Hot Reads: Effective Blitzing and the Big Ten
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: Effective Blitzing and the Big Ten

March 18, 2019

If you missed it yesterday, you should circle back to this story from Derek Peterson (Premium). He asked a handful of Nebraska's assistants what surprised them the most about playing football in the Big Ten.

This is detailed stuff and there were some interesting answers on display, from defending tight ends to the overall depth of defenses in the Big Ten.

There was a portion of offensive coordinator Troy Walters' answer that jumped out to me:

"Knew it was a good conference, defenses, they play hard, coordinators on third down had more exotic packages than maybe we expected. I thought it would be more similar to what they did on first and second down but you get in third down and teams are a little more exotic, which means we’ve got to stay out of third-and-long because we’ve got some great defensive coordinators that come up with exotic packages and blitzes."

I looked at third-and-long success rates for Big Ten offenses earlier––synopsis: don't be in third-and-long––but, based on Walters' note, what if we attacked this from the other end and looked at what Big Ten defenses did when in blitz situations?

To do that we'll use Bill Walsh's definition of "blitz" downs, which includes first- and second-and-very-long in addition to just third downs, and Football Study Hall's calculations in three blitz-down categories: success rate, big plays and sack rate. (Table belows includes national rankings on blitz downs, color coded as follows: top third, middle third, bottom third.)

Illinois 97 128 109
Indiana 118 57 84
Iowa 4 1 11
Maryland 61 74 118
Michigan 15 69 5
Mich. St. 11 4 103
Minnesota 18 19 107
Nebraska 129 82 96
Northwestern 51 59 124
Ohio St. 10 41 78
Penn St. 41 7 17
Purdue 42 54 82
Rutgers 104 79 127
Wisconsin 25 104 97

Let's start with sacks, the big, definitive win for a defense trying to heat up the quarterback. The Big Ten was a little below average here. Eight of the conference teams ranked in the bottom third nationally (88th-to-130th) in sack rate. Michigan State, the No. 2 defense in the country by defensive S&P+, recorded a sack on blitz downs just 6.9 percent of the time, which ranked 103rd nationally. Compare that to the SEC, another defense-forward conference, where nine teams ranked in the top third nationally in blitz-down sack rate. This seems like a good spot for a Tony Tuioti quote.

"I know everybody talks about sacking the quarterback but my philosophy is about affecting the quarterback," Nebraska's new defensive line coach said this month. "I’m fine if we don’t get a sack if we get 10 hurries, three batted balls and force three interceptions plus win the game, then it’s beautiful. Sacking the quarterback is just one form of that. Can we affect the quarterback?"

That’s a common coach’s view of sacks, but turns out it was also basically a description of the Big Ten in 2018.

We can start to see that by adding blitz-down big-play rate to the discussion. This is the big risk when blitzing. A coordinator decides to send an extra man or two when he knows he has an advantage, but if the offense can deal with the extra pressure it has an advantage somewhere else and that can result in big plays. As a whole, Big Ten defenses were better at this part of the game than they were at getting the quarterback to the ground. Five conference teams ranked in the top third nationally, and another seven were in the middle third (somewhere in the realm of "average"). That leaves just two teams that were bad at getting burned in blitz situations, Illinois (of course) and Wisconsin (oh?). Incidentally, this was Nebraska's best category of the three blitz-down numbers we'll look at (thought not necessarily good). The Huskers ranked 82nd here. The SEC's rankings breakdown, with better overall sack rates, was almost identical: five teams in the top third, six in the middle, three in the bottom.

It's in blitz-down success rate where you can really start to see what Walters was talking about. Here you have eight Big Ten teams in the top third and two more in the top half of the middle third. Four teams were legitimately bad at succeeding when the odds were in their favor, and Nebraska (129th) was the worst of those. If you want to talk about areas of what should be easy improvement that could have a big impact on the Huskers' defense in 2019, circle this one in red. Nebraska was terrible at getting off the field when the odds were in its favor to do so last year.

But most of the Big Ten, 10 teams to be exact, was good to above-average at this part of things. Without sack rates to match, that means Big Ten defenses were dialing up their pressures, not dropping the QB behind the line of scrimmage that often, but still doing enough to win the down. That feels like a pretty decent description of defense in the Big Ten. It's savvy.

Don't get me wrong. Sacks are great. The SEC, which has a near monopoly on the top d-line talent year in and year out, produced a ton of sacks on blitz downs and a good success rate overall. Seven of its teams were in the top third and six more were in the middle. (Poor Vanderbilt.) That way will work, too. In fact, it's more valuable in total when you figure in the lost yardage.

But the Big Ten's relative lack of that lost yardage only makes its solid success rate on blitz downs more impressive.

Walters said the Big Ten has some "great defensive coordinators." Sure looks that way.

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