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OFD Films: Navy Preview

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A look at Notre Dame's defense against Navy's option offense and the importance of the middle linebacker.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

OFD Films II

Today's OFD Films will focus on defending Navy's option attack.  If you're new to Navy's brand of offense, I suggest you read my Navy/Air Force preview from last season.

I don't think I need to remind anyone of the disastrous game against Navy in 2010.  Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco tried to apply his "no crease" defensive philosophy when playing Navy, but it just resulted in players out of position and wide lanes for Navy's B-backs and A-backs.  After that game, Diaco switched from his base 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense when playing option teams.

In a 4-3 defense, the middle linebacker is the key player when defending the option.  Because he is in the middle, he needs to be able to defend both sides of the field and help the safety defend the veer and speed option.  A good middle linebacker can give an option team fits.  But before we get to Notre Dame, let's talk about Navy's game against Ohio State to start the season.  Ohio State also ran a 4-3 defense against the Midshipmen.  So what can we learn?

The Navy blog The Birddog has an excellent review of the Navy/OSU game. I suggest you read the whole thing but this part in particular stuck out to me:

It isn't often that a coach just comes right out before a game and announces what his game plan is going to be, but that's sort of what Urban Meyer did:

I love our plan, but you just can't sim the same stuff, because they'll find out what's going on. More than trying to out-scheme them, after our homework, I remember the guys I respect said, ‘Do not out-scheme them. Out-technique and out-effort them. Just go as hard as you can. Play with your hands. Don't get cut.'

And that's pretty much what Ohio State did.  The Birddog highlights a few stunts Ohio State used, but their defense was pretty basic for most of the game.

Looking back on past games against Navy, Diaco pretty much followed that same philosophy.  Nothing was very exotic but it did enough to allow the offense to get rolling and build a big lead.

Navy 2011 Defense 1

Here's Notre Dame lined up against Navy in the 2011 game.  Navy is going to run a veer towards the sideline.  Notre Dame has a player responsible for each player in the option.  Safety Zeke Motta has the playside A-back.  Outside linebacker Dan Fox has the motioning A-back.  Middle linebacker Manti Te'o has the B-back in case of playaction.  Once Te'o sees run, his responsibility is to help outside on the QB keep and pitch.

Navy 2011 Defense 2

Defensive end Prince Shembo (yellow circle) crashes on the B-back, giving Navy's quarterback a keep read.  Fox (red arrow) is the next read on the veer.  He is following the A-back coming out the backfield.  Motta (blue arrow) is following the playside A-back.  His role is to just occupy a blocker.  Te'o (red circle) is already in pursuit to the outside.  Navy's center was supposed to block him but Te'o reacted too quickly and the center never had a chance to so much as lay a hand on Te'o.

Navy 2011 Defense 3

This is the result of the play.  There are three Navy players and three Notre Dame players.  Fox covers the pitch so the quarterback has no choice but to run into Te'o's waiting arms for a very short gain.

Navy 2012 Defense 1

Now here's Notre Dame against Navy in 2012.  Te'o still has the B-back, but the outside linebacker and safety have switched responsibilities.  After being terrorized by Te'o in 2011, Navy tried blocking Te'o with the playside A-back (red line).

Navy 2012 Defense 2

Navy manages to block Te'o, but now there's no one to block Motta.  There are two Notre Dame defenders for two Navy ball carriers.

Navy 2012 Defense 3

Jamoris Slaughter (playing outside linebacker) follows the quarterback since the playside A-back blocked Te'o.  That forces a pitch to a well-covered A-back.

As you can see, Diaco didn't do anything special in 2011 and 2012.  The scheme was very simple and allowed a superb talent like Manti Te'o to make plays.

Here's another play that highlights the impact Te'o had in Diaco's defense.

Navy 2011 Teo 1

This play is from 2011.  Navy is going to run a counter option to the defense's right.  But everything about this play screams "VEER LEFT."  The B-back attacks the line to the quarterbacks right (red arrow), the quarterback turns like he's going to read the left defensive end, and the  A-back on the defense's right side motioned into the backfield like he's going to take the pitch (other red arrow).

But there are two clues that this isn't a veer.  First, the left A-back runs into the backfield at the snap.  Second, the guard pulls to act as a lead blocker on the counter option.  Look at Te'o.  He doesn't fall for the counter at all and is already moving in the direction of the play (yellow arrow).

Navy 2011 Teo 2

Te'o, Slaughter, and Harrison Smith have the play covered.  What could have been a big gain by the quarterback turned into nothing because of Te'o's instincts.

Ohio State MLB 1

This is a play from Navy's game against Ohio State.  Navy will run a speed option, optioning off the defensive end (circled).  The offensive tackle is responsible for blocking the middle linebacker.

Ohio State MLB 2

The defensive end (blue circle) forces the pitch.  Navy cuts the outside linebacker (yellow circle) but the tackle (red circle) doesn't come close to blocking the middle linebacker, who played very aggressively here.

Ohio State MLB 3

What could have been an easy six or seven yard gain turned into two because of the middle linebacker.

