Todd Grantham’s defense will bring line play with a twist

Last year, you may have seen criticism of Randy Shannon’s defense being too “vanilla” or too “basic”. I think some of the reason he did keep it simple is that he had linebackers and, increasingly as injuries took their toll, defensive backs who were inexperienced.

One place that excuse didn’t apply was the defensive line. The Gators had a lot of veterans up front, but Shannon didn’t employ a lot of different defensive line techniques. The linemen largely just rushed straight forward.

This made blitzes fairly simple too. A single linebacker might take an interesting route, but for the most part, blitzes ended up being what they appeared to be prior to the snap. Some teams, LSU in particular, used that to their advantage. The Tigers picked up several infuriating conversions on third-and-medium because they knew exactly where Shannon’s players were going to go and called a play to hit the voids left by them.

Todd Grantham mixes things up a lot more. Here I’m going to use Mississippi State’s game against LSU from a year ago to highlight one of the things you’ll see this fall that you didn’t see much of from the Gators last year.

Today’s focus is the defensive line twist. It can (and will) involve linebackers as well as linemen in Grantham’s 3-4 scheme, but this is a technique that involves guys who are right on the line of scrimmage. Let’s go to the video to take a look at it.

Thanks to a penalty, the Tigers are in 3rd & 17 early in the first quarter. Grantham is just going to rush four and drop everyone else.

LSU will have its tackles block the edge rushers, leaving three guys in the middle to block the two interior defenders. The left guard and center will attempt to double-team Jeffrey Simmons, the Bulldogs’ best defender, and have the right guard block Grant Harris.

Perhaps anticipating a double-team on his top lineman, Grantham calls for a twist. Harris will surge ahead to his right, which will jumble the interior offensive linemen all up on each other. Simmons will take one step forward and loop, or twist, around the left side of Harris. This will give him an open lane, as Harris will impede the right guard’s ability to step over and pick up Simmons.

The upshot is that Simmons flushes Danny Etling out of the pocket. Though the quarterback scrambles a fair bit, the back seven cleans things up and forces a punt.

That was an interior example, but a twist can employ outside guys as well.

Here is a 3rd & 7 from the third quarter. On the defense’s left side, Montez Sweat will rush the edge on the outside and Simmons will attack the gap between the right guard and center. The other side is where the twist happens.

The edge guy Marquiss Spencer will shoot to his left for the gap between the left tackle and guard. Harris initially will also go forward to his left, which occupies the center and prevents LSU from double-teaming Simmons. Harris does end up twisting to the outside, however, which will eliminate the possibility of the quarterback scrambling to his left.

With no double team to fight, Simmons beats the right guard and pressures Etling into an early throw. The pass goes awry, and Grantham is fired up.

If one twist is good, why not do more? That’s exactly what Grantham called for on a 3rd & 10 midway through the first quarter using a mix of defensive linemen and linebackers.

Here, MSU will have three linemen with their hands in the dirt and two standup linebackers to rush the passer. The left tackle and left guard want to block the guys in front of them, but because the down defensive linemen on that side are doing a twist, they’ll get themselves in trouble.

The left tackle is expecting the defensive lineman in front of him, Braxton Hoyette, to rush the edge, but Hoyette attacks the gap between the tackle and guard instead. Fellow lineman Tre Brown actually is the one covering the outside via a twist. Hoyette shoots through nearly untouched and flushes Etling from the pocket. Derrius Guice, who’s in for extra pass protection, doesn’t see Hoyette soon enough and is too late to pick up the block.

The right side of the offensive line handled the twist on that side better. Linebacker Gerri Green has crowded the line and will attack to his left parallel to Hoyette, while the third lineman Fletcher Adams will twist to the defense’s right as Brown did. The right tackle just pushes Green down, while the center and right guard double-team Adams to keep that side clean.

The final box defender, linebacker Erroll Thompson, begins standing up on the outside left edge of the defensive front but will delay slightly before performing his own twist-like motion towards the middle. The center will pass off of Adams to pick up the late-arriving Thompson, but it doesn’t matter because Hoyette has already chased Etling away.

The offense had six guys in to block five, and had the five guys just rushed forward, Etling would’ve had a clean pocket for at least a few seconds. Instead, MSU employed two twists with a kind of delayed third one. The guys doing the actual twists all got blocked, but this time an angled rusher made the difference. Even though most of the offensive line did a good job, especially future NFL Draft pick Will Clapp from the center spot, the unexpected motion disrupted one of the blockers. That’s all it requires sometimes.

To be clear, you won’t see a defensive line twist on every third down, much less every play. Shannon did call for some twists at times too, so you can find them on last year’s UF game tape.

Plus, once the offense has seen something, it can adjust. In the third quarter, MSU did the mirror image of the multiple twist maneuver with the angled rushers going to the defense’s right instead of left. The offensive line and Guice handle it perfectly this time, though a drop from the receiver ends the series anyway. Just because the defensive coordinator calls for something more exotic than a straight rush, it doesn’t mean it’ll flummox the offensive line.

That said, Grantham uses twists a lot more than Shannon did in order to cause protection problems for the offense. He employs several different things more than Shannon did in general, for that matter, and I intend to cover some of the others in the future.

For now, though, here’s something to keep an eye out for this fall. Look for ways that Grantham will use angled rushes and twists to give the opposing offensive line something it might not be ready to handle.