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In the Trenches: All About the “D”

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NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

The game against Texas Tech was one for the record books on the offensive side of the ball. We were able to witness a real Big 12 offense hitting on all cylinders. Thundercat moved deftly through the line with patience and a much maligned (at least in my articles) player was the MVP.

But, this game story is not about the offense. This game was all about the “D.” In the last few weeks I have stated and implored the defense to settle on a blitz and swarm philosophy. Two of the last three weeks the Cyclones have employed this scheme to stay within striking distance of now #8 Oklahoma, and to completely dismantle the top offense in the conference.

I will analyze some offense, but make no mistake, the reason the Cyclones turned in the performance of the year was due to the defensive effort and scheme. That, my friends, is THE most important result and the singular reason to be optimistic about next year.

Cyclone Defense

I dubbed the defensive scheme we saw as “blitz and swarm”, but an astute commentor called it the “Cyclone” defense. Blitzing and swarming to the ball does resemble a Cyclone, so I am going to use it. I can’t remember who suggested it, so take credit in the comments.

The Cyclone defense was used a third time against Tech. Last week I advocated the use of this scheme as the best way to play against Tech. I advocated mixing in a full coverage drop with two rushers and a spy. Though I do not have film of the full drop, trust me, it was used several times throughout the game.

Essentially, on each defensive snap, Tech was left to guess where the extra rusher would come from and, on occasion, faced 8 man coverage. This created confusion and disrupted the rhythm of the Tech offense. Disrupting the rhythm of the Tech offense results in turnovers and dominance — and that is what we saw.

This is a huge play in the game. Tech has driven the ball, as expected, in an attempt to answer the Cyclones’ touchdown. Holding here puts them behind the 8 ball and sets the stage for the day. In my mind, holding them to 3 here meant that we would have the advantage in the trading of scores that would result for the rest of the day. It turned out that this set the stage for a dominant ISU performance.

Note first that the corners are in man coverage. This allows ISU to concentrate more players in the middle of the field and defend the run on 3rd and short.

Most importantly, this is the swarm part of the Cyclone defense. Jahlas plays the force and KCM is locked on to the running back and aggressively pursues to provide an inside out force.

Count the defenders that get in on the tackle. I count 7 that get in to the mix. 3 play side defenders and 4 back side defenders pursue with passion and make the critical stop.

This illustrates the mental effects of playing this style of defense. When ISU sits back in base and plays read and react, they have a tendency to wait on their blocks and to be confused in their reads. They have reacted listlessly where great effort is required when forced to play the base, coverage first scheme.

When playing the Cyclone defense, they are aggressive and committed. Each player flows freely to the ball and is committed to their task. There is a tangible difference in their movement, aggression, positioning, and execution. It is on full display here as the defense makes a team tackle on a critical play.

By the way, if you struggle to tackle one-on-one, the best remedy is to have two or three players there to make the tackle.

Alignment — here we have a three man front. This is a twist. Three man front, two LB’s, six DB’s. The difference here is in the front and an extra man at the second level. Also, note the position of KCM. He is inside. On the wide side we have 3 on 2 like in the past, but the third defender is lined up to the inside. In the past, that safety would have been lined up between the slot corner and the outside corner, leaving the middle of the field exposed. Seven players are covering the three levels in the middle of the field and we are playing combo man on the outside — 4 on 4.

Now, watch the flow. Each motion employed by the offense is accounted for and mirrored on defense. The blockers are attacked, the receivers are covered, and the late motion man has a shadow coming over the top.

The run play is read and the safeties react aggressively. Watch KCM read and come into the box. He then stalks the play, finds the weak spot and fills it. Tech dropped the ball and he and others are in position to capitalize on the botched hand-off.

Also note, Tucker and Thomas do a great job reestablishing the line and allowing the safety and linebackers to read the play and find the gaps to attack. These two have elevated their play over the last four weeks and made a huge difference in allowing plays to be made. The reason we can play a 3 man front is because those two, along with Bailey, can hold the line and penetrate, which frees the linebackers and safeties to make plays.

Another huge 3rd down play. Tech is in striking distance and the defense needs to make a stop. 3rd and 6 is not a big deal for Tech — they lead the league in first downs.

ISU is facing a trips formation. They are playing zone with a single high safety. At the snap we see that the LB’s are dropping in coverage to create a wall across the yard to gain line.

The Cyclone defense dials up a corner blitz here from the single receiver side. Tech is looking to the trips side and the coverage is 2 on 1 on the single side. Perfect alignment for this blitz package.

