Blitzes and pressure a two-way street

16 Comments

If Stephon Tuitt was still wondering, life is more difficult being on everybody’s All-American list. A season after exploding onto the scene with 12 sacks during his breakout sophomore campaign, Tuitt has found out that it’s much tougher to impact games when he’s one of the main targets in an opponents scouting report.

For those wondering if Tuitt’s weight gain or recovery from offseason hernia surgery has been the problem, it bears mentioning that everybody’s lock for the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, Jadeveon Clowney, who spent all preseason being discussed as perhaps the greatest-college-defensive-end-in-collegiate-history, has just one more sack than Tuitt through three games. That’s the price you pay for being on every opponents radar.

The focus on Tuitt and fellow All-American candidate Louis Nix has made for some interesting growing pains for the Irish defense. With both linemen looking like double team candidates, it’s opened things up for Sheldon Day to be a little be more productive from his slot at defensive end. But as the Irish focus on getting more pressure on the quarterback, Brian Kelly talked a little bit about the risk reward that comes with bringing pressure to get after the quarterback.

After watching the Irish get burned in man coverage when they brought heat after Devin Gardner, Kelly spoke candidly about the balance of manufacturing pressure on the quarterback.

“The easy answer is probably what you already know. That when you bring pressure, you’re either giving up some zones and zone pressure or you’ve got to play man‑to‑man,” Kelly explained.  “I still think we are not where we want to be defensively in terms of what that structure is going to be yet.”

Structurally, the battle appears to be between three and four man fronts. To get the team’s best players on the field, Kelly often shifts to a four man front, engaging Prince Shembo or Ishaq Williams as a down linemen, while sending four or five rushers to get after the quarterback.

But those blitzes put more pressure on a group of players that aren’t quite as experienced. Having Danny Spond as a field side linebacker in coverage is a lot different than Jaylon Smith or Ben Councell, two guys who are seeing things for the first time. Losing Manti Te’o from the Irish’s zone coverage underneath is like losing a centerfielder that plays daringly shallow. That’s been painfully obvious as opponents have beaten the Irish on screens and picked apart their underneath coverage.

“If you bring more pressure, you’re giving up some zones,” Kelly explained. “So you either have to play some three‑under, three‑deep, which vacates some zones and you’d better get there, or you have to play simply some more man coverage.

“Within that man coverage there’s a lot more technique that goes in, because it’s not simply you line up wide.  It’s bunched formations; it’s picks; it’s fighting through all those complexities of playing man‑to‑man coverage.”

We’ve seen those complexities not quite grasped, with Elijah Shumate and Cole Luke learning the hard way in coverage. Even starters KeiVarae Russell, Bennett Jackson and Matthias Farley haven’t logged a lot of minutes, leading to a situation that’s almost counterintuitive: Playing to the Irish’s strength up front might expose one of their bigger weaknesses.

“We’re probably getting back to finding more about the personnel that we have on the field and what we can and can’t do,” Kelly said.  “We are still trying to find what those groupings are to maximize their potential.”