Welcome to the bye week! For fans, the off week will present a challenge to avoid yanking every hair out of our heads. However, I think the timing favors the Wolverines considering Wisconsin is off to a 110-0 start, and Michigan…is not. Let’s use the extra time to look at the 2019 offense through two games and compare to two early season home games from 2018: Week 2 vs. WMU and Week 3 vs. SMU. Click here for more detail on the Five Factors (Explosiveness, Efficiency, Finish Drives, Field Position, TOs / Penalties).
2018 OFFENSE vs. 2019 OFFENSE
Despite the most pervasive feelings in the fan base ranging from nervous to apocalyptic, we have seen significant positive building blocks for the offense:
- Zach Charbonnet: a) ball security, b) pass protection, & c) zone running
- TE blocking improvement creates mismatches & TEs don’t tip Run or Pass
- Depth: a) TE, b) WR, c) OL, d) RB, e) QB
- Challenge for Defensive Coordinators to prepare for what is yet unseen
My list of positives so far in 2019 starts with the introduction of Zach Charbonnet. Typically, early season breakout parties come from explosive plays and shiny stat lines that may or may not be sustainable throughout a whole season. This feels different. The praise being heaped on Charbonnet centers around things freshmen running backs are typically very shaky on: ball security and pass protection. We have seen the physical thump he brings both with the ball in his hand on the goal line vs. Army and in the face of pressure from blitzing linebackers vs. MTSU. I am confident that shiny stats and explosive plays are coming.
In 2018, Sean McKeon was challenged to become a key blocker as Michigan diversified their zone running scheme to include an Arc Read Option. You may remember Shea Patterson’s surprise long run from the 2018 Wisconsin game. That was the introduction of the Arc Read series complementing the Split Zone play. While this series was moderately successful, it was a lot to handle for McKeon. Fast forward to present day, and not only is McKeon improved in the blocking role, but he is joined by Nick Eubanks. When the Arc Series is combined with the potential of either tight end threatening vertically in the passing game, we can see how Josh Gattis can create more space for the faster skill players in 2019.
Numbers 2 and 3 on the list are both a testament to year-over-year individual improvement and solid recruiting. The depth at tight end is matched by the wide receivers. Michigan fans should be grateful that receiver, offensive line, and running back depth were strengths coming out of fall camp, because injuries have put that depth to use early in 2019. Large portions of the fan base are focusing on the quarterback depth as a silver bullet solution to early season questions. In reality, the QB depth should help lighten the load on Shea Patterson as he recovers from an oblique injury, and reassure fans that the future of the program remains built on a strong foundation.
Finally, the element of surprise still may be another factor working in favor of the Wolverines. Both national and local media have fully documented the lack of answers to off season questions for this offense. The silver lining to that cloud is that defensive coordinators still have to ask themselves those questions while trying to prepare for Michigan, especially at Wisconsin and Rutgers. This can pay dividends in two ways: 1) we may see the #SpeedInSpace scheme unleashed against under-prepared defensive units or 2) even if those defensive units are well prepared, they had to dedicate a boat load of man-hours and energy to preparing for many what-if scenarios and Gattis’ counterattacks. That means other defensive fundamentals, or new exotic defensive schemes probably took a back seat for Michigan week.
OK, now we can discuss what has caused so much of our fan stress, and what I think needs to be corrected in order for this offense to tighten up their execution and take off. After viewing the 2019 games and comparing the metrics, I bucketed known (observed) problems and potential (implied/assumed) problems. Here is the list, in order of severity:
- Fumbles: a) QB Security, b) Blitz Pickups
- Injuries: a) QB, b) OL, c) WR
- QB / WR Connection: a) timing, b) accuracy, c) drops
- Road Game Execution
- Distribution of Passing Game Targets
- Zone Read: a) QB Run, b) Interior Push
First, let me admit that the TO issue is even worse than it looks in the numbers above. I did not include Lavert Hill’s muffed punt in Week 1 as a turnover by the offense. Of course, it still affected the game outcome and the fans’ current state of mind. Now, why the big uptick in fumbles lost? The largest factor in fumble stats is bad short term luck. An oblong football bounces in weird ways, and you never know what could happen. However, other factors are more controllable, and must be addressed by the players and coaches in the bye week. Shea Patterson absolutely has to tighten his ball security, both in the pocket as a passer and as a runner. Far too often, we can see images of Shea holding the ball one-handed and out away from his body. These fundamentals can be improved quickly through specific drills and coaching reinforcement. Additionally, any running back that enters the game must be able to pick up protection calls. Michigan cannot allow free shots on the quarterback. Charbonnet and Tru Wilson have shown their reliability. Christian Turner and Hassan Haskins both need to improve their pass protection to earn more snaps.
