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Film Room: Mizzou’s Third Down Defense

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Will the Tiger defense continue its stinginess on third down?

NCAA Football: Missouri at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

To a football nerd like me, third down defense is crazy fun: Funky, inscrutable fronts! Disguised blitzes and max coverages! Fantastic schemes the defensive coordinator doodled while on the toilet! Craziness!

Thus far in Film Room we’ve focused almost exclusively on what Kelly Bryant will mean to the Mizzou offense.

He’s a good player. It makes sense.

This time, however, we turn our attention to defense, specifically the Tiger’s third down defensive package.

Defensive third down efficiency was a bright spot for a sometimes frustrating 2018 Missouri defense. The Tigers allowed conversions on only 34.2% of third downs, good for 24th in the national rankings, and tied with Alabama.

I would guess we’ll look at third down schemes here in Film Room at some point during the season, so let’s set a baseline by looking at some of the schemes defensive coordinator Justin Walters used last year on 3rd down and medium-to-long.

Third and Medium-to-Long

On any down, defensive coordinators have three choices. They can blitz. They can play standard defense, rushing four and covering with seven. They can max cover, dropping more than seven. On third down and medium-to-long, DCs tend to exclude the middle, blitzing or max covering.

What follows are four examples where Mizzou forced a fourth down on a 3rd and medium-to-long down. I tried to represent the scope of strategies Walters employs by including schemes ranging from a six-man blitz to an eight-man coverage, from pure man-to-man to disguised zone schemes.

vs. Tennessee: 3rd and 11

In our first example, Tennessee aligns with a bunch to the right and a tight end to the left. Walters sends eight defensive backs onto the field, signaling that he’ll opt to cover.

Instead he calls a six-man blitz, sending one DB, Tyree Gillespie (#9), on the rush, along with the three DL and LBs Terez Hall (#24) and Cale Garrett (#47).

The coverage is Cover 1, also called man-free. Underneath defenders play man-to-man and a free safety patrols the deep middle. Alignment gives away that it’s man coverage: the Tigers have a defender lined up directly over each receiver. Eyes are also important for discerning coverage: a man-to-man defender looks at his assigned receiver, in zone, inside at the quarterback. Look at nickelback, Khalil Oliver (#20). Not only does he have his eyes on his man, he has his entire body turned to him and away from the ball.

There is no specific defender assigned to the RB, so presumably an edge rusher, Chris Turner (#39) on the left or Gillespie on the right, would peel off to cover the RB if he released. There’s no need here as the RB stays in to block.

Or to not block, as is the case here. The RB is slow getting to the edge and Gillespie speeds by him, delivering a vicious clothesline to Vols’ quarterback Jarrett Guarantano.

Why was the Mizzou defense successful? The Volunteers keep the TE and RB in protection, so they have seven to block Missouri’s six rushers. They just...well, they do a terrible job. It looks like full slide protection, so the left guard should have picked up Garrett slipping through the strong A gap, but the lineman gets hung up double-teaming Tre Williams (#93). And, again, the back whiffs on Gillespie.

Guarantano limps off, tries to return on the next series, but exits the game permanently soon thereafter.

vs. Georgia: 3rd and 9

The Tigers snatched momentum early in the Georgia game on this wild Christian Holmes (#21) interception on a 3rd and 9.

The Bulldogs set twin receivers to each side.

There’s some disguise going on here. Initial alignment suggests the underneath defenders are playing man: nickelback Adam Sparks (#14) has his entire body turned to the slot receiver on the offense’s right, just like Oliver did in the previous example. But on the snap Sparks turns and blitzes.

Missouri rarely zone-blitzed last year, but that’s what this turns out to to be: five rushers in front of a two-deep/four-under zone. Holmes is the CB at the top of the screen. He forces the outside receiver to widen around him, then passes him off to Safety Joshuah Bledsoe (#18), who is playing the deep half behind. Notice how Holmes keeps his eyes on quarterback Jake Fromm, settling into the flat as the slot receiver breaks outside.

Gillespie aligns over the center, then hustles to cover the slot receiver, fixing a Bulldog sandwich with Holmes.

Why was the Mizzou defense successful? Georgia does a fine job picking up the pressure, getting the RB across the formation to block the nickel. Turner runs a wicked loop from the left edge to the opposite A gap, but is met by a waiting guard.

Fromm is not pressured, but the zone coverage surprises him. And, of course, Holmes makes a great play, hanging on the outside receiver until the slot turns to the flat. Only then does he pounce.

vs. Florida: 3rd and 9

We’ve seen Mizzou blitz five and six players, and play man and zone coverage. In the last two examples, Walters chooses to max cover, deploying eight players in coverage.

In this example, Florida sets bunched receivers to the left with a single WR split to the right. Walters leaves both his inside linebackers, Hall and Garrett, on the field along with seven DBs.

The Tigers rush only the three defensive linemen and play Cover 2 Man with a spy. In Two Man, the underneath defenders play man-to-man with the safeties in deep halves over the top. Garrett aligns as a potential blitzer, but spies the quarterback, not rushing or covering, but just watching for a Felipe Franks scramble.

Why was the Mizzou defense successful? Two Man is a staple of most 3rd and medium-to-long packages, and this is why. Even with no immediate pressure— Chris Turner and Tre Williams break through, but late— Franks can’t find an open man. With nowhere to go with the ball, Franks opts for self-preservation, and chucks it to the sideline.

Georgia: 3rd and 7

In this final clip we see another three-man rush, this time supported by pure zone coverage. Georgia sends three receivers left and one to the right. The Tigers set a 3-4 front.

That’s a 3-4, but with base 4-2 personnel. DE Nate Anderson (#29) stands up as an outside linebacker with the rest of the line shifted toward him. At the snap, Anderson bails to cover the weak flat. Cornerback DeMarcus Acy (#2) rolls up into the strong flat and the rest of the secondary shifts to the field into a three-deep coverage with five defenders in the underneath zones.

Two Bulldog receivers cross in front of Fromm— a pass concept called Mesh— but with the underneath zones saturated with Tigers, the quarterback can’t find a receiver. Finally, as Walter Palmore pops through the line to apply pressure, Fromm finds his last option, the TE in the flat.

Corner Adam Sparks may have missed the memo— subject line, RE: Coverage—and chases a man across the field rather than dropping to his deep third.

Fromm completes the pass to his TE. With Sparks MIA, Anderson— again, a defensive lineman— is the only defender outside the hash. Yikes.

Why was the Mizzou defense successful? Max coverage forces Fromm to check the ball down short of the maker. And the 260-pound Anderson makes like a safety and brings the Bulldog TE to the turf, sending the Georgia offense to the bench.

Conclusion

Third downs are games within a game. The defensive coordinator has his menu of gimmicks, and his offensive counterpart better be prepared for any possibility. Justin Walters has had all summer to dream up some savage schemes with which to attack Wyoming’s third down offense. You can bet I’ll be watching for the craziness that ensues.