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: Aug 5, 2008
Posted on: October 27, 2011 9:43 am

Stats That Matter: Enough with the missed tackles

Here's a "stat that matters": 28-14. That's Michigan losing to the first legit team they faced this year. You should have less than 8 missed tackles playing cupcake teams. Matter of fact you should have no missed tackles against them. Beating MAC schools and the basement teams of the BIG is not impressive. You should have an 8-4 record at least. The only bulk on the schedule is MSU, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, and OSU. You already lost to one and you still haven't played the other four. You've improved slightly, but youre no Top 25 team or BCS bowl game contender and all the other b.s. these articles are saying you are.

Since: Jul 24, 2007
Posted on: October 27, 2011 8:55 am

Stats That Matter: Enough with the missed tackles

The Real secret ??? They Havent Played anyone.They should have lost to also ran Notre Dame team (Gift) 1St 5 games @ home against nobodies.The only real game the played onthe road against Mich.ST The refs kept them in the game with penalty yardage against state 4 to 1.So wake up if they played in any other conference except maybe the MAC they would be toast.They are consistitly the most overated team in the country.

Since: Oct 6, 2008
Posted on: October 27, 2011 8:41 am

Stats That Matter: Enough with the missed tackles

I like to see MICHIGAN playing better football, but they are getting into the tough part of the schedule now...6 wins and only 1 decent victory..the jury is out on the maize and blue still. Please beat an above average conference team before claiming "We're back"

This team still cannot stop anyone on the ground and the last 4 teams they play have excellent running attacks......7-5 is a distinct possiblilty in Ann Arbor, but I would guess 8-4 and the only marquee win is ND (does that count anymore?)

Since: Sep 23, 2006
Posted on: October 27, 2011 8:05 am

Stats That Matter: Enough with the missed tackles

As far as the four straight losses to MSU go, they were preceeded by six straight wins, but I know MSU fans have a short memory when it comes to those things.  At 67-32-5, the series is still nowhere near to being close.

The Romans still talk about their empire too!

Since: Sep 23, 2009
Posted on: October 27, 2011 8:02 am

Stats That Matter: Enough with the missed tackles

Funny, most of those wins will be vacated. I'd rather run a clean program any day to that ghetto program down south!! Go Blue!!

Since: Nov 16, 2007
Posted on: October 27, 2011 7:49 am

Stats That Matter: Enough with the missed tackles

It's been 2,896 days since Michgan beat OSU. 

Since: Sep 11, 2006
Posted on: October 27, 2011 6:26 am

Stats That Matter: Enough with the missed tackles

Hey captpastis,

I agree, you are taking crazy pills.  Either that, or you just can't read. The point is that statistically, their defense is much better. No one is saying they're going to win the conference or anything.

As far as the four straight losses to MSU go, they were preceeded by six straight wins, but I know MSU fans have a short memory when it comes to those things.  At 67-32-5, the series is still nowhere near to being close.

Since: Feb 11, 2009
Posted on: October 27, 2011 4:04 am

Stats That Matter: Enough with the missed tackles

People need to calm down, fans and opponents of Michigan alike.  What the Michigan State game made clear is that Michigan cannot expect to rebuild on the strength of Dennard Robinson alone.  The Wolverines definitely need to bring back the tradition of good defense, but that will take time.  Certainly if Michigan can avoid a basketball game, such as they had last year with Illinois, you would have to mark that as progress.  But they are essentially playing this season for next season.  That's what teams in rebuild mode do.  It will take a bit of time to clean up the mess left behind by Rodriguez.  What Hoke and Mattison must do is show an improving team next season, and the season after, etc.

Since: Oct 22, 2006
Posted on: October 27, 2011 3:35 am

I think I'm taking crazy pills

Ladies and Gentlemen we have a common theme here.  It seems for the last 5 or so years there is a instantaneous jumping on the bandwagon of "The New Michigan Wolverines".  I understand the pedigree and pride, but for the love of god please be rational for a minute people.  It has been the same for the last few years..."oh watch out, here they come, the Wolverines are back.... Oh, there defense is so much better this year....Oh, the Wolverines are undefeated through the first five....Oh, Denard for Heisman.....Oh, this new coach really has shaken things up!"  I don't understand how people cannot have a rational outlook on this program. 

Through the first five games played at home Michigan beat Eastern, Western, San Diego State and an completely atrocious Minnesota team.  Miraculously the second game of the year, they somehow came back to beat a Notre Dame team that is heads and tails better than them.  I was at this game and I still can't believe that Notre Dame let them back in this.  At one point I was staring at the scoreboard and it was 450 yds of offense to 120.  Kelly should have been fired on this game alone....unforgiveable.  However, Michigan showed resilience, came back and won.  I give them gold stars for heart and fight.  But please, PLEASE why can we not look at this team rationally.  How does the media and more importantly the fans jump to the illustrious conclusion that this is a good team based on the pathetic schedule.  4 losses in a row to MSU, and I cannot remember the last time they beat Ohio State.  Is this what we settle for?  All I ask is that we wait out the season before passing grades. 

Dont drink the Kool-Aid!

Since: Aug 20, 2006
Posted on: October 27, 2011 2:04 am

Stats That Matter: Enough with the missed tackles

1) Statistically, recovering fumbles is mostly a matter of luck - you see the same amount of consistency and predictability with them as you do with a random distribution).

2)They must be generous in their lack of counting missing tackles because there is not a team in the country that misses a single-digit number of tackles per game.

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