During a 21-minute press conference on Monday that ran a gamut of questions at an uninterested Jim Harbaugh, perhaps the most telling moment came when he was asked about defensive coordinator Don Brown.
For his entire career, before and throughout his time at Michigan, Brown has made a living off a simple formula. Press-man coverage: Blitz to his heart’s content and pressure the quarterback.
That’s mostly served him well, including with the Wolverines, where he’s consistently built top-10 defenses in the nation. But Saturday’s 27-24 loss to Michigan State became the latest in an increasingly long line of games where those principles fell short. The Spartans took advantage of man coverage with deep throw after deep throw. Meanwhile, Michigan failed to bother quarterback Rocky Lombardi in the pocket and went without a sack.
“We have to put ourselves in the best possible position and always, always willing and ready to adjust when necessary,” Harbaugh said, offering little more than a dodge when the topic of his coordinator was broached. He offered a deeper analysis when the minimal pass rush came up.
“We didn’t get a sack,” Harbaugh said. “We got to the quarterback a handful of times, a dozen times, but just after he released the ball. So that combination of throwing it early and just not quite getting there … one unit affects the other unit, the secondary and the defensive line in that.
“… Each is reliant on each other. Cover them long enough for the pass rush to get to the quarterback and the corners and the safeties and the coverage unit are relying on the defensive line to get there and hurry the throw. Just didn’t, wasn’t effective enough in this last ballgame.”
On Saturday, neither unit did its job. A defensive line featuring Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye on either end — Hutchinson’s father compared him to Joey Bosa preseason and Paye is a consistent presence in NFL mock drafts — couldn’t make an impact. A secondary that had question marks coming into the year saw Vincent Gray, who Harbaugh declared, “our best corner,” this Monday, get benched.
“That was a good unit that we were facing and they did some good things schematically to slow us down,” senior defensive tackle Carlo Kemp said of a Michigan State offensive line that was missing its center and gave up three sacks to Rutgers. “So watching that tape you really gotta be critical of your performance cause it didn’t end up producing an outcome at the end of the game that you wanted. The things that you did weren’t as impactful as you’d want them to be.”
In his next answer, Kemp clarified that nothing the Spartans did was surprising from a schematic perspective. But he never said why Michigan seemed surprised.
When senior linebacker Josh Ross attempted to diagnose the issue, particularly against max protections, he pointed to an area Harbaugh and Kemp both claimed was no problem at all: effort.
“Consistent effort on the back end, doing a great job covering,” Ross said. “It’s tough getting pressure and getting sacks when everybody’s protecting but you gotta keep pushing, keep getting that effort and getting there.”
One of the leaders on the defense, Ross talked about facing adversity, and over the course of about 10 minutes, said Michigan would bounce back strong in nearly every answer he gave.
Of course, it’s not that simple. The Wolverines’ defense looked overmatched against purportedly inferior opposition on Saturday. And to bookend the weekend, the program announced on Monday that safeties coach Bob Shoop isn’t coaching on the field, instead performing his duties remotely for undisclosed reasons.
In the end, though, it will all come back to Brown. And right now, it’s more than just an angry fan base offering scrutiny.
“At the end of the day, it was just a certain amount of plays, a few plays we wish we could get back,” Ross said. “He’s handled it the best way he possibly can and as players we gotta correct those mistakes and fix them next week for this week.”
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