Film Room: Miami’s relentless front 7 fueling national title bid

  • Oliver Connolly
  • Diehards
Nov 16, 2017

On a day in which the college football world descended on Miami, the Hurricanes’ front seven helped put the team  into the national football conversation: The U is back, baby!

The selection committee seems to agree. Miami moved up to No. 3 in the rankings on Tuesday behind a front seven that has an NFL prospect at each position. Some will be future studs at the pro level. They will all get drafted.

Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz (yep, the very same one) marshals the fun, funky, frisky group. He’s helped morph the front from a bunch of supreme young prospects into one of the most dominant groups in the nation in all phases of the game.

The typical freshman mistakes that blighted the group a year ago have evaporated. It shows. They fly to the ball with the kind of team speed that would make those mid-90s Canes defenses proud. And they do so with a sense of fun and swagger that’s uniquely Miami.

Coach Mark Richt is having fun. Diaz is having fun. Their front seven is whooping people. Let’s go into the Film Room to breakdown what makes this group overwhelming.

Run defense

Miami’s front seven obliterated Notre Dame’s run game last Saturday. The Irish entered the contest with an advantage. They were second in rushing S&P+, while Miami sat at 82 nd in rush defense S&P+.

Notre Dame has two first-round picks on its line – Quenton Nelson (guard) Mike McGlinchey (tackle). Miami didn’t care.

Brian Kelly’s side averaged 3 yards per rush attempt.

The Hurricanes slanted and angled to stop the onslaught of Irish gap runs; pulling and moving linemen, and sending the running back directly to a gap.

Throughout the year, Notre Dame has been able to out-leverage and then steamroll over inferior and smaller fronts once its big boys are out in space. Miami had a trump card: speed.

Richt’s outfit has jarring, swarming team speed. It’s the kind you feel down to your bones. That “oh jeez, the U is back” kind of speed. But it’s not just speed from the stand-up players. Everyone is recruiting sideline-to-sideline hybrids these days. It’s speed at every position. It’s quickness off the snap from the guys up