While the Arkansas game was one of the more tough games of the season as a fan, even in the second half there are still things we can learn from it. In this installment of Film Room Friday we're going to learn what happens when a defense plays 2 quarters of 3, including a whole quarter in a row.
Let's pick this game up by showing the importance of something we talk about a lot: an edge player
Arkansas has been absolutely destroying us off-tackle this game, culminating in around 150 rushing yard in the first half. One of the first plays they run in the second half is the exact same play that got them chunks of yards earlier: a little pitch that the running back uses to hit downfield. The difference between this play and the other plays is that Kenny Williams beats his blocker. Sam Atoe and Sam Eguavoen flow to the ball very well, Keland McElrath takes a very good pursuit path, and Branden Jackson and Rika Levi don't get blown off the ball terribly.
All the same, if Kenny Wiliams does not set the edge, this play does not get made in the backfield. It isn't enough for him to simply be there, he has to be able to make a play on the ballcarrier. He makes an attempt, which allows Branden Jackson to take a steam-less running back on. Part of our issues in this game stemmed from having to take running backs head on, and making them change their cuts or use footwork in the backfield is a big part of stopping these types of runs.
We even figured out how to stop the inside run for a little bit.
The motion man immediately warns Micah Awe that something downhill is coming. He sees the crack block from the 2-point stance coming a mile away, and easily sidesteps it to attack the line of scrimmage. Branden Jackson squeezes the hole down to a manageable size for VJ Fehoko to make the play in, and the rest is history. If we could play every single inside run play this well, we'll be sitting pretty in 2015. We simply need the right mix of aggression, patience, and limiting mistakes, which is exactly what Gibbs will hopefully bring to our defense. Speaking of limiting mistakes, later on in this drive we make two key mistakes that lead to a very easy touchdown for Arkansas.
Right off the bat we have this play covered. Demetrius Alston rips straight through the tackle, and Pete Robertson has a clean release on the quarterback. The play is meant to fake out Pete via the fake handoff, but he was having none of it, and made a beeline straight for the quarterback. Then Alston and Robertson commit one of the Cardinal Sins of pass rushing: never leave the ground. If we can contain Allen and get him to throw the ball away or take a sack, Arkansas ends up with a questionable 4th and goal call. The second Robertson leaves his feet, contain is broken, and we've gifted Arkansas another chance at the end zone on this play.
The second mistake comes from our secondary. As Allen crosses the 10, he has one receiver and Tevin Madison and Keenon Ward in front of him. This is easily enough manpower to take down Allen or at least slow him down until everyone else can get there. Madison and Ward have a miscommunication, and both end up covering the receiver. I have no idea who was supposed to come up on the quarterback in that situation, but surely someone is. Two little mistakes turn a potential huge victory for our defense into a bad loss. Also, note that this drive took up nearly half of the 3rd quarter.
Now let's check in on the offense.
OW OW OW OW OW. This is exactly what Arkansas was planning for. They're leaving two small horizontal zones open in hopes that Webb will try to fit the ball in the further one between the linebackers and DBs and give their DBs a chance to make a play on the ball. That's exactly what happened. The Arkansas DB jars the ball loose with a vicious hit, taking Reginald Davis out of the game for a little bit. We have no choice but to play into their game at this point, we need the points and the slant routes for 3 yards a pop aren't cutting it. More or less, Arkansas has us right where they want us.
In this next play, Arkansas is in their "sink" coverage again. The only difference is that this time, they've dropped a defensive lineman out to cover the running back out of the backfield, who has burned Arkansas several times this game. Everyone is covered because Arkansas's linebackers move further in to take away the slants from the trips formation on the left side of the offense. The only option is Quinton White out of the backfield, who makes two great moves to get the first down. Arkansas is going to force us to beat them like this, slow and steady, attempting to wear us down. I would also be remiss if I didn't highlight Jakeem Grant on this play, who makes a crucial block on #51 to give White the space he needs to get the first down. Within 3 plays, Grant would get his reward for such a crucial block.
What gets lost in the excitement of this play and the hurt that Arkansas is putting on our defense is how good of a play call this is and how perfectly Davis Webb played here. Jakeem Grant and Jordan Davis are running deep crossing routes, attempting to create some space in that sink zone that Arkansas is using. The defensive tackle once again drops into the flat to cover the running back, and Webb is only facing a 3-man rush. Up until this point, we haven't attempted a downfield pass at all, much less on a 3rd and 12. Our M.O. on third down is normally to get the ball to a receiver who can duck upfield for a quick 3 or 4 and get a first down. This sucks the coverage from Arkansas in slightly, as we saw in the previous play. Kingsbury uses this to his advantage, and dials up a play that's going to give Grant some separation in the deep middle.
Webb looks like an NFL QB on this play. He steps up in the pocket, not just pulling the spying defensive lineman forward, but also creating hesitation in the linebacker who is covering the deep middle. He takes a solid hit from a defensive tackle and delivers a 35 yard strike right into the hands of Grant, who he more than likely could not see due to the tall linebacker covering deep. This is as close to a perfect throw as we're going to see.
Unfortunately for us, by this point our defense is just battered and bruised.
There's really nothing to say. We've seen this exact play out of this exact formation several times. We don't play it awfully, except for the whole bringing the ballcarrier to the ground part. Our defense will end up being on the field for more or less the entire quarter.
Despite this being the point where this game just becomes pain, there were still some bright spots
As he has become known to do, Rika Levi absolutely stands up the center on this play. This is very literally the textbook definition of how to defend the run as a defensive tackle. He doesn't go too far upfield, he holds the line of scrimmage, sheds the block, and makes the tackle. Plays like this give me serious hope for this defense, especially this defensive line in 2015.
But all of Levi's good plays this game just weren't enough.
Once again, the defensive line plays well, but we just can't shed a block and make a tackle. It's understandable because we've been on the field the entire second half, but at the same time if we could get a 3rd and short or 4th and short stop we might not be so exhausted. I'm gonna go ahead and stop here, and save all of us some sanity.
In short, Arkansas was a struggle because we weren't really that badly outschemed. The coaching is there, the speed is there, the strength is there, we just can't execute the fundamentals when we need to. We are so very, very close to being a very good football team. The meat is there. If we can construct a backbone we could be incredibly strong.