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Posted on Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 8:02 a.m.

Is the 3-3-5 the source of Michigan's defensive woes? Brandon Graham thinks so

By Pete Bigelow

As the standout performer on the Michigan football team’s defense for several seasons, Brandon Graham says he knows the cure for the unit’s season-long troubles.

“They just need me around,” he laughed.

Amid the growing concern about the team’s beleaguered defense, on pace to allow a school-record 360 points this season, Graham voiced support for defensive coordinator Greg Robinson.

But last year's first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles said the team’s new 3-3-5 defense is part of the problem.


Having Brandon Graham (55) back in uniform and stomping over opposing quarterbacks would be one way to improve Michigan’s defense. The current Philadephia Eagle thinks the Wolverines’ 3-3-5 scheme is part of their problems.

Lon Horwedel |

“It’s tough to see the boys struggling, knowing that Michigan, for all them years, was prided on defense,” he said. “They just have to find that niche. The 3-3-5, I don’t think it’s a good look, especially for the type of stuff we see in the Big Ten.”

Graham has watched the Wolverines' games this fall and spent his NFL off week visiting friends and resting in Ann Arbor. He said it was a mistake for the team to switch to its fourth defensive system in as many seasons.

“I’m surprised they didn’t stick with what Coach Robinson was running,” Graham said of the 3-4 the team deployed in 2009, its first year under Robinson.

Instead, coaches turned toward the 3-3-5 after the defense finished that season allowing an average of 393.3 yards per game.

Robinson had run a version of the 3-3-5 as a member of the New York Jets coaching staff in 1994, but Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez had run it recently at West Virginia and felt more comfortable with that defense.

“Let Coach Robinson play his defense,” Graham said. “Let him do what he knows. He was thrown off, I would say. I know the 3-3-5 is what he (Rodriguez) has been doing for so long. He’s just got to adjust to the Big Ten.” For his part, Rodriguez, whose team faces Illinois on Saturday (noon, ESPN) said the scheme is overrated. “The scheme itself has had success against a lot of good football teams,” he said. “But it’s the execution of schemes. We’ve got to execute the right way.”

With seven true freshmen playing on defense this season, including six in the secondary, Michigan has endured all sorts of growing pains.

The Wolverines (5-3 overall, 1-3 Big Ten) have allowed an average of 480.5 yards in four conference games and surrendered more than 500 yards three times this season.

They may have reached a low point last Saturday when third-string Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin, starting his first career game, led the Nittany Lions to 435 offensive yards.

The 41 points they scored were the most Michigan has allowed this season.

“I don’t have any grand, magic wands to wave,” Rodriguez said Tuesday. “We’re all trying as hard as we can.”

He has simplified the defense as much as possible to accommodate the learning curve of the many freshmen. He has made changes in the starting lineup, promoting Kenny Demens at middle linebacker and Ray Vinopal at safety.

He’s switched players’ positions, moving Carvin Johnson to safety, Cam Gordon to linebacker and Quinton Washington to defensive tackle.

Rodriguez said Tuesday he’ll make no changes on his coaching staff.

Robinson has fallen under particular scrutiny as the Wolverines defense has deteriorated over a three-year span.

In 2008, the year prior to his arrival, Michigan ranked 68th in the country, allowing 366.9 yards per game. In 2009, his first year in Ann Arbor, the team allowed 393.3 yards per game and ranked 81st.

Through eight games this year, the Wolverines are allowing an average of 440.9 yards per game, which ranks 106th in the FBS.

Coincidentally, the man Robinson replaced at Michigan, Scott Shafer, took over defensive coordinator duties at Syracuse, where Robinson had previously served as head coach.

In his four years as Syracuse head coach, the defense went from being ranked 61st in yards-per-game allowed to 101st. In two years under Shafer, the Syracuse defense has climbed from 101st to 13th in the country.

Robinson has declined several requests for comment this season.

“His defensive schemes work,” said defensive end Greg Banks. “It’s just the players. We have to take more pride in what he’s teaching. It’s because we’re missing tackles. We’re not capitalizing on third and long. We’re not helping him out.”

