Here's a handful of things to keep an eye on as West Virginia opens its Big 12 schedule with Baylor.
West Virginia and Baylor both run the same base offense, but how each attacks defenses is wildly different. Baylor, with its straight-ahead receiver speed, stretches the field vertically, using a handful of run plays to set-up deep throws down the seam or sideline. WVU prefers screens and midrange passes, mixed with runs depending upon what a defense shows, and will challenge deep, though typically not nearly as often as the Bears. Yardage after catch is expected to be more valuable to WVU's offense than Baylor's, thus perhaps the in-space tackling job the Bears do is arguably of equal importance to the coverage job the Mountaineers execute on defense.
For both defenses, getting pocket pressure is paramount. Neither quarterback, like all others, plays better under duress and pressure, and blitzes of a zone variety have shown to begin to chink the armor of a pass-first attacks that have averaged about 50 points per game each. How each goes about that, well, that's where the intrigue comes in.
WVU defense vs Baylor offense. Expect the Mountaineers to bring pressure from an array of angles and positions. As is discussed in this week's podcast, that serves a twofold purpose: it hopefully limits the time Florence has to throw, so the quarterback cannot sit in the pocket and wait for the downfield routes to develop. It also makes Florence slide around and execute on the run, and the senior has been mistake probe when forced to pass while moving.
WVU defensive coordinator Joe DeForest has brought pressure from a variety of slots. Many have questioned why, at times, linemen will feign a rush, then drop into coverage, the questioner's thinking being ‘Why take more time to drop, to get into proper coverage areas?' But what that does is force an offensive linemen to commit to engaging that defender. If said lineman has committed to that defender, even for the second it takes to execute the fake pressure and drop, the he isn't free to slide over and help on another defender. It's a number's game, and the number's game is exactly what makes the 3-4, with its blitz packages and zone schemes behind it, so effective against spread offenses.
Among the base principles of the 3-4 is to blitz from all angles, mostly from the front seven positions, while maintaining a relatively safe and conservative zone defense behind the pressure. It's a look of havoc, creating the same in a quarterback's mind and read process, while voiding hot routes, limiting the big play and still having an equal number of defenders as receivers on the back end without having to drop a defensive lineman – who isn't good at coverage – into the coverage equation.
So, if an offensive lineman commits to a defender, who is really dropping instead of rushing, that fees another defensive player to actually rush, and thus the numbers game swings to the defense. Now, if you're rushing five, let's say, it becomes the other four offensive lineman against your five rushers. Somebody should be able to make a a play, go unblocked or least create some backfield havoc.
Secondly, offenses in the past simply threw to the area where the blitz originated. Overloading one side? Then the receiver runs a slant to where the linebacker was, and the problem was solved. But if a 3-4 look is bringing five, if all the linemen are not in on the rush, as they had been in the past, there's a good chance a linemen might well drop into that hot route area that was anticipated to be vacated. Suddenly, the quarterback is throwing right into coverage, where there wasn't supposed to be any. The strength of this is the disguise at the snap.
"I've told our guys, ‘Look at our alignment. Tell me, before the snap, who is coming from where?'" DeForest said. "They can't, and they play the defense. If they can't, a quarterback isn't going to know."
On the back end, see what type of zone the Mountaineers play. Against a 4-wide spread, there are a couple really solid options. One is a three-deep look, with a single free safety and two corners, which play soft coverage. Fans have complained about this set-up, saying that it gives up short passes in the flats and allows wideouts to get off scrimmage unhindered. It does. No defense limits everything. The idea behind it is that it's relatively safe. It limits the deep ball, and cuts off the middle of the field, as typically at least one, and maybe two, defenders will be assigned the midrange zone for crossing and sit down routes, or will match a tight end, if the spread uses one. If the 3-4 can fool the line, create pressure via a five-on-four or better, and force the quarterback to throw in a hurry, it's very effective against teams trying to challenge vertically.
WVU could also, though it has used this less because it has faced both lesser talent and a couple run-first teams of late, go to a quarters look with two safeties and two corners and simply divide the field in four sections of zone, with a couple linebackers again controlling midrange stuff (remember: cover players, not space/grass) and passing off whatever wideouts come into their zone. Quick crosses, or what WVU calls mesh patterns, from a single side of the field in a four-wide alignment typically create issues, though, as throws to the outside, and to a lesser extend inside (there's a linebacker or dropped linemen there) become open if, indeed, the linebacker assigned the flats is caught between taking the outside receiver that's now peeling across the defensive face, or engaging the inside wideout in the flat.
Because the corners and safeties are playing off, limiting the downfield routes, this is a set best deigned for longer third down plays. It gives players time to come up and corral the receiver after a shorter, open catch but before he gets the first down. It is very ineffective, usually, on anything less than about five yards to go.
