Husker LBs Haven't Been Great
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Husker LBs Haven’t Been Great, 3rd-Down Coverage Another Problem

November 11, 2019

It felt like Purdue targeted Nebraska’s linebackers for nearly half its pass attempts, didn’t it? A growing narrative surrounding the Husker defense is that it doesn’t have the athleticism at linebacker it needs to hang in coverage. The 3-4 scheme has been questioned—without those kinds of dudes at outside ‘backer, should Nebraska consider switching back to the 4-3? That question isn’t as out there as it was a few months ago, but it might still be too early to really dig in there. 

So, then, the only thing that can fix the issue is time. Nebraska needs better coverage from the linebacker position (both inside and out) and it needs more athleticism. That’s going to come down to recruiting. That’s what common sense would say. That’s what I thought.

I looked at third down over the last two games—Indiana and Purdue—which has seemed like the down that has just killed the Huskers. Indiana went 7-for-13 (I’m excluding a kneel-down on third-and-15 because they were killing the clock at the end of the game and it’s dumb to hold that against them) and Purdue followed that up by going 8-for-14. 

Nebraska is 88th nationally in opponent conversion rate on third down. Opponents are getting 41.9 percent of the third downs they face. Purdue’s average distance to gain was 7.4 yards. Indiana’s average distance to gain was 7.2. Both hit above a 50% clip. Nebraska’s average distance on third was 3.8 yards against Indiana and it posted a lower third-down conversion clip… How?

(Illinois represented the peak for the Blackshirts on third. The Huskers held the Illini to 1-for-12 on third down. In four of the five games since, Nebraska has given up 10-of-13, 8-of-13, 7-of-13, and 8-of-14.)

So how much of that comes against linebackers? That’s what I wanted to know. Because it feels like the last two weeks that’s all we’ve been talking about. 

Indiana and Purdue combined to throw the ball 17 times on third. They completed 14 of those passes for 178 yards (10.5 yards per attempt) and nine first downs. 

Eight of those 17 throws targeted linebackers in coverage and five of those eight targets netted a first down. 

Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander has been trying to help with scheme—dialing up some interesting pressure packages in recent weeks—but teams know what to do to the Huskers at this point.

  1. Switch routes on the perimeter. 
  2. Shallow crossing routes over the middle.

Both get at one thing, and while the over-the-middle stuff tends to involve Husker linebackers, the underlying problem is bigger than just that group.

Nebraska’s defense is not communicating. I would say, “Not well,” but there are times where it looks like they aren’t doing it at all. All 11 don’t appear to be on the same page all the time. And that’s an issue this far into the season. 

Purdue scores here on a well-executed rub route. It motions running back King Doerue out of the backfield; sophomore Caleb Tannor has the Doerue assignment, so he follows to the perimeter. At the snap, PU wideout David Bell goes to rub Tannor and free up Doerue. Someone on this play has to communicate. Either Tannor has to recognize what’s happening in front of him and call off Lamar Jackson, or Jackson has to get Tannor’s attention. Eli Sullivan can also help the situation. Nebraska has four defenders out there for two PU blockers. 

Does Nebraska adjust its coverage here? Is everyone playing zone while junior inside linebacker Will Honas stays in man coverage? Because that’s sure what it looks like. Purdue calls mesh and brings tight end Brycen Hopkins from the right and wideout Milton Wright from the left. Everyone is looking in the backfield but Honas, who follows Hopkins into fellow inside ‘backer Collin Miller’s area. Wright gets the necessary 15 yards before he’s touched.

Purdue gets Hopkins matched up on Miller on the outside (win) and Hopkins runs a corner route. Is Miller passing him off to the safety? Who’s responsible for Hopkins at that point? Eric Lee? Dicaprio Bootle? Bootle has his own guy to worry about. Purdue either found the soft spot in coverage and quarterback Jack Plummer put the throw on the money (he was good, can’t discredit that), or we’ve got another mishap on defense. Third-and-5 going for 14 is something.

This probably wasn’t a fun re-watch in the film room. IU tight end Peyton Hendershot motioning across the formation shouldn’t cause this kind of confusion. No one picks up the running back and third-and-3 goes for 23. 

This one’s just for good measure. This is the first third down Indiana faced in the game. There have been zero adjustments made. Indiana is operating off tendencies. So it puts wideout Ty Fryfogle in the slot and gets him matched up on Miller. A double-move is all it takes to open up an easy 22-yard completion. (Whop Philyor was open on this one too, and had a linebacker in coverage.) 

That’s not to pick on Miller, only to show the fears about linebackers in coverage are legitimate. Nebraska has to be better in that area and it has to recruit guys who can hold up against the pass.

The thing that can be fixed in the short term is communication, which has a lot to do with the vast majority of the third-down conversions the Huskers have given up in recent weeks. “It wasn’t good at all,” said senior inside linebacker and captain Mohamed Barry after the Indiana game. “I would say our worst game when it comes to communication, even on third down.” Purdue didn’t look much better.

Nebraska needs to figure that out.

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