Lost among the other high profile opening weekend games is a match up which could create the first major upset of the season. After scaring UCLA last season in Charlottesville, the Virginia Cavaliers will travel to the Rose Bowl where they will be more than a two touchdown underdog. No one expects them to so much as keep the game close, but they could win.
Last year UCLA was nearly a three touchdown favorite at Scott Stadium. In a typically messy opening game for both teams, Brett Hundley and the UCLA offense weren’t able to get on track all day. The Bruins only put up 358 yards, including just 116 yards on 39 rushes on the ground. The difference in the scoreboard was all caused by three second quarter defensive scores for UCLA.
In addition to scoring most all of the UCLA points, the Bruins defense had a great day stopping Virginia as well. The Cavaliers mustered just 120 yards on their 39 carries. When the UCLA offense couldn’t put the game away late, it was the defense who saved the day. Virginia had a first down at the UCLA 19 but couldn’t score or pick up a first down, and the Bruins ran out the clock. The UCLA defense bailed out an offense that was all but shut down by the Cavaliers.
This year, the storyline is going to be about defense, and if UVa is going to beat the Bruins, it will be about defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta and his particular brand of defense. Tenuta is known for his aggressive defenses that blitz as much or more than anyone else does. His stated aim is to keep the quarterback from setting his feet. The Cavaliers were successful with this strategy last year sacking fleet-footed Brett Hundley five times and forcing him to scramble all day.
A blitz, Tenuta’s signature tactic, is a term that every football fan knows and most can recognize one when they see it. Generally speaking a blitz is when a defender, other than a defensive lineman, rushes the passer and takes no coverage responsibility. The goal is to confuse or overwhelm the offensive line so that one or more of the rushers get to the quarterback before he can throw. Jon Tenuta’s philosophy is to get to the quarterback earlier, before he can set his feet to throw.
There are as many blitzes as there are stars in the sky and to diagram them all out would be a waste of time. The specifics of a particular blitz are not as important as the concepts and philosophy behind it. The primary concept is to simply out number and overwhelm the blockers by sending more defenders than the offense can block. At a minimum most offenses will have five offensive linemen to block.
Some blitzes, and some that Tenuta uses, send six arrayed across the line. When those six rush, they have get to the quarterback quickly because there are only five defenders left to cover the receivers. Rushing large numbers of defenders must be a surprise and be relatively rare. A defense cannot consistently rush over half of its defense to overwhelm the offense and not expect to yield too many big plays.
In addition to simply out numbering the offense, blitzes seek to confuse the linemen. They confuse by showing different fronts to the offense, meaning the the defense lines up differently each play. They further confuse the blocking assignments by changing their defensive responsibilities. A player lined up in a given position may rush the passer on one play, then line up in the same position and rush at a different angle or not rush at all.
Virginia likes to use their linebackers and ends to routinely create confusion. They will often line up on the line of scrimmage in a standing position; sometimes they come; sometimes they don’t. The offensive player responsible for blocking the outside linebackers, usually the tackle or tight end, has to wait to see if the linebacker is coming before anything else. If the linebacker isn’t coming, the tackle has to help an adjacent blocker or find someone else to block. A slow or incorrect decision by the tackle or tight end gives a tremendous advantage to the other rushing defenders.
The third blitz concept is leverage. It is impractical to simply outnumber the total number of blockers often. If a defense cannot outnumber all of the blockers, they can outnumber the blockers on one side or in the middle. This is when confusion is especially important. If the defense is well disciplined and the blitz is well disguised the offensive lineman won’t know where they are overwhelmed until the snap of the ball. At that point there is only so much adjusting they can do.
For example, a defense can choose to rush only five men, but bring four from one side of the formation. In most offensive sets the offense will not have four blockers available on both sides. The defense will attack the side without the resources to handle the rush. The defense now can overwhelm one side of the offensive formation and at the same time have adequate bodies available for pass coverage.
