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Rutgers Football vs. Delaware Film Study & Initial Thoughts on Michigan: Is Air Attack back?

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Seems like it might be in time to try and replicate last season’s explosion against the Wolverines.

NCAA Football: Delaware at Rutgers
Cruickshank, Jones, and Melton keyed the air attack.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

This football season, time permitting, I get to humor the Rutgers fan base (and myself personally) with a weekly film analysis. Last week, the Syracuse win was covered here.

Live takeaways (hindsight after review in parentheses)

  • Delaware’s offensive line was big, RU players who have moves and quickness were able to pass rush. (VERDICT: Mostly true).
  • A few guys were complete boom or bust where they were pancaked at one point but then persevered and came back with big plays later, such as Aaron Lewis, Mayan Ahanotu, and Tyshon Fogg. (VERDICT: Lewis (3 tackles, 1.5 sacks) was the only glaring example of getting pancake blocked in space, but he was involved in a lot of plays later to more than redeem himself. Ahanotu and Fogg played better on the rewatch, though not the best we have seen from them).
  • Brendan Bordner played really well, as did the whole offensive line in pass protection. (VERDICT: 100% true and Pro Football Focus grades agree).
  • Like the Orange last week, Delaware tried to surrender short passes then make tackles, but that game plan had to be at least partially abandoned on the first drive because of Shameen Jones. (VERDICT: Yes in droves and covered below).
  • Rutgers backup linebackers and defensive backs took bad pursuit angles when inserted into the game. (VERDICT: True, but so did the starters a few times).

Below are some thoughts on the fun re-watch in a format showing what Rutgers needs to do against the Wolverines with some clips from last year.

What happened last week.

Syracuse was a continuation of what we saw against Temple, but this game against Delaware was a lot of different other than another amazing special teams performance. The Blue Hens tried a bend but don’t break defense though their coach admitted postgame they didn’t expect Rutgers to throw deep successfully as often as the Knights did. The RU run offense was more power running, less finesse and it worked earlier in the game than previous weeks. The Rutgers run defense and tackling was much worse than the previous two games. Knights pass defense bordered on incredible though possibly at some expense to the run stopping, (though less so after seeing how this happened).

1st and 10, ball on the Delaware 38, 9:58 left First Quarter, game tied, 0-0.

After Delaware punted on their opening drive, Rutgers came out with a methodical series where Shameen Jones was picking up yards after catch until cavalry arrived. This is exactly what we saw from Jones last year and the first two weeks this season, albeit in limited action.

This is the 7th play of the drive so Delaware is reeling and unable to play a complex coverage while also being a little winded. Rutgers has two wide receivers (green box) and with so much cushion, you have to take this completion every time to whichever receiver the game plan calls for, the other making a block on the closest corner (green arrow).

If the ball is there in time and right to the receivers hands, he can run past the linebacker (teal box) and try and make the slot corner (red box) miss. Shameen Jones (outside receiver) makes his third catch of the drive and after Matt Alaimo blocks the corner (green arrow), Jones ends up gaining 11 yards for another first down before being hit by two defenders. Big Ten teams may give cushion, but it won’t be this much cushion or else they will do what Delaware did and call a timeout right after the play.

This type of action sets up two other types of pass plays when executed well, the first of which is the slant which you can see Rutgers executed against Michigan (below) in the matchup last year. On a key second and 8, Michigan’s cornerback was vulnerable to the slant (yellow box) because the slot corner (teal box) had to follow Aron Cruickshank (teal arrow) also running a slant. So if the protection holds up which had three defenders neutralized (green arrows), one chipped long enough (yellow arrow), a well thrown ball can carry the receiver to the sticks as it did here.

The second route combination that gets set up is the counter to the play above if the cornerback cheats too much inside fearing a slant and/or requires help from the linebackers and safeties. Then you get what Rutgers actually did on the very next play out of the timeout.

Delaware is fearing the death by a thousand paper cuts so they give less space and Rutgers defensive coordinator Sean Gleeson smartly overloads that side of the formation which forces Delaware to basically double down (or more appropriately “double up”) to stop the wide receiver screen. They have their outside linebackers (blue and teal boxes) playing the passing angle for the inside slant while also being ready to play the run, then bail out into middle zone coverage (or blitz unimpeded) if the play is a pass other than a slant.

