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Inside the Film Room: How did the Gophers slow Illinois' rushing attack?

10/07/2019, 7:00pm CDT
By Daniel House

During Saturday’s 40-17 win, the Gophers’ defense was prepared and ready to handle Illinois’ rushing attack. Minnesota’s coaches implemented a strong gameplan that maximized the potential of each position group. With top running back Reggie Corbin in the backfield, defensive coordinator Joe Rossi had to install a scheme that limited Illinois’ rushing success. After being thrashed by the Fighting Illini’s mid and stretch zone rushing concepts in 2018, Minnesota approached this game differently.

Some of it was solely due to improved personnel. Last year, they simply didn’t have enough defensive back depth or experience to play a frequent amount of man coverage on the perimeter. When they couldn’t deploy these type of coverage schemes, the cornerbacks and linebackers were forced to make more 1-on-1 tackles in space. This year, Minnesota has cornerbacks that are comfortable in man techniques and it allows the coaches to be more creative with the front-seven. They also occasionally had Jordan Howden playing the deep half, which allowed Antoine Winfield to flow down into the box. Overall, Minnesota limited the opportunities where they had to make a 1-on-1 play in space. When that happens, explosive plays follow. Most of the time, it’s a result of poor run fits. Joe Rossi’s scheme naturally prevented Illinois from having favorable situations in space.

Overall, the gameplan basically allowed Minnesota to keep everything in front of them defensively.

Last year, Illinois manipulated the Gophers’ linebackers and forced them out of alignment. Due to the fact Minnesota set the edge and received better interior push, they pushed more runs back inside. It helped limit the number of cut back lanes in Illinois’ mid and stretch zone rushing scheme.

By playing more man coverage on the outside, you naturally simplify the alignments of linebackers. It allowed cornerback Chris Williamson, safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and linebacker Kamal Martin to hover around the box and help runs flow back inside. Due to this adjustment, there were less moments where players had to make tough tackles on the perimeter.

The interior of Minnesota’s defensive line also did a nice job of getting push and giving linebackers space to move downhill. Minnesota’s contain on the edge was superb and forced Reggie Corbin to bend many runs into traffic. In the example below, defensive end Carter Coughlin establishes edge contain, defensive tackle Sam Renner gets push and Corbin is forced to bend the run.

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After struggling to tackle well against Purdue, the unit was far more consistent during Saturday’s game. They swarmed to the football and played with strong fundamentals in the open field. At one point, Illinois condensed a formation in 12 personnel and cornerback Benjamin St-Juste did an excellent job of taking on the right guard. Illinois pulled the center and guard to the edge, but Carter Coughlin backed the tight end upfield, which forced Corbin to bounce outside. St-Juste pulled off the right guard’s block and picked up a tackle-for-loss.

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This is an example of how Minnesota played complete team defense. Perimeter players helped force runs back inside, linebackers remained disciplined and cornerbacks tackled well when necessary. Antoine Winfield Jr. also made a big difference and there were several instances where he flowed across the formation to help in the box.

In the clip below, Winfield Jr. pressed the A-gap, which caused Corbin to bounce the run outside. Defensive tackle Keonte Schad drove the right guard, Tai’yon Devers set the edge and Schad didn’t quit on the play. Keonte Schad has earned more snaps and is making an impact both against the run and as a pass rusher. There have been a number of positive reps by Schad over the past couple games. The interior, led by Micah Dew Treadway, has been improving every week and played an integral role in stopping the Fighting Illini’s rushing attack.

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Linebacker Kamal Martin has been playing at a very high level. After battling through an early-season injury, he is slowly returning to form. He led the team in tackles and forced two fumbles. There were so many plays where he diagnosed a look in pre-snap and reacted. He’s one of the most instinctive and athletically gifted players in Minnesota’s defense. In the clip below, Martin read the play, turned the corner and wrapped up Corbin in the backfield.

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At one point, Martin dropped into coverage, but created pressure by closing on the quarterback outside of the pocket.

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He also made tremendous tackles in space that helped limit explosive plays and first-down conversions. In the clip below, the quarterback tried to step up, but Martin made a tackle in space to get Minnesota off the field on third-down.

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Martin continued to make big plays and always goes for the football. When the quarterback escaped, Martin was trying to strip the ball and forced two fumbles. With his range and instincts, he makes so many plays that involve his athleticism and natural feel for the game.

Joe Rossi also deploys Martin creatively within third-down pressure packages. He will use Double A-gap looks, run a stunt or send him off a delayed blitz. When Minnesota got into third-down situations, Rossi was dialing up different looks. Last year, the Gophers had to be careful because of their experience level in the secondary. By running more man coverage, it not only helped the run defense, but consistently created more scheme flexibility in the front-seven. When long-down situations arise, Rossi can be agressive and maximize available athleticism.

