One way to win games is to constantly put the opposing team’s quarterback on the ground. Sean Cottrell breaks down how new University of Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall specializes in designing plays to sack the quarterback and take away his illusion of security.
As any current defensive football coach will tell you, one of the founding fathers of defensive football, as the game is played today, was Buddy Ryan. Referring to his former boss, Weeb Ewbank, who was then head coach of the New York Jets, Ryan once said “I figured if it was that important to Weeb to protect the QB, then it ought to mean just as much to the defense to get him.” Ryan defined this thought of his as the eye opening genesis to what would become his defensive philosophy. A philosophy that, as we know now, would change the way the game is played forever.
From the time we are born until we depart this earth, we seek safety and security. In noted psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, safety and security is preceded only by physical nourishment (food, water, shelter) as the foundation for human flourishing.
As in life, so too in football: The use of Maslow’s hierarchy extends beyond understanding human psychology, but can inform the game of football as well. For instance, before a quarterback can think about the route structure or try to process the coverage in front of him, he must make sure that he is properly protected – otherwise he cannot protect the football, much less attempt positive yardage.
Making sure the QB is protected is so important, in fact, that coaches design entire game plans around the protections that they will run and NFL executives invest huge sums of money into players that will give their QBs that sense of security in the pocket. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that QBs, in turn, have a tradition of buying their linemen special gifts, to say nothing of their own attempts to keep receivers safe through proper ball placement – they feel their pain.
Throughout the 2015 season, if there was one thing that former Brigham Young University and current Virginia Cavaliers Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall did well, it was attacking the security blanket of opposing quarterbacks. After taking over defensive play calling duties before the season, Mendenhall’s defense rose to 5th in the nation in sacks with 40, up from 70th the year before. Part of this was due to having an NFL-caliber defensive lineman, Bronson Kaufusi, in the rotation. But Mendenhall was also able to create production across his defense as nine different players finished with more than one sack, and seven finished with more than two. One of Mendenhall’s biggest strengths which led to BYU’s excellent sack production was his ability to give an offense a pre-snap look and anticipate their reaction and adjustments they will make to their protections. He would then attack those protections and take that false sense of security away from the QB.
In the video below, it is mid-2nd quarter, BYU is in a 7-7 tie with Boise State, and the Broncos face a 2nd and 11 from BYU’s 33-yard line. The Cougars send five rushers on this play but they only need four. The key to this play is the edge defender, Sae Tautu (#31) on the right side of the defensive line showing rush. This forces the Boise St. offensive line to slide their pass protection to the left to account for him.
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At the snap, Tautu drops back into coverage while the rest of the defensive line slants to their right. This slant occupies the offensive line, especially the right tackle who is surely paying very close attention to Kaufusi. While the Broncos’ offensive line is sorting through all of the movement and confusion from the three down lineman, BYU LB Harvey Langi (#21) gets a free rush, comes firing around the edge, and makes the sack on the helpless Boise State quarterback.
Later in the same game, now late in the 4th quarter with BYU trailing by three points and Boise State facing a crucial third down, Mendenhall dials up another blitz. The Broncos line up in 11 personnel showing a potential six-man protection, with five offensive lineman and the RB in the backfield. BYU shows a radar front with five linebackers and Kaufusi all in two-point stances, and moving around pre-snap to keep the offense guessing as to where its rushers will come from.
The Cougars’ pre-snap alignment, crowding the left side of the offensive line, once again influences Boise State’s protection. At the snap, Boise State RB Jeremy McNichols (#13) stays in to block as the left side of the offensive line slides left, and RT Archie Lewis is manned up with the BYU LB Jherramya Leuta-Douyere (#43) out on the edge to his right.
BYU sends a five-man rush with two LBs dropping into coverage. Instead of attacking the protection at its strength to the left, however, the Cougars overload the right side. LB Harvey Langi picks up the snap count and times his blitz through the B-gap perfectly, while Leuta-Douyere loops inside behind him as part of a twist game designed to defeat the right tackle.Additionally, slot cornerback Michael Shelton (#18) also blitzes off the edge. Boise State’s RB McNichols picks up Langi’s blitz, but attacks with his inside shoulder, giving Langi a soft inside to exploit and a direct path to the QB rather than forcing Langi to work around his body. Langi easily sheds the block and breaks inside to bring down the QB for another sack.
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Mendenhall did a great job anticipating the Boise State protection and attacking it perfectly so that his blitz couldn’t be defeated. The reason this worked so perfectly was because the left side of the offensive line, including the right guard, had a zone protection to their left, meaning they were responsible for blocking any defenders in their zone. If a rusher crosses their face to their right side, they will pass the rusher off to the next offensive lineman. In this scenario, when Langi comes on the blitz, the RG passes him off to the RB to his right. This is already an advantage for BYU, as a LB-RB matchup is one that any defense would gladly accept, and you only have to look as far as this play to understand why.
But Mendenhall didn’t stop there. Just in case the RT also slid left in a zone protection with the rest of the line and picked up Langi’s blitz, he has Leuta-Douyere looping behind Langi to create the desired LB-RB matchup with McNichols. Finally, with the slot cornerback blitzing off the edge, BYU overloads the right side of the Bronco’s protection, ensuring that at least one rusher will break free while the four Boise State offensive linemen on the left side are tied up with only two rushers.
