The upsides and downsides to Todd Grantham’s defensive aggression

After watching a unit that seemed to play too passively at times last year, Gator fans are hungry to see an attacking defense once again. They certainly will get it with new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.

One of the most striking things about Grantham’s style is that he is more aggressive with his play calls than even some of the better defensive coordinators UF has had in the recent past. No one would accuse Charlie Strong or Geoff Collins of having docile defenses, but Grantham is known for blitzing in a way those two aren’t.

The thing about blitzes is that they represent a risk/reward situation. Sometimes they’re a calculated risk, betting that the defense knows what’s coming and can stop it dead with an extra man or two. Other times, they’re purely a gamble that the defense will disrupt the play before the offense can execute it.

The most consequential examples of the upsides and downsides to Grantham’s aggression I can think of come from Alabama’s last drive against Mississippi State a year ago.

After a punt, the Crimson Tide takes over at its own 32-yard-line with the game tied and 1:09 on the clock. On first down, Grantham chooses to rush four and drop everyone else. After all, not even he will blitz every single time in critical situations. Grantham does include a twist, but five offensive linemen and a running back blocking against four defenders keep Jalen Hurts clean. No one gets open against the seven who dropped though, so Hurts ends up scrambling out of bounds for a one-yard gain.

On 2nd & 9, Grantham again rushes four and drops seven. Bama counters with four verticals, but Calvin Ridley breaks his off and finds a soft spot in the middle of the field — a place Hurts almost never throws to but does in this situation. The defense gets him down quickly, but it’s still a 15-yard gain. The clock stops momentarily to move the chains with 54 seconds and the Tide at its own 48.

Dropping seven worked once and failed once. With Alabama getting closer to field goal range, Grantham decides it’s no more mister nice guy.

On the new first down, MSU’s players appear to be late getting set before the play. Only two guys get their hand on the ground, and several seem to be casually walking to a spot right up to the end. As best as I can tell, it’s a ruse. The instant the ball is snapped, the Bulldogs immediately execute a zone blitz.

One defensive end drops into coverage while a linebacker and safety blitz. A defensive tackle and defensive end occupy the center and left guard, and the blitzing safety Mark McLaurin splits the two of them. Running back Damien Harris doesn’t get all of McLaurin with his block, and that forces Hurts from the pocket. The rushing linebacker Leo Lewis disengages from the right tackle and chases Hurts, forcing a throwaway.

Now it’s 2nd & 10. Grantham is still in attack mode. He doesn’t have his guys fake being caught off guard by tempo and only rushes five initially this time, but again, it works.

The key to this one is Alabama’s decision to have the center and left guard double-team defensive tackle No. 34 Cory Thomas. MSU does a twist on the other side of the defensive line, with DE Marquiss Spencer coming to the middle around the back of DT Jeffery Simmons. Simmons gets a tremendous push on the right guard to clear room for Spencer, who is too fast for the right tackle to get to.

With the center busy double teaming Thomas, Spencer can run right up Broadway to get to Hurts. The quarterback avoids Spencer, but LB Erroll Thompson coming with late pressure cleans up the play. It’s a sack for a loss of five yards.

It’s now 3rd & 15. Fans of the new UF DC’s past two employers Louisville and Georgia would sarcastically call this “Third and Grantham” because of how offenses will sometimes take advantage of his known aggression in such obvious passing scenarios.

It is indeed blitzing time in the Grantham playbook, and after a pair of successful blitzes, Alabama certainly knows the heat is coming. In fact the first time the Tide lined up for this 3rd & 15 play, Grantham sent his four up front plus a pair of linebackers.

One of those extra rushers ends up with a clean shot at Hurts around the offensive line’s right edge, but the play gets whistled dead because Dan Mullen took a timeout just before the snap. Absent that timeout, Hurts would’ve been sacked because the play developed slower than the blitz got to the quarterback. It would’ve been a case where the defense wins the gamble by disrupting the offense before it had a chance to run its play.

With another blitz a certainty, Alabama turns to a classic blitz buster play.

Even with a tight end and running back in to block, the Tide only has seven people to block the eight in the box. Bama is totally fine with this imbalance, though, because of the play it called. Hurts calmly throws a quick slant to Ridley that he’s probably done a thousand times in practice by now, and with all eight in the box rushing, the middle of the field is wide open. It ends up a 31-yard gain to the MSU 26-yard-line.

Alabama now has field position for a makable 43-yard field goal with 31 seconds left, so it has options. MSU has no timeouts, so one such option is that the Tide could just run the clock down if it wanted to.

It doesn’t want to, though. Everyone in the stadium and at home watching on TV knows that Grantham is in blitz mode, and a “safe” run would probably lose yardage. Therefore, Bama dials up another quick-strike pass.

Grantham puts five guys right on the line with a sixth two yards back. That sixth guy, the safety McLaurin, ends up with a completely unobstructed path to Hurts. It doesn’t matter. DeVonta Smith does a simple move to get inside leverage on the corner, and Hurts fires it before McLaurin can get to him. The other safety takes a bad angle and blows the tackle. Ballgame.

As you can see on the reverse angle, McLaurin takes something of a wide angle to get to Hurts. I think he does this to keep Hurts in the pocket rather than give him an easy path to a scramble to the outside. Had he gone more inside, Hurts easily could’ve pump faked and had tons of running room to his left.

To stymie this play, McLaurin would’ve needed to drop back. There, he might’ve gotten in the throwing lane and then been available to chase a scrambling Hurts out of bounds for a modest gain.

But McLaurin didn’t drop back. He was never going to drop back. Grantham often brings the heat in obvious passing situations, betting that his guys will beat the other guys.

It’s possible that with Florida talent instead of Mississippi State talent, more of those gambles will go his way. Some of them even did on this drive. The first two blitzes and the third that was interrupted by the timeout whistle were big successes.

However, Alabama adjusted, Grantham did not, and Mullen missed out on his best chance to beat Saban in Starkville.

This is what it’ll be for Florida this year. The Gators have some awesome rush ends between Cece Jefferson, Jabari Zuniga, and Jachai Polite, and guys like Vosean Joseph and Jeremiah Moon can be in the backfield with lightning quickness from the second level. They will disrupt a lot of plays before the plays have a chance to beat them.

However, sometimes the opposing offense will win those gambles. That’s the price of having a defense that is this aggressive. Mullen and Grantham are betting that the risk will turn into reward when it matters most, and whether it does will go a long way to shaping UF’s win total this fall.

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