NoleGameday

Film Review: FSU’s Defense vs Ole Miss Part 1

Florida State opened the season with a lot of hype. Billed as a national championship contender, part of the reason why analysts and media were so high on the Seminoles was their defense. Despite losing Jalen Ramsey to the NFL Draft, they had recruited at an elite level and were loaded with talent. Some even proclaimed that the 2016 defense could rival the 2013 national title defense that Florida State had.

One game into the season and Ole Miss exposed a lot of issues that would plague Florida State throughout the rest of the season.

Chad Kelly and the Rebels’ offense picked apart the Seminoles at will, scoring 28 points in the first half before Florida State was able to mount a comeback. They looked confused on defense, often leaving receivers running wide open or missing easy tackles. There were times when two players were covering the same zone, which allowed an Ole Miss receiver to get open easily. Other times, two players did not communicate and blitzed at the same time, which freed up a man open deep.

Despite the fact that Florida State would emerge with a win, a lot of the issues that the Seminoles experienced in this game would come to haunt them in loses to Louisville and North Carolina down the line.

Let’s take a look at the film and see what we can learn on the defensive side of the ball from their opening matchup with the Rebels.

1st quarter, 14:40, 3rd and 4

At the snap, we can see that Marcus Lewis and Derwin James are furiously running over to the field side in an obvious miscommunication with the sideline. Florida State is actually still looking to the sideline for the call as Ole Miss is lining up. Keep in mind, this is the third offensive play that Ole Miss runs this game. The Seminoles know that they are facing an up-tempo offense yet are clearly unprepared between plays. There is not time to look to the sideline for the call when Ole Miss is snapping the ball with 31 seconds left on the play clock.

After running over to the correct side of the field, Lewis runs to cover the flat zone. However, Marquez White is already covering that zone. This means two defenders are covering the same zone. No one, be it either Lewis or James, drops into the deep zone, which means that the slot receiver breaks open on an easy curl route for a big gain. Luckily, Matt Thomas tracks him down and saves the touchdown.

1st quarter, 13:49, 1st and 10

This is a well designed play by Ole Miss. Florida State has man coverage across the board and Ro’Derrick Hoskins is 1-on-1 versus Evan Engram, their talented tight end. Play action draws Hoskins’ eyes into the backfield and, as he takes a step forward, he loses Engram in coverage. The more athletic tight end breaks open and gets a big gain before being knocked out by Trey Marshall.

Man coverage across the board. With Ole Miss running up-tempo, Florida State has no choice but to call man coverage instead of the complex pattern-match zone scheme that they’d like to run. Unfortunately, this matches Hoskins against Engram in a 1-on-1 matchup. Engram likely wins this matchup ten times out of ten and his athletic ability far surpasses Hoskins’ coverage abilities.

Play action is ultimately Hoskins’ downfall on this play. He steps forward to account for the ball fake, which allows just enough separation between him and Engram that the tight end is able to get open downfield. Above, we can see Hoskins’ eyes in the backfield just as Engram’s route is beginning to open up. Kelly could throw him open right now, but he waits a tick longer in order for Engram to get further upfield for a first down before getting knocked out by Marshall.

1st quarter, 13:18, 2nd and Goal

Touchdown, Ole Miss. Kelly hits Stringfellow on the slant route, who is covered by McFadden. To be fair, the slant route on the goal line is a very tough route to cover. Even McFadden, who is listed at 6-2, 198-pounds, can’t get inside leverage on the bigger Stringfellow in order to break up this pass. McFadden is also playing off coverage and doesn’t get a hand on the receiver until it’s too late.

The call again is man coverage across the board. Marshall also comes on a blitz, meaning no one has safety help. This means every defender in coverage has one job: don’t get beat.

Ole Miss targets this perfectly. First, Kelly takes the snap and takes a step to the right, faking the option look to the running back. With Hoskins in man coverage against the back, he also starts to flow to the right. With Marshall coming on a blitz as well, this completely opens up the left side of the field where Kelly is looking in the graphic above. From there, it’s just an easy pitch and catch for the touchdown. Neither Marshall nor Hoskins are there to get in the passing lane to break up the catch.

1st quarter, 7:19, 3rd and 7

On the flip side, this is actually a third down play that Florida State does a good job of stopping and getting off the field. DeMarcus Walker gets pressure from an interior pass rushing position, using his signature swim move to neutralize the offensive guard and get into the backfield. Flushed out of the pocket and with no options downfield, Kelly is forced to scramble. But Jacob Pugh is waiting and makes the easy tackle on the quarterback.

Florida State shows five rushers at the line of scrimmage but only brings four. James and Sweat overload the left side of the line, which forces Kelly to scramble to his right when he is flushed by Walker. Pugh doesn’t even move at the snap, instead of keeping his eyes on the quarterback and in the backfield. Upon scrambling, Pugh easily diagnoses and makes the layup tackle on Kelly for a stop on third down.

