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The Eye in the Sky Don’t Lie: Kentucky Defense

hatcher

Exhausting.

That’s the only word I can think of in describing how I felt while watching defensive coordinator DJ Eliot on Saturday night. In between tweeting game updates, it became noticeable that the Wildcats’ defensive scheme and substitution pattern had a new look and increased sense of urgency. It took three repetitions of watching the game to fully comprehend Eliot’s intent and just how well it was executed.

FILM NOTES

— Dependent upon down-distance and field location, UK varied both its personnel and scheme before every play. That level of defensive diversity required detailed preparation. DJ Eliot called his best game as the Wildcat defensive coordinator.

— Throughout a large portion of the night, Kentucky played with only two down-linemen, four linebackers, and five defensive backs. So, a 2-4-5 defense if that’s even such a thing.

— The two defensive linemen presented a pre-snap look, then shifted before the play’s start. In addition, an OLB/DE hybrid player (Hatcher/Ware) would then initiate the play in a stance before standing up post-snap to either blitz or drop into pass coverage. Offensive blocking schemes differ against an odd or even front. By diversifying the line of scrimmage, the Cats played an amoeba defense that had little pre-snap shape or definition. But following the snap of the football, one thing became certain: Kentucky was definitely the aggressor. Eliot’s plan to confuse succeeded and was audacious in design.

Missouri struggled in identifying the Mike, or middle linebacker, which dictates blocking assignments. Much like the two down-defensive linemen, inside linebackers Josh Forrest and Ryan Flannigan lined up all over the football field. Denzil Ware and Jason Hatcher mirrored their inside counterparts. As a whole, the linebacker corps wreaked havoc through pre- and post-snap organized chaos.

— A basketball analogy would be that if following each made basket, the opposing team rotated defenses between a 2-3 zone, 1-3-1, match-up zone, man-to-man, box-and-one, and a triangle-and-two, all after the basketball crossed half court. And, at various times during the game, it combined two or three of the aforementioned defenses. The point guard would be stressed to call the right play. Same situation applies to quarterbacks.

— Ryan Flannigan’s return changed the dynamic of both the defense and team. Having two prominent inside linebackers allows DJ Eliot the latitude to take chances. An aggressive defense produces turnovers. Thus, improving field position to shorten the field for the offense. Flannigan’s closing speed to tackle and ability to blitz were apparent. Flannigan finished 2014 strong with back-to-back, double-digit tackle games. His improvement from the Louisville to Missouri game was astonishing.

— Denzil Ware’s quarterback sack was text book. Following his questionable personal foul penalty, Ware lined up and whipped the Mizzou left tackle by batting down the blockers hands which led to a straight line path to Maty Mauk. Ware’s weekly progression is astounding.

— Eliot did mix in some traditional 3-4. Earlier this year, we discussed that UK’s defense is best labeled as “Multiple” more so than 3-4 or 4-3. The Missouri game was a classic example of that multiplicity. It varied so much, it took multiple reviews to be able to even attempt to write this post.

— Kentucky blitzed from every imaginable pre-snap look and from virtually every defensive position on the field. Nickel Blake McClain rushed the passer on many occasions as did strong safety Marcus McWilson. Inside linebackers Josh Forrest and Ryan Flannigan also blitzed from various angles. The pair’s athleticism and closing speed overwhelmed the Mizzou offensive line even during plays in which the quarterback was not flushed from the pocket or sacked. Jason Hatcher and Denzil Ware joined in the blitz onslaught from the outside linebacker position.

— When not blitzing, Forrest or Flannigan played a “Spy” technique, which means they stayed in the middle of the field mirroring Maty Mauk. Depending on how far the defender is from the line of scrimmage while playing this technique, the concept can also be labelled as a “Robber.”

— Regardless of scheme, defensive intent is for linebackers to make the majority of tackles. That happened against Missouri: Josh Forrest (9), Ryan Flannigan (8), Jason Hatcher (8), and Denzil Ware (5).

@UKStoopsTroops

Cory Johnson was unblockable. Going into the game, reasonable concern was that Missouri’s All-SEC center, Evan Boehm, would anchor and coordinate the Tiger offensive line. Johnson continually beat Boehm in one-on-one scenarios, fought through double teams, chased down ball carriers downfield, and relentlessly rushed the quarterback.

Johnson’s performance was as much a mind-set as athletic accomplishment. In other words, he simply refused to be blocked.

— Nose tackle Melvin Lewis did not play as many snaps as in previous games. This was due to scheme. Nickel and Dime packages consists of only two down defensive linemen. The pair is normally designated pass rushers. That limits NT reps, same goes for Matt Elam.

— When Mauk broke containment, fundamental errors occurred as well as holding penalties that were not called. One instance was when Blake McClain took an inside path on a blitz. By not keeping his outside shoulder free, Mauk escaped the pocket for a first down. Blitzing linebackers also over-ran or missed tackles for sacks. As a whole, containing Mauk in the pocket wasn’t perfect, but effective enough for the win.

