After rough first month, ASU nickel defense finding its groove

Out of the gate Arizona State gave up a lot of third and long conversions to Texas A&M and especially USC, but since then it has significantly improved in its nickel package.

If you live by the blitz, you’ll occasionally die by the blitz, or so it seems for defenses that incorporate heavy doses of pressure into their schemes on a game-by-game basis.

For a hyper-aggressive blitzing team like Arizona State, the Sun Devils have seen both ends of this spectrum over the past few years.

In three-plus seasons under Todd Graham, the Sun Devils have used defensive pressure to swarm opposing quarterbacks en route to a 2013 Pac-12 South title, and have also failed to generate the pressure necessary to keep teams like Texas A&M and USC off balance in 2015.

Much like in past seasons under Graham, this year’s Sun Devils have become one of the nation’s top teams in terms of sacks and tackles for loss. ASU’s blitzers are getting to the quarterback, but they’re also impacting the line of scrimmage and bottling up opposing running backs.

ASU’s 3.43 sacks per game average ranks fifth nationally, while the Sun Devils lead the entire country in tackles per loss at an average of 9.9 per contest.

“It doesn’t surprise me, I’ve said it, we put a major emphasis on it last week, we played a lot of base defense this week, and I think it’s showing up and paying great dividends for us this year,” ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. “Our kids have great confidence in stopping the run, and every time you do that, you just gain that much more confidence.”

ASU’s ability to dominate the line of scrimmage has allowed the Sun Devils to limit opposing rushing attacks to fewer than 3.0 yards per carry in each of their first four conference games. However, even with the gaudy defensive numbers, ASU still isn’t living up to the preseason expectations Graham outlined for the program.

At 4-3 overall, the Sun Devils need first place Utah to lose at least three conference games to have a shot at a Pac-12 South title ASU so desperately craves. Though a lack of offensive rhythm deserves significant attention for the Sun Devils inability to live up to their own expectations, ASU still has a handful of defensive inefficiencies to address.

After finishing fifth in the Pac-12 in each of the past two seasons on defensive third down conversion percentage, ASU ranks 10th in the conference and 101st nationally this season. The Sun Devils have allowed opponents to convert on 43.1 percent of third down tries, which is an alarming increase from their rate in each of the last two seasons.

During the Sun Devils’ Pac-12 South title run in 2013, ASU surrendered conversions on 37.1 percent of opponents’ tries. In last season’s 10-win campaign, ASU practically maintained its success, allowing conversions on 37.8 percent of opponents’ third down attempts.

In third down situations, specifically in third and medium and third and long scenarios, ASU often opts to substitute its nickel package in for its base defense. The Sun Devils bring out a lighter, faster group geared toward defending against the pass.

“It’s just the third down group, on third down, we’ll bring in nickel depending and based off of what they do offensively,” ASU defensive backs coach Chris Ball said. “It has been good to us the last three years really, so it’s just a third down key.”

The nickel package has aided ASU in generating three-and-outs and third down stops under Graham, but this season, the Sun Devils haven’t channeled the same type of effectiveness with their nickel package until recently.

Though ASU will often bring out its nickel defense in third and medium situations, we charted all of the third and longs (third and seven or longer) ASU has faced over the last three seasons to evaluate the impact of the nickel defense as the Sun Devils typically employ their nickel package in these scenarios.

Patterson said ASU’s goal in using the nickel package is to drop opponents’ third down conversion rate under the 30 percent threshold, and in each of the last two seasons, the Sun Devils accomplished that goal.

“I’m not sure about the percentage of the time, our goal is to be off more than 70 percent of the time, and we’re probably somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of the time getting off the field,” Patterson said.

In 2013, ASU’s opponents converted 31 of 111 tries from a distance of seven yards or more on third down for a conversion rate of 28 percent. Last year, Sun Devil foes converted 33 of 114 tries on third and seven or longer for a conversion rate of 29 percent.

However, this season’s numbers have yielded more troubling results for the Sun Devils. Opponents are already 21 for 59 (36 percent) on third down tries of at least seven yards, and in ASU’s three losses, Texas A&M, USC and Utah combined to convert on 12 of 24 (50 percent) third and longs.

While it’s easy to pinpoint ASU’s exotic blitzing scheme as a direct contributor to the Sun Devils’ wins and losses, so far this season, the results of the nickel defense have provided a stronger indication of ASU’s overall defensive performance.

The Sun Devils' 36 percent success rate on third down and long this season nearly matches the 37 percent mark posted by the Sun Devils’ 2013 and 2014 teams on all third downs.

But even though ASU has struggled to get off the field on third downs and hand the ball back to its offense, the data suggests the Sun Devils have begun to address this issue as the season has evolved.

“It’s gotten better, and I really believe, we go two weeks without playing nickel against New Mexico and Cal Poly, and then all of a sudden, the first half, we just were not in sync against USC, but since that time, I think we’ve done a much better job of getting off the field,” Patterson said.

