UCLA Football Defensive Preview

"I mean, listen: We talking about defense. Not a game. Not a game. Not a game. We talking about defense. Not a game... Not the game. We talking about defense, man." --Chip Kelly, probably.

You know how a lot of teams like to play “bend, not break” defense? Not UCLA. UCLA likes to bring the house, get sacks, and rush the quarterback into making mistakes. UCLA bets on their defensive line to create havoc in the backfield before their pass defense can get exposed. UCLA has the worst pass defense in the Pac-12, giving up an average of 272.5 yards per game, but they’re 2nd in the conference in rush defense giving up just 127.4 rushing yards per game. Brief aside here, but the best rushing defense in the conference? Your California Golden Bears at 122.0 rushing yards per game. And that’s important, because UCLA has lost nearly every game under Chip Kelly in which they are held to 200 rushing yards or less.

No one runs more cover-0 blitzes (meaning, zero deep defenders, with receivers in single man coverage) than UCLA does:

This is the complete opposite of “bend, not break”: one good play here and it’s likely a catch and run for a touchdown. It’s the same philosophy defending the run game as well, bring a ton of defenders on run blitzes to swallow up the run, which obviously leaves the passing game exposed:

Although I talked about how good UCLA’s running backs were yesterday, take a look at how the other top rushing defenses in the Pac-12 fared against UCLA’s run game: 3rd in the conference is Oregon (held UCLA to 110 rushing yards), 4th is Utah (held UCLA to 146 rushing yards), and 5th is ASU (held UCLA to 200 rushing yards); all of those games being losses for UCLA. UCLA’s defense is 9th in the conference in total yards per game (only USC, Colorado, and Stanford are worse), and 9th in points given up per game (bested only by Stanford, USC, and Arizona).

That is to say, I’m expecting Cal to be engaged in some higher scoring battles in theses next few games.

Defensive line

Not surprisingly, the front-7 is the strength of this defense, and one of the best in the conference (behind, say, Utah).

Anchoring the defensive line is the nose tackle, Otito Ogbonnia. Ogbonnia is just a people-mover, helping to collapse the pocket as he drives his offensive lineman back into the quarterback.

It’s not the most glamorous job, but having someone who can eat double teams on the defensive line opens up lanes for other pass rushers coming in on the blitz and so on.

Similarly, in the next clip, the backup nose tackle Jay Toia gets a good push against the double team, allowing DT Tyler Manoa to make a play on the quarterback:

Of course Jay Toia, the USC transfer, does his best work when his opponents are small female students stuck in an elevator. But don’t worry, UCLA punished him very harshly for the incident, and by “very harshly” I mean “not at all.”

UCLA’s most impactful interior lineman is probably the defensive tackle Datona Jackson. Jackson is the team leader in sacks, which was actually a bit surprising to me given how often UCLA brings pressure from the edge. It’s impressive the way the UCLA defensive linemen treat their opposing blockers as mere speed bumps on their way to the quarterback:

Here DT Datona Jackson gets a good push on the center to clear a path for the sack on QB Tanner McKee:

The UCLA defensive line will create havoc in the backfield. Here the backup defensive tackle Odua Isibor strips the quarterback from behind for a forced fumble:

Linebackers

I almost wanted to include the outside linebackers as part of the defensive line, as they are rushing the quarterback so often that they’re practically an extension of the defensive line anyway. The outside linebackers/edge rushers are the players that really shine for UCLA. The primary edge rusher, Mitchell Agude, is already tied for UCLA’s all-time leader in forced fumbles despite playing just 17 games for them. Agude is an excellent pass rusher and tackler in run support, although he will need to improve his pass coverage skills if he is going to have a chance at the next level. He’s got great speed as a pass rusher:

And even on the rare occasions he is well-blocked, he can still manage to make a play:

On the other end of the line is Bo Calvert, another solid pass rusher, albeit a bit less reliable in run support.

This next one is just a really well-designed play by UCLA, resulting in multiple LSU offensive linemen standing around not doing all that much:

In general, UCLA does a good job of bringing creative blitzes and disguising where the pressure is coming from.