— True freshman quarterback Drew Lock entered the game and had initial success. On his first play, Lock scrambled for a first down. During that run, a blitzing Josh Forrest was held, but no flag left the referee’s pocket. Lock then broke containment for a 12-yard gain. Later in the series on third down, CJ Johnson split a double team and joined Josh Forrest for a crucial sack that took Missouri out of field goal range.

Mark Zerof | USA Today

Mark Zerof | USA Today

— On third down, Mizzou repeatedly called an option variation in hopes of springing Maty Mauk. UK did not allow separation between QB and the pitch man. This forced Mauk to run the football back to awaiting tacklers.

— The Wildcat defense won first down. By holding Mizzou to minimal yardage, the Tigers played behind the chains for the majority of the night. The only series that Mizzou had continued first down success was in the game’s final drive.

— Ryan Flannigan was isolated on a wheel route against Missouri’s fastest offensive player. A wheel route is when the offensive player initially runs toward the sideline then vertically turns up-field. Flannigan ran step for step with the MU speedster as the pass fell incomplete.

— In the fourth quarter, cornerback Cody Quinn dropped a certain pick-six. Two series prior, Blake McClain was called for a questionable pass interference penalty. The football was badly underthrown. AJ Stamps intercepted the pass and returned it for a touchdown. However, during the play, the MU receiver attempted to run through McClain to catch the football, thus the flag was thrown. In my humble opinion, McClain had the right to stand his ground as the receiver backtracked to the football. In this case, both the defensive back and receiver were established in making a “football move” to make the catch. Unrealistic to expect the defensive back to merely let the receiver pass back to catch an underthrown pass.

Regardless, that’s two potential fourth quarter pick-six plays. Both testaments to DJ Eliot’s aggressive nature.

— The main reason why DJ Eliot felt comfortable to blitz from all angles was due to the veteran and next-level play of AJ Stamps. With a free safety that can self-correct front seven errors, defensive coordinators can take more chances. Stamps and McWilson have developed into a formidable safety combination.

— Missouri consistently threw in the direction of true freshman Chris Westry. Other than a pass interference penalty, the rookie excelled. His coverage skills have never been questioned.  On Saturday night, Westry’s open field tackling took precedence as he finished with five stops.

— One of the game’s biggest plays came late in the fourth quarter. On third and goal, Mizzou went back to Mauk on a read option. Melvin Lewis penetrated the line of scrimmage to stop the QB for no gain. Lewis’ heads up play forced the Tigers to settle for a field goal. Ultimately, this was Missouri’s last offensive series.

WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?

For a defense that lacks a superstar, the collective unit executed at an extremely high level. I don’t think enough credit has been given to defensive coordinator DJ Eliot. Without two starters due to injury and suspension, Eliot’s linebackers played within the system and were efficient. Once his full complement of linebackers were simultaneously on the field, they dominated. As a play caller, Eliot impressed against Mizzou with timely adjustments by shuffling personnel and dialing up creative and disruptive run/pass blitz packages.

The challenge is for his defense to sustain the same effort and intensity as it displayed against Missouri. If that happens, and his unit remains relatively healthy, the Wildcat defense is playing at a level that will keep UK within striking distance throughout the remainder of the season.

Article written by Freddie Maggard

Former University of Kentucky Quarterback and Andy Griffith Fan Club President

25 Comments for The Eye in the Sky Don’t Lie: Kentucky Defense



  1. Jimbob Bautista
    12:44 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

    Fantastic analysis…thanks Freddie. I can’t remember such a formidable UK defense.



  2. Dean Hood
    12:49 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

    Thank you for the scouting update!



  3. Mathlete
    12:57 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

    I’m loving the in depth football analysis here, especially from an expert. It’s interesting to read someone breaking down the game film and pointing out the details that are hard for laymen to catch watching the first time through.



  4. D
    1:01 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

    A lot of effort went into this post. Thanks!



  5. R Baker
    1:03 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

    Excellent analysis once again Freddie. Looking forward to your take on the offensive side next.



  6. Wildcat Bob
    1:12 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

    Ditto! Love having Freddie here to give some detailed analysis – well done!



  7. Doug Pelfrey's Facemask
    1:15 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

    I really enjoy reading straight-forward in-depth analysis from someone who clearly knows what they’re talking about. Thanks for sharing with us laymen.



  8. BluKudzu
    1:29 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

    First, I am the worst fan ever and the worst fan living. I know this, I am ok with it.

    Great analysis. We need defense to win games in the SEC.

    “If they can’t score, they can’t possibly win.” (George Halas – Coach, Chicago Bears)

    At the beginning of the season, I had concerns about where this defense is going, and I am still hoping the system keeps getting better. (Defensive football junkies like me live for shut out victories, that is when you know… you are a dominant team with an SEC East title shot).

