“We need to blitz more.”
This is something I hear a lot, especially after a USC loss. Doubly so after a loss that can be attributed back to a poor defensive performance like the one we saw against Stanford on Sept. 19th. However, in my experience, this is often a false statement. Many fans cannot accurately diagnose a blitz in real time but instead rely on after-the-fact analysis (ex: the QB got sacked and in watching the replay it is easily recognized as a blitz which caused the pressure). However, when a team blitzes a lot but is still unable to put consistent pressure, this often leads to many fans incorrectly clamoring for “more blitzes.”
First, let us look at some defensive numbers regarding the blitz during the USC vs Stanford game then we’ll take a look at some further analysis that may shine a better light on what happened on that long Saturday night.
A blitz is a high risk-high reward play. Typically, it is defined as any play that you send one or more more non-defensive linemen in to pressure on the offense’s side of the line of scrimmage. In the terms of a 3-4 defense (which USC employs), rushing the three defensive linemen and a single linebacker is often called a “Dog” scheme and is not considered a blitz. Here, we’ll simplify the definition of the blitz and count it as any time USC sent five or more defenders in as rushers (many other pressure concepts such as the zone blitz, twists, and stunts are ignored here for simplicity).
I rewatched the game and tracked 72 Stanford offensive plays (I didn’t count things like spiking the ball or kneels as plays). First, I want you to formulate a guess on how many of those plays USC sent in a blitz. Really think about the game and your game plan observations. Have a number ready? Initially, my gut feeling was about 20% blitzes, so 14 or 15 plays with a blitz.
In fact, the real number that I tracked was 43 blitz plays, or 59.7% of defensive plays sending five or more defenders in for the rush. Surprisingly high, I thought. Let’s take a closer look.
Of the 72 Stanford offensive plays, I noted 31 passes and 41 runs (note that I counted QB scrambles, sacks, and screen plays as passing plays whereas most official stats often track these as runs for college). Let’s look at some passing numbers first.
Blitzing the Pass
On the 31 passing plays, 12 were blitzes (38.7%). Against the blitz, Stanford gained 10.0 yards per pass against the blitz and 9.8 yards per pass against a non-blitz. Completion percentage wise, we’re looking at a 66.7% completion rate against the blitz (77.8% if you count the pass that hit the tight end in the hands as a “should have been completed”) versus an 85.7% completion rate against a non-blitz. Lower completion rate against the blitz but slightly higher yards, signifying they are making more yards when completing passes against the blitz.
Now let’s look at pressure against the pass. USC got three sacks but only one sack came from a blitz (9% of blitzing plays against the pass) and two from a non-blitz (11.8% of non-blitzing plays). Sacks aren’t the only end goal of the pass rush though. 54.5% of blitz plays resulted in the QB being pressured versus 35.3% of non-blitz plays. You can see this reflected in the completion percentages. Interestingly enough, “big blitzes” (sending six or more rushers in) resulted in no plays with pressure and no sacks.
Blitzing the Run
Now let’s look at the run. Against 41 running plays, 31 of those plays were blitzes (75.6%). Tracking blitzes on the run is trickier since upon reading a “run”, defenders go into their run fits and start filling gaps. Who is filling a gap and who was blitzing? I keyed in on the first step and initial attack movements of the defender to count the blitzes. There will be some inconsistencies with this method, namely delayed blitzes and zone blitzes may be miscounted for one reason or another, but we’ll just go with best guesses.
Against the blitz, Stanford gained 4.2 yards per carry versus 4.1 against a non-blitz. Sending the pressure did not result in less yards by Stanford. My initial thoughts are that USC’s linebackers were not able to penetrate the bigger Stanford offensive front on the run, regardless if they had forward momentum of the blitz or not. More on this later though.
A play is considered “successful” for the defense if they hold the offense under 50% of the yards-to-go on 1st down, 70% on 2nd down, and 100% on 3rd or 4th downs. I tracked whether a defensive play was successful or not in relation to the blitz.
