Nebraska's Best 'Back-Up'
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Hot Reads: Eliminating the Pass Rush

September 04, 2017

One sack in 68 pass attempts? One sack against an offensive line that had two career starts among five guys going into the season opener?

If there’s a defensive complaint I saw, heard or read most from Nebraska’s win over Arkansas State — behind defending screens, of course – it was that the Huskers didn’t have much of a pass rush. If it felt that way it had at least something to do with how the Red Wolves chose to play.

Re-watching the game Sunday evening, I decided to tally up Arkansas State’s pass attempts. (There are some judgment calls in there, so this is somewhat subjective.) While the stat sheet says the Red Wolves threw the ball 68 times, by my count they intended to throw it 72 times. That increased total includes two plays where quarterback Justice Hansen pulled the ball down and scrambled, one sack (counted as a rush) and the safety, which officially went down as no play due to the holding penalty.

Of those 72 attempts, 35 of them were what I call quicks – bubble screens, tunnel screens, a slant, a swing pass to a motioning running back – basically anything where the ball was out in a second or two. I also included the couple of times Arkansas State moved the pocket via quarterback rollout. These weren’t drop backs. The Red Wolves were trying to protect that young offensive line by limiting its exposure to a traditional pass rush and they were successful. Arkansas State could’ve run these plays with just a center snapping to the quarterback and the Huskers still wouldn’t have gotten to Hansen because the play happened too quickly. When assessing the Huskers’ pass rush, just take those 35 plays right off the top because any rush was eliminated by the play call.

Arkansas State completed 27 of those 35 throws (77.1 percent). Good strategy.

Quentin Lueninghoener
National rankings of Bob Diaco's defenses, 2010-16.

That leaves 37 drop backs by my count, passes where Hansen took a drop and scanned from the pocket. On two of those plays, Hansen felt pressure and scrambled. On the remaining 35 drop backs, Nebraska recorded five quarterback hurries and one sack. That’s a sack rate of 2.9 percent. Not great by any means, but a lot better than one sack in 70 chances. Historically, Bob Diaco’s defenses aren’t high-sack defenses.

But his defenses typically are strong against the pass, and when the Red Wolves dropped back on Saturday Nebraska didn’t fare too poorly. Hansen was a more reasonable 19-of-35 passing (54.8 percent), and, in addition to the sack, the Huskers also had a safety and two interceptions on these more traditional passing plays. That part of the game looks like a solid defensive performance for the first game in a new scheme with a pretty vanilla approach.

Nebraska won’t be able to play things so straight up this week against Oregon. It will also have to come up with a plan for the other portion of the passing game — the quicks – because while the offense at Oregon has changed, the Ducks are still plenty capable of doing the same.

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