Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Mobile Units | by George

The Fantastic Four of Section29 has arrived. (Note: please, do not sue us for copyright infringement, Walt Disney Company...)

#4 - Get The Line Moving, or the QB Will


Notre Dame and the running quarterback - a bad joke that's been getting delivered over, and over, and over again. Whether it's been the stocky, elusive frames of Troy Smith (above) & JaMarcus Russell, or the deceptively fast Drew Stanton, the triple options of Navy & Air Force, or some cement-foot pocket passer breaking out for an old-fashioned busted play big gain, it seems that some of the most comfortable positions for an opposing QB have been out of the pocket when playing against the Irish. This hasn't been a unique problem under Weis - running quarterbacks have killed Notre Dame often in the last decade or two.

If the current head coach is yet to come up with a solution for this, it hasn't been due to a lack of effort or concentration. After the second of two straight bowl losses when a failure to corral the quarterback led to disastrous results, Weis overhauled the defense behind Corwin Brown and a fundamental shift into a "3-4 personnel" dynamic that provided some positive results but still left ND a middle-of-the-pack defensive unit. On came Jon Tenuta and his blitz-at-all-costs persona to shake things up in 2008. The Irish dialed up pressure from the inside, outside, and all points in between, but the results were far from legendary - the Irish picked up 27 sacks, but that was up only marginally from the previous year (20) when you consider how much more they blitzed. What's more, after the Michigan game last season the Irish never really faced those QBs with "escapability" save for Midshipmen in mid-November.

Now in 2009 comes the return of the dual-threat quarterback. The Irish have 1,000 yard runner Colin Kapernick on Saturday out of the Nevada Wolfpack's "Pistol" offense, then year two of the Rich Rodriguez Experience up at Michigan (whether they've been over-practicing it or not, Rich Rod's teams always see an exponential jump in productivity during the second year). A few weeks after marks the arrival of Jake Locker (assuming he's still vertical by then) from Washington, who took Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors in 2007 while rushing for just under 1000 yards. Throw in the usual date with the USNA, and also consider how USC might for the first time under Pete Carroll have a true "mobile" QB in Aaron Corp, though reports indicate he's all but lost the job to freshman phenom Matt Barkley. Toss in Stanford (not exactly a spread offense but one that prefers a QB with some legs) and you have an opposing slate with a lot of unique challenges that need to be met with equal parts pressure and discipline.

Pressure, of course, is Jon Tenuta's favorite thing. If you told me he sings the Billy Joel song every night before he goes to bed, I would not be shocked in the slightest. Now that's he's officially the defensive coordinator alongside "assistant head coach" Corwin Brown, I figure to see his signature move - BLITZ!!! - even more, if that's somehow possible.

Now, moving the chess pieces around is all well and good, but it's worth taking a look at what kind of opponent you're facing before defaulting to the "blitz everybody on every down" approach. Football evolves just like everything else - the spread-option offenses favored by coaches like Rodriguez are a direct counter to the aggressive defenses favored by Tenuta because it plays directly into the likelihood that a little bit of misdirection (and a lot of mobility) will catch those overzealous blitzers out of position. Back in the dark ages of the 1980s/90s it was screen pass and precise timing routes of the West Coast offense that came about to counter the blitz, now it's a new breed of quarterback running the veers and counters from what looks on the surface like a pass-happy offense.

Essentially, it won't be enough to see a QB running all over the place when going against Tenuta's pressure packages. He may just be doing that by design. What the Irish need is to win the battles, consistently, at the point of attack and, to paraphrase Weis, "get the line of scrimmage moving in the right direction" (backwards, in this case). Essentially, I'm saying that Tenuta can and will blitz until the cows come home - if the Irish can't make themselves known up front and in the trenches, to take away those lanes and gaps that these agile quarterbacks love to seize on, those blitzes will once again yield only low-hanging fruit.

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