2nd quarter, 13:30, 1st and 10

Ro’Derrick Hoskins leaves with an injury, so Florida State subs in walk-on linebacker Nick Patti at the MIKE position. This is one of the first plays that he’s in for. Ole Miss recognizes the mismatch and targets him immediately. Engram sneaks in behind the linebackers for a big gain.

On the snap, Patti instinctively steps up which creates a huge void in the area behind him. Meanwhile, Matthew Thomas is fooled by the running back out on the flare route. Engram does a great job of selling the block before breaking open on the route. Thomas, seeing Engram blocking and the running back out on the flare, scrambles and leaves his zone. Patti is way too far up to disrupt this pass and Engram easily runs for a big gain.

2nd quarter, 11:09, 2nd and 15

How does a backup tight end get open like that in the middle of the field? Well, that’s what happens when Hoskins and James allow him a free release and don’t attempt to trail or follow him into the deep middle. Marshall is also playing a deep zone, but his coverage responsibilities require him to move to the right side of the field, where the wide receiver is running deep. This takes him out of the middle and frees up a void which James fails to step into to disrupt the passing lane.

The call here is likely some form of Cover 2. We can see that with Lewis playing the flat zone while Marshall moves to the deep third. This frees up the middle of the field, where a player like James would likely be tasked with covering. At the top of the screen, it seems that Taylor and McFadden have man concepts.

At the apex of this play, we can see that James has his eyes into the backfield rather than attempting to trail the tight end. Kelly sees this and easy slings it downfield to the tight end, who is wide open for a huge gain on first down.

2nd quarter, 10:46, 2nd and 15

This is a tight end screen all the way. Kelly and some of the offensive linemen flow to the right, which in turn causes the entire cavalry of Florida State pass rushers (all six of them!) to flow that way as well. Luckily, Thomas recognizes the designed screen and stays home to make an enormous tackle for loss.

The call here is straight man across the board. James comes on a blitz from the right side, next to Walker. In actuality, this is a well-designed play by Ole Miss to counter the blitz. What they would like to happen is get the defense flowing out to the right, and then throw back to Engram with a couple of blockers out in front.

With the defense flowing to the right, a pair of Ole Miss blockers begin to set up the screen. But Thomas has his eyes on Engram the entire way and snuffs it out. In the graphic above, we can see that Thomas actually barely moves from his initial position before exploding forward to make the stop.

Kelly makes a mistake on this play. If he waits a tick longer and sees that Thomas is covering the screen, he would see that he has a receiver breaking open on the play. At the stop of the screen, White has man coverage against this receiver. But he recognizes that a screen is being set up and abandons his coverage. If Kelly checks the middle of the field quickly, he probably hits this receiver for a touchdown. While White’s gamble worked, this is a risky strategy.

2nd quarter, 9:47, 3rd and 15

To be fair, this is a perfect throw from Kelly. He fits in right over the linebacker (Thomas), in front of the safety (Marshall) and in stride for his receiver to score a touchdown. The margin for error here is slim. Too low and Thomas gets a hand on it. Too far behind and Marshall might nab an interception.

The problem with this play isn’t the touchdown throw by Kelly or even the coverage by Thomas and Marshall. Let’s take a slower look to see what goes wrong.

The problem with this play arises because both James and Taylor blitz, leaving the slot receiver completely uncovered. In the post-game, Jimbo Fisher mentioned that Thomas’ original role was to cover the running back out of the backfield, but he had to abandon that and cover deep because they had a few receivers running free.

Take a look at another angle.

It seems that one of James or Taylor was supposed to cover the slot receiver running free, but there was a miscommunication and both blitzed. Kelly actually made the tougher throw, opting to throw over the linebacker instead of easily tossing it to the guy running free.

2nd quarter, 4:16, 3rd and 10

This highlights the key weakness when playing straight man coverage against a mobile quarterback. Watch as the middle of the field slowly gets wide open for Kelly to run through. With the receivers running out-breaking routes, there is no one left in the middle to stop Kelly and he scrambles for a first down in a situation where the defense needs to get off the field. A slow-developing stunt by the interior rushers also doesn’t help their case.

Despite playing a nine-man front, the out-breaking routes slowly open up the middle of the field for Kelly. This is the big weakness for playing man coverage against a mobile quarterback. Unless you sacrifice a deep defender and commit him to a spy role, you are left defenseless when he scrambles. At that point, every defender’s back is turned to the quarterback and a first down run is almost guaranteed.

2nd quarter, 3:31, 1st and 10

Miscommunication and mental errors are unforgivable mistakes. On this play, Florida State only has 10 men on the field. Marshall, recognizing that there is an uncovered receiver, rushes over to play straight man coverage on him. The receiver easily beats him with a double move and gets open for a big gain.

What makes this error even more confusing is that the play before this was a defensive pass interference penalty from Marcus Lewis. The play clock was stopped and Florida State has at least three minutes to figure out their next defensive play. Obviously, there was a miscommunication somewhere and only 10 men lined up on the field.

Let’s count them together.

Stay tuned for part two, which will debut next week.

Dakota Moyer
Florida State student and writer for NoleGameday.

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