Eye in the Sky: defending the pitch

Our first of three detailed film reviews looks at Air Force's perimeter plays, including triple-option pitches, mis-direction, and toss sweeps, and Notre Dame's defensive effort vs. each.

This week's Eye in the Sky defensive review will be broken into three distinct parts, each crucial to the Air Force offense:

Defense vs. the Pitch
Defense vs. the Pass
Defense vs. the inside run

Players reviewed: Outside linebackers Jamoris Slaughter and Darius Fleming; inside linebackers Manti Te'o, Dan Fox, and Carlo Calabrese; safeties Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta; cornerbacks Robert Blanton, Gary Gray, and Lo Wood; defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt, Kapron Lewis Moore, Aaron Lynch.

Air Force QB Tim Jefferson, TB Asher Clark, Cody Getz, and Darius Jones; FB Wes Cobb and Mike DeWitt, TE Daniel Pickett; and WR Mikal Hunter and Jonathan Warzeka are the key offensive personal for the Falcons.

Irish defending the pitch

Note, runs to Slaughter's side were the field (wide) side; runs to Fleming's side were the boundary (short) side. Slaughter was a busy man...

1st and 10 at AFA 19: Slaughter stays home to force the pitch but Harrison Smith is both late in his break outside and then cut down by a block in space. Slaughter chases tailback Asher Clark 20+ yards down field and with help from a hustling Smith, rips the ball from his grasp – the mid-air fumble recovered by Robert Blanton (who initially slowed Clark's charge).

A 29-yard gain turns into a fumble recovery for Notre Dame – just the second of the season. A 15-yard penalty on Aaron Lynch concludes the wild first defensive snap for Diaco's group. Irish lead 7-0 with possession

1st and 10 at AFA 44: Slaughter avoided slot traffic to force the pitch early, just as Manti Te'o was absolutely drilled by TE Daniel Pickett (crack-back); on the perimeter WR Mikal Hunter first blocked Blanton, then Smith as Clark ran untouched 19 yards on his 21-yard gain. Clark had lead blocker Wes Cobb in front looking for someone to block downfield vs. the out-flanked perimeter. Blanton added some extra oomph shoving Clark out of bounds and heavily into the Irish bench.

2nd and 10 at the ND 35: Zone blocking with an old fashioned sweep outside (field): Lynch is forced to trail the play through a phalanx of blockers; Slaughter is contained by Pickett (TE) and Blanton can't free himself from Hunter, thus missing a chance at a tackle for minimal gain on the edge as backup TB Darius Jones scoots around the far corner of the defense for 13 yards rather than the two that were available...Flying up from his safety spot, Zeke Motta is cut down viciously (cleanly) in open space, taking out Te'o in the process. Credit Stephon Tuitt for a sprint of about 30 yards to combine with Lynch on the sideline stop downfield. Tuitt planted Jones at the end of the run.

1st and 10 at the ND 22: Not a pitch, but a reverse wide to the field, and one that is sniffed out and stopped by an alert Te'o, who drops WR Jonathan Warzeka for a one-yard loss. Slaughter and Blanton were both controlled on the perimeter, so Te'o save a large gain.

Series ends with a 34-yard field goal by the Falcons; 14-3 Irish

1st and 10 at AFA 20: Slaughter forces Jefferson to pitch inside the tackle(s) box but Smith misses the clear shot tackle on Jones in space; Slaughter cleans up the mess after a 6-yard gain. Fleming (DE) was cut down and Te'o was controlled in space.

2nd and 4 at AFA 26: Mis-direction to the boundary and a pitch from Jefferson to Hunter swinging around on a reverse to the field side, but Te'o stayed home and easily dropped Hunter for a three-yard loss. The remaining Irish on the field side weren't overly fooled, either.

