Blog Entry

Stats That Matter: Enough with the missed tackles

Posted on: October 26, 2011 10:02 am
Edited on: October 27, 2011 1:42 pm

Our Stats That Matter examines the man behind the most improved unit in college football this season, new Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. Under the former Baltimore Ravens DC, the 6-1 Wolverines are eighth in the country in scoring defense, up from 108th last year. Yeah, you could say jumping 100 spots nationally is a remarkable turnaround. It's been a dramatic shift, not just in scheme but in execution for a group that is no longer giving up one big play after another and has been able to avoid surrendering those heart-breaking third-down conversions. Michigan ranked 95th in that in 2010 and is up to a respectable 54th.

Mattison traces that improvement to one of his points of emphasis: cutting down on missed tackles. His barometer: "We want eight or less per game," he said.

The Wolverines are averaging around six missed tackles per game, by the Michigan staff's tabulations. The Wolverines hit Mattison's target in five of their seven games. Not so surprisingly, the Wolverines needed some late-game heroics from quarterback Denard Robinson to overcome a game where they had 11 missed tackles in a 35-31 win over Notre Dame. In Michigan's last time out, a 28-14 loss at Michigan State, UM suffered its first loss after it ended up with three times the number of missed tackles it has averaged this fall.

How did Mattison arrive at the eight missed-tackle benchmark? Of course, he would love to see his team not miss a single tackle over the course of a game, but Mattison says you have to be realistic. The athletes you're trying to defend are so talented, so quick, so strong and so determined that you're almost bound to have at least a few missed tackles in 60 minutes.

For Wolverines fans, watching their defense in recent years had to be excruciating as the team surrendered soul-crushing third-and-long conversions, often due to missed tackles. The Wolverines allowed opponents to convert on a lofty 24 percent on situations of third-and-10 or longer in 2010. Worse still, that number jumped to a staggering 35.4 percent in the second half of the season. This year in the same situations, the number is down to just 8 percent.

When I asked Mattison about the psychological effect of a guy missing a tackle, enabling the defense not to be able to get off the field on a third-and-long, he pointed out even the verbiage of such a question gets to the core of what he's looking to remedy.

"It shouldn't be 'a' guy," Mattison said. "For us, when we came in here, our whole thing was, the players are the players we have. That's it. It's not like the NFL where you can draft somebody or trade somebody. Our whole goal was to get the players that we have on defense to play 'Michigan Defense.' And when we say 'Michigan Defense,' that means it was first, an honor to play for Michigan. And once it was honor to play at Michigan, it became an obligation to play at that standard. That level was established a long time ago. You just had to play up to that level, and that level, in its simplest form, came down to pursuing to the football. You had to play hard on every play. A loaf, or taking a play off or not going hard, was just unacceptable. I think that's something we've really worked hard to try to get back to.

"Along with that, there's a difference between running to the football and burning up calories, and running to the football with an intent of hitting a guy as hard as you can hit him and tackling him.

"If you watch college football, you'll see some teams where guys run real hard and burn up a lot of energy, but they're not going at the right pursuit angles or more importantly, what might've been the case is your secondary doesn't keep the ball inside and in front of them, so what happens is the other seven guys that are running to the football, sooner or later, quit running. But if they know that the ball is corralled, and they know that the secondary is going to keep it in a cup there, then 'I'm going to get a good shot at him if I run to the ball.' And that is something we've tried very hard to establish. You have to keep the ball inside and in front. The biggest reason for giving up big plays is not always missed tackles, it's because there's only one guy trying to make the tackle. But if the corner and the safeties and the other corner all keep it cupped and corralled, then the rest of the team can get there and you have those gang tackles, which keep you from giving up big plays."

Mattison, who replaced Greg Robinson as the Wolverines defensive coordinator in the offseason, tried to steer clear of talking about what may be different scheme-wise or even technique-wise in how the team prepares for gamedays:

"I don't want to talk about anything that was done before. I know what we believe in defensively. You have to keep it inside and in front. There is never, ever an option of not going hard to the football. And the key words are 'to the football' and where the football is going to be. If you see the ball breaks outside and a big lineman is chasing, he's never gonna catch it: 'Don't chase it, cut it off! Go where it's gonna be!' We practice that every single day all the time. Every single practice play if that lineman is not running at an angle where he can go make the play, he is going to hear about it. And if he does it too much, he won't be in there. Our guys have bought into that. They truly understand now that that's how you're supposed to play when you wear the winged helmet on defense."

