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Examining Mizzou's defense vs UCF: The defensive line brings the pressure in the second half

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I came away from Mizzou's 38-10 win over UCF really impressed with the defense, primarily the defensive line, from the starters all the way to the backups and wanted to use this opportunity to take a closer look at what they did and who stood out.

In my previous breakdowns, I pondered what Steckel had in store for the 4-3 defense. I strongly suspected that Mizzou would use more 4-3-4 vs UCF considering O'Leary's offensive scheme and sure enough, Mizzou fielded it right out of the gate. We didn't see much of the 4-3-4 in previous games, partially because it didn't suit our opponents, and partially because I suspect Steckel wanted to keep it under wraps for teams that run a more traditional two-back offense. Steckel's long game is playing out pretty well so far, even if, as we'll learn later, UCF put in a completely new offense between their loss to Penn State and Mizzou.

From David Morrison's Snap Count piece:

Missouri lined up in its 4-3 defense 38.7 percent of the snaps against UCF after being in it a little less than a quarter of the time over the first two games. That's understandable, as UCF uses more Pro-Style looking sets and attached tight ends/H-backs of its own. And Missouri probably would have used it more had the game not gotten lopsided in the second half and UCF been forced into obvious passing situations.

Basically I examined almost every conversion by UCF to see what happened and why. I am also providing you with visuals so you can see for yourself. On many of the images, if you hover over them you'll see a yellow button with a play symbol in it that should bring up a GIF of the ensuing play.

And yes, I got a bit carried away.

1st Quarter

1st Q: 3rd and 15

Kentrell Brothers comes from the LB position to put pressure on Holman, while Michael Scherer back-pedals out of it and Ian Simon comes from his free safety position because of the threat of the QB run (which Scherer could have handled). If Simon stays in his spot he's in a good position to break up the pass if Perriman doesn't botch the catch. I guess you could argue that it was Mizzou's pass rush affecting Holman's nerves, but it was just as likely a first down conversion.

1st Q: 2nd and 3

Steckel brought the blitz on 2nd-and-3, but based on Scherer coming off the right tackle I'd say he anticipated a QB rollout. Kentrell Brothers has to flow outside to cover the running back in the slot and thus leaves a massive gap for Holman to pick up the first down.

I think it was Andre Ware who suggests because of the "man looks" (he circles the players) it allows Holman to take off. The only part that affects the outcome of the play was the LB playing man coverage on the running back. Plain and simple, this is what happens when you make a mistake on a blitz.

1st Q - 3rd and 14, false start, 3rd and 19

The corners and nickel safety line up no less than six yards off line of scrimmage. Having watched this game several times and all Mizzou's games this season I can tell you that six yards is the standard. It's closer to nine or 10 yards on a particularly fast receiver on the outside.

Braylon Webb should have had the interception on this play, John Gibson is the corner. Webb misjudged the flight of the ball and UCF's Reese makes a spectacular grab.

These things happen.

It felt like a big play when I saw it happen live. This was the first time on Saturday a fan uttered the words "That's what happens when the corners play so far off the ball."

On 3rd-and-19, the defense doesn't care if you pick up 9-12 yards because you need 19. So all those yards the WRs are allowed to "run free" mean nothing. Any advantage the WR may gain with speed is negated by that cushion and that same cushion gives the corner and the safety room to react to a deep ball. If the corner is playing tight to the line of scrimmage or even press coverage at the line a couple things can happen:

  1. He jams the WR out of his route and destroys the timing of the play

  2. He jams but the WR gets free and now they are running stride for stride down the field - This is a situation where you're more likely to see DPI. You'll notice we don't get many of those called against us.

  3. He attempts to jam and gets beat, meaning the safety help has to bail him out over the top, which a good QB can use to either fit a pass along the sideline or take advantage in the gap in coverage over the middle.

Steckel's defense is designed to allow the defensive line to rush the passer, the DE's penetrating deep upfield and the DTs collapsing the pocket. Playing tight on the man encourages quicker decisions and quicker passes that negate the pass rush.

1st Quarter - 3rd and Goal

First off, Connor Shaw would have thrown this for a touchdown. A more accurate QB would have converted this red zone possession. Gibson does what he's supposed to do, switch and take the WR going into the back of the endzone. Webb is a bit slow reacting and still comes close to making a play.

Playing defense the way Mizzou does means we'll be seeing teams get into the red zone. Just the play before, the defense demonstrated it could stuff runs up the middle, which forced this rollout pass play by UCF. If I'm making the film review from this game, I'm showing this play a dozen times and teaching them how to react better because I assure you they'll see it again.

