All’s not well in Happy Valley. This is not breaking news. Our pre-season top 10 squad’s stumbling like a drunk through the month of October. Receivers can’t catch. Everyone is injured. And let’s see, what else has gone wrong...
Oh, right - we just gave up 268 sack-adjusted rushing yards to the moribund Indiana Hoosiers. And our next three opponents are Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin. If ever there was a time to sober up and start playing football like Nittany Lions, it’s right now. Let’s fire up the film projector to see why our rush defense has been treated worse than a rented mule.
Kill The Lights
One sure way to fix the run defense issues would be if Jared Odrick, Spice Adams, Paul Posluszny, Navorro Bowman, and Sean Lee magically appeared on the depth chart for Saturday. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. And since it’s not, we’re not spending any space in this Film Room pointing out issues without immediate, 2018 answers. Having precious few experienced defensive bodies, or getting beaten physically, for instance - not a whole lot anyone can do about that stuff in the middle of the season. Our boys will simply need to flip over more truck tires in the spring and summer, and Coach Franklin will need to keep on recruiting.
What can and must be addressed are two things in particular: eye discipline and attitude.
As shown in the shot below, Indiana faces 1st and Goal at the PSU 5 yard line. The Hoosiers present a “pistol” backfield, with all four receiving threats to the short side of the field, their right. Penn State counters with a base 4-3, and man-to-man coverage.
This is a curious alignment from Indiana. If you’re a defender, alarm bells should be going off in your head. Why? Because, generally speaking, only an idiot, or a mad scientist bent on trickeration, would stuff 100% of his ball-threats into one-third of the field, that’s why. Indiana is supposed to be a “spread” team, and instead, offensive coordinator Mike DeBord has concocted a “stuff” alignment. Something’s amiss.
With every ball-threat they have starting this snap between the far hash and sideline, everything about this play screams, “it’s going to (their) right, (our) left”. Right? Right. That’s exactly what Indiana OC Mike DeBord wants us, the defense, to think. DeBord’s play design assumes that we’ll get distracted by the eye candy.
Defensive coordinator Brent Pry, a 4-3 disciple, prudently keeps one defender for each of the three weakside gaps. Focusing below the yellow line in the screen capture below, you’ll recognize 1st year nose tackle PJ Mustipher holds the “A” gap between the Indiana center and guard; 3rd year linebacker Cam Brown (yellow circle) covers the “B” gap between the Indiana guard and tackle; and 3rd year defensive end Shaka Toney has the “C” gap, to set the backside edge, keep contain, and - if it’s a run just inside of him - to pinch the “B” or “A” gaps closed.
Here’s where it gets really weird, however. Because there are absolutely ZERO receiving threats to our right, we actually have a 5-on-3 advantage to this weak side - safety Nick Scott and corner John Reid have absolutely, positively, no one to defend in pass coverage, and can just hang around the line of scrimmage, waiting for the ball to be snapped. Again, this is the “idiot, or mad scientist” aspect. DeBord is intentionally running weakside, smack dab into this 5-on-3 disadvantage. His design can only work if Dear Old State gets suckered by the eye candy.
The gif below shows the result - we got out-smarted by Mike DeBord.
The only weakside PSU defender who does a decent job is the true freshmen, Mustipher. He gets off the ball, engages the center immediately, and wisely turns down as soon as he feels the combo block from the guard - clogging, if not closing, that “A” gap. Fine job, young Mustipher - we can win with that effort.
Unfortunately, everything else on the weakside - and I mean everything else - is abysmal. Surely you won’t be surprised to see that DE Shaka Toney speed rushes himself out of the play, and in so doing, helps to create a 10-yard wide “B” gap for LB Cam Brown to fill. This is the cost of those 4 sacks.
Just as bad, though, LB Cam Brown gets completely distracted by the eye candy. Instead of noticing the combo block happening 2 feet in front of his face, he stands around after the snap - actually peaking over at the eye candy to see what’s going on over there - and gets easily picked off by the Indiana guard, at almost exactly the same spot he was standing in prior to the snap. Zero movement. Combo blocks aren’t that easy when running bag drills.
Finally, 4th year cornerback John Reid and 5th year safety Nick Scott, despite having zero receivers to their side of the field, react too slowly to prevent a 5 yard touchdown run. Nick reflexively starts with backpedal read-steps, despite already standing in his own end zone.
