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Film room: Examining Northwestern's inconsistent Week 1 pass-rush and how it can improve

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With the secondary banged up, the pass-rush needs to step up.

NCAA Football: Nevada at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern's defense didn't play poorly in the team's 31-20 victory against Nevada Saturday, but it didn't play particularly well either. With a slew of injured players in the secondary and some other newcomers playing a lot, there was a bend-but-don't-breakness about the unit that eventually helped the Wildcats pull out the win.

One area where the D didn't do a whole lot was getting to Wolf Pack quarterback Ty Gangi; Mike Hankwitz's defense didn't record a single sack in the game. Defensive line coach Marty Long's advice this week is probably this simple message from Takkarist McKinley.

Get to the damn quarterback!

Long and Hankwitz will definitely be a little more nuanced than that, and there's a lot of film they'll be able to take from the opener that will help shape the coaching points and gameplan for Duke this coming week.

Here are some observations and analysis of the pass-rush from Week 1.

All videos courtesy of btn2go.com

Northwestern rushed four a lot

It was surprising that Hankwitz opted to rush four guys on most plays. That's the nature of a 4-3 base defense. You try to generate a push with your front-four, and the defensive ends are the most important rushers. In Northwestern's defense, the linebackers play a lot of zone behind the D-line.

The following play gives you a general idea of what that looks like schematically. There are four rushers, none of whom are able to beat their blocker off the line of scrimmage, which gives Gangi enough time to survey the field and find a receiver deep up the seam.

The NU defense works if any of the down linemen can generate pressure, which happened at times against Nevada, just not consistently.

In the play below, Trent Goens (No. 54) slides by the left tackle with a quasi-swim move, hurrying Gangi and forcing an errant throw on third down.

That just didn't happen enough Saturday, which is why I'm writing this article.

The defense could generate more of a rush if Hankwitz sends more rushers to the quarterback, but that's a tricky situation with the current state of the secondary. Bringing a safety into the box as a blitzer will leave at least one corner isolated on the outside, which isn't ideal. Blitzing a linebacker is another option, but we didn't see a ton of that Saturday, and that too opens up chunks of space in the middle of the field.

On one of the plays it did happen, middle linebacker Paddy Fisher (No. 42) rushed up the middle, but Jared McGee (No. 41) lined up as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme would, outside the left tackle, which meant Marcus McShepard (at the bottom of the screen) didn't have any safety help. Fisher didn't get to Gangi in time, McShepard got beat to the inside on a slant, and Nevada gets a touchdown.

That touchdown may be more a result of a coverage error than a pass-rush miscue, because the ball did come out quick. Gangi was getting rid of the ball quickly on short screens and quick-hitting routes throughout the game Saturday, which didn't allow the front four much time to pressure him. Getting the ball out of the QB's hands is a proven way to neutralize a pass-rush, which is why quarterbacks like Tom Brady avoid taking a lot of hits (I apologize for comparing Ty Gangi to Tom Brady).

Nevada coach Jay Norvell did sprinkle in longer-developing pass plays throughout the game, and those were the ones that often burned Northwestern.

On Nevada's second touchdown of the game, Joe Gaziano (top of the line) and Fred (bottom of the line) Wyatt weren't able to get pressure, and Tyler Lancaster's push (second to the bottom on the line) came too late, allowing Gangi to drop an accurate ball right into the hands of receiver McLane Mannix.

We saw flashes of where the pass-rush can go

Scheme-wise, there a few ways to try to throw off an offensive line without committing more numbers to the rush, and Northwestern tried them, just not a whole lot.

One of them is a stunt on the defensive line, a play where two of the down lineman cross, forcing the offensive linemen to communicate and pass their player along (like switching a pick-and-roll in basketball). The thing is, there isn't really enough time to communicate that switch, so the linemen have to read the play correctly to make sure the defender can't bust through. Plays like that provided mixed results Saturday.

In the next clip, Gaziano (No. 97, on the bottom of the line) and Jordan Thompson (No. 99, second to the bottom of the line) stunt, but it's delayed. Gaziano takes a few quick steps forward, before zipping past Thompson's right shoulder to force Gangi to throw the ball away.

The right guard and right tackle don't read the stunt quickly enough, Thompson gets a forceful push that takes two offensive linemen with him and Gaziano does the rest.

Thompson's push is something goes unnoticed on a play like this, but it's really important.

On another stunt, for example, this time with Gaziano and Alex Miller (the two linemen closest to the bottom of the screen the video below), Miller (No. 95) doesn't get the same push, which gives the O-linemen more time to react and figure out who they're supposed to block.

One thing Northwestern's didn't do much was stunt immediately on the snap of the ball, so the two plays above could've been something Gaziano picked up on and not actually planned. Part of the reason it's hard to plan a stunt is that if the offense runs the ball, the defensive linemen are in the wrong gaps and there are big holes. But on obvious passing downs, stunting between defensive linemen, and even the two defensive tackles, could be something that throws off the offensive line's rhythm.