The next issue challenging the offense has been a rash of injuries in the early season. Coming out of fall camp, only the Andrew Stueber injury and Ambry Thomas illness were widely reported. Since the end of camp the injury list has grown. Running back Tru Wilson missed a game and a half. Neither Donovan Peoples-Jones nor Jon Runyan has yet to play a snap. Shea Patterson is reportedly battling an oblique injury. He has missed a few snaps, and appeared hampered on others. The depth we discussed in the positives section has been immediately tested on offense. Perhaps the early bye week is just what the doctor ordered for the Wolverines.
In a problem that seems to have carried over from 2018, Shea Patterson has still not established precise timing with his talented receiving threats. Last year under Pep Hamilton, the vertical passing attack favored deep drops and slow developing routes. Many long throws, even the completions, ended with the wide receiver slowing down to jump and high point a contested ball against a defender. I doubt this issue is related to any question about Patterson’s arm strength. I have maintained that he holds the ball for a split second too long before throwing to an area and allowing the receiver to run to it. In 2019 there is an added challenge of totally revamped reads for the quarterback. It’s understandable to see more examples of missed timing (like the missed post route to Nico Collins in 2OT) than we see rhythmic pitch-and-catch (like the seam route TD to Sean McKeon vs. MTSU) early in the season. We should only be concerned if this issue persists into the middle and second half of the season. I am a believer in Ben McDaniels and Jim Harbaugh as QB coaches, and in Josh Gattis as a receivers coach. The explosive plays are coming.
In addition to the issues we’ve seen so far in 2019, there are still lingering questions to be answered from Michigan’s recent performance history. Top of my potential issues list is execution in road games. As I laid out in my season preview, Michigan’s 2018 average performance relative to SP+ projections decreased by 15+ points away from the Big House. There is an unending list of possible variables that could contribute to this problem, so there is not a simple correction. Somehow, the coaching staff has to make mental preparation and solid first quarter starts a priority in road games. Additionally, I think this challenge falls to the leaders in the Michigan locker room. Championship performances require mental toughness and diligent focus in the face of adversity, especially in a hostile environment. I think Michigan’s captains, seniors, and best players must first lead by example, as well as relentlessly elevate every teammate to match the championship intensity.
The next challenge is trying to find balance in distributing touches between the various offensive weapons. Gattis’ increased tempo resulted in 79 offensive snaps in Week1, and even managed 69 snaps in regulation versus the ball hogs of Army (equal to the 2018 average for Michigan). More snaps per game should help to distribute the ball to more players. More importantly, eliminating the turnover bug would be even more beneficial. The #SpeedInSpace philosophy centers around putting the defense in conflict by forcing them to pick their poison: Charbonnet or McCaffrey? Collins or McKeon? DPJ in space or Tarik Black deep? . To accomplish this, Michigan needs to get into a regular rhythm and needs to string successful plays together to knock the defense back onto their heels. Nothing disrupts an offense’s rhythm and reanimates a reeling defense like a turnover. Consistent repetitions with all the healthy first stringers during the bye week will also be critical to solving this problem.
The final problem on offense to keep your eye on is the success of the read option rushing attack. In the aftermath of the Army Scare, many conspiracy theories circulated on all forms of media. Can Shea Patterson run the ball despite an injury? If not, why don’t the coaches trust Dylan McCaffrey? If he’s healthy, is he just misreading the option plays, or has Harbaugh grabbed the keys back from Gattis and demanded a return to vanilla inside zone hand offs? I am here to tell you, all of these theories are white noise, and can be labeled “we’ll see”, then put onto the shelf. We confirmed Patterson’s not 100%, but Gattis was clear in his Monday interview that the called plays all required the quarterback to read the defense. Fans observing video clips online began analyzing defensive scrape exchanges and open space on the edge, then began to formulate the various questions above.
Instead, there is actual evidence that Army pulled many of the correct levers for their defensive scheme vs. Michigan’s read option. When Michigan adjusted to a shortage of remaining second half possessions against Army, they committed to the low risk read option play almost exclusively (three first half turnovers will do that to ya!). Army correctly countered with corner blitzes, and linebacker scrape exchanges to force Patterson to hand the ball off (usually correctly, but not always). We can still wonder why Michigan didn’t call the “counter to the counter”, but the simpler run scheme was moving the ball. Despite the fans’ frustration at the consecutive run plays, the Wolverines’ only punted one time last Saturday.
All of this is a long-winded way to advocate for practicing just a bit more patience with the offense through its infancy. The explosive plays are coming! I just hope they arrive in time to win the first key Big Ten match up in Madison next Saturday.