Given two days to watch the film and reflect some more on his team’s performance against Purdue, Michigan coach Brady Hoke had the same refrain on Monday as he did on Saturday: Michigan’s defensive line isn’t creating enough pressure.
Some might find such a criticism curious after a game in which the Wolverines gave up just 13 points and 213 total yards. But it appears Hoke was focused more on the two sacks that the defense produced against the Boilermakers.
In fact, when Hoke was asked what he liked about No. 25 Michigan’s pass defense, he instead responded with his biggest concern.
“Number one, at this point in the season, I don’t think we’re getting enough pressure on the quarterback,” Hoke said. “I think that helps those guys in the back end. … I think we keep searching, as coaches, for different ways to manufacture some pressure, and at the same time have good coverage with it.
“I think we’re a work in progress with it.”
This isn’t a new issue, either. Hoke has mentioned the same thing in recent weeks, even specifically calling upon the front four to step it up.
The numbers are rather grizzly — the Wolverines have produced just five sacks this season, placing them 107th nationally. If their pace remains the same, they’ll end up with around 12 sacks at season’s end, far off the 30 they produced last season, which was good for 29th in the country.
And just half of those five sacks have come from defensive linemen, with senior defensive tackle Will Campbell tallying one and senior defensive end Craig Roh notching one and a half.
It’s notable that the line actually produced more pressure against Purdue than it had in recent weeks. Boilermaker quarterbacks Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve were chased out of the pocket a number of times, and the two sacks tied a season-high. (Though one of them came from redshirt sophomore linebacker Jake Ryan.)
But even that improvement isn’t up to Hoke’s, nor the players’ themselves, liking.
“I agree with (Hoke) 100 percent,” Campbell said Monday. “We do need to get more pressure up front just with a four-man rush. We don’t need to blitz every down to get to the quarterback. Me being a senior, me and Craig Roh, we take that on us.”
Though the line production in itself hasn’t been up to par, it’s been mitigated somewhat by the impact of blitzes, with Ryan making a big impact from his strongside linebacker spot.
The second-year starter has always been explosive, and this season he’s displayed an ability to play with better control, keeping him in position to make plays more often. Ryan was especially good — “doggone good,” in Hoke’s words — against Purdue, notching that one sack to go along with two other tackles for loss.
And the return of defensive end Brennen Beyer should help the line as well. Hoke said that the sophomore, who hasn’t played since he injured himself against Air Force in the second game of the season, is “important to (the team).” He’ll help keep fellow weakside end Frank Clark fresh, perhaps allowing the duo to generate more pressure between them.
The good news for the defensive line is that it has been steadily improving against the run, even if it continues to struggle to attack quarterbacks.
In Michigan’s last two games, the defense has allowed a total of 150 rushing yards and just 2.6 yards-per-carry. The line, namely redshirt junior Quinton Washington and Campbell in the middle, has done a better job of clogging the line of scrimmage. That’s allowed the linebackers to flow to the ball more freely.
“Again, you got some significant guys who have got real snaps where they haven’t had near as many before, so there’s a learning that they go through,” Hoke said of the defensive line’s progression. “I think it’s better. … I think we’re playing a little tighter on offensive linemen, which means we’re getting hands on them a little more.”
Now, the challenge for the defensive line is to improve in the passing game as much as it has in defending the run.
When asked what he likes best about Michigan’s defense to this point, Campbell pointed to the unit’s work habits, especially its preparation.
“We’re communicating, we’re getting in and watching our film together, we’re doing everything together,” Campbell said. “So we know what’s coming and we know what to expect when we get down in our stance.”
So far, that off-the-field diligence hasn’t translated to sacks on the field. Under Hoke’s watchful eye, the line feels the urgency in needing to change that.