The Redzone is Not The Hotzone… And Other Keys to 2006

It may be hard to believe but it is indeed JULY! Thankfully for usMichigan fans that means the offseason is winding down, and we can begin to focus on what lies ahead rather than all of those events that we’d like to forget from last year.  That being said, it is extremely important that this football team learn from what happened last year.  There have been a lot of discussions about what went wrong last season and what must change and improve going into this fall.  Clearly, there is not one singular issue that resulted in five losses, and we could spend enormous amounts of time breaking down every possible factor.  However, I think there are two key issues that Wolverine fans should focus on early in the year to see if the much talked about changes and improvements over the spring have really occurred.  It is in these two areas that I really think we have cost ourselves football games.  To me, the two phases of the game that have hampered our Michigan Wolverines dearly are:

1.) Losing battles at the line of scrimmage on BOTH sides of the football

2.) Red Zone or otherwise “crunch time” offense

Without simply glossing over several other issues, let’s just say that the offense last year was horrific.  It didn’t control the football, it didn’t put points on the board when it had the opportunity, and it never gave our defense a break when it needed it.  Why might this have been the case?  Again, I think there were several factors that contributed to our offensive struggles this past season.  First and foremost was the myriad of injuries that hit KEY players on this offensive unit. The injuries to the offensive line were bad enough before Mike Hart went down in the first series against the Irish, a team he’s only played 8 snaps against in his entire career so far, but once that occurred this offense was going to be running on fumes for the rest of the year.

Our offensive line struggled to gel as a unit with lineups constantly changing due to the injuries and starters having to rotate to different positions just to fill in the gaps.  Without an experienced running back to find the few holes that were created, our offense was dead in the water from a running point of view; you can only run so many draws into the teeth of a defense after all. This put an immense amount of pressure on former offensive coordinator Terry Malone to come up with ways to move the football… and he failed in every possible way.  Teams were able to load the box with impunity because we NEVER ran play action fakes, and NEVER incorporated the middle of the field with the passing game.  The tight end disappeared as a factor in the Michigan offense, and Steve Breaston was reduced to a player who would catch screens behind the line of scrimmage. Our complete and utter lack of an ability to control the ball hung our defense out to dry time and again.  Malone’s play calling was not only lacking inspiration, but it never seemed to set up any other plays or schemes to take advantage of what the defense was giving us.  Two words will hammer this point home: Diamond Formation.  That deserves a whole separate column unto itself to be honest.

A symptom of these problems was that when the Michigan offense found itself in scoring position, it routinely failed to take advantage of those opportunities.  Note to the Michigan offense, the red zone does not contain a deadly virus, in fact it is the land of opportunity!  We settled for far too many field goals from inside the red zone, and came up empty an inexcusable number of times. This inability to make teams pay absolutely came back to bite us last year.  We don’t have to relive the whole season to realize how badly we squandered games against Notre Dame, Wisconsin,Minnesota, and Ohio State when we had control of the football.  Suffice to say, a more effective approach is sorely needed.

So what has to change on offense?  Well thankfully, one major factor has already been taken care of: the offensive coordinator.  It’s all too easy to point fingers at the coaches when the team is struggling, but I don’t think I’d have to look too hard to find a large number of people who’d agree that Malone simply wasn’t the man for this position.  Mike DeBord may not have been the most exciting offensive mind when he was here previously, but his offenses were fundamentally sound and could RUN THE FOOTBALL, something that we have missed dearly in the last three years against the likes of Ohio State, Notre Dame, and our bowl opponents.  Oh by the way, he was a key part of that National Title we all look back fondly upon, many people forget that that offense was actually a very effective unit.  DeBord has always struck me as someone who “gets” game-planning and adapting that gameplan throughout the course of the game, his plays actually set up other plays later on in the game.  I guarantee we see the return of the tight end as an integral part of the Michigan offense, and that we rediscover the middle of the field with our skill players.  He will also bring a level of complexity to the running game that we simply lacked under Terry Malone. Furthermore, he should return some semblance of play calling back to our red zone offense.  Of all of the things that annoyed me about Terry Malone, this may have been the worst.  Every defense knew what we were going to run inside the 20, and more often than not they stopped it.  There was never a sense that we would run a waggle or play action down near the goal line.  A more aggressive and variable approach is sorely needed here, hopefully DeBord can bring that to the table.