Of course the weakness in this defense is that they are playing Bo Melton in tight press coverage (green box), so if he can beat his man, the safety (red box) is going to have a tough time recovering to help on a fly pattern. This is the play that Leonte Carroo was automatic on when he played because he never got jammed at the line, really ever. Melton does his best Carroo impersonation for the first touchdown of the game.

For Rutgers to have success in the Big Ten, they need these short screen plays to go for seven, eight, and eleven yards as they did on the opening drive rather than just three or four to stay ahead of schedule. Then the defense is ripe for the deep ball if the QB can deliver a good throw. The cornerback did not look back (and most college DB don’t) so a good adjustment by the WR on this ball is going to be a completion or often a pass interference against most opponents. This is why as I mentioned last week how this deep sideline throw is always semi-open if you have a solid receiver who can avoid getting jammed at the line. The same route later in the game was not caught by Melton on an under thrown ball. When Rutgers failed to make these sideline plays last year, they ran into trouble.

3rd and 10, ball on Delaware 25, 9:28 left First Quarter, Rutgers leads, 7-0.

After two incompletions, the Blue Hens faced a third and long. Rutgers has six men on the line but only end up bringing four.

Tre Avery who is the slot corner above actual ends up being the 4th rusher below (teal box) as the three linebackers all bail into coverage. This is a very exotic look you hear about on third down and can work effectively against an inexperienced quarterback. Delaware QB Nolan Henderson is no spring chicken and after he gets lucky that an obvious hold (having your hand around someone’s neck for 3 seconds is usually flagged) is not called on his right tackle (yellow box), Henderson gets outside the pocket while being pursued by two defenders (red arrows). This gave me deja vu of Shea Patterson for Michigan in 2019 killing Rutgers with rollout scrambles.

Henderson (who was 0-4 at the time) finds a receiver coming all the way across the formation for a backyard football 22 yard completion. It’s a perfectly thrown ball which barely gets past Olakunle Fatukasi (green box below) in coverage. As a defense you can live with these plays once in a while as long as you don’t make a habit of losing QB contain. Making quick tackles like safety Avery Young (green box) is in excellent position to do with help from Kessawn Abraham (who was seemingly all over the field for the second straight week) is also critical. Even then it took a perfect bullet thrown across his body by Henderson running full speed for what turned out to be the Blue Hens only pass play of more than 11 yards all game.

If your defense fears containing the opposing QB and has multiple plays like the one Delaware executed above, you can bring five or six players to keep him contained IF they can get home before the coverage breaks down.

Last year against Michigan this did work effectively early in the game in the below screenshot. Two ends have the outside contain (yellow arrows) while two linebackers (red arrows) fill the inside lanes. The play is really made by Julius Turner (who took Delaware’s lunch also) because the running back (two pink arrows) has to make a desperate attempt to avoid a hit on his QB.

Great coverage by the corners (green circles), green arrows means at best this is a 50/50 throw which Michigan did not make and ultimately benched their Quarterback in 2020. Rutgers also ran a similar defense which worked against a run play, more on that later.

1st and 10, ball on Rutgers 16, 14:16 left Second Quarter, Rutgers leads 7-0.

The teams exchanged punts before Rutgers hit another deep sideline throw to Bo Melton where he slants inside then makes a double move back outside on a corner route.

Two things jump out here, first Schiano 1.0 would never call a play that takes this long to develop from inside his own 20 yard line. Second, the slant inside causes the corner and safety to bite just enough after the set up mentioned earlier so they were susceptible to a corner route. Once again on a deep ball the defensive back does not get his head around. He is trying to read Melton for when the ball will arrive but Bo has gotten very good at waiting until the last second to get his hands up and make the reception before the DB can swat at the ball. That nuance is something WR coach Tiquan Underwood gets a ton of credit for teaching.

Of course the Quarterback has to make the throw and Vedral does what some of us doubted by dropping it in the bucket for Melton against good help coverage from the safety. This may have been the best throw Vedral has ever made in a Scarlet Knight uniform as Melton does not even need to stop, he only needs to slow down by half a step.

1st and 10, ball on Delaware 28, 12:32 left Second Quarter, Rutgers leads 14-0.

Delaware to their credit comes right back with their best play of the day, a long run down the sideline.

