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How Michigan uses what might be the best secondary in college football

Five amazing players give Jim Harbaugh and his ace defensive coordinator one of the country’s best units.

Wisconsin v Michigan Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

It might be tempting to look back now at the Michigan roster before Jim Harbaugh inherited it and say it lacked athleticism under Brady Hoke. When a team struggles to execute, usually on offense and occasionally on defense, “athleticism” can be the mythical property used to explain the discrepancy.

In reality, Hoke assembled a great deal of talent, which he didn’t deploy. Harbaugh walked into a dream situation, with a roster that had been recruited to suit his preferred strategies. In particular, he inherited a defensive roster that might now feature the best secondary in college football.

If you check out the Wolverines’ advanced statistical profile, their defense ranks No. 1 in almost every major category, including Passing S&P+, Passing Success Rate, Passing Downs S&P+ (second-and-long or third-and-medium/long), and Havoc Rate (which measures a defense’s rate of disruptive plays). Shutting out an opponent on the road while giving up 39 total yards and two first downs will do a lot for your statistical profile.

Defensive coordinator Don Brown has predictably made the most of the secondary he took over. It could power the Wolverines to not only winning the Big Ten, but adjusting to the different types of offense they would face in the Playoff.

Michigan spends most of its time in a five-DB nickel package, occasionally rolling out a six-DB dime for obvious passing downs

The Wolverines’ five veteran defensive backs are a core part of their defense.

Peppers is the one you tend to find in the headlines, thanks to his multiple roles, including playing QB in a wildcat package and returning kicks. He moves all over the place on defense and is second on the team in tackles (behind linebacker Ben Gedeon), first in tackles for loss (10 already), and has five QB hurries and 2.5 sacks.

Peppers is a tremendous athlete. In his linebacker/rover role, he can either join the party up front in Brown’s blitz package or roam the middle of the field and pursue the ball.

Despite the accolades for Peppers, Jourdan Lewis is perhaps the best player on the team. He proved last year that he can lock down a variety of receivers and can move from the outside to the slot to erase an opponent’s top receiver, as the situation demands.

Lewis’ ability to lock down opponents in press-man coverage frees up the defense to bring all kinds of blitzes without fear.

Since that was a fourth-down attempt by Wisconsin, Lewis should have just batted that ball away, but the loss of field position might have been worth it, just to put the fear of God into the rest of the Big Ten.

If teams don’t want to target Lewis, his bookend, Channing Stribling, already has three interceptions on the year. Dymonte Thomas is a reliable cleanup man, playing over the top. Delano Hill is probably the most underrated of the bunch, due to his service as a cover safety over slot receivers.

Watch a Peppers blitz, and you’ll often find Hill playing man coverage behind him. Michigan tends to pair them on the same side of the field for this reason.

There’s a lot of overlapping skill in this group, which allows the Wolverines to mix different looks.

The Brown defense is blitz-happy.

Here’s an example against Colorado in which Michigan brings a man-coverage, single-safety-deep blitz:

The difference between how Michigan does it and how most teams do is that Michigan is using tight press coverage on the outside, rather than having corners bail down the sidelines. Later on that drive, the Wolverines gave up a TD when they brought another press-man blitz and Thomas got beat by a slot running an out-post route.

The Buffaloes gave Michigan quite the run for their money in 17-point UM win, throwing for 261 yards, 7.7 yards per pass, and three TDs. The Wolverines tallied four sacks and were playing without their lock-down man, Lewis, requiring guys like Thomas to play man coverage more often during blitzes.

Michigan is tied for second nationally in sacks per game, with four, bringing five or six pass rushers regularly.

Peppers allows the Wolverines to really make life hard. While Michigan State or Ohio State use their press-quarters schemes to involve their safeties and shrink the field for their opponents, Michigan often achieves a similar result simply by how they deploy Peppers.

Against Wisconsin, he played Sam linebacker, hanging out over the tight end or on the field side (the side with more grass between the ball and the sideline) to thwart UW’s run game with edge pressure or their play-action tosses by manning the flat.

It’s hard to send your running back around the line with Peppers roving the edge alongside Chris Wormley or Rashan Gary. It wasn’t long before Wisconsin was throwing on first down to avoid the pressure and obvious passing downs, after Michigan would inevitably stuff the Badgers’ first-down runs.

Against spread-type sets, Brown will often drop Hill down over the slot and back Peppers up, where he can serve either as a deep safety running toward the line ...

... move close to the line before the snap (he’s on the line here and makes the tackle in the backfield) ...

... or blitz (that’s him flying from the midfield logo to hit the QB):

You can count on Peppers aligning where he can run to the ball, erase space, and be a free hitter to wreck whatever the offense is trying to do. He’s the Visa card of the Michigan defense, everywhere you want to be.

Between the Wolverines’ ability to lock down your best receiver and move Peppers to whatever space you’re hoping to create, this is a nasty defense.

Michigan has some great linemen, but this is probably the best secondary in the country, and elite secondaries often portend great things.