Film Evaluation: The CMU Defense

GoBlueWolverine's Josh Turel breaks down the Central Michigan defense by analyzing the Chippewas personnel, schemes, and tendencies coming off their heartbreaking loss to Boston College in their season opener.

Defensive Philosophy & Schemes:

The Central Michigan defense doesn’t try to get too fancy scheme wise, but it still has a few tendencies that are apparent on tape. The number one vibe you get is the defense really trying to prevent big pass plays. The Chippewas play a pretty standard cover three on most occasions with a safety covering an underneath zone. The cornerbacks have large cushions and rarely come up to play near the line of scrimmage except for when they are in a cover 2. This is mainly due to the lack of size and man coverage ability at the cornerback positions.  The downside to the large cushions is the ability of the opponent to nickel and dime the secondary down the field. 

You won’t see too much substitution against three wide receiver or spread sets. Drop linebacker Ike Brown is a former free safety that plays like a hybrid linebacker/safety and takes the place of the conventional nickel back. The defense reduces the front against three wide receiver packages and splits Brown over the slot receiver. Since CMU plays pretty much all zone coverage, it allows them to use Brown in this role and not have him be too much of a liability. I didn’t see a big effort to disguise coverage mainly because the defense is in an inverted (safety in the box) cover three most of the time. The second most favored coverage is cover two/zone under.  From time to time see the team initially disguise their cover two as a cover three type coverage. They do this by putting the cornerbacks 10 to 12 yards off the line of scrimmage and then running them up to proper cover two depth before the snap.

Another scheme they will use against spread formations is a version of the 3-3-5 defense. The Chippewas use three linebackers with Ike Brown playing a strong safety role in the slot. They will sometimes only rush three linemen, but most likely you will see a blitz package from this set. The defensive front for this alignment is usually Daniel Bazuin and Steven Friend (defensive tackle) playing the two end positions with Ronnie Ekdahl playing the nose tackle.

The defense also has a distinct philosophy towards stopping the run. Against a two wide, unbalanced line, the linebackers will shade to the strong side. This is called an “over-shifted” 4-3 defense. The drop linebacker Ike Brown will align outside the tight end and play an outside shoulder technique and his responsibility is turn the play inside if it is a run or cover the flat (cover 3) or hook/curl zone (cover 2) for a pass.

The safeties also play a crucial role in run support. They almost always have run support responsibility to the outside instead of the cornerbacks. You will likely see a lot of eight-man fronts against Michigan just like the Chips’ ran against Boston College. If a team is in a two wide receiver set, a safety will come up and either stack the strong side or make up a fourth linebacker on the weak side. Essentially, the team is in a 4-4 defensive look when they add a safety to the weak side. The philosophy simply is outnumbering the opponent at the point of attack. With the over shifted 4-3, the theory is to funnel everything to the interior as well as allowing flexibility for the safety to come up and balance out the defense to the weak side.   

The defense is a semi-aggressive one, and their main reason for pressure is to account for a lack of pass rush from the front line sans Daniel Bazuin. You will occasionally see a safety added into a blitz, but most of the pressure comes from the linebackers. The team will blitz a number of areas but they like to bring pressure most of the time from the offense's strong side. You will a see good number of blitzes from the edge and the Chips love to bring pressure with drop linebacker Ike Brown. They will also use a double linebacker blitz, with one linebacker coming from the inside and one from the boundary. Expect the CMU to be aggressive on third and long, as they almost always bring pressure. Third and long is about the only time they will twist the defensive line or do anything different up front.

The team also likes to move personnel around, but there is no real pattern to the rotation. It is clear that both Michigan tackles Jake Long and Rueben Riley will have to deal with All American candidate defensive end Daniel Bazuin.

Defensive Personnel:

Defensive Line

Defensive End
#93 Daniel Bazuin, 6-3, 270, Senior
#98 Frank Zombo, 6-4, 265, Redshirt Freshman
#97 Evan Brownie, 6-2, 260, Sophomore

Defensive Tackle
#94 Steven Friend, 6-2, 292, Junior
#97 Evan Brownie, 6-2, 260, Sophomore
#51 Casey Droscha, 6-1, 270, Sophomore

Nose Guard
#92 Ronnie Ekdahl, 6-2, 300 Sophomore
#51 Casey Droscha, 6-1, 270, Sophomore

Defensive End
#52 Mike Ogle, 6-2, 245, Senior
#95 Larry Knight, 6-3, 248 Redshirt Freshman
#58 De'Onte Burnam, 6-0, 258, Junior

The group is led by the MAC’s top defensive player. end Daniel Bazuin. Bazuin has an excellent motor, which is the key to his success. You will never see him take a play off or see him let up. Bazuin is very quick with both with his feet and hands, making it very tough for offensive lineman to keep up with him. His strength is playing up field, which is a big reason why he recorded 16 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss last season. Bazuin’s only weakness is he can sometimes take himself out of the play getting too far up field. He is also much better at playing into a gap then anchoring against the run.

