The Arizona State Sun Devils have been one of the most blitz heavy teams in college football under head coach Todd Graham . According to ESPN Insider Phil Steele, author of the best college football preview on the market, Arizona State “blitzes more than any other school.” While they blitz more than other teams, and their sack numbers have been impressive (28th, 2nd, 11th, 7th, and 1st in sacks per game in Todd Graham’s five years at ASU), their overall defense has been porous, allowing the second most yards per game (520.5) in all of the FBS (128 teams) in 2016 behind only Texas Tech. The Sun Devils use a variety of blitz packages to attack and confuse opposing offenses, and I’ll be looking at two of their most common designs here.
One thing to notice through the following examples is how well-disguised each blitz Graham uses is. You can almost never tell what blitz he’ll use before the snap, as all defenders stay home until the very last moment. While the designs themselves are incredibly important, the players’ ability to disguise which blitz has been called is equally as vital to the success of Graham’s defenses to getting after the passer.
Disguised Slot Blitzes
One of the more common designs Arizona State used to blitz opposing quarterbacks was a slot corner/linebacker blitz, often utilizing more than one on a single snap In both examples below, Arizona State will blitz multiple defenders from the same slot / edge area, sending too many defenders from one side of the field for the offense to pick up.
Our first example is a play from Arizona State’s 2016 game against the UCLA Bruins, with just over 11 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The Sun Devils are leading, 23-13, and UCLA is facing a 1st and 10 in the ASU red zone. The Bruins use 11 personnel, with an inverted slot formation to the left and pro formation to the right. Quarterback Josh Rosen (#3) is in the shotgun with running back Soso Jamabo (#9) to his right.
Arizona State counters with their base 3-4 personnel in a two-high, Cover 2 defense. The Sun Devils are showing blitz with the left inside linebacker and the left outside linebacker in position to rush the passer as well. The right outside linebacker over the slot receiver is shaded slightly inside, meaning they could be looking to blitz or they’re simply playing the run before dropping into zone coverage.
What Arizona State actually ends up doing, however, is a blitz from both the right inside and outside linebacker off the offensive left edge. Here’s the play design from just before UCLA snaps the ball:
Because the left inside linebacker was originally sugaring the A-gap and the left outside linebacker was a potential rush threat, UCLA left the center to block the middle of the defense and left the guards and tackles on each side on their own. However, both the left inside and outside linebackers drop into zone coverage, leaving the right side of the offensive line to block one rusher and the left side (plus the running back) tasked with blocking three.
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As you can see in the video above, both the left guard and the running back block the immediate threat of the right defensive end coming up the middle. The left tackle takes the right outside linebacker blitzing from the slot, leaving the right inside linebacker with a free shot at Rosen.
This second play also involves two defenders blitzing from the slot on the same side of the field, from ASU’s 2016 game against Colorado. The Buffs are facing a 3rd and 9at their own 5-yard line, utilizing 11 personnel in the shotgun. Arizona State keeps their 3-4 personnel on the field, showing Cover 1.
The design for Arizona State here will be similar to that above, with two linebackers coming off the edge of the defense. The key here for Arizona State is linebacker D.J. Calhoun (#3) who looks to be in off man coverage against Colorado tight end Sean Irwin (#81). The other inside linebacker, Salamo Fiso (#58) is sugaring the A-gap at the beginning of the play, showing Colorado a potential interior blitz threat.
However, at the last second Arizona State will shift their defense, dropping Calhoun down toward the line of scrimmage to blitz while rotating Fiso behind him to man up against Irwin. Outside linebacker Marcus Ball (#31) will also blitz off the edge with Calhoun.
Arizona State slants the four defensive lineman to their right to occupy Colorado’s offensive lineman, thereby leaving both Calhoun and Ball free off the edge. Running back Kyle Evans (#21) is left alone to block both of the blitzers, and adequately takes the inside blitzer, Calhoun, out of the play. However, this leaves Ball to run free at Buffaloes quarterback Sefo Liufau (#13), along with defensive lineman Viliami Latu (#41) who won with a swim move along the defensive right side. Latu gets there first, with Ball close behind, and interferes with Liufau’s motion to force an incompletion into the dirt.
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Twist Strong/Weak Mike Strong Sox Weak
The other blitz design that Arizona State often leans on is a combination of a defensive line twist with a middle linebacker blitz following it and a backside end/linebacker stunt. While the name can be a mouthful, it’s simply three separate blitz/stunt looks combined into one play. Under the Air-Coryell system, the name would be Twist Strong/Weak (they use both) Mike Strong Sox Weak, combining the three elements (DL stunt, MLB blitz, and DE/LB twist) into one play. Below are the three pieces put together from a compilation of Air-Coryell playbooks.
Arizona State used this blitz a number of times throughout the season, most notably in their games against UCLA and Washington State. The large number of twists and stunts on this play consistently confused opposing offensive lines and opened pass rush lanes for the Sun Devils.
