Fee Fi Foe Film: Purdue Defense

Submitted by Ace on September 20th, 2017 at 2:07 PM

MIKE Ja'Whaun Bentley is a stout run defender.

Purdue's rapid ascent from basement dweller to upset threat in their first season under Jeff Brohm has been the story of the Big Ten so far. While the much-improved (and far more entertaining) offense has received most of the attention, the defense has also taken a step forward under new defensive coordinator Nick Holt (Nick Holt!), who followed Brohm from Western Kentucky to Purdue and is transitioning the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4.

It was tough to pick a game to break down for this post. Mizzou, last weekend's opponent, fired their defensive coordinator before losing 35-3. Ohio, the previous week's opponent, couldn't stay close for long and ranks #89 in S&P+. That leaves Louisville, the opponent closest in talent, albeit not style, to Michigan. Purdue put a serious scare in the Cardinals in week one, losing 35-28, and while the final score was a bit fluky—based on his numbers Bill Connelly gave Purdue an 11% win expectancy—the game showed the Boilermakers can hang with more talented teams.

About that flukiness, though. Louisville coughed up two fumbles at Purdue's goal line (and lost a third early in another drive) to keep this one closer than it should've been. A summary of UL's drives:

  • 8 plays, 52 yards, fumble at PU 2
  • 8 plays, 64 yards, touchdown
  • 10 plays, 75 yards, touchdown
  • 6 plays, 75 yards, touchdown
  • 10 plays, 72 yards, field goal
  • 9 plays, 46 yards, field goal
  • 6 plays, 14 yards, fumble at PU 1 (drive set up by PU fumble on kickoff return)
  • 4 plays, 17 yards, punt
  • 4 plays, 7 yards, field goal (drive set up by long punt return)
  • 2 plays, 16 yards, fumble
  • 3 3-and-outs

Six of Louisville's 13 drives covered at least 45 yards, they were a yard short of a touchdown on a seventh drive, and a fumble after a completion cost them a chance at another score. Purdue was fiesty, and their linebackers made some impressive plays, but they've still got some issues to work out, particularly on the back end.

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

As explained in more detail below, Purdue shows multiple fronts but mostly plays with three down linemen.

Base Set? Multiple. Purdue's depth chart lists 4-3 personnel, though when they line up in a four-man front it's usually with a standup weakside end—think DJ Durkin's BUCK. For the most part, however, they lined up in a 3-4 or 3-3-5, using DE Danny Ezechukwu as a rush linebacker and backup safety Navon Mosley as their extra defensive back. They'll usually have the outside linebackers flanking the DEs, like so:

They'll line up in more of a stack, usually on passing downs:

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

Man or zone coverage? Purdue mostly played zone, switching between Cover 2 and Cover 3. They were susceptible through the air, especially over the middle and up the seam.

Pressure: GERG or Greg? The presence of reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, a superb scrambler, certainly affected how Purdue approached rushing the passer. While they mostly sat back on early downs, they tended to bring an extra rusher or two on third downs; they needed to, as the defensive line generated no pressure on their own. While that was in part due to maintaining lane discipline against Jackson, Purdue has only one sack all season.

Dangerman: At 6'2", 260, MIKE Ja'Whaun Bentley looks like a defensive end at first glance, and he brings the wood against the run. He had seven TFLs last year despite missing three games to injury; so far this season he leads the team in tackles and has recorded two TFLs, five run stuffs, and two forced fumbles.

While he's not the most nimble athlete, which shows up when he drops into zone coverage, he diagnoses plays quickly and takes good angles to the ball—he always seems to end up in the pile. His goal line forced fumble against Louisville was a thing of beauty; watch #4 read the play in an instant, get to the hole with leverage, and stop the back cold in his tracks while knocking the ball free:

He's the best of a solid group of linebackers despite some issues in coverage. With Bentley's size, strengths, and weaknesses, the comparison to Mike McCray is pretty tight. Because he plays inside in a 3-4, Bentley isn't asked to make plays in space as often as McCray, so his shortcomings are more mitigated by scheme.

Up front, a familar name stands out. 6'1, 280-pound end Gelen Robinson is Glenn Robinson III's younger brother, though a "Little Big Dog" moniker could only be used ironically. Gelen's strength is also against the run; he had one of the plays of the Louisville game when he two-sided a block, shed, and tackled Lamar Jackson short of the sticks on a third-and-three:

While he's not an impactful pass-rusher, he showed some active hands, tipping a pass at the line to get another third-down stop. He can get pushed around some by down blocks and double-teams, but for the most part it's best to run to the other side.


The move from a 4-3 to a 3-4 mostly works with this personnel, though there's an awkward fit or two. Nose tackle, in particular, seems better suited to a four-man line. Co-starter Eddy Wilson is undersized for a zero- or one-tech at 295 pounds, but he's better than 325-pounder Lorenzo Neal, the other co-starter. Neal is a pretty uninspiring space-eater, while Wilson at least threatens the backfield on occasion, though that does mean he'll sometimes get blown out of a gap. Robinson is stout on one end, but the other is manned by another undersized player, 255-pound senior Austin Larkin.

That means Purdue doesn't stuff many runs at the line. Their linebackers, led by Bentley and sophomore spacebacker Markus Bailey, mitigate this issue by aggressively flowing to the ball. Even with Lamar Jackson making some spectacular plays, Louisville didn't have a run longer than 15 yards, and that was mostly due to the linebacker level. Bailey is the jack-of-all-trades; he'll play in the box, slide over the slot and cover, or blitz off the edge.

