After Stanford marched up and down the field, converting on seemingly every crucial third down in the midst of putting 41 points on the board, there was a lot of vitriol directed at defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and defensive line coach Chris Wilson. The Trojans didn’t get enough pressure against quarterback Kevin Hogan and didn’t win enough one-on-one battles to do any damage in the backfield. Three sacks and one other tackle for loss weren’t enough to throw off his rhythm.
So the USC defensive coaches went back to the drawing board. They re-emphasized the fundamentals. The coaches had faith in the defensive scheme, but felt they needed to execute at a higher level. They harped on every small detail.
“What it makes you do is go back and make sure you’re teaching the right things,” Wilson said last week. “We just went back and said okay, let’s really be more detailed in what we’re doing because our kids know how to play, so we’ve got to make sure we’re putting them in the best situations.”
There was a big focus on pass rush, including technique, fundamentals and different moves before the Trojans traveled to the desert. How’d it work out?
Facing an Arizona State offensive line that has struggled this season, the Trojans brought more than four pass rushers on 12 occasions — two more than they did against Stanford. But the percentage of extra pass rushers actually decreased from 33 percent to 25 percent.
With Arizona State trailing by a hefty margin, the Sun Devils had to chuck the ball more in the second half and ended up dropping back 48 times. Quarterback Mike Bercovici finished 23-of-44 for 272 yards and one interception. He was also sacked on three dropbacks and scrambled for a five-yard pickup. On Arizona State’s 48 dropbacks, USC produced pressure on 18 plays or 38 percent of the time, which was up from 27 percent against Stanford.
The Trojans did some different things to try to get to the quarterback this week. Most notably, Claude Pelon, filling in at nose tackle for the injured Antwaun Woods, was sometimes used to spy the quarterback. Pelon would engage with the offensive linemen in front of him and if he saw the play was going to be a pass attempt, instead of trying to rush up the field, he just floated at the line of scrimmage, occupying the blocker(s) while watching the eyes of Bercovici.
While using a player to spy a quarterback is most often deployed against running quarterbacks, USC applied the attack for a different reason.
“We wanted to give those guys up front some two-way go opportunities, some of our speed rushers,” Wilson said. “What it did was it gave guys like Scotty [Felix] and Four-Five, Porter [Gustin] and Greg [Townsend Jr.] opportunities to really get vertical and take inside moves knowing that they are going to be protected.”
With the nose tackle often drawing a double team, the Trojans used that to their advantage, allowing a floating Pelon (or Cody Temple on one occasion) to occupy blockers while the pass rushers, particularly on the edge, got opportunities to take on single blocks. Gustin and Townsend each got pressure with the Trojans deploying the technique and Felix was able to take that one step further.
With Arizona State facing third-and-12, Pelon spied in the middle while USC brought three rushers. Pelon’s faux rush occupied the right guard, giving Felix a one-on-one against the right tackle. The tackle retreats nearly six yards before Felix makes initial contact and when he does, he takes advantage of the momentum of the lineman from the retreat to produce a nice spin move. He shows good bend in his hips to stay low and burst out of the spin to attack and grab Bercovici, who was trying to climb the pocket.
Here’s a breakdown of all 48 of Arizona State’s dropback attempts:
3 pass rushers
|3-8||45, 52, 93||Pressure - 45||Completion, 11 yds|
|3-5||45, 93, 94||None||Completion, 4 yds|
|1-10||45, 52, 93||Pressure - 93||Incompletion, rollout|
|2-10||45, 52, 93||None||Completion, playaction, 22 yds|
|1-10||52, 90, 93||None||Incompletion|
|3-12||47, 93, 94||Sack - 47||Sack, -4 yds|
|2-10||45, 52, 93||Minimal||Incompletion, rollout|
|1-G||42, 58, 93||Pressure - 58||Incompletion, playaction rollout|
4 pass rushers
|1-10||47, 52, 90, 93||None||Incompletion|
|2-9||52, 55, 90, 93||None||Completion, swing pass, 4 yds|
|1-10||47, 94, 95, 98||None||Incompletion|
|1-10||56, 90, 94, 95||Pressure - 90||Completion, screen, -4 yds|
|3-8||40, 90, 93, 94||None||Incompletion|
|1-10||45, 52, 90, 93||None||Completion, swing pass, 5 yds|
|2-10||47, 91, 94, 98||Pressure - 94||Scramble, 5 yds|
|2-12||47, 52, 90, 93||Minimal||Incompletion|
|2-5||52, 58, 90, 93||None||Completion, 5 yds|
|1-10||45, 52, 90, 93||Pressure - 52||Incompletion|
|3-10||35, 52, 90, 93||Sack - 35||Sack, -9 yds|
|1-10||40, 92, 94, 95||Pressure - 95||Incompletion, near INT, screen|
|3-5||47, 52, 90, 93||None||Completion, 13 yds|