In ASU’s last three conference games, opponents have converted just five of 23 (22 percent) attempts on third down and long against the Sun Devils, with Utah posting the best overall mark at a conversion rate of two for seven on third and long.

After facing back-to-back run-based triple option opponents in nonconference play, Graham was vocal about how he preferred facing more traditional offenses that favored a more balanced approach. Though much of Graham’s concern was targeted at the cut blocks his defensive linemen faced, one of the byproducts of facing triple-option teams was the lack of time spent preparing ASU’s nickel defense for conference play.

 The Sun Devils’ nickel personnel never had a chance to find a rhythm in the first month of the season, and its inconsistencies were exposed against USC. The Trojans hammered the Sun Devils on third down, converting on seven of 11 third and long opportunities including on five conversions that required at least 10 yards to gain.

Against UCLA, the switch began to flip for ASU, as the Sun Devils kept true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen on his heels throughout the game. In that contest, sophomore WILL linebacker D.J. Calhoun said ASU’s nickel personnel finally found the confidence and consistency it missed early on in the season.

“I could say, earlier in the season, we weren’t thinking, we weren’t reading, we weren’t playing how we were last year as a defense,” Calhoun said. “And then once that UCLA game hit, we started practicing it (nickel defense) more in practice, executing our plays more, and everything’s been going well. With the nickel, they say that it worked, so now they just send us.”

Calhoun is one of three ASU defenders who doesn’t start, but regularly sees time in the Sun Devils’ nickel package. Joined by redshirt senior slot cornerback Solomon Means and redshirt freshman Devil backer Ismael Murphy-Richardson the nickel players rotate in alongside most of ASU’s starting defense on third and medium and third and long situations.

Defenders know ASU’s opponents are still capable of running the ball in those scenarios, but Calhoun said he has trained to watch for a few specific keys in opponents’ passing attacks.

“A running quarterback and watching the backs for screens,” Calhoun said. “But when they (ASU’s coaches) put me in on third down, I know what my job is and that’s to get whoever gets the ball.”

Often set up to mirror the quarterback in a spy type role, Calhoun has steadily improved since his freshman season. Exposed in coverage and against misdirection at times last year, Calhoun has become more assignment-sound and has made a dramatic difference in ASU’s third down pass rush.

With Murphy-Richardson sidelined due to a team suspension and Calhoun still trying to grasp his role in the nickel defense, ASU didn’t record a sack against Texas A&M and allowed three conversions on third down of at least seven yards including one on a quarterback scramble.  

Now, as the nickel unit has found more of a groove, Calhoun feels more confident in his role, and he’s notched 3.5 of his team-high 4.5 sacks in ASU’s last two games.

Pairing young pass rushers Calhoun and Muprhy-Richardson, who collected the first half sack of his career against Utah, has helped ASU improve its effectiveness on third down, which is especially important if ASU wants to keep its defense fresh moving forward.

“Any time you’ve got those two (Calhoun, Murphy-Richardson) side-by-side and you can figure out where they’re going, good luck,” Patterson said. “I mean, those guys, their motors, they’re sitting on 'G,' waiting on 'O' most of the time, and they were doing a great job. Since the UCLA game, they’ve just been better and better at attacking the quarterback. It’s almost like sharks in the water, they smell that blood, they’re teeing off and you can see the experience they’re gaining and the confidence.”

Another factor in ASU’s early-season struggles in its nickel package was the loss of first round NFL Draft selection Damarious Randall. A two-year starter at safety, Randall brought excellent man coverage skills to a defense that still brings five and six-man pressures out of its nickel package.

At the beginning of the season, sophomore safety Armand Perry assumed the role vacated by Randall, but an injury against Cal Poly forced true freshman cornerback Kareem Orr into a position swap from cornerback.

Orr has experienced growing pains as the field safety and has been burned in coverage on a few occasions in Pac-12 play, but Ball said ASU can’t use inexperience as an excuse for poor results on third down.

Overall, Ball is pleased with Orr’s progress at his new position and said the next-man-up mentality ASU was forced into embracing in the secondary is just part of football.

“That’s football, you’re going to lose guys every year that are key parts of your defense, but the next guy just has to step up and be ready to go,” Ball said. “I think Kareem (Orr) has done a great job, he has great character, he’s smart, he wants to be good, but I think he’s stepped in and done a great job.”

Though ASU brought back nine starters from its 2014 defense, the Sun Devils did begin the season with more inexperienced players serving critical roles in their nickel personnel package. Now that the likes of Calhoun, Means, Murphy-Richardson and Orr are more seasoned, ASU is hoping its early season output in the nickel defense is more of an anomaly, and its gradual improvement on third and long will help the Sun Devils return to the success they found in the previous two seasons.   

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