The other main option is the Nick Saban bread-and-butter, the cover one. It's one safety deep, with the corners and what WVU terms the Star ‘backer in man coverage, with a single linebacker controlling pass options in the middle of the field. This, to me, is the least desirable option with vertical passing teams, but serves well against teams who primarily run on first and second downs, and thus its value to Saban in the SEC. It could be an effective "also" look for West Virginia on second and middle distance downs, but the Mountaineers don't have the cover corners needed to stay with Baylor's receiver talent with just a single layer over the top in the cover one robber (robber being the term most commonly assigned the role of what WVU's Star would assume on the play, because the corners are asked to play press defense.
One misstep, and Baylor's track team of receivers goes right by with just a single player for help over the top. It's a great essentially eight-man front look, and it limits the run via sheer numbers-in-the-box, but it really doesn't fit what West Virginia can do well, or who it plays. Baylor will throw it on first, second and third down. This isn't a run-run-pass team, or even a run-pass-pass team. It's pass, and then run if that's available. The cover one is a common look in the SEC, but something rarely used in the Big 12 for extended periods. In my opinion, I'd look for a lot of three-deep (CB, S, CB), with two or three linebackers protecting the intermediate stuff.
Also, take a look at how West Virginia pressures, as Kevin Kinder did in his It's Third Down article. Check and see how many players pressure the pocket in given downs and distances. Is West Virginia being aggressive, bringing perhaps as many as six to harass Florence? Is it feigning a blitz, then dropping a lineman, and bringing another ‘backer? Is it overloading one side to collapse the pocket there? At several points last game, Josh Francis looped all the way across the face of the offensive line, going from left end to rushing from a right end slot. That was, likely, partially a containment deal, as Francis is never going to get home (get a hit on the QB) taking that much time. But it also game Maryland another look, and if the Terps would have ran a naked bootleg to that side, as they did earlier, Perry Hills would have ran smack into Francis, who would not have been sucked in by the play's flow.
Too, see if WVU's linebackers are actually anticipating the routes run by the wideouts, or simply remaining in a given area. Many coaches will take, say, the top 10 route combinations ran by an opponent and actually teach the intermediate defenders, usually a linebacker, how to recognize and anticipate said pattern based on down, distance and set. It's intricate, and it's demanding, and it might not be worth it against a fellow Air Raid team that allows its receivers to run to grass to get open instead of typically having one set pattern. Plus, at this point, West Virginia is still working on West Virginia. But if WVU's ‘backers appear all over the inside patterns on early third downs, perhaps the coaches found a tendency and are exploiting it. The chess match has begun.
On offense, the anticipated return of Shawn Alston changes everything. It gives the Mountaineers better pass protection, it gives it more rushing toughness, and it allows the line to not block as well and still gain very solid yardage, as Alston is a master at yards after contact. It is, indeed, a very big deal if he can play.
Part of the key to the Air Raid, and other offenses, is player versatility. It allows more play variation to be called without substituting. Alston limits that. He doesn't catch the ball out of the backfield. He isn't taking end arounds, and he lacks some speed that even a player like Andrew Buie, no breakaway threat himself, has. It's why players like Tavon Austin are so valuable, and why, for so long, Holgorsen was hesitant even to lay a big back in his offense. It's limiting. But what Alston does, both in the run and pass, far outweighs his limitations in most game situations. WVU was mainly a one-back attack last game, and that lack of being able to have a lead block, or get to the diamond formations, and the lack of pass blocking and toughness, mental and physical, hurt against a blue-collar defense like Maryland.
Baylor isn't as physical. But that's one reason to, indeed, get a bit tough with them. Look for Alston early, and see how much he is playing, or if he is limited. I would expect West Virginia to be able to run a bit better this weekend, if only because Baylor is, like many Big 12 teams, primed to stop the pass first. There should be some room available, and one would be hard-pressed to think WVU's line would have the same sort of average effort that plagued it last week.
Expect Baylor to blitz heavily. The Bears want to force Geno to move around and not allow his downfield throws to develop. A few hard knocks rattled Smith last week, and Baylor will be looking to do the same in this game. WVU must communicate well up front and be able to recognize and pick up the blitz, a task easier said than done. The Baylor defense is set-up much like WVU's in that the idea is to allow some yardage, but make a key play, a sack or turnover, that kills drives. I think the Mountaineer offense matches up better here, with the free flow to the game and an opposing offense who won't stand over the ball for 30 seconds to limit WVU possessions – "That was hard to watch," Holgorsen said of Maryland. – and thus Smith and the Air Raid should get more snaps this week.
Also, Baylor is averaging a very solid rushing game, and one should not think this contest is going to be all pass. The Bears will force the Mountaineers to control the run, and both teams will likely experiment early pending defensive looks.
I'd expect more than 31 points from WVU, and more than 21 from Baylor. This game will be won on turnovers and whichever team can get away with a few more defensive gambles. In this area, I think WVU is a bit better. If Geno doesn't force the ball, and Alston can play four quarters, I like the Mountaineers' chances.