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Mizzou Pass Defense: An Autopsy

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So after taking a day to digest what happened in St. Louis, I whipped out the TiVo to try to figure out exactly what most Mizzou fans were thinking: what the hell went wrong with our pass defense?

I went back through Juice's first four touchdown passes (before my TiVo cut out) to try to assess what the scheme was, what went wrong, and who exactly was to blame.

TOUCHDOWN PASS NO. 1:

Td_pass_1_medium

The situation is stated in the top left corner of the diagram. Mizzou leads 7-0 but Illinois has worked into MU territory. The Illini line up in the Gun, with Dufrene left of Juice, a split end out wide on the left, a tight end to the right, and Judson and an unspecified slot receiver on the right. The left side of the field, both offense and defense, is unidentifiable but is also fairly inconsequential during the course of the play. 

The play begins with a playfake from Juice to Dufrene, which at first appears to suck in Sean Weatherspoon. As the play develops though, Spoon shuffles along the line of scrimmage, showing himself  to be playing a QB spy. Brock Christopher sits in a zone to take away the middle of the field.

The secondary is where the problem begins to occur. William Moore, lined up on the slot receiver before the snap, is sent on a nickel back blitz. This leaves safety Justin Garrett in man on the slot receiver (who I think was Arrelious Benn), who runs a post route and forces Garrett to the middle of the field. This route keeps Garrett from providing any support over the top, leaving Kevin Rutland in man-on-man with Will Judson on the right sideline. Judson barely gets by Rutland and goes up to make a great catch for the touchdown.

Here's the kicker, though. The coverage from Rutland was OUTSTANDING. But here's the thing about playing defensive back - you can be in perfect position and be step-for-step with the receiver, and if you don't make a play on the ball, it doesn't mean squat. Rutland NEVER looks back at the ball, giving Judson a chance to go up over him and get it.

Moore and/or Eberflus can be faulted for the ineffectiveness of the blitz, as Willy Mo is easily picked up by the IU O-Line. Moore is officially taken out of the play, but at the speed that this play developed, I'm not sure that it would have mattered.

VERDICT: Eberflus sent Moore on the blitz hoping that either A) Willy Mo would get to Juice first or B) Garrett and Rutland would be able to hold their own in man coverage. He was wrong about Part A, and very nearly right about Part B. This one is pretty much ALL on Rutland. A good defensive back has to have an innate sense of when the ball is in the air and show the ability to go up and make a play on it.

Breakdowns of the next three TD passes after the jump.

TOUCHDOWN PASS NO. 2:

Td_pass_2_medium

On the second TD pass, Illinois comes out with trips left, one back left of Juice, and Chris Duvalt isolated on the right sideline. Mizzou comes out in the nickel, with both Christopher and Weatherspoon showing blitz. The key matchup, before the play at least, is making sure Carl Gettis is on Benn in the slot with William Moore not on the field.

The trips set of receivers on the left runs a very common combination of routes. The X receiver runs a slant with Tremaine Vaughns in man coverage. Benn runs a drag across the middle with Gettis on his tail. The inside receiver, which looked like the UI tight end, runs a deep cross with Christopher lagging behind. On the right side, Castine Bridges is left alone in man coverage on Duvalt, who runs a wheel/fade.

Eberflus sends Spoon on the blitz and, stop if you've heard this before, gets easily picked up by the Illinois O-Line. 

The question here becomes the usage of the safeties. Garrett sits in what looks like a Cover 1 over the top, but after watching the tape 15-20 times, I can't figure out exactly what Del Howard's assignment was. Howard creeps up towards the line of scrimmage for a split second until turning and trying to recover towards the Bridges/Duvalt pairing. I literally can not figure out what he was trying to do.

VERDICT: Once again, though, the coverage doesn't appear to be the problem. Castine goes step-for-step with Duvalt and is in great position to make the play. But JUST like Rutland before him, Bridges fails to make a play on the ball, and all of the sudden Juice begins to feel the momentum.

