Jim Harbaugh has built a terrifying Michigan defense

Here's how.

| 2 years ago
(AP Photo/Tony Ding)

(AP Photo/Tony Ding)

Jim Harbaugh has built a terrifying Michigan defense

The University of Michigan is rolling right now. After suffering a Week 1 loss to Utah — a loss which is looking increasingly understandable as the weeks go by and Utah remains legit — the Wolverines have notched five straight wins. The last three have been shutouts, and they have scored 97 points while conceding none in those games. In their five-game winning streak they have outscored opponents 160-14 and haven’t allowed more than one score in any of the games.

Scoring that many points is reasonably impressive, but this is college football, where points fall out of the sky and touchdowns grow on trees. What is far more impressive is the defensive display — especially notching three straight total shutouts while understanding the point just made about offensive production.

The average number of points conceded (or scored) in this week’s FBS schedule was 29.5, including Michigan’s shutout-featuring game. Almost all of the other games featuring single-digit scores involved bad teams with losing records, but Michigan did this to a Northwestern team that was 5-0 coming into the game and ranked higher than Michigan in the AP Top 25.

You don’t need to look much further than the opening Northwestern drive to see what the Michigan defense is all about. In 34 seconds of game time they forced a three and out, showing quality play at every level of the defense.

  • 1st down: With just six men in the box they stuffed an inside zone run, winning all across the line of scrimmage and just squeezing the holes, leaving the runner with nowhere to go.
  • 2nd down: Jabrill Peppers covers a slant and breaks the pass up as it arrives to force an incompletion.
  • 3rd down: Michigan brings the blitz and the pressure forces an early, off-target pass to come out (Peppers again was in tight coverage even if it had been accurate).

This was all as Michigan was already sitting on a 7-0 lead with the offense yet to take the field after the opening kickoff had been taken back to the house. Games don’t begin much better than this if you’re a Wolverines fan.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this defensive run isn’t the results, but the grading at the heart of it. Of 26 players that Michigan has used on defense this year just two of them have a below-average grade, and none is worse than a -1.8, which is still closer to average than disastrous.

16 of those 26 have strong positive grades and of the players that are left, five of them have played fewer than 20 snaps. In fact, the Wolverines have just one player on defense that has played 100 or more snaps and doesn’t have a significantly positive grade.

There is no doubt at this point that Jim Harbaugh is a quality coach. The University of Michigan now marks the fourth football program that he has catapulted to respectability after falling on hard times, both in college and the NFL. His coaching and schemes are having an impact, but what leaps out from the tape is that the players are taking that coaching and applying it on the field to just dominate and win in their individual roles on each play.

Take this play from Northwestern’s second drive:


Lined up in the pistol, Northwestern run an option to the left, away from the Michigan defenders crowding the line of scrimmage and towards the open side of the field. This play on paper should work – they have the numbers advantage, especially with one defender accounted for by being optioned and left unblocked.

Despite that it ends up a loss of several yards because the Michigan players, Peppers in particular, just dominates in his one-on-one encounter and torpedoes the play in the backfield. From his spot covering the slot he just defeats the block of the receiver and fires in on the running back to take him down for a loss before the run can get anywhere.

Even without that play the rest of the defense has played it well enough that there was no guarantee of success. DE Chris Wormley played the quarterback before sliding out in pursuit of the running back once he forced the pitch. LB Desmond Morgan was into the flat quickly and rode the attempted lead block pretty effectively to cut off the intended area of attack so on a play that should have been successful pre-snap, the Michigan defense was able to blow it up based on just out-executing on an individual level. That is the story of their season at this point.

Michigan Shift

As seen above, Northwestern even tried to test this, executing elaborate pre-snap shifts to try and cause confusion in the defense and force a screw up in assignment. The fact that Michigan was so quick to adjust and still lock everything down, forcing a marginal throw that fell incomplete, is another testament to how well-drilled this unit is.

The final thing that really stood out from the tape of Michigan’s defense is the speed with which they flow to the football, especially against the run. They are happy to leave defenders in man coverage and attack with overload blitzes up front, and that too happens with speed, but watching any time Northwestern tried to gain the edge against this team was an incredible display of hustle by the Wolverines.


Take the play above, which was not in any way held up or delayed. A simple option trying to stretch the defense and the running back ends up facing five separate defenders all converging on him behind the line of scrimmage. That should not happen, and does not happen with most defenses. There wasn’t even a catastrophic breakdown in blocking assignments to create it. The Wolverines just read, diagnose and attack the football like a pack of hungry dogs chasing after a wayward ribeye steak.

