Happy Hump Day, folks. By now, hopefully a number of you have been able to move on from our loss in Columbia on Saturday and begin to move forward to consider how we'll attack Troy this weekend. Well, maybe you're not so worried about Troy, but perhaps you're at least getting over the loss. Slowly. When deciding what I was going to highlight this week, I considered rehashing everyone's favorite first and goal play to see how bad it really was, but figured that's already been done (and honestly, it's still tough for me to watch...not Alabama 2012 tough, mind you, but tough, nonetheless). Instead, I decided to take a look at the other side of the ball - the side that seems to be pretty polarizing for Dawg fans lately - Jeremy Pruitt and his defense.
Up until this point in time, the verdict on Pruitt's defense has been a mixed bag that largely depends on the person doing the talking. For six quarters out of eight, our defense has been fairly porous, much of which can be attributed to an inexperienced secondary that frankly just isn't all that talented. There have been upsides, of course; the defense has largely looked much more sound in terms of knowing what play is being run and which assignments they have, and for the second half of the Clemson game when the Tigers were playing catchup, the Dawgs looked like world-beaters who were able to easily dictate what the offense was going to do and stop them from doing just that. Against South Carolina, given that we were the ones playing catchup, we didn't see as much of this from our defensive charges and the results showed.
Throughout all of this, however, one thing we have seen is a willingness on Jeremy Pruitt's part to make defensive adjustments. To add to this, not only have we seen changes in strategy, we've seen these adjustments pay dividends. (Editor's Note: I had to go back and re-watch the Carolina game to really pick up on a lot of the adjustments we made in the second half. I admit that I was skeptical of how much we had changed after the initial viewing.) This week, we've got two plays that very easily highlight tactical differences in defending a particular play set between the first and second half. If you will, take a look at the following play at the 59:32 mark of the video below:
In this play, first and ten from the 18, there are a few things we see. First, on the South Carolina side of things, we've got the Gamecocks lined up in a shotgun, four wide receiver set with a running back offset to the strong side. On the defensive side of the ball, we're in a nickel package with Josh Dawson, Ray Drew, John Atkins, and Jordan Jenkins on the line, Tim Kimbrough and Reggie Carter in for the usual Herrera and Wilson at linebacker, and the five defensive backs consisting of Dominick Sanders at the star position, Quincy Mauger and Corey Moore at safety, and Damian Swann and Aaron Davis at corner. Just before the snap, Sanders peels off of the inside slot receiver and to come in on a blitz. Meanwhile, Pruitt goes zone with his coverage. The two receivers to the strong side run a corner and a post, respectively, while the z receiver just runs a little hitch route. Nick Jones, the first option on the play, runs a skinny post right past Tim Kimbrough, but it's really his slight shoulder fake to the corner before breaking to the post - enough to fake Mauger completely out of position - that gets him wide open. After that, with Moore's attention focused on helping Carter after Sanders blitzed (which was nicely picked up, I might add), this was essentially a pitch and catch between Dylan Thompson and Jones. Fortunately for the Dawgs, Thompson overthrew Jones just a bit and the pass went off his fingertips. The main goal of the routes run here are to spread the defense (particularly the safeties) and leave the linebackers covering routes over the middle where they're clearly mismatched. In this play, Spurrier succeeded in doing just that. (He also succeeded on the very next play, and on that one, Thompson actually made the accurate throw, but that's neither here nor there.)
Fast forward to the fourth quarter. Once again, South Carolina ball, ten yards to go for a first down, except this time it's third down. The Cocks are once again in a four wide receiver set, initially with trips left. They send a man in motion to the right and end up in the same exact formation as before, just flipped. The Dawgs, on the other hand, look completely different. They're now in a dime package with six defensive backs (Mauger, Moore, Swann, Davis, Sanders and Devin Bowman), four linebackers (Jenkins, Floyd, Herrera and Lorenzo Carter), and one lineman (Sterling Bailey). Think about that: six defensive backs, four linebackers, and a defensive end. We knew we had heard Pruitt talk about putting Lorenzo, Floyd, and Jenkins all on the field at once, but it's nice actually seeing it deployed (and early in the season). Not only is the personnel different, but the look that Pruitt is giving is one that I'm not sure we'd shown at all this season - six men in the box, from left to right: Sanders, Jenkins, Herrera, Floyd, Bailey, and Carter. Carolina was clearly confused by the look, with Thompson shifting a lot of guys around pre-snap to account for different defenders. Bowman is out wide to the strong side, Moore who had been about five yards off of the slot receiver, quickly backs up to a deep safety spot, Davis is on the opposite side about eight yards off of his man, and no one is lined up across from the inside slot to the weak side. Damian Swann is in what's practically a second free safety spot, while Mauger is just a few yards to his right. Essentially we're in a three deep safety look and pushing to keep everything in front of us.
The ball is snapped, and suddenly things change rapidly from how they looked pre-snap. What had looked like a six man rush turns into just four as Floyd and Sanders both back off into coverage over the middle. Swann, who had been playing almost 20 yards off the line of scrimmage, comes up to cover the intermediate area where Carolina had been killing Georgia all day, and the net coverage ends up being a Cover 2 Robber (or what some might call the Tampa 2, though Swann admittedly is not a linebacker). On the weakside, the outside receiver runs a crossing route and the inside man a hitch route. On the strong side, the inside receiver runs a post while the outside man runs a dig. Again, the goal of the play is to spread the safeties (expected to be just two deep) and exploit the space in the middle that opens up underneath between the linebackers and the defensive backs. In this case, Thompson sees the crossing route that has been open all day and fires, but Swann plays it perfectly and steps up to make the interception. Take a look at the 2:15:42 mark below to really get an idea of the pre-snap movements on both sides and the results.
Gary Danielson actually does a really nice job of breaking down the play as well. What's interesting to me here is that we really made some big changes in terms of personnel on the field as well as coverages shown. Pruitt did a great job of adjusting to the ways that Spurrier was attacking the defense with four wide receiver sets in this instance - let's hope these kind of adjustments continue to be made, perhaps sooner next time.
Have a good Wednesday, everybody, and, as always...