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Rutgers Football defensive report card v UW

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Defensive focus on Rush D pays off in Game 1.

NCAA Football: Washington at Rutgers
Other than one drive, Browning was never truly comfortable
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The first game has come and gone, only 11* more of these this year. Weird to say isn’t it? Let’s break down the defensive performance at each of the three levels organized by alignment, assignment, and technique. The players listed in each group are in order of how noticeable they were to me, but potentially not every player who saw action. Let us know how you feel about the defensive performance with our poll and in the comments below.

Defensive Line: B+ (Turay, Lumor, Davis, Wilkins, Joseph-Day, Previlon, Bateky, Turner, Hogan, Wiafe)

Alignment: Despite it being reported in the news that Wilkins was playing defensive end to get more size on the field, the Huskies almost seemed surprised how big Rutgers was up front. Or maybe the coaches knew but figured they might as well test their middle run game on the road. Rutgers mixed it up a little bit, playing some 30 fronts or appearing as such with Turay or Lumor standing, rather than being in a three point stance.

Assignment: For the most part the defensive line did their job in getting penetration and forcing the ball to specific gaps. Rutgers did not appear to slant much so the only wrinkle to assignment for this group was the few zone blitzes when LBs came up the middle and defensive ends, especially Turay dropped into coverage. Only one time did it look like Turay may have been responsible for a back who came wide open, the TD to Coleman. Generally the team employed a strategy on the line of give it 110% on each play and if someone looked gassed, next man in the rotation so nobody was holding back. That seems to be the right method for this squad, as coach Burnham stuck to his word of rotating more players. I didn’t see a single all out blitz.

Technique: The offseason #1 focus was run defense. Paramount for the defensive linemen, it means pushing back on where a blocker is trying to force you and making strong moves to keep an arm free for a passing ball carrier or to lock up a second blocker. That free arm also allows for batted down passes and I’d bet Rutgers had more of those against the Huskies than in any game in 2016. The group did all of this pretty well until they wore down a bit, late in the second half. Their pad level rose a little bit, we need to see them continue to drive low and not stand up too soon to try to bat down passes until the last moment.

Individual other player thoughts: Holy smokes, the Huskies couldn’t stop Turay, but only hope to contain him. For a good portion of the game Browning was just waiting for Kemoko to eventually be in his face because it was only a matter of time. He played awesome but did not record a sack, which is why I think predicting 10 is lunacy. Lumor if he can react to the snap quicker could be a difference maker on the other side, especially against the pass. Previlon made two real nice plays both resulting in tipped passes. Everyone played at the slightly higher level than we have seen from them in the past which is encouraging. Joseph-Day had four tackles and one official QB hit, but they need even more from him, which is asking a lot.

I briefly thought about giving them an A-. The 2nd biggest question mark (other than quarterback) coming into the season was whether the defensive line could be more disruptive this year, especially in the pass game. They definitely showed signs of improvement in the points of emphasis, but to truly contribute to wins on the field, we need to see those pressures turn into sacks, no gains turn into tackles for loss. Even though Rutgers did not get pushed off the ball, they only recorded two tackles for loss.

Linebackers: C+ (Morris, Roberts, Margolis, Douglas)

Alignment: The linebackers were generally always aligned in the 3 spots of a 4-3 stack. There was little variation to this other than the aforementioned 30 fronts where Turay was lined up more like an outside linebacker. Roberts as the captain and leader of the defense seemed to have this nailed down other than the drive where Washington went super hurry up and Rutgers was not getting set completely before the snap.

Assignment: Roberts and Morris shouldered a lot of responsibility in this game. Eric Margolis and Ross Douglas had the tight end in coverage and didn’t have to make as many decisions, so they didn’t make many mistakes. Morris especially had a tough draw usually matched up with All-American candidate Myles Gaskin with a full head of steam. Trevor was burned by backs downfield at least twice, one of which was an assignment mistake that was probably his fault. He allowed a third completion to Gaskin but was in perfect position on the sideline, but the back made an unbelievable catch. It appeared from the replays that the linebackers were waiting an extra second to be sure it was not play action before filling the running lanes. The defensive line held up pretty well luckily or the linebackers might have been gashed on runs and forced to gamble a little more and change up assignment tactics.

Technique: Morris, the team’s leading tackler only had three (2 solo). Roberts had seven, but only two solo. Those numbers have to go up overall or at least the number of TFLs. Even waiting on play action, it didn’t seem like the LBs were bringing the reckless abandon needed to defeat a superior opponent. It seemed the main defensive philosophy was avoid long pass completions (a la @ UW 2016) at all costs and other than some circus catches by Myles Gaskin did pretty well in this conservative manner. Pretty well is not “excellent” and I think the LBs need to be better in coverage moving forward. It will be interesting to see if they play closer to the line or take quicker, shorter angles on running plays. On paper, holding the Huskies under 100 yards on the ground has to be considered a success, so those slower reactions didn’t really have negative implications. Tackling was solid is not spectacular, especially after the Maryland debacle in last year’s finale.