2nd and 8 at the ND 13: After seven consecutive non-pitch plays (covering 61 yards) and a changeover to the second quarter, Jefferson went back to the field side pitch to Jones, gaining 7 more yards to set up a 3rd and 1 at the Irish 6-yard line. Slaughter stayed home on Jefferson, Blanton was controlled by FB Mike DeWitt in space but shed the block to dive forward and leg-tackle the full-speed runner. LB Dan Fox appeared late as did Harrison Smith, though he was engaged with a blocker. Blanton saved a touchdown (the Falcons score anyway).

The Irish forced a field goal attempt but Aaron Lynch jumped off sides, giving AFA a new set of downs. The Falcons scored on the next snap up the gut, 21-9 ND

1st and 10 AFA 34: Following a passing first down, Slaughter peeks in at Jefferson to force an early pitch; he then chases Clark to the edge for a sideline tackle after just 2 yards. An athletic play by Slaughter as Blanton kept contain but was eventually pancaked out of bounds by the fullback.

2nd and 8 at the AFA 36: On the ensuing play, Jefferson keeps the ball until he's hit, pitching wide to Cody Getz who gets popped by Blanton on the outside. Blanton sealed the edge. Te'o was effectively cut in pursuit, though he kept his feet. Slaughter did his job as he was in position to make a diving stop had Blanton been successfully blocked – likely the best team effort vs. the field-side pitch to date…and it resulted in five yards.

4th and 2 at the AFA 42: Air Force lined up to punt but a Notre Dame timeout allowed the Falcons to rethink the strategy, electing to go down 28-9. Aligned with three runners behind the quarterback – thus making the Irish respect multiple possibilities between the tackles – the Falcons go back to the pitch, this time to the boundary to gain the necessary 2 yards before contact (4 total). Though Motta forced Jefferson to pitch to Clark, it was impossible that he could then make the play on Clark, nor could any Irish defender conceivably get there in time. In this instance, the defense's design is flawed, as Harrison Smith read the play immediately but made first contact after the sticks, running up from his middle safety spot. Then again, a crisp triple-option will succeed on 4th and 2 more often than not…

The drive ends on the next play with an incredible interception by Jamoris Slaughter

1st and 10 AFA 20: Now trailing 35-9 with 6:09 remaining, the Falcons run a boundary-side option. LB Carlo Calabrese takes Jefferson, tackling him after the pitch while cornerback Gary Gray fights off both a perimeter block and the lead fullback to drop Clark after a 3-yard gain. That's the Gray we knew in 2010…

1st and 10 at AFA 31: Following a passing first down, Clark takes a field side pitch from Jefferson but is dropped for a 2-yard loss by Blanton, who fought off a lead block on the perimeter and received late help from Slaughter on the tackle. Slaughter delayed Jefferson perfectly, stringing the option run far too wide (no movement vertically by the offense) to be successful.

1st and 10 at AFA 17: Following a fake-punt conversion on 4th and 6 (an unmolested 19-yard around the right side) and a pair of rushes up the gut that combined to gain 34 yards, an option pitch to the boundary gains 7 yards as Smith misses what should have been a backfield tackle in space. Motta forced the pitch expertly; then was forced to dive forward and make the stop on the runner, Getz. Linebacker Dan Fox played the fullback properly as well as the Falcons returned to the three-RB set behind Jefferson.

The drive ended two snaps later with a 3rd down touchdown pass: ND 35 Air Force 16

Notre Dame scored to end the half, taking a 42-16 lead into the break. The Falcons gained 203 rushing yards on 30 carries in the first half; 91 of those yards were the result of 13 pitch/outside sweeps/reverses.

Second Half

Notre Dame technically held the Falcons scoreless in the third quarter, extending their lead to 49-19 in the process. (Air Force kicked a field goal on the opening play of the 4th.)

2nd and 5 at AFA 31: Following an opening play run inside, Air Force went back to the three-back alignment behind Jefferson, this time hitting Clark on a field side pitch for 13 yards and a first down. Slaughter had no chance on the edge, but he might have delayed too long, allowing Clark more separation and vertical burst before receiving the pitch (Slaughter's responsibility is Jefferson, but I believe he sometimes let him hold the ball too long). Clark ran untouched before Blanton made the tackle…Dan Fox received a dirty chop block from behind after the play from fullback Mike DeWitt – penalized for 15 yards.