Graham echoed the support.

“I think Coach Robinson is real good,” he said. “He was somebody who really tried to teach you the game. ‘These are why we’re calling these plays or these blitzes now.’”

Graham said his concerns were purely schematic.

“You’ve got to have four down linemen. You’ve got to,” he said. “Or five. You’ve got to stop them holes, and you got to get to the quarterback. You got to trust the cornerbacks are going to do their job.”

Pete Bigelow covers the Michigan football team for He can be reached at (734) 623-2551, via email at and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.



Fri, Nov 5, 2010 : 7:38 p.m.

@ Dusty: As I recall, the UM defense shut down Florida on their last two drives in the 2008 bowl game. They didn't have to outscore Florida by having the ball last. UM was ahead and the defense came up with two back-to-back stops. I think they deserve some credit on that front, as it was not a simple matter of outscoring Florida. Carr left because he knew a crash was coming? Where is your support and evidence, sir? When Carr signed his last contract, the local newspapers talked about the clause in his contract that would move him to a position in the athletic department. The last few years everyone knew he was retiring; many columnists said he was going to ride Henne and Hart, and then retire afterward. Carr held at least once news conference that I remember to refute rumors that he was retiring right away because recruiters were using his expected retirement against him. And his last few recruiting classes, he told the press he told the recruits to come to Michigan to play for Michigan, not to play for him, because he couldn't guarantee he would be around their entire college career. In short, everything suggests Carr didn't plan on coaching forever, was gearing up for retirement, the recruits knew it, and he eventually retired. It is anything but bailing out all of a sudden. It actually makes sense he would retire after Henne, Long, Hart and company graduated, actually - that's a perfect time for a new coach to come in and make his changes. Where are the seniors, you ask? They left! That's not hard to figure out. And I suspect there were at least a small number of stellar recruits who turned down Michigan because they knew Carr was going to retire the last few years and went to programs where they expected more stability. And people in general like stability career wise. And I wouldn't say the spread is working. It looked quite disfunctional at times against MSU, Iowa, and PSU. It works when DR runs the ball all the time. I'm not sure if that proves the spread works, or just that you can win college football games with a talented running QB because the overall skill level is lower. Problem is DR cannot run the ball all the time in the Big 10. The spread probably works better if there was a big running back to get those small to medium range yards, instead of having to run the QB all the time.


Fri, Nov 5, 2010 : 10:11 a.m.

I guess what I'm not understanding with all of the RR apologists is how this current season is excusable. John Coopers worst season was his first when he went 4-6-1. Other than that, he was never under.500. This system is clearly not working in the Big 10. Our defense is disgusting to watch. With a 3rd year almost under his belt, RR has yet to field a well-rounded team and regardless of recruiting, coaching, or the players themselves, we are still not winning. I expect greatness because we are a great program. I don't see how another year with RR will see much more progress.


Fri, Nov 5, 2010 : 8:37 a.m.

Maybe the coaches run the schemes they way do because they don't yet trust the freshman DBs. You have to be experienced (and fast) to cover large areas of the field efficiently (no room for mental mistakes). I think the D-line hasn't performed up to expectations (especially with Martin's injury).


Fri, Nov 5, 2010 : 7:02 a.m.

The buck stops with the coach. Beat Purdue or else is what I read here. Even that, I think is too generous. This team not only has a terrible defense, they are poorly coached and some of the lapses like the aftermath of the blocked FG vs. Iowa show a team without enough poise and discipline to be competitive in the rough and tumble world of Big 10 football. This is not the Big East!

3 And Out

Fri, Nov 5, 2010 : 12:17 a.m.

Dusty...yeah except the offense is an average Big Ten offense at best...currently 6th in scoring... the defense will never come around under Rich Rod.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 10:55 p.m.

