Fee Fi Foe Film: Illinois Defense Comment Count

Ace October 20th, 2016 at 4:14 PM

Previously: Illinois Offense

A good D-line only does so much when you have this back seven.

Nebraska had eight real drives against Illinois. This is how they went:

  • Four touchdowns (13 plays-75 yards, 18-75, 11-59, 2-70)
  • Drives of 11-47 and 10-53 ending in field goal attempts (one make, one miss)
  • Two plays, 28 yards, hilariously bad Tommy Armstrong interception
  • 5-play, 17-yard drive in Illinois territory ending in a lost fumble

The Huskers didn't have much in the way of explosive plays; they still had a scoring opportunity every time they didn't turn the ball over, and those turnovers were Nebraska making bad plays instead of Illinois doing something particularly good.

The Illini do boast a disruptive defensive line, but they can be pushed around, and that back seven is having a rough go.

Personnel: Seth's diagram [click to embiggen]:

The Illini have made a few lineup changes in the weeks since Nebraska. Taylor Barton, who did not look good at free safety in this game, has been yanked in favor of freshman Stanley Green, who hadn't played a defensive snap until the Purdue game two weeks ago. Freshman Kenyon Jackson has replaced Rob Bain at defensive tackle for reasons that elude me. Nickel Chris James has lost his role to normal starting corner Darius Mosely, who slid inside to make room for JuCo transfer Amari Hayes on the outside. The lineup above, to say the least, is not set in stone.

Base Set? Illinois had played more 4-2-5 nickel than anything else, but Nebraska's heavier formations revealed how they'll likely line up against Michigan. The Illini play a 4-3 against those sets, often with a safety rolled into the box:

They play both over and under fronts when in a 4-3. While normally a Tampa 2 team, they played a lot of one-high coverage in these scenarios.

[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]

Man or zone coverage? A heavy use of Cover 2, as you'd expect from a Tampa Bay guy like Lovie Smith. They mixed in Cover 3 when in the 4-3. They weren't very good at that—this is the nickel corner playing man while everyone else is in zone, opening up a dig route to the top of the screen:

The Illini had a few coverage busts in this game, usually on the perimeter. Screens of all varieties were killing them; this bubble was especially open since both defensive backs to that side of the field following one receiver:

Despite the awkward catch, that was an easy first down pickup.

Pressure: GERG or Greg? The one thing Illinois does consistently well is generate pressure with their defensive line, so they mostly abstained from blitzing. They bluffed a few double-A-gap blitzes and backed out of them each time—this mostly served to open up underneath throws.

Dangerman: Depending on who was on the line around him, Dawuane Smoot lined up at both SDE and WDE, and he consistently worked his way into the backfield from either spot. Here's an explosive TFL as an SDE:

And a nimble spin got him a near-sack as a WDE:

Illinois has a few solid defensive linemen, but Smoot is both the most explosive and most consistent of the bunch. He's grading out on PFF at +13.0 on the year with 10.2 of that coming from his pass rush—he's also a plus run defender, though he can be pushed off the line. JBB is going to get all he can handle; scraping out close to even would be a win for him.


If I had to do a one-play summation, this would suffice. DT Chunky Clements, an up-and-down player in the Early Hurst mold, gets immediate pressure that should result in a sack, but MIKE Hardy Nickerson Jr. inexplicably abandons his zone and allows a first-down throw:

Let's start up front. Illinois has some good players there. Smoot is a problem. DTs Rob Bain and Jamal Milan both stood out to me as strong run defenders—I clipped a nice run stuff from Milan and was tempted to add another to the video pile before realizing he isn't in the starting lineup. SDE Gimel President, an Auburn grad transfer, has the size and strength to allow Smoot to move to the weak side. WDE Carroll Phillips is more in the Winovich mold; he provides decent pass-rush, too, though he's more susceptible to getting pushed off the line—his presence forces Smoot to play SDE. Freshman DT Kenyon Jackson looks like a freshman for the most part, but did have a couple nice plays in this game.

There are players here, but I'm perplexed by their deployment. As mentioned, Illinois has been shaking up their lineup quite a bit lately. If I had to choose their best D-line based on this game, it's Smoot-Bain-Milan-President, and PFF concurs. Instead, Illinois has been rolling out Phillips-Clements-Jackson-Smoot, which I don't get. Clements shoots upfield too often, opening up big run lanes when he isn't making a play in the backfield; Jackson is a freshman DT; Phillips gets pushed around in the run game. In part because of lineup choices, Illinois was worn down on the ground by Nebraska late in this game. Still, they make a number of excellent plays up front; the problems are far bigger on the back end.

The linebackers had a really rough go in this one, especially Nickerson, who has a -10.2 PFF grade with a major negative in pass coverage and smaller but significant negatives in the other two phases. The Tampa 2 defense asks a lot out of the MIKE in coverage—he has to be able to get a deep drop in the middle of the field, identify players coming into that zone, and make plays on the ball. Nickerson simply doesn't look up to the task:

The linebacker play across the board wasn't good. All three LBs had a tough time getting off blocks and didn't always take good angles to the ball to begin with—on this play, Nickerson is blocked past the play while WILL Tre Watson (#33) is blown up:

The linebackers and safeties combined to make the screen game very, very successful. I've already embedded a video of a slip screen at the top and a screencap of a bubble. Here are two more—another slip screen and a RB swing that caught Nickerson entirely off guard:

Nebraska also had an easy 11 yard pickup on a jet sweep. The edges are there for the taking.

The secondary didn't stand out, either. It was easy to see why Barton was pulled, even in favor of a freshman safety—he had a couple whiffs in the run game and gave up a third-and-goal TD by abandoning his zone. Strong safety Patrick Nelson was one of the primary culprits on the successful slip screens (watch #21 in the clip that leads off this post). Rolling out two freshman safeties in a Tampa 2 scheme is asking for trouble.