For example, early in the game, I immediately noticed the look Minnesota threw at Illinois. Rossi got all of his pass rushers on the field together, including Boye Mafe, Esezi Otomewo, Tai’yon Devers and Carter Coughlin. He also had linebackers Kamal Martin and Braelen Oliver showing a few different pre-snap alignments. They initially looked like they would ‘sugar’ the A-gap, but dropped back and blitzed off the weakside. Up front, Carter Coughlin and Tai’yon Devers are tightly aligned on the edge and Devers attacks the A-gap. The blitz coming off the weakside changes the left tackles’s responsibilities and Coughlin/Devers overloaded the left guard. On the other side, Boye Mafe and Esezi Otomewo ran a stunt and collapsed the pocket. This was a phenomenal pressure package and speaks to the potential Minnesota has to get ultra-creative. Joe Rossi has a variety of talented skill sets to utilize and he hasn’t even scratched the surface yet.

Joe Rossi also dialed up a classic nickel blitz with cornerback Chris Williamson. They’ve deployed this a few times, but it’s always been executed at the right moment. Linebacker Thomas Barber attacked the A-gap and Chris Williamson forced the running back to pick him up. He couldn’t completely get to the quarterback, but rushed the throw. With versatile defensive backs like Antoine Winfield Jr. and Chris Williamson at his disposal, Rossi can continue implementing even more exotic packages.

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Last week, one thing I thought the Gophers needed to improve was their overall pass rush discipline. Pass rush lanes were inadequate against Purdue and it allowed Jack Plummer to extend plays with his legs. This week, defensive ends got pressure and maintained the edge. The interior also funneled back to the play when the quarterback stepped up. It helped the Gophers’ defensive line collapse and contain the pocket more consistently. An example of this is shown in the sack below by defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway and Winston DeLattiboudere.

In the secondary, Antoine Winfield Jr. added another interception. All Winfield does is make plays. When you have a player with this level of football intelligence, it’s a big weapon. He diagnoses plays and then lets all of his natural athletic ability take over. During this week’s interception, Winfield was in Cover-2, but it looked like he and Jordan Howden were aligned wider toward the hash. Quarterback Brandon Peters’ pass was inaccurate and Winfield easily made the play.

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In addition to Winfield, cornerback Benjamin St-Juste continued to play at a high level. He had two additional pass breakups in Saturday’s win. He has tremendous length and transition quickness, which helps him get into passing lanes. When tasked with playing man coverage and creating plays at the top of routes, he is tight to the wide receiver and can get a hand in the lane.

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After two weeks of strong performances, St-Juste started this game and will continue to see his role expand in 2019. As a whole, Minnesota’s pass defense is playing really well and staying tight to wide receivers in man coverage situations.

The best part about the Gophers’ defensive performance was how each position group collectively contributed. They looked very prepared and the scheme allowed everyone to play fast and disciplined.

A Look at the Analytics

Not only did the tape display a strong performance by the Gophers’ defense, but it’s reflected by analytics. Among all 96 games in Week 6, Minnesota ranked in the top-25 of many metrics, including:

(data from CollegeFootballData):

Overall Defensive EPA: (-.057) - 18th
Rushing Defense EPA: (-.051) - 24th
Passing Defense EPA: (-.060)- 24th

I know we had a brief discussion about “Expected Points Added” (EPA or PPA) last week, but the defensive metrics are slightly different. It simply requires you to flip things in your head. Negative EPA outputs are what you’re looking for defensively. This video gives a simplified and comprehensive breakdown of why expected points added is a much better evaluation point than yardage. It factors in field position and down-and distance situations.

Overall, this was the most efficient performance by Minnesota's defense since a 41-10 win over Purdue in 2018 (-0.061).

Prior to this game, the Gophers have registered only five negative EPA defensive performances since 2017. It speaks to the potential of this defense and shows how well the gameplan worked.

When analyzing larger themes of the Gophers’ defense through five games, there is one trend worth noting. Minnesota ranks eighth nationally in second-down defense EPA (-0.10). They have been creating negative plays and turnovers on second down, which has helped them force more third-and-long situations. Earlier in the year, they were allowing more than seven yards per play on first-down and ranked in the bottom 30 of first-down defensive EPA. Over the past two weeks, they have improved significantly in this category:

South Dakota State: 0.45
Fresno State: 0.19
Georgia Southern: 0.18
Purdue: -0.12
Illinois: -0.31

Each week, the Gophers’ defense has been improving in nearly all key EPA categories. After watching Minnesota’s scheme this week, it will be very interesting to see the tweaks they make in future weeks.

credit: ESPN for the video (intended for fair use) and CollegeFootballData

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