I agree with part of BGs comments. I think changing the defensive alignment again was a mistake. I think you need more men on the D line to fill the gaps and pressure the QB. You have to trust the DBs to do their job and the pressure means they don't have to cover as long (as long as you don't give a 10-15 yard cushion). BG played in the Big Ten and knows they style of play, even if he was on bad defenses his last 2 years. I don't agree that the coaching is good, I don't know if it's GRob or the position coaches but the tackling is poor, they take bad angles, allow too much cushion and can't get off blocks. Some of that is talent and some is coaching. 8 games in I would expect to see some improvement. One thing I've heard people say is that the DB suck because their young and experience will make them better next year. The problem is young players can pick up bad habits and lose confidence if they aren't able/ready to perform and are thrown in there. I've never been a fan of the 3-3-5 or Rich Rod and I'm sick of the excuse that it's Lloyd Carr's fault. 3 years of Rich Rod and the defense gets worse every year, that isn't Carr's fault.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 7:18 p.m.

Hey 3 and Out: No, Carr didn't have a terrible defense in 2007... he just had a defense that couldn't stop the spread. They got beat by App State's spread, and got embarassed by Oregon's. They managed to outscore Florida's or they would have lost to all 3 spread offenses they saw that year. And it was Carr's recruiting over the last couple of seasons that is the problem now. Where are all the seniors, redshirt juniors, and redshirt seniors on this defense? Shouldn't they be here right now? But they aren't... because they don't exist. People think Carr was run out of town. Carr left because he knew the crash was coming. Rich Rod is just the scapegoat for it all and just happens to be an offensive genius so we've recovered on that side of the ball already. Look at it this way: 2 years ago when the offense was terrible, people said the spread would never work in the Big Ten. Rich Rod said be patient, it'll work. Well, it's working. Now the defense is terrible and people are saying the 3-3-5 won't work in the Big Ten. Rich Rod says be patient, it'll work. See a pattern here?


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 7:11 p.m.

People who blame the 3-3-5 just don't know anything about football defenses. It's not the scheme that is causing the problems at Michigan, it's the terrible execution of the players.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 5:03 p.m.

"For his part, Rodriguez, whose team faces Illinois on Saturday (noon, ESPN) said the scheme is overrated." Really? Schemes are over rated? I guess the fact Dick LeBeau runs a system that year after year is tops in the league means it isn't the scheme, it is just the players. I guess coaches aren't needed at all

Sean T.

Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 4:07 p.m.

Though, I see your point, we must admit that this isn't medical's football. I've actually read many posts on this blog that had constructive information that would probably help the team. But like you said, we must agree to disagree. You are a very thorough individual PU, I respect that!

3 And Out

Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 4:01 p.m.

Ben....You are WRONG when you claim that Michigan was 68th in defense in Lloyd's last year of 2007. Instead of just trying to stupidly blame Lloyd Carr for everything bad under Rich Rod, people like you should really check your facts before you open your mouth. For the 2007 season, Michigan finished 24th in total defense in the BCS/NCAA. It is on the NCAA website. You are wrong.

3 And Out

Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 4 p.m.

Ben....You are WRONG when you claim that Michigan was 68th in defense in Lloyd's last year of 2007. Instead of just trying to stupidly blame Lloyd Carr for everything bad under Rich Rod, people like you should really check your facts before you open your mouth. For the 2007 season, Michigan finished 24th in total defense in the BCS/NCAA. Source it and try to understand the FACTS:

3 And Out

Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 3:53 p.m.

well great of a player that you were here.... we were not exactly world beaters on D your last 2 seasons under Coach Rod. The problem is the coaching staff...all of them.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 3:27 p.m.

pj and arch, Will has had a very poor off-season. He came in out of shape and very heavy. His work ethic is garbage. He is just now getting to the point he should have been months ago. We may see more of hom in these final games with Martin's injury. He has also put in some work on the o-line playing gaurd. But he was the one who got ran over and allowed Iowa to block the fieldgoal at the end of the first half. There is a ton of talent there, but he is not game ready.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 2:21 p.m.

Am I the only one who keeps wondering where the very large man Will Campbell is. We need to get him on the field - somewhere. We need the help on the D Line.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 1:50 p.m.

hey guys just wanted to know, where is william campbell? thats a big body we could definitly use on the line!


