Against South Alabama, Nebraska fans got their first extended look at Mark Banker’s blitz package. Perhaps feeling comfortable with the match up between the Blackshirt DBs and South Alabama’s receivers, Banker ran a lot of Cover 0 and 1 Pressures and also mixed in some fire zones as well. Although the box score only showed 2 sacks for Nebraska, the Blackshirts were able to generate consistent pressure all game long from bringing extra men and asking their DBs to win on the outside. Let’s take a look at a couple of Nebraska’s 6-man pressures from that game.
Play 1 – Nickel Man Free Pressure
Personnel: Nickel (4 DL, 2 LB, 5 DB)
Formation: 2 x 2 (Double Slots/Spread)
This is a relatively straightforward 6-man pressure. The DBs, with Nate Gerry as the lone exception, are playing man-to-man on South Alabama’s four WRs. Gerry slow pedals before the snap to 18 yards deep, playing zone in the middle third of the field. This is what is known as “Man Free” coverage; all of the underneath defenders matched up in man with a “free” safety cleaning stuff up deep between the hashes.
Up front, Banker is playing a little game with his 6-man pressure package. First, we’ve got a tackle/tackle twist in the middle of the line, with Big Vince getting into the opposite A gap before Maliek comes around him into the other A gap. Although Vince will sometimes break free on this blitz, his main job is to pull the LG and C with him on a bull rush, ripping open a space in the OL that Collins can then work through to the QB. Second, and working off that twist, Michael Rose-Ivey, the LOLB, is coming straight through the B Gap that the LG vacates. You also see Ross Dzuris lined up in a Wide 9; from this spot, his job is to pull the LT away from the B gap. Between the twist and the Wide 9, the idea is to get a double horizontal stretch on the offensive line that leaves Rose-Ivey with an unobstructed path to bring the heat. Finally, you have Luke Gifford coming from standard LB depth, working around McMullen slanting into the B gap. Again, though McMullen can break free on this blitz, his primary role is to pull the RT with him into the B gap so that Gifford can work around him. Notice the timing too; by starting Gifford at standard depth rather than up on the line of scrimmage, the blitz gives McMullen time to work the RT inside and engage before Gifford hits the line.
One final note. If you’re bringing a 6-man pressure and playing Man Free (Cover 1) behind it, you’ve got to have a way to account for the back out of the backfield. As we’ll see below, Nebraska puts its two outside rushers, in this case Dzuris and Gifford, on “blitz peel” technique. If the back comes out in their flat, they’ll abandon the blitz and instead engage that back in man-to-man coverage.
Though it doesn’t result in a sack, the double horizontal stretch does open up a massive hole that Rose-Ivey shoots through. From the Wide 9 position, South Alabama cuts Dzuris loose and tries to block him with the RB. The LT blocks down to help out on Vince, and the result is Rose-Ivey rocketing through the B gap before laying a hit on the QB. Not a sack, but certainly a message sent on this play.
Play 2 – Nickel Overload Blitz
Personnel: Nickel (4 DL, 2 LB, 5 DB)
Formation: 2 x 2 (Double Slots/Spread with Reduced Split)
This is another straight 6-man Man Free pressure where Coach Banker is simply saying “My guys are better than yours.” It’s an overload blitz, bringing both LBs from the offense’s left to overwhelm the LT and LG. With Big Vince lined up as a shade nose in the left A gap, the idea is to force the LG to help down block on him, leaving the LT and RB with a 3 for 2 against both LBs and the DE.
In this case, South Alabama has a screen play called, which in theory should be the perfect play call against this blitz. Note the reduced split from Z. Again, reduced split is an alert to a possible crack to help the run game get outside. In this case, Z cracks down on Gifford. With Kalu locked on man coverage against Z, once his man crack blocks, Kalu simply picks up coverage on the next receiver out of the backfield, in this case the RB. Because Kalu recognizes screen and Jonathan Rose beats X’s block, they’re able to leverage the RB into having to cut back into the defense’s support rather than gaining the sideline.
Also note how quickly Rose-Ivey reads the screen and abandons his blitz to rally in support on the perimeter. Rose-Ivey is a heady player, and losing him to various injuries this year really hurt the Blackshirts. With him coming back at full strength in 2016 (knock on wood), Nebraska’s defense should get a boost in playing assignment-sound football from the second level.
Play 3 – Nickel Man Free Double A Gap Peel
Personnel: Nickel (4 DL, 2 LB, 5 DB)
Formation: 2 x 2 (Y Off to Boundary)
Straight up the middle. Perhaps the most recognizable blitz for the common fan, a double A gap blitz sends two defenders, whether LBs or FS/SS, directly at the C. In this case, it’s both of Nebraska’s LBs on the blitz while Nebraska again plays Man Free behind it, with Cockrell left to clean up anything deep.
There are a couple of keys to the play. First, when you’re bringing a Double A gap blitz, your LBs can’t show it too early or the QB and C have time to adjust the protection. Ideally you want to show as late as possible so long as you can get both LBs to the A gaps at the same time. Second, as we discussed earlier, playing Man Free with a 6-man pressure means you have to account for the RB out of the backfield. Although South Alabama frequently left him in to make a 6-man protection, in this case they sent all 5 eligible receivers out in routes. To account for this, both of Nebraska’s defensive ends are playing blitz peel, and Ross Dzuris ends up peeling off his pass rush to cover the RB in the flat.
This is a great example of how a blitz, even when it doesn’t hit home, can speed up a QB’s decision making process and lead to an incompletion. Michael Rose-Ivey does a great job (again) of showing late, but South Alabama slides its protection to account for the blitz, with the LG taking Luke Gifford completely out of the play. Kevin Williams does get good pressure, but the QB has plenty of room to climb the pocket and wait for a WR to get open. Instead, because he’s seen Double A pressure right before the snap, the QB’s clock is accelerated and he throws an incompletion to his well-covered TE. With Dzuris on the peel, the QB had no other quick options on the play. Doesn’t go down in the box score as a sack, but the blitz forced an incompletion from the QB.
Wrapping It Up
Despite the evidence above, Nebraska’s blitzes struggled early in the season before rounding into form roughly midway through conference play. I suspect a lot of that had to do with installing a new system, but even more from the mix-and-match process that the Blackshirts had to endure with multiple injuries to their LBs. With those guys consistently out of practice, it’s difficult to practice the blitzes enough to time them up properly. And with blitzes, timing and pre-snap disguise is everything.
With a much deeper LB group next year, and missile Mohamed Barry added to the mix, look for Nebraska’s sack totals to improve substantially. Barry is a lighter guy, not designed to defend the run, but he’s been put on this earth to cause havoc in the passing game. If he can get the timing right on his blitzes, I expect him to have a big year in long yardage and passing situations.
(Hat Tip to Ryan Shutts for preparing the insanely good Blackshirts edit for me. Ryan does fantastic work in putting together edits for recruits and this site, and you can find him on Twitter at @ryanshutts.)