Maty Mauk throws an interception on the next possession, which gives UCF great field position at the 31 yard line. Combining this with the fact that Mizzou's defense had just been on the field for an extended drive and forced a field goal, this is a less than ideal situation to defend.

We see Mizzou come out in the 4-3 defense again, and the formerly embattled Marcus Loud makes his first appearance, tackling Holman on a triple option run up the middle that probably reminds some of Auburn. This forces a 3rd and 7 where Holman completes a terrible pass into the dirt that JJ Worton somehow gets underneath to convert. While I was initially frustrated by the conversion, it gave me hope that, with that catch, perhaps he'd "used up" his one miracle reception for the game.

2nd Quarter

2nd Q - 3rd and 12

What we see here is Steckel faking double A gap pressure up the middle, having his two LBs drop back into coverage at the snap. The fact that he used this play was interesting to me because it tells me that he trusts those LBs to make plays in coverage even if they didn't do so on this play. Because that's what happened on this 3rd and 12 conversion - the linebacker Kentrell Brothers wasn't able to get back into coverage fast enough to make a play underneath the route. That's something he'll be able to do with more experience.

Again from Morrison:

Alright, let me explain that last thing first. On probable passing third (and, one time, fourth downs), Dave Steckel had his two Nickel linebackers settle in right behind the defensive tackles before the snap. Seven times, both dropped back in coverage. That yielded five first-down completions, a sack and an incompletion. Twice, only the Will backer blitzed, both times leading to an incompletion. Once, both Scherer and Ruise blitzed, which ended in Ray's sack and strip of Justin Holman.

2nd Q: 4th and Goal: UCF's touchdown

A flare pass to the running back which was set up by UCF screening off the defenders but not before the defense stuffed several runs up the middle, forcing the 4th down. And I should remind everyone, this was all aided by UCF getting great field position and having worn Mizzou's defensive line out on the previous drive.

In turn, Mizzou drives down the field on UCF's well rested defense with that starts at 12:17 and ends almost exactly six game minutes later with a touchdown pass to Jimmie Hunt. That's pretty awesome.

The next drive saw UCF try more to implement the offense that had gashed Mizzou in the SEC Championship game. Over on PowerMizzou, Pete Scantlebury talked about this:

Scherer said UCF stuck to "a few plays" that Auburn ran, and once the defense realized what UCF was doing, it became easier to pick up on how to stop it. Even though the defense hadn't seen UCF run those plays on film, they've been preparing for moments like that since the end of last season.

"Coach Kool always talks about that, how a lot of teams are going to be doing what Auburn did to us in the SEC Championship," Markus Golden said. "So we expected it. We prepare for it, even in practice, we always run a couple of those plays."

2nd Q: 2nd and 5

The first time it worked despite Harold Brantley getting terrific penetration, Scherer filled to the inside instead of the outside, forcing Darvin Ruise to meet the running back 6 yards down the field on a 2nd and 5.

The next play Mizzou brought a blitz from Donavin Newsom's Sam linebacker position that forced Holman to throw the ball away. On 2nd and 10 Harold Brantley nearly got the sack Lucas Vincent and Markus Golden cleaned up. That set up another 3rd and long which UCF would convert.

2nd Q - 3rd and 16

Once again we see the fake double A gap pressure where the linebackers bail into coverage, Singleton, Dennis and Webb form a triangle of coverage around Worton that add to the difficult of the throw and the catch. Once again I just have to give Holman and Worton credit for making a great play.

Remember when I thought JJ Worton was out of great catches? That's him catching a pretty damn good pass, Holman gets it out just before Lucas Vincent could get the sack and Braylon Webb nearly gets there to break the pass up.

Fortunately for Mizzou, the drive stalls via the combination of a holding penalty, too many men on the field and Harold Brantley, defensive tackle extraordinaire:

6'3", 214 pound Justin Holman thought he was going to beat 6'3" 285 pound Harold Brantley to the outside, but that man can move!

Once you catch your breath, realize this is a definite trend from Steckel -- dropping a defensive "tackle" into coverage against mobile QBs rather than using a linebacker to spy. He disguises the play while forcing teams to respect the pass rush from GoldenRay and allowing the linebackers to play middle to deep coverage. We've seen him do this pretty consistently when he really wants a stop.

Despite giving up three 3rd and very long conversions, Mizzou led 14-10 at half-time. UCF's only touchdown came almost primarily as a result of Maty Mauk's interception giving them great starting field position. At the half, both teams had the same average starting field position (the 37-yard line). At the same time, UCF could have just as easily been tied 14-14 if Justin Holman makes a slightly better throw on a designed rollout (never mind Shane Ray breathing down his neck).

