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Bringing Pressure and the Wake Forest Demon Deacons

If you're like me, chances are you don't know much about Wake Forest.  Notre Dame has never played Wake, and I doubt the average Irish fan pays close attention to the ACC.  Eric gave his preview already today, so hopefully you know a little bit about the Demon Deacons.

But let's talk a little bit about Wake's offensive and defensive schemes.  Offensively, there's not a whole lot to talk about.  Wake runs a spread offense that's not too different from Notre Dame's.  Unlike Notre Dame, Wake sometimes lines up in the I-formation with a fullback in the backfield, but they usually operate out of either the shotgun or the pistol.  Wake tends to pass more they run because they have a very good pass-and-catch combination in Tanner Price and Chris Givens and because they don't run the ball particularly well.  Other than that, there's not a lot to talk about.

Defense is where things get interesting.

Wake loves to blitz.  They run a 3-4 base defense, but rarely line up with just three defenders on the line.  One or both outside linebackers usually come down on the line.

Wake Forest's middle linebackers spend a lot of time blitzing.  Here's one example:2mlbblitz4_medium

One middle linebacker creeps up to the line before the snap and blitzes right away.  The other middle linebacker waits a second before looping around the other middle linebacker on a blitz.  Here's another view:


And here's the result:


Wake is only bringing five rushers total and North Carolina picks it up.

Here's another play with a similar look.


Wake has four down linemen on this play.  Only one middle linebacker blitzes this time.


The other middle linebacker plays zone in the middle of the field.

The danger of this play is that it looks similar to the first one.  The second MLB even takes a quick half-step forward before dropping back into his zone.  The quarterback may think he's seeing the same blitz as before and throw the ball into the linebacker's chest, not expecting him to stay back.

Wake runs a lot of man coverage behind their blitzes, but they do occasionally bring a zone blitz.  One example is what's known as the fire zone blitz.  The fire zone is a play in which the defense brings five rushers with three deep zone defenders and three underneath zone defenders.

Here, the Demon Deacons line up in a double eagle formation, meaning both outside linebackers line up outside of the defensive ends.


The strong side outside and middle linebackers will come on a blitz.  The other two linebackers will drop into underneath zone coverage along with the safety playing up near the 31 yard line.  The other safety and two corners play the deep zones.


Here you can see the underneath zones of the defense.

So with all that said, how does the offense attack this blitzing defense?  One simple way is to just run away from the pressure.

Here's a play from Wake's game against Florida State.


Wake will bring an overload blitz to the right side of Florida State's line.  The Seminoles respond by running to the left.


You can see all of the defenders on the wrong side of the line.


Not surprisingly, the FSU back finds plenty of space to run.

The other way to beat the blitz is to throw into the space the linebackers vacate.


Wake doesn't do anything fancy on this blitz: they just bring both middle linebackers straight ahead into the line.  (This play from North Carolina might look familiar to Irish fans.)


The running back comes out of the backfield and sits in the middle of the field with no one around him.

Finally, I just want to point out Nikita Whitlock, Wake's diminutive nose tackle.

Standing at just 5'11 and 260 pounds, to say he's undersized for a nose tackle is an understatement.  It would almost be like Notre Dame starting Manti Te'o at the nose instead of Louis Nix.  But Whitlock makes up for his size with incredible speed and tenacity on the line.

Look at this play against Florida State.


Whitlock is lined up over the center, maybe shaded to the center's right.


FSU tries to run an inside zone.  The center tries to pass Whitlock off to the guard, who attempts to make a reach block.  Whitlock slants hard inside and the guard ends up blocking mostly air.


Whitlock is in the running back's face almost as soon as he takes the handoff.  He has nowhere to go and Whitlock grabs him by the ankles and brings him down for a loss.

Not letting him beat our interior linemen will be a difficult task.  He has a knack for finding holes in lines and being disruptive.  He's the size of a 4-3 defensive end playing nose tackle in the 3-4.  It sounds like Wake's interior defense should be terrible, but Whitlock amazingly holds everything together.

So what does this mean for the Irish?  Well, though this will probably upset a segment of the fan base, I would expect the Irish to throw the ball a lot.  All of those extra rushers help out Wake against the run.  Wake only allows 134.4 yards per game on the ground, good for 49th in the country.  Meanwhile, through the air, Wake allows 244.4 yards per game, 89th in the country.

The key will be keeping Tommy Rees in rhythm.  Even with all of their blitzing, Wake only has 10 sacks on the year and the Irish offensive line hasn't given up a sack since the Pitt game.  I don't expect Rees to be pressured, but I worry that the different blitzes and coverages will confuse him.  We saw that against Pitt and Rees had maybe his worst game in his college career.

However, like I said earlier, Wake runs a lot of man coverage behind their blitzes.  This should play into Notre Dame's hand as Michael Floyd has had huge games when defenses have tried to cover him one-on-one.  Combine that with the matchup problems Tyler Eifert creates and the ability of Theo Riddick to make defenders miss in space, and this could be a huge weekend for Rees if he's making good reads and stays upright.

Don't get me wrong.  This is a small defense and the Irish offensive line should be able to open some pretty good holes for Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood.  But like I wrote earlier, it wouldn't surprise me if the Irish struggled a little running the ball bit early on if Wake is blitzing a lot.  As long as Rees isn't turning the ball over and finding his open man, the running game should open up.  Wake Forest cannot afford to sit back against the pass on defense.  If they do, they will get eaten alive by Gray and Wood.  They're smaller than Navy up front if you can believe that (though more talented for sure).  But if their blitzes don't disrupt Rees in some way, either by getting in his face or confusing his reads, the Deamon Deacons could be in trouble.