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 1:08 p.m.

Bring back Lloyd Carr to stabilize the program and begin the search for a new head coach. The best thing David Brandon can do at this point is call Jimmy Harbaugh home


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 12:30 p.m.

A nurse has watched a doctor perform 100 successful brain surgeries on varies patients. She assisted the doctor to perfection every one of the 100 surgeries. Would you let this nurse perform brain surgery on you?


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 12:19 p.m.

Sean, I agree with part of your comment. Robinson is limited by RR. RR is a 3-3-5 guy and is comfortable with it. However, when you are and offensive minded coach and spend nearly all of your time with the offense, you should give total control of the defense to your coordinator. So in that sence you are correct. I will disagree with you on the coaching advice of BG though. There have been many players turned coaches who are good coaches and many bad ones. Also there have been non-player coaches who are great. Either way you must prove yourself as both a player and a coach. He is not a proven coach. He does not have the credibility to offer his advice regarding the type of defense. I respect your opinion and this is mine. We may have to agree to disagree.

Sean T.

Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 12:04 p.m.

PU MSU, I have to disagree with you, in regards to Brandon Graham sticking to playing instead of coaching. He's played in at least 3 levels of Football(H.S.,NCAA and NFL) and his experience is credibility enough. G.Robinson has done a good job at the professional level and has been around great talent but he is handcuffed in AA because of RR. As a Former player and coach, you know what the teams limitations and strengths are.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 11:16 a.m.

Players, play and coaches, coach. I respect BG as a player but leave the coaching the the coaches.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 11:05 a.m.

I'll trust Brandon Graham's opinion over any armchair qb/blogger any day of the week.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 10:56 a.m.

Obviously, Brandon Grahm knows NOTHING about college football, the Mighty 335, or Defense in general!

Howard the Duck

Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 10:32 a.m.

A house divided cannot stand!

cactus charlie

Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 10 a.m.

Scott Shafer is a good coach who took the fall for Rich Rod. Now Greg Robinson is in a similar position. Rich Rod should quit crying about freshmen on defense. Iowa has a Freshman (#44) starting as a linebacker as does UCLA in Zumwalt. Rich Rod has had 2 full recruiting classes of his own. Some should be quality defensive players yet we do not see this. We need to have a top 10-20 in the country to get back as a premier program. If Rich Rod cannot do it let's move on.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 9:57 a.m.

@macabre: You need to be fair. If RR would have had more more time, he WOULD HAVE lost 16 games in 1 year. Come on. Let's not pile up on him.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 9:24 a.m.

Even with Graham 'around', the team sucked last year.

Macabre Sunset

Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 9:13 a.m.

It's all about the 4-16 conference record. It took Rodriguez's predecessor nine full seasons to lose 16 conference games. I can see using a 3-3-5 with a lot of blitzing against a pass-first offense. Haven't faced that since Indiana, won't face that again. Somehow, I doubt he will run it against Purdue or Wisconsin. That would be folly. But it's not just the scheme. The defense is simply absent. Three straight years of 300-plus points allowed (I'm assuming they won't hold the four remaining opponents under 15). In more than 100 seasons, they never gave up even close to 300 before Rodriguez got here.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 9:02 a.m.

I don't think Rosenberg was the one who made the "failure to comply charge" against richrod. I believe that was the ncaa. The more important charge " failure to be a competent head coach", still applies.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 8:34 a.m.

Tater, Its funny to see you revise your prediction from 8or9 wins down to six(maybe). I predicted 4 wins, but I also thought ND and uconn would be better. I did predict correctly the defense is worse this year than last. They were last in B10 in defense last year and this year they will be beating last years record setting worst ever UM defense. You need a reality check dude. The freshman on this d suck. Suck doesn't get better. They just keep on sucking.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 8:27 a.m.

I was surprised that Greg Robinson used a different scheme with what he is using this season. The defensive woes are the result of many factors now, scheme-coaching-talent. Other coaches can go inherit a team from nothing and turn them into something without 4-5 star recruits. RR has to go, he is a bad hire for UM.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 8:18 a.m.

