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FILM ROOM: Northwestern’s elite pass defense

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Ahead of tomorrow’s matchup with one of the best offenses in the country through the air, we look at how the ‘Cats will try to stop them.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Each week, Inside NU Film Room will allow one of our writers to dive into the highlights from Northwestern’s past games or future opponents in order to give you the quality analysis you need heading into the following week. As Justin Fields and a stacked OSU passing game enters Evanston, we decided to take a look at how NU’s pass defense has been able to find success in recent weeks.

Despite Northwestern’s 1-4 record, the defense has been doing its part. Last week we discussed how the group has tightened up against the run, but Northwestern’s pass defense remains an under-the-radar unit that is currently one of the best in the country.

The Wildcats are currently 11th in the nation in pass yards conceded per game, giving up an average of 176 after five contests. In its past two games, the team has given up 149.5 yards per game through the air. Those are elite numbers, especially for a team that can’t figure out how to win a game.

On Friday, however, Northwestern will be dealing with a whole new beast. Justin Fields leads an Ohio State aerial attack that is incredibly efficient. While 246 yards per game might not stand out, Fields has done a phenomenal job at taking what defenses have given him. The Georgia transfer is completing passes at a 69.5 percent clip and has tossed 18 touchdowns to only a single interception.

Let’s take a look at what Northwestern will be bringing to the table when the Buckeyes throw the ball.

Forcing the underneath throw

A crucial element that has gone into limiting the success of opponents’ passing games has been NU’s ability to force QBs into throwing to the flat, or just generally dumping it off, with consistency. This, always an emphasis under DC Mike Hankwitz’s oft-cited bend-but-don’t-break style, has been even more effective than usual so far in 2019, allowing the ‘Cats to force teams into long yardage third down situation and limiting what any offense can do.

In this example against Wisconsin, Northwestern brings three rushers with Earnest Brown dropping into coverage. The secondary gives Coan no options to throw down field, and the rush is effective in shortening Coan’s mental clock. The result is a checkdown to Jonathan Taylor, who loses yards on the play.

Northwestern consistently forced Nebraska quarterbacks into making similar decisions two weeks ago. On this long second down in the fourth quarter, the ‘Huskers ran a play-fake in an attempt to get a receiver open up the seam. Again, the NU secondary holds strong, already cheating down the field a bit, and forces a throw into the flat, creating another loss.

Sacking and Tackling

The nature of defending the pass goes far beyond the secondary, and 2019 Northwestern has thus far been a perfect example of that. The efforts of the defensive line and the defense’s collective improvement on tackling, taking what started the season as an atypical weakness and turning it into a decided strength, has had an immense impact on the success the defensive backs have been able to have.

On the designed swing pass below, things, as designed, come down to a one-on-one play in the open field between a good athlete and a Wildcat defender.

Northwestern wins the battle, as it has consistently done across the past two games.

Take a look at the effort from true first year Coco Azema below. He sticks with his receiver on an out route before standing him up and executing the tackle. These are the types of play that Northwestern needs to make consistently in order to continue limiting offensive explosiveness (especially against a team, like OSU, that is chock-full of athletes), something they struggled slightly with earlier this year.

Further, NU’s ability to scheme its way into sacks or create coverage sacks has paid dividends in establishing an elite pass defense. In the clip below, Travis Whillock executes a disguised blitz that Jack Coan isn’t able to identify, allowing him to get to the Wisconsin quarterback untouched. This type of design is vital when you’re facing an offensive line that is superior to your defensive line, as Ohio State’s will be, at least talent-wise.

The sack below represents a different play development. In this instance, it’s the secondary that does the work, limiting Adrian Martinez’s options and allowing the line to converge to bring the quarterback down. These kinds of coverage sacks are often difficult against teams with mobile QBs, but the pass rushers do their part as well, staying disciplined and not allowing Martinez to escape.

There’s no question that this Ohio State passing offense is unlike anything Northwestern has seen thus far this season, but if the ‘Cats are to have any shot of pulling a miraculous upset, they’ll have to keep executing on the points above at a high level. So far, the Wildcats have excelled at taking away the big play (one of the hallmarks of any Hankwitz defense), which is what ended up burning them against the Buckeyes in the 2018 Big Ten Championship.

As Mountain Tiger pointed out in his excellent fanpost yesterday, which covered the newly released FEI stats, the Wildcats are literally the best in the country at limiting explosive plays when examined on a per-drive basis. With the majority of big gains nationwide coming either through the air or via quarterback scrambles, pass defense contributes by far the most significant amount to that number.

The sure tackling and disciplined coverage/rush laid out above, which have, of course, been the main reasons for opponents’ lack of explosiveness, must continue on Friday. Otherwise, Ohio State’s offense will run roughshod over the ‘Cats once more.