This first example comes from the game against UCLA once again. Midway through the first quarter the Bruins are faced with a 3rd and 5 at the Arizona State 39 and show 11 personnel in the shotgun. They have a slot formation to the left and a pro formation to the right, but will motion the slot receiver into a trips set just before the snap. Arizona State counters with 4-2-5 nickel personnel.
Note: Arizona State’s jerseys make it very difficult to read numbers in their game versus UCLA, so positions (WLB, 1 tech, etc) were used when the name / number of the defender couldn’t be identified.
Arizona State will run “Twist Weak Mike Strong Sox Weak” here from their base 4-3 front. The interior defensive lineman are aligned as a strongside defensive 1 technique and weakside defensive 3 technique (Tashon Smallwood #90). They will run the “Twist Weak” stunt here, with Smallwood crashing to the strength and the looper (1-tech) coming behind the crashing DT and rushing the QB from the weakside. The “Mike Strong” call here means the MLB D.J. Calhoun (#3) will blitz the strong side A gap after the twist takes place in front of him. Finally, the weakside linebacker is dropped next to DE Koron Crump (#4) where they will execute the “Sox Weak” part of the blitz call, where the DE drives outside and the WLB loops inside. A full breakdown can be seen below:
The key part of the blitz takes place in the middle. While Arizona State would love if the weakside defensive end or WLB got home for a sack on the Sox Weak call, that is not the main purpose of the blitz. The key here is the interior twist and subsequent MLB blitz from Calhoun. The goal is for the twist to occupy the center and strong side guard (RG on this play), then, the MLB can come through an emptied gap for an easy sack. If the center / guard recognizes the MLB blitz and goes to pick it up, then one of the twisting defensive linemen should have a free run at the quarterback. The latter happens on this play.
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RG Najee Toran (#69) struggles to pick up Smallwood, the crashing 3 technique and instead blocks Calhoun, the middle linebacker. With RT Andre James (#75) occupied in a one-on-one with strong side DE Jojo Wicker (#1) and center Scott Quessenberry (#52) taking on the looping 1 technique, there is no one to stop Smallwood from sacking quarterback Josh Rosen. Smallwood is able to make immediate contact with Rosen, and while the QB aptly shrugs the defensive lineman off, Calhoun comes in moments later to fully secure the sack. A great view of the struggles along the UCLA interior can be seen from this alternate angle.
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This play design worked absolutely beautifully on this play as the interior defensive line stunt (Twist Weak) and the Mike Strong blitz freed up a lane for a quick Arizona State sack.
The final example of Arizona State utilizing this design comes from their 2016 game against the Washington State Cougars. This play comes late in the first quarter with the Cougars facing a 3rd and 7 at their own 16-yard line. Washington State has 10 offensive personnel on the field, with trips to the right and QB Luke Falk (#4) in the shotgun. The Sun Devils have nickel personnel on the field, once again in an over front with the weakside linebacker dropped near the line just outside the defensive end.
This time, Arizona State will run Twist Strong Mike Strong Sox Weak, with the crashing defensive lineman now going towards the weak side of the formation and the looper going toward the strong side, thus the change from “Twist Weak” to “Twist Strong”. Once again, Arizona State will run a backside Sox Weak twist with the weak side defensive end and WLB, as well as a MLB blitz in the strong side A gap.
Washington State actually does a nice job picking up the pressure from the Twist Strong stunt in the middle as well as the Weak Sox stunt backside. If you look below, each of the four rushers involved in those stunts as well as the strong side DE are accounted for and blocked.
The problem for the Cougars, however, is MLB D.J. Calhoun (#3) who comes flying into the backfield untouched to sack Falk.
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The twist in the middle of the defense provides a perfect amount of cover for Calhoun, as he is able to blitz directly up the middle of the defense for an untouched sack. In the second angle on the above video you can see that Calhoun stays low to the ground the entire time as he approaches the line, staying out of the line of sight of the offensive line before rising up and turning on the jets to get past the trench players.
While there are obviously a number of strengths that blitzing provides for a defense (see Arizona State’s sack rate over Todd Graham’s tenure as head coach), it also opens up the defense to a number of risks. One common problem for the Arizona State defense was when they brought six or seven defenders in an all-out blitz and it was picked up by the offense. The opposing QB did not need five or six seconds in the pocket to make a throw, instead, they simply needed the offensive line to hold up long enough for them to find an open receiver against a secondary with four or five defenders in coverage. If this happened, and the blitz was held off for just long enough, the Sun Devils struggled to prevent big plays (especially over the middle of the field) while blitzing. Their poor overall yardage totals are in large part due to their blitzing habits, as it left them vulnerable on the back end. The video below shows some of the big plays ASU allowed as a result of their fondness of blitzing.
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Arizona State has a number of blitz looks that they use on defense, but the disguised slot blitz and Twist Strong/Weak Mike Strong Sox Weak are their two most common playcalls. Their sack rate has consistently been among the highest in college football under head coach Todd Graham, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue into the future for Arizona State. If they can improve their back-end coverage to prevent big plays while the blitzes get home, the ASU defense could dominate in the Pac-12.