The play starts out with trouble as anyone who has played Madden can spot. Even though everyone else is in a good run stopping alignment, Rutgers converted linebacker, now defensive end Rashawn Battle (red arrow) is shaded inside the tight end (teal arrow who appears to be a 6th offensive lineman), so if everyone blocks down on the Hens line, the play will go for at least four yards or so before the linebackers could fight through traffic. Another interesting thing to note is that by being in press coverage (green arrows), it’s easier for the Delaware receivers to engage in their blocking assignments, something to keep in mind the rest of the year especially now that Rutgers CB depth will be tested even more than it already had been.

So the play proceeds exactly how everyone in the stadium would expect other than the fact that the Blue Hens motion the bottom side receiver (who looks like a tight end) to gain even more of an angular advantage assuming their offensive line does not get driven back. If Rutgers slants the defensive line to the right or stunts there will be space to the bottom of the screen. If they stay home or slant left there will be all kinds of traffic at the bottom of the screen and the running back will have to see if bouncing the play outside is as open as he thinks it should be based on Battle’s alignment.

So Rutgers has one chance to stop this play for loss, if Mayan Ahanotu (teal arrow) can win his 1:1 and penetrate quick enough to stop the play for a loss. Mike Tverdov (red arrow) cannot immediately try to chase this play down from the backside because even though he is unblocked, he is frozen by the QB option run possibility (red box). So the next hope Rutgers has is to stop the play for an intermediate gain if Olakunle Fatukasi or Kessawn Abraham (green arrows) can get skinny and find their way through the chaos to get the ball carrier, but they actually get blocked by only one guy. This is why sometimes the advantage of a smaller running back (like Kyle Monangai) who is harder to see is effective. The last hope to avoid an explosive play is Avery Young (green box) avoiding the pulling lineman (yellow arrow) but he fails to maintain outside leverage.

So the running back Dejoun Lee achieves the first down and a hustling Tyshon Fogg (red arrow) tries to push him out of bounds with one hand knowing he will not catch the speedy Lee from behind. Lee keeps running and breaks a shoulder tackle attempt from Christian Izien (off screen) at the 30 before Tre Avery (also off screen) hustles from the slot corner on the other side just in time to shove him out of bounds at the one yard line.

So lots of takeaways from this play. 1. Ahanotu does get past his man but is knocked off balance, though his agility has improved since he arrived at Rutgers and should continue to do so. 2. Battle not setting the edge shows how important that is, but he wasn’t the only Knight to lose contain as the Blue Hens went back to this several times. 3. Tverdov does a great job on the top side setting his edge and forcing the play to go to the other side. 4. Fatukasi is an All-Big Ten player but even he can’t fight through this much traffic. 5. Avery Young loses the sideline but is an inexperienced safety and it was a super tough play because the running back actually waited to read his block (RU had a chance to hit him when he paused) then exploded past Young. 6. Izien usually is a sure tackler, this was a rare mistake. 7. Rutgers did not give up on this play and did live to fight another down.

The Blue Hens punched it in on the next play for their first touchdown of the game. They went back to this concept time and time again of outflanking Rutgers to the perimeter which worked and then as RU adjusted, it opened up more inside running lanes. On inside plays the key is getting off blocks AND taking good angles which Rutgers did against Michigan on a key 4th down stop last year (below).

On that play against Michigan the edge is set well (teal arrows), Julius Turner gets a hand on the ball carrier while still being blocked (pink box), while two linebackers get off their blocks pretty well (yellow arrows) to plug inside lanes, and Fatukasi (green arrow) completely defeats his man to force a turnover on downs.

Delaware has smart coaches and offensive players with experience to execute a variety of run concepts, we will see if Big Ten opponents do the same. Also, a lot of the bad angles came from second and third string linebackers and defensive backs which is expected in their first game action of the year. As the game went on you did see it get better, Tyreem Powell being the best example of a guy who struggled early but made in game improvement personally. They will all be needed as the season goes along.

1st and 10, ball on Rutgers 38, 11:32 left Second Quarter, Rutgers leads 14-7.

Rutgers immediately answered the Hens score with a one play drive, yes one play on the very next series.

