Michigan defensive front sees need for speed
September, 9, 2009
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
After Michigan completed its timed testing in the offseason, sophomore defensive linemen Ryan Van Bergen and Mike Martin examined the numbers and came to an obvious conclusion.
Whether it was the 40-yard dash, the shuttle run or another event, the Wolverines' defensive line would undoubtedly be much faster despite losing three starters. New defensive coordinator Greg Robinson and his staff also noticed the numbers and made speed a focal point of their scheme.
Wolverines linemen no longer would be divided into pass-rushers and lane cloggers. Every guy was a speed guy.
"We’re running after the ball every play," Martin said. "If there’s a ball thrown, the D-line’s running out of the stack and getting after it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 40-yard pass or a 3-yard dump, we’re always sprinting."
Michigan showcased its speed in the season opener against Western Michigan, making life miserable for Broncos senior quarterback Tim Hiller in a 31-7 win. The Wolverines recorded two sacks and six tackles for loss, and Hiller completed just 13 of 24 pass attempts in a miserable first half.
"It’s not something that they were prepared for, as far as how much we’ve advanced physically," Van Bergen said. "Our defensive line is a little bit different this year. Me, Mike, Brandon [Graham] and Craig [Roh] are all speed guys."
Hiller is known for his quick release and his short drops on passes, two factors that usually neutralize the pass rush. Western Michigan tied for 11th nationally last year in fewest sacks allowed.
“A three-step, typically it’s based to take the defensive line out of the picture," Van Bergen said. "We made our minds up as a group that we weren’t going to be ignored.”
Michigan needs a repeat performance from its line Saturday against No. 18 Notre Dame (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). The vertical passing game drives the Fighting Irish offense, which seems to have hit its stride behind junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen, wide receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, and tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Tate, Floyd and Rudolph all can stretch the field, putting pressure on defenders to make plays in space. Clausen has struggled to deal with pressure in the past, but he had plenty of time to throw last week against Nevada and completed 15 of 18 passes for 315 yards and four touchdowns.
Michigan's defensive backs tackled extremely well in the opener, but head coach Rich Rodriguez acknowledged they were often making one-on-one plays. Against Tate and Floyd, such matchups will spell trouble if Clausen isn't harassed.
"He has a lot of swagger as a quarterback, so we’re going to have to definitely get after him," Martin said.
Unlike Hiller, Clausen typically takes deeper drops and uses play-action to buy extra time in the pocket.
"Your initial get-off is going to be pretty crucial," Van Bergen said, "but you also have to be able to finish and get off of a block because you if you get stalemated at the line on a seven-step drop, you’re obviously going to be a nonfactor. They have a good offensive line, and Clausen is a good quarterback. He’ll see pressures.
"We just have to get technically sound and scale up our blitzes so we can get home.”
Notre Dame likely will gear its protection toward Graham, Michigan's sacks leader the past two seasons. Graham expects double teams and said last week he doesn't mind as long as his teammates make plays.
"We all understand if Brandon’s going to take the two blocks, me and Mike have to find a way to get home," Van Bergen said. "Either of us will get the single-team [block] in a five-man protection, and we’ve got to win the one-on-ones and get to the quarterback.”
Martin and Van Bergen also get help from true freshman Craig Roh, who started the opener at the aptly named "quick" end (linebacker/defensive end) position. Roh made an immediate impact, recording four tackles and teaming up with Van Bergen for a sack.
Van Bergen, who served as Roh's mentor during camp, expects big things from Roh.
"I asked him before the game if he was ready, and he gave me the coldest look I’ve ever seen," Van Bergen said. "He proved to everybody that he’s ready to play this game as a freshman."
And Michigan proved a younger, faster line could pay major dividends this season.