September 16, 2013
Kentucky's defense in the first half against Louisville impressed me. Amazed me, even.
I thought the same Wildcat defense that got torched, over and over again, last year -- and then saw the same thing happen to it against Western Kentucky -- was basically a doomed unit. No matter the coaching difference, it's the same group of players.
But Mark Stoops and D.J. Eliot showed a balanced attack and a daring approach with their use of personnel against the Cardinals to get pressure on Teddy Bridgewater.
On their two biggest pocket-collapsing plays -- the very first play of the game, and the only sack they actually recorded -- Kentucky showed six guys at the line before ultimately only sending four on each play. It's nothing earth-shattering, by any means, but for a defense with these limitations, I think it's an effective way to create pressure via confusion rather than sheer numbers. That way, UK still has its full seven players behind the line to work with.
Check out the first play of the game. At the outset, they've got three down linemen (from the top, Bud Dupree, Donte Rumph, Za'Darius Smith) and two linebackers pressing up the line of scrimmage (Avery Williamson, Khalid Henderson). As the pre-snap action unfolds, safety Eric Dixon (No. 28) comes down, all the way to the line.
Then, just before the snap, the coverage inverts. Fred Tiller, the cornerback at the bottom of the screen, heads straight back to play a deep zone, while Dixon, at the snap, turns and runs to cover that same receiver.
Meanwhile, Williamson stunts around Rumph, while Henderson (No. 22) takes a few steps as if he's rushing before settling into a comfortable spot to contain the quarterback. Both he and Dixon are two players that Louisville had to account for as possible rushers before moving into different assignments. The result of the four-man rush:
Kentucky pulled off the exact same play to get to Bridgewater for its first and only sack of the day. This time, it's Dupree, Smith, Tristian Johnson, Henderson, Williamson and Dixon on the line.
You'll see the same inversion principle used just before and at the snap, as Tiller (at the top of the screen) backpedals into a deep zone assignment, while Dixon switches over to his man. Henderson again settles around the line of scrimmage. As before, it's the edge rushers who make it happen, with Dupree and Smith getting the push to combine for the takedown.
So that was one play Stoops used to great effect a few times.
I was also really impressed by his willingness to try unconventional personnel sets. It probably stems mostly from wanting to get his best players on the field and also realizing that he just doesn't have the pieces to play a "typical" brand of defense and contain a good offense. Instead of trying to make less-than-adequate pieces somehow work, they went out-of-the-box. To get pressure, they tabbed their best pass-rushers and put them on the field together, no matter how strange the lineup had to be.
Check out, for example, this play early in the first quarter. Freshman defensive end Jason Hatcher (No. 8) is lined up at outside linebacker (one of the spots the staff has been most disappointed with throughout the year) on the bottom of the screen, and it's a not a strict pass rush-only situation. Indeed, Hatcher displayed some good gap assignments in reading the run and making the tackle.
However, wanting to get bigger and stronger at linebacker (that's why Paschal moved to that spot, as well) could put UK in a bind. Check out this moment. UK's top four pass-rushers (Smith, Dupree, Hatcher and Paschal) are all in the game. Hatcher and Dupree are OLB in a 3-4 look.
But the weird part is that, because Louisville put two receivers on the same side of the field, Dupree is lined up over top of the slot receiver while Tiller, on the other side, doesn't have a receiver to cover.
Louisville ended up running the ball, but I'm surprised they didn't check into a pass. As versatile as Dupree may be, he's not covering a wideout, and a safety would be required to help him if it came down to it -- leaving a mismatch somehwere else on the field. I wouldn't be surprised to see teams attack this, hard, if they get the chance in the future, although defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot was less than clear about whether it was a look they just threw at Louisville as a one-time deal or if it's a more permanent personnel package for them.
Regardless, I loved the way Stoops and Eliot were able to use what they have to achieve a desired result -- and how they weren't afraid to be creative and take risks with who they put on the field.