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Breaking Down the Good and Bad of Notre Dame Linebacker Joe Schmidt Versus USC

A detailed look at Joe Schmidt's performance against USC this past Saturday.

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OFD Films II

Joe Schmidt was such a great story last year. The former walk-on earned a scholarship and ended up starting at middle linebacker and winning team defensive MVP at the awards banquet. However, Schmidt broke his ankle during the Navy game late last year and broke his thumb this year, and the 2015 season has not exactly been a continuation of his great story.

Schmidt has struggled this season and there have been calls for more snaps from Nyles Morgan, Te'von Coney, Greer Martini, or Jarrett Grace in place of the 5th-year senior captain. Today, I brought in Larz to break down the good and bad snaps from Schmidt against USC to get a better handle on his play this season.

Snap #1- Rush for 10 yards

Schmidt 1

Eric: Schmidt's lined up to the field side at the top of the screen. USC pulls their center who gets enough of a scraping Joe to prevent a diving tackle. People see Schmidt reaching here for a missed tackle, Larz, what's your breakdown on this play from Joe's perspective?

Larz: This is an okay play from Joe. The first thing to look at is his initial footwork. He attacks the line of scrimmage instead of flowing to the outside. Why does he do this? Watch the running back. He starts by running down hill towards the line of scrimmage and then makes a lateral cut. Schmidt has to honour the move towards the line of scrimmage. As a result his angle to the edge isn't optimal.

At the same time, defensive end Romeo Okwara gets pushed back. This causes Schmidt to hesitate and changes his angle of pursuit. This slight hesitation and change of angle allows the pulling lineman to get enough of Joe to prevent him from making the tackle. I would have liked to see him fight through the block a little better, but ultimately, this was simply a well executed play by USC.

Snap #5- Incomplete pass

Schmidt 2

Eric: Flea-flicker by USC that falls incomplete. Shumate comes down into the box and blitzes, missing a huge sack after getting a hand on Kessler. Schmidt, completely unblocked, reads the play well but gets a little unlucky in running to the right of the motionless running back who just pitched the ball. Kessler sneaks the other way and throws the ball away as Schmidt only gets a piece of his ankles. Again, this is a very public missed tackle.

Larz: Agreed Eric, not much to say here. Good read, good aggressive play. Have to make the tackle. Schmidt takes an improper angle, partially because he was anticipating Shumate making contact and partially because the running back was in his way. Regardless, Schmidt (and Shumate) needs to make this play.

Snap #11- Pass for 15 yards

Schmidt 3.1

Eric: Schmidt hesitates ever-so-slightly in his zone drop and is a split-second late picking up the shallow cross from the receiver who motioned to the opposite side before the snap. He gets a piece of the receiver, who stumbles, but recovers for a 15-yard gain. Should this be an easy play for a 5th-year senior to at least limit this to a few yards?

Larz: This is a classic zone beater. You have two receivers influencing Joe to move to his left and another receiver coming from the other side of the formation moving left to right. The rule in zone is: if a player leaves your zone, don't chase, someone else is coming in. Schmidt does a nice job of staying disciplined and doesn't chase.

The challenge is that Schmidt is stationary and the receiver is running at full speed. This play is much more difficult than it appears. I'm not surprised that Schmidt couldn't make the tackle. It's tough to go from not moving to tackling a guy that has a 10 yard head start and is moving full speed. Well executed play by USC.

Snap #13- Rush for 3 yards

Schmidt 4

Eric: USC pulls 2 linemen, including the center who makes a bee-line for Schmidt. On a slow developing play this is impressive athleticism by the Irish as Jaylon, Day, and Schmidt all are too quick to get blocked and triple-team the ball carrier for the stop.

Larz: Really nice play by Schmidt. He understands that his job is to attack from the outside-in and Jaylon's job is to attack from the inside-out. He maintains the proper leverage, beats a block and meets Jaylon at the ball carrier. This is very good linebacker play from both guys.

Snap #14- Pass for 3 yards

Schmidt 5

Eric: Schmidt fakes a B-gap blitz on third down and back-peddles in zone coverage in the middle of the field. Kessler checks down to Davis out of the backfield and Schmidt makes the stop well short of the marker. A bit of a routine play for someone like Jaylon but it's nice smart football by Schmidt, too.

Larz: Nice play, nice tackle, well done.

Snap #17- Incomplete Pass

Schmidt 6

Eric: Onwualu blitzes off the right edge and is picked up by the back. Schmidt blitzes and does a good job wrestling with the tight end. Onwualu fights off the back and forces Kessler outside the pocket and near a flowing Schmidt who is credited with a QB hurry on the throwaway pass. I thought this was a good example of how Joe's lack of length hurts him a lot more than power or speed. He might be able to disengage and hit Kessler if he's taller and longer.

