Anytime a blitz is called, or when the Mountaineers go to a four-man line, changes can occur that filter all the way back to the defensive secondary. Coverage schemes may have to be altered, and players used to doing one thing (for instance, covering a deep third or one fourth of the downfield passing zone) have to do another. Do that too many times, and you risk confusing the defense.
That doesn't mean, of course, that the coaching staff is throwing up their hands and giving up on the pressure game. However, those fans expecting to see a totally different defensive look in 2004 won't get a Swan-like makeover.
"We're still going to base out of our cover three, mix in man-to-man and some quarters, and do a lot of the same things that we've been doing," defensive backs coach Tony Gibson said recently. "We can always improve on those things, though. You might see a different look every once in a while."
Reading between the lines, Gibson is saying that the Mountaineers will continue with the three deep zone (two corners and one free safety) as their base defensive package. They'll also do some quarters coverage (adding in another safety that is good at pass coverage, such as Lawrence Audena), as another of their primary zone defenses.
Man-to-man, however, is where it's at when it comes to bringing extra heat on the quarterback. If the corners can cover receivers one-on-one, then Gibson, spurs and bandits coach Bruce Tall and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel don't have to worry quite so much at keeping an extra safety or linebacker for pass coverage. They can send that extra player into the rush, and hopefully get pressure that results in sacks, or, more realistically, incompletions.
That second stat is one that Gibson believes is overlooked.
"Everyone looks at sacks, and we were last in the conference last year," the native West Virginian admitted. "But sacks aren't everything. If we can get enough pressure to hurry the throw and force a bad pass, that's almost as good."
Since WVU doesn't keep "hurries" as an official statistic, it can be difficult for the casual observer to get a good read on the effectiveness of the rush. However, there's no doubt that the Mountaineers must improve in that category in order to bolster their pass defense in 2004.
Again, however, the answer isn't quite that simple. The Mountaineers, like most collegiate teams, aren't good enough to line up and play man-to-man on every passing down. Rules in the passing game favor receivers by a large margin, and it's unfair to expect defensive backs saddled with offense-friendly rules to cover receivers all over the field.
One other area WVU's secondary will have to compensate for is height. Several Mountaineer defense backs are well south of the six-foot mark, and against today's taller, more physical wide receivers, a man-to-man matchup between a 6-3 wide receiver and a 5-10 defensive back can be an invitation for disaster.
Again, although that is a tough challenge, it's not one that Gibson will have his charges backing down from.
"He has to be technique sound," WVU's fourth-year secondary coach said of the things a shorter defensive back has to do. "And even if he is, sometimes the receiver is going to catch the ball. They have to be ahead of the game, and know what's coming and be ready for it in order to defend a well-thrown ball to a big guy. They can't get a step behind, and they have to know when the ball is going to be released and when the receiver is going to break out of his pattern. These are things that the shorter guy just can't mess up on."
Another item standing in the way of an improved rush is injuries. WVU had a four-man line package set for passing situations last year, but much of that strategy had to be scrapped when Jahmile Addae was lost for the season. That injury left WVU very thin in the secondary, and forced the coaching staff to go with more base sets, including more zone coverage in the secondary.
While that strategy was a solid one, yielding a conference co-championship and a New Year's Day bowl, it did make WVU's pass defensive somewhat static.
The goal for this year is to mix in enoguh different strategies, inclduing four- and five-man lines, along with occasional blitzes, to keep offesnes off balance, while at the same time sustaining the solid rushing defense that is a strength of the 3-3 stack.
With all of the different looks and schemes that were experimented with during the spring, it's plain to see that getting a better rush, and more sacks, is the primary goal for the 2004 WVU defense. The trick will be to achieve that task without yielding in other areas, such as rushing defense. It's a balancing act, and one that will get a great deal of scrutiny once fall camp opens in a little more than two months.