First off, I know, I know, I'm a massive hypocrite. I don't think we can get much out of this spring film, as there's not a big quantity, and the nature of spring games mean that players are completely handcuffed. We can see some subtle differences in how we looked in the Spring Game to how we looked in the fall.
Let's look at the first play of the game. Not the first offense vs defense play, the first special teams play.
Good Lord, Mike Mitchell is fast. I think we all knew he was fast, but we can really see it here on this play. He's second to the left of the kicker. He starts out lined up with everyone else, and is the first defender back in the frame downfield. He's a full 5 yards ahead of every single other player on the kickoff coverage team, including the guys who are meant to speed down to the ball and break up the blockers. This is pure, raw athleticism. Once this kid figures out how Gibbs's defense works, and gets himself back in the saddle football wise, he is going to be a legitimate freak of nature. I mean, we had all heard the stories, but it's one thing to see them, and another thing entirely to be introduced to them in such a nonchalant way. This is unbelievable coverage, especially considering he more than likely had to shed a blocker on his way down the field.
Now let's look at the differences in aggression between last year's defense and the Gibbs system.
This play is a simple wide receiver screen out of a pretty stereotypical Texas Tech formation, doubles to each side, quarterback and running back in the shotgun. The major difference I can see here is that everyone is really attacking the football. Dakota Allen, the RS Freshman linebacker, is already on a perfect pursuit angle before the receiver even makes a move. If the play isn't made in the backfield, the cavalry is already on their way to help shut the play down. Regardless, we get the play in the backfield. Watch the way that DJ Polite-Bray simply attacks the blocker. This is not the Red Raiders defense of years past. Instead of trying to go around a blocker in a situation that doesn't call for it, Polite-Bray goes straight through him. He engages one side of the blocker and forces the receiver to pick a way to go.
This is exactly how you play this version of a screen. Attack the blocker, force the receiver a certain way in order to allow the pursuit to make it to him. We make the play for a minimal gain, and force the offense into a spot that they don't want to be in.
On this next play, Sam Atoe makes the kind of patient run game fit that Gibbs emphasizes.
First off, Rika Levi plays with excellent pad level, controlling the offensive lineman in front of him. Even though Levi is beat off the snap by making a false step, he works his way back into the play through great pad level and hands. He is the beginning of forcing the play back inside. Keland McElrath doesn't make the play, but he isn't a negative either. He immediately sees the the tackle is attempting to "wash" him inside, and he puts a hard step into the ground, stopping the flow of the offensive line. He actually makes the play, executing a spin move back outside, and stopping the run at the line of scrimmage.
All of this is well and good, but defensive line play wasn't our biggest issue this past year. Inconsistent linebackers were. Atoe remains patient behind the line of scrimmage, moving with the flow of the linemen and following his read, but never truly committing downfield. When he sees McElrath move across his vision, he knows he has to fill the hole outside. Even if Keland doesn't make this play, Atoe is in an absolutely perfect position to take down the ballcarrier.
This is the epitome of the Gibbs system. Stay patient, and strike quickly when the opportunity arises. If we can play like this against our offense, I at least have a little bit of faith that we can pull it off against a few more teams this fall.
Hopefully our defense can make plays like that, and our offense can keep away from plays like this
Micah Awe makes a great play on the ball, yes, but this pass should have never been thrown. Look at how many people are around the ball. Sadler is at least covered by two defenders, and Keenon Ward and Tevin Madison are also in the area. There was virtually no pass rush until Pete Robertson comes on an unblocked delayed blitz. If anything the ball should have gone to the outside receiver, but it doesn't. I really hope this doesn't become an issue for our already turnover-maligned offense.
Here we see how our defense has improved in pursuit.
Almost immediately the A and B gaps are filled, and DeAndre Washington has to bounce the rock to the outside. There are a couple of missed tackles, but ultimately part of that is due to the fact that they were being blocked. Fortunately for the defense, strong safety Keenon Ward comes in like a shot out of a cannon and makes the play in the backfield. This play emphasizes two things to me. 1. Gibbs is changing the attitude of our defense from the inside out slowly but surely and 2. Keenon Ward is instrumental to our defense.
The more I watch this past season, the more convinced I am that Keenon Ward is going to be a huge player for us in the years to come. He's fast, he's aggressive, he's athletic, and he plays smart. When he's in the lineup for us, things just work out easier. Keeping him healthy is going to be instrumental for us in 2015. We're simply a different team when he's on the field.
Let's talk a little bit about the offense and their progression.
As evidenced by Film Rooms past, downfield blocking has not been a thing that we have struggled with. This play shows all that and more. Mahomes goes through his progression, eventually hitting his checkdown receiver, Justin Stockton, in the flat. Once in the flat, Stockton breaks two tackles, and heads downfield. Once downfield, Stockton receives two quality blocks from his receivers that allow him to continue to move downfield. If we can keep blocking like this all the time, we can be a very dangerous team.
Ultimately, there's not much that we can learn from the Spring Game film, other than the evidence of a renewed energy that we see on defense. This doesn't mean that no progress has been made, but only that we can't measure the progress just yet.