Toward that end, Mattison has the team tackle live one day of the week in practice. "A lot of teams don't do that," he said. "Every individual drill by position there is a period of tackling that is done one day a week."

Having to cope with someone as elusive and explosive as Robinson and his backup, Devin Gardner, another fleet-footed quarterback, also help condition the Wolverines defense, Mattison says, adding that, "I go home every night and I drop down on my knees and say a little prayer: 'Thank you for not making me play against Denard in a game.'"

It wouldn't seem like a stretch to think all of the preaching about taking proper pursuit angles, running to the football and gang tackling is the reason why Michigan is tied for tops in the country with 14 fumbles recovered. That also comes out of just 16 loose fumbles. Other teams around the Wolverines in that category high in the NCAA rankings actually have a much lower percentage of fumbles recovered. (Last year, the Wolverines were 87th in fumble recoveries with just seven, which came from 12 free footballs.)

Mattison certainly buys the cause-and-effect theory. "Somebody asked me one time, 'Have you guys been really lucky?' Well, I don't ever comment on luck or not lucky, but I think preparation and effort gives you that luck. Over the years, you've seen so many games where somebody decided not to run to the football and the offense fumbles it and that ball is just laying out there. You look at them and say, 'If you'd just would've went harder, you would've gotten that ball.'"

While the true worth of how good this Michigan defense will be revealed over the next month with games remaining against five teams with all winning records, including archrival Ohio State, Mattison is optimistic about the young base of talent he has in Ann Arbor.

"Jake Ryan is a redshirt freshman, who is gonna be a heckuva player and he plays with great effort. Freshman Desmond Morgan is coming on, so is Blake Countess, another freshman. Brandin Hawthorne is also really improving."

The player who seems to have made the biggest impression on him is a former walk-on safety, junior Jordan Kovacs. "When I think of a Michigan football, I think of Jordan Kovacs," Mattison said. "But you have to re-earn it every game to get labeled a Michigan Defensive Player."

There are other defenders on the team who have made some big plays for the Wolverines this year, who Mattison says think they're playing hard, think they playing well, but the 61-year-old coach points out to them that they're playing hard, compared to what? It comes back to the kid not really knowing what he doesn't really know.

Before coaching in the NFL, Mattison had spent five years in Ann Arbor in the mid-'90s, helping lead the Wolverines to a Rose Bowl. He's seen Michigan when it was a Big Ten powerhouse. He's also coached at Notre Dame and worked against the Wolverines when they won a national title. He remembers what made the program special and is convinced it's on the right path to get back to that now under first-year head coach Brady Hoke, a former Wolverines assistant.

"It's like you went back 15 years," says Mattison. "He has done such a fabulous job of instilling all of the pride and all of the tradition that made Michigan great. This guy is perfect for Michigan because of the love and the belief that he has in this program. There is a misconception that I think everybody thought 'They have great players.' Well, there were a lot of really good players, but it's that they played really, really hard and they all played for the team. And Brady has done an unbelievable job of bringing that back."
Category: NCAAF
Tags: Michigan

Since: Nov 16, 2007
Posted on: October 27, 2011 12:25 pm

Stats That Matter: Enough with the missed tackles


You hit it right on the head.  I am an OSU fan but also a Big Ten fan.  I kept tell people the problem with Michigan before RR got there was not the offense it was the defense.  Jim T made a living off the long run up the middle against Michigan.  You could never run up the middle against Michigan in the old days.

Hoke will get it right, he understands what is needed.  Even though I like pounding on Michigan the last 3 years it does nothing for the rivalry.  I want 2006 every year!

Since: Sep 11, 2006
Posted on: October 27, 2011 12:04 pm

Stats That Matter: Enough with the missed tackles

Did you see Notre Dame during the South Florida and Michigan games? Any Top 25 team could have won that. We had to travel to their place with a number in front of our name and they put together a complete game when they felt the pressre from a mistake filled 0-2 start. It's called an upset.

And that's called a rationalization. ND beat MSU quite soundly that day, it was no upset. MSU beating Wisconsin was an upset.   

Since: Mar 29, 2009
Posted on: October 27, 2011 10:34 am

Stats That Matter: Enough with the missed tackles

Next time you blog about how much better a defense has played, you might want to think about putting in a picture of a game in which the defense actually played well...just a thought.