The second issue that must be addressed on the offensive end is the play of the offensive line.  It is all too easy for us to claim that the injuries were the main culprit last year and that otherwise we would’ve been in a much better position…  HOWEVER, I would argue that our offensive line play has been lacking for some time now.  You just have to look back at our performances in the big games to see that our rushing totals are embarrassingly low, and our record is even worse, and I think a large factor has been the play of the O-line.  I think there are a number of problems that the line has been having that hopefully were addressed this offseason.  First and foremost has to be conditioning, we simply haven’t been overpowering teams despite large advantages in size on the line.  Very rarely over the past few seasons has a Michigan offense blown the opposing defense off the line of scrimmage.  Reports are this issue has been met head on, with a vast number of guys dropping weight and increasing speed; hopefully this translates into more on the field success and fewer injuries.  Lighter and faster is great, but if it doesn’t have solid technique to go with it, we won’t get too far.  Considering the number of younger guys we’re going to be using on the line this year, it’s especially important that they are fundamentally sound.

So great, we’ve solved the issues with the offense (wink wink, nod nod), so we’re set right?  To the contrary, DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS!  Repeat this ad nauseum, put on your bathroom mirror, in fact, make that our motto for the 2006 season.   I think the major concern on the defensive end has to be the complete lack of productivity from an experienced defensive line last year.  Like it or not we did not bring pressure on the opposing quarterback until the bowl game despite having a number of very talented guys in the front four.  Again, I think part of the problem here was conditioning, the D-line seemed to wear down at the end of games (although it didn’t help that the offense kept going 3 and out…) and was pushed back off the line of scrimmage.  The other issue resides in X’s and O’s I think.  I have to preface this by saying that I have no idea how many times blitzes were called, etc, but it seems to me that there was far to little emphasis on bringing pressure in last year’s defensive schemes.  Instead of creating an advantage for the defense by bringing pressure from different areas of the field, we often allowed the defensive line to be taken on by more than one blocker because no one else was rushing the line.  I’ve watched enough football to know that when the defense plays a reactionary “wait and see” type of style, the offense will burn them time and again, and at the important junctures last season, that was the style of football you saw from our defense.  The synonym for “wait and see” is of course the thorn in every  Michiganfans’ side: the dreaded zone.  Here’s hoping we see our corners up on the receivers on 3rd downs this year, and linebackers up at that line of scrimmage…

With all of that being said, the defense was not woeful last year.  In fact it was greatly improved over the 2004 unit, but a change in philosophy and attitude was sorely needed.  I don’t think it will take a lot of work to turn this defensive group into a very solid unit, the talent is definitely there.  I hope against hope that Ron English will bring an aggressive and attacking style back to the forefront in Ann Arbor, he certainly has advertised that he will.  The players are there now for the production to increase immediately, so with a few alterations to the schemes I think we’re going to see noticeable changes in this area, and noticeable changes in how the defense performs on the field.  The players really seem to like English and his approach, and the more he turns them lose to use their natural ability, the better off we are in my opinion.

So as we head into the season, I think we’ll know a lot from the first few games by looking at how successful we are controlling the line of scrimmage (look for rushing yards, sacks allowed, time for Henne to throw, etc), and by how efficient we are when we have the opportunities to score (another motto should be touchdowns instead of field goals).  If these areas can improve, then I think we’re going to be in store for a MUCH better season of Michigan Football, and much improved performances against the likes of our rivals, and that would certainly make the pain and agony of this last twelve months or so fade away a lot quicker.  So here’s to new beginnings and to a new season!  I can’t wait!

 

GO BLUE!