Analysis: UNLV defense trying to get aggressive with blitz scheme

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Steve Marcus

San Diego State’s tight end Kahale Warring (87) breaks a tackle attempt from UNLV linebacker Gabe McCoy (25) and UNLV linebacker Brian Keyes (5) during a game at Sam Boyd Stadium Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017.

The Rebel Room

Rebels rising, Rebels falling

Mike Grimala, Ray Brewer and Case Keefer take stock of UNLV football and basketball. Excitement is up as the Rebels' basketball hits the practice floor, while the football team may have taken a small step back in getting blown out by San Diego State last Saturday.

UNLV’s defense is not good. That’s a known fact, as the Rebels rank 120th in the nation in yards allowed per game (496 yards) and 107th in yards allowed per play (6.4). And they played poorly against San Diego State, allowing the visitors to rack up 6.8 yards per play and score five touchdowns in a 41-10 bludgeoning on Saturday.

But it wasn’t for lack of trying. One of the more common criticisms thrown at the UNLV defense has been that the unit plays too conservatively, opting for a bend-don’t-break approach instead of an aggressive, pressure-based scheme. Against San Diego State, however, the Rebels upped their blitz game and got creative in their effort to slow down the Aztecs’ offense.

San Diego State called 29 pass plays on Saturday night, with two resulting in penalties on the UNLV defense, two resulting in SDSU quarterback Christian Chapman scrambling, and one ending in a sack. On the 24 plays that saw a pass thrown, Chapman went 14-of-24 for 172 yards, with 11 of the plays going for first downs.

The overall results weren’t great for the Rebels’ defense, but the way they approached the game is worthy of deeper analysis.

The Rebels blitzed (for our purposes, sending five or more pass rushers counts as a blitz) on 12 of the 29 pass plays. And defensive coordinator Kent Baer got even more aggressive on passing downs, blitzing on eight of 11 third-down plays.

Twice on 3rd-and-long, the Rebels went with their favorite pressure call, sending two inside linebackers up the middle as part of a six-man blitz. It’s a play that worked very well in UNLV’s win at Idaho a few weeks ago, but the results were mixed against San Diego State.

The first time Baer called it was a 3rd-and-10 play on the outskirts of the red zone early in the second quarter. The two linebackers rushed up the middle and Chapman adjusted with a quick release, throwing a short slant to the right side. UNLV played it perfectly — the blitz forced a quick throw, and safety Dalton Baker was there to stop the receiver well short of the first-down marker. But cornerback Jocquez Kalili committed a bad penalty, hooking the receiver to draw a pass-interference penalty:

Had Kolili not committed the unnecessary foul, the blitz would have worked and UNLV would have stopped the receiver and forced a kick.

The second time Baer went to the six-man blitz did not work out as well for the Rebels. The sticks were a little closer, as UNLV ran a similar blitz on a 3rd-and-6 late in the second quarter. Chapman read it again and made the same adjustment, throwing a quick slant to the outside. Unlike the first time around, the safety wasn’t close enough to stop the play short of the marker and SDSU picked up a relatively easy first down:

Given the success UNLV has had with that particular blitz play, expect to see it in other obvious passing situations as the season goes on.

The most interesting development against San Diego State was the Rebels’ utilization of zone blitzes. A zone blitz, for our purposes, is defined as a play where an extra rusher blitzes from the second level, while a down lineman feigns rushing at the snap, only to drop back into short zone coverage. When executed, the zone blitz can confuse offensive linemen who are left blocking air while a blitzer gets an open lane to the quarterback from another angle.

The first time UNLV called it was early in the second quarter with San Diego State facing a 2nd-and-10. At the snap, UNLV had five players up on the line of scrimmage, with three down linemen and two outside rushers standing up on the edges, clearly showing blitz. But while the two defensive ends and the two edge defenders rushed at the snap, defensive tackle Jason Fao (No. 95) faked the rush and dropped back into a zone over the middle. Chapman was forced to throw into a tight window and the pass fell incomplete:

The next time UNLV called it came on a 3rd-and-6 on SDSU’s following drive. It was a similar alignment, with five potential rushers across the line of scrimmage, but this time it was 315-pound defensive end Mike Hughes (No. 99) dropping into a zone over the middle. Hughes played it perfectly, following the quarterback’s eyes and getting into the passing lane. Faced with a tiny window, Chapman was unable to thread the ball over Hughes and the pass sailed high:

That was pretty much perfect execution by UNLV. Though they rushed just four defenders, the zone scheme allowed the Rebels to create pressure while Hughes was athletic enough to deter Chapman with his zone coverage.

Later in the half, with San Diego State in a 2-minute drill situation, Baer called another creative zone blitz. This time, the Rebels mimicked their six-man blitz as shown above, with two linebackers shooting up the middle at the snap. But they also mixed in the zone blitz idea, with Hughes (this time at left defensive end) dropping back over the middle. Faced with an actual five-man pass rush and an unexpected zone defender directly in front of him, a flustered Chapman wildly winged the ball incomplete to the left:

The Rebels’ final zone blitz wasn’t executed as well, but the results were good. On the opening play of the fourth quarter, with SDSU facing a 3rd-and-6, UNLV unveiled a new alignment, with four down linemen and two edge rushers on the outside creating a six-man front. At the snap, three of the linemen and both edge defenders rushed the passer, while Hughes again dropped into zone coverage.

This time, Hughes and freshman linebacker Farrell Hester appeared to mix up their responsibilities, as they ended up basically hip-to-hip, defending the same zone. The mistake wasn’t costly, however, as linebacker Bailey Laolagi beat a one-on-one block from the running back and sacked Chapman before he had a chance to scan the field:

For the game, UNLV blitzed 12 times (including six zone blitzes) and generated pressure on the quarterback on six of those plays. For a team that isn’t known for aggressive defensive play-calling, that’s a high blitz rate, and that approach yielded pretty good results.

It didn’t make much of a difference against San Diego State, as the nation’s No. 19 team was able to pound UNLV into submission via the ground game, but the newfound willingness to blitz could be an interesting development to monitor as the Rebels head toward the second half of their schedule.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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