What to expect...Yellow Jacket Offense
Patrick Nix assumed the playcalling duties from head coach Chan Gailey during the offseason, but as usual the Tech offense will be predicated on (1) establishing balance between the run and the pass and (2) limiting turnovers. Last year the Jackets ran the ball 464 times and threw 418 passes. While Calvin Johnson might be the most talented receiver in the country, the bread and butter of the Tech attack is a strong running game, with an occasional bolt of lightning to Johnson. If you look at his receiving log from last year, you'll see a couple of games that Johnson dominated, but more often than not he served a complementary role in the offense and wasn't the main focus. He didn't have more than one touchdown in any game last year. (For comparison's sake, see the logs from #83 and #21 from last year). Tech ran the ball 39 times a game last year, and you can bet we'll get a steady diet of Tashard Choice on Saturday.
A note about Reggie Ball. Last year he ran the ball about 10 times a game, yet many of those were intended passes where Ball scrambled to avoid a sack. Tech improved their pass protection last year quite a bit, giving up only 10 sacks all year after giving up 28 in '04. This is as much due to Ball's increased pocket awareness as improved blocking. While he's still an inconsistent passer (only 48% completions, even as a 3rd-year starter last year) he's developed into a canny runner and will pick his spots to avoid a sack.
Frankly, I think the Irish are going to come out in a defense unfamiliar to Notre Dame fans: witness the strategy sessions with the Carolina Panthers, the repeated insistence from Charlie that the defense has been streamlined (or simplified, whichever you prefer), and yesterday's revelation that Rick Minter will be calling the defensive plays from the booth instead of the sideline. I think they've made over this defense pretty well, and it will be interesting to see what they've come up with. But there are some things we can try to gauge. For one, it sounds like Charlie Weis and Rick Minter are finally happy with the nickel and dime personnel groupings. As Minter recently stated:
“Keep in mind last year you didn’t hear us talk about that a great deal because we only had four defensive backs, occasionally five. I played three linebackers and I played four DBs, sometimes five, but that’s about it...What’s in the past is in the past. We coach what we had. We did what we could do. We kind of grew into doing it more and more as the year went on...Now our team is just a little bit deeper than it was a year ago.”Second, I think there may be some schematic changes installed on the defense involving more zone blitzing. If the staff wants to play it vanilla and conservative, we may not even see those until the Penn State or Michigan State games, but we might unveil some new blitz strategies against Tech.
The bottom line...
Linebackers and secondary aside, the key will be the defensive line's ability to neutralize the Georgia Tech offensive line. Whether it's by tying up linemen to allow the linebackers to pursue the ballcarrier, or by penetrating and creating havoc in the backfield, or by generating a strong pass rush, the defensive line will play an integral role in an Irish victory. If the line can stop the run and contain quarterback Reggie Ball, Calvin Johnson won't matter. Ball is too inconsistent to maintain drives on his own; he needs the running game. Additionally, the absence of a second quality receiver or tight end to reduce Johnson's load will hurt Georgia Tech throughout the game.
(P.S. A little birdie told me there might be some no-huddle from Georgia Tech on offense. It'll be interesting to see if this occurs, especially because one of Notre Dame's problems last year was miscommunication in the secondary. Obviously, communication becomes harder when you don't have time for a defensive huddle and you're on the road in a hostile environment.)
What to expect...Yellow Jacket Defense
"We're very aggressive. [Our DC Jon Tenuta] is going to come after you. I think that's the way to play defense, you have to be very aggressive and not too laid back. If you're laid back I think you take the punishment instead of dishing it out. When you are bringing somebody, regardless from where they are coming from, there's a hole in the defense. It's the fact of you covering it up and disguising where it is. Making the offense try and figure out where that hole is. Sometimes it bites you in the butt, but sometimes it pays off big. Can't be perfect so that happens, but the point of it is to try and prevent that from happening is frequently as possible."