The stats at the half:

UCF 1st Half Stats Mizzou
68 Rush Yards 73
97 Pass Yards 41
165 Total Yards 114
19:31 Time of Possession 10:29
0 Turnovers 1 (1 INT)
4/8 3rd Downs 6/6
1/1 4th Downs 0/0

HALFTIME

It's halftime and UCF gets the ball down only four points and still hellbent on shortening the game by running the ball.

3rd Q - 3rd and 2

UCF comes out and runs a read option play that gains about 6 yards. For as much as Mizzou talks about practicing against it, they still seem to struggle versus it, even with four down lineman and all three linebackers flowing to the ball. I suppose you could say that it's a tough offense to defend, particularly when ran well.

It's at this point that I'd like to highlight an observation I've made about Mizzou's defensive tackles. They strike me as more of the pass rushing variety rather than the run-stuffing variety. They are Justin Smiths rather than say, Vince Wilfork. That isn't to suggest they can't stuff the run, we've seen them do that earlier this game on a goal line stand, but rather that they're better suited for one versus the other. This really makes sense in the context of Steckel's ideology that he trusts his defensive line to make plays and wants his linebackers and safeties to make plays in the space behind them. This is largely in part due to the incredible coaching by Craig Kuligowski.

3rd Q - 3rd and 8

Speaking of which, we see that trust being repaid on the very next third down. Fake double A gap pressure where the linebackers once again bail to cover those inside routes and the play results in a sack of Holman. I particularly like how the running back is supposed to help block Markus Golden off the edge but it's Shane Ray coming back across the face of three UCF lineman who makes the sack.

3rd Q - 3rd and 6

I think this is the only play where the cushion hurt Mizzou, and it really came down to the corner on that side playing too far off. On 3rd and 6, the only member of the secondary to line up close to the standard 6 yard cushion is Duron Singleton and possibly Mizzou's best cover corner John Gibson is nearly 10 yards off his man, which gives UCF's wide receiver plenty of space to come back and catch another ball thrown in the dirt.

Guess what though?

This drive ended with the Josh Augusta's interception. Clearly we should be playing Augusta at corner.

3rd Q - 3rd and 4

This is the play that Andre Ware says, "If it's 3rd and long you know you're going to get some blitz and some pressure." Except Mizzou doesn't really blitz in these situations, especially not with so much of the field behind them.

Same song different verse, Mizzou fakes the double A gap blitz, and since there are two running backs in the back field, Duron Singleton is stacked up over the tackle and subsequently put a in a great position to make a play on the ball. Once he sees the running back is staying in to block he peels back to cover the slant route and almost gets there in time to make an actual play on the ball.

Mizzou played without cushions and it worked hooray that must mean it will always work and we should always run it!

4th Quarter

4th Q 3rd and 2

Motioning JJ Worton across the formation to take Aarion Penton from guarding the running back out of the backfield who's the real target of the play. Worton runs a short out to give the running back space to get to the first down and Holman makes the good throw. Not much more to say about this play except it's a well run play that Mizzou will probably use as a teaching moment.

4th Q 3rd and 3

All that fake pressure up the middle is finally acted upon when Kentrell Brothers spies the QB but Harold Brantley forces an awful pass that should have been intercepted.

4th Q 4th and 3

A BLITZ!

We see a blitz from Dave Steckel and I giggle inside because he finally rewarded us for all that build up. Shane Ray shoots deep into the backfield while Brantley, Vincent and Golden plus a blitzing Brothers slant to their left, taking the remaining four lineman out of the way so Scherer can get a clean shot at the QB

EXCEPT Shane Ray gets there first and forces the fumble that Scherer is now in perfect position to pick up.

Notable here is that Gibson at the top of the screen is playing press coverage to prevent the hot read and Aarion Penton actually walks up on his man at the bottom of the screen. Ian Simon is in the yellow box and serves to provide extra support if Holman somehow escapes the pass rush and provide shallow coverage against the curl or dig route from the Z receiver.

4th Q 1st and 10

I had to include this play because it's great scheming on the lineman twists. Golden goes inside toward the guard's inside shoulder while Brantley briefly engages the center before he flows outside toward the tackle who has now lost inside contain on Lucas Vincent pushing right between the guard and right tackle.