Individual other player thoughts: Did Tyshon Fogg even get a snap on D? I saw a number 8 on punt coverage but thought it may have been Josh Hicks. I don’t think Fatukasi got one either at LB, though he did make a nice special teams tackle. Margolis got more time than Douglas it appeared and seemed to be in good position most of the time, preventing outside runs. Neither they nor any linebacker delivered a real big hit, unlike the Husky backers on the other side. It may not matter which position, but this linebacking corps needs a true playmaker at one of the spots. Last year Greg Jones was that guy until he was hurt so don’t be surprised if Niemann experiments with Fogg, Fatukasi, or even Battle to try and bring an extra dimension. Roberts is a captain, but maybe he plays a little outside if a guy like Battle can bring the wood in the middle?

The grade here may be harsh but all these guys are a year more experienced than 2016.

Washington v Rutgers
Gaskin was just too good out of the backfield.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Secondary: B (Austin, Hampton, Hayes, Hester, Wharton, Gray)

Alignment: The communication of this group seemed pretty good as it was only that short stretch where Washington went super fast paced to prevent RU from lining up right. Rutgers mostly played either with two high safeties or one high and the other up on a slot receiver. FS1’s broadcast does not show a super wide display, so may need to rewatch to truly understand safety depth. Corners did not jam as much as anticipated which caught Washington off guard a little initially.

Assignment: For the most part, there were few if any blown coverages that were ultimately the fault of the secondary. The times I noticed were linebackers in (or should having been in) coverage though some were very difficult assignments. Kiy Hester ended up chasing an open man on one play, but I think he was in a zone and was forced to pick up that man. Rutgers defense played pretty basic defense, rarely blitzing. It seemed like the safety on Pettis’s side was usually cheating toward him even in the Ash patented cover 4. Therefore the other safety was primarily responsible for the slot receiver or tight end depending on the formation. Corners were playing off the line and had the deep quarter (cover 4), occasionally jamming at the line in true man-to-man.

Technique: The 51 yard pass came on a play Hayes was just beat on what could have been a post or maybe just a fly route where he did not slow down the man at all. DBs for the most part kept plays in front of them and didn’t miss tackles other than on UW tight end Drew Sample. They had a few key pass breakups where the correct position resulted in deflections and not interceptions unfortunately. Again with the FS1 camera angles, it was hard to see how angles, hand placement, and whether DBs were in phase like they should have been. But if Jake Browning didn’t think guys were open, they probably weren’t.

Individual other player thoughts: Wharton played a nice game with 4 tackles and not getting picked on like he was at times the last two years. Hayes was beat on another play, so needs to bounce back. Austin was in the middle of the action a few times and played ok, but not at an All-Big Ten level it seemed. K.J. Gray had to play a few snaps when Hester was hurt, but just looks slow, I hope that’s an illusion because he by far has the best ball skills in the group. Hampton was his usual self, seemingly in the area of the ball a lot which you can never quite figure out if is good or bad so I’ll be interested to see how PFF grades him. Hester on the other side was not involved in much action, but when he was, delivered a few big hits including knocking out a sure TD pass on a crucial 3rd down. This group unlike the LBs does not need more playmakers. They could use a few turnovers though to achieve the next stage of their development.

The grade has to be a B because avoiding that one bomb or getting just one interception might have made this game very interesting. Can’t go below a B because this day in age, allowing less than 300 yards in the air against a solid quarterback is rare. Some of those big gainers came on plays when Browning had almost unlimited time, few if any came on a three or five step drop. This group can play better, but served as the steadiest unit on the defense as expected.

NCAA Football: Washington at Rutgers
Hampton picked his spots near the line.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Coaching: B

Can’t go A because Rutgers didn’t win, but Jay Niemann delivered the type of game plan I expect out of him. What I mean by that is often times you will look up and see a group of five team keep it close against a traditional powerhouse, something coach did very well at his previous coaching stops. Many times, not a single player from that mid-major team was even recruited by the bigger school, so how do they manage to keep it close with such a big talent gap?

Niemann showed you how it is done in today’s game and the players executed pretty well which is a sign of good preparation in meeting rooms. Meaning, Rutgers was at home in front of what at times was a decent crowd and Washington felt confident enough that they could win playing straight up. So Niemann had his team playing the run hard on first plus (most) second downs, mixed up pressure/personnel on those 2nd and short situations that resulted in some negative plays to put UW in tough 3rd down situations, and mixed up scheme on passing downs. This sounds easy, but only when you can sometimes get an offense “off-schedule” which means you are winning the line of scrimmage on first downs. Rutgers did control the line of scrimmage for most of the game.

