It's Third Down

One of the most important areas of focus on West Virginia's defense in the early part of the 2012 season has been "getting off the field" – the ability of the team to hold on third down and force the opponent to punt. To achieve that goal, WVU has already shown a number of different personnel groupings and substitutions packages on defense.

WVU has substituted as many as six players at a time in third down situations and as few as one. The former have often come in obvious passing situations, where speedier pass rushers such as Dozie Ezemma, Eric Kinsey and Josh Francis are often on the field, while the latter have more often come in regular-yardage situations – say, third and three. After game one, when West Virginia's defensive coaches indicated that a number of third down looks were still not installed, the options that Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson have to call on have increased, and that trend should continue upward as the season progresses. Obviously, getting the right personnel on the field for the down and distance situation is the biggest key, but the coaching staff also needs to figure out which packages have been most effective.

To that end, we examine the WVU – Maryland game, and each of Maryland's third down snaps. The examination shows several trends. For the most part,WVU lined up with three defenders in a typical defensive lineman stance – with a hand on the ground. However, it often augmented that with a linebacker (usually the buck, sometimes the star or boundary safety) on the line of scrimmage and a part of the initial pass rush. There were, however, a couple of instances in which just two players (usually Kinsey and Ezemma) lined up with their hands in the dirt (or, more accurately, the rubber). That doesn't mean others weren't playing a pass rushing role – just that they were in a two-point stance.

The important factor to note out of these initial alignments is that West Virginia is truly working toward an adaptive defense that can not only give some different looks, but also execute widely varying assignments out of each formation. With that in mind, it's not really important whether or not WVU lines up with two, three or four linemen formations with a hand down. What's important is the performance – the end result. If Francis is rushing the passer, does it matter whether he does so out of a two-point stance? No. What matters is, does he get home and get a sack or pressure the quarterback?

The same is true all across the front line. In the Maryland game, Shaq Rowell and Christian Brown both played the nose, but usually gave way on third downs to more agile pass rushers. Along with Francis, Ezemma and Kinsey, Tyler Anderson, J.B. Lageman and Kyle Rose have seen duty as third down pass rushers from "line" spots. Ishmael Banks, Shaq Petteway and Travis Bell have also been regular participants as situational substitutes, and against Maryland K.J. Dillon came on at free safety, allowing Karl Joseph to move down close to the line and make a key stop.

As you look at the following WVU alignments, also keep in mind that the offensive setup will affect how the defense looks at the snap. Three wide receivers on one side might force the star linebacker out into coverage (thus taking advantage of Terence Garvin's all around skills), while a double tight end set on third and two will naturally bunch defenders closer to the ball and the line of scrimmage.

Third and 4: The Mountaineers show a base look with three down linemen, all of whom rush.

Third and 10: Two down linemen, and a zone blitz where one lineman drops out into coverage. Incompletion.

Third and 5: Three down initially, then two down after a delay of game call. WVU brings the house, rushing six.

Third and 6: Three down, Maryland hits a tight end screen with a heave-ho pass against heavy pressure.

Third and 7: Three down and a blitz, perimeter pass hits open area for first down.

Third and 8: Three down and an extra rusher, Maryland throws a TD pass.

Third and 8: Two down, with Anderson a standup on the edge, WVU drops eight and forces a bad throw.

Third and 7: Three down (all starters) plus an extra rush from the buck, Maryland throw incomplete.

Third and 2: Three down, all rush plus a blitzer, Maryland completes a pass to set up a field goal attempt.

Third and 11: Two down, wind up rushing five. Sack.

Third and 3: Three down, force runner wide, bad angle by DB yields a first down.

Third and 19: Two down, rush three, pass dropped short of first down.

Third and 6: Three down, two drop out and are replaced by two 'backers rushing. Forces early throw short of marker, missed tackle leads to first down.

Third and 3: Three down, pass complete for first down negated by penalty. Perhaps the biggest play of the game that snuffed Maryland rally attempt.

Third and 8: Two down, three extra rushers overload one side. Forces intentional grounding.

Fourth and 18: Two down, pressure forces deep heave that is intercepted.

It would be easy to look and make snap judgments about WVU's defensive alignments and tactics, such as 'Hey, every time WVU has three down linemen and rushes four, it gave up a first down', but that doesn't taken into account a number of other factors on the play, including the coverage executed by the back end, mistaken assignments and the like. This also doesn't account for positioning of the linemen and blitzers. Their positioning appears to get more varied by the game. The Kinsey-Ezemma line is just one twist that the coaches have added in preceding weeks, and it gives the Mountaineers yet another tactic to throw at, and possibly confuse, opposing offenses.

West Virginia mixed up its fronts and drops well, varying them from third down to third down. It also unveiled the safety blitz that Darwin Cook used to force a fumble (resulting in Doug Rigg's recovery and return for a score. It also changed up out of timeouts and penalties – every time one of those things occurred on third down, the coaches changed the look for the next snap.  

From all this, is it possible to predict how West Virginia's third down fortunes will fare in the coming weeks? No, because the level of competition and the offensive schemes being faced will be more difficult as October and November unwind. However, its clear to see that WVU is getting more of its packages installed, resulting in more options to defend those third down chances. Look for even more options in the coming weeks as the Mountaineers face different attacks from other Big 12 foes.


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