For this next play, we move to BYU’s mid-October matchup with Cincinnati where the Bearcats own a 10-3 lead early in the 2nd quarter, and have the ball just inside BYU territory. Cincinnati aligns in the shotgun with 10 personnel in a double-stacks formation. BYU is showing a potential six-man rush with a four-man front, and LB Manoa Pikula (#22) stacked behind the defensive line and Langi looking like he will rush off the left edge.
With BYU seemingly showing Kaufusi and Langi both rushing off the edge, Cincinnati slides its protection to the right, leaving its LT isolated on the left edge with BYU LB Sione Takitaki (#16). The RB is also responsible for filling the gap between the LG and LT. Mendenhall will again look to attack the weakness of the offense’s protection, this time with a double twist game.
As the Cincinnati offensive line slides right, defensive lineman Travis Tuiloma (#91) and Tomasi Laulile (#48) both slant or stick to their left, with their main objective being to occupy as many blockers as possible and to prevent them from picking up the twist. On this play, both defensive linemen do an excellent job using the momentum of the offensive linemen to their advantage, each engaging two blockers and opening rush lanes for Kaufusi and Langi. As the ball is snapped, Kaufusi steps right and loops around Tuiloma and Laulile and into the opposite B gap where he is met by the RB, who does a very good job identifying and picking up the stunt.
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Langi, on the other hand, initially rushes upfield, occupying the RT as he drops into his pass set, but then plants his outside foot in the ground and loops back inside of Laulile into the A gap to his side. By now, Laulile has the RG and RT occupied and has essentially sealed them off from being able to peel back and pick up Langi on the twist. Langi bursts through the A gap and meets Tuiloma, who beat his blocks with an excellent spin move at the QB for a sack – one of the eight BYU had in the game.
On this final play, BYU has a slight 13-10 lead early in the 4th quarter in an out-of-conference clash with UConn. The Huskies have the ball at their own 26-yard line facing a 3rd and 1. The offense has 11 personnel on the field in a shotgun 3X1 formation with BYU again showing blitz pre-snap. The Cougars put four potential rushers on the line of scrimmage, with two LBs showing blitz and slot CB Michael Shelton showing blitz off the left edge, while safety Kai Nacua (#12) slowly walks down into the box just before the snap.
When the ball is snapped, the Huskies TE releases upfield into a route, leaving the offense with six men in protection. UConn slides its protection in reaction to BYU’s pre-snap alignment, giving all five linemen zone protection responsibilities to their right and leaving the RB to pick up anything on the backside of the LT. Mendenhall, again does an excellent job anticipating this reaction from the offense and, at the snap, evacuates the entire left side of the front, dropping Shelton (#18), Tautu (#31) and Langi (#21) into coverage. Bronson Kaufusi also drops into coverage from his 1 technique alignment while Laulile (#48) again slants outside to the RT. Linebacker Leuta-Douyere (#43) blitzes from the second level, attacking the middle of the offensive line, and LB Fred Warner (#4) attacks the LT from his 6 technique alignment ensuring that he cannot get back outside.
Just prior to all of this happening, Nacua slowly creeps toward the line of scrimmage and times his blitz perfectly off the edge. As the ball is snapped, Nacua races past the RT who is sealed inside by Warner and right past the UConn RB who didn’t see him until it was too late. The UConn QB is able to get the ball out this time, but is hit as he throws and puts the ball right into the waiting hands of Bronson Kaufusi.
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With BYU’s three defenders occupying UConn’s entire six-man protection, it is easy to forget about the other key aspect that made all this work: The jam CB Micah Hannemann (#7) put on the UConn receiver to the boundary. Knowing that the QB would see the blitz coming from his left side and looking to throw hot to the vacated space created by the blitzing defenders, Mendenhall has Hannemann press the WR to disrupt his release and route. As you can see in the still below, Hannemann is able to get a good jam on the WR to force the QB to hold the ball just long enough to allow Nacua to get a hit on him and disrupt the throw.
With Mendenhall’s first season as head coach of UVA on the horizon, plenty of analysis has been done on how Virginia’s 4-3 base defense will transition to Mendenhall’s 3-4 front. Frankly, this could be a tough season for Virginia’s defense. The transition to the 3-4 first requires a change in positions, body types including added or lost weight for several players. More pressing, however, is breaking habits ingrained into the players from the previous regime, and quickly understanding and executing the new techniques and schemes. When combining all of the change with the relative lack of defensive depth going into fall camp, it could make for another tough season for the Cavaliers.
Whether he knows it or not, Mendenhall understands the basic concepts highlighted in Maslow’s hierarchy. In his early days at BYU, Mendenhall described his philosophy on defense as “complete disruption”. He understands that to really disrupt an opposing offense, he must put its most basic need into peril. Opposing coaches may be able to sleep at night knowing that they have provided their QB with his most basic needs, safety and security. As highlighted in the plays above, however, Mendenhall will do his best to ensure that their sense of security is nothing more than an illusion.
Follow Sean on Twitter @PhllyDraft. Check out Sean’s work on Carson Wentz’s first preseason game, what Justin Fuente brings to the Virginia Tech Hokies offense and on Mark Richt and the triangle offense in Miami.
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