This pass to Brandon Sanders is the counter punch to the fly route from Melton that produced the earlier TD or in effect the counter-counter to the quick screen game. It’s actually more than that because Rutgers goes with an unbalanced line that keeps the bottom side corner from dropping back even if it was a cover 3. They do max protect and mainly since Jovani Haskins does a great job blocking his man, Vedral has plenty of time to toss a long TD.

The same route in the opposite direction was attempted in the 3rd quarter where Shameen Jones got two strides behind the defense, but the ball was under thrown by Vedral and Shameen had to stop to try and catch the ball but didn’t fight for the ball as much as he could have. Better ball tracking and better hands, especially right before the ball arrived may have resulted in a completion before the defender had time to swat at it and break up the pass.

And for everyone who thinks this play will not be open against Michigan, let me refresh your memory of 2020 when the exact same route worked even without an unbalanced line. Michigan comes out in a 4-3, unlike Delaware who was in a 3-4 look, but either way the alignment has a seven man front.

The other difference is that the short route on the play against Michigan was made by the bottom side receiver, rather than against Delaware where it was completed by the other slot receiver on the top side. Either way a deep crossing route comes open, ball in the teal box, receiver in green.

Michigan’s defensive backs held them back last year and are better this year so far, but when protection holds up, these plays will be open in college football. If the quarterback can deliver a good ball it will be a big gain or pass interference because there is just so much space to cover on these flyover plays.

Delaware managed a field goal to cut the deficit to 21-10 on a methodical drive using the same blocking schemes mentioned above, but Rutgers punched right back with a nice perimeter run by Aaron Young, then added a haymaker with Cruickshank’s punt return TD heading into the intermission.

2nd and 10, ball on Delaware 1, 7:04 left Third Quarter, Rutgers leads 38-10.

Adam Korsak pinned the Blue Hens at their own one yard line with help from Shameen Jones downing the ball about a foot from the endzone.

After an incompletion down the sideline on first down, Rutgers may have expected play action on 2nd. Free Safety Naijee Jones definitely did (off screen, red arrow), bailing to try and help the single coverage at the top of the screen. Rutgers is in a 5-2 front in an effort to secure the edges better than they did in the 2nd quarter. Mohamed Toure and Drew Singleton (teal arrows) maintain outside leverage. Bottom side cornerback Tre Avery (green arrow) though is also setting the boundary since his man is the tight end (looks more like a 6th offensive lineman) who stays in to block.

The three Rutgers defensive linemen slant left and are easily sealed by the Blue Hen offensive line. This sets up a showdown between the two pulling linemen across from Tyreek Maddox-Williams and Olakunle Fatukasi (yellow arrows). Strong safety Christian Izien (yellow box) once he knows this is a run will try to find the ball carrier.

As the play develops though, both linebackers are squared up and Izien has no good angle. The ball carrier does a nice job finding the crease and using his blocks. Avery has to angle and stop the play while three defenders are being blocked by two downfield linemen.

Avery trips the ball carrier three yards past the first down marker and Naijee Jones finally arrives from free safety two yards later to deliver a big hit before Izien wraps up to finally bring the ball carrier to the ground.

This is a great example of Delaware bringing a good play design to go against a Rutgers defensive tendency, often what we see from Sean Gleeson and the Rutgers offense. It also illustrates the risk-reward of slanting the defensive line because against certain playcalls, there are guaranteed gains in the run game. Rutgers needs their defensive linemen to be better in holding their ground and fight pressure long-term, but until then the attacking defense to force the action has vulnerabilities that could result in more plays like these. The play also highlights the importance of hustle from defensive backs and how important pursuit angles are at the second and third levels of defense. Yes this was a big gain, but not a 99 yard highlight TD run. The drive did not result in a touchdown as it could have if the DB took bad angles and/or lacked top end speed.

The second half featured a lot of rushing the ball by both teams but not much scoring as both defenses made some improvements at the half. With the game out of reach, I don’t want to put too much stock into anything overly specific past midway through the 3rd quarter.

Final score, Rutgers 45, Delaware 13.

