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Dave Steckel's play-calling, the turnover streak, and the reason for those cushions

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An exciting sophomore cornerback gets some teaching moments, the cushioned coverage pays off, and no matter what the depth chart says, Missouri's defense is much more 4-2-5 than not.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

After Mizzou's 38-18 win over South Dakota State, a lot of fans knew Aarion Penton as the guy they were concerned about in the secondary.

It'd be fair to say that even he was feeling the heat.

Missouri cornerback Aarion Penton shows resiliency in season opener | The Kansas City Star

Frustration started to set in for Penton. "I really did feel like they were picking on me," said Penton, a sophomore. "I don’t blame them, though. They did a good job putting me to sleep with the run game, so they got a couple big plays on me. But a real good corner snaps back into it and takes advantage of them going to their side."

Jake Wieneke caught passes of 45 and 8 yards to start South Dakota State’s next drive, but, when Lujan tried to zip a touchdown past Penton, his good fortune (and the game) turned permanently. Penton stepped inside the receiver and picked off his first pass of the season in the end zone.

Penton continued:

Most of the damage came against Penton, who was repeatedly left on an island against 6-foot-5 Jason Schneider and 6-4 Jake Wieneke. Lujan finished 21 of 28 for 239 yards, with six passes for 107 yards going to Wieneke.

Penton said the defense had not seen any film on Lujan, who put more loft on his passes than Sumner.

"They kind of put me to sleep that first quarter with just the run game. They were pounding and pounding it," Penton said. "I didn’t really feel like they were going to put it in the air at all. I guess they knew we were asleep."

Watching from my seat it was evident that Penton was giving up several inches to SDSU's 6'5" WR and perhaps even fudging about the 5'10" listed on the depth chart. Right before Penton's interception I even remarked aloud that maybe Steckel needed to switch up the personnel due to the height disparity. Then he made that play and all was forgotten.

Of course, Penton's interception was almost as much the fault of SDSU's backup QB floating the ball too deep into the endzone as it was a credit to Penton's athleticism and vision to find the ball. The cushion Penton gave Wieneke is precisely what gave him the opportunity to make that play.

For as long as I can recall, Mizzou fans have been asking why our corners give so much cushion to opposing receivers. Had Mizzou lined up in the sort of press coverage demanded and SDSU had broken the press this play would have been a guaranteed touchdown. Free safety Ian Simon was in help coverage over the top, with two receivers running deep routes on the opposite side of the field. That cushion allows the secondary to play with the ball in front of them, which is often confused for conceding "cheap yards" to the offense on slants and underneath routes. Ian Boyd addressed this very subject last year in a post perfectly titled "Why aren't we covering those guys?!"

In reality, a quick hitch pass against a corner playing in a deep alignment will just as often result in a big hit on your receiver, possibly even a pass break-up. What people should be disparaging is usually not deep alignments by the corners but deep alignments played poorly. Also ignored in this fallacious argument is the idea of what constitutes "cheap yards." A throw to the outside receiver on the other end of the far hash is a long throw fraught with peril. There is great need for both accuracy and velocity on the throw to be effective. If the throw doesn't meet those requirements, you are looking at a minor gain of yards unless the defense misses tackles. That's a high risk, low reward throw for the offense and a sensible one for the defense to allow. You can't defend the entire field, so it makes sense to encourage throws to parts of the field that are easier to defend and won't break your back

Given that we already know Dave Steckel likes putting his safeties in space and letting them make plays, it's no stretch to think that he's going to do the same with his corners. Deep lying corners who can tackle take away big plays over the top of the defense and also allow them to make breaks on the ball when it's in front of them. You see that as interceptions, big hits or pass break ups. Looking at the stats from the game you begin to see that.

Position Name Height Weight Year Snaps Stats
LCB John Gibson 6'0 190 So. 18 2 tks
LCB David Johnson 5'11 195 Jr. 17 1tk
RCB Aarion Penton 5'10 185 So. 51 2 tks 5 a/tk 1 INT
RCB Kenya Dennis 6'0 190 Jr. 38 1 tk 1 a/tk
RCB Logan Cheadle 5'10 170 Fr. 3 N/A
SS Braylon Webb 6'0 200 Sr. 53 1 tk 2 a/tk 1 fumble recovery
SS Duron Singleton 6'1 210 Sr. 42 1 tk 1 a/tk 1 INT - 19 yards
SS Anthony Sherrils 6'0 190 RSFr. 3 N/A
FS Ian Simon 6'0 195 Jr. 48 4 tks 1 a/tk 1 forced fumble
FS Cortland Browning 6'1 205 Jr. 23 N/A
FS Thomas Wilson 5'10 190 Fr. 4 N/A
Defensive Set Success
Package Production Average Results
Nickel
Run 16 for 119 yards (7.44) TD
Pass 19-of-26 222 yards (8.54) INT fumble recovery
Sack 3 for -12 yards (-4.00)
Total 45 plays 329 yards (7.31) INT fumble recovery
4-3
Run 12 for 9 yards (0.75)
Pass 4-of-6 24 yards (4.00) INT
Total 18 plays 33 yards (1.83) INT

(Snap-counts via David Morrison, stats via of MUTigers.com)

What you see is a lot of Mizzou in the 4-2-5 Nickel with safeties playing their responsibilities deep to shallow. As soon as they know the play is in front of them they attack the ball carrier looking for a big hit, forced fumble, interception or pass break up. Such a play was evident on Duron Singleton's interception where, even though the pass was tipped by the SDSU receiver, the interception was due to Singleton playing up, putting him in the position to make a play on the deflection.

Singleton said of the interception:

"That was one of the craziest interceptions I've ever had in my career. I was in Cover 3, tried to bang the slot receiver and as soon as I turned around, it was there. I almost fell, actually. But it just happened to fall right in my hands. Just in the right spot at the right time."

Mizzou's 46-game streak of forcing a turnover is absolutely a result of a concerted effort by Steckel's defense to force opposing quarterbacks to make high-risk low-reward throws and capitalizing on mistakes. Much was made about Mizzou giving up long third downs but ultimately they had very little effect on this game.

Morrison pointed out something else I found interesting,

"...Missouri just didn't go 4-3 often..."

followed by,

"Speaking of the 4-3, Missouri was killer in it, giving up only 33 yards in 18 plays and producing Penton's interception."

The 4-3 defense wasn't directly responsible for producing Penton's interception, but it highlights that Steckel turned to it when he needed a stop.

There was a lot of talk last week about how Mizzou would be playing primarily a vanilla offense and defense. Fans saw that on offense with the heavy emphasis on the run game. I think the common thinking was we'd mostly see Mizzou in a 4-3 -- I even made comments to that effect. In reality, Mizzou's vanilla defense was the same 4-2-5 Nickel Defense we saw Mizzou field in its Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma State.

This leaves me to ponder what exactly Steckel has up his sleeve with his 4-3 defense where he used Donavin Newsom to great effect.

And since I've spent so much time talking about corners in this point I'll leave you with a quote from Monday that stood out to me: