Florida vs Tennessee: Film Review – Defense

Florida Gators
Photo credit: Jordan Herald, Florida Gators (damn good shot, Jordan)

Florida’s 2020 season has overall been a successful one by most measures. The Gators are 8-1, ranked in the top ten in every major poll and are four wins away from securing the program’s fourth national title.

But in order to obtain that national title, there’s a lot of work to be done on the defensive side of the ball. There have been some signs of improvement recently, but there’s still a great deal to work on— as evidenced by what happened when the Florida defense took on a poor Tennessee offense that decided to start true freshman QB Harrison Bailey. As site editor Neil Shulman says all the time, I’m going to “keep it respectful but keep it real.”

I broke this down into two parts, and took a look at how the front seven and secondary played against an overmatched Tennessee offense that has been a massive disappointment in 2020.

Front Seven

The defensive line has easily been the most consistent aspect of a frustrating Gators defense this year. Kyree Campbell returning to the starting lineup on top of TJ Slaton’s continued progression has made the middle tough sledding for opposing offenses in the run game. But the biggest improvement outside of Slaton is with Brenton Cox’s improvement as a run defender. He has very quick hands and is quite nimble for an edge rusher. On this play below, we see Slaton barreling over the LG which immediately makes the RB have to make a jump cut way in the backfield. He ends up running right into the waiting hands of Cox who uses his speed to slip out of the way from the RT.

I am a huge fan of Slaton. As a guy who was originally recruited and rated on 247 as a offensive linemen, he sure is figuring out how to use his size and strength to control the line of scrimmage. Tennessee has a very talented offensive line, at least based off the recruiting numbers and the pre-season hype for that unit. On the next play he gets under the LG’s chest and pushes him back into the RBs running lane, this ends up causing the RB to trip over the foot of the LG, which was a fortunate occurrence for the Florida defense because it looks as though the RB had quite a bit of running room before an unblocked Florida defender came into the picture.

Here we go. Classic 3rd and Grantham, as fans like to say. 12 to go for Tennessee with a true freshman QB under center shouldn’t result in such an easy conversion for a first down. The biggest issue here isn’t necessarily the play call, it’s that Ventrell Miller is… shall we say… not at his best in pass coverage. If this is man, I have no idea what kind of technique he’s using here, if it’s zone, he’s way too lazy in how he plays this down. As long as Grantham is the DC at Florida, this staff needs to desperately find a linebacker who is a significant upgrade over Miller as a linebacker in coverage. He’s solid against the run, and for that reason he definitely deserves playing time, but there simply has not been noticeable progress from Miller in this department.

I will be taking a look at some of the official numbers for Florida’s defense and offense after the LSU game, specifically I want to see how often Grantham dials up blitz packages this season compared to last year. To my eyes it seems like this defense blitzes less, arguably because of how poor the secondary is when left on an island. But here we get a cover 1 look from Grantham, both Bogle and Burney come free on the blitz as the LT is overwhelmed and doesn’t commit to a specific blitzer. You can see at the far left of this GIF why I think Grantham is more timid to blitz this year, you see the large cushion the Florida DB gives to the slot receiver and he comes very open at the line of scrimmage on the comeback route.

For as bad as Miller is dropping into coverage, he’s a suitable, if not good, downhill linebacker. Once again Grantham dials up an aggressive cover 1 look here with Miller getting to the QB first and Cox coming in at the end after utilizing a beautiful spin move on the LT. Will note that the secondary looks to be in better position across the board here, so give Grantham credit where it’s due for this successful third down call.

College football fans love to look at simple stats and form an opinion off of those stats. For Florida fans, it’s labeling Miller “good” or “great” confidently without really paying attention to the tape. This isn’t the first time in this game Miller popped up on film with a lazy tackle attempt, I’m not sure if he takes plays off (see the above GIF of him in pass coverage) or he just overthinks things from time to time. Because we know he’s capable of better than this. And yes, I’m sure he got yelled at in the film room for this. But anyway, this should have resulted in a 2nd and 7 for Tennessee, not a 15 yard run.

Sometimes I’m simply stupefied at how unsuccessful Florida is at tackling ball carriers. I get this is the end of the game, sure, you could argue that the defense is checked out, and that’s not even totally invalid, but unless I develop the ability to see what one thinks, this is just poor defense from a front seven that does this every game, and oftentimes in non-garbage time scenarios. It’s specifically embarrassing when both Diabate (generally a solid tackler) and Stiner (not so much) get to the runner at the same time and neither bring him down. That, and yes the bold text here is absolutely warranted, can’t happen. I’m a little less negative on Jesiah Pierre missing the tackle because he had his back turned to the runner until the last second. There is no telling if Tennessee scores a TD if Diabate and Stiner did their job in the first place, but it’s Tennessee, don’t hand them TDs on a silver platter because you routinely believe that tackling with solely your shoulders is the best approach to playing defense in the SEC.

Secondary

Maybe it’s a residual effect from his knee injury in 2018. Maybe something else in his body is injured and he’s just not telling us. Maybe he’s got something weighing on his mind that’s distracting him. And I’m not discounting any of those as real possibilities, and legitimate explanations. But while the cause is up for debate, the effect is not: Marco Wilson is not an adequate starting cornerback in the SEC right now. I’m not mincing words here. Marco Wilson was borderline elite as a true freshman corner and I was confident he would end up as a first round pick years down the line. But now? He is the weakest link on the Gators’ first string defense, which considering how ineffective Shawn Davis, Donovan Stiner and Brad Stewart have all been at safety is most decidedly not good. The only thing Wilson does consistently well is run fast. He can run stride for stride with most receivers he covers, but the problem is he has unbelievably awful technique from there. This is a fine throw from a true freshman QB on 3rd down from his own endzone and the Tennessee offensive line gives him a clean pocket, but what is Wilson doing here? It’s as if he doesn’t think there is a chance the ball is thrown at him, he’s stuck to the receiver until the last moment where he somehow ends up several yards from having the ability to make a play on the ball and this becomes an uncontested catch for first down.

The closest defender to the RB swing pass is Zach Carter, who isn’t exactly a slowpoke but doesn’t have the speed to makeup the difference when chasing a RB from behind. Meanwhile, the next closest defender is James Houston IV, who doesn’t come into contact with the runner until he’s a yard past the first down marker. The defense has been slightly better at minimizing these kinds of plays recently but they still happen too much for a team that has national title aspirations and is playing arguably the most dangerous offense in the country in eight days.

I’ve seen a couple people who break down film say they didn’t like the defensive call on this play, but I don’t particularly have a problem with it. Pre-snap, Tennessee has two running backs in the backfield, Florida matches it with two linebackers, the corners are up near the line of scrimmage not giving any free releases to the WR. The only issue I have is with Stewart being in the nickel spot, replace him with literally any other DB not named Wilson and you get more athleticism on the field. The biggest issue on this play isn’t Grantham’s play call, it’s just plain old bad defense from the linebackers to the secondary. To be fair, there is definitely a hold on Ventrell Miller, I’m not sure if he gets to the swing screen if he wasn’t held, he’s not that fast. The two primary issues here are that 1) Stiner is incredibly slow to react; it’s an obvious swing screen early into the play development (and with the reduced crowd capacity, there’s no way in hell he didn’t hear the coaches all yelling, “SCREEN! SCREEN!”) but Stiner doesn’t start gunning for the RB until the RB is in full stride with the ball and then he takes a terrible angle and runs himself out of the play and 2) Wilson gets manhandled by a WR here, and… I’m sorry, but I’ll again cite Neil’s favorite line on his podcast: “keep it respectful but keep it real.” Keep it respectful means acknowledging that I have no reason to believe Wilson isn’t trying. Keep it real means acknowledging that this kind of play is going to kill the Gators down the stretch against the likes of Alabama. And this is not the first time that Marco Wilson has put something like this on film. Or the second. Or the third. Or the tenth. This is less scheme and more of a player problem.