Michigan was able to get pressure all game long, whether they were coming with the blitz or just rushing with 3-4 guys. Northwestern QB Clayton Thorston was actually okay when he had the time to throw: with no pressure he completed 61.5 percent of his passes and gained 6.2 yards per attempt and his NFL passer rating on those plays was 79.3.

However, when Michigan pressured him (more times in this game than he had a clean pocket to work from) he completed just 35.7 percent of his passes, gaining 1.8 yards per attempt and had a passer rating of 14.6 — and that doesn’t count the negative plays the sacks generated.

There was a similar story when Michigan dialed up the blitz. It caused Thorston’s passer rating to drop to 7.6 and he completed only a third of his pass attempts.

Michigan Stunt

They certainly weren’t afraid to trust their coverage guys and dial up overload blitzes, almost ensuring pressure by sending more players than the offense could block, but they certainly did not rely on that to generate pressure in this game.

One of the things Michigan did regularly was employ a variety of stunts and twists up front. Of their pass-rushing plays almost half (20 of 41) employed some kind of stunt on the play. Even late in the game when they were rushing just four guys and being as conservative as this defense gets, they were able to generate easy pressure and confuse the Northwestern protections by lining up the fourth rusher behind the nose tackle and not showing until after the snap which side he would be coming. This worked time and time again, and it was just one of the multiple combination rushes that Michigan used during the game.

Rushing the passer is made so much easier if you can employ stunts to mess with the blockers, and the Michigan Wolverines have become masters at it in a short amount of time.

It’s no secret that the Wolverines are looking like contenders again, but this defense is looking terrifying. Sterner tests will come for them this year, but right now they are playing lights-out across the board. There may not be a finer combination of talent, execution and coaching in the country right now.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • Aaron

    Go blue, yo.

  • Cromulent

    Is Oakland still in play?

  • MosesZD

    He’s an OFFENSE coach. His Defensive Coordinator built a great defense. He’ll get credit for the winning, just like he in San Francisco with his abysmal passing game, third-rate QB (pumped up by a junk offense that fell apart) and 1970s rushing attack.

    If he recruits a great QB, like Luck, people will say he’s the QB whisperer again. Even though he completely failed with his hand-picked NFL QB, Kaepernick.

    • ryan

      He took SanFran from a nothing team to a Super Bowl. Your criticism is incontestably the worst that has ever been uttered by a human being regarding any subject in the realm of human knowledge. Congrats, you have proven yourself to be an elite idiot.

    • Frank Chuck

      “He completely failed with his hand-picked NFL QB, Kaepernick.”

      So this is what delusion looks like. (Are you a Sparty or a Bucknut? In either case, you’re a hater.)

      Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick combined for a 4-2 record in the playoffs. Together, they won a NFC Championship Game on the road (in Atlanta) to reach Super Bowl 47 and played in the next NFC Championship Game. In both losses, the 49ers were painstakingly close to pulling off the victory.

      I think it’s hilarious that Harbaugh used a “3rd rate QB” and “1970’s rushing attack” and managed to win nearly 70% of NFL games.

      There are a number of coaches that wouldn’t mind “completely failing” like Harbaugh did.

      Granted, Harbaugh had the benefit of a great defense but isn’t it amazing how the defense gets better when Harbaugh gets there?

      Ultimately, Harbaugh is a rockstar and becoming legendary. Talent gravitates toward him. And that’s what great leaders do – attract, hire, and develop great assistants.

      • crosseyedlemon

        Well Frank, I was on board with your comment until you got to the part about Jimmy being a rockstar and legend. The reality is that he is an excellent motivator and teacher until his ego gets in the way and he starts annoying the hell out of people. The Harbaugh lovefest is going strong now but that will all change if he can’t work some magic against the Buckeyes over the next couple of seasons.

    • Marc Tanis

      Plan and simple….YOU STUPIIID.


      Sounds like a butthurt 49ers fan to me…. How are things going without Harbaugh on your sideline?? LOL

    • Mike Douglas

      How did he fail with Kaepernick when they went to two NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl? Man, that’s some definition of failure.

    • Mike Douglas

      And that’s exactly why York and Baalke fired him, because they were sick of him getting the credit.

      How’s that working out for you guys now?

  • Jae Jaeson

    Yeah yo go blue !! Well said.

  • ggoblue

    3 days to the #harbaugeddon

  • crosseyedlemon

    Excellent article and I’m not just saying that because I’m a fan of the blue and maise. Players can tell pretty quickly if their coaches have done a good job of studying opponents and have conceived of good strategies to counter attack with. The confidence that the Wolverine players have in their coaches is a big reason why the team is progressing at a much quicker rate than most were expecting.