That Illinois defensive line. Whoa. When you see future All Big 10 offensive tackle Nick Gates hook a guy on the first play and hope he doesn’t get called for a hold, you know it’s going to be a long day. Gates has been an absolute animal this year, but he had his hands full all day with Illini end Carroll Phillips. And as Husker fans witnessed all too frequently, the other side fared even worse, with Dawuane Smoot living in the Nebraska backfield for a large portion of the game.
Nevertheless, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf and his patchwork offensive line found just enough cards in the deck to play a few tricks on that impressive Illini line. In this write up, we’ll take a look at a new play designed to put Gates in motion, and we’ll touch base with another concept that the Huskers have cleaned up and modified substantially since the beginning of last year. Without these types of plays, Nebraska probably doesn’t beat the Illini by more than a handful of points. With them, they pour on 21 points in the 4th quarter to win going away.
We’ll also get some bonus footage on the defensive side of the ball, taking a look at one of the Blackshirts’ man coverage blitzes as well as the progression of Chris Jones, whose rapidly rising coverage skills makes blitzes like that one work.
Play 1 – QB Dart
Personnel: 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR)
Formation: Pro Trips 3 x 1
Last week we looked at how Langsdorf introduced a Pro Trips formation against Northwestern, with 3 true WRs lining up to one side of the field and Cethan Carter or another tight end lining up on the other side. 3 x 1 formations in general stress defenses, and Pro Trips injects Red Bull straight into that stress. This is what many defenses will identify as a “detached” trips formation, meaning that the near receiver, in this case the Z, is separated from the offensive line. By comparison, if the tight end formed the trips from a traditional spot next to the offensive tackle, it would be an “attached” trips formation.
Anytime the offense has three detached wide receivers to the field, the defense is forced to kick a safety to that side unless it has great cover DBs. The problem with kicking a safety, in this case the SS above, is that it leaves the Boundary CB fitting the run game against the TE as the primary force defender. That’s a lot to ask of a CB, who may give up 40+ lbs to the TE and generally isn’t all that physical to begin with. It’s also why Nebraska spent so much time recruiting Lamar Jackson for that position.
And so it’s not surprising that Langsdorf has used this formation the last two weeks to attack the weak side with runs. Against the Wildcats, the Huskers ran zone Read from this formation, reading the defensive end to the Boundary. Against the Illini, however, Langsdorf changed the look and dialed up QB Dart.
Dart is a pretty frequent concept for teams like Ohio State and Clemson, both of which have no shortage of elite offensive tackles who can pull and lead in space. At Nebraska, though, those types of players haven’t walked through the door very often since 1998. But the Huskers certainly find themselves with one now, as Nick Gates should earn All Big 10 recognition this year and possibly more. So why not get him involved in the run game by pulling him to lead Armstrong:
On this play, the play side is man blocked, with Knevel assigned to block out on the defensive end and Whittaker working to seal the 3 technique defensive tackle. From there, Gates wraps around between Whittaker and Knevel and up through the hole to lead Armstrong. You may have also heard this play called QB Tackle Wrap for that reason.
I also suspect Armstrong is reading the Boundary LB, but I haven’t tagged it as such yet because I haven’t been able to confirm it. If he is reading the LB, it’s no different than the zone Read play. If the LB steps toward the Boundary to play the RB, Armstrong keeps it and follows Gates, as the offensive line has now outleveraged the defense to that side. If not, Armstrong gives the ball to the back who is in open space with the Boundary CB.
It also illustrates a couple of the issues Nebraska had throughout much of the first half. First, because Dart is man blocked to the play side, it’s susceptible to slants and stunts from the defensive line. In this case, Illinois slants to the Boundary and the RB’s path while bringing the Nickelback off the edge on a run blitz. That in and of itself is not fatal. If the play hits with the correct tempo, Armstrong is up through the hole before the Nickelback becomes an issue.
But that leads us to our second issue, which is that, until late in the 3rd quarter, Nebraska couldn’t find an answer at RT for Dawuane Smoot. And sometimes that simply happens. Smoot is 6 months and good health away from being a first round pick in the NFL Draft. And as Nebraska fans witnessed our rush ends do so often during the run through the 90s, an elite defensive end can shut down one side of the field in the running game. Smoot was that type of guy in this game, and it’s a credit to Cole Conrad that he found a way to weather the storm before Newby’s late run hit.
