Florida’s defense had an excellent day overall against LSU. It had a couple breakdowns here and there and were helped out by some drops by Tiger receivers, but in the end, they only gave up 19 points. Three of those points even came on a mere 18-yard drive after field position set the LSU offense up well.
Here are the big takeaways I had from closely rewatching what the defense did.
After a week spent defending Mississippi State’s receiver-laden spread sets, the Gators were back to defending against an offense rooted in older principles like it had to against Colorado State and Tennessee. The Tigers loaded up with an extra tight end to run the ball periodically, so Florida matched size with size. When LSU went big, Florida responded with its true 3-4 fronts instead of rolling with its base 3-3-5.
Those bigger fronts weren’t actually all that effective on their own. Some of LSU’s biggest plays came against the bigger front. Clyde Edwards-Helaire got easy runs of six and 16 against it on consecutive inside handoffs with jet sweep action late on the Tigers’ second drive, and Nick Brossette’s runs of 31 and 47 on the final touchdown drive were against it too.
The only negative plays Florida got with its 3-4 came when it blitzed CJ Henderson off the edge. After those two successful runs I just mentioned with Edwards-Helaire, LSU tried running play action from the same formation with the same jet sweep action. On that third time time instead of having Henderson hang back, he rushed from the offense’s left edge instead. The left tackle slides over to get Henderson, leaving the left guard to try to pick up Jachai Polite. Polite is far too fast for that, and he shoots past the blocker to get the strip-sack on Joe Burrow.
LSU lines up this way and does this motion 3 times in a row. First 2 times, Henderson follows motion man but retreats to LB level on his side and LT blocks Polite.
Third time he fakes that retreat and then blitzes; LT takes him, LG can't get to Polite in time, sack, turnover. pic.twitter.com/I5V8HZfgaY
— David Wunderlich (@Year2) October 10, 2018
In this game, Florida didn’t win with size. It won with speed, and most often from its base defense.
Great individual plays
Florida’s defense worked well as a unit, but several players really stood out.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson was one of the guys who had a superlative game. He has really blossomed playing the “star” position in the nickel defensive package, and his experience really showed. He not only was great at making some open field tackles when there wasn’t always help backing him up, but he showed leadership on several occasions by making sure others in the secondary were lined up properly and knew what they were doing.
Vosean Joseph also stood out. He did have a couple of his customary overruns, but those were a small share of the plays he participated in.
Whether it was on the run or pass, Joseph was everywhere. He actually showed great patience far more often than not, and Todd Grantham found a new wrinkle by using Joseph’s speed off the edge. We won’t see him move up to play the buck position because he’s just not big enough, but I’ll bet we’ll see Joseph rushing the quarterback, especially from the blind side, more often.
Trey Dean played the best game of his young career so far as well. He still has some growing to do when it comes to making tackles in space, but he was very sharp on coverage throughout. Corner is one of the hardest positions for true freshmen to play, so he’s going to keep taking some lumps this year. However, this game showed flashes of Dean’s potential for growth. He has a high ceiling.
Here is a video I made that highlights Gardner-Johnson and Joseph before going into a bit on blitzes that the last section of this piece covers.
The art of the blitz
Grantham’s reputation is almost entirely about him being aggressive with blitzing. For that reason, it surprised a lot of folks when he didn’t bring any heat on LSU’s final two drives when the Tigers were passing every play. He only rushed four on each play of the penultimate drive, and then on the final series when LSU needed a touchdown, he played a 2-3-6 dime package and exclusively rushed three.
After the rewatch, I can report that those choices were entirely in line with the overall game plan. Grantham did not often blitz in obvious passing plays. He used blitzes more in run situations or on standard downs when the offense could run or pass.
LSU has a big and physical front, and as I talked about above, it was able to block the Gators well when it beefed up. The passing game isn’t as effective, though, and the offensive tackles could get beat around the edge.
So, Grantham did less blitzing with extra guys on key passing downs. He more often sent four in a way that would try to confuse the offense by blitzing from one area and dropping back in another. One of the plays I diagrammed in the video above had UF showing six guys on the line of scrimmage, but the two on the offense’s right dropped back with the left side being overloaded. Only four rushed, but they didn’t come from the usual places.
Another example came on Brad Stewart’s pick-six. Florida has five guys right on the line with a sixth in Joseph just a step back on the offense’s right side. LSU has twins to the right, and they’re sending one of them vertically hoping to hit the other on a short out route to pick up the four yards needed to move the chains.
With Joseph rushing and not dropping back from over there, I think Burrow thought Stewart would have to play the inside of the field and give the receiver the sideline for the out route. However, Cece Jefferson dropped back in coverage from the offense’s left side to the middle to middle-right of the field. Him taking that space allowed Stewart to play the sideline, and he jumped the route for the interception.
On Stewart's pick I think LSU was counting on Stewart playing the middle and the WR then getting open on a quick out.
What Burrow doesn't see is Cece Jefferson dropping back to the middle from the right side. Cece frees Stewart to play the out, and it's a pick-six. pic.twitter.com/xiUYSmS4h0
— David Wunderlich (@Year2) October 10, 2018
Again, only four of the six showing pressure actually came. Rushing four is not being aggressive with the blitz. Grantham was instead tricky with who was coming from where and who was dropping back into what space, and in both of these examples the Gators made big plays.
Grantham likes to blitz but doesn’t do it automatically. In his game plan, he trusted his defensive backs against the pass and didn’t feel like he needed to pressure Burrow by bringing extra players on the blitz. He was content to try to confuse him with clever zone blitzes that only rushed four. He mainly only sent extra players when trying to match up with LSU’s burly run game.
This is a far cry from the first couple of games this year when Florida was a lot more vanilla on defense, staying in the base 3-3-5 almost the whole time and seldom blitzing at all. As the players get more time in the system, Grantham has been able to expand what he does. The fact that the defense did very different things in each of its last three successful weeks shows that they’re growing well into the new scheme.