The most encouraging thing to me from the coaching staff was not the overall game plan though, it was their ability to draw up pressures like Dick LeBeau had so much success doing with the Pittsburgh Steelers. If your team can’t get pressure with your front four only (very few can), the next best thing is confusing the offense as to where the 5th guy is coming from. So the offense ends up doubling one player but not accounting for the extra man. By doing so the quarterback does not read blitz and therefore can get totally surprised like Browning did on his fumble, not even from his blind side. Washington could only block two of the three men on that side allowing Davis to come free for the sack. The same thing happened one or two other times as well. This needs to continue for Rutgers to have success.

Effort: A-

With a few lucky bounces in the 4th quarter, Rutgers could have won this game until only 4:58 remaining without an actual miracle. That was due to the defense bending but not breaking, a sign of effort and morale. There were plenty of swarming tackles reminiscent of the Schiano era and it looked like a completely different defense, even with much of the same personnel as late 2016. The only blemish in the effort department was a few (as in 2 or 3) plays where coverage held up for a long time and the line MAY have been able to record a coverage sack with some late play effort. There was not an instance of a major quit on any play I saw.

Overall grade: B

In 2016, Rutgers allowed more than 30 points in 8 of their 12 games and Washington scored more than 30 in 12 of their 14 games! So for the Scarlet Knights to only surrender 30 total to a top 10 team with offensive firepower isn’t bad (even if the term “moral victory” is frowned upon). Consider that 7 came on a punt return touchdown and 10 more on two field position flipping turnovers where the Washington O was close to field goal range when they got the ball. If special teams can improve and Rutgers offense not turn it over, this defense should be able to do it’s job. As Ash mentioned before and again in his presser, most games are lost, not won. The team that makes more mistakes loses, that was true in this game.

You have to give Jerry Kill and the offense credit here for doing their share in winning the time of possession battle almost 2:1 allowing the defense to get rest. This was the total opposite of 2016 where in every game against a quality opponent, it would get to a point where Rutgers simply couldn’t prevent touchdowns partially because the defensive players were gassed.

I thought about going as high as B+, but there were a few complete or partially blown assignments. It could be argued the turning point in the game was the 3rd and goal touchdown to make it 17-7 where Coleman was not covered out of the backfield. There were a few times tight ends ended up running free and that needs to get cleaned up. Tackling was good, not great.

Rutgers defense did not record a turnover, but did force a fumble that almost set up RU to take a quick 14-0 lead. There were other disruptive plays where an inexperienced QB would have been sacked, threw a pick, or may have thrown a batted pass that with a little luck could be intercepted. Twice (one pictured above), Browning had to dangerously underhand the ball forward for an incompletion to avoid a major sack. If any of these can become turnovers against more evenly matched opponents, Rutgers could win a few of those games.

What we learned that will apply next week

Reasons for pessimism: Eastern Michigan has never beaten a Big Ten team, but this may be the best chance they have ever had coming off a bowl season and solid week 1 showing. This is a true “trap game” because there is no reason to believe Rutgers will steamroll and the pressure should all be on Rutgers at home unlike against the Huskies. The Eagles’ 4-star quarterback, Brogan Roback, could easily play better than Heisman hopeful Browning did in game 1. EMU will not be vanilla as they will go to the bag of tricks if needed including the hurry up, hopefully RU will be ready.

Reasons for optimism: Washington’s offensive line wasn’t great, but EMU is only returning two starters on their offensive line. They might need 2.5 people to block Turay. Dante Pettis will not be playing in the game which should allow Rutgers safeties more flexibility. Roback and company last faced a power 5 opponent in week 2 last year, when Missouri demolished them 61-21. Rutgers offense should be able to score more points next week. With school in session, the stadium could be rowdier. Rutgers linebackers should come out a little pissed off and the leash might be short with hungry players waiting in the wings. Shaq Vann is a pretty good running back, but can he make multiple circus catches out of the backfield like Myles Gaskin when coverage was solid?

Poll

How do you grade Rutgers Defense v the Eagles?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    A: The defense did virtually everything they could.
    (90 votes)
  • 51%
    B: RU passed the eye test against a rocket armed, QB.
    (270 votes)
  • 22%
    C: They were ok, but need more turnovers, drive killing plays.
    (117 votes)
  • 7%
    D: Unless you win, can’t be better than a D, especially when you look disorganized.
    (38 votes)
  • 0%
    F: Only a shutout garners a passing grade, especially against a non power 5 team.
    (5 votes)
520 votes total Vote Now