Now this next one is a two parter. For starters, this is a terrible formation to run out against what Tennessee is showing here. You have two WRs with only one corner over the top. Obviously pre-snap Florida doesn’t know that Tennessee is running a quick screen to the WR to the bottom of the screen, but that shouldn’t matter, where is the audible? Why does no one on the field or any of the staff notice this mismatch in personnel? There are an endless combo of plays Tennessee can run with these two WRs at the bottom that would have resulted in a large gain because of what Grantham dials up here.

Here is the result of the play. Not so surprisingly it’s an easy first down conversion for Tennessee because you get a screen against one corner.

I could have put this in the front seven section if I wanted to but I stuck it here because of the safety blitz. Grantham likes to call this once or twice a game and while we all have are very rational, fair arguments against Todd Grantham, his usage of these safety blitzes USUALLY work in Florida’s favor. No third and Grantham here.

I wanted to highlight this play because while there is a gain of yards by Tennessee, I thought the secondary did a fine job of stringing this play out and not getting burned by the end around. End arounds are probably one of my least favorite offensive plays to watch as they normally don’t work how offensive coordinators think they will work, and against a Florida defense that generally has average at best awareness of developing plays, Jaydon Hill does a good job of tracking this and and keeping outside contain, this way if the ball carrier cuts this inside Hill is trying to funnel the WR into defenders. Trey Dean comes in for the tackle after Hill misses the tackle but overall I liked the discipline the secondary showed here.

The last two parter I wanted to focus on, despite the game arguably being out of hand here, is because of who Florida has on the horizon. I’ve already highlighted other plays where either a combo of poor play-calling by Grantham and a lack of awareness by the players, or one more than the other, has led to looks like this:

Alabama likes to throw swing passes to the RB, and Najee Harris is a problem with the ball in his hands. How a defense for a top ten team routinely gets this lost with something as simple as a RB swing pass I do not know. But this is bad enough to do against the 109th ranked scoring offense in the country, do this against the 3rd ranked scoring offense in the country and Alabama is going for the all time SEC Championship Game high score.

Conclusion

As this is my first piece for In All Kinds Of Weather this year, I’m going to do some catching up in this section.

For all the complaints of Todd Grantham being the worst defensive coordinator in the country (he’s definitely not) I must say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some of the adjustments since the Arkansas game. On the season, Grantham has actually been better out of halftime than Dan Mullen and offensive coordinator Brian Johnson. Don’t believe me?

Florida’s offense averages 23.8 PPG in the first half and that number drops to 18.2 PPG in the second half on the season. For the defense? On the entire season they allow 12.7 PPG in the first half and 12.4 PPG in the second half. That isn’t a monster drop, it’s so minuscule it seems silly even mentioning, but here is the important number, over the last 3 games Florida’s defense has allowed 6.3 PPG on average in the second half (the first half number of the last three games is down to 9.0 PPG). Florida’s defense, solely in the second half over the last three games would rank tied with Georgia at 12th. Regardless of your views on Kirby Smart and Georgia, that defense is undeniably stacked with talent.

Context is important, and I understand that Florida isn’t playing elite offenses, but this didn’t stop Florida from allowing 20+ in all but the Missouri game prior to this 3 game run of Grantham hitting the right buttons out of halftime. I wanted to provide these numbers before actually getting to my closing remarks on the Tennessee game.

I know I have the reputation as the killjoy, the overly pessimistic fan, and, well, for being @GatorCritic on twitter. But I simply let the tape dictate my opinions. And what I saw on tape was a Florida defense that actually played Tennessee well… for the most part. Tennessee struggled to run the ball, they had only 94 carries on a ridiculous 39 carries, some of this takes into consideration QB sacks and scrambles, but that still works out to 2.41 YPC for Tennessee. In this three game run where Florida’s defense is actually showing progress, they kept Kentucky to 3.70 YPC and Vanderbilt to 2.56 YPC. These are legitimate improvements by the run defense.