Corner Jaylen Dunlap has a positive PFF grade and looked the most competent of the secondary; the only target against him I have in my notes was an incomplete deep post he covered very well. His lack of targets looked like a combination of solid coverage on his part and not-so-solid coverage elsewhere. This was a flat drop by Nebraska on a should-be TD:

I don't even remember why the safety (standing right below the 'x' on the 35) got as far upfield as he did, but it was a very bad idea.

We should learn one thing about Michigan's offense: who should play left tackle. Smoot is going to test both OTs in this game, and I'd expect Illinois will try to get him singled up on JBB if the starting O-line remains the same. That's a matchup Illinois will win, and Smoot will also be a tough test for Mason Cole if Cole flips outside. Everything else looks like it should be in Michigan's favor. Harbaugh's constant shifts and misdirection should open up some big plays against this shaky back seven, and running straight ahead looks like it'll work, too.


Hugh White

October 20th, 2016 at 4:28 PM ^

Not that kind of takeaway, the other kind! Lovie spends an inordinate amount of energy during the week teaching his players the art of the takeaway. You can see it in the Nebraska and Rutgers film. And clearly, that was his focus in the NFL. A lot of ball-punching, ball hawking, stripping, taking, second-tackler looking for opportunities. If M takes care of the ball, all will be well.


October 20th, 2016 at 4:35 PM ^

Should Hill at least get a star?  

Should JBB get a teal border?  That position is a trouble spot, at least when you compare it to the remainder of the line (and team).  

Questions, not necessarily suggestions.

Monocle Smile

October 20th, 2016 at 4:37 PM ^

A few years down the road, as long as Lovie doesn't nuke their recruiting pipelines in favor of his own. They're quite a curious case; they pump out NFL talent consistently, but can't seem to win. And by "can't seem to win," I mean "lose hilariously to the point of barely making a bowl," not how LSU "can't win."

Yinka Double Dare

October 20th, 2016 at 5:06 PM ^

Their recruiting pipelines aren't anything special. They've usually been in the bottom few teams in the conference. The good defensive linemen the last few years have either been 3 stars they developed (Smoot was a 225 lb guy out of high school) or occasional JUCO (Jihad Ward, for one). 

Lovie bringing them up in recruiting in part involves working the Chicago area where he has name recognition with the kids and actually keeping a few of the 4 star Illinois kids in state. Beckman's recruiting kinda sucked, so there's nowhere to go but up really.

Pepto Bismol

October 20th, 2016 at 4:51 PM ^

Both at the beginning and end, Ace notes that Smoot will give JBB problems.  He mentions Smoot will play both SDE and WDE.  

While technically correct, Smoot actually lines up on the left side of the defensive line (versus the RT) in every single video clipped here regardless of whether the formation makes that side strong or weak.

Is there any evidence that Smoot ever flips to the other side against the Left Tackle?  If not, he's Magnusson's problem, not JBB/Cole



EDIT:  Yeah, I just watched a half-dozen plays from the Rutgers game.  He's a Left End.  He doesn't flip.  JBB will never see him.



October 21st, 2016 at 6:09 AM ^

why? It's not easy to flip to the other side of the line and expect to do the same thing as the original spot because there's different footwork and techniques that he has to learn on the fly in order to do well. It's like learning how to ride a bike except you'll face a pass rusher who can get to the QB which makes it all that much harder. No matter how much you practice at that spot, you'll always revert back to the old technqiues by instincts alone.


October 20th, 2016 at 5:33 PM ^

Speight could find himself in hurry-up mode in drop-backs if JBB can't at least hold his own. On the other hand, a number of runs up the middle with the FB could spell doom for Illinois, because Michigan has shown an amazing ability to hit the point of attack before the DL can react.

Jet sweeps, bubble screens, and wide-open TEs also seem like they could be the order of the day.


October 20th, 2016 at 7:50 PM ^

"That's a matchup Illinois will win, and Smoot will also be a tough test for Mason Cole if Cole flips outside. Everything else looks like it should be in Michigan's favor."

What part of that makes it seem like he thinks they're not bad?

Ron Utah

October 20th, 2016 at 6:23 PM ^

While he does not hold-up well consistently against the run, Carol Phillips has 11 TFLs and 4 sacks this season.  He deserves a star, and his match-up with JBB is probably our biggest weak point in this game.

Don't get me wrong--this game won't be close--but Phillips is an impact player.  My guess is that this game is a more reasonable annihilation, say 45-3.


October 20th, 2016 at 8:42 PM ^

is there difference in technique between left and right side of the line?

if JBB is struggling, wouldn't it be adventurous to put him on the right side so at least Speight blind side is ok?


October 21st, 2016 at 8:49 AM ^

Illinois has a good defene with multiple NFL caliber guys. The front 7 in particular is impressive. Nickerson is who has stood out, to me, when i have watched them.


October 21st, 2016 at 11:16 AM ^

UNC had 462 total yds.  197 yds rushing at 5.3 yds/carry.  They gave up 48 pts to UNC and UNC also missed a 42 yd FG.

WMU had 437 total yds.  287 yds rushing at 5.3 yds/carry.  They gave up 34 pts to WMU and WMU missed a 43 yd FG.

Nebraska had 423 total yds.  203 yds rushing at 4.1 yds/carry.  They gave up 31 pts to Nebraska and the Huskers had one possession where they fumbled on the Illini 12.

Purdue had 459 total yds.  231 rushing yds at 5.6 yds/carry.  They gave up 31 pts to Purdue in regulation.

Michigan's offense should smash Illinois.  Any team with a pulse (and even Purdue) has rushed for 200 yds with a good yds/carry against Illinois.