We wondered all off-season how the wholesale personnel changes to Penn State’s defense would impact the 2018 squad’s performance. And now we know. It turns out that it’s not a great idea to replace nearly an entire defense in one off-season.
If you thoroughly enjoy tackling, hitting, and aggression, then please - avert your eyes, dear reader. We’re about to dive into Penn State’s defense in this week’s Film Room, and it ain’t a pretty sight.
Kill The Lights
It all starts up front. It has always started up front. And in the future, it likely will always start up front, barring some weirdo rules to reduce head injuries.
One of the vital components, if you’re playing up front, is to get off the snap of the ball. When the ball moves in the center’s hand, you must move your prodigious behind. If you fail to get off the snap, then it matters not how many recruiting stars you had. You can gather up all your pretty starz, put ‘em in a sparkly gift bag with gold tissue paper, and throw them in the dumpster, because you’re going to get destroyed.
With that as our first premise, we present the picture below, snapped shortly after the App State center has snapped the ball (as evidenced by a big yellow arrow pointing at the ball in flight to the QB). All of the App State linemen are moving. Nearly all of the PSU linemen are moving - nearly all, but not all (see big yellow circle below). This is an unfortunate and recurring theme in this post.
The gif below represents the rest of this play. PSU is in a traditional, old school “Cover 2” defense. App State will run a now-ubiquitous “shallow cross” in front of those linebackers (yellow square), whilst leaking RB Jalin Moore into the flat undisturbed. Moore gets an uncontested catch in the flat, and breaks CB Amani Oruwariye’s attempted tackle to secure a first down (plus a bunch of extra yards).
Here’s why we put a box around the two linebackers (and, actually, based on this “cover 2” look - it’s actually 3 linebackers, with CB John Reid being the third). Only Cam Brown gets any kind of jam on any of the receivers running past them or in front of them. That’s not ideal. Beyond that, check out the spacing of our 3 LBs (Brown, Farmer, and Reid) and safety/hero Garrett Taylor when the App State QB releases the ball. That’s not a typical “zone”, to have a 4 dudes within a 5-yard radius of each other.
To be fair - playing linebacker (and safety) in modern college football is nearly impossible. Philosophically speaking, it makes very little sense. In olden times, a pass was a pass, and a run was a run, and you linebacker’d accordingly. Of course, today, no one - not even the quarterback - knows whether the play is a run or a pass until well after the snap of the ball. And this fact of defensive life muddied the water as far as how one is supposed to play linebacker well.
However, it’s not merely new-fangled, fancy pants football making defense more difficult that’s the root issue of our consternation. Consider the still frame below. This, friends, almost appears to be traditional football. App State presents basically a Power-I left. There’s a tight end, and a fullback. Old timey. As a consequence, there are four “gaps” to the strong (left) side of the offense, as marked in yellow below. Penn State, being a fundamentally sound defense, has 4 defenders - one for each gap - as shown inside the yellow box below.
But that’s where the old timey-ness ends. Responsibility-wise, OLB Koa Farmer is aligned as, effectively, your traditional MLB, staring down the “A” gap between the center and left guard. MLB Jan Johnson is stacked behind DE Yetur Gross-Matos. Jan actually has “contain” to his right on this play. Penn State’s 3rd linebacker, #6 Cam Brown, is all the way on the opposite hash (from where the ball currently rests in the center’s hand). Cam has “alley” responsibilities - quick slants, crossing routes in front of his face, quick hitch “bubble” screens, jet sweeps, and the like. Thus, despite Cam’s positional designation in the game day program, he’s playing more as a safety on this snap, than as a traditional linebacker. And Penn State’s “other”, weakside linebacker, #17 Garrett Taylor, is actually a safety, though he has linebacker responsibilities if it is a run. Given that this is a 1st down and 10, you have to wonder how we decided on this type of configuration.
Let’s start with the good news first as we watch the gif below. The good news is this: Jan Johnson does a pretty solid job. He plays his initial responsibility well, reacting quickly, beating the TE’s block, and setting the edge. He does this with correct leverage. That’s good stuff. Next, after forcing the play back inside, Jan comes off his block, slides into Yetur’s gap, and eats the fullback, creating a bit of a mess in the hole, but not stopping the ball carrier. It’s not NFL All-Pro play, but pretty good. You can win with this, assuming everyone else does his job out there.
Here’s what’s bad - no one else does his job out there. In fact, everything else stinks. DT Fred Hansard is - you guessed it - a second slow off the snap of the ball, and gets pinned. Fred stays pinned, too. Against this outside zone play, that creates a massive gap in PSU’s defense. Secondarily, DE Yetur Gross-Matos engages with the App State left tackle - and stays engaged, getting run out of his gap. Fred and Yetur begin the play approximately 1 yard apart, and finish the play approximately 7 yards apart. That’s a substantial hole to fill.
It largely goes unfilled. Koa Farmer, unaccustomed to playing much linebacker, let alone middle linebacker, is a full step slower than Johnson in his reaction, and gets picked off easily. Weakside linebacker (who is actually a safety) Garrett Taylor is even less accustomed to playing linebacker than Koa Farmer, and doesn’t provide much help in this role. He reacts more slowly than Farmer, takes a bad angle, and whiffs on the App State RB, despite not being blocked at all. Nick Scott makes the stop after 11 yards on this first down run.
For a bit of contrast, here’s a similar PSU formation, against a similar (though not the same) play from Pitt last year. The DTs get off the ball, Robert Windsor manhandles his guard, and - my goodness - Chico Hendrix. Best linebacker-ing safety we’ve had.
Hit The Lights
The defense, from beginning to end - but especially the end - was not very good. Some things might not be addressable this season - at least, not to a top 10-ish level, as is tradition at Dear Old State. However, and fortunately, much of what we witnessed last Saturday can be remedied quickly and easily. Specifically, PSU’s defense can take massive steps forward by simply getting off the snap of the ball, playing with a violent effort consistently (rather than occasionally), tackling better, and being decisive / aggressive in their reads. Stop thinking, start playing. Those improvements can raise the defense from shameful to decent.
Of course, a little show-‘em-the-grill wouldn’t hurt out there, either.