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Trying to bridge the gap

ILLUSTRATION BY IAN LAWSON/THE WORLD-HERALD

Opinion column by Sam McKewon / World-Herald staff writer

Got the Blackshirts on your mind? Bo Pelini does, too, and he plans to get his young defense up to speed. What does that mean, and how can fans fully understand his task? It’s not easy, but World-Herald writer Sam McKewon set out to explain so, good defense or bad, NU fans can at least begin to speak the same language as NU coaches.

LINCOLN — John Papuchis pulls out a red marker and starts drawing X's and O's on a white piece of paper that's been folded many times. He wants to explain rapidly — coaches do most things in life at the tempo of a no-huddle offense — how Nebraska's run defense is built and why the lingering perception of NU using a "two-gap" system needs to be put to bed.

"We want to get the best of both worlds," he says at the beginning of the speedy presentation. At the end, he asks, "Does that make sense?"

It does — I'll do my level best to explain the broad picture in a minute — and as Papuchis further expounds on how NU's 2009 defense flourished, it makes even more sense.

But the run defense is faltering thus far in 2013.

The numbers say so: The Huskers are 84th nationally in opponent's rush yards per game, and 102nd in opponent yards per carry. Coach Bo Pelini's press conference after Nebraska's 59-20 win over South Dakota State says so. The Jackrabbits, an FCS team, used basic power plays to run for 227 yards and nearly 6 yards per carry.

That was our worst performance defensively.
— NU coach Bo Pelini after the South Dakota State game

"That was our worst performance defensively," Pelini said after the game.

Now, as the Huskers prepare for conference play in the Big Ten — whose teams may emphasize the power run more than teams in any other league — Pelini and Papuchis had a bye week to teach, tinker and tell it like it is.

They've tried to address Nebraska's run defense problems on several fronts. Fundamentals. Attitude. Scheme. The last of those topics is a subject of debate among Husker fans. What is the scheme? Is it too complex? Is it a "two-gap" or a "one-gap" defense?

When the scheme worked best — before Nebraska moved to the Big Ten — it seemed to me that NU coaches were never eager to explain. They ran something other coaches wanted to run, knew something other coaches may not have known. Did you ever see Chip Kelly give a media clinic on his offense? Me either.

But the scheme came more into view in the past week, and whether NU's young defense can execute it — or something else — may determine how much better the Blackshirts get this year. And how much the offense may have to bail them out.

* * *

It's been 50 years since legendary football coach Vince Lombardi's best-known book "Run to Daylight!" hit the shelves and helped coin a phrase that still describes the goal of every running play: Where there's a hole in the defense, there lies freedom, a budding coup.

With increasing, alarming regularity, opposing offenses have been able to punch holes in Nebraska's run defense — and blast right through them.

A Husker unit that built a formidable wall against the run in 2009 — when NU ranked eighth nationally in opponent rush yards per game and fourth nationally in yards per carry — slipped to 92nd and 96th last year. Often, both defenses used the same scheme to defend the run.

In 2009, pundits and opposing coaches referred to it as a "two-gap" scheme. That is, the defensive linemen — All-American Ndamukong Suh, Jared Crick, Pierre Allen and Barry Turner — were somehow controlling two gaps at once.

This week on the Big Ten coaches teleconference, Pelini called that description "a fallacy to a certain extent."

"We don't have guys sitting there saying 'hey, you got two gaps,'" Pelini said. "That's not our philosophy. It never has been. ... You're playing a gap in more of a 'heavy' scheme."

So what is the scheme in terms fans can appreciate?

Unlike a true one-gap defense — where linemen station themselves in gaps, or the area between the offensive linemen, before the snap — Husker defensive linemen often set up across from an offensive lineman. After the snap, they physically engage the linemen, fill gaps based on where the play is going and try to disengage and make tackles. The linebackers behind them also make tackles or try to force the ball carrier toward teammates. Papuchis uses phrases like "build a wall" and "muddying it up." When it functions as designed, backs aren't necessarily tackled for big losses, but they have no daylight.

Do you notice how teams struggle to hit short passing screens against the Huskers? I'd argue it's because the linemen don't usually shoot upfield and take themselves out of position.

Papuchis said one player — maybe an end — might have two gaps to choose from on a given play. But it's not four guys magically responsible for six gaps.

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

"I have all the faith in the world we’ll be able to put our guys in position to be successful," Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who had listened to Pelini on the teleconference, doesn't use a two-gap scheme or philosophy, but he further explained how NU's defense works.

"These two-gap schemes, it's just a nice way of saying 'which gap do you have on which occasion?'" Dantonio said. "You don't have them both at the same time. You have a front-side gap or a back-side gap, depending on the blocking scheme."

The system, Papuchis said, allows NU to keep its safeties back and defending the deep pass, which, since Pelini's arrival, the Huskers have done well even when they don't defend the run effectively. When a safety does support the run, he does so from "depth," filling whatever gap is left over.

