Sunday, August 30, 2009

Maryland Preview - Defense


Maryland defensive coordinator Don Brown,
known for his blitzing and his karate chops.


Finally, the season is upon us. Summer is football gulag, a Siberian tundra of boredom. We wander for months subsisting on stories about spring practice, recruiting, summer workouts, coaches moving jobs, and the pundits' pre-season rankings. Worthless nits we'd just as soon ignore were there real games to talk about. But that's all behind us now. We've returned from exile, arrived at the golden door and life can begin again. With that, on to our first opponent.

First, let's talk some defense. Defense is the big story in Terp territory. The turtle heads are in a collective leg tingle over their new defensive coordinator Don Brown. As an aside, I have to say, "Don Brown" might be the most nondescript, random name for a defensive coordinator I've every heard. I mean really. Couldn't they come up with something exotic, exciting and non-Anglo sounding, like I don't know, Bob Gregory?

But don't let the smooth taste fool you - Don Brown's defense is most definitely not vanilla. The guy is a blitzing fanatic. I have heard it described as a "blitzing 4-3 defense," but I am not sure I'd call it that. From the few clips I've seen and what I've read, I'd say they run a 4-3 base package, but once they go blitz, the 4-3 goes out the window. Rather than summarize, below are some excerpts from articles about his defense, and then we'll look at some clips I found.

From InsideMDSports:
N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien knows that full well, too. O’Brien coached Boston College for 10 years and twice faced Massachusetts while Brown was the head coach, in 2004 and 2007. Boston College won both meetings, but O’Brien remembers the confusion Brown’s defenses created.

“He blitzes from the first play to the last play. I don’t know if they play a straight defense. That’s his signature and he’s had a lot success with it,” said O’Brien, whose N.C. State team faces Maryland on Nov. 7. “I’m just glad there’s two months worth of history to their defense before we have to play them and get a look at them, because they’ll blitz from anywhere.”

Frank Spaziani, who’s entering his first year as head coach at Boston College after spending the last 10 years as its defensive coordinator, regards Brown’s defense similarly. While Spaziani said it’s not unique, he said what makes it effective is Brown’s game-planning acumen.

“I think he understands his Xs and Os and he knows how to teach it and when to use it and he gets great results with it,” he said. “I think he’s a very good defensive coach and we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Full article here

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From the Washington Times:

For anything - like seven defensive backs on the field at once. Or a safety who could just as easily drop back into man coverage as zip through a hole in the line out of the same front....

With well-disguised blitzes (as well as a creative propensity to adjust from opponent to opponent), Brown's defenses earned a reputation for exploiting any opening.

"Oh my goodness," Wilder said. "I spent a lot of time on him. It was as good a coach as we faced. I looked at it as a great learning experience because if you could block what he's bringing, you can block anybody's fronts. Kids see a base 4-3 with America-zone-fire. That's a piece of cake compared to this two-down, five-man twist Brown brought last week."...

"He's relentless," said Miles, who transferred to Massachusetts from Navy. "Every play. One thing he hates is to play zone coverage. He's always [saying], 'You think I want to sit back and watch people pick apart my defense?' He's very intense. He doesn't like to let the quarterback breathe at all."

Full article here

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From the Washington Times:

"His blitz packages were as good as any I’d seen in college football. Every week you had to be ready for something new. That guy, he’d be in two-down fronts, three-down fronts, four-down fronts. He’d be in nickel, dime packages. There were times he’d have seven defensive backs on the field in obvious pass sets. Your protections had better be air-tight, or you were going to get exposed."

This, unsurprisingly, made the days leading into a date with Brown's defense less than enjoyable for coaches throughout the CAA.

Coaches are typically reluctant to say they'll plan differently for different opponents, and that's understandable. But after chatting with about a half-dozen coaches at the CAA's media day late last month, it was clear Brown presented an unusual challenge.

"That was one of the longest weeks in the office for us because they came from so many different ways and they did it with multiple groups," New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell said. "Eventually, it was the same blitz but it was disguised. It was a corner coming rather than a weak safety. You’re sitting there saying 'How can they bring so many different people from so many different way?'

"The blitz tape was not 20 percent or 30 percent. It was 50-to-60 percent on your time."

Full article here

[Update: Here's another article from the Washington Post on Thursday.]

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After reading all that, the thing that keeps coming to mind is Buddy Ryan's 46 defense. Of course, that defense would have been pretty vulnerable with just about any group of players besides the 85 Bears. But still, this concept is a formidable scheme to try and deal with.

Ok, let's watch some clips. I had to go back to Brown's UMass tape, so there's limited footage. The two notable D-1 schools UMass played the past few years are Texas Tech once and Boston College twice. All three were losses, though they held BC to 24 in 2007. Interestingly, UMass only got 1 sack in each game vs. BC, and zero vs. TT. Really mediocre for a defense that sells out to blitz on almost every play, even for a 1-AA team vs. a D-1 team.

As for the Texas Tech clips, they aren't much, but they do give a quick flavor. Bottom line - Brown has no problem sending 7 guys at the QB and leaving his back four naked. Gutsy call against Tech's quick pass offense (gutsy and stupid frankly, considering how badly blitzing works against Tech's offense anyway, as shown by the 56 Tech laid on Brown's defense that day).

[You can stop watching both clips after the TD passes - rest is celebration and extra points]




So how do you beat a blitzing defense like this?

1. Offensive line. Offensive line protections must be nearly perfect in terms of rules and assignments. They're only going to get a split second to see where a guy is coming from once the ball is snapped, so they need to know ahead of time what their rules are, communicate before the snap, and then execute.

