bulked up true sophomore is equivalent to having an extra defensive end, the position he routinely lined up opposite Brandon Graham in 2009, when he’s brought up on the line of scrimmage to go with the other three defensive lineman essentially creating a 4-man front.
The key to the scheme for me is the linebacker/safety types, a la Stevie Brown, that Rodriguez has made a point of targeting in his recruiting efforts. Brown made the most of this switch to a rover role and got his name called on Draft Day, something that was unlikely to occur before the move. These players can flank the middle linebacker and play close to the line of scrimmage in run support or drift into pass coverage depending on the signal from the sidelines. They can help create different defensive fronts with the D-lineman on one play and provide added pass defense on the next all while giving the same look before the snap. This defensive alignment is the answer to the spread offenses that occupy much of college football.
And for many that’s also the problem with this defensive set. Michigan plays in the Big 10, or the Big Dozen after the recent additions, and it’s known for a physical brand of football that shouldn’t diminish with another ‘3 Yards and a Cloud of Dust’ program like Nebraska. It’s Midwestern football, tough and hard nosed, a cold weather style that emphasizes the run and bloody knuckles. Even though versions of the spread have moved into the league, it’s still a bruising conference that will leave welts. How can a ‘finesse’ defense like the 3-3-5 that’s meant to stop the spread work in this league? The answer is simple: Versatility. You can use this alignment in a variety of ways to stifle the run while still having the speed on the field to combat the pass. The defensive front can tie up blockers while the linebackers and safeties flow to the ball. Because of the assortment of athletes on the field, you can get ‘8 in the Box’ in a variety of ways. The ability to bring players from different spots on the field makes it tough for the offense to key in on the man in front of them and hopefully for Michigan fans the defense can offer more resistance than they have in the last two campaigns.
In my opinion, the flexibility of the scheme will allow the Wolverines’ coaches to build game plans to stifle the potpourri of offensive packages in the Big Dozen. The league has more traditional ‘pro style’ offenses like Wisconsin and Iowa, as well as the new breed of point producers. Purdue offers a unique attack with a myriad of options, while one of the original spread teams in the Big 10, Northwestern, is still spreading it out and passing it around the park. Ohio State and Penn State do a very good job of being multiple in their approaches which makes Michigan’s move to the 3-3-5 all the more appropriate. As offenses become varied so too must defenses. This defensive alignment should hopefully allow the versatility to get after who ever lines up against the Wolverines, as well as attract the type of athletic high schoolers who want to play in the adaptable alignment.
I want to see the Michigan defense stuff teams like a Thanksgiving Turkey just like everyone else. And it’s possible with this scheme. But as the saying goes, “It’s not about the X’s and the O’s, it’s about the Johnny’s and the Joe’s.” I’ll get into specific personnel in the coming weeks, but in general the lack of depth on defense has as much to do, if not more, with the poor defensive play over the last two years than the scheme. This scheme makes sense in the current college football landscape due to the variety of offenses that are out there, and the need to be able to tackle in space. That requires athletes on defense who are as talented as the ones on offense and RichRod is getting there. The versatile athletes that have been brought in under Rodriguez will be evident this year, but there is still a lack of experienced depth that will also be on full display. Any scheme works well when you have talent and depth to keep the defense fresh over the course of the game or to overcome injuries during the grind of the season. Until we get there the scheme can only dictate so much. This scheme allows for plenty of options, let’s hope the Michigan defense will have as many options when it comes to the Johnny’s and the Joe’s in 2010.
About the Author
Written by Ben Corwin
Ben Corwin is a former sportswriter for The Wolverine and radio broadcaster for WTKA in Ann Arbor. A graduate of the University of Michigan provides analysis on Wolverine football from scenic and sunny Colorado. An avid sports fan that follows the major pro and college sports, especially the college teams and pro franchises based in the Detroit area. While a Detroit Pistons, Red Wings and Tigers fan, he's been a rabid Pittsburgh Steelers supporter since learning to read in the 1970s by thumbing through issues of Sports Illustrated. Please forward all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.