The blitzing conundrum
When it works, it's great; when it doesn't, look out below
IOWA CITY -- Through three games, preseason doubts about Iowa's pass rush have shown up.
Iowa has two sacks, one from linebacker Anthony Hitchens and one last week from defensive tackle Darian Cooper. The two sacks are 11th in the Big Ten and tied for 108th nationally.
Cooper's sack was sort of a sigh of relief for Iowa's defense.
"We all kind of had a feeling that someone was going to get there this week," he said. "We were telling ourselves this was going to be the week."
It was Cooper's first career sack and that's kind of where Iowa's D-line is.
The front four doesn't have a huge pass rush resume. It's a relatively inexperienced group, with tackle Carl Davis and end Drew Ott in their first seasons as starters.
The blitzing changes everyone's job description just a little bit.
"We're not playing cover 3 whenever we blitz, we're pretty much playing man-to-man, head up," cornerback B.J. Lowery said. "Yes, of course, it's a lot of pressure on us, but we've got to hold up."
In last week's victory at Iowa State, the Hawkeyes blitzed nine or maybe 10 times. There was one play where Lowery rushed toward the line of scrimmage from left corner, but he said he's still waiting for the first corner blitz to be called.
All but one of Iowa's blitzes came on third and fourth down. The linebackers were called upon the most for blitzes, with safeties Tanner Miller and John Lowdermilk joining on a third-and-14 in the first half.
The results last week varied from a pair of TD passes to pressures that forced ISU quarterback Sam Richardson into early throws while a mouthful of helmet zoomed his way during the follow-through.
You probably noticed the touchdowns. One was the 67-yarder that breathed life into ISU when it trailed 13-0. The other was a 17-yard TD pass that pulled ISU within 27-21 with 2:26 left in the game.
Middle linebacker James Morris noticed the TDs. He wanted the second call back.
"You look at their last touchdown, where they ran a slant and we had a blitz on right there," Morris said. "That was an opportunity where I saw the quarterback check the play, I saw him look at the wide receiver. If I had it back, I wish I would've checked us out of the blitz.
"That's the Mike's judgment call, but we've got to play the defense that's called. That's one of those things you live with. Obviously, me as a player, that's something for me, I can look back at that and next time I can build on it."
Here's how it works: Parker calls the defense. Within those calls come "checks," which means the Mike linebacker, the middle linebacker, can audible. On the final ISU TD, Morris believed he could've checked Iowa out of the blitz and into coverage.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz said Morris is "easily his own worst critic" and that he's smarter than most of the coaches on staff. That it's not an easy job and they trust Morris implicitly in this role.
"They've [the defense] got to be able to process what's in front of them and make it fit," Ferentz said. "So, it's not always just, you know, not as simple as [former Iowa defensive coordinator] Norm [Parker] made it sound."
And the middle linebacker gets how much time to read a formation and what a QB may or may not do and then relay a change in call to his teammates?
"Not much," Morris said. "A split second. But it's fun. It's a feel thing. I wouldn't have been confident doing those things my freshman or sophomore year, but now, we can."
Morris didn't shy away from the question. While explaining the process, you could see that, yes, it really is fun for him. He enjoys the chess match within the cat-and-mouse within the game.
"When you're on the field there's sort of a hierarchy of decision making," said Morris, a political science major. "Safeties set the coverage, but everyone else has their own adjustments that they do. To preserve the order of communication, the Mike has the final say on checking out of a play.
"So if we check out of something, you have to have a feel for it, and when you make a decision, you have to make it quick and loud and clear."
Morris believes it's not so much lack of pass rush for the increase in blitzes, it's that the linebackers are a veteran group. Seniors Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey were the designated blitzers for the most part.
Of the nine blitzes, ISU nailed Iowa in just one. Richardson made a call to wide receiver Quenton Bundrage, who ran a slant into the middle of the field where linebackers usually drop in coverage. On the 67-yarder to Bundrage in the third quarter, Morris got close and Kirksey got in Richardson's peripheral vision. He drilled a short out to Bundrage and Lowery let him slip away, something he owned after the game.
Iowa didn't get any sacks out of the blitzes, but it did affect the timing of several plays.
-- On third-and-17 in the first quarter, Kirksey entered Richardson's field of vision and caused an early throw.
-- On a third-and-14 during ISU's third drive, Morris and Lowdermilk lined up on either side of the center. Protection collapsed there and defensive end Dominic Alvis broke free and caused a quick throw.
-- Third-and-9 on ISU's fourth drive and from the shotgun, all three linebackers blitzed. Tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat provided push up the middle. Hitchens got in Richardson's face and forced a throw before the receivers were out of their breaks.
