The Florida defense has been good early in 2019 despite important players like Jabari Zuniga, CJ Henderson, and Ventrell Miller missing some time to injury. It was almost at full strength against Auburn, and it showed. The Gators played their best defensive game yet, holding Auburn to getting points only on short fields following miscues.
Here are a few ways that the defense was able to hold down the Tiger offense.
Start up front
The story on the Gators’ defensive line heading into the season was one about depth. Zuniga aside, they didn’t have any stars up front but did have a lot of B and B+ players.
Right now, they have Kyree Campbell and Adam Shuler pushing for A status. They were constantly moving the line of scrimmage backward, enabling them to play two-gap defense. That basically means that they control the contact with the guy blocking them, allowing them to attack ball carriers on either side of the blocker.
When interior linemen are able to play that two-gap defense, it allows the guys behind them to clean up a lot of plays quickly. Improved play from Campbell and Shuler is a big reason why David Reese was able to rack up double-digit tackles against downhill running opponents Kentucky and Auburn. They occupy blockers to let him get to the running backs quickly.
Then Florida has the amazing Jonathan Greenard coming off the edge from the Buck linebacker spot. He’s been everything he was in his last healthy season in 2017 at Louisville and more. He personally blew up a number of plays by being too quick for Auburn’s pulling guards to get to. He was seldom if ever left unblocked, but it sure looked like he was unblocked on a number of plays.
Put it together and Todd Grantham hasn’t been calling many blitzes. He sent extra guys fairly regularly against Miami, but he’s been doing less and less of it. The Athletic‘s Andy Staples only counted two times when the Gators sent more than four rushers against Auburn. They just didn’t need to do it more than that.
Getting real pressure with only three or four is a defensive coordinator’s dream. It means he can get those linebackers a ton of run stops and be more creative with the pass coverage. The idea that Grantham now blitzes only when he wants to because he saw a matchup and not because he feels he has to should scare opposing offenses.
One of my keys to the game was making solo tackles outside. Auburn’s offense wants to run up the middle but is a true spread that’ll make an opponent defend the whole width of the field. Jet sweeps, swings, screens, and outside runs all can be found in Gus Malzahn’s playbook.
Those kinds of plays did almost nothing against the Gators. A big reason why was sure tackling by the defensive backs. Marco Wilson had himself a great tackle on a perimeter play, but the safeties were the most impressive at it. Donovan Stiner, Shawn Davis, and Brad Stewart all snuffed out some horizontal offensive plays.
Davis’s interception was the most impressive of the trio of picks, but all were excellent plays. Stiner wasn’t distracted and stayed at home in the middle of the field. Wilson learned from a near-miss on a bad Nix throw late and was in the right spot to pick off the same bad throw on the same route two plays later.
There were real questions about the secondary’s tackling early on. Anyone who watched the Miami game in its entirety can attest to that. A couple of games down the road and Wilson was still not a sure tackler, presumably because he was still shaking off some rust from missing nearly all of last year.
Right now, the secondary looks the best it has all year. Wilson is all the way back, CJ Henderson looked fine in his first action after his ankle injury, and Davis and Stewart have played lights out from the safety spot. Stiner and Jeawon Taylor looked good last weekend too. Trey Dean isn’t yet the playmaker that Chauncey Gardner-Johnson was from the star spot, but while he didn’t jump off the screen against the Tigers, he didn’t have any notable breakdowns either.
The degree of difficult ramps up significantly this week, as Joe Burrow is far ahead of where Nix is. LSU’s receiving corps is more talented than any UF has seen this year as well. The good news is that the Florida secondary is hitting its stride.
The best part about the defense against Auburn is how well it played as a unit. There was the one coverage bust where Henderson expected deep help against Seth Williams that never came. That play aside, they worked together as one.
There were no instances of two guys trying to plug the same gap in run support. The linemen trusted the linebackers to have their backs. As I diagrammed in the video above, the one time Auburn tried a jet sweep was a masterclass in defense. Anthony Schwartz may have track speed, but he couldn’t use it when each of the three levels of the defense provided a player to fill his three possible running lanes. It was so thorough of a demolition of the play that Malzahn never tried it again.
Most of the defense played together a lot last year, and the new faces of Wilson coming back from injury, Amari Burney at linebacker, and Greenard have fully integrated with the old hands. Some of the young guys have looked good, including Kaiir Elam with his two picks and Mohamoud Diabate, but getting the veteran Henderson back was a huge boon. And now this weekend they’ll get Zuniga back too.
This Gator defense has a higher ceiling than I thought it did coming into the year. We’ll see how it does against a true high-level offense in Baton Rouge, but it’s hard to ask them to show more than they have given the injury situation. The first time everyone will be together is on Saturday. I can’t wait to see what it looks like.