The Gophers’ defense executed a dramatic turnaround with interim defensive coordinator Joe Rossi orchestrating the scheme. Entering last Saturday’s 41-10 win over Purdue, Minnesota’s third down defense was struggling, players missed tackles and linebackers were playing undisciplined. The Gophers had surrendered 31 total scoring plays at an average length of 35 yards. Opponents were also converting on third down at more than a 50 percent clip in several blowout losses.
Entering the game, Purdue boasted a surging and dynamic offense that averaged 36 points per game. Gophers’ defensive coordinator Robb Smith was fired early in the week and the matchup looked extremely lopsided.
However, several key adjustments by interim defensive coordinator Joe Rossi helped the Gophers put together a strong performance. At one point, Purdue had -2 rushing yards in the fourth quarter. Minnesota also did not surrender an offensive play over 17 yards. How does a defense bounce back this quickly?
It starts with a few subtle adjustments.
First, the Gophers used more zone coverage in the second level, which drastically helped their linebackers. One of the themes in past games has been the usage of motion by opponents to get Minnesota’s linebackers out of alignment. Eye discipline has been a problem, so Minnesota countered by playing more zone. In the past, the Gophers were playing deep off-coverage on the outside and had poor man-to-man matchups with linebackers. By dropping the linebackers at the snap, it helped lock down Purdue’s running game, while taking away intermediate routes. The space provided by playing more zone allowed Minnesota’s linebackers additional time to read and react, too.
By having a deeper depth, Minnesota took away the crossing concepts Purdue had executed really well in the past. Not only that, but it gave more space for the linebackers to read and react with their eyes. Instead of needing to be in the perfect gap and relying upon the secondary to make plays, the linebackers could focus on reading their keys. In the past, deception was killing Minnesota’s defense and it was much better in this game. In addition, the weight of the world wasn’t placed upon the backend either because there was more help in the middle portions of the field. Tackling safeties are important when defending spread offenses and it’s why providing more coverage help in the second-level might be advantageous in the future. This video provides some visuals and analysis:
With more time to read their keys and stay in the correct alignment, the secondary did not need to make extremely difficult “one man to beat” tackles in space. The team also used Florida transfer Chris Williamson in an extended role in the slot. He was tasked with keeping Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore in check. Minnesota aligned him against Moore and limited the amount of 1-on-1 matchups where a slot wide receivers was aligned against a linebacker in man coverage. This has been a problem in the past and was a reflection of scheme problems and limited personnel options. The rise of Williamson brings quality coverage ability and overall physicality to the Minnesota secondary. It’s something they haven’t had much of since Antoine Winfield Jr. was lost for the season.
Another thing that also helped the linebackers was the fact Minnesota lowered the overall usage of deep off-coverage in the secondary. When they did utilize it, the depth was lowered from 10-plus yards down to seven. The combination of lowering defensive back depth and helping the linebackers through scheming, limited the amount of poor angles and open rushing lanes on the edge. When they have time to read and react, Minnesota’s linebackers possess the range to make plays. It was evident during Blake Cashman’s dominating performance on Saturday. In the past, linebackers were getting washed up gaps and defensive backs were playing so far off the line of scrimmage. This forced the secondary to consistently make tough tackles on the outside. By adjusting these two variables, the entire defense improved their alignments, angles and tackling. All of the big plays weren’t funneled to the backend and the linebackers’ responsibilities were simplified.
It also took a strain off defensive backs who were feeling the effects of teams using bunch sets and running power to the edge. In the past, they had to make really difficult plays in space. With Williamson helping in the secondary and linebackers in better coverage situations, Purdue didn’t have as many intermediate passing options. It also improved the pursuit angles of backend defensive players like Jacob Huff because linebackers were in the correct alignment. The tackling fundamentals were better and part of this was related to each level of the defense being in more advantageous positions.
Minnesota also widened the alignments of defensive ends to naturally hold the edge. By lining up in a wider nine-technique, the Gophers managed to force running plays back inside or extend them to the boundary. All of these little tweaks helped simplify many of the responsibilities by players at each level of Minnesota’s defense. This allowed each player to read, react and play fast within the system. With more space in the second-level to react, the overall amount of unfavorable situations was limited.
The final key variable that helped the Gophers’ defense was related to the team’s third down scheming. They often lined up in the Double-A gap package made famous by Minnesota Vikings’ head coach Mike Zimmer. These type of sets are the exact way this team can manufacture pressure. Entering the game, just one true defensive lineman outside of Carter Coughlin had produced a sack. Minnesota needed to utilize the profiles they had in the front-seven to get after the quarterback.
The Gophers ran the Double-A gap look with Blake Cashman and Kamal Martin “sugaring” the A-gaps. They didn’t really send the pressure all that much, but sometimes bluffed and dropped the linebackers deep. In one instance, both Cashman and Martin dropped into coverage, but Martin stunted to the outside. As rush end Carter Coughlin crashed hard inside, there was a free run at the quarterback. The video below highlights more of these packages, but Minnesota was far more creative in pass rushing downs. This allowed them to get pressure they were normally unable to receive before. The coaches also had more options because the team managed to prevent big running plays in early down situations. With Purdue in longer down and distance positions, the coaches could unleash more exotic pressures.
It wasn’t just the Double A-gap pressure, either.
By tweaking interior and exterior alignments, Minnesota caused headaches for Purdue’s offensive line. The coaches heavily rotated interior players such as Jerry Gibson, Esezi Otomewo and Boye Mafe. With those players in the game, Minnesota would occasionally line them up at the three technique and run stunts or twists inside. This required the Purdue offensive line to communicate well and pass off responsibilities. They were unable to do this consistently as Mafe won twice with his hand technique and footwork. The rotation of different player profiles and the subtle alignment tweaks helped Minnesota confuse Purdue offensively. It also forced quick throwaways or errant passes on a consistent basis. In combination with these packages, the Gophers occasionally played press-man on the outside, which gave the defensive front enough time to get home. This is also rather effective because the wide receivers are forced to earn separation, especially on routes breaking to the boundary.
Overall, several small adjustments and personnel tweaks helped the Gophers simplify their defense. P.J. Fleck indicated the team had the goal of playing “simple, sound and fast” defensively. By focusing on execution, the entire defense benefited. Leaving more room for the linebackers to work, adjusting coverage depths and using exotic pressure helped the coaches take advantage of the players they currently have on the roster.