Somewhere upstairs, I suspect Milt Tenopir was smiling down. It took a tremendous amount of fortitude for Conrad to stay in the fight, and ultimately he delivered when it mattered the most. Milt would have loved it.
Play 2 – RB Slip Screen
Personnel: 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR)
Formation: Gun Doubles 2 x 2
This is a prototypical Spread formation, known to many as Gun Doubles. Balanced with 2 receivers on each side and the tight end detached, it’s a formation that lends itself to both the pass and the run. In this case, Nebraska faces a 2nd and 16 inside its own 20. When you’re there with an offense that doesn’t possess a great pure throwing QB, you’ve got to find a way to get it to 3rd and a manageable distance.
We’ve seen Nebraska attack this situation various ways over the last 12 months, though they typically revolve around two concepts. First, some variation of a Draw play. Nebraska ran a ton of 2-back Lead Draw against UCLA and Michigan State in these situations, whereas this year their preferred method has been the QB Draw/Y Stick RPO. Second, and the method they preferred against the fast moving Illini defensive line, was to lean on Langsdorf’s robust screen package to give Armstrong easy throws while letting our OL get into open space matched up against more favorable defensive backs.
In this particular case, it’s the RB Slip Screen going for a slick 37 yards to Devine Ozigbo:
We’ve discussed how Nebraska struggled with this concept last year and early in this year. They’ve made a slight tweak to how they run it, though, and it’s paid dividends. In 2015, they’d frequently have the WR or TE stem hard off the line to attack the safety while letting the OG kick out the CB or other edge defender. It wasn’t particularly successful, as Nebraska’s guards frequently whiffed in so much open space. It meant the Huskers’ RB was immediately avoiding a tackle from the CB or other edge defender.
Recognizing that, the offensive brain trust has modified things in 2016 so that the WR, in this case DeMornay Pierson El, immediately takes on the CB while the LG and C take a much easier vertical path up to the safety. It’s still a tough ask for the OL to take on a DB in space, but by moving the conflict point vertically down the field, it lets the RB set up his blocks better without immediately encountering edge pressure from the CB.
And Reggie Davis and Mike Cavanaugh have done wonders for the play’s timing as well, with the OL and RBs far more in sync than they were even three weeks ago. An effective screen play has a natural rhythm to it. If the back works out to the flat too early, he loses the protection of the OL in front of him. If he works out too late, defensive linemen in backside pursuit catch up to stop the play before it really gets going.
In this case, however, the timing is beautiful. Devine Ozigo also does a great job working out away from the hash and back to the sideline once he clears the first level. This again is a way to negate pursuit defenders from the middle of the field. Get through your initial blocks and then widen away from the help.
If Nebraska can continue to run the Slip screen this effectively, it’ll pay big dividends down the line against Ohio State’s elite defense. The Buckeyes fly to the ball, and the Slip screen is a great way to take pressure off the OL when that happens.
Play 3 – Nickel MIKE Blitz
Personnel: Nickel (4 DL, 2 LB, 5 DB)
Formation: Pro Trips 3 x 1
We talked above about how Langsdorf rolled out Pro Trips to stress the Illini defense. Not to be outdone, Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee did the exact same thing to Nebraska during a late first half red zone trip. Unlike Illinois, however, Nebraska finds itself with a bevy of good if not great DBs. And so, as it did often in this game, it leaned on those DBs to combat Pro Trips by dialing up pressure and playing man free or Cover 1 behind it.
This is as simple as it looks. Each DB is assigned to track his assigned WR in man-to-man coverage while safety Kieron Williams plays a zone in the middle of the field. On the Boundary side of the formation, Dedrick Young takes the tight end and Nate Gerry takes the RB out of the backfield.
In front of it, Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker dialed up a blitz with his MIKE LB, in this case Michael Rose-Ivey. Rose-Ivey and defensive tackle Kevin Maurice will slant away from the RB while nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg loops around them. The idea is to waste the LG, hoping that the RG tracks Maurice on the slant and can’t get off of him to handle Stoltenberg. In other words, you want to have three defenders, Stoltenberg, Rose-Ivey and Maurice, working on two offensive players in the C and RG. If that’s the numbers game, the Blackshirts always win. On the outside, pure speed rushes from both Freedom Akinmoladun and Ross Dzuris.