Unsung Heroes

  1. Kessawn Abraham (three tackles, two pass break-ups) may longer be unsung with another solid performance, but the talent we saw from him on special teams continues to impress. He looks like a young McCourty out there just seemingly around the ball no matter where on the field it ends up, alongside Christian Izien. Abraham will be needed even more in the next few weeks.
  2. Tyshon Fogg. Fogg (five tackles) blew up blockers to disrupt plays a few times even when he did not make tackles. Getting off blocks and forcing offensive players to places they don’t want to go will be critical in Big Ten play. Fogg still does not look as healthy and fast as he did earlier in his career but with the depth at linebacker he can hopefully stay on the field all year without having to play every down.
  3. Johnny Langan. I have been a critic of Langan’s blocking early in the season (not surprising because he’s always been a quarterback) but he makes noticeable improvement week over week and has definitely passed Matt Alaimo as an inline tight end on the depth chart for this reason. Johnny added three catches for 42 yards. To put that in perspective, Rutgers Tight Ends in 2019 caught six passes ALL SEASON and only had 13 receptions last year. What makes it even more dangerous is gadget plays can come more out of nowhere since defenses can’t just key on him entering the field as a traditional QB.
  4. Second team offensive linemen. Troy Rainey and Bryan Felter in particular caught my eye using their size and strength to overwhelm the undersized Blue Hens defensive line. Rutgers played 13 offensive linemen and they all scored above average on Pro Football Focus. Do I expect that to be true in Big Ten play? No. But this is how you build depth and the only way to kill clock and roll up point totals in a blowout is if your backup O-Line can get push like they did. And just because certain guys start now doesn’t mean they won’t get passed on the depth chart by the end of 2021 or in 2022.

CAPTAIN OBVIOUS: For Rutgers to have chances against teams with superior talent, they will have to complete downfield throws and they showcased those on Saturday. That won’t matter if they get outfoxed by an opponent run game though since Rutgers doesn’t yet have elite talent to overcome tactical mistakes.

Reasons for pessimism: 1. Rushing defense has to be in proper alignment and understand their assignments because the defensive line lacks elite players to stop plays in the backfield without stunts and slants. 2. Rutgers is going into the Big House with serious depth issues at cornerback, which could hurt the perimeter run defense as much as in the pass game. 3. Rutgers could be an average Power Five team and still struggle to win a Big Ten East game, the division is playing that well right now. 4. Will the passing offense work without max protection? 5. Special teams won’t be able to manhandle opponents in the next three games like they did in the previous three.

Reasons for optimism: 1. You play who is on your schedule and Rutgers is 3-0. 2. Players who never seemed to improve under the previous staff have become contributors later in their careers which bodes well for player development generally. Naijee Jones deserves a shout out. 3. The ability to win with comfortable margins early in the season allowed some younger players to get reps. 4. Noah Vedral did Saturday what we had not seen from him since the Michigan game last year. 5. Special teams will probably win a game for Rutgers later this year. 6. Though Rutgers has never been clicking in each phase all at once, they have shown flashes in all aspects of a football game already.

Initial thoughts on Michigan: The Wolverines have cruised to a 3-0 record and a top 20 ranking. Defensively, their DB play has gone from abysmal to average. As a result, Rutgers may still have some success passing the ball, but don’t expect the coverage complete breakdowns we saw in 2020. Offensively, they rely on the run just as heavily as a year ago, but their passing game has been more reliable to ensure defenses can’t just play the run. The Wolverine offense has been more effective by staying within itself and it doesn’t hurt to have the best player on a team filled with four and five star recruits be an offensive lineman in Andrew Stueber.

Final thoughts

If you told me, or any other Rutgers fan, during any point in 2019 that Rutgers would be starting 2021 with a 3-0 record and heading to the Big House, everyone would have taken it no matter who those games were against. That’s how far the program has come and expectations have changed. Is Delaware a good measuring stick? From a scheme standpoint yes, but from an individual player standpoint, no. I’m glad I was able to attend the game and see the areas of the Rutgers team that struggled early in the year flash in the contest.

Looking to this upcoming week, don’t put too much stock into one game especially in a wild road environment. If Rutgers loses 28-21, it doesn’t mean they are going 9-3. If Rutgers loses 49-7, it doesn’t mean they are destined for 3-9 with certainty. The first major test of the season is always eye opening, so it’s not impossible for Rutgers to sneak a win, but don’t get your hopes up too much as a fan. So far this rebuild is slightly ahead of schedule so let’s just relish the opportunity for the Scarlet Knights to play in a nationally televised game on ABC with hope that even better days are ahead.