Football Defensive Film Review: Defending the Tight End Over the Middle

Alternatively: middle linebacker zone coverage responsibilities are not easy

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As I noted yesterday, I mostly thought Cal played solid defense against Carson Strong and Nevada. Cal largely controlled the Nevada run game and forced the Nevada passing game into more than their share of incomplete passes. But obviously, the Wolfpack moved the ball enough to win the game, so it’s worth looking at what worked and didn’t work.

Nevada spent lots of time attacking Cal down the sidelines, either by trying to find the soft spot between a corner and a safety, or more frequently by challenging Cal’s cornerbacks to defend down the field in man coverage.

Once, Nevada clearly won the battle - when Romeo Doubs beat Collin Gamble deep for Nevada’s first touchdown, a 43 yard bomb that Strong was able to step into because he wasn’t pressured.

But other than that, I thought Cal actually defended the deeper sideline routes pretty well. Chigozie Anusium had a couple of solid breakups, and the only other long pass given away was on this perfect Strong throw:

This screencap is taken the moment the ball arrives. The only thing Anusium could have done better on this play would be to grow 6 inches taller, but it’s not like he’s particularly undersized at 6’1’’. It was a perfect, NFL level throw. And it came on 3rd and nine from midfield, so it basically was the difference between a punt and a touchdown drive.

When stuff like that happens, all you can do is scream into the void and move on. But there were other things that Nevada was able to exploit - specifically, the gap between Cal’s middle linebackers and safeties over the middle.

Nevada tight end Cole Turner tallied 7 catches for 75 yards, and that production probably represents the most ‘preventable’ thing that Nevada did to move down the field. Just a few plays prior to that perfect sidelines bomb, Nevada converted a 3rd and 15. Here’s the video of one example that stood out:

Here’s the presnap look:

Nevada has two WRs to the top and the bottom, with one RB to the right. A pretty standard air raid formation, with the eventual pass catcher, Turner, in the slot to the bottom of the screen. Cal counters with a 2-4-5 nickel, with Goode and Deng joining the down linemen showing pass rush. From the looks of it, the three cornerbacks pushing towards the line of scrimmage are each assigned to the closest receiver, but pre-snap it’s not clear if Cal will be playing man or zone, and who is assigned to the tight end in the slot.

And indeed, immediately after the snap Cal’s two DLs and two OLBs all rush the passer. Cal has seven men in coverage against four targets:

But we’re still trying to answer the question: who is responsible for Turner? The answer? Nobody, specifically. Cal’s ILBs are in zone coverage, and they’re going to have to cover whomever enters their zone. Turner initially runs towards Evan Tattersall:

At least initially, Tattersall’s responsibility in the image above seems clear to us: cover Turner. He’s closest to the Nevada tight end. But Tattersall moves towards the line of scrimmage, which made no sense to me as I watched the play . . . until I noticed the Nevada running back leak out into the flat on a shallow route. Tattersall almost certainly was assessing his responsibility to cover a route run to his side by the RB. He lets Turner pass him by:

Presumably then, coverage responsibility would pass to Mo Iosefa, the ILB in the middle of the field above Tattersall. Unfortunately, Iosefa either doesn’t ID his responsibility, or is late to react. Strong hits Turner in the chest for the long first down conversion:

Where, you might ask, are Cal’s two safeties? Well, Daniel Scott and Elijah Hicks both started the play presnap about 12-13 yards back from the line of scrimmage, and backpedaled to about 20 yards deep, before moving forward when they saw the ball go to Turner. Here’s where they are immediately post-catch:

So what do we take away from play, and others like it? Well, while it’s not exactly a complicated play (hey, tight end, go run a seam route in between middle linebacker short zones), it’s effective. Challenging linebackers in coverage is a pretty common air raid tactic, and Nevada did it successfully a few times. Cal’s defensive schemes ask a lot of their middle linebackers, and younger guys are going to have their bumps.

On this particular play, I might question why Cal plays their safeties so deep. While I do understand that Nevada has proven both on film and in this exact game that they can go deep, it’s a bitter pill to swallow to give up a pretty routine 17 yard catch on 3rd and 15 and have your safeties both so deep that they can’t even impact the play. And it’s also asking a lot of your middle linebackers.

I think Cal rightly puts a lot of faith in their mostly veteran CBs and safeties, and I think they largely played quite well against a tough offense. If Cal can get their ILB zone coverage sorted out, they will field a very strong passing defense this year, but Nevada showed that there are a few kinks to work out.