And the Ilini offense has a pretty good pick concept drawn up specifically to target this Cover 1 look. The #2 WR drives the corner route before turning it into a pivot. Really, though, there is no intent to get this WR the ball. He’s simply trying to make life difficult for Chris Jones by getting in his way while the #1 WR runs the slow-to-go Slant route underneath the pick.
Yet for all of McGee’s Xs and Os brilliance on this play, Chris Jones’s execution blows it up. Recognizing the concept immediately, he drives on the Slant over top the pick and ends up tackling the WR immediately on contact:
That’s a big boy play, and it’s something you only get from film work and dedication to your craft. It’s also a play that, while he couldn’t make it in early 2015, he’s been making with increasing frequency since about the middle of last year. And because of it, Banker has increased confidence to call the man coverage blitzes he did against Illinois. Jones hasn’t quite yet hit elite level for a CB, but he’s closing in on it fast.
A couple of other thoughts. First, I like the assignment switch between Gerry and Dedrick Young on this play. Some defenses will put their safety on the TE while the LB takes the back out of the backfield. As the scouting report showed, however, Illinois’ RBs are a handful to deal with while their TEs are relatively weak. In that case, put your best cover guy in Gerry on the back and let Young lock down the TE.
Second, in the red zone space compresses, and because of it, so too does the time of each play. DBs always have to be cognizant of that, as a particular assignment when the ball is at the 50-yard becomes substantially different in the red zone. Though Kieron Williams has middle of the field zone responsibilities, things happen so fast that a middle-of-the-field safety in the red zone doesn’t have time to work out beyond the hash marks as he would if the ball were outside the red zone. So look for the inside breaking routes and drive on them.
Also, you can’t give up ground as a safety in the red zone. If you do, the offense will bend a guy in front of you and you can’t drive on the ball quick enough to make the tackle before the goal line. So line up with your heels on the goal line, flat foot read through the initial drop from the QB, and be ready to break. Kieron does that perfectly here, quieting his feet for a full two seconds as the play begins and he gets his read. Once he gets it, he’s in great position to drive on the ball because of his quiet feet. Even had Chris Jones missed the tackle, Williams was there to lend tackling support well before the goal line. That’s about as good as it gets.
Wrapping It Up
Illinois was far from a perfect game. Nor should it have been with so many key offensive players out by halftime. Yet Langsdorf and company found a way to put up the yards and points needed to win the game, finishing with 423 yards on 5.88 yards per play and 31 points. They’re not eye popping numbers, but considering the overall quality of the Illini defensive line and Nebraska’s MASH unit offensive line, it’s more than acceptable. And performances like that are often the difference between 5-loss and 3-loss seasons. Good teams still have depth issues at certain spots, but when those get tested, they find a way to win. Nebraska’s offense did just that on Saturday.
And on the other side, the Blackshirts found a way to avoid the big play before tightening up in the second half. All told, Illinois only got 270 yards and 16 points for the game. In a lot of ways, the Blackshirts remind me of a football version of Floyd Mayweather. By and large, they tend to have a conservative approach and avoid trying to constantly land the haymaker that was more common to Charlie McBride’s defenses. The trade off is they also avoid getting hit with the big shot from the offense, and while it looks like offenses are continually landing smaller shots on them, it’s ultimately a lot of meaningless yards resulting in few points. Trade yards in front of you to keep away points behind you, maintain structural soundness in the secondary without breakdowns, and make the tackle once the ball is out. Indeed, it’s why the Blackshirts currently sit at 18th in scoring defense while only ranking 30th in yards allowed. And though it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing style to watch, it has been an effective one this year. It’s also one that defenses must embrace in this era of the pace-and-space Spread, where the entire offensive concept is based around confusing the defense’s assignment and popping big plays through distorted secondary structures.
After the win against the Illini, the Huskers find themselves at 12th in the polls, the highest they’ve been since 2014. I think it’s fair to say that while Nebraska has been voted 12th, they’re probably not quite that good yet if we were to line up teams now and play a series of head-to-heads. That said, I also think it’s fair to say that this team, and especially both lines, could be much better by the end of the year than they are right now. Both were woefully inexperienced at the season’s start, but many of the individual players in both those units have seen the light bulbs turn on in the last couple of weeks. For now, though, it’s just about winning and moving on. And the Huskers have been perfect at that in 2016.