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Film Room: Mizzou Defense Clamps Down

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The Tigers stifled the Mountaineer attack as well as our concerns about their ability to stop the run, for the time being.

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

As great as it was to see Mizzou amp up its run game, consistently sustain drives, and score points, to me the big story from Saturday’s game was the defense. After Wyoming bulldozed the Tigers to the tune of almost 300 yards, Missouri held West Virginia to a tenth of that.

And the Tigers were able to generate pressure on passing downs. The pass rush was a concern this offseason, but defensive coordinator Ryan Walters found creative ways to put heat on Mountaineer quarterback Austin Kendall. Kendall was sacked three times and under pressure all day.

What accounts for these strange phenomena, this reversal of trends we saw in Laramie? Well, one factor was certainly West Virginia’s ragged offensive line, which got thrashed by the Mizzou front seven all day long.

This encapsulates the kind of day it was for the Mountaineer hogs:

Today in Film Room, we will look at a few plays that I found interesting and that represent Missouri’s success against the run and in defense on passing downs against West Virginia.

Tigers v. the run

To successfully stop the run, each player must control an assigned gap, align to make accounting for that gap possible, and there must be a system for trading gaps based on the offensive blocking scheme. I’ve chosen two plays that - I hope - illustrate the connection between scheme, alignment, and technique in defending the run.

Steering the ball inside

The first example is a 2nd and 10 in the first quarter. West Virginia aligns with twin receivers to the left and an H back wing to the right.

The play is Counter Trap GH. (I discussed Counter Trap GT and GH in an earlier installment of Film Room)

Counter Trap GH

Missouri is playing man coverage, which allows the strong safety, Ronnell Perkins (#3), to align in the box.

SS slides into run box

With the extra defender, West Virginia is outmanned in the run box. The H back pulls around for Perkins, leaving Cale Garrett (#47) unblocked.

Garrett (#47 in red) is unblocked.

Here’s how that worked out for the Mountaineers.

Let’s take note of the technique defensive end Jatorian Hansford (#28) uses and how that technique corresponds to the Tigers’ alignment and scheme.

As you can see from the Counter Trap diagram, the offense is trying to trap, or kick out the defensive end in order to run the ball inside of him. Hansford comes upfield, allowing himself to be trapped by the pulling right guard. This seems bad at first blush, but there is a method to this reaction. Perkins, who cannot be accounted for by the blocking scheme, is aligned inside of Hansford. By coming upfield, Hansford funnels the ball inside to the unblocked man. Then Hansford quickly disengages and gets in on the tackle.

Perkins does get blocked, however, but in doing so frees Garrett to make the tackle.

Finally, in a valiant and desperate attempt to log an easy assisted tackle, Perkins finishes things off by performing a graceful swan dive onto the pile.

“Spilling” the ball outside

Our second example comes out of the same formation, this time with the strength flipped: the wing is on the left rather than the right.

The play is the same as well: Counter Trap to the twin receivers.

Comparing this play to the previous one, we should notice the different alignment of the strong safety, in this case Khalil Oliver (#20). Whereas Perkins was lined up in the run box, Oliver aligns outside the box, in what is called an overhang position.

Strong Safety (#20) aligned outside run box.

Counter Trap against this front would be drawn up this way.

Counter Trap to overhang

Oliver should be an unblocked defender. But since he is outside the box, the run fits, or gap assignments, change to steer the ball to him.

The major change is the technique of the playside defensive end. Notice left end Chris Turner’s (#39) reaction to the Counter Trap and how it differs from Hansford’s technique above.

This is known as a “wrong-arm” technique. Whereas Hansford came upfield to turn the ball inside to an unblocked Perkins, Turner slices underneath the trap block, preventing the ball carrier from running inside of him. The goal of this technique is to “spill” the ball to the outside, in this case to an unblocked Oliver in an overhang alignment.

As before, the H back ends up blocking the strong safety. And, once again, this means there is no one to block Garrett.

Turner (#39) spills. Garrett (#47) is unblocked.

A friendly piece of advice for Missouri’s offensive opponents: at least try to block #47, the Tigers’ tackling machine.

Watch again.

Defense is about eleven players doing their assignments based on the scheme those assignments fit into. The above plays show the Tiger defensive ends doing just that, which gives some insight into the success Mizzou had defending WVU’s ground attack.

Tigers v. the pass

On Saturday, the Tigers were able to establish the quarterback pressure that has recently been so elusive recently. The pressure came almost exclusively on blitzes. (I previously examined some of the blitzes Walters used last year in this piece.) Austin Kendall was frequently hurried, hit, or sacked when he dropped to pass. He suffered a sliced hand on this hit by Nick Bolton (#32).

Walters threw a bunch of blitzes at the Mountaineer offense on passing downs, and in this section, we will look at a single defensive play on a passing down to understand one of the creative schemes Walters used to manufacture pressure on QB Kendall.