Another wrinkle Hankwitz used was the zone blitz and zone blitz concepts. A zone blitz is when a defensive lineman drops into coverage and a linebacker or safety rush the passer. This way, the pass-rush numbers are the same, but there's more deception involved.

By zone blitz concepts, as opposed to just zone blitzes, what I mean is that nobody filled in for the D-lineman who dropped into coverage. Instead of rushing four D-linemen, the defense rushed three on several occasions.

Here's a zone blitz from Saturday, where Gaziano (bottom of the D-line) drops into coverage at the bottom of the screen, and Kyle Queiro (positioned in the slot above the D-line) comes on a blitz from the slot.

The play ultimately resulted in a first down, but part of that stems from how much Nevada spread Northwestern out. Queiro was rushing from a super wide position, so he didn't really have a chance to get to the quarterback. One thing Hankwitz could opt to do in the future is drop a DE or DT and bring a linebacker on the blitz, which didn't happen against the Wolf Pack. Had it been a linebacker rushing, and not Queiro, the rusher would've been closer to the line of scrimmage at the snap and in a better position to create pressure.

The next video is an example of the zone blitz concepts at play, as Gaziano (at the bottom of the D-line) drops into coverage and actually prevents the pass from being a completion.

On that play, the defense loses numbers in the pass-rush, but the coverage should be excellent with eight guys, and it was. Not every defensive lineman on the roster will be able to drop into coverage, but some of them certainly can, so plays like these can be effective.

We didn't see the stunts or zone blitzes that often Saturday, but Pat Fitzgerald probably didn't want to show too much in the season opener against a lesser team, so that makes sense.

Now that you understand some of the X's and O's at play, here are some personnel thoughts.

Gaziano is the team's best pass-rusher right now

Gaziano was on the field more than any of the other defensive ends Saturday, and he showed why. He was active in the pass-rush, and, though he could definitely be more consistent, he was around Gangi more than anybody else.

When Nevada tried to block Gaziano with a running back, which didn't happen that much, unsurprisingly, Gaziano took full advantage, which is what a coach would want any of his edge rushers to do.

No. 97 was relentless throughout the second half, including in crunch-time when bulldozed his way past the right tackle and a chip from the tight end before spinning his way to Gangi and forcing an incompletion.

There were a lot of plays where Gaziano almost got to Gangi, which could turn into sacks in the future if he can refine his moves or the coverage can hold for slightly longer (though I wouldn't hold my breath on that).

Samdup Miller will be a really good pass-rusher soon

Miller — a true freshman and early enrollee last spring — may not be Northwestern's best rusher now, but he could be at some point in the future, and maybe even later this season.

He needs to bulk up to be able to play the run against Big Ten competition, but, in a game when the defensive line didn't generate much havoc, Miller stood out.

Miller (No. 91 at the bottom of the D-line) gets a good push on the following play, getting close enough to Gangi to speed him up.

In the next clip, Miller (positioned at the bottom of the line) again forces the left tackle backward, which then forces Gangi to step up in the pocket. Miller should have created a sack on this play, but for the unbalanced nature of the rush. I'm not sure if this was by design or not, but Tyler Lancaster (No. 1, aligned to Miller's immediate left at the start of the play) chooses to try to rush around the top of the line, rather than rushing in his original gap. Had Lancaster stayed in his starting spot, Gangi would have stepped up right into Lancaster.

And on Northwestern biggest play of the game — Kyle Queiro's red zone interception — Miller was involved. Miller (lined up at the top of the line this time) doesn't quite get to Gangi, but he gets into the QB's line of sight and impacts the throw just enough to help force a mistake. Gangi's throw and decision were independently poor, and not directly forced by Miller, but the freshman was right in there, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Fitz has to like what he sees from his the younger Miller brother.

Tyler Lancaster is big and strong

We already knew how much of a physical freak Lancaster is, and though he's more of a run defender and than a penetrator on pass plays, he plays a role in the rush too. He's a load to deal with, as he shows on the following play, which he single-handedly wrecks.

For a player as big as Lancaster is to stay on the field for passing downs is incredible, and it's a testament to what kind of player he is.

Lancaster can impact the passing game with demolitions like the one above, but he, and Jordan Thompson, are more likely to affect the passing game by creating pushing the offensive linemen backward, which won't often result in sacks, but are still successful "rushes."

You'd like to see that push a bit more, but the defensive tackles are often eating double-teams, which makes that difficult.

Conclusions

Northwestern doesn't have a ton of explosive athletes on the edges, like Ifeadi Odenigbo was, so it'll have to create disruption either by being strong or being creative. You also need to be able to win individual battles at the line of scrimmage, and that didn't happen as much as it needed to defensively against the Wolf Pack. We saw glimpses of those wins against Nevada, but those short-lived glimpses will need to become extended stretches for the defense to be in the upper-tier of the conference. The cornerback position was decimated at the end of Saturday's game, and will probably experience depth issues for the next several games, at the minimum. The pass-rush is where Mike Hankwitz can mask his cornerback problem, whether that's by deception, adding rushers or even just player development. We'll see what he decides to do in the weeks to come.