This is Part 2 of a series looking at Tennessee’s attacking defense.
You can read Part 1 here.
We’ve already talked about how the Vols’ 1 gap scheme is designed to attack gaps and stop the run. But how does Tennessee defend the pass? The Vols are primarily a man coverage team, but they will mix in some zone. Tennessee bases out of Cover 1 versus spread formations, and tended to play more zone versus pro sets. The Vols use many zone coverages, including Cover 3, Quarters, and some different pattern match schemes. Today, we will just take a look at Cover 1.
Cover 1 is man coverage across the field with a free safety in zone coverage, responsible for anything over the deep middle. The Vols will typically ask their corners to play tight press coverage on the outside. Sometimes, they will drop into off coverage.
There are two forms of Cover 1. First is Cover 1 Robber. This is Cover 1 with four pass rushers and a defender (usually the strong safety or a linebacker) playing “robber” coverage. This is a short/intermediate zone over the middle of the field. This player is to read the quarterback’s eyes and try to jump a route.
Here is an example from the Florida game this past season. Jalen Reeves-Maybin (#34) is playing robber coverage. He reads quarterback Jeff Driskel’s eyes and is able to “rob” the pass by stepping in front of the crossing receiver and tipping the ball to himself for an interception.
The second form of Cover 1 is Cover 1 Man Free. Instead of playing robber coverage, this extra defender will be used as a blitzer. This gives the Vols the benefit of a five man pass rush with their base coverage behind it.
This is an example from the Taxslayer Bowl. The Vols rush five (including boundary corner Emmanuel Moseley). The Vols get pressure, and the quarterback can’t complete the pass versus the tight man coverage.
There are a few major benefits of playing Cover 1. First, by playing only one safety deep, the Vols can move the second safety into the “box” as a run defender. This is almost essential in college football today, as defenses need an extra defender to defend option runs. Playing one high safety, the Vols can outnumber an offense in the box (4 DL + 2 LB + 1 SS = 7 > 5 OL + 1 TE = 6) and get an unblocked defender in the run game.
Cover 1 is also effective in pass coverage because it closes off the deep middle. Tennessee saw relatively few deep pass attempts over the middle and it is because they base out of a 1 high safety look. The deep middle coverage helps reduce big plays by the offense. If a defense has a good free safety, it is almost impossible to complete a deep pass over the middle versus a 1 high safety look.
Cover 1 is very versatile, because the Vols can use up to five defenders as pass rushers, and as seen above, Jancek is not afraid to use even a corner in that role. The Vols can use multiple different fronts and blitz packages, and still play the same simple base coverage behind it. Tennessee can also play a simple Robber package and not blitz.
The biggest problem faced by Cover 1 defense is that the corners are left on islands. The defense has deep help over the middle and, in Robber, short help as well, but the corners are alone on the outer thirds of the field. Unless a defense has talent at corner, they will struggle playing Cover 1. This is why Jancek is fortunate to have a player like Cameron Sutton, who he can leave on an island without any worry. Sutton is an All-American talent at corner who will likely be a first round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Here Sutton is lined up across from Georgia receiver Chris Conley (3rd Round Pick to the Chiefs in the 2015 Draft). While the rest of the defense was focused on the playaction, Sutton played perfect coverage, blanketing Conley, and tracking the ball for an interception.
This is the type of play Sutton makes on a routine basis for the Vols. Most of the time, quarterbacks will not test him downfield because of his blanket coverage. Having a corner like Sutton who can play tight man coverage gives Jancek a lot of flexibility to put a safety in the box and/or blitz the quarterback.
Speaking of blitzing, Jancek likes to put pressure on the quarterback. Tennessee will typically play solid, conservative run defense on early downs, but in passing situations Jancek wants to make opposing quarterbacks feel the heat. This fits the aggressive one gap philosophy. Jancek’s defense is filled with athletic playmakers. Using multiple fronts and blitz packages allows these players to have better opportunities to impact the game.
This was effective in 2014, as the Vols finished third in the SEC in sacks, and the pressure on quarterbacks led to Tennessee also finishing third in interceptions. Defensive ends Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt were big beneficiaries of the blitzing philosophy. Barnett set a Tennessee freshman record with 10 sacks (fourth in the SEC/sixteenth in the nation) while Maggitt led the team with 11 sacks (third in the SEC/twelfth in the nation). With opposing teams concerned about Jancek’s blitz packages, Barnett and Maggitt were often left with very favorable one-on-one matchups on the edge.
With that said, now let’s look at a few of Jancek’s favorite ways to pressure the quarterback.
Getting pressure on the interior is important and one way Jancek likes to do that is with a double A gap pressure. Here the Vols run a “Cross Dog” blitz where the two linebackers cross and rush the opposite A gap. Maggitt drops into coverage to pick up the back while the defensive backs play Cover 1. The hope is that the first linebacker will take the center with him, opening up the middle for the other linebacker.
On this play, Mike linebacker AJ Johnson (#45) comes through first and the center picks him up. The left A gap is now open and Reeves-Maybin rushes there. The back is forced to pick him up, and he cannot hold his block. This is what Jancek wants: An athletic, blitzing linebacker one-on-one versus a back. Reeves-Maybin forces quarterback Bo Wallace to step up in the pocket and he is sacked by Johnson, who beat the center.
