Florida’s defense has two big areas to fix after Missouri

Florida’s defense had a bad day against Missouri. The Tigers looked effortless far too often, and the Gators gave up a ton of points and yards by their own standards this year.

While reviewing the game, I saw two broad categories of defensive issues happening over and over again. This is what they were, and I’ll tell you whether I think they’ll be repeated in the future.

Deep safeties

Mizzou has one of the best vertical passing games in the SEC. They’re not quite Alabama’s aerial show with Tua, but Drew Lock is a future NFL quarterback. Emanuel Hall is in the running for best pure deep route wide receiver in the country, while the tight end who goes by Albert O will play on Sundays as well.

Because the the vertical threat was real, Florida kept its safeties back a lot. Too far back, in many cases. I’ll run down three plays for you.

On the first play here, CJ Henderson is blitzing off of the left edge of the offense. The receiver is pretty far out wide, so Henderson is not going to get there in time to disrupt the play. Lock sees it coming, and so he rifles it out to the receiver Henderson had been lined up on.

Jeawon Taylor’s job is to rotate down to cover the receiver, but he’s lined up pretty far back on the play. This is in line with how Florida aligned the safeties all game, and perhaps he was that far back in an attempt to disguise the fact that Henderson was blitzing. Maybe the thinking was that if Taylor was too close up to the line, it’d give away the blitz and rotation.

Regardless of intent, Taylor does make the one-on-one tackle. However there were only four yards to go for the first down, so Mizzou gets a gimme conversion on second down.

On the second play, it’s 3rd & 10. UF has two deep safeties, and upon the snap, they’ll drop back to a depth of about 16 yards back of the line of scrimmage. Missouri has been watching those safeties drop that far back all game, so it goes with a wide receiver screen to the middle of the three guys wide to the left.

The inner receiver makes a good block on Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, while the left guard comes out and gives the receiver a path around Vosean Joseph. Cece Jefferson is in the area too, but he’s off balance from having rushed the passer. The receiver gets past all three of these guys with a clear path to the sticks. The safeties converge on him, but neither touches him until he’s already passing the line to make.

The third play is a repeat of the first in a way. The Tigers have two receivers to the right, and Garner-Johnson is leaving one of them open to blitz off the right edge. This time he’s at least much close to the quarterback than Henderson was on the first.

The safety on that side Donovan Stiner has the responsibility to cover the guy that Gardner-Johnson is leaving open. Stiner is still pretty far back, though, as he’s seven yards off of the line of scrimmage at the snap. As there are only three yards to go, the receiver runs out four yards and stops. Lock saw the giant gap that Stiner was leaving, so he throws it to the softly covered receiver for an easy third down conversion.

UF’s soft safety play was meant to prevent explosive plays, and it did to a degree. Several of Missouri’s long pass plays didn’t happen because safeties dropped back deep and subsequently failed in their assignments. Hall beat Henderson one-on-one down the sideline for 41. The second touchdown came when linebackers blew their coverage. The fourth touchdown came when a jet sweep play fake drew the safeties up close and a receiver beat Trey Dean deep.

I think Todd Grantham kept the safeties deep so much because Lock is one of two outstanding quarterbacks on the schedule along with Jake Fromm. I don’t think it’s an accident that the secondary suddenly got burned the last two weeks, as they were facing easily the best competition they had all season.

Jake Bentley is good but not in Lock’s tier. South Carolina also doesn’t have as many great skill position players as Missouri does. I expect Grantham to be a bit more aggressive and not drop the safeties back as deep as often this weekend. That should help shore up some of these situations.

Going Away from Pressure

The other common thread I saw was Missouri hitting plays that went to the opposite direction of where pressure was coming from.

On the first play, Mizzou has three wide to the left. UF has three box defenders to the right of the center on the short side and four to the left with a nose right on the center. The two who are off the line to the left, David Reese and Stiner, will bring pressure from that side.

Mizzou, perhaps anticipating that pressure or maybe just reacting to the alignment, goes with a speed option to the right. The Tigers leave Jachai Polite unblocked, which allows for the right guard and tackle to block the other two defenders on that side of the formation. Lock draws Polite in before pitching it out for an easy score.

To add insult to injury, this is exactly the speed option play that Dan Mullen used to carve up LSU. It includes the perfunctory inside handoff fake before heading off to the short side. Florida’s defense shouldn’t have been caught this off guard because it had to have been seeing this in practice from the Florida offense.

Next up is a long run from earlier in the game. The Gators have five players to the right of the center, but the deep safety Taylor will rotate back to the middle as the other safety Shawn Davis rotates up to take a receiver. That leaves four defenders over there.

Mizzou has a tight end to the right, and it’ll pull the center and right guard to the right to create a four-on-four blocking scenario. All four Tigers make their blocks on the four Gators to the right. Taylor is late to help because he ran back to a depth of 17 yards, and the left tackle got enough of Reese to keep him from helping.

MU pulls two linemen often and effectively enough that I said doing so was something that Florida could try to use against Georgia (and the Gators did pull two against the Bulldogs quite a lot). The defense wasn’t ready for it here, as the alignment of the defense all but assured a big play if the blocks were executed correctly.

Finally, the third play is one from later in the game. Grantham tries to get creative with five guys on the line of scrimmage: three down linemen to the offense’s left with two stand-up linebackers on the right. Only the three down linemen rush, while the stand up guys drop back.

The two linebackers drop back to the same place, though, over on the right side of the offense. A middle intermediate cross draws Davis the safety on the left side over to the right as well, meaning Florida is weak to the wide expanse to the left. Lock sees it, so as soon as Jefferson breaks through the offensive line, he has plenty of area to scramble left and pick up the conversion.

These issues of alignment are ones I’m not sure are as easily fixed. The first two are instances where Missouri appeared to know where the defense was going to be and used that knowledge to go the other way with a numbers advantage. The last was a bit of a case of bad luck, but the defense still left a huge area lightly guarded in part due to what I think is (yet another) bust by the linebackers on a passing play.

Teams have a lot more film of the Florida defense by now than they did earlier in the season. They now have a chance to not just scout Grantham’s past tendencies but his patterns with this particular set of personnel.

If Florida doesn’t find a way to keep things fresh on the defensive side of the ball, those tendencies will be ripe for exploiting by any offense that scouts them as well as Missouri did.