Play anatomy: Contrasting Marcus Ball, Laiu Moeakiola at Spur

In this week's play anatomy, SunDevilSource looks at the importance of key reads and defensive communication from ASU's Spur linebackers.

In this week’s play anatomy, SunDevilSource shows some of the differences between having junior Marcus Ball and senior Laiu Moeakiola playing Spur linebacker for ASU.

Our first play is a second and nine situation in which ASU is showing man coverage across the line of scrimmage. The highlighted No. 2 receiver in the slot is aligned opposite of ASU’s Spur, Marcus Ball and the H-back aligned behind the right tackle is assigned to ASU’s field side linebacker who is highlighted, junior linebacker D.J. Calhoun

Now, ordinarily, each of these ASU players would be responsible for covering routes by the players that they are lined up over. However, in certain switching route concepts where the two receivers cross one another, there’s a responsibility for the two defensive players to communicate that they will be switching coverage responsibilities. This is typically done even before the game when ASU goes over how it will cover certain formations.

Subsequently, this is communicated on the field when ASU identifies the formation and how it is defended. Most defenses call this a banjo, which is essentially a swapping of assignments when the routes unfold if they cross.

What we see on this play in particular is a miscommunication in which there’s no dialogue between Ball and Calhoun about the formation pre-snap which then leads to Calhoun taking the switch and making contact with the No. 2 receiver coming across the middle while Ball sticks to the No. 2 receiver, creating a two-on-one situation which then leaves the H-back free. The reason ASU banjos this play is because it negates the rub route, or the screen component, when defenders make this switch. 

On another key defensive breakdown by the Sun Devils, we see UTSA in a 12-personnel look with an inline tight end and an H-back. Again here, UTSA is targeting a one-on-one matchup between the H-back and ASU’s Spur defender, Ball.

UTSA shifts the No. 1 receiver near the formation about three to four yards outside the right tackle, immediately pre-snap. This action is designed to unfocus Ball and also create an opportunity for him to get hung up on the No. 1 receiver’s route. It works perfectly in this situation as Ball is just enough late on his key read combined with coming inside of the receiver release to be in a trail position on the H-back from which he can’t recover.

On this play, Ball should have recognized the initial key read of a tight end release and a tackle block and gone over the No. 1 receiver as opposed to flying up to the line of scrimmage. This touchdown reception put UTSA on top 28-12 and led to ASU coaches Todd Graham and Keith Patterson making a personnel change on the very next defensive series. 

After Ball was replaced, UTSA shows the same formation on its very next play from scrimmage with ASU key defensive player, Moeakiola, now playing Spur after beginning the game as the bandit safety. One of ASU’s best defensive players when healthy in recent years, Moeakiola’s multiple shoulder surgeries and some personnel concerns led ASU’s staff to shift him back to bandit safety. But, in this game, for reasons you’ll see on this play, there was a need to make a change.

Even though ASU hasn’t played much Cover 3 in the past, they’re in that coverage shell on this play. Moeakiola is initially reading the same offensive players, the tight end and right tackle, that Ball was on the previous touchdown.

Those players react differently here with the inline tight end releasing on a vertical stem and the H-back hanging in to protect. Moeakiola identifies this within the first second of the play and before committing by moving forward as if to defend the run in a way that allows him to then turn and bail and get the proper depth on his Cover 3 zone drop. From this position, Moeakiola is able to defend the curl route to the No. 1 or the out route to the No. 2 if UTSA had called for either of these routes.

On this play, UTSA does call for a curl route from the No. 1 receiver and only because Moeakiola decisively turned to run to the spot was he able to get the pass deflection. This is also a well disguised play by ASU because the defense is showing Cover two pre-snap before rolling into a Cover 3 at the snap. His situational awareness showed up on this play in an incredible way and Moeakiola also has been described as a key communicator on the field which helps to eliminate the banjo problems that we saw on the first play of the anatomy. 

So much of the success or failure of defensive players depends on their ability to react to key reads within the first half second or second of each play. On these plays, Ball’s late reads put him in a bind, whereas Moeakiola is able to dissect an offense’s play by closely watching the footwork of the tight end and tackle, and subsequently make an impact. Moeakiola isn’t one of ASU’s fastest players, but his ability to read plays and react quickly helps him play faster and makes him one of ASU’s most important defenders.  

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