This is simpler when you're dealing with one or two blitzers, but when you start getting three and four (plus the 4 down linemen), the pass rushers outnumber the blockers. And then there are stunts, such as twists and delayed blitzes, which can suck linemen away from their gaps and leave holes. And then there are zone blitzes designed to confuse QBs and receivers as to who is dropping into coverage and who is blitzing. This is where the keys and rules come in. For example, if you've got 8 guys coming and only 7 blockers, you may have to choose which guy to leave unblocked, or chip a guy and peel off to another, just to buy the QB that extra second.

Good blitz schemes will also prey on a lineman's tendencies to jump at the first body he sees coming through his gap, or to choose a particular gap if he sees two guys coming at him. This is where OL needs to work together and communicate. I could draw out dozens of scenarios, but basically, picture the old video games asteroids or space invaders, coming at you really fast.

The other wrinkle here in the cat and mouse of blitzing and protection is the use of multiple protection schemes. Good DCs will show more vanilla concepts early on, until they can extrapolate how the OL is protecting against various basic blitzes. Based on those perceived tendencies, the DC will then start calling out more exotic blitzes to take advantage of weaknesses in the scheme.

But what happens if the OL only shows its vanilla protection scheme early on, "suckering" the DC, and then shows different protections later in the game? The possibilities are endless, and who's the cat and who's the mouse can get pretty interesting. In the words of Denzel Washington in "Training Day," "The shit's chess. It ain't checkers."

Bottom line, a weak or sloppy offensive line can get killed by a good blitzing team. A good, well-coached offensive line can usually hold its own, especially if the QB and WRs are doing their job, and the OC is calling the right mix of plays, all of which I'll discuss below.

2. Wide Receivers. Receivers have to be able to beat press at the line, either with a good set of fakes, or the strength and size to muscle through CB jams. Blitzing defenses are susceptible to the big play, especially pass plays, because they commit so much to the box. This leaves gaping holes all over the field vacated by the blitzers. Thus, their corners have to try and tie up the receivers at the line to prevent them from exploiting these holes.

If the receivers can shake free, they'll be wide open, especially where the DC sends 7 or even 8. But if the receivers get tied up, the QB has to dump it quickly, scramble for yardage, throw it away, or take a sack.

3. Quarterback. Along with the OL, a heady, poised QB is critical in neutralizing this type of blitzing. The QB has to do several things well. First, he has to be able to recognize the defenses and blitzes in order to call the right signals at the line. Like the linemen, he's got to have rules and keys that are second nature, because once the ball is snapped he isn't going to have a lot of time to think.

Second, ideally he should be able to buy time with his feet - even an extra second or two can be enough - if he can, guys are going to be open.

Third, he has to have that internal clock in his head, and that sense of where the pressure is coming from and what holes it's leaving in the defense. A lot of this is practice and game planning, but a certain amount is just feel, developed over time. Good QBs see a guy coming from the edge out of the corner of their eye, and they immediately know how long they have, what hole it should leave in the defense based on recognizing the defense, and what guy will be there to throw to in the play that's called.

4. Play calling. Finally, and in some ways the most important key to beating a blitzing defense like this, is sound play calling and protection calls. Slow developing plays, i.e. 5 step drops, long sweeps and stretch plays, and certain play actions, tend to struggle against all-out blitzes. Quick passes, quick dives up the middle, draws, and a variety of screens will slow this defense down a bit more, hopefully setting up other plays later.

The other thing that can work well are bootlegs and QB draws, but they require a QB with quick feet and quick eyes. But a nice way to slow down an aggressive defense is for the QB to show pass quickly and then take off right up the gut a few times. Once the defense decides to play straight up, then you run the more elaborate stuff at them.

A couple deep balls against single coverage, even if incomplete, are also useful ways of getting into the safeties' heads a bit. In a blitzing defense, the safeties are the guys that have to protect against the big play, and they often don't have much help. If they see some deep balls early on, it may freeze them later in the game from crashing hard on run plays and shorter pass plays. This is a great way to open up the middle of the field even more.

I'll get to key matchups later in the week, but bottom line, playing a blitzing defense can be feast or famine. That kind of defense can be crushed with big plays. But it can also frustrate an offense and lead to sacks and turnovers if the QB is under fire and doesn't handle it well. This is going to be a stern first test for the offense out of the chute. They're going to have a lot to process at the LOS in this game. For Riley in particular, he's going to have to read the defenses, make the right calls, keep it all straight, avoid the blitz and still go through his reads and progressions.

If this were last year, on the road, I'd be frankly concerned. But I think the combination of being very well coached, having a few weeks to prepare, being at home, and wanting to get a little payback, will be the differences in the Cal offense's favor on Saturday.

Next up: previewing the Maryland offense.

3 comments:

JJ said...

Another key to negating blitzing is a solid running game between the tackles. It's great for the O-Linemen b/c they get to attack and all you need is one crease and it's off to the races (especially with JB). The key to running between the tackles against a blitzing defense is to hit the areas where you have DBs or LBs blitzing gaps vs. O-Linemen. Also, quick inside traps can open gaping holes. A solid inside running game takes the steam out of the blitzing D.

JJ

SD said...

JJ -

I like it baby. I'd love to see a 31 trap with MSG blind-siding a blitzing LB while Best goes blazing up the middle into daylight. Almost makes you want to put on a hat and get out there. T minus 4 days and counting.

Shawn Bananzadeh said...

Dan,

You're right about the WRs. Quick slants can destroy teams. If the corner misses the tackle its open field with a safety to beat. The key is being strong off the line with WRs.

But you neglected the role of the TE both in blocking and in the passing game. A good TE could easily gash a team down the middle for 20 off a blitz.

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