Breaking down the blitz

Steve Sarkisian knew one of the keys against Stanford was disrupting the timing and rhythm of quarterback Kevin Hogan. So how did the ultimately unsuccessful Trojans go about trying to accomplish that goal. We break down Stanford's dropback attempts to see.

“You always want to make the quarterback uncomfortable. But I think it's really important with Kevin because when he gets comfortable and when he gets hot...he can get hot.”

Those were the words of USC head coach Steve Sarkisian. He knew what the Trojans needed to do to win going into the Stanford game. He mentioned multiple times throughout the week that Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan had the potential to get locked in and then become a big weapon for the Cardinal. That’s why Sarkisian said the Trojans had to win the early downs to force the Cardinal into long third down attempts and they had to be able to create pressure on Hogan to keep him from getting into a rhythm.

Early in the week leading up to the game, Sarkisian said to do that they had to make Hogan uncomfortable both mentally and physically:

“We can't just stand there either. We've got to try to mix it up on him. We need to give him some different looks. We need to be really sticky on the receivers so that the windows are tight and we've got to get in his face ultimately. Anybody can throw when you're standing there and you've got a nice, clean pocket, so we need to make that pocket collapse.”

Their attempts obviously failed. Stanford won 41-31 and Hogan went 18-for-23 for 279 yards and two touchdowns. And he could have had four touchdowns if two pass attempts to Austin Hooper didn’t end on the 1-yard line. Both were soon followed by running backs leaping over the pile into the end zone.

“We’ve got to continue to improve in that area,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said after Wednesday’s practice. “You pick and choose your spots on pressuring. Sometimes you want to be able to rush with four guys and sometimes you want to bring five or more. We did both.

“We just weren’t affective enough. We had a couple of opportunities to make some plays back there, but we didn’t quite finish them. You’ve got to take advantage of those opportunities when they present themselves. It all goes back to us working on it, getting better at it.”

But how did USC actually attempt to attack Hogan? Did they bring enough blitzes? Were they in the backfield enough to where Hogan should have been unsettled?

Here’s what the players thought after the game about the amount of pressure the Trojans brought and their efforts to keep Hogan from getting into a rhythm:

Linebacker Lamar Dawson:

“I feel like our gameplan was good. We just didn’t win our one-on-ones up front. We’ve just got to play with lower pad level, more energy and just focus on doing our job.”

Defensive lineman Noah Jefferson:

“He’s a guy that like you get pressure on him, he’s going to get kind of shuttered. We had good pass lanes, but the rushers just have to finish and keep contain on the quarterbacks that can scramble.”

Linebacker Cameron Smith:

“Early he wasn’t really there. He made a couple of mistakes. He did get comfortable. I think we could have brought more pressure. He doesn’t look like the versatile guy that can run around, but when he does, he’s going to hurt us. We could have brought more pressure. We could have done a lot of things, but we didn’t so we’ve got to get better. That’s the main focus right now.”

Linebacker Su'a Cravens:

“[Hogan] just did a good job in the pocket. He managed the game well and didn't turn over the ball. When he didn't see something, he ran and got a lot of yards from it.”

--

On the Mason and Ireland show earlier this week, Sarkisian said that the Trojans brought pressure 43 percent of the time in the game against Stanford. Unfortunately, how a coaching staff determines pressure is completely arbitrary. When Stanford went with a power rushing look with a fullback and multiple tight ends, USC put the rush end and the SAM linebacker on the line of scrimmage, creating five defenders at the line to try to stop the Cardinal rushing attack. Maybe that is included in their description. Later in the game, Justin Wilcox made an adjustment, brining in Noah Jefferson as an extra down lineman and taking out a cornerback. With four defensive linemen and a rush end or SAM going against Stanford’s jumbo packages, maybe that’s also included in their figures.

Determining blitzes against rush attempts is a difficult proposition because players don’t pursue upfield as they do on a pass play. A player as talented and intelligent as Su’a Cravens may be assigned to blitz off the edge, but if he sees offensive linemen pulling and the action going away from him, he’s not going to pursue into the backfield. He would immediately scrape down the line and follow after the ballcarrier.

Instead of focusing on blitzes or pressure during run plays, we’ve locked in on when Stanford wanted to pass the ball. While USC may have tried to bring pressure on 43 percent, we found that they brought five or more rushers 33 percent of the time, which is a significant jump from the 13 percent blitz percentage the Trojans had last season, according to ESPN, and up from the 28 percent they had through the first two games.

Here’s a breakdown of all 30 of Stanford’s dropback attempts, which featured Hogan’s 23 pass attempts, four scrambles for 45 yards and three sacks for a total of yards lost:

3 pass rushers

Down/Dist. Rushers Pressure Play Result
2-3 52, 93, 99 None Completion, screen, 8 yds