|1-10||45, 52, 90, 93||Pressure - 90||Incompletion, near INT|
|3-11||45, 90, 93, 94||Pressure - 93||Completion, 4 yds|
|1-10||40, 91, 92, 94||None||Completion, swing pass, 3 yds|
|1-10||40, 92, 94, 95||Pressure - 94||Incompletion|
|2-10||40, 94, 95, 98||None||Completion, 10 yds|
|1-10||45, 52, 55, 93||None||Completion, 19 yds|
|1-10||45, 52, 90, 93||None||Completion, 26 yds|
|1-10||40, 45, 94, 95||Minimal||Incompletion|
|2-10||40, 45, 94, 95||Pressure - 94||Completion, 14 yds|
|1-10||40, 45, 94, 95||None||Completion, 40 yds|
|1-10||40, 45, 90, 93||Minimal||Incompletion, near INT|
|2-10||40, 45, 90, 93||None||Completion, 12 yds|
|1-10||34, 40, 90, 93||None||Incompletion|
|3-18||34, 40, 52, 95||None||Incompletion|
|4-18||34, 40, 52, 95||None||Incompletion|
5 pass rushers
|3-5||40, 52, 55, 90, 93||None||55 starts middle, comes off left side, 40/52 stacked up inside, deep ball off fingertips||Incompletion|
|2-7||40, 52, 55, 90, 93||Pressure - 93||56 starts middle, comes outside RG with OL shifting R, picked up by RB, but 93 pushes back RG and splits b/w RG/C to get QB hit||Interception - 24|
|3-1||4, 42, 45, 52, 93||None||run blitz with 7 guys attacking line initially, 42/45 come off edges, 4 comes from wide side, 98 stays at line of scrimmage||Completion, playaction, 9 yds|
|2-14||45, 56, 90, 94, 95||Minimal||56 middle picked up, 95 good push shoving RT nearly into QB, just needed one more second||Completion, 14 yds|
|2-5||45, 52, 58, 90, 93||None||58 gives away early, but nice juke to go by LG, 45 off edge, hot read by QB gets first down||Completion, quick pass, 8 yds|
|1-10||21, 47, 52, 90, 93||None||47 off edge, 21 from wide side||Completion, playaction, WR screen, 4 yds|
|1-10||45, 55, 91, 94, 98||Pressure - 55||55 on "green dog" blitz, reads the push of 91 perfectly, forces QB out of pocket||Completion, 5 yds|
|3-7||47, 58, 90, 93, 94||Minimal||58 runs by C who’s eyes are outside, 47 twists inside 94, pocket collapsing, but QB gets rid of before pressure can get there||Completion, 33 yds|
|2-10||21, 47, 92, 94, 95||None||21/47 off edges, RB comes across to pick up 47, 95 gets in face of QB, but nice throw, nice catch||Completion, 11 yds|
|2-10||34, 40, 42, 52, 95||Sack - 95||five rushers on line, five come, 34/40 on edges, 42 twists inside 40, RG stands straight up, 95 gets under RG, pushes him back, disengages and gets sack||Sack, -8 yds|
6 pass rushers
|3-5||21, 47, 55, 91, 94, 98||Pressure - 55||Six rushers on the line at snap, 21/47 off edges, 55 from boundary, everyone has 1v1 - 94/55 win, 21 checks RB, who QB eventually tries to throw to as 55 comes from backside||Incompletion|
|1-10||21, 47, 58, 92, 94, 95||Pressure - 58||47/21 off edges, 58 from boundary gets hit on QB as ASU tries to set up screen, great screen read from 94||Incompletion, screen|
I’ll reiterate what I said last week…One of the things the 3-4 defense allows you to do is bring pressure from a variety of locations, forcing an offensive line to constantly try to assess who the fourth and potentially fifth, sixth or seventh rusher is and where he’s coming from.
Against Arizona State, USC brought pressure from some different spots. Rather than revealing who was coming from what location all the time, they did a better job disguising some of the attackers. It worked well against a green Sun Devils offensive line. Cameron Smith’s sack provided a great example. USC initially wanted to blitz Osa Masina and Jabari Ruffin, but a hard count by Bercovici gets both to reveal their intentions. Arizona State changes the play at the line and at the last second, USC makes a defensive switch with Smith barking out orders.
When the ball is snapped, Ruffin retreats from the right side of the line and instead Smith attacks on the defensive left. After seeing the initial look of pressure from Masina and Ruffin, the Sun Devils shifted their protection to that side. The shift in protection allows Smith to run free between the right guard and right tackle, who are occupied by Pelon and Townsend. Smith sacks Bercovici while two ASU offensive linemen block air on the other side of the line.
The Trojans used 19 different pass rushers with only one coming from the third level — Chris Hawkins on a third-and-short run blitz that ASU ran playaction against. Here’s a look at the USC rushers against the Sun Devils and how successful they were in creating pressure, including sacking Mike Bercovici:
|4 - Chris Hawkins||1|
|21 - Su'a Cravens||4|
|34 - Olajuwon Tucker||4|
|35 - Cameron Smith||1||1|
|40 - Jabari Ruffin||16|
|42 - Uchenna Nwosu||3|
|45 - Porter Gustin||20||1|
|47 - Scott Felix||11||1|
|52 - Delvon Simmons||24||1|
|55 - Lamar Dawson||5||2|
|56 - Anthony Sarao||3|
|58 - Osa Masina||5||2|
|90 - Claude Pelon||23||1|
|91 - Noah Jefferson||4|
|92 - Jacob Daniel||5|
|93 - Greg Townsend Jr.||30||3|
|94 - Rasheem Green||20||3|
|95 - Kenny Bigelow||14||2|
|98 - Cody Temple||5|