Larz: I'm not convinced this is a blitz. One of the hallmarks of the Brian VanGorder defense is using a blitz and engage technique. Essentially, when the player a linebacker is responsible for in man coverage stays in and blocks the linebacker can do two things. He can drop back and help out in coverage while spying the offensive player (in this case a tight end) or he can blitz and engage the offensive player (basically grabbing him and holding on).

The advantage of blitzing and engaging is the offensive player must block the blitzing linebacker. This prevents him from blocking someone else or double teaming another player on the defense. It also prevents a free release and can be very effective against teams that like to run screens. I don't know for sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if this is a blitz and engage call. Schmidt doesn't seem to be trying to get off the block until the very end when Kessler is clearly running for his life. If this is a blitz and engage technique, then it's actually a really good job.

Snap #21- Rush for 32 yards

Schmidt 7

Eric: Whole lot of missed tackles. Sweep to the right side. Jaylon gets off the tight end and misses the diving tackle. Farley comes down and beats the tackle's block but collides with Schmidt who also was beating the block from the guard. Russell gets a piece of Davis but can't bring him down. Trumbetti over-runs the ball carrier and misses the tackle before Rochell finally takes him down. Could Schmidt have done anything differently here?

Larz: It's hard to see, but pre-snap it looks like Schmidt is up faking the blitz. This is one of the disadvantages of that sort of pre-snap alignment. Being close to the line of scrimmage makes it very difficult to take the proper angle to get to the perimeter. More importantly, Jaylon Smith needs to do a better job of setting the edge. It's his job to force the ball carrier back inside as quickly as possible. Instead Smith tries to avoid the block and doesn't really set the edge. As a result, the inside pursuit can't get there.  Unfortunate pre-snap alignment and a poor job setting the edge doomed this play.

Snap #26- Rush for 2 yards

Schmidt 8

Eric: The left side of the O-line tries to push toward the sideline. Schmidt is left unblocked and fills the hole nicely for the tackle and is helped with the clean up by Jaylon. A bit too easy for the Irish on this play. Still doesn't look like Schmidt is comfortable wrapping up on his tackles, though.

Larz: Notice that Jaylon and Joe start at roughly the same depth. They are both unblocked (what was USC thinking?). Yet Schmidt is much more aggressive and easily beats Smith to the ball. Schmidt attacks, Smith hesitates.

Snap #28- Rush for 7 yards

Schmidt 9

Eric: Deep in their own territory on 3rd & long, USC simply hands off. Schmidt flows nicely and doesn't let the lineman defeat him. Jaylon comes across the field to limit the damage after ND only rushes 3 up front. Here's a good example of Joe doing some dirty work while Jaylon gets some of the glory.

Larz: The defensive end gets too far up the field and runs by the play so the edge doesn't get set. Once again, Schmidt is faking the blitz so he is a little too close to the line of scrimmage and has to take a pretty flat angle to the ball carrier. Even so, good job of taking on a block and getting in on the tackle.

Snap #33- Pass for 83 yards

Schmidt 16

Eric: This formation does not look good from the start for the Irish. They blitz from the top of the screen and 4 offensive linemen automatically release downfield. Schmidt takes a couple false steps on the run fake and is easily walled off by the left tackle. Shumate's angle is affected by the walled off Schmidt against Jackson's blazing speed and Farley is blocked a split-second before attempting a touchdown-saving tackle.

Larz: Schmidt doesn't read his keys on this one. He cheats a little. He sees the guard pull and gets sucked in by the run fake. The run to the opposite side isn't his play. He needs to let the players on the other side of the defense play the run. As soon as he sees the run fake away, he should be checking his side of the field for the companion play to the run (in this case a quick screen to the slot).

Once he realizes his mistake Schmidt overcompensates. Instead of staying to the inside, he tries to get outside leaving a large cut back lane. Schmidt tried to do everyone else's job on this play and in the end didn't take care of his own.

Snap #41- Rush for 65 yards

Schmidt 10

Eric: Rochell makes contact on Ronald Jones but misses the tackle in the backfield while being tackled himself by the lineman. Schmidt scrapes nicely off the tight end but can only whiff with his arm. Jones jukes Farley out of his jock for a long gain. Should this be a stop by Schmidt? How tough of a play is this for a linebacker in his position?

Larz: This one is on Jaylon Smith. Watch where he starts pre-snap and what he does as soon as the ball is snapped. He starts in excellent position and actually runs laterally away from the play after the ball is snapped. USC runs right where Smith should have been. I know what he is trying to do. His pass responsibility is to cover for Onwualu who is blitzing (which is admittedly a tough assignment). However, it's 3rd and 2. Smith needs to play the run first. This is an obvious run read from the second the ball is snapped.

Schmidt on the other hand plays this one well. He comes up hard, fills his gap, and then tries to find the football. Because Jaylon is nowhere to be found, Schmidt can't make the play. This one is not on Schmidt. Of course this is the type of play that some would use as evidence to argue Joe is a step too slow. In this case, they would be wrong.