Fitting the rush to the protection scheme

The Mountaineers set twin receviers to each side on this third-and-long. Mizzou counters with a four-down line with two defenders, Cale Garrett (#47) and Tyree Gillespie (#9), at the line of scrimmage, threatening the A-gaps (gaps between the center and guards).

On the snap Garrett rushes while Gillespie drops into coverage. The coverage is Cover 1: man-to-man with a single deep safety.

Five-man blitz

West Virginia has six blockers to deal with Missouri’s five rushers, but Garrett slides off the running back’s block to drop Kendall for a sack.

Let’s look a bit closer at the Mountaineers’ protection. The center steps to the right, looking to block Gillespie, and the running back picks up—or attempts to pick up—a charging Garrett.

Pass protection vs. five-man blitz

Having the blitzer matched on the back rather than the center is advantageous, as the result suggests. But were the Tigers fortunate that the center stepped away from Garrett, or did they make their own luck? Let’s take a quick look at how the WVU pass protection works, then try to answer that question.

Half Slide Pass Protection

The most popular protection scheme, and the one West Virginia employs here, is called half-slide protection.

The basics of half-slide protection:

  • The center steps in the direction to which the line is sliding. Each man in the slide is responsible for his outside gap. (The slide side is in green in the below diagram.)
  • The side away from the slide is in man protection, responsible for the down linemen to their side. (The man side is in orange.)
  • The running back blocks away from the center, to the man-protection side. This puts three blockers to each side. The back is “double-reading,” looking first at the inside-most threat on his side, and then to the edge. (The double-reading back is in blue.)
Half-slide protection to the right versus an 8-man front.
Half-slide protection to the left versus the same front.

Reading the Protection

As we saw, West Virginia’s center started the slide to the defense’s right, leaving the running back to pick up Garrett on the blitz.

Garrett blitzes and Gillespie drops

I think, however, the fact that the blitz was away from the slide protection was more than a lucky guess by Ryan Walters. I believe the Tigers are running a scheme that forces the back to protect no matter which way the line slides. Here’s how: Both A-gap players are reading the center. The man to the backside of the center’s first step blitzes, the other drops into coverage.

Both Garrett and Gillespie rush forward, but once the center takes his first step to Gillespie’s (#9) gap, Gillespie drops.

Center steps to defense’s right. Garrett blitzes.

If the center had stepped to the defense’s left, Gillespie would have blitzed and Garrett would have dropped.

Center steps to defense’s left. Gillespie blitzes.

This scheme ensures that the back, rather than the center, will block the blitzer.

Watch Gillespie rush toward his right A-gap, occupying the center’s attention before dropping out.

The defense gets several advantages from this scheme, two of which are:

  • The blitzer is always isolated on the running back, presumably the weakest pass protector.
  • The center is always left with no one to block and, having set his focus on a potential blitz to his gap, cannot recover to help another protector.

Here’s the tight shot. Watch Garrett defeat the running back’s block with a nifty quick-swim move.

This scheme is a creative way of ensuring the best match-ups for Tiger pass-rushers, and it paid off here with a huge 3rd down stop.

Conclusion

I’d like to conclude by posing a few questions related to the two topics we’ve covered here—the Mizzou run defense and passing-down defense.

Run Defense

  • Just how good is the Tiger rush defense based on its dominance of WVU?

We can’t judge the Tigers’ potential for run-stopping without a sense of how strong or weak the West Virginia run game is. WVU is a team that rushed for a measly 34 yards against James Madison. It could be that Mizzou looked good because they were feasting on a terrible offensive line.

With Southeast Missouri State as this week’s opponent, this is probably not an issue we can evaluate until South Carolina visits Faurot in two weeks.

  • How much depth is there at defensive tackle?

When the second defensive unit took the field in garbage time, freshmen Isaiah McGuire and Darius Robinson took the field first, rather than upperclassmen Chris Daniels and Antar Thompson. This suggests that Daniels and Thompson will not be contributors this year.

Why are the fifth and sixth DTs important to the run defense? If DL coach Brick Haley doesn’t believe he can go deeper than a four tackle rotation, it is unlikely we see Akial Byers at DE at all this year. I’ve thought lining up Byers on the edge against run-heavy offenses (such as Wyoming’s) would be a good use of a versatile player when the smaller ends are getting abused. This kind of insurance appears to be unavailable, at least for the time being.

Long Yardage Pass Defense

  • Are the DBs the ballhawks they appeared to be?

Strong safety Ronnell Perkins had the season’s first interception by a Tiger defensive back, and Missouri DBs defended several other passes. I counted four other times Tiger DBs had a chance to pick off Kendall. Can we expect such ballhawking to continue?

  • Will the DEs produce?

Yes, the Tigers put pressure on Kendall, but almost none of it was applied by a four-man rush. As many of us feared, the defensive ends just haven’t offered much production to this point. Will we see improvement from the guys who are playing now? Will Trajan Jeffcoat make a difference when he returns?

We will be looking for answers to these questions among others in future installments of Film Room.