Smothering the passing game while defending the run well enough to force the pass points to the "best of both worlds" comment made by Papuchis. Offenses throw to win these days. A 16-play, 75-yard drive of isolation and trap plays might work on one drive. But it's hard for an offense to string together multiple drives like that.

"We know it's not the most aggressive way to play the run the way we normally play it," Papuchis said, "but you have enough run pressures to hit that you can offset some of your weaknesses."

What does it take for Pelini's preferred scheme to excel?

» Physicality on the line. "You've got to be big boys up front," Papuchis said. "When we had our greatest success, we had some of our better d-linemen. You need to be pretty physical up front to play those techniques, and your ends have to be war daddies."

Depth, I think, is crucial. Last year, Nebraska lost its best defensive tackle — Baker Steinkuhler — one week before the Big Ten championship. Recruiting misses, injuries and Pelini's decision to redshirt certain players left NU starting undersized end Cameron Meredith in Steinkuhler's spot. The Badgers ran for 539 yards.

» Precision. Starting defensive end Randy Gregory, on NU's campus all of two months, said coaches are stressing the playing style needed to create the wall that bounces backs to linebackers and safeties.

"They're really not playing around about the technique now," Gregory said. "Your hand placement, your footwork, being in this gap as opposed to that gap, being 'right here' when this guy's 'right here.' There's a lot that goes into it. I could go down the list. It's something we had gotten a little bit away from — especially myself — in the games."

One way to play: Classic 4-3 one-gap

A one-gap scheme with a 4-3 front (four linemen and three linebackers) was again made popular by former Miami Hurricanes and Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson. In it, defensive tackles often line up in the gaps — or with more of their body in the gap — and try to control one gap while linebackers and/or safeties "fit," or fill other gaps according to their assignments. (The gaps, of course, are the areas between offensive linemen.) In effect, players aren't diagnosing what gap to fill as the play starts and instead attack assigned gaps at the snap of the ball. Generally, it's a more aggressive system than the one Nebraska uses. It's an effective system for quick defensive tackles and skilled linebackers who know where they're going or are blitzing. Spread teams using wide offensive line splits can sometimes take advantage of one-gap teams if the linemen don't play with discipline. NU has used some one-gap philosophy this year. Michigan State uses this system to stop the run.

What Nebraska does — don't call it a two-gap

Does Nebraska's entire defensive line play a two-gap technique? Coach Bo Pelini calls it a fallacy. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis agrees. So what does NU really do?

Instead of having its linemen directly in gaps — the area between offensive linemen — as is often found in a traditional one-gap defense, NU stations its linemen either directly across from offensive linemen or shaded one way or the other. Depending on the call, most of the linemen are asked to engage the offensive linemen and "fall into gaps" — that is, occupy the gap after initial engagement, instead of just shooting into it. If one player is asked to two-gap — in other words, play two gaps and diagnose which one to clog as the play develops — it can be the defensive end, who can choose a gap based on where his help is and where he wants to force the runner. Sometimes, the end wants to force the running back toward teammates inside. A linebacker or safety is there to take care of the "spill" or cutback, if there is one.

If safeties are needed to help support the run, they fill the gap that is left, if any are. This requires confidence, aggression and play recognition from the safety.

When it works, Papuchis said, the system offers Nebraska "the best of both worlds." NU safeties can guard against the deep pass, and the linemen can stop the run by making a running back hesitate and search for an available hole. In theory, by the time the running back does that, the linebacker or safety should be there.

But the system takes very good defensive line play, consistent effort and good reactions.

» Playmakers. Specifically good tacklers. Nebraska practiced more tackling to the ground in the past week — 10 minutes of it, but it's more than nothing — in response to the poor angles the Huskers took against SDSU and UCLA. NU coaches do not teach players to tackle like they've become the arm of a flying sofa, so when you see that technique on the field, that's more a function of player panic than coaching. And that panic points to something else.

» Pugnacity. Pelini wants players who don't stop battling, who get off blocks, who play aggressively, who tackle with confidence. He wants more mental toughness. He was asked Wednesday if his young defense understands the consistent pressure and attitude he wants from them.

"Game in and game out — and every single day in practice? No, I don't think they do understand," Pelini said. "That's what we're trying to get through: The type of intensity, the type of effort, the type of focus, the type of discipline that's required to be good defensively."

Any coach might say that about his struggling defense, but Pelini's scheme — while not the calculus test some make it out to be — is not as conceptually simple as a true one-gap scheme. It takes some savvy — and practice. Suh's pure, raw strength allowed him to split double teams like a zipper. He'd make any scheme look good. In his absence — and with NU's youth on the line — the Huskers are actively looking at different solutions.

One is more blitzes. Nebraska has plenty of those — Pelini has never lacked for creativity — and has used them to complement his preferred run defense.

Another is a one-gap defense. The simpler path. It's not necessarily easier. Nebraska has used this more often in its first four games than you might think, Papuchis said. Because gaps are not static after the snap — they move with the linemen — a missed assignment can be costly.