The rest of the unit is rather un-impressive. The Chippewa’s don’t have a second standout pass rusher to take the attention off of Bazuin. Defensive end Mike Ogle is more of a run stopping defensive end and he lacks the size, pass rush moves, and overall explosiveness to bring consistent heat on the quarterback. Ogle uses smart play, a non stop motor, and vision to account for his lack of athleticism. The situational pass rushers are Larry Knight, Evan Brownie, and De'Onte Burnam. Knight is the most athletic option of the three, while Brownie plays fast as well, but is largely out of control and he will take himself out of the play too often. Burnam also has the potential to bring pressure. Also watch for red shirt freshman Frank Zombo to get a shot at defensive end.

The team lacks great players inside and this may be the biggest weakness of the defensive front seven. Steven Friend is the best of the bunch, but is neither a great run stopper nor pass rusher. He shows the best motor and ability to get up field, but he simply needs to make more plays. Nose tackle Ronnie Ekdahl played very poorly in the season opener against Boston College and got virtually no push all game. He’s more of run stopper but he must shed blocks better and show more urgency. Backup Casey Droscha doesn’t have great size or physical tools but he is a smart player whose strength is pursuing the play.

Linebackers:

Drop Linebacker
#6 Isaac Brown, 5-11, 204, Senior
#26 Jonathan Lapsley, 6-1, 222, Sophomore

Linebacker
#41 Thomas Keith, 5-11, 239, Junior
#55 Chris Wohlgamuth, 6-0, 246, Sophomore

Linebacker
#46 Doug Kress, 6-1, 240, Senior
#99 Leython Williams, 5-11, 227, Senior

This is a fairly good unit that returns all three starters from last season. Thomas Keith is the leading returner in tackles (104) and interceptions (4). He isn’t very big but Keith is the teams best interior coverage linebacker and has very solid speed for the position. Drop linebacker Isaac “Ike” Brown is the team's strong side presence despite the fact he is very undersized. Brown plays physical on the edge and is usually able to maintain his outside contain responsibility against bigger offensive blockers thanks to his quickness and hand placement. Brown’s main problem is shedding blocks on the inside and working through traffic, where he can sometimes be thrown around by blockers. He has a physical mentality but lacks the needed strength to hold his ground. Doug Kress is a solid run stopping linebacker but he doesn’t have great coverage ability due to athletic limitations. Kress isn’t overly quick or fast, but he is still able to make plays by his smart play and experience. The backups will be used as situational players and generally have a speed-size tradeoff. Defensive end Larry Knight will occasionally play a rush linebacker role to rush the passer as well.

Secondary:

Cornerback
#7 Pacino Horne 5-10, 191, Senior
#4 Chaz West 5-1, 170, Freshman

Strong Safety
#10 Curtis Cutts 6-0, 210, Junior
#12 Eric Fraser 6-0, 199, Redshirt Freshman

Free Safety
#20 Calvin Hissong, 6-4, 198, Redshirt Freshman
#22 Aaron Carr 6-1, 184, Redshirt Freshman

Cornerback
#19 Josh Gordy 5-11, 189, Redshirt Freshman
#14 Tommy Mama, 5-10, 170, Freshman

This is the soft spot of the defense and they try to mask it by playing a lot of deep zone coverage and giving the opposing wide receivers plenty of cushion. The goal is to keep the action in front of them and contain the offense. Pacino Horne and Josh Gordy aren’t great in coverage but they are pretty solid tacklers. Horne is probably the team's best cover corner mainly because of his speed. Gordy loses positioning too often and neither he nor Horne is very physical. The one thing Horne has going for him is experience, and you can tell he is the most polished cornerback on tape. Central will throw in true freshman Tommy Mama and Chaz West to see what they have. As we discussed earlier, there isn’t a whole lot of substituting to account for larger wide receiver sets and there isn’t a set nickel back that rotates in regularly. Both Mama and West are Florida natives who have good speed but lack size.

Safeties Calvin Hissong and Curtis Cutts are very active in the defense. Their strength is against the run and they will both see time in the box and the occasional blitz. Cutts is the “8th man” in the box and is an aggressive, big time hitter when he gets to the ball-carrier. Neither Cutts nor Hissong has impressive range in coverage and will need to step up their ability to cover the deep zones and prevent big plays. The key for success here depends on the front getting pressure, and the secondary/linebackers reacting to and limiting the big plays.

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