    The couple of differences, which are most prevalent to me; The speed our defense has shown thus far (which allows for a multiple position, blitz scheme, from all over the field), and the physicality (which destroys blocking schemes). If this can continue, you have to think, just as Freddy suggested, we will be in some games.

    I do like where it is going, based on the last couple of games. Don’t let up. I can’t remember the last time UK has played its first three games in the SEC, where our defense has only allowed less than 50 points combined. That is a 16.1 ppg average. That gives us a chance at any game.

    FYI for you all. College football teams are 118-3 when leading in the fourth quarter. Tennessee represents 2 of the 3 losses.

    Go Cats!



    • Mathlete
      1:45 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

      I’m really looking forward to UT coughing up a 2 TD lead in the 4th quarter on Halloween!



    • unredundant
      2:16 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

      The stat is teams are 188-3 when leading by at least 13 points in 4th Qtr.



    • BluKudzu
      6:13 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

      My bad, you are correct, Yeah, the 13 points makes it look a lot worse. I think the same article also pointed out little brother, UT, Texas and Arkansas (amongst others) having the coaches on the hot seat right now. Some speculate Strong won’t be back next season at Texas. Nothing fires a coach faster than empty seats, and Texas has an almost empty stadium last week. The article I read, stated they have a standing coach’s contract buyout fund ready to go.



  9. Bull
    1:34 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

    Nice job Mr. Maggard. Most people forget you spent some time as a DB at UK.



  10. FreeBOOM
    1:35 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

    Loving this team. Fun to watch on both sides of the ball. STOOPS!



  11. D.R. Lewis
    1:57 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

    Really enjoying these, Mr. Maggard. I look forward to the insight after each game.

    I like your quote about the defense not having a star. What I like even better is that there is enough talent on the defensive side that anyone can step up and be great week to week and that the overall team talent on defense makes it difficult for an offensive coordinator to single out any one person to take out of the game.



  12. J-Dub421
    2:05 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

    Great post again Freddie, thanks!



  13. FATKIDINEASTKY
    2:11 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

    First Off….YET ANOTHER GREAT JOB BY SIR FREDDIE MAGGARD!!! Secondly, I truly believe we can use the “attack” D to help cover some of our usual inconsistencies. Make it tough on a QB and mistakes will ensue on a much more regular basis. And I loved the way they Used the LB in 24 to have better rush lanes for blitzes….probably won’ see it against power teams….but it did help in giving LB a step to go after ball carriers. Stoops D is getting it done and can only get better!



  14. Just Say'n
    2:22 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

    The biggest difference I’ve seen this year is (a) we finally have SEC size up front and (b) we finally have close to SEC speed on the field. Both of these are critical in becoming a contender in the SEC. This coaching staff has done an incredible job at identifying and recruiting SEC type talent, and if this continues, I have no doubt we will turn the corner.



  15. ReverendBlue
    2:23 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

    Freddie, you do a great job and have brought so much to this site with your football knowledge. I appreciate the time you put into these “Eye in the Sky” posts. You catch the things that most people don’t observe by casually watching. As a former high school coach, I can tell you know what you are talking about. I also appreciate the fact that you take the time to explain terminology to the fan with limited knowledge of the jargon. As more and more people join us on the UK Football Bandwagon (and I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense — welcome aboard), it is increasingly important that we help the newer football fans learn the game. Your posts help greatly. Thank you, sir.



  16. Old Coach John
    2:35 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

    Excellent write-up and so glad to see nice things being said about the UK defense and DJ Eliot. I for one have been very critical of the defense and Coach Eliot since last year. Hopefully Eliot has learned what it takes to be a good defensive coordinator and how to instruct his players game by game what they have to do to win. I was not only impressed with the Missouri game but also the Florida game. Things are looking good right now. Keep up the good work DJ, don’t let up until the season is over. If you ease up even one time, everyone will see it. Study your opponent sir, and always be prepared.



  17. Blue_Cat75
    2:55 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

    Never in my life have I seen so many defensive players tackled by the offense and no flags thrown. Refs were terrible at best.



    • Jeffrey
      5:35 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

      They were held on nearly every play, and not one flag thrown. That right there had me P.O’d



  18. JRock1966
    5:26 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

    Literally jaw-dropping IMHO. At least, I have never seen nor heard of a Kentucky defense this capable.



  19. Jeffrey
    5:38 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

    I’ll take a all around better defense than a few stars on defense, this years defense vs last is night and day so far.



  20. Duane
    7:47 pm September 29, 2015 Permalink

    Freddy Maggard is the best hire KSR has made. Great explanations and insight. Really gives your football coverage ligitamacy.



  21. Edward
    11:59 am September 30, 2015 Permalink

    Outstanding Mr. Maggard. Just like the HC is recruiting and bring this team along, you are his counterpart in detailed education of the fans. Your explanation of the defense for the Missouri game was totally awesome and very much appreciated by all of us. I remember during Fall Camp you stated that even though the “D” had lost two big players to the NFL, you forecast the “D” would be better. Great call, great analysis. Your the Prophet!