Michigan State has found a way to make the one-gap system work, at least against the run. It led the Big Ten in rush defense in 2011 and 2012, and again leads the way in 2013. In four games, the Spartans have given up 233 total rushing yards. Dantonio and his defensive coordinator, Pat Narduzzi — who has worked for Dantonio since 2004, when Dantonio coached at Cincinnati — have had nearly a decade to hone their philosophy and recruit to it.

"We try to put one more person in the box than maybe you can block," Dantonio said. "That's our thought process. Movement, blitzing. And it falls on our corners at times. Our corners are face-to-face tight coverage to eliminate deep balls."

In a 17-13 loss against Notre Dame, MSU defensive backs were flagged five times — four times for pass interference. Dantonio was furious after the game. Last year, a questionable pass interference call helped Nebraska beat Michigan State. Quarterback Taylor Martinez also repeatedly burned the Spartans' blitzing defense with his feet.

So there is no magic bullet on defense. But Nebraska coaches indisputably want a better product than the one they've already seen.

"I've been coaching a long time, so I've been in situations like this," Pelini said. "I haven't had quite this amount of youth. At the end of the day, the progress — the amount of repeat errors — yeah, it gets frustrating at times, but I've learned, when you're in situations like this, the most important thing is you have to stay the course. There is no Band-Aid to it. It only comes with hard work, with reps, with teaching and getting everybody on the same page."

Papuchis believes it'll happen. He's seen it happen when he's been part of great defenses at Nebraska and LSU.

"And now we're — not," he said frankly. Papuchis, to his credit, is never anything less than frank. "I've run the full gamut. But that doesn't mean all of the sudden you don't have answers or you don't know what you're doing. There's a perception sometimes. It's about finding the right answers for that team and finding what works for your guys.

"I have all the faith in the world we'll be able to put our guys in position to be successful."

Starting Saturday against Illinois, skeptics will start asking for more proof.

A downturn on defense: Some likely explanations

In 2009, Nebraska had one of the best run defenses in college football, giving up 92.43 yards per game (eighth nationally) and 2.78 yards per carry (fourth nationally). Since that dominating season, the Huskers' run defense has been on a steady decline. In 2010, NU gave up 153.14 yards per game (63rd) and 3.90 yards per carry (44th). In 2011, NU gave up 158.46 yards per game (64th) and 4.0 yards per carry (55th). In 2012, NU gave up 192.50 yards per game (92nd) and 4.76 yards per carry (96th). In 2013, the trend looks equally dour, as NU has given up 179.50 yards per game (84th) and 4.85 yards per carry (102nd) before the Big Ten season even begins.

What's changed since that dominant 2009 unit, and how have those changes affected the Huskers' run defense? We look closer:

Personnel

It helps to have one of the best collegiate defensive linemen in recent memory, and Nebraska did with Ndamukong Suh in 2009. His strength and movement could eliminate gaps without him ever having to fill them — he'd just move the lineman there — and he busted double teams right down the middle. Pair him with current NFL starter Jared Crick, plus big, highly recruited defensive ends Pierre Allen and Barry Turner, and you had a line that could have played any technique well — including the one Nebraska preferred.

MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD

Former Husker Ndamukong Suh's strength and movement could eliminate gaps without him ever having to fill them — he'd just move the lineman there.

Leagues

In 2009, no Big 12 team averaged more than 187.77 yards rushing. Teams committed less to the run — especially when it wasn't bearing much fruit — and turned to the pass. That played right into Nebraska's pass defense scheme. In 2011, when NU switched leagues, four Big Ten teams averaged 190 rushing yards or more per game. Nebraska was one of them. The Huskers played the other three — Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State. In 2012, four Big Ten offenses averaged more than 225 rushing yards per game. Again, NU was one of them, and, again, the Huskers played the other three — Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern. The 2012 Big Ten teams carried the ball 662 more times than the 2009 Big 12 teams. That may be only five or six extra carries per team per game, but it adds up on a defense.

Recruiting

At the 2013 Big Ten media days, Bo Pelini said that some defensive recruiting after Suh graduated was "good, not great." Translation: The Huskers missed on some players. They hit with their 2012 class — including tackles Vincent Valentine and Aaron Curry and defensive ends Avery Moss and Greg McMullen — and seem to have hit with the 2013 bunch, too. But their development will take more than four games to achieve. Nebraska doesn't have enough experienced and talented upperclassmen that a defensive line seems to need to be great.

Rise of zone read

Though the zone read took root more than a decade ago, the play has really hit its sweet spot in the past three years. College quarterbacks ran it for a full cycle of high school, and they have that sense memory necessary to execute better than defenses can stop it right now. Although Pelini and other defensive minds will eventually catch up, offenses like Oregon, Texas A&M and Ohio State have the upper hand. And their quarterbacks are running wild.

Time

As offenses have evolved, Pelini's scheme, revolutionary and tough in 2009, has been matched in innovation and game-planning by Nebraska's opponents. Teams have a solution to the problem. Now, Pelini has to show he has another idea — or a new way to recruit — that confronts these new challenges.

Contact the writer:

402-202-9766, sam.mckewon@owh.com, twitter.com/swmckewonOWH


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