I'm well-aware why Notre Dame plays Navy, but I have no idea why Notre Dame plays Air Force….

After two incomplete passes, the Falcons are forced to punt

1st and 10 at AFA 12: The Falcons regained possession after Notre Dame's first punt, still trailing 42-16. Slaughter again strings out a field-side pitch, forcing Jefferson to give it up outside the opposite hash, but Blanton was again secured outside, Te'o cut (stayed up) and the rest of the back line didn't get to Clark until he was 10 yards downfield. Te'o made the stop.

It might be time to point out I'm not a giant fan of this defensive approach vs. the option, but I'm only 1/3 through the film review…

1st and 10 at AFA 22: A pitch to the field side to a motioning Clark gains 7 before a blocked Blanton makes first contact for the stop. Slaughter was held for 10 yards, no call. He might have been face-masked too…Notre Dame was badly out-flanked on this toss right.

The drive ends four snaps later thanks to another ridiculous clip (chop block to the back of Gary Gray's ankles) and ensuing 15-yard penalty.

The offending parties this half were FB Mike DeWitt and TE Daniel Pickett, whose jerseys should have read "Intent to Injure."

1st and 10 at AFA 31: A Notre Dame touchdown extended the lead to 49-16 with 6:49 remaining in the 3rd --- After six snaps totaling 23 yards and two first downs (no perimeter plays intermixed), the Falcons turned to mis-direction, running a toss sweep to a motioning Jonathan Warzeka but Blanton stayed home to make the stop after two yards

2nd and 8 at ND 11: The drive continued with 9 plays covering 32 yards before the next option play outside – a toss left to motioning Warzeka who was stopped for no gain by Harrison Smith. Lo Wood held the perimeter while Kapron-Lewis Moore gave chase. Blanton, playing Slaughter's position, was immediately sealed inside. Nice effort by Wood and Smith.

The Drive ended with a field goal to cut the lead to 49-19 at the beginning of the fourth quarter

Through three quarters, Air Force had gained 281 yards on 50 carries. 123 yards on 18 pitches/sweeps/reverses were included. The Falcons also suffered 30 yards in clipping penalties following (two) of the runs.

Brian Kelly noted Sunday that his 4th Quarter defenders had never practiced vs. the triple-option – sounds like a good reason for me to forgo that portion of the film review…

Notre Dame's "third-string" as Kelly put it, yielded 14 points on consecutive fourth quarter drives. The Falcons ran for plays for 74 yards on the first drive, a two-point conversion making the score 59-27; then seven plays for 67 yards on the second for the 59-33 final.


Detailed film reviews don't include garbage time at Irisheyes.com – I'd prefer to write about something at least one of you cares about…but I'll examine the final quarter breakdown for a late-week column that will include at least one sentence on every Irish player that has seen the field through six games… Air Force had one play from scrimmage in the game's first seven minutes but somehow managed 88 in the game…

Unsung hero of the Falcons attack: wide receiver Mikal Hunter, a tremendous perimeter blocker that keyed the majority of AFA's gains on pitches to the field side…

If you like to bet the ponies, might I suggest the "OVER" in Air Force's remaining games?

At one point in the first half, Air Force executed seven consecutive snaps for 61 yards without utilizing the perimeter (no pitches, sweeps, reverses). They did the same in the third quarter – twice on one drive, gaining 23 yards on six snaps (two first downs) and then three firs downs)…

The Falcons converted a 4th and 2 pitch play in the second quarter into an easy first down. Not out of the ordinary, except they were prepared to punt prior to Notre Dame's ill-advised timeout. The Irish had their "punt-safe" return team on the field – all 11 defenders with Smith deep as the potential return man…why call timeout and give the Falcons a chance to re-think?

Air Force gained 63 yards on its first three runs (all pitches) to the outside. It totaled 60 on its final 15 (through three quarters)...

Note: Our next Eye in the Sky column will focus on the Falcons passing attack, to be published early afternoon.

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