As the Penn State defense continues to work toward becoming a cohesive unit, it has been interesting to watch the players working together to make it happen. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry has always employed a two-deep rotation, sometimes more, along the four-man defensive front.
At the linebacker level, and in the secondary, the heavy rotation of players that have been used during the first four games is unusual but not unplanned. There are a half-dozen linebackers working to fill three starting spots, and jockeying for position in the rotation. In the secondary, roughly ten players are in the mix to play a role of some kind for the Lions.
One aspect of the game that will be critical for players hoping to gain playing time will be communication on the field. While it will be important to have great athletes on the field this week when Ohio State comes to Happy Valley, it is even more important that the players are lined up properly and understand their responsibility.
We took a look at one play that showed how communication can work in the team’s favor.
After giving up a first down on the first drive after halftime, Penn State had a chance to get a stop on the next series. Tariq Castro-Fields nearly had a pick-six on first down, but was unable to hang on to the interception. On second down, Jan Johnson made a nice tackle on a screen pass to set up 3rd and 9. Johnson and Robert Windsor came off the field for Penn State and Lamont Wade and Donovan Johnson entered.
This gave the Lions six defensive backs, two linebackers, and essentially three defensive ends. Take a look at the formation. Furthest back, at left safety is Garrett Taylor (17) and at right safety at the bottom of the screen at midfield is Lamont Wade (38). Tariq Castro-Fields is at the very top of the screen playing left corner (5) and at the bottom on the Illini 45 yard line Amani Oruwariye (21) is lined up at right corner. In the middle of the field, lined up at middle linebacker for this occasion, is Cam Brown (6). On the line you have Kevin Givens, who has the ability to play both tackle and end, lined up at right tackle (30). Next to Givens, standing and lined up opposite the right guard, is Koa Farmer (7). Shareef Miller (48) and Shaka Toney (18) are at the end positions.
Donovan Johnson (2) is lined up in the slot at the bottom of the screen on the hash mark of the 44 yard line. Nick Scott (4) is lined up in the slot at the top of the screen. They are the two players that will be on the move, the two ‘extra’ defensive backs in the formation.
Illinois was attempting to work quickly and got to the line of scrimmage fast. The Lions jumped out to a base defense, using the two deep safeties, Wade and Taylor, to cover deep halves of the field in zone coverage. Oruwariye and Castro-Fields were lined up to have zone responsibilities underneath the safeties on the outside of the field. Scott and Johnson were lined up to cover the flat/slot area inside and shallow in zone coverage.
When Illinois backed off and made adjustments on offense, the Lions did the same thing on defense. With two sets of stacked wide receivers, Brent Pry switched to a man defense underneath a zone. The result is Lamont Wade having the entire deep portion of the field in zone coverage with Garrett Taylor covering the middle of the field in a zone more shallow than Wade. Taylor’s responsibility is roughly the area that contains the orange “I” on the center of the field.
Let’s watch the Penn State players react to the call from the sideline. The dimebacks, Johnson and Scott, move further outside and communicate with the corners nicely. They are now locked in man coverage on the outside.
A nice little touch was at the very end of the sequence at the back of the defense. Lamont Wade does not show his hand to the quarterback early. Though he is going to drop way back off, inside the forty yard line, twenty-five yards from the line of scrimmage, he moves up to midfield to bluff just before the snap.
Garrett Taylor does a good job of hiding his intentions as well. Starting at the 50 yard line at the top of the screen, he creeps up and acts as though he is going to stay outside the hash marks. Then just before the snap, Taylor dashes out to the center of the field to occupy the center zone area underneath Wade.
The well-orchestrated adjustments in the defensive backfield created an illusion and the pass-rush from Shaka Toney was enough to make the quarterback step up. Unfortunately, Cam Brown was just a step or two late at the snap of the ball. Instead of coming on a delay blitz up the middle, Brown was so delayed that he was just plain late.
The result was a roughing the passer for Brown and instead of the drive ending there, Illinois went on to score its final touchdown of the night. But let’s not let one single misstep ruin our fun.
The play was a good example of the adjustments that the Lions will need to make, in real time, against a very good Ohio State team on Saturday. Had Brown got there a step earlier or held up without hitting the quarterback, it would have been a perfect play.
Here it is in full speed.
While the Lions have six defensive backs on the field, there are capable players that have shown the ability to play remaining on the bench. Ayron Monroe may not be in the current top rotation at safety, but he is a solid player. Zech McPhearson is a redshirt sophomore, but when he has been on the field he has shown that he, too, could play for many teams. Jonathan Sutherland is a talented young safety that will play a great deal for the Lions in the future as well.
John Reid was not on the field either and while he continues to try to find his footing after a season off with injury, he is a candidate to replace Donovan Johnson as the nickel corner or in the dime package. Lamont Wade may also take Johnson’s place if he is unable to return from the arm injury that he suffered on Friday night.
The purpose of pointing out the depth in the secondary, and the lack of a major drop-off in talent from the starters to the next group, is to further illustrate what the play we broke down contains. While Lamont Wade has not played a great deal at safety, nor has Garrett Taylor, they both are able to carry out their responsibilities without telegraphing them to the quarterback. This is a nuance that takes time to learn in most cases. The outside corners and dimebacks had no problem at all switching from zone to man defense and communicating with one another as to who was going to cover which of the stacked receivers.
Wade is new to safety but he played a lot for the Lions last season in the secondary. Taylor is a talented player that has waited his turn for a shot to start, and has earned the position opposite Nick Scott. At corner there are more than a half-dozen reliable players ready to be deployed.
While the team has a few questions remaining at linebacker, it has plenty of answers in the secondary. If Brent Pry had a dime for every defensive back on the roster that was ready to play at a championship level, he’d have enough to turn it into cash.