Star-divide

TOUCHDOWN PASS NO. 3:

Td_pass_3_medium

So, if blitz ineffectiveness played a small role in Juice's first two TD passes, it finally blew up in Mizzou's face on the third. Illinois comes out in trips right with a back and the X receiver to Juice's left. The inside slot receiver runs somewhere between an out and a corner route, with Garrett shading his coverage towards him on the right sideline. The Z receiver (Judson) on the far right runs a deep drag, taking Bridges (in man coverage) with him. With Garrett being sucked down and Castine being dragged across the field, this leaves a HUGE hole over the top.

Spoon and Christopher are both sent on a blitz and get little to no pressure on Juice. The blitz's failure once again leaves the secondary hanging out to dry a little bit. But, this time, it wasn't a failure to make a play on the ball that cost them.

William Moore, who was playing off of Duvalt in the slot, falls for a pump fake by Juice on the stop-and-go/wheel route. In that split second, Duvalt catapults by Moore and absolutely torches him en route to a wide open catch in the right side of the end zone.

VERDICT: The blame here is four-fold. Eberflus gets a share of the blame for continuing to send ineffective blitzes while the secondary struggles in man-to-man. Christopher and Spoon each take some of the blame for being swallowed whole by Illinois O-Line. But a large portion of the blame falls on Willy Mo, the All-American who not only bites hard on the pump fake, but gets burned over the top in the process. But let's give credit where credit is due: it was a great pump fake from Juice and a very well-run route from Duvalt.

Star-divide

TOUCHDOWN PASS NO. 4:

Td_pass_4_medium

So, 45-28 in favor of Mizzou in the fourth quarter. This one's over, right? Not so fast, my friend.

On the third touchdown pass, the misdirection of the pump fake ate up the Mizzou defense. On the fourth, the playaction to the halfback left of Juice absolutely undressed the secondary.

Juice play fakes to the back, and Spoon and Luke Lambert each take a step up expecting run. Both recover from misstep to settle into what appeared to be zone coverage over the middle. The two backers, along with William Moore, are charged with watching the drag/slants of the tight end and Benn out of the slot to make sure they aren't wide open over the middle.

But the real Charlie Foxtrot on this play is what happens on the right side of the field. To say Justin Garrett bites hard on the play fake is an insult to all things that bite hard. Garrett flies in from the safety position in run support, only to realize the massive void he's left over top once he sees that Juice has the ball. Tremaine Vaughns, lined up on Judson on the right side, bumps Jusdon off the line and stays with him for five yards or so. It is at this point where goes from looking like he was in man coverage to looking like he was in a shallow zone of a Cover 2. After the bump, Vaughns tries to settle into the flats, but looks over and sees that Garrett is nowhere to be found in support over top.

Both Garrett and Vaughns scramble and scamper back towards the streaking Judson as fast as they can, but 12 yards of separation isn't the easiest gap to make up. Judson reels in the pass, and, once again, IU makes it a game.

VERDICT: This time, there's no blitz to blame. All of the blame falls on the duo of Garrett and Vaughns, primarily on Garrett. There's always the chance that there was a miscommunication and Vaughns should have been in man coverage, but it looks like Mizzou was running a pretty basic Nickel Cover 2. Garrett gets sucked in on the play fake like Juice is a Dyson vacuum, and 65 yards later, Judson punishes him for it.

WEDNESDAY UPDATE: Dave Matter answers my question from above, indicating that there was indeed a miscommunication. This takes a lot of heat off of Justin Garrett:

Illinois’ longest pass capitalized on a classic case of miscommunication in the secondary. On Illinois’ first series of the fourth quarter, Illini receiver Will Judson blew by cornerback Tru Vaughns, who appeared to expect safety help over the top. But strong safety Justin Garrett was helping double-team slot receiver Arrelious Benn, leaving Judson 7 yards behind Vaughns when he hauled in Williams’ pass down the right sideline. He jogged to the end zone for a 65-yard score.