Lucas Vincent sack for loss of 9 yards (also first mention of "Harold Bentley")

Two plays later

4th Q 3rd and 15

3rd and long and tired of messing with this UCF team, Steckel turns to old faithful -- dropping Harold Brantley into shallow coverage, allowing the linebackers to drop even deeper and the safeties to guard against the outside shoulder throw and voila! Braylon Webb interception just like we should have seen on the very first 3rd and long. I honestly wouldn't be surprised if this was bait laid out by the defense based on the earlier play.

4th Q 2nd and 10

With the backup defensive line (Charles Harris, Josh Augusta, Rickey Hatley, Marcus Loud) in late, UCF tried once more to drive the field and pick up garbage points.

In the play above, Rickey Hatley forces a fumble by Justin Holman, the ball his picked up by the tackle (he's credited with the recovery according to all the official stats), and then Josh Augusta forces a second fumble that Duron Singleton picks up and returns for the touchdown. I simply want Big Bear to get credit for what he did.

UCF 2nd Half Stats Mizzou
22 Rush Yards 105
112 Pass Yards 103
134 Total Yards 208
15:16 Time of Possession 14:34
4 (2 fumble, 2 INT) Turnovers 0
3/7 3rd Downs 4/8
0/1 4th Downs 0/1

Mizzou Defense vs UCF
Down RUN PASS Total
OVERALL 34 25 59
1ST DOWN 15 10 25
2ND DOWN-SHORT 2 2 4
2ND DOWN-MIDDLE 2 1 3
2ND DOWN-LONG 6 6 12
3RD DOWN-SHORT 1 1 2
3RD DOWN-MIDDLE 3 2 5
3RD DOWN-LONG 4 3 7
4TH DOWN 1 1

Observations:
  • Matt Hoch was out, but Josh Augusta is a more than capable backup. He's already getting a quarter of the snaps in the game, rotating with Brantley in this game, but he's huge and explosive and if he can prove he has the endurance to play more downs I'd argue he deserves to push for starting time over Hoch.
  • Harold Brantley is going to be very good. It's obvious to me that Steckel trusts him to be able to do things he can't do with other players (I believe I've only seen Hoch drop into coverage prior to this game), but he's capable of playing inside because he has the hand speed to break blocks and the quickness the chase the quarterback.
  • I came away impressed with Marcus Loud and Charles Harris equally. One play that stood out to me by Loud was that he recognized the run and hedged down to make the tackle for a short gain. It's encouraging to see him playing and getting minutes early in the game after being somewhat in the doghouse earlier. Harris strikes me as a big man who needs to work on his hand fighting skills so he can beat tackles one on one.
  • Lucas Vincent is good and can be better but he's asked to anchor the defensive line sometimes and take on multiple blockers, but he can get better at staying low and getting off blocks so he can get to the QB or RB when the step up into the pocket. He's very good in short yardage situations too.
  • Since I haven't spent much time lauding Golden or Ray, consider this it. Ray obviously had the breakout game we all know he's capable of, he was in the backfield on most plays and was diagnosing runs incredibly well, getting off the block to slow down or tackle the defender on several occasions. Golden was a bit quiet but I think he served a bit of a Kony Ealy to Michael Sam role in this game, anchoring his side of the line to free up Ray. UCF also lined the running back to his side on several occasions to help the tackle, which, in addition to Holman's scrambling, limited his play-making ability.
  • The corners remain a concern, particularly Penton who needs to be more aggressive in run support, but he's by no means soft, there were several plays where he was driven back by a larger player but he was smart and avoided being taken out of the play completely which forced the running back to slow up and allowed him to be caught from behind. John Gibson is getting better and so is Kenya Dennis, I think Mizzou sticks with Penton as a starter unless there is an obvious mismatch or injury, but if so I think Kenya is capable of stepping up.
So, what changed in the second half?

Mizzou stopped the run and forced some turnovers, notably Josh Augusta's interception which changed the tenor of the game by putting Mizzou in prime field position and forcing UCF to abandon it's ball control, time wasting offense. Teams that don't turn the ball over (as UCF didn't in the first half) will have better success against Mizzou, as will teams that are capable of quickly changing field position, either through explosive plays or via their own defense. We still saw some issues defending the read option play and will still saw 3rd and longs given up through the air. However, Mizzou was lucky in both halves because UCF couldn't make better plays and the defensive line started causing havoc vs UCF's less experienced offensive line. Shane Ray and Markus Golden are not the only players to know on this defense, the big guys in the middle are who allow those two to make those plays.

Anyway, what do y'all think? Did I miss something? Did I misread a play (it's more than possible considering how many plays and how long I've been awake.) Let me know in the comments.