So how did Navy counter the aggressive play of Ohio State's middle linebacker?  They did everything they could to slow him down.  They used misdirection to get him moving in the wrong direction.  They ran midline to force him to respect the middle of the field.  They ran dive plays to punish him for overrunning plays to the outside.

And, frankly, it worked.  Navy put up 370 yards rushing at 5.87 yards per carry and 5.82 yards per play overall.  For reference, Navy put up 331 yards rushing at 4.73 yards per carry and 5.30 yards per play against Notre Dame in 2013.  So why did Navy score twice as many points against Notre Dame in 2013 than they did against Ohio State when the stats say they played significantly better against Ohio State?

The answer is Ohio State's defensive line.  The Buckeye's finished with eight tackles for loss and had Keenan Reynolds running for his life on every passing play.  Reynolds finished 2 of 4 passing for only 20 yards.  Against Notre Dame, he was an efficient 6 of 9 for 88 yards.  This especially showed up in third down conversion.  Against Ohio State, Navy was only 4 of 12 of third down.  Against Notre Dame, they were 10 of 16.

This brings us to the second key to stopping the option - disruption from the defensive line.  Navy was able to neutralize Ohio State's advantage at middle linebacker, but had no answer for their defensive line.

In addition to Te'o flying all over the field, Notre Dame's defensive line made big plays in the 2011 and 2012 blowouts of Navy.

Navy 2012 Shembo 1

Here's Navy running a speed option during the 2012 game.  Prince Shembo (yellow arrow) is initially unblocked, but the pulling guard is supposed to throw a trap block on him (red line).

Navy 2012 Shembo 2

But Shembo is on the quarterback before the guard can even arrive.  That's a loss of two yards.

Navy 2012 Williams 1

Here's Ishaq Williams playing the veer.  Williams has turned his shoulders towards the B-back, indicating he's taking away the dive.

Navy 2012 Williams 2

Navy's quarterback pulls the ball, but Williams makes a very athletic move to change direction and attack the quarterback.  The quarterback commits a cardinal sin of the option offense - pitching off of a player who is not the pitch read.  Ishaq effectively took away the dive and QB keep.  The A-back is left out to dry with two defenders bearing down on him versus one blocker.

So what should we expect this Saturday versus Navy?  During the offseason, I looked at a game between Georgia and Georgia Southern when Brian VanGorder was the UGA defensive coordinator. In that game, BVG used a 3-4 defense with the two outside linebackers playing at the line of scrimmage, giving the defense more of a 5-2 look.  However, I would be really surprised to see VanGorder use something other than the 4-3 Notre Dame has been using all season.

As mentioned above, it will be important to get good play out of the middle linebacker position.  One of Notre Dame's problems last season was the play of Carlo Calabrese.  He was constantly out of position and it allowed Navy's option plays to gain a numbers advantage on the edge.

Joe Schmidt isn't Manti Te'o, but he's a good player and I think he'll do fine.  It might be tempting to think we should just throw Jaylon Smith in the middle but I don't think that's a good idea.  I don't think it's wise to take a good player like Schmidt off the field and then put Smith in a position he's never played.

Speaking of Jaylon, he didn't have a great game against Navy last year.  He was clearly thinking too much and tried too hard to cover the quarterback and pitch on option plays.  Rarely does that work at the linebacker position.  I'd like to see him play more decisive this time around.  If his job is to cover the quarterback, he needs to attack the QB and force the pitch early to string the play out to the sideline.

At the other linebacker position, I think we'll see someone like Mathias Farley play there.  It worked for Bob Diaco when he played Jamoris Slaughter, Robert Blanton, and Farley at linebacker against option teams.  Navy's brand of offense is more of a finesse offense so some extra speed is always helpful.

As for Navy, they're just not as good as they were last year.  The Midshipmen have had trouble with turnovers and Keenan Reynolds missed two games with an injury.  He seems to be healthy, though; he carried the ball 39 times last weekend against San Jose State.  Navy has a pair of really good B-backs in Chris Swain and Noah Copeland.  They'll make Notre Dame's life miserable if the defense doesn't play disciplined or tackle well.  Stopping them might be more important than stopping Reynolds.

The Navy defense is the same old Navy defense - they'll play bend-but-don't-break defense and try to make opposing offenses earn their way down the field.

If I was Brian Kelly, I would pick up the tempo a little bit.  Navy wants to slow the game down but a fast game with lots of possessions favors Notre Dame.  I think we'll see Kelly use Everett Golson a lot early in the game to score quickly.  If the defense can get a few stops or a turnover or two and the offense can build a lead, then I think Kelly will use Tarean Folston to put the game away.

On defense, look for Joe Schmidt making tackles from the middle linebacker position and production from the defensive line.  Also look for the outside linebackers and safeties playing decisively and tracking down the quarterback and A-backs.  Just keeping Navy out of the endzone should be priority number one.  As long as the offense is clicking, a field goal is as good as a punt

And sometimes the best defense is a good offense.  Score early and score often and this should be a comfortable win.