Offenses have countermeasures to respond to the blitzing defender. The offense an add additional blockers in the form of tight ends and running backs to offset any numerical disadvantages. Then the offense can vary its protection schemes so the defense isn’t sure who is blocking who.
The greatest weapon the offense has is its play call. It can call plays against which a blitz is ineffective. Those plays can call for the quarterback to release the ball before a blitz can get there. He can take a one or three step drop and throw to a quick route, such as a fade or slant. Then there are plays which take advantage of the blitz, like the draw or the screen. The draw is designed to allow the quarterback or running back to run past rushing defenders. The screen is designed for the defense to rush as many players as it would like and then throw to a player right behind them. The more aggressive a defense is playing, the more effective the screen will be.
UCLA didn’t throw many screens last season, but they probably will this year. The screen pass will be an easy throw for first year quarterback Josh Rosen. It’s short and can allow him to gain confidence or get into a rhythm which he may need at some point on Saturday.
In last year’s game Jon Tenuta lived up to every bit of his his reputation by calling aggressive defenses and blitzes. While most defenses rush four most of the time and sometimes bring more or less, Tenuta consistently brought five and sometimes brought six. (Occasionally he only brought four as well to keep the offense honest.)
On a key fourth down in the fourth quarter, Virginia blitzed to stop the Bruins. The play is illustrative of what UVa did last year and will try to do again this year. UCLA needed one yard. The Bruins set up in a four wide receiver formation and then motioned the running back out of the backfield to create a five wide formation. Notice the Virginia linebackers and defensive ends standing. There are four defenders capable of quickly and easily dropping into coverage or rushing. It is unclear to the lineman who is coming and who is dropping into coverage.
Virginia responded with man to man coverage. Unlike the zone blitzes which are popular with many coordinators today, Tenuta often runs a more traditional man coverage behind his blitzes. There is no safety in the middle of the field, so this is pure man to man defense with no help.
UCLA called an out route to the slot at the top of the formation and a hitch to the bottom of the formation. Virginia’s blitz got to UCLA quarterback Hundley quickly, but it appears there may have been a draw option as well. It was a reasonable play call, and the out route and hitch were reasonably open.
At the snap Virginia brought six, an aggressive call in any scenario, but especially on 4th and 1. As soon as Hundley has the ball it’s clear the Cavaliers have the Bruins out numbered and the ball had to come out of his hands quickly. Look at the left side, helpfully delineated by the goal post in the image below, for the three on two advantage UVa created. They have leverage and numerical superiority. Look at the center’s play. He is confused and is going to go behind the guard to block someone on the right side of the frame. No one blocks the #3 defender (32 Mike Moore).
The out route to the top of the formation breaks open for a first down, but before Hundley can set his feet to make that throw the defenders are upon him, and he is sacked. Moore gets there first as several other defenders are getting off their one on one blocks.
This is exactly how a Tenuta blitz is supposed to work. Even though there was a receiver open, the blitz made it to the quarterback before he could do anything about it.
If Virginia is going to pull the upset their best chance is to take advantage of the true freshman UCLA quarterback. Last season UVa faced an experienced quarterback who was being talked of as a Heisman contender. Hundley took five sacks and had the experience to know not to turn the ball over and make bad situations worse. The result was that UCLA’s offense was stopped most of the day.
This year there isn’t a veteran quarterback to remain calm amongst the Virginia blitzes. Of all the match-ups on the field, Tenuta’s schemes against a freshman’s inexperience is where Virginia has the greatest advantage. Luckily for the Hoos creating pressure and forcing mistakes is the bedrock principal of their defense. Last season they were able to use that philosophy to cover the 20 point spread, and but for three second quarter turnovers, they would have probably won the game.
Virginia’s blitzes will have to get home (pressure or sack the quarterback before he can make a good decision and throw) against a veteran UCLA offensive line. If Virginia’s veteran defensive line and inexperienced, but athletic linebackers can pressure Rosen early, they may be able to force some mistakes and could be on the receiving end of all the defensive scoring they had to endure last season.