Florida football film study: defense vs. Colorado State

Florida’s defense had a strange day against Colorado State. It spent more than 38 minutes on the field, but some of that was for happy reasons for the Gators. Big special teams plays and the turnovers the defense generated set the UF offense up with some short fields or erased entire drives with non-offensive touchdowns.

The defense could have helped itself by cutting some of Colorado State’s drives shorter, but I’ll get into that later. For now, here are the things that jumped out at me from a close study of the game film.

Personnel packages

One of my takeaways from last week was that it appeared Florida wanted to minimize the pass coverage its linebackers had to do. It came off that way to me because the Gators would put linebackers on either side of the three down linemen but then have the third linebacker and a safety in the two spots in the second level traditionally staffed by linebackers. This alignment would present a seven-man box while also giving a safety rather than a linebacker some of the pass coverage responsibilities.

It didn’t work well. Kentucky’s big, physical line and running backs manhandled the smaller fronts and rolled up over 300 rushing yards.

Against Colorado State, Todd Grantham never employed the seven-man box with three linemen, a linebacker, and a safety in a linebacker-type spot. In fact, when CSU went with its old-school sets with a fullback and tight end, he sent a true 3-4 package out there rather than try to skate by with the 3-3-5 base defense. I can think of two possible explanations.

One is that Colorado State is a better passing team and a vastly worse rushing team than Kentucky is, so the defensive backs spent more of their time in standard pass coverages. When Mike Bobo showed a classic heavy run look, Grantham countered with his heavier 3-4 package. Otherwise, Grantham understandably had his safeties more worried about the pass than the run, figuring (correctly) that his three linemen and three linebackers could largely handle the Rams’ ground game.

The other is that Grantham saw how poorly the safety-as-pseudo-linebacker sets went and scrapped them. This would be the more extreme interpretation, and it’s not one I’m willing to roll with until we get another game or two in. Tennessee has a middle-of-the-road run game and a reasonably efficient pass attack that nonetheless gives up a ton of sacks. UT isn’t quite like either of the FBS teams Florida has faced so far, so I can’t guess with any certainty what Grantham will do.

Fun with fronts

Another reason to lean towards the explanation that Grantham was simply employing defensive backs in pass defense more is that he finally broke out some of his tricks with blitzes and having the buck position move around more. These were mostly ways to combat the pass, not the run.

I made up a video that goes through some of the more interesting things Grantham did with his fronts.

There is an example of using twists, a technique I diagrammed in the offseason. It is interesting because it was the first example this season of having the buck standing in the middle of the defensive line instead of being on the edge. Jachai Polite, the buck on the play, makes half of one of the twists, and the quarterback barely gets the ball away before getting hit. On the next play I cover, Grantham overloads the offense’s right side by bringing a linebacker over there while dropping the linebacker and defensive end on the other side.

I also have a couple of examples of blitzes where Polite as the buck drops into coverage instead of rushing the passer. In one, Kylan Johnson comes from the middle while both edge linebackers drop back, and there’s another where Polite backs up and CJ Henderson comes on a corner blitz from the same side. The right tackle in that one takes too long to stop paying attention to Polite and look for something else, and Henderson beats him to get a strip-sack.

The point of all of these plays is to confuse the offense’s blockers and get to the quarterback before he can get the ball away. Two of these plays were quick enough throws that the blitz couldn’t get there in time, and in two of them the quarterback rushes a throw or gets hit.

The final two plays were instances where the Gators basically did the opposite of blitzing and only rushed three. On the first Kyree Campbell beats an offensive lineman one-on-one to flush the quarterback, but a receiver finds a hole in the coverage to make the catch anyway. On the second Polite is lined up way outside by the numbers in a zone coverage on 3rd & long, and Jabari Zuniga beats the left tackle around the end for a sack.

The buck mostly was an edge rusher in the first two games, but against the Rams it moved all over the place and spent a decent amount of time in coverage. Grantham tried harder to confuse the offense in this one than the past outings, and it did work at times to disrupt some plays.

What happened in this game is more like what Grantham typically does with his defense and is a sign that he’s opening the playbook up more as time goes along.

Nothing felt effortless

I think that while watching sports, people intuitively sense how much effort the contestants have to put forth to achieve their goals. Against Colorado State, nothing felt effortless for long for the Gator defense.

It’s hard to quantify feelings, but I can throw these figures out there.

CSU only had three three-and-outs and they had another drive killed by a lost fumbled snap on the first play. One of the three-and-outs was largely stopped by offensive pass interference, and that and the fumbled snap were not anything that Florida actually caused. Most of Colorado State’s drives had more than one first down. When the defense isn’t forcing the offense off the field quickly, it doesn’t feel effortless.

Going another step down that logic, the Gator defense couldn’t reliably stop short yardage situations prior to garbage time (which started for good after Freddie Swain’s punt return touchdown early in the fourth quarter). When Colorado State had four or fewer yards to go on any down, they picked up enough yardage to move the sticks on seven of nine plays. After one of the two failures, they got the first down on the next play. If the defense can’t count on getting a stop except in long yardage situations, it doesn’t feel effortless.

Furthermore, the tackling was better but not entirely fixed. Several of the shorter yardage situations came about due to missed tackles. Here, a missed tackle from Vosean Joseph turns a two or three-yard gain into a nine-yard gain to set up a 3rd & 1.

On the last drive before the half, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson whiffing on the running back turned a one or two-yard gain into seven to create a 2nd & 3.

On this play, a bad tackle from Brad Stewart and a bad angle from Kylan Johnson wind up turning a five-yard gain into a nine-yard gain.

The next play after that is 3rd & 4 instead of 3rd & 9, and CSU picks up a conversion with an eight-yard completion. The play after the third down conversion was the Rams’ lone touchdown, a 48-yard strike aided by another missed tackle from Stewart. And, of course, a couple of drives later a Stewart pick-six was negated because Trey Dean tackled Preston Williams during his route.

A lot of the fundamental numbers for the defense looked all right. CSU gained only 3.5 yards per play for the whole game, and before garbage time their success rate was under 30% with a low rate of explosive gains. UF also picked up a pair of fumbles by the Ram offense.

Even so, the defense couldn’t get itself off the field. It almost never held in short yardage situations, while its own blunders created some of those short yardage situations and wiped a defensive touchdown off the board.

It’s a bend-and-hopefully-not-break-too-much defense, a unit that allowed touchdowns on a third of Kentucky’s offensive drives and a scoring opportunity on 40% of Colorado State’s pre-garbage time drives (three field goal tries and a touchdown). Those aren’t bad rates, but it was helped out on a few series in the past two games thanks to the offense committing bad penalties or turnovers.

The defense is adequate when paired with a good offense, but that is an adventure all its own. The unit is hobbled with David Reese II’s ankle sprain and Marco Wilson’s ACL tear, but it’s starting to grow into more of the playbook as time goes along. There is plenty of room for improvement, and it has the potential to make that improvement. It will all depend on how they build themselves up in practice and focus during games.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2