Not...umm...not a great defensive play for Linebacker U.
There were a ton of not-great defensive plays from Linebacker U in this contest against Indiana. There’s plenty to pick apart when you allow 268 sack-adjusted yards rushing to the freaking Indiana Hoosiers. Take for instance this gif below, a variation of the EXACT SAME SPLIT ZONE OUR OWN OFFENSE HAS RUN 10 TIMES PER GAME FOR THE LAST THREE YEARS.
Our 2nd year MLB Ellis Brooks doesn’t appear to read his keys. Despite this being a PSU offensive staple, it seems as though he fails to recognize the play. Either he doesn’t see, or completely ignores, the down-blocks happening directly in front of his face, and the H-back folding around and into his primary gap. That can be our only conclusion, because he never takes a single step toward the line of scrimmage. Instead, he stands 5 yards down field, and eats every bite of the H-back like its an early bird special at Old Country Buffet. Teammate Koa Farmer may have read the play, but - charitably speaking - doesn’t exactly attack it violently.
Friends, it’s time. We’ve written about him before, but it’s time to consider asking Tariq Castro Fields if he’ll play a little linebacker for us. Look at the gif below. TCF is 7 yards off the ball, playing weakside corner. Cam Brown is 3 yards off the ball as the weakside linebacker. Who is the linebacker?
Need consolation? Look at Jan Johnson. He reads his keys, fights through his own DT getting pushed into his lap, and comes from 3 gaps away to make a play on the ball carrier. That’s a Penn State linebacker.
“Tradere” is the Latin root word of our English “tradition”. Tradere means to hand down, or pass along, from one generation to the next. You pass along only the sacred, the timeless, the precious - precisely because they’re valuable. If the things were worthless or harmful, you wouldn’t want to pass them along.
Moreover, the recipient of the tradition takes on a responsibility - to learn and understand the inherent value, to protect and defend the tradition, and to be in a position to pass it along - unbroken, if not enhanced - to his/her heirs. It’s a duty of stewardship that spans generations, from the long-since-dead, to the as-yet-unborn.
This is freaking Linebacker U, friends. There’s a standard to uphold, and pass along. Read your freaking triangle, play your freaking gaps, and freaking come down hill, violently, with the proper leverage.
Here’s the standard, in gif form. Does Navorro Bowman pick his nose just because the weakside guard is pulling to the strong side, away from him? Does Sean Lee ignore his reads, stand in place, and wait for that pulling guard to deliver a blow 5 yards down the field? No, friends, they do not.
Here’s another, more recent standard. Look at freaking Mike Mauti in the gif below. Do you think he’s reading his keys and playing his responsibilities? It’s freaking instantaneous - not one wasted step, and he’s showing up angry, delivering the blow rather than absorbing it, and chucking the would-be blocker like a lawn dart. Gerald Hodges is the weakside. Does he just stand around, indecisively, hoping somebody else makes a play when the wildcat snap goes badly?
The issue to address this week isn’t physical. If they had no ability, they wouldn’t be wearing blue and white. It’s attitude. Here’s Josh Hull, carrying on the tradition, against one of the first of the up-tempo, running QB spread offenses with Run-Pass-Options. Watch Hullstache Read. Watch Hullstache Run. Watch Hullstache Destroy. Put them both on a track, and Tate Forcier would beat Hullstache in a 40-yard dash by about 5 yards - maybe more. But not on this sprint left RPO.
Hit The Lights
What are we teaching our young (linebackers) these days? That’s a serious question. Playing linebacker against these post-modern spread offenses is an incredible challenge. A significant component of their design is to get you thinking about so many things that you forget to execute your fundamental responsibilities.
Tradition holds the answer. Tradition’s inherently valuable, or it wouldn’t be a tradition in the first place. But tradition’s invaluable in times of confusion. And our boys can look confused, or at least, disoriented, at times.
Therefore, brethren, stand firm and cling to the traditions which you have been taught, whether by tailgate story or animated gif. Return to your fundamentals. And not to put too fine of a point on it, but we’re facing Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin, in consecutive weeks. If there ever was a time to read your keys, fill your gaps, and play like a Penn State linebacker, it’s these next three weeks.