Snap #43- Pass for 8 yards

Schmidt 11

Eric: Schmidt reads play-action and does a nice job immediately moving back and helping tackle Smith-Schuster on the slant. This is a pretty athletic, if not overwhelming, play from your Mike linebacker, no?

Larz: Yup. Nice play, doesn't look too slow to me.

Snap #47- Rush for 2 yards

Schmidt 12

Eric: Schmidt submarines the pulling left guard. Onwualu slices past the receiver's block but the running back jump-cuts out his way. Shumate misses the TFL on another nice cut from Davis. Schmidt gets back on his feet to make a diving tackle but Jaylon and Day clean it up just past the first down marker. To me this is excellent effort by Schmidt.

Larz: I like this play. Schmidt sees the pulling guard and attacks, no hesitation. Great job. Some won't like submarining the pulling guard, but I don't mind. Nothing wrong with making a pile in that situation. I would agree that Schmidt shows great effort on this play.

As for Shumate, that's the second tackle he's missed badly in the series of plays we've looked at here. Yet we haven't heard much on the message boards about Shumate being a step too slow, in fact he's been praised for his play (I would agree he's played well). Point being, a number of players missed tackles against USC, but Joe Schmidt seems to be the lightning rod for missed-tackle criticism.

Snap #49- Rush for 10 yards

Schmidt 13

Eric: Davis gets to the edge and cuts right past Redfield. Schmidt flows to the sideline for the stop. Giving up this yardage isn't fun but Schmidt at least makes a play at the end.

Larz: I hate to sound like a broken record, but this one really isn't on Schmidt. First Jaylon has to do a better job setting the edge. Next a defensive lineman gets pushed 5 yards down the field cutting off Schmidt's pursuit angle. Pretty tough for a middle linebacker when the edge isn't set and the d-line gets pushed backwards. While I don't like his first few read steps, Schmidt isn't the main culprit on this play.

Snap #50- Rush for 3 yards

Schmidt 14

Eric: Schmidt does a good job filling the hole and beating the lineman to make contact on the ball carrier. A lot of these types of plays tend to go unnoticed for linebackers.

Larz: Yup. Good fill, just wished we could have prevented a first down.

Snap #57- Sack

Schmidt 15

Eric: Schmidt  fakes a blitz off the left edge and then just waits there. Eventually, he strikes and makes contact with Kessler, who slips away and is taken down by Rochell for the sack. Another missed opportunity for a big play by Schmidt. Man, it seems like his cast really hurts his ability to wrap up.

Larz: When he decides to go, Schmidt is very aggressive. Unfortunately he takes a poor angle and ends up missing the tackle. Schmidt definitely has a tendency to be a little too aggressive and misses some tackles as a result.

Final Thoughts

Eric: Nearly every criticism with Schmidt begins with him not being fast/athletic enough to play linebacker for the Irish. He gets called slow a lot. But that has never seemed to be a big issue to me. His lack of length and being so short (and not awfully heavy) make it difficult at times to be a huge playmaker or excel as a middle linebacker. I don't see someone who's not athletic, though. What do you think? Does he look a step slower this year?

Larz: I wouldn't be surprised if the ankle injury has impacted his agility a little, I don't think it has impacted his straight line speed. Ankle injuries tend to have more of an impact on lateral movement as opposed to straight line running. I don't buy the argument that Schmidt isn't athletic enough. He's always covered a lot of field and is doing so this year. Where he tends to have trouble is he gets a little too aggressive and as a result misses some tackles.

Eric: With the caveat that Schmidt's under-sized do you think his ability as a power player from the linebacker spot is about what you'd expect at his size, a little worse, or maybe underrated?

Larz: It's under-appreciated. He is very good when you try to run right at him. In fact I would argue he is often better than Jaylon Smith at this. Smith sometimes attacks when teams run right at him (and he's good when he does that), but more often than not he hesitates. This doesn't happen with Schmidt, when he see's it he goes. He deserves a little more credit for this aspect of his game.

Eric: I think we can agree that Schmidt has struggled this year. He already has 2.5 more TFL and the same amount of QB hurries as last year, but he's averaging almost 2.5 less tackles per game with several high-profile missed tackles. I go back and forth with this issue. He'll never be a middle linebacker's middle linebacker, so to speak, and yet stopping the run hasn't been a major issue for the Irish. Still, he simply needs to make more tackles and he's missing out on being a difference-maker on a defense that, at minimum, could use some help. What area for improved play do you think Schmidt needs to focus on during the bye week?

Larz: I played and coached middle linebacker for many years. I really like Joe Schmidt as a middle linebacker. I think he has played well this year and I think many of the criticisms of him are unfair. Having said that, he has missed too many tackles. That needs to improve. If you take a close look at the missed tackles, they tend to happen when the player makes a last minute lateral move. Part of this is because he is aggressive and tends to almost lunge at ball carriers, part of this is likely a little less agility due to the ankle injury. Cut down on the missed tackles and Schmidt goes from having a solid season to an exceptional season.