Ben, Lloyd's teams had some bad games (App St, Oregon, OSU in the 42-39 loss), but didn't have bad YEARS. In his last season, UM shut out ND, held PSU to 9, Illinois to 17, OSU to 14, and beat Tim Tebow and Florida depite four (4!) turnovers from the offense. It's not Lloyd's fault. Besides, RR had many players leave SINCE he arrived, including his own recruits like Vlad Emmilen and Justin Turner. I'm sure that's Lloyd's fault, too.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 8:14 a.m.

If the 3-3-5 is overrated as RR proclaims, why not make a switch if teams are rolling up over 400 yards on the D and you get beat by a third-string walk-on QB? That "we're a young team" excuse is beginning twear thin.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 8:14 a.m.

All you have to read into in this article is what Robinson had done at syracuse and what shafer has done there and what we where before Robinson on defense and where we are now! He is a destroyer of defenses. He did the same thing in Kansas City in the NFL. In the end it wont matter because IF michigan does not beat Purdue they both are gone (I say purdue because they are not going to beat wisc, osu, or ill). I dont understand why you run a scheme that has to have a strong secondary when you dont have the bodies to have a strong secondary! But I guess this is the adaptive skills we see the coaching staff have when they come in year one and run the offense with a guy who is a passer and runs a 4.9 40. All of these things have one thing in common and that is the coaching staffs inability to understand and adapt to players and situations! On defense there is literally no coaching. My examples of this are, no gap control, blown gap assignments (every play), over pursuing every play, 10-15 yard cushion, being taught to tackle guys hi (hold them up for the strip) which leads to face mask penalties and tons of broken tackles, no safety help, no scouting to understand tendencies, not understanding how to pivot when in coverage. All of this is backed up by the fact that young players make huge strides in getting better through year one and these young players are getting worse. I doubt some of them could start on their old high school team now and the sad thing is its not that they are bad kids or dumb kids, it is just garbage coaching!!! and if you think this defense under Robinson and Rodriguez will be dramatically better next year your delusional! The 3-3-5 defense is used specifically to stop the spread offense! What teams use the spread consistently in the big ten? What teams run a smash mouth or pro style of offense? Rhetorical questions! If you are the general manager of a car dealership and for two years in a row you sell fewer and fewer cars should you get a promotion? throw your employees under the bus? or get fired? And Carrs final season mich was ranked 24th in total D, 23rd in scoring D, pass D 8th, rush D 58th! sports Statistics

The Ben

Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 8:07 a.m.

I think people need to recognize that the defensive problems actually started under Lloyd Carr. The defense was ranked 68th nationally in Carr's final season, and I remember watching a lot of frustrating games in his final few years. Especially against speedy teams or spread teams, Lloyd's teams looked completely lost on defense. While RichRod has taken things to a new low, I think the backwards slide on defense started long before he arrived. Michigan has been struggling on defense for the better part of a decade, and I think it is a recruiting issue.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 7:26 a.m.

Maybe if they completed more tackled, the scheme might not be blamed so much. Maybe if the secondary could keep up their coverage, the scheme might not be blamed so much. Regardless what type of defense a team runs, it shoud show improvement over the season.


Thu, Nov 4, 2010 : 7:16 a.m.

Graham: "They just need me around, he laughed". Yeah, no joke. I think Graham is right in that changing the defensive scheme 4 times in 4 years was clearly a mistake. And, I also agree that rushing 3 guys on many plays isn't going to get it done. The challenge with the 3-3-5 is you MUST have 3 really good players on the d-line to make it work. We have Martin, but the other 2 guys are so-so - plus Martin is now out probably. But like Rodriguez says, we often use other formations where we rush 1 or 2 more guys. I agree with him in that it CAN work well. Problem is, without the players to run it, the 3-3-5 can fall flat in the Big Ten. Then there's coaching..... it's nice that Graham and Banks are defending Robinson. But, the handwriting is on the wall. He can't get the job done. We need to go out and find the best defensive coordinator out there and hand him a huge sack of money to come coach here!