If you know one Tech assistant's name, it's probably Jon Tenuta. He's got a reputation as an aggressive defensive coordinator, fearlessly calling blitz after blitz. Below is a Cliff's Notes version of Tenuta's defense, courtesy of 33jacket :
We play cover 3 about 50% of the time, cover 2 about 25-30% of the time and man the rest. We just disguise it with blitzes and coverage rollover. The problem [against ND] will be on how the weakside of the D executes the plan. It is easy to take away one WR...tough to take away one WR, a RB, TE another 2 WRs.What this Georgia Tech fan is describing is actually a scheme that more and more defenses are using every year. The cover 3 has its origins with Dick Lebeau as a counterattack for the West Coast Offense. The most familiar examples to fans might be the Philadelphia Eagles under Jim Johnson, and obviously, the Pittsburgh Steelers under Lebeau. In the college game, Nick Saban used a similar defense at LSU, as did/does Ohio State, although it's my understanding that the Buckeyes used it less last year and more under former defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio (now the head coach at Cincinnati, former Saban assistant at Michigan State). For what it's worth, I know Pete Carroll also loves the zone blitz, but he comes from the Cover 2 school of Monte Kiffin. What all four of those teams have in common is that they either won or played in championship games.
What Irish fans can expect to see is that most of the time Georgia Tech will show a Cover 2 defense prior to the snap, with probably a lot of pre-snap movement by the linebackers. If it's a zone blitz, on the snap of the ball one of the safeties will shift to play centerfield and each corner will take a deep zone. Generally two of the remaining four linebackers and safeties will blitz, with the other two covering underneath zones. Finally, a defensive end will also drop into coverage. Here's an example of a Cover 3 zone blitz:
Now throw in some stunts, and it's a nice recipe for disaster for many young quarterbacks. Last year Kyle Wright was sacked seven times by the Yellowjackets, who sent a blitz on nearly every play. Now-departed defensive end Eric Henderson summed up their attacking philosophy:
"With any quarterback, if we keep pressuring him, he's eventually going to fold. He can't keep getting hit like that all night. No quarterback can."Then top-five-ranked Miami lost 14-10. How can the current top-five Irish avoid a similar fate?
For starters, Notre Dame is catching Georgia Tech at the right time. The Jackets are breaking in three new starters in their secondary, and five new DBs if you count their nickel and dime packages.
Second, it's not as though Weis hasn't seen this defense before. In winning his third Super Bowl with the Patriots, Weis game-planned differently for both the Steelers (AFC Championship game) and the Eagles, despite the fact that both defenses relied on zone-blitzing schemes. Against the Steelers, quarterback Tom Brady was able to hit a 60-yard post pattern pass to Deion Branch and followed it up with another 45-yard pass to Branch down the seam of the defense. On both plays Weis took advantage of a rookie safety, Troy Polamalu. The Eagles on the other hand possessed arguably the best secondary in the NFL, so Weis needed to utilize a different approach. Most Irish fans are aware that Weis played more wide receivers in the Super Bowl to get the Eagles to substitute for 260-lb middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, who was a dominant run-stuffer. With Trotter out of the game, the Patriots ran the ball better out of passing formations. Weis may opt to do the same against the Yellowjackets, especially with their ultra-green secondary.
Another wrinkle was identified by Pat Kirwan, who wrote an outstanding preview analyzing the options for the Patriots to attack the Eagles. One of the highlights really struck my attention:
The temptation in playing against [a Philadelphia zone blitz] is to use the draw play more in hopes of getting the defensive linemen who drop out in coverage to initiate the drop, and then have the draw play come right at them.You could mentally substitute Darius Walker for Faulk in this example. Walker runs the draw play so well that it could pay huge dividends for the Irish on Saturday. If the Yellowjackets drop into a zone, it opens up the draw; however, if they hesitate and wait to see whether Walker has the ball or not, short passes could easily be completed, especially considering the talent that Notre Dame possesses at tight end and receiver. It's worth noting that generally, Tech's corners play about seven yards off of receivers (remember, it's a zone defense).
In this game, [Kevin] Faulk should not call off the zone blitz. But the warning to the defensive linemen is be aware of Faulk and make sure he clears the ball before they drop, or else the underneath curl zones could be open for the wide receivers and tight ends. I think tight ends Daniel Graham or Christian Fauria could be factors in the underneath pass attack when Faulk is in the game.
The bottom line...
We saw last year that a talented defense with NFL talent everywhere can stifle the ND offense. We saw this for stretches in the Fiesta Bowl and even after the first drive against Tennessee. Georgia Tech - especially in the secondary (save Kenny Scott) - doesn't possess similar talent to slow down the Irish offense, and Weis will have Brady Quinn ready to dissect Tenuta's defense when Walker isn't hitting draw plays for big yardage.
The one thing that could alter this gameplan is if Georgia Tech comes out and plays a lot more man coverage, and specifically plays more bump-and-run on our wide receivers. If that happens, then the game within a game -- the game of adjustments between Weis and Tenuta -- would be on.