-- On a third-and-5 in the second quarter, Morris and Kirksey came from the left edge. A running back picked up Morris and Kirksey came free, forcing an early and inaccurate back-shoulder throw.
-- ISU faced a third-and-4 on its first drive of the second half. The play was a zone-read run. Hitchens and Kirksey pinched from both edges. Morris made the tackle short of the first down.
-- In the fourth quarter, after the Cyclones recovered an onside kick, Iowa called a blitz on second-and-10. Morris wasn't blocked and forced an early throw that Lowery intercepted.
There are obvious reasons Iowa wants to see this work.
You don't want to blitz, not cause pressure and leave your corners in man coverage for more than six seconds. "When a blitz doesn't get home, that puts us in a bind," Lowery said. "We're got to cover more area and stay with our man even longer."
Also, Morris wants Parker to feel comfortable calling any defense he wants.
"He's not going to call a play that he feels we have difficulty executing," Morris said. "I think the reason you might be seeing more blitzes is we've got an older group, collectively older than we've had in the past. With that comes trust, we're able to handle the responsibility."
Not really. James is easily his own worst critic, or maybe not, because I guess I read an article where he gets guff from the fans which I'm glad they're not coaching our team. I can tell you that. But James is really hard on himself, probably too hard. I mean, he's a coach's dream. Great guy.
Yeah, what he does is similar to being a quarterback or a center, and our safeties, Tanner has brought us a lot of stuff back there too. But I'd say quarterback, middle linebacker has as much on his plate as anybody.I don't mean this in disrespect to anybody on our staff, including myself, but he's like way smarter than any of us, I know that. Other than Jim Reid, Jim was a Rhodes Scholar at Maine. I'm joking, he did go to Maine.
No, not wave it off, but there are options. They've got to be able to process what's in front of them and make it fit. So it's not always just, you know, not as simple as Norm made it sound.
Coach Parker calls the plays and within the plays there are built-in checks, things we want to do, situations for an audible. Those situations are pretty fleeting for a linebacker, but there were a couple of situations in the Iowa State where we had a pressure [called], we saw they checked their play, so I wanted us out of the blitz and we did. But then, you look at their last touchdown, where they ran a slant and we had a blitz on right there. That was an opportunity where I saw the quarterback check the play, I saw him look at the wide receiver, if I had it back, I wish I would've checked us out of the blitz. That's the Mike's judgment call. But we've got to play the defense that's called. That's one of those things you live with. Obviously, me as a player, that's something for me, I can look back at that and next time I can build on it.
New thing for defense -- Always been the case.
Uh oh moment -- no huddle come out in formation and have their play called. But then they have a coach in the box say, I think they're in this coverage, so we might want to run this. So they all look to the sideline, get the call and run the play. Or it's a situation where the quarterback comes up and thinks we're hiding a look or maybe we're going to bring pressure, so then he might check the play. That could be a hand signal, a gesture, it could be anything. For me, as player, my job is to be in tune with the game and understand those situations. Ultimately, it'd be a judgment call from me if I wanted to check out of the blitz.
How much time -- Not much. A split second. But it's fun. It's a feel thing. I wouldn't have been confident doing those things my freshman or sophomore year, but now, we can. -- It's tough, too. When you're on the field there's sort of a hierarchy of decision-making things. Safeties set the coverage, but everyone else has their own adjustments that they do. To preserve the order of communication, the Mike has the final say on checking out of a play. So if we check out of something, you have to have a feel for it, and when you make a decision, you have to make it quick and loud and clear.
Like the aggression -- I think the biggest thing is we execute well and practice the calls well, so coach Parker can feel like he can call any defense he wants. He's not going to call a play that he feels we have difficulty executing. I think the reason you might be seeing more blitzes or what have you, we've got an older group, collectively older than we've had in the past. With that comes trust and we're able to handle the responsibility.
We are, pretty much on third downs. It's a way to get us off the field. -- Conscious as a DB -- I'm still man-to-man. Either in press or off, it's the same to me. -- More man-to-man because they are blitzing more -- Goes hand in hand. -- Chang from Saturday night -- In and out call -- We had an 'in and out' call. Once my guy went in, I had another guy. I had another responsibility after that.
More pressure -- Yes. We're not playing cover 3 whenever we blitz, we're pretty much playing man-to-man, head up on. Yes, of course, it's a lot of pressure on us, but we've got to hold up. -- CB blitz -- You've got to wait and see. I've been waiting on that, too. It's what the offenses are doing to us, and what we want to do to that.Not home -- When a blitz doesn't get home, that puts us in a bind. We're got to cover more area and stay with our man even longer. Once the WR is running and he's looking back, you don't know what he's looking at. He could be looking at the ball, he could be looking at the quarterback, he could potentially be trying to block you. It makes it harder on us.