Here, Reeves-Maybin and Johnson once again execute Cross Dog, this time from the 3-3-5 Joker formation. The first thing to note is nose tackle Owen Williams (#58) is able to pull the center away despite rushing through the B gap. Next, Reeves-Maybin comes through the left side and the left guard attempts to pick him up. Instead, he whiffs and Reeves-Maybin is free. The only player between him and quarterback Jeff Driskel is the back, but he chooses to block Johnson in the other A gap instead. Unfortunately, Reeves-Maybin missed a clean shot at Driskel, but he flushed him from the pocket and Chris Weatherd (#42), who was responsible for the back, picked up the sack.
Often Jancek will just send both inside linebackers right up in the middle and not have them cross. On this play from the Florida game, the offensive line blocked the blitz the same way, but the back was concerned about Maggitt. This left the A gap wide open for Johnson. AJ was able to put pressure on Driskel, who threw off his back foot right before getting hit. The ball sailed inaccurately and was tipped into the hands of Tennessee safety Todd Kelly Jr.
Note here, the pressure is very similar, except it appears there are six rushers and no one is covering the back. Here Maggitt (#56), the left end, has a check within the system to rush the quarterback, but he will peel off and cover the back if the back releases on a route. This is a smart way to cover the back, but also not lose a pass rusher if he stays in to block.
A tactic Jancek uses to attack empty formations is called “Check Rain.” This is a page from Nick Saban’s playbook.
The principle is simple. When faced with six potential rushers and only five blockers, the offensive line must slide one way or the other in order that the one unblocked defender is one of the ends and is the furthest distance from the quarterback. The two inside linebackers must read the center. Basically, they are taught that if the center moves towards you, drop into the middle of the field and try to jump a quick slant. If the center moves away from you, then keep coming. This leaves the center blocking no one and an edge rusher coming free.
In this case, Reeves-Maybin reads that the line is sliding right, so he drops into coverage. Often times the quarterback’s hot read is a quick pass over the middle, so Reeves-Maybin hopes to take that away. With the center blocking no one, LaTroy Lewis (#4) is now free to come off the left edge. While he doesn’t get the sack, he forces an inaccurate pass with his pressure.
Jancek does more than blitz his linebackers. He is not afraid to use any of the secondary players. Usually it is the nickel back, but Jancek will not hesitate to bring the boundary corner or a safety.
Safety Brian Randolph ended up in the end zone after nickel back Justin Coleman forced a turnover while blitzing in the Kentucky game. The back released and Kentucky slid their line away from the blitz, so Coleman (#27) came free. The Vols were running a stunt on the left side. The end came inside, and the right tackle was focused on staying with him. This left the edge wide open for Coleman. Coming unblocked, he was able to tip the pass, which fell right into the waiting arms of Randolph.
Even when the line picks up the blitzers, sending pressure can be effective. The purpose is not always to get a free rusher, but to get favorable matchups. Tennessee might just have the best pair of pass rushing ends in the country in Barnett and Maggitt. Anytime an opposing offense is focused on picking up blitzers, they are now less focused on the Vols star ends. If the back has to pick up a linebacker, then Barnett and/or Maggitt are one-on-one with a tackle, and that is a sight Jancek and all of Vol Nation love to see.
Here, Kentucky picks up the blitz perfectly, but their left tackle was stuck one-on-one versus Barnett (#9). Barnett overpowered the poor tackle and ended up with a sack. Here, the Vols sent double A gap pressure and the linebackers were able to distract Kentucky and open up space for the Vols’ freshman sensation to add another sack to his total.
In one of the most important plays of the season, Jancek called for a safety blitz with Cover 1 behind it. The pressure came off the defensive right side so Maggitt was left one-on-one on the left edge. Johnson had a check read on the running back. When he saw that he was blocking, Johnson blitzed and kept the back from helping the right tackle. Maggitt used his speed to get around the edge and make the sack.
Even when he’s not blitzing, Jancek knows how to create one-on-one matchups.
Here, the Vols line up in their Joker package and show five rushers at the line (including three [!] in the A gap), with one more potential rusher (the standup linebacker). Instead, the Vols only rush three and play a safe Cover 2 Man Under coverage with Weatherd spying the quarterback.
As a side note: This was a common look for the Vols in 3rd and very long or versus a scrambling quarterback. Play conservative: Cover 2 Man Under [man coverage with two safeties deep], rush three, and let Weatherd spy.
Back to the play: By showing pressure, Jancek forced the offensive line to focus on protecting the interior. This left Maggitt a one-on-one matchup with the right tackle. Maggitt was able to flush the pocket, force the quarterback to scramble and force a bad pass.
In a very similar situation, the Vols showed inside pressure against Kentucky, but only rushed three. With the guards concerned about the inside linebackers, Maggitt was able to speed past the overmatched right tackle for the sack.
I hope that this series has provided a good look at how the Vols want to attack on defense. Tennessee wants to be the aggressor and put pressure on the offense. They do that by recruiting athletic playmakers and letting them attack the football in the one gap, blitzing scheme.
Be on the lookout for another series next week taking a look at the individual talent on the Vols defense heading into the 2015 season, as well as multiple updates throughout the year, analyzing games. You can receive email notifications of new posts by subscribing at the bottom of the home page. You can also get updates on Twitter by following me @sethpricevfl.