Another player who shows up all over the field is the backup outside linebacker, Carl Jones Jr. He’s not the biggest guy, but he uses his speed effectively to beat bigger and slower offensive linemen:

Here’s another good example of that:

Here he does a good job of tracking run-first QB Isaiah Sanders in the backfield:

The inside linebackers are a bit less to write home about. Caleb Johnson is probably the best in coverage, but he has a lot of missed tackles to his name. Jordan Genmark Heath is a sure tackler, but not very good in coverage.

Here, Caleb Johnson gets through the blocks by the offensive line out wide while Jordan Genmark Heath chases down the running back from behind to get the 4th down stop:

There is also the linebacker Ale Kaho, who played three seasons at Alabama (mainly on special teams). I’ve mainly noticed him for making a couple of big hits on the ball carrier.

So although UCLA is pretty good at rushing the quarterback and stuffing the ball carrier, they struggle when forced into pass coverage situations.

Secondary

Let’s start with the player who creates the most disruption in the secondary—a man whose name I’m pretty sure is a violation of the Geneva Convention on Spelling—the safety/nickelback Qwuantrezz Knight. Knight is actually the leader in tackles for loss for the UCLA defense, because—surprise, surprise—he’s rushing the passer far more than any other member of the secondary.

Qwuantrezz Knight isn’t particularly good in pass coverage, but here he lays a big hit on the running back to break up the pass on 4th down:

UCLA’s best defender in coverage is probably the safety, Quentin Lake. Here, Utah runs a clever play to turn UCLA’s aggression against them (check out the linebackers immediately back-pedaling once they realize it’s a pass), although Utah QB Cam Rising throws this pass a hitch too late, allowing Quentin Lake to recover and break up the pass:

UCLA actually does have some individually-talented defenders in the secondary—namely, Quentin Lake and Jay Shaw—it’s just that UCLA is rushing the passer so often that the members of the secondary are often left on an island in single-man coverage, which is asking a lot of your defensive backs throughout an entire game.

Here Quentin Lake makes a fantastic individual play for the interception:

And here Lake reads the play the entire way, although he negates his own interception by lining up offsides:

Here Lake sticks closely to TE Cade Otton in order to break up the potential touchdown pass:

UCLA’s best cover corner is Jay Shaw. Shaw is having a breakout season this year, as he’s gone from a defensive liability in the past to their most reliable defender in coverage:

Here’s yet another play which I’d pin on the quarterback for throwing the ball late, allowing the UCLA secondary to recover:

You might not always see it on TV, but even the best corners get beat; you usually only notice if the quarterback also happens to throw in their direction. A lot of the UCLA secondary’s positive plays are when they get beat initially, but the quarterback throws a suboptimal pass which allows the secondary to recover. Again, this is because the UCLA defense is asking a ton of their secondary, not that the players in the secondary are necessarily bad (unlike, say, USC).

In the following play, the corner Cameron Johnson does a great job of using the boundary to leave the QB very little room to throw, and results in the wide receiver playing defense to break up the interception:

The backup to Qwuantrezz Knight is the former running back Martell Irby. Here Irby uses his speed to beat the right guard for Stanford for a TFL on the running back:

I don’t have anything notable (or positive) to say about the rest of the secondary, e.g. safety Stephan Blaylock, corner Obi Eboh (the Stanford transfer), etc.

The freshman corner Devin Kirkwood is the player currently getting picked on the most by opposing quarterbacks:

Conclusion

UCLA is going to bring a ton of pressure, but there are few quarterbacks with more experience staying calm under pressure than Chase Garbers. UCLA often brings so much pressure that it leaves their backside exposed (reminiscent of that 84 yard completion to Trevon Clark last week), betting that their defensive line can get to the quarterback before receivers can get open downfield. And although UCLA is good at stopping the run—2nd in the conference—Cal is better, and the #3, #4, and #5 rushing defense teams all shut down the UCLA run game to win. I have to imagine that this game will be a more high-scoring affair than usual. Cal’s defense will have their hands full, and Garbers will need to be ready to face a ton of pressure Saturday night.

Go Bears.