4 pass rushers

Down/Dist. Rushers Pressure Play Result
1-10 47, 52, 93, 99 None Completion, 9 yds
2-1 21, 90, 94, 98 Sack - 21 Sack, -9 yds
3-3 45, 90, 93, 94 Pressure - 94 Completion, 11 yds
1-10 45, 52, 93, 99 Pressure - 45 Completion, swing pass, 21 yds
1-10 21, 52, 93, 99 None Incompletion
2-10 45, 90, 95, 98 None Completion, 16-yard TD
1-10 21, 52, 93, 99 None Completion, 41 yds
2-19 35, 52, 93, 98 None Completion, 9 yds
2-2 40, 52, 90, 99 Minimal Completion, 12 yds
2-5 47, 90, 94, 98 None Completion, 24 yds
2-8 47, 52, 93, 99 None Incompletion
3-8 47, 90, 93, 94 Pressure - 47 Scramble, 10 yds
1-10 21, 52, 93, 99 None Completion, 22 yds
2-10 21, 52, 93, 99 None Completion, Rollout 17-yd TD
2-9 45, 52, 93, 99 Sack - 45/93 Sack, -2 yds
3-3 21, 52, 93, 98 None Completion, 4 yds
3-5 47, 90, 93, 94 None Completion, 10 yds
3-7 47, 90, 93, 98 Minimal Completion, screen, 19 yds
3-7 47, 90, 93, 94 Pressure - 93/94 Scramble, 3 yds

5 pass rushers

Rushers Pressure Action/Effect Play Result
1-10 47, 52, 56, 93, 99 None 56 comes up middle, picked up by RB, 35 just misses knocking pass down Completion, 7 yds
3-10 47, 56, 90, 94, 98 None Hogan steps up in pocket, 56 slow to get there after taking false step, picked up by C, pass for easy first down is overthrown Incompletion
3-10 40, 56, 90, 93, 94 None 40 lined up in middle, 56 on wide side edge, 90 stunts over 40 while 56 goes inside of 94, pass high Incompletion
2-9 21, 40, 52, 90, 99 Pressure - 21 40 & 21 off edges, 52 gets some daylight to inside, so 21 follows allowing QB to get outside for long run Scramble, 22 yds
2-7 47, 52, 55, 93, 99 Pressure - 55 55 well timed, comes through unblocked, but misses QB, 52 has small chance but QB spins away, big completion Completion, 24 yds
3-11 45, 56, 90, 93, 94 Sack - 56 56 lines up on edge -- great delayed blitz (possibly "green dog", when LG turns head to help outside, cuts through traffic to drill QB who had to step up because of 93 minimal pressure outside Sack, -6 yds
1-10 45, 56, 90, 95, 98 Minimal 56 up the middle, 45 off edge from slot, QB recognizes and tries to hit easy throw in slot, but pressure up middle makes him throw off back foot, throw high and behind off receiver’s hands Incompletion
2-15 47, 52, 58, 93, 99 None 58 slices through where RG is pulling, but quick screen beats USC outside Completion, screen, 10 yds
3-6 21, 47, 52, 93, 99 Pressure - 93 21 off edge gets in passing lane to take away screen, 93 able to cause pressure just inside of 21, but huge gap in middle because 52 falls down and QB runs for big first down Scramble, 10 yds

7 pass rushers

Rushers Pressure Action/Effect Play Result
3-9 21, 35, 47, 52, 56, 93, 99 None 21/47 off edges, 35 up middle, 56 on green dog that never gets there, 47 cut by RB, 52 stonewalled by LG with one arm — LG then comes off to help with 21, great communication by OL, big completion to Hooper over Tell Completion, 15 yds

The Trojans brought different blitzes from different locations, but there was nothing too exotic. There were no blitzes from the secondary. There was only one blitz with more than five defenders. And often, the Trojans defenders gave away that they were blitzing early rather than there being much disguise.

One of the allures of the 3-4 defense is that it allows you to bring pressure from a number of different spots, which can give the offensive line fits as they try to assess who is rushing and who is dropping on each play. When USC hid its blitzes better, there were better opportunities to get in the backfield, such as Dawson’s free run at Hogan in the second quarter and Sarao’s ability to get into the backfield on some delayed attacks.

In total, the Trojans used 15 different pass rushers at the three defensive line positions and the four linebacker spots. Here’s a look at the players that rushed on Stanford’s dropback attempts and how successful they were in creating pressure, including sacks:

Rusher Rush Attempts Pressures
21 - Su'a Cravens 9 2
35 - Cameron Smith 2
40 - Jabari Ruffin 3
45 - Porter Gustin 6 2
47 - Scott Felix 13 1
52 - Delvon Simmons 18 1
55 - Lamar Dawson 1 1
56 - Anthony Sarao 6 1
58 - Osa Masina 1
90 - Claude Pelon 14
93 - Greg Townsend Jr. 23 3
94 - Rasheem Green 9 2
95 - Kenny Bigelow 2
98 - Cody Temple 8
99 - Antwaun Woods 16

Despite the three sacks, they didn’t have a ton of success making Hogan uncomfortable (unless you want to count the sprained ankle). He didn’t have to avoid pass rushers all day. Instead, most of the time, Hogan had a nice clean pocket to throw from. Sometimes that required him to step up, but there was room and space for him to wind up and fire some darts in rhythm.

There were times when the blocking did break down and Hogan was able to use his legs to pick up big first downs or to gain a couple of yards to keep the Cardinal in field goal range rather than taking a sack. There were also the couple of chances USC had to make big plays that they weren’t able to capitalize on.

“There were times when we had opportunities to make plays and we didn’t and that hadn’t happened the first two games,” defensive line coach Chris Wilson said Wednesday. “There were critical situations — a third down here, a third down here — where you could have got off the field, which would have negated points.”

“They had a great plan and they executed it better than we did. That’s just the gist of it. What it lets us know is you’ve got a lot of things to fix. We’re capable of fixing it. We’ve got good enough players.”

Only time will tell if Wilson is right.

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