The other two linebackers were up-and-down. OLB Danny Ezechukwu is nominally their best pass-rusher, and while he can be disruptive, he's doesn't consistently generate pressure on his own. Inside linebacker TJ McCollum, a grad transfer from Western Kentucky, got out of his lane a couple times against the run and let himself get cut to the ground for the key block on UL's touchdown run:

That play is also an example of Robinson not always holding up in the run game.

Purdue almost exclusively played zone coverage, with the rare exceptions usually coming on heavy blitzes. The cornerbacks were solid on the outside; Louisville didn't test them much on the perimeter, and senior Da'Wan Hunte was step-for-step with his mark when UL tried to go deep on him. Louisville didn't need to go at him often, however, because the middle of the field was open for business. Slants were easy money and threatened to break big if the safeties missed tackles, like TJ Jallow does here:

The safeties generally appeared a beat late getting to intermediate and deep throws over the middle and up the seam. It didn't help that the linebackers didn't always get great depth in their drops, and the problems were exacerbated further when Purdue got predictable with their coverage; on this play, Louisville sends three vertical routes at the two deep safeties, who don't disguise the Cover 2 look at all, and splits them down the middle for a big gain:

Check back in after I cover the offense tomorrow, but after watching this game a couple times and focusing on the defense, I'm feeling less nervous about Saturday than I did heading in. While Purdue has some good players up front, they're not a complete defense against either the run or the pass. Michigan, of course, needs to work through some issues of their own on offense, but Purdue doesn't seem well-equipped to exploit one of the bigger problem spots—their lack of a pass-rush could take the pressure off Nolan Ulizio (and therefore Wilton Speight).



September 20th, 2017 at 2:18 PM ^

Maybe we'll see more TEs up the middle this game than previously.

Did Purdue do lots of different things on D? Or do they run what they run and it can be exploited?


September 20th, 2017 at 3:56 PM ^

Are you talking less than 10 yds from the line of scrimmage over the middle or more in the 10-20 yd range?  Right now, Speight trying to throw to a wr in between he LBs and safeties scares me.  If he's trying to throw underneath the LBs he seems to do okay.  


September 20th, 2017 at 2:30 PM ^

So Louisville would have blown them out if it weren't for some seriously inopportune turnovers deep in the opponents territory? There's no way that could happen to us, right?


September 20th, 2017 at 2:50 PM ^

How did the other turnover happen? Was it all Purdue defense making great plays? Because if so, "Louisville would've blown out Purdue if not for two inopportune fumbles" starts to read like "Purdue has some aggressive ball hawks, therefore the Louisville game was much closer than one would've thought."


September 20th, 2017 at 2:40 PM ^

their lack of a pass-rush could take the pressure off Nolan Ulizio

This is encouraging.  And if it holds true, then it'll be interesting to see if by extension we see our TEs used more in the passing game if they're not held back to support blocking on the right side.

I like encouraging things.  Write more, please. :-)


September 20th, 2017 at 2:54 PM ^

I believe Purdue was getting good pressure on Jackson early in the game. Then they had one of their best DTs ejected (early) for targeting-Jackson...it was a big loss for them. It was also one of those bogus targeting calls. Don't expect their d-line to play dead...they will offer a good challenge. 


September 20th, 2017 at 2:41 PM ^

I, for one, am extremely pleased to see that their only "dangerman" will be lining up across Cole and Bredeson. 

Get the ball to DPJ and Perry quickly and often. I'd also love to see a RB screen to Evans. 

BTW, that crossing route to Gentry is easy money, every single game. He's pretty impressive after the catch as well. Big man is fast. 


September 20th, 2017 at 3:06 PM ^

You understate the badness of our secondary (I'm a purdue fan), in my opinion. They have no chance against athletic WR or TE. Do you guys have any of those?

That said, our front 7 completely eviscerated Missouri. Purdue's path to success is to make a quarterback hurry his throws and get off the field. To that end, this defense has to get penetration on your offensive line because the secondary just isn't going to make plays.

Number 7

September 20th, 2017 at 3:45 PM ^

Because our quarterback is . . . super -- absolutely super -- when rushed, so no problem.  

Also pay no attention to the rest of the content on this site this week, particularly the 75% of it that involves hair-pulling and garment-rending over our quarterback's alleged issues with pressure.


September 20th, 2017 at 4:52 PM ^

but I like Boiledsports.com a lot. They have a stable or pretty reasonable, affable guys who love Purdue. They aren't nearly as in-depth as mgoblog but I like them all the same. This site is the best of sports coverage there is, which is why I lurk and read from time to time even though I couldn't really care less about Michigan sports. Whenever Purdue plays Michigan, I look forward to the analysis here.

Blue In NC

September 20th, 2017 at 3:21 PM ^

Did I miss the part where Hill is a "dangerman" on offense.  I mean he's a good full/H-back but not sure if "dangerman" really applies unless you just count TDs scored.  

Blue In NC

September 21st, 2017 at 2:33 PM ^

I get that and I love Hill as a player but to me you would rarely (if ever) call an H-back a "dangerman."   That implies game-planning around someone and frankly, other than goal-line situations, I am not sure defenses spend much time preparing for him.  Again, mad props to Hill that he has even made this a conversation but I just don't see it.


September 20th, 2017 at 3:24 PM ^

Honestly after AF I'm wondering if Onwenu should have the cyan blue ring instead of Ulizio (or perhaps in addition to). Onwenu was the one who got pulled at the end, not They See Me Nolan. The UFR will be interesting.