333 total yards, 2.9 yards per carry, two interceptions, including one pick 6, and 3 sacks. The Hoosiers offense in 2016 may not be what it was in 2013, when it finished inside the top 10 in total yards and generally ran and threw it over and around everyone. But it isn’t nearly as bad as the Blackshirts made it on Saturday either, holding the Indiana squad to its second lowest total yardage and yards per play this year. We haven’t talked a whole lot this year about defensive coordinator Mark Banker’s defense for reasons discussed here, but halfway through the season and coming off a game where they bailed out an injured, stagnant offense, it’s time to change that.
Banker’s modus operandi this year focuses on two core principles. One, stop the run by freeing up the Blackshirts linebackers to attack the line of scrimmage. They do have coverage responsibilities, but by frequently playing his base Quarters for much of the year, Banker has permitted his linebackers to play run first while knowing they’ve got safety help behind them on play action. Two, keep everything structurally sound in the secondary to prevent the long pass play. This was Nebraska’s Achilles’ heel in 2015, but they’ve cleaned it up a bunch in 2016. Sometimes that means the Huskers defense gives up yards between the 20 while allowing throws in front of DBs, but it’s the cost of doing business when you want to make an offense earn it down the entire field. It’s also a pretty solid strategy when you’ve got an emerging secondary filled to the brim with above average defenders. Lockdown U. It’s bold, but so far they’ve lived up to it.
Against Indiana, Banker used the Lockdown U road show to dial up both zone and man blitzes agains well traveled QB Richard Lagow. Before we get there, though, let’s take a look at Nebraska’s base coverage in the Nickel and then we’ll turn to how Banker’s pressure packages added up to 3 big sacks for 24 yards.
Play 1 – Nickel Base Quarters
Personnel: Nickel (4 DL, 2 LB, 5 DBs)
Formation: Gun Split Twins
On this first-and-10 play, the Hoosiers come out in 11 personnel, 3 WRs, 1 TE and 1 RB, with the TE lined up in the backfield. Against this type of look and especially with how well Aaron Williams has been playing at the Nickelback spot, Banker loves to match it on balanced run/pass downs with Nebraska’s Base split field coverage. To the Field side of the play, that means both Chris Jones and Kieron Williams playing traditional Quarters with “Man Clue” technique on the #1 and #2 receivers. On the Boundary side of the play, Nebraska will run different variants of Cover 2 or Cover 4 depending on the week’s game plan and the number of WRs to that side and their splits.
I’ve talked about this Base look and Man Clue before, but briefly, Jones is taking any vertical route by the #1 WR and Kieron is taking any vertical route by the #2 WR. If both WRs go vertical, it converts to pure man-to-man coverage. If the #2 receiver runs immediately inside on a route while #1 is vertical, Kieron falls off the #2 WR and works under the #1 WR while Jones stays over top, effectively turning it into a High/Low double team on the #1 WR. On the flip side, if #2 is vertical and #1 immediately runs inside, Kieron locks up #2 and Jones will zone off and work underneath #2 looking to help Kieron play on any Corner route to the sideline.
To the Boundary, on this play, Kalu is locked into man coverage on the WR and Gerry is reading the TE lined up off the line of scrimmage. Because Indiana uses Slice, or split inside zone, run action from the backfield, Gerry tracks the TE across to help support the run game. Banderas and Young are run first players with responsibility to stop the RB on inside zone, with Banderas having back side A gap responsibility and Young covering the play side B gap. With Lagow presenting no real run threat, Freedom Akinmoladun can play the RB while Aaron Williams hangs in the slot to play both the pass and the run.
That’s the benefit of Banker’s Base coverage. You get the LBs immediately involved in the run game while having safety support to protect them if the offense is running play action, as it was on this play.
Though there’s nothing exotic about this defense, it ends up in a Pick 6 for the Huskers. Why? Partly the Hoosiers’ own doing by running poor routes, but also because of Lockdown U’s noticeable improvements in 2016. Pay close attention to Chris Jones and Aaron Williams on this play, and you’ll see them both do something they weren’t comfortable doing in 2015:
Let’s start with Williams, one of the Huskers’ most promising young defenders. He’s the offense’s conflict defender on this play: he has to play both the QB keep on zone Read while also having coverage responsibility in the flats for any short routes by the #2 WR. That’s not an easy task, and as we talked about in the Charting post, it’s easy for that defender to get stuck in the middle and do nothing. In 2015, we saw a lot of that from Nebraska’s dual conflict defenders. In 2016 it’s largely been cleaned up.
On this play, Williams initially triggers down on run support when he sees the LT down block for the run, but he quickly recovers and gets “big” in the passing lane to obstruct Lagow’s throwing vision. It’s a small detail, but it’s one that gives QBs fits because they like to throw into open passing windows. By closing it down, Williams takes away Lagow’s option to throw the ball to the flat route on a line. It doesn’t go in the box score, but it’s playing your responsibility to a T and allows one of his teammates to make a play.
That brings us to Lockdown U’s rapid riser, Chris Jones. Jones’s sharpening eye discipline and ball skills are once again on full display in this play. Because Quarters CBs are reading the #1 WR’s release, it’s often easy for young CBs playing Man Clue to get their eyes locked only on that WR. That’s not a bad thing, as having your eyes on your man ensures that you’ll always play your coverage responsibility. But it also means you miss some opportunities to make a play. And so the next level of this coverage, and comfort within it, is for CBs to be able to “sneak” a peek at the QB during their initial coverage drop while knowing where the #1 WR is too. In essence, it’s a two for one with the CB’s eyes. He’s still with the #1 WR in his peripheral vision, but he’s also able to read the ball out of the QB’s hands on any quick game routes. When CBs get to that level, it’s game on for the defense because the space in the secondary quickly collapses and the offense’s margin for error is gone.
That’s exactly what happens on this play, as Jones is able to work into his drop playing Man Clue while still reading the ball out of Lagow’s hands on the quick passing game. If this is 2015, Jones’s eyes are locked on the #1 WR, he never sees the ball out of Lagow’s hands, and it’s a harmless incompletion for Indiana. But in 2016, Jones sees the concept develop, immediately jumps the route as the ball is out, and makes a game-changing house call on the interception. That’s picture perfect, and when coupled with Carlos Davis coming on strong in the run game to pair with underappreciated Kevin Maurice, it’s not a good omen for Nebraska’s upcoming opponents.
Play 2 – Double A Gap Blitz
Personnel: Nickel (4 DL, 2 LB, 5 DBs)
Formation: Gun Trips Open Stack
Big moment in the game. Only a few minutes before this play, the Hoosiers ran through $450,000 worth of punt protection to force a Nebraska safety. And now they’ve got their smug backup QB in, he’s busted off a couple zone Reads while letting everyone know about it, and suddenly a blowout in progress has turned into a potentially tight game. To top it off, they go a bit exotic running a stacked split from the WR while detaching the TE way out wide on your CB.
You’ve got two choices on long down and distance plays in the red zone. Sit back in coverage, try to shut down the throwing windows with extra defenders, and hope your front four can squeeze the QB into a sack or a bad throw. That’s not necessarily a bad choice if you’re a bit outmatched in the secondary or you’re playing a QB who can’t run. Or, if you have the talent on the back end, the other choice is to blitz the hell out of the QB and play Cover 0, pure man-to-man, or Cover 1 behind the blitz.
In this case, Mark Banker knew his guys were better than Kevin Wilson’s guys, and so he decided to turn them loose on a Double A gap blitz with Cover 0 behind it. Slant your nose tackle, on this play Kevin Maurice, from the A gap into the B gap to create space for the blitz. If done right, he pulls the right guard away from the center. After he does, send your safety and LB as fast as they can go, one on each side of the center. In the secondary, pick a guy and stick with him.
If timed right, the Double A gap blitz can destroy protection schemes because offenses often ask the center to pick a side. On this blitz, no matter what he does, he’s wrong. And even if the RB stays in a 6-man protection to help, he’s either got a safety with a head start or a LB with 20 lbs on him coming downhill at full speed. If you’re an offense against this, you have to get the ball out fast and have guys out wide that can beat the secondary.
On this one, the Hoosiers couldn’t, and so Zander Diamont gets put on his back for a four-yard sack ending an otherwise promising drive:
Indiana actually blocks this pretty well at the start, but once again Lockdown U takes the air out of the secondary and gives Diamont nowhere to get rid of the ball. You can’t see it from this clip, but they ran a Corner route against Kieron Williams. No go, as he did a great job in a lot of open space to close it off. That’s not an easy task for a safety against a slot receiver. And once Diamont is forced to hold the ball, he’s got guys bearing down on him from all over, eventually ending in Dedrick Young putting him down. Nice call by Banker made possible once again by the Blackshirts’ talented secondary.
Play 3 – Nickel DB Blitz
Personnel: Nickel (4 DL, 2 LB, 5 DB)
Formation: Gun Split Trips Closed
Another big moment, and yet another type of blitz from Mark Banker. This time, Nebraska’s offense is in full-on sputter mode and the Hoosiers have closed it to 17-8 on the scoreboard. With Indiana quickly approaching midfield, the Blackshirts need to find an answer fast. In Plays 1 and 2, we saw Banker answer 11 personnel once with Base coverage and then again on a straight man blitz.
Here, however, he throws another curveball to keep Richard Lagow guessing. And he does it by packaging the Blackshirts’ human Swiss army knife, Aaron Williams, with zone protection behind him. Zone blitzes by nature are designed to get pressure on the QB while maintaining a safe 5 or 6-man coverage structure behind it. To make the math work and still generate pressure, it typically means bringing the blitz to one side while having a defensive lineman on the other side fall back in coverage.
On this play, it’s a 3 Deep/3 Under blitz, with Aaron Williams coming off the edge and Kieron Williams coming down in Sky support to play the Curl/Flat zone that Williams vacates. Nate Gerry rotates to the deep middle while both corners fall into the deep outside thirds. And because we’re also sending Dedrick Young into the A gap, we’re dropping Ross Dzuris off away from the blitz to play the Curl/Flat zone to the Boundary. It’s safe coverage with deep and underneath protection while still generating pressure on the QB. Not much better than that, and with the H-Back and RB adding to the protection on Dzuris’s side, it means a wasted block and a free run for Williams:
That 15-yard loss is a drive killer, and though my guy Aaron Williams got called for being offsides on the very next play, I love the aggression. This blitz relies less on pure talent from the Blackshirts and more on deception. Get the offense committed to blocking a defensive lineman and then drop him into coverage. On the other side, bring an extra guy or two and overwhelm them with pure numbers to that half of the offensive line. And over top, play a safe coverage that gets bodies on the receivers immediately. Add those things up and it’s usually trouble for the offense.
Wrapping It Up
As DB coach Brian Stewart continues to refine the back end of the Huskers’ defense into a unit that can match up with almost anyone in the country, we’re starting to see Mark Banker unfold his full pressure package, something he wasn’t able to do last year with too much confusion in the secondary. As he does, the Blackshirts are able to pressure with both man and zone schemes, and more importantly, they’re able to bring men from both the LB and DB level and from all across the field as well.
As I’ve mentioned before, football is fundamentally a game of real estate. Just like the offense wants to be able to attack across the width and length of the field, the defense wants to answer those threats by being able to apply pressure from all over the place as well. Against Indiana, that’s exactly what Nebraska was able to do, and it resulted in 3 sacks, including two in the “gotta have it” situations above.
I don’t think we’re all the way there yet, as we still haven’t found an impact guy in that front 7 in the pass rush game. But while we look for him, perhaps in the form of human missile and current Husker commit Avery Roberts, we’ve been able to rely on solid fundamentals and everybody doing the little things right to get pressure home. It’s a nice change from 2015, and it’s something to keep an eye on against Wisconsin’s redshirt freshman QB Alex Hornibrook, who blinked a few times against the Buckeyes’ pressure this past weekend. Lockdown U and the rest of the Blackshirts will need a similar performance if they want to take it home in Madison in just over a week.