Over the 72 plays, USC was successful in defending 33 of them (45.8%). When blitzing, USC was successful on 48.8% of defensive plays compared to 41.4% of non-blitzing plays. Not a huge difference between the two margins (about a 2 play difference). The interesting thing is how unsuccessful big blitzes were. Big blitzes only had a success rate of 15.8%.
So What Did Happen Against Stanford?
So USC blitzed on over half of their plays. Why were we so unsuccessful overall in stopping Stanford? My thoughts after re-watching the game are three-fold.
First, Stanford expected us to blitz. USC blitzed heavily in the week prior against Idaho and Stanford expected us to do the same against them. They utilized a number of techniques to combat the blitz, most notable being the QB rollout and screen passes. Additionally, Stanford would often times keep extra blockers (RBs and TEs) in for protection. On average, Stanford had 5.7 blockers in on each play, keeping at least the running back for protection on 66.7% of their plays. They kept two additional blockers in on 22.2% of their plays. On average, Stanford had 1.3 more pass blockers than we had pass rushers. On only 4 plays did USC have equal numbers of rushers to blockers. Additionally, the only time we had more rushers to blockers were screen plays, which is exactly what Stanford wanted. Against these screen plays, our rushers did not adjust properly towards the screen and we gave up big yards on key plays (10 yards on a 2nd and 15 as well as 19 yards on a 3rd and 7, both which lead to 2nd half Stanford scores). However, keeping extra blockers in means you have less passing options as you only have three or four guys out on routes. Which leads me to my second observation.
Stanford utilized size mismatches effectively. I noted at least two game-pivotal plays which size mismatches played a large role in our defensive breakdown on a blitzing play. The first on a 3rd and 9 on the USC 16 early in the 4th quarter. Here, Stanford expected our blitz (we sent in six) and kept the RB in for protection. They easily found the size mismatch they wanted with Safety Marvel Tell III (6′ 2″, 190 lbs) attempting to cover TE Austin Hooper (6′ 4″ 248 lbs). Hooper just used his body to easily box out Tell. In another notable play, USC sent in a big blitz of seven rushers, leaving one-on-one coverage. Stanford again predicted our blitz and negated this by calling a QB rollout, causing none of our rushers to pose any sort of threat to Hogan. Safety Chris Hawkins (5′ 11″, 190 lbs) attempted to cover Devon Cajuste (6′ 4″, 227 lbs) in the endzone. In this case, the wingspan and size advantage got us. By utilizing size mismatches, Stanford was able to mitigate some of the effects of having fewer receivers out on routes.
Finally, an observation defending the run. USC’s defense was often times in the correct position and gap responsibilities for the play, but would fall short on leverage and execution. What this means is that the USC defenders were getting to the right spots but losing their one-on-one battles consistently. We can quantify this by looking at yards after contact. Stanford gained an average of 4.1 yards per carry. Not great numbers, but it was four yards like clockwork. When you have that type of consistent four yards every rush, it leads to first downs and extended drives. It gets more interesting when you look at yards after contact. Stanford’s rusher made first contact with a defender at 1.6 yards on average. That means that after contact, Stanford would gain an additional 2.5 yards per carry. Much of this was simply the runner always falling forward. Often times, our defenders did not have the size, the leverage, or have their blockers beat enough to stop the runner in his tracks or drive him back and could essentially only trip the rusher. In my opinion, this was the greatest shortcoming of the defense.
Joe Paterno often said: “You’re never as good as you think you are when you win; and you’re never as bad as you feel when you lose.” I think those words ring true here. I’ve rewatched and analyzed a fair share of USC losses over the past few seasons. This one hurt a lot live but on film study it definitely wasn’t one of our worst. The issues I saw seemed fixable.
Furthermore, I think our defense is much more suited towards stopping speed rather than size. Most of the Pac-12 has gone speed, so we won’t need another “size” gameplan of this scale this season unless we have a rematch with Stanford again in the conference championship game, something that I think is completely achievable. There’s a reason why both ESPN’s Football Power Index and the S&P+ Rankings both still have USC in the top 10 and highest rated in the Pac-12. Let’s move forward and prove them right.
And remember, we didn’t need to blitz more…