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.
— 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).
— 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.
— 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.