My biggest issue in terms of this Tennessee game is the efficiency of Tennessee’s passing game. The 240 yards allowed by Florida isn’t cause for concern at first look, the 73% completion percentage is cause for concern to me, and while these numbers may not scream at you at first glance, the tape and the numbers are on the same page. This defense gave up way too many easy short throws where there is absolutely no defender within 5-10 yards of the pass catcher and while this possibly was Granthams plan because it being Harrison Bailey’s first start, do I really need to put into words what will happen if this defense allows north of 70% against Mac Jones?

The defensive line is on top of their game, while I don’t think Cox is quite at that level where he really should be thinking of declaring for the draft, his quickness gives OTs problems. He was a real issue for Tennessee, plus Slaton was dominant and frankly nearly unblockable as a whole by the interior of Tennessee’s line. And oh yeah, Carter is still doing some good things and must be factored into opposing game plans.

The linebackers on this team are a bit frustrating to watch to me— in part because they’re so talented. Guys like Khris Bogle, Mohamoud Diabate, James Houston IV and Ventrell Miller are all highly athletic guys who are above average to good pass rushers when called upon; Miller was named SEC Defensive Player of the week and Houston IV is quietly developing a reputation for delivering some of the more punishing hits in the SEC this season (despite missing several games due to a hamstring injury). But none of them are particularly strong in pass coverage, and many of the instances of Florida allowing second or third and long completions to opposing offenses comes with any one of these linebackers dropping back into coverage. And that’s very, very frustrating— and not a good sign with just one more game to fine tune things before heading into Atlanta.

Lastly, the secondary. And I left them last for a reason. The safeties on this team are downright infuriating to watch. This is the most respectable way I can put it. Coming into this year many preview pieces saw Brad Stewart, Shawn Davis and Donovan Stiner as respectable, if not strong points for the Florida defense— in part because of some of the big time plays they’d made in years past. I don’t think anyone expected elite play from these three, particularly with the lack of an offseason to shore up the fundamentals, but I do think most people expected better tape than what we’ve seen so far. While Davis was out against Tennessee, Stiner and Stewart simply did not put together game film that is conducive to winning at the SEC level. I’m sorry, but they just didn’t. Watching the angles and reaction time they present is— and this is putting it kindly— frustrating.

Marco Wilson was someone I touched on above, and don’t need to go into any further detail about how disappointing he is as a corner, because I feel like that’s beating a dead horse. Florida really only has two reliable corners right now, Jaydon Hill and Kaiir Elam (who’s been named as a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award). Elam is the better of the two; he’s the one guy that pops up the least on film and this is a plus attribute to have because that means QBs really haven’t been targeting Elam, and he’s been solid on the rare occasions where he does get targeted. He’s the guy Florida needs to have shadow Devonte Smith on 100% of the snaps in the SEC Championship game. Chester Kimbrough is fine, I think he lacks some of the speed and quickness that Hill, Elam and Wilson do which is why he only plays sparingly, but there’s promise there. From a talent and athleticism point of view, Florida has those in spades at corner, it’s the technique that usually haunts this unit.

Ultimately, outside of a handful or two of plays, I didn’t roll my eyes nearly as much as I originally thought I would while composing this piece. The defensive staff has to figure out how to eliminate the plays where the entire linebacker group and secondary gets run off for a wide open swing pass or the numerous times an offense somehow has a 2 on 1 or 3 on 2 advantage (i.e. 2 receivers with 1 corner over them), but other than these mental lapses in play-calling and awareness I think if Florida can make the necessary adjustments to keep improving against LSU we could potentially see a real game against Alabama and not the 55-24 thrashing so many people (like myself) believe they’ll see.

So having said all that, here’s hoping the Gators use the live reps in this LSU game tomorrow to make one last round of adjustments and best ready themselves for the biggest game this program has had since 2009.

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