Since: Mar 29, 2009
Posted on: October 27, 2011 10:32 am

Stats That Matter: Enough with the missed tackles

I know a lot of Ums fans that point to the App. St. game and say that it was the turning point as you mentioned.  It is refreshing to see that there are Ums fans that are rational about their team.  I try to be rational about the Spartans as well, but sometimes it is hard.  It is ironic that the same article touting how much better the Ums D is shows a picture of the Ums playing the Spartans in a game that did anything but show how much better of a tackling team the Ums are...

Since: Oct 4, 2010
Posted on: October 27, 2011 10:17 am

Stats That Matter: Enough with the missed tackles

U-Turn??  When were they GOOD??

I've been a Michigan fan for life, went there for both undergrad and grad school.  Michigan used to perennially be one of the best teams in the country.  It's a bit more complicated than this, but the real tipping point was what I call the Appalachian State debacle.  Michigan was embarrassed by a smaller (but good) team in App St. and in what has to be one of the biggest overreactions of ALL TIME, we dismantle a program, a philosophy that had served us for over 100 years--smash mouth, 3 yards and a cloud of dust football--and replaced it with the in vogue, flashy flavor of the month small, speedy "spread" offense. 

By itself, the "spread offense" is a great scheme that accomplishes the end it aimd for for the teams that should utilize it.  It is designed to spread out physically larger, stronger, BETTER teams than your own in an attempt to level the playing field by giving your smaller, speedier players a CHANCE to move in space, find holes and gain yards.  BUT, and this is my point, it was designed as a gadget to at least try to be competative with bigger, stronger, better teams.  Coaches should recruit for and implement this type of offense when they are at schools that don't have the ability to recruit like a traditional Michigan, Oklahoma, Nebraska type team.  When a school can't recruit the bigger, stronger atheletes that a traditional powerhouse can, I think it is a great idea to implement this type of offense WORKS!  Ask Boise St., ask Appalachian St., ask Texas Tech. 

But these schools will produce fewer pros because works in college, but these types of atheletes (and they are amazing, yet undersized atheletes) are usually just too small for the pros.  They may have the athletecism, but when the same level of athletecism is in a guy that is a foot taller and 50-60 lbs heavier, on average (tip of the hat to the Wes Welkers, Darren Sproles of the world), these types of atheletes will lose out.  I digress...

UM loses to App St., we dismantle our team to become a team that recruits and runs an offense like teams that don't have the recruiting clout (at the time) that a Michigan had, and we wonder why our smaller defensive guys are having a hard time against other Big Ten schools that are bigger, stronger, and as atheletic (save for D Robinson).  Our defense is simply underpowered to take on good teams.  And as it pertains to this article, our defense sucks and our suckiness was covered up (to some--not me--I still don't understand why EVERYONE couldn't see how bad we were) by fact we were winning.  But not really--we should have lost to ND and we loked god-awful vs. Western Michigan.  Our defense would have been outplayed by decent high school teams. do I know I'm right that we dismantled the proven successful commodity that UM football had been for 100 years???  Well, we experimented and (as I called on the very day we hired Rich Rod to implement this smoke and mirrors (that is what I call it) system), now we've hired Hoke to ween us back to the 3 yards and a cloud of dust football team that UM always was.

Go Blue!


Since: Aug 5, 2008
Posted on: October 27, 2011 10:05 am

Stats That Matter: Enough with the missed tackles

Did you see Notre Dame during the South Florida and Michigan games? Any Top 25 team could have won that. We had to travel to their place with a number in front of our name and they put together a complete game when they felt the pressre from a mistake filled 0-2 start. It's called an upset. It's one game. Michigan hasn't beaten a legit Top 25 team since 2008 against Wisconsin.

Since: Jun 11, 2010
Posted on: October 27, 2011 10:04 am

Stats That Matter: Enough with the missed tackles

No team in college football has choked more in recent years than Notre Dame. They should have beaten Michigan three years in a row! But each time a bad/mediocre Michigan team has beaten them. Frankly, Michigan has beaten them because they have had more heart.

Since: Oct 4, 2011
Posted on: October 27, 2011 9:59 am
This comment has been removed.

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Since: Sep 11, 2006
Posted on: October 27, 2011 9:52 am

Stats That Matter: Enough with the missed tackles

They are consistitly the most overated team in the country.

That's more than a little ironic coming from a Notre Dame fan. I'm pretty sure most people would agree that Notre Dame is "consistently"  far more overrated.

Since: Oct 4, 2009
Posted on: October 27, 2011 9:50 am

Stats That Matter: Enough with the missed tackles

I take it from your response that Notre Dame is not a legit team.  Interesting how they pounded the Spartans, they must really suck!

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