1. Unnecessary aggression
A hallmark of UCLA's defense this year has been a propensity to blitz and pressure opposing quarterbacks, even at the expense of the occasional big play. Against Rice and Nebraska to start the year, UCLA was very blitz-happy to start the games and then dialed back the aggression in the second half when the opponent began to take advantage. In most other games, the difference hasn't been as pronounced between the two halves, but still UCLA has given up frequent big plays on blitzing downs, including twice for touchdowns on Saturday. Given Anthony Barr's immense individual ability to beat offensive tackles, and Damien Holmes increased value at outside linebacker, you have to wonder if UCLA should dial back the blitzing to a certain extent to allow more defenders in coverage. Utah's offense has a bad passing attack anyway, so the need for blitzes is less pronounced. Of course, the coaching staff may be of the mindset that they want to stick to the scheme regardless of the personnel or the team facing them. It'll be interesting to watch.
2. Pass coverage
Coupled with the aggression is that UCLA's cornerbacks have all too often been left on islands this season. While that's no excuse for their below average play this season, there's little doubt that both Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester need safety help to really be effective in pass defense. After seemingly making some strides during the offseason, Hester has regressed over the last few games, and has started to make the same kind of silly penalties that have been common for him throughout his career. Price, who doesn't have the same issues as Hester, is just an average man defender, and really struggles when matched up one on one against a speedy receiver. Luckily, Utah's pass offense is bad enough that neither corner should be tested too much, but it's worth watching to see if UCLA experiments with any personnel or scheme changes to better account for the weaknesses at corner.
3. Pass blocking
This is probably the most significant thing that needs to be fixed before Saturday. Star Lotuleilei is probably the best defensive lineman that UCLA will face all season, and he will likely demand at least a double team most of the entire game, which will leave Torian White and Simon Goines on the edges to make one on one blocks and occasional tough decisions about who to block. So far this year, Goines has been a bit better than White in picking up defenders, but both have struggled at times, and this past Saturday, the flood gates really opened on the left side, with White struggling to even get a hand on defenders. If Utah has watched any tape, they'll likely try to attack UCLA's left side, as both Cal and Oregon State did, to try to fluster White and send him into another tailspin. If White can't hold the edge himself, look for UCLA to use more tight sets and running backs as blockers to keep Utah out of the offensive back field. After the very disruptive Cal pass rush from Saturday, UCLA's offensive coaching staff will likely emphasize getting more blockers in the back field.
4. Quick passing
By quick passing, I don't mean short passing. It's fair to say at this point that one of the flaws on Brett Hundley's very short list of flaws is a propensity for holding onto the ball too long. On deep passes especially, it seems as if he's sometimes reluctant to pull the trigger, which has turned some potential long gains into incompletions. The deep pass, for better or worse, is going to have to be a part of most UCLA game plans going forward, because most defenses are going to stack the box and press the line to keep the shorter stuff in check. Until Hundley can consistently hit deeper throws, UCLA's offense is going to appear as one-dimensional as it has the past few weeks (save Colorado, which, again, must have not watched any film of UCLA). Part of that will be accuracy that's developed over time, but much of it is simply his timing. If he can get the ball out quicker, and trust his arm, UCLA might be able to loosen up Utah.
5. Coaching adjustments
We were all very impressed through the first couple of games, seeing the offensive and defensive staffs making tactical adjustments for seemingly the first time in ten years. Now, six games into the season, it's time for the coaching staff to make some strategic adjustments. Every team UCLA faces from here on out will have increasing amounts of film on UCLA, and will no doubt have every swing pass and inside blitz absolutely mapped out. Against a good defensive team like Utah, with a good coaching staff that will no doubt have a pretty good game plan against UCLA's offense, it'll be imperative to throw a few wrinkles into the play calling and get back to knocking defenses off balance. On defense, the M.O. has been simpler, and the adjustments can be simpler, as we talked about above. So far, teams have done a good job of eating up UCLA's blitzes and base defense. Given what we've seen so far, it seems pretty apparent that fewer blitzes and more nickel would help. As we enter the back half of the season, it'll be interesting to see what kinds of adjustments get made.
5 Things to Work On for Utah
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