Should Michigan football fans be worried about alarming red zone defense numbers?

Wolverines have allowed 12 touchdowns, 15 scores in 16 red zone attempts

LJ Scott is tackled by the Michigan defense during a second half run at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 20, 2018 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Michigan's defense doesn't have many flaws. Don Brown's crew ranks No. 1 by a landslide in total defense and is the main reason the Wolverines are firmly in the mix for the College Football Playoff.

Michigan is No. 1 in pass defense and No. 13 in rush defense. Opponents are converting less than 30 percent of their third-down attempts. The Wolverines are top 20 in sacks, second overall in first downs allowed and give up the nation's fewest big plays.

There's no better word for Michigan's defense than "dominant." But it isn't perfect.

If there's one concern about the group, it's the red zone defense. There's no denying the numbers are ugly, but the argument is whether or not the numbers are actually significant.

By the numbers

The raw numbers, without context, suggest Michigan's defense completely forgets how to play when teams get inside the 20-yard line.

Despite owning the No. 1 total defense in the country and ranking among the nation's best in most individual categories, Michigan is 126th out of 130 teams in red zone defense.

Teams have scored on 15 of 16 red zone trips against Michigan this year. Only three teams -- UTSA, Oklahoma and East Carolina -- allow scores on a higher percentage of opposing red zone attempts.

Michigan isn't holding teams to field goals, either. Out of those 15 scores, 12 have been touchdowns. Michigan's 75 percent touchdown allowed rate inside the red zone is 118th in the nation.

On the bright side, Michigan has only allowed 16 red zone opportunities all season, which is tied with UAB for the best mark in the country. No other teams have faced fewer than 20 red zone attempts.

Reasons not to be concerned

How is it possible to dismiss such gaudy numbers?

For starters, most of the red zone scores have come in blowouts against Michigan's reserves. Take a look at the red zone opportunities against Michigan in the games it won by at least 21 points.

Western Michigan's only red zone opportunity came with under 3 minutes remaining in a 49-0 drubbing. The Broncos got down to the 17-yard line, went back to the 23-yard line due to a sack and a penalty and eventually kicked a field goal from the 18-yard line after an offside penalty against Michigan.

That 35-yard kick made the final score 49-3 instead of 49-0.

Kwity Paye makes a tackle against Western Michigan on Sept. 8, 2018, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

The following week, SMU was down 28-7 in the final minutes of the third quarter when it put together a 16-play, 87-yard drive. A pass interference call helped the Mustangs score in four plays from the 15-yard line.

On the following drive, with Michigan up 35-13, SMU went from the 32-yard line to the 7-yard line thanks to a 25-yard pass on third and 16. It took four plays for SMU to get into the end zone from the 7-yard line, scoring on fourth and two.

SMU's final drive got into the red zone and stalled, as the Wolverines forced four straight incomplete passes from the 19-yard line.

Nebraska's first red zone score came when Scott Frost decided to kick a field goal down 46-0 late in the third quarter. Nebraska's only touchdown came with 4:14 remaining and the Wolverines up 56-3. That touchdown was also aided by a pass interference call.

Michigan led Maryland 27-7 heading into the fourth quarter before the Terps ever got into the red zone. It took eight plays for Maryland to get into the end zone from the 19-yard line, including a fourth-down conversion and an offside penalty against Michigan.

Maryland was down 42-14 when it scored from the 5-yard line on the final offensive drive of the game.

Chase Winovich rushes the quarterback against Maryland on Oct. 6, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Wisconsin scored in the red zone while down 38-7 with 3:47 remaining. The Badgers went from the 30-yard line to the 3-yard line, and scored on their first red zone play.

Penn State was down 42-0 with under 2 minutes remaining when Tommy Stevens scored from the 8-yard line.

Michigan didn't allow a red zone trip against Rutgers.

To summarize, nine of the 15 red zone scores Michigan has allowed this season came with at least a 20-point lead in the second half. Four of those scores came with Michigan up at least six touchdowns.

Michigan State's red zone touchdown is also hard to pin on the defense, as the offense turned the ball over on the 7-yard line. MSU took over and needed a wide receiver to pass to the quarterback to score on the second play.

Reasons for concern

The examples above suggest Michigan's red zone defense is nowhere near as bad as the raw numbers show, but to deny it's a problem at all is naive.

Michigan has only played in three competitive games this season: against Notre Dame, Northwestern and Michigan State. Those games were all on the road, which is where Michigan will play its biggest game of the season in two weeks.

In those games, with the starting defense on the field and the outcome still in doubt, Michigan couldn't stop opponents in the red zone.

Notre Dame got into the red zone twice in the first half, and both turned into touchdowns. The first was a Jafar Armstrong 13-yard run to put the Fighting Irish up 7-0. The second was a 4-yard run by Armstrong to go up 21-3.

The stakes were high in those moments, and Michigan gave up touchdowns.

Brandon Watson and Rashan Gary combine for a tackle at Notre Dame on Sept. 1, 2018, in South Bend, Indiana. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Four weeks later, Michigan's defense looked lost in the early moments against Northwestern. Clayton Thorson scored on a touchdown run to open the game, though that red zone trip started from the 1-yard line.

On the next Wildcats possession, Michigan needed an offensive pass interference call to push Northwestern out of the red zone from the 11-yard line, and it settled for a field goal.

The third drive ended the same as the first, with Northwestern driving into the red zone and scoring on a short run.

Michigan was down 17-0 after allowing three straight red zone scores.

Michigan State's only red zone touchdown was under strange circumstances, but it still resulted in a touchdown.

In total, Michigan faced six red zone opportunities in the most competitive games of the season. Five ended in touchdowns, and none ended without points.

For a defense that at times seems impenetrable, that could be the only weakness.

Takeaways

For a defense that's been so dominant throughout the first 10 games, it's strange to see the red zone struggles regardless of the situations. Michigan's starters almost never allow red zone trips, but when they do, opponents have scored every time.

When Michigan plays Ohio State, it needs to be able to stiffen up and hold the Buckeyes to field goal attempts. Two years ago, Ohio State missed a pair of field goals and opened the door for Michigan to get to overtime. Those opportunities can't exist if teams are getting into the end zone.

Brown is the defensive coordinator in the country, and he takes scores personally, so Michigan fans should feel confident the red zone issues will improve.

But at this point, there's no denying it looks like a weakness for Michigan's defense.

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