Thursday, September 07, 2006

Lion Taming | by Michael

Some thoughts on attacking (and defending) the Paternos after watching the Akron-Penn State game.

• Akron consistently put 8 men in the box to stuff Penn State's rushing attack. They also blitzed a lot to put pressure on Morelli, though they never really got to him. To put it nicely, the Zips are probably mediocre at best on defense, although they do feature former Miami Hurricane/Rutgers Scarlet Knight Nate Robinson. The Zips made ten tackles for negative yardage, so their aggression clearly paid off at times. Penn State doesn't have a dominant front line, and the Zips showed that it can be exposed.

• Morelli is not very mobile, so if I'm Minter, I'm not worried about containment. I would expect the defensive line to aggressively shoot the gaps on passing downs. I'm not sure they'll do that on first and second down, though, since our linebackers appear to be somewhat vulnerable. Minter may want to use our defensive line to protect the backers and allow them to flow to the ball. For what it's worth, I also suspect we'll see more stunts like ones used in the 2nd half against Georgia Tech. The Irish will use the quickness they have upfront (Laws, Abiamiri, Landri) to be disruptive, and Morrice Richardson will rush off the edge on passing downs. Penn State does have a good left tackle in Levi Brown, one of the best in the country, so I would expect the Talley/Frome combo to be neutralized all day.

• Will Minter blitz to get more pressure? I'm going to guess that we'll pick our spots. Against Georgia Tech, in the first half we often blitzed Mike Richardson from the slot, but the Yellow Jackets also had only one receiver who could really hurt the defense. And that he did -- in the first half. Calvin Johnson had two big catches for 74 yards on plays where Richardson blitzed. Consequently, in the second half we doubled Johnson a lot more and blitzed Tom Zbikowski instead. Zibby was never the safety on Johnson's side, and so we could maintain the double coverage that shut Johnson down in the second half.

• With that said, Penn State has speedy receivers, and I'm not sure that the staff will want to leave them in single coverage (although our defensive backs covered extremely well last week). The game plan might be to confuse Morelli through lots of pre-snap movement and disguised coverages. For instance, showing cover 2 and rolling it over to cover 3 or cover 1. Showing zone (DBs 5-7 yards off the ball), and then quickly moving up to press receivers just prior to the snap. Stuff like that. As a result, the Irish may be able to confuse Morelli enough that the front four can generate enough of a pass rush.

• Now, Penn State's offensive staff clearly has a dilemma. They obviously saw that we have issues in our base defense, but their TEs are terrible. These guys have been getting ripped by their fans for their inability to make basic blocks last week. Confidence is low. The Nittany Lions will want to run the ball, but since they possess three truly talented WRs, they will have to leave one of them on the bench to encourage the Irish to use their base 4-3. Penn State's strength allows us to avoid what may be one of our biggest weaknesses. Conversely, what they would need to do in order to coax the Irish base defense will simultaneously weaken their offense.

• Everyone talks about Penn State's linebackers and they are very good. They've switched to this new 3-4 defense that will allow them to put their best eleven defenders on the field. You can't blame them for wanting to do that. However, they used outside linebacker Tim Shaw as a rush end quite a bit last week. Shaw goes 6-1, 238 lbs, and he doesn't put a hand on the ground, he stands. Jim Shaw was the starting DE but is now out with an ankle injury, so Tim is expected to stick at end and play a lot more snaps. Against Akron that kind of size sacrifice can work. But now he'll line up against Ryan Harris, probably the quickest lineman on our roster, and one of the better left tackles in the country. And if ND also puts a TE over there, it's going to be much harder for Shaw to make plays. Linebackers can be good at shedding blocks, but they also like to avoid being engaged. With Harris and either John Carlson or Marcus Freeman right on him, I'll take ND's chances every time. I think it's a match-up where we can run on them.

• Across the front, PSU only has one good DT (Jay Alford). The other three defensive linemen have a combined three starts (all against Akron). Depth is a huge question mark. At the same time, their secondary has talent, but it's youthful. Even though many prognosticators are suggesting that Penn State (and others) may copy the Georgia Tech gameplan, I think that may be a bit premature. Penn State will probably not blitz all that much. Three reasons. First, blitzes can give up big plays, and given Paterno's general conservative nature, he may not want to ask Morelli to carry too much of the load in his first road test. If Penn State gives up points quickly, it's asking a lot of a starter with only one game under his belt. Second, does Penn State really want to put their younger players in man coverage with meager help against experienced receivers like Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight? Finally, the Irish haven't demonstrated yet that they can actually kick a field goal. Defenses are going to be a lot more conservative against us in the hopes that the offense stalls in the redzone. The absence of a proven kicking game puts more pressure on the offense, not less.

• If I had to guess, ND will use a lot of two-TE packages...this is a backtrack for me as I originally thought we'd spread out their linebackers and even try to force substitutions by bringing in extra wide receivers. However, the weakness of this Nittany Lion defense will be the front four, and I expect the offense to pound, pound, and pound some more. We'll also open it up with more play-action than we saw last week. Their safeties, who may be asked to help out in the running game, could be prime targets for play action fakes.

• Ultimately, I think Penn State won't get too aggressive with the blitzes, as I think their gameplan will be more conservative, and I don't think they want to force Morelli to have to win the game on his own if they give up points on big plays early. State has a great kicker in Kevin Kelly, so they will want to limit the number of possessions and hope they can stall us in the red zone and force us to attempt field goals. It's more advantageous for them to play very conservatively on defense. However, that strategy may also allow us to tire them out by the 4th quarter with long drives made up of short passes, runs, and the occasional deep play action pass. The Irish should win not only the time of possession battle, but more importantly, the game.