“…when the sun comes up you better be running.”
If you do a google search for the University of Michigan’s defensive coordinator, Don Brown, you’ll find an anecdote about the synergetic nature of survival between a predator and its prey. Brown, undoubtedly, fashions himself as a predator. Consider the fact that despite years and reams of film, you’d be hard-pressed to find few, if any, reps of Brown calling for his defense to play inverted Cover 2 or Quarters coverage, popular defenses to contain the proliferation of wide-open, spread offenses.
Check his job history as well – the best job he’s ever had is the one he’s got now, but his team’s elite performance has not been determined by the level of talent he has to work with. That is the mark of a great coach, and Don Brown is the best in the business on his side of the ball.
Don Brown’s playbook is a multiple front, multiple stunts, and multiple pressures style of defense, based out of a 3-4 Okie framework. Michigan is going to show two high safeties on nearly every snap, then drop or “spin” their Rover down to the middle hole toward the run strength, adding an extra man to the box post-snap, while rolling into their base Cover 1 Robber defense.
What makes Brown and Michigan special isn’t about the framework, though. Everyone has a front and a coverage that’s sound and reliable. What separates this defense from its competition is about what they call, and how impressively disciplined the defense is in execution.
Incredible Discipline – Fitting the Run
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Few clips can better display Michigan’s relentless effort and consistent discipline than the one above. Illinois is running “toss crack” from trey right, against UM’s 4-2-5 nickel over front. There are three key elements to note:
- The TE is sent on a Y-return motion pre-snap, wide enough to execute a down block. Now a Baltimore Raven, Chris Wormley fights to get over before shooting underneath, stringing out the run.
- The slot WR whiffs on a crack block on the play-side linebacker. The overhang manned up on this WR diagnosed the block in enough time to redirect and replace on the block. Counting the down block earlier, the offense has eliminated zero defenders pursuing this play.
- Rover safety Jabrill Peppers is spinning down to his Cover 1 “hole” responsibility. His run key is the TE, and he sees the down block and coming pullers. Because the first- and second-level defenders beat their blocks, Peppers can aggressively attack the lead puller with force leverage. He cuts the blocker and triggers the cutback, and his pursuing teammates swallow up the run near the LOS.
Controlled Chaos – DL Games Affect Running Lanes
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“Attack, attack, attack, is what defense’s all about.” Brown slipped this into a longer, larger commentary about the building of a sustainable culture, but that sentence is his ethos. Illinois is showing 11 personnel against UM’s over front again, this time to run “wham zone” – designed to create a cutback lane for the RB. Brown does not blitz often, but he can manipulate an offense’s zone scheme with defensive line movement. This three-man game stops the wham block and forces the run to remain front-side. The front-side end spikes inside for a scrape exchange, and spills the run right to the flowing LBs.
Deny the Post – Cover 1 Robber
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From 21 Personnel on the far hash, Illinois tries a go / post route combination, with a Y drag underneath. The seven-man protection ends up causing more harm than good, because all the non-engaged defenders sit in the underneath holes and pass the route off across the field.
The real key here is in the downfield coverage. The hope for the offense is for the spinning safety on the boundary side to be held away from the crossing pattern, and the go pattern to stem inside toward the hash and hold the deep safety. Because UM presses the outside receiver, it forces him to give away his path directly off the LOS. The slot receiver runs a loose route that looks more like a dig in order to get the defender trailing directly behind him.
Because the corner is playing over the top – and the overhang is playing underneath his receiver – the deep safety can split both routes and discourage the QB from throwing the go pattern. The only option left is the post, and it would require a dime of a throw to complete.
Adapt to Trips
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As a Cover 1 team, Michigan can deal with trips without changing who they are. There is a virtue in having an alternate response to an offense, though, and Don Brown’s comes by way of a two-man/match hybrid. The LB is playing a vertical match “scan” technique on the #3, playing him loose and inside to cut off any dig or post route. The safety is also keying his vertical release in this double China concept (two underneath crossing routes and a corner route) from Illinois, and is squatting on the corner route #3 ultimately runs.
Get After the QB, and Get Creative
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Defenses can dig into the bag of tricks when the ball is on the hash, and Brown dials up a special corner blitz from the boundary side.
The CB blitzes from depth so as not to be seen and picked up by the protection. The mechanics of the pressure work out like a “long stick” fire zone, with the DE working from C gap to A gap, and the weak side LB blitzing the B Gap.
The coverage played behind it is a two-deep, four-under “trap” Zone. The ultimate result is an interception on a screen pass, but if you watch the top of the screen, you can see the pattern matching principles to the zone.
Don Brown is willing to call anything to gain a matchup advantage, as long as it is aggressive and forces the offense to think on the fly. His defenses are sound enough to play their base all game, versatile enough to exchange gaps and responsibilities on the fly, fast enough to be trusted on a man-to-man island, and creative enough to answer challenges presented by formational alignment and field positioning.
The best defensive coach in football figures to be a lion, plucking gazelles for a very long time.