The play is made by the singular effort of Bailey. He employs a speed rush with solid body lean, clears the tackle in his lane and meets the QB at his drop point. He is met there by the blitzing corner to finish off a huge sack. The QB is forced to look to his second read by the coverage and he never gets the chance to get there because he is hemmed in by Bailey and Wiltz.

This is an excellent play call by the defensive coordinator. Aggressive, confusing, a calculated gamble with a single high safety to prevent the big throw.

This is such a great example of how this defense works. It is aided by a free rusher and a back foot throw, but the defense dictated both of those mistakes.

The alignment has a three man front and Thomas is in a wide 9 technique. The LB’s are overshifted to the strong side and EE is playing inside Thomas in a blitz look.

Where is the blitz coming from? Who knows. It looks like they are all coming, or maybe none.

At the snap, Thomas explodes off the ball. Watch the tackle. He looks inside to pick up EE on the blitz. But, EE isn’t blitzing. He drops to spy Mahomes and cover the short middle. That hesitation leaves Thomas free to rush straight to the QB.

The pressure creates a back foot throw. It is an accurate throw, but cue the single high safety. Payne has good man coverage (note the zone scheme at the bottom of the screen and man coverage by Payne and the high side corner). KCM is free to read the throw which is made to his zone. He makes the play and scores.

The key to this scheme is that it keeps the offense guessing. The blitz can come from multiple locations and the corners are good enough to cover man-to-man for the two to three seconds they are required to.

Against Oklahoma, the Sooners moved the ball against this scheme thanks to outstanding accuracy by Mayfield and a slightly more competent offensive line. However, ISU was still able to slow the Oklahoma offense and create turnovers using the Cyclone defense.

Late in the game we see the effects of the scheme on the QB and the offense.

ISU has shifted to two deep safeties to prevent the long throw. This is appropriate given the score and time in the game. Still three down lineman and the LB’s are in a blitz look.

Note the safety alignment. ISU is still 3 on 2 with the doubles formation, but the safeties are on the hashes protecting the middle and ready to support a play to the middle of the field. The alignment is pushing the play to the outside, where the swarm and the sideline can shut it down.

This is a good play call for Tech. Play action freezes the rush and there is a wide open receiver in the middle for first down yardage. But, there is just enough pressure from Thomas to force a back foot floater that is inaccurate.

The result here is that Mahomes had the time to make an accurate throw. He also had the receiver open earlier. He hesitates and fades from the pressure because for three quarters he has had someone in his face. He was mentally defeated at this time in the game and doubted his read and made a throw he shouldn’t have based on the confusion created throughout the game.

The Cyclone defense suddenly has an identity. It suddenly creates turnovers. It suddenly creates sacks and pressure. You can see the players respond to it. The front seven is far more decisive and athletic in their assignment. The secondary seems to enjoy the challenge of man and tight coverage. The blitzing players use discipline in the lanes.

The defense can be beat, as we saw against Oklahoma, but it isn’t easy and requires superior talent and preparation. ISU will face that on occasion, but playing this aggressive defense will make plays and perhaps enough to turn the close games in our favor. I contend that if this defense was employed against Baylor and Okie State, those games would have been victories.

For the future, even though Tucker and Thomas will be big losses, if we employ three down lineman, then we have less to replace. Bailey will hold down his end, we will need a second end and a rotation for the inside rusher. The hybrid DE’s we are recruiting will create more positional flexibility and more schematic diversity in the front 7.

This is a defense that can win.

All Hail the Offense — Looking at You, Patrick Scoggins

The offensive output speaks for itself. Park was on target. Lazard was an All-American. Lanning broke their will.

First, I think we all know that Tech is extremely poor defensively. Their incompetence aided our efforts. But, ISU’s execution was phenomenal. Jacob Park is 34-44 in his last two games. At least 4 of the incompletions are drops of catchable balls. His confidence, vision, and accuracy have been remarkable and I, for one, do not believe he is just on a hot streak. I think he is that good.

In an effort to try to stay under 3,000 words this week [Ed. Note: Still didn't make it!], I will only look at three plays.

I am leaving out some Park throws that I want to point out. The back shoulder throw to Jones, two throws to Daley, and an out route to Lazard. You can find them on the highlight videos and if you watch them, note his eyes and how he reads his progression. It is next level stuff.

Great throw, greater catch. But, I don’t want you to watch either. Instead, focus on the flow of the offensive line. So often this season, the offensive line has had a breakdown where a player or two has been beaten one on one and the QB has had to throw early, run, or throw under pressure. When an offensive line is working well together you will see a flow and concert of movement along the front.

Tech rushes only three, but the line is tasked with moving together to shut down gaps that can create quick penetration. Here, the line flows out to the right and catches rushers as they start to come free. This provides the room for Park to step in to the throw and the time for Lazard to clear the face of the safety deep.

This play has not been available to us for most of the year. Here at the end, we see a line that has come together as a unit and can create a downfield play by working together. As we watch the offensive line play in the next game and next year, look for the flow and athletic continuity of their movement. We saw it Saturday and the results were spectacular.

Tech is getting gashed and it is 3rd and 8. They have to have a play here. They decide, rightly so based on prior film, to bring the house. Seven players blitz and we are running deep routes without an outlet receiver (drives me crazy).

Watch the blitz get stoned... And I mean stoned. Watch Montgomery step up and bruise the chest of the blitzer. The right side of the line holds the line. One player comes free, but is tripped by the cluster of humanity created by the line.

The result is room to step into the throw and time to beat a safety with no interest in covering Butler. Great throw and catch and the rout is on. If ISU can block with flow and stone a 7 man rush, then, well, I will let you imagine the result.

I have to show at least one of these right? I could show them all and we would see the same things.

  • Back side blocks held at the point of attack.
  • A pulling linemen (on this play it is Bobek, on the others it is Scoggins) that gets to the second level and makes a solid seal block.
  • Sean Seonbuchner leading through the hole and making solid block after solid block.
  • Hakeem Butler blocking downfield to spring the play for distance.
  • Joel Lanning running with patience, waiting on his blocks, and showing Thundercat-like explosion to the open field.

That sums up the play. Patrick Scoggins was dominant as a pulling guard. He has struggled most of the year to block, but the last couple of weeks he has shown marked improvement and that his best attribute is to block on the move. He is my MVP for this game.

Hakeem Butler had a really nice game. The catch, yes, but his downfield blocking was key on the Lanning runs.

Sean Seonbuchner was a difference maker. I wrote a pre-season article about the use of the F position to lead block. ISU has not been capable of that for most of the year. It appears they have found their man. The converted defensive end can block. He does not miss and creates a wall for Lanning to run behind.

The interesting thing about this play is that everyone knows it is coming. It is difficult to defend because ISU runs it to both sides and puts overwhelming numbers in play to gain an advantage. ISU will bring 5 to 6 on the count through the hole. If the defense aligns to match the count, then Lanning, the runner, is still a thrower and will have a wide open or uncovered receiver to audible to. If they allow him to make that pre-snap read and call, then the defense has to pick its poison. Beyond that, it is execution.

The team has great confidence in the play and has developed a go-to play when tough yards are needed. That is the sun around which the offensive scheme can rotate. So, if it is hard to defend, why doesn’t every team do it? Not everyone has Joel Lanning. More importantly, not everyone has Jacob Park to keep them honest.

At the pro level it is akin to the Panthers with Cam Newton. They can gain an advantage by running him with numbers. But, he is a thrower and the defense has to respect it. The play is even more effective at the collegiate level. Think Vince Young and Cam Newton at Auburn. Joel Lanning isn’t the equivalent of those guys, but the schematic advantage is the same.

A Quick Look Ahead

West Virginia has a stout defense. The 3-3-5 scheme they employ brings pressure and drops in coverage like the Cyclone defense. They have talent and hit hard.

It will be much more difficult to move the ball than it has been the last three weeks. However, if the offensive line is able to play in concert to give Park time, I expect him to find open receivers. I also expect the RB’s to have a better game here.

I want to see some variations from the Lanning run package. A few deep balls and a reverse. Run the influence action, put Jones or Nwangwu in tighter, and have him hand it to them as he makes his patented move to the hole. I believe that could hit for a big play and continue to open the Lanning run play.

More of the Cyclone defense is needed. WVU has some big play threats and a QB who can move as well as Mayfield did. But, they run the ball as well as anyone we have played. Pack the middle, bring run blitzes to bear, and force Howard to beat us over the top. They may do it a time or two, but be bold and keep the pressure on.

I fear that we will revert to the base coverage heavy defense to prevent the long pass. That will expose us to being run on all day. However, I hope the lesson has been learned and we see the defensive scheme that has been most effective for this team.

BTW, still 3,000 words. I also am open for postseason article suggestions. I have some ideas, but I know it is basketball in earnest starting Thursday.

This has been a season of growth and I believe a foundation has been laid for future optimism. There will be challenges, but I believe the coaching staff is very close to establishing an identity they can build around.