When Nebraska announced Bob Diaco as its new defensive coordinator, the first thing you thought was “Bet he’s going to give up 500 yards and 27 points in the opener” right? Yeah, me neither. Nebraska’s game against Arkansas State ranks up there with Louisiana Tech in 1998 and Wisconsin in the 2012 B1G Championship Game in the “What the f*@$ was that” category.
In a lot of ways, the game felt worse than it was. If I told you the Red Wolves ranked 71st in the country in yards per play after Saturday, you’d probably call me a fool given the collective angst of Husker Nation right now. And yet that’s exactly where they are heading into week 2. Nebraska’s biggest problem was the inability to get off the field on third down in the first half. After two 3 and outs early because of untimely penalties, Buster Faulkner’s unit ran off a stretch of converting 4 out of 5 third downs in the first half to end it with 17 offensive points. The Blackshirts cleaned it up in the second half, but the psychological damage was already done.
Let’s take a look at some of what went wrong and what that portends–if anything–for Nebraska’s remaining schedule.
In 2017, much of football has become an 11 personnel game with 3 WR, 1 RB, and 1 TE. With some exceptions, a majority of college and NFL teams are predominantly using 11 personnel to put up historic numbers. Why? As usual, it comes down to numbers and real estate. 11 personnel creates the best of both worlds in the passing and running games. Keeping a tight end in the huddle creates an extra gap for the defense to plug:
In the above image, you’ll see the addition of the tight end has created the D gap. Defenses have to match that extra gap with another defender in the run fit. If not, they’re outnumbered in the running game and it’s an easy night for the offense.
The issue becomes even more problematic if the offense lines the tight end up off the line of scrimmage, as the gap is no longer “declared” or fixed as above. Instead, after the snap, the tight end can insert anywhere across the line of scrimmage to move that extra gap. Arkansas State did this frequently, sometimes running split zone with the tight end coming across the line of scrimmage and other times inserting the tight end in the A gap on an ISO play as below:
But the tight end, especially when paired with 3 WRs in wide splits, also creates pressure in the passing game. Commit too many numbers to defend the run and you’re asking your defensive backs to play receivers one on one coverage in a lot of space. Additionally, releasing the tight end down the seam or into the flat on run action gives you reliable third down plays to move the chains.
Add in the evolution of the RPO, where an offense can run or throw the ball on any given play depending on how the defense reacts, and you frequently end up with a conflict player. “Conflict” is when a defender has both a responsibility in the run fit while also having coverage duties in the passing game. Most often it’s an outside second level defender (think OLB or nickelback), but offenses can also put safeties into conflict depending on the run fit. Above, the conflict defender is Marcus Newby. With 6 blockers and 7 gaps because of the tight end, you need Newby to become the 7th player in the run fit. But with his safeties playing deep, Newby also has to protect them underneath against the #2 WR to the field. If the offense understands this and has adequate personnel, it becomes an unwinnable fight for that conflict player.
That’s a lot of what Arkansas State did to Nebraska all night long, and the play above is a perfect example. Newby cements himself in the middle of two choices (defend the run or defend the pass) and doing so means he adequately defends neither. Had the Red Wolves handed the ball off, the RB is free up the middle through the A gap. Instead, they choose to throw it. The #2 WR gets a free release but thankfully drops the ball just past the first down line.
I’ve already talked about coordinator Bob Diaco running Base defensive personnel (4 DBs and a combination of 7 DL/LB) against 11 personnel from Arkansas State, but now I’ll say why that’s an issue. In my opinion, modern RPOs make it difficult to totally eliminate conflict defenders. You can occasionally align your fronts to prevent conflict and you may also choose to two-gap your defensive line, but each of those “solutions” creates its own problems. And you can’t get into them 100% of the time.
What that means is you have to find a personnel solution for the conflict defender. If you can’t eliminate the conflict, at least get a guy who can get between them as quick as possible. In other words, a guy with great acceleration and change of direction to play in space. Base personnel largely makes the conflict defender a linebacker, in either the 3-4 or 4-3, and those guys aren’t typically great “space” players. Alternatively, the Nickel takes out a LB or DL and adds in an extra DB. In the true Nickel, this is classically a third cornerback with his largest benefit being in pass coverage. But this doesn’t solve your issue defending the extra gap against 11 personnel in the run game. Nobody wants to see cornerbacks folding into the box and taking on running backs in head up situations.
Enter what some call the “Big” Nickel, with a guy like Antonio Reed coming into the mix as that extra defender. Better change of direction and closing speed than a linebacker like Newby. Not quite as good in run support, but ultimately a trade off you must make to appropriately defend 11 personnel. This is Tyrann Mathieu, Jabrill Peppers, Derwin James. Not easy to find, but extremely valuable in modern defenses.
So why didn’t we use Reed or at least Nickel personnel more against Arkansas State? Candidly, I’m not sure. There are a number of possible reasons why Diaco stayed in Base. Keep things off film for Oregon. Get Base personnel extra reps in a newly installed defense. Simple underestimation of the Red Wolves’ commitment to moving down the field through short throws. Focus on preventing the big play. I’m not sure the merits of any particular reason, but I do expect the defensive personnel to change going forward against 11 personnel. I expect you’ll see more Nickel against Oregon and the handful of Big 10 teams that run the spread. And if so, while we can’t entirely avoid conflict, we can alleviate some of the issues it causes.
So it was all scheme, right? Quick fix, just change things around a bit on the chalkboard, call some more subpackage defenses, and we’re all good heading into a showdown with an explosive Oregon offense. Eh, I’m not so sure, and it appears Vegas isn’t either:
Nebraska also had some fundamental technique issues against the Red Wolves, and not only are they things that have plagued the Blackshirts for years now, but I’m not sure there is a quick fix for them either.
You’ve got to have guys that can cover. So you’re looking at corners that can cover, linebackers that can cover and even safeties that can cover. And not only zone safeties but safeties that can go man-to-man. Because you have to be able to mix man in there. So I think that’s the biggest thing, particularly the linebackers, because in the formations the linebackers are going to have to walk out and cover a tight end or a back that’s out of the backfield, and if they can’t move and they can’t cover, offensively they find that match up they like right now and they go right at it.
– Romeo Crennel on defending modern offenses
The above quote from Romeo Crennel distills the difficulty of defending 11 personnel and modern spread offenses. Beyond the additional gap in the run game that the tight end creates, lining up with 3 WRs creates considerable pockets of space on the field. And if the offense can get the ball out quickly to them on screens or other quick game concepts, football becomes a game of chase and tackle played out in that space. This is the “basketball on grass” pejorative that often gets thrown out by defensive coaches who have no clue how to shut it down. And that’s the beauty of the spread. It forces defenses to repeatedly make the hardest type of tackle in the game: one on one in the open field.
So when it becomes chase and tackle, there is a premium on two types of players. First, you need perimeter defensive backs who can press cover and get off blocks. Nothing shuts down a perimeter screen game quicker than an offense’s inability to block the initial defensive back. And pressing typically takes away a lot of the quick game concepts and it also takes away blocking angles in the screen game. Second, you need safeties and overhang players (linebackers or interior defensive backs) that can rapidly change direction in pursuit and make the tackle once they arrive. Tackling ability in space is also important against RBs because pursuit defenders are often too far away guarding WRs to help.
This was the game that Arkansas State played with the Blackshirts on Saturday, and it was a game that indicated the Huskers, at least now, are deficient in the two areas above. Much like many (but not all) Big 10 teams, the Huskers don’t have great change-of-direction defenders at linebacker. Marcus Newby, Dedrick Young, and Chris Weber are all hardworking players, but they’re often overwhelmed in space. Arkansas State went after them in a variety of ways:
The two plays above were pretty typical for most of the night. Arkansas State tried to get Nebraska’s linebackers isolated in space against skill players, and save for a few wins by Luke Gifford, those situations heavily favored the Red Wolves. On the two plays above, if the pursuit is quick and the initial tackle made, ASU gains 6 yards. Instead, slow pursuit and/or missed open field tackles cost the Blackshirts a combined 22 yards.
The defensive backs also struggled to get off blocks to stop Arkansas State’s perimeter passing game:
That play above illustrates how things got out of hand in defending the perimeter screen game. One, Arkansas State does a nice job of pulling defenders in run action to prevent Nebraska’s linebackers from immediately pursuing the screen. Two, Nebraska is playing its secondary in off coverage to the boundary. The coverage gives Lee no immediate help from safeties as pursuit defenders, and it prevents him from pressing and immediately tracking the screen man. Three, Lee’s technique makes matters worse. Instead of attacking downhill to the blocker’s outside shoulder and creating a logjam, Lee shuffles down and ends up getting driven back almost to where he started.
Give some credit to ASU as well. That slot “receiver’ is actually 6’3″/230lb tight end Blake Mack. Eric Lee goes 6’/195lb, and it’s a tough ask of him to continually defeat that block from 10 yards away. And that’s exactly what Arkansas State is trying to scheme you into with their RPO offense. Force the defense to make plays that don’t favor either their personnel or their alignment. Here, Nebraska is guarding heavily against the vertical shot play off the run action, and so the Red Wolves take the screen. Many offenses have too much hubris to continually take short screens, but ASU did a nice job of knowing who it was and understanding how to operate within that construct.
Wrapping It Up
So is it time to hit the panic button? Probably not. Bob Diaco isn’t going to play Base personnel with 2 High safeties all year against 11 and 10 personnel from the offense, and that means a lot of the things that hurt Nebraska against the Red Wolves won’t be there for other teams. Additionally, Arkansas State is a true throw-to-run spread with tempo, and while it caused some confusion for the Blackshirts, that should subside as the defense continues to grow comfortable in Diaco’s new scheme. Finally, the Big 10 isn’t exactly the land of exciting spread offenses, so you probably won’t see 68 passes and double digit screens again this year..
But there are definitely some areas for concern. Oregon, Ohio State, and Penn State all have dynamic athletes that they can get in space, and you can be sure after watching this film they’ll look to attack Nebraska’s linebackers through formations in the same ways that ASU did.
That starts this week with Oregon in what I think is Nebraska’s worst offensive match up of the year. The Ducks may be young with a lot of new faces at receiver, but they still have “Rolls” Royce Freeman and solid backups in Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James. Though not as explosive as peak Marcus Mariota years, Justin Herbert has done a good job of distributing the ball down the stretch in 2016 and into 2017.
If I had to pick, I’d probably be taking Oregon to win comfortably. I’m not sure the defense is ready yet, and I don’t think the offense can carry enough sustained drives in a tough road environment to win a Pac-12 style game. But Tommy Armstrong and crew proved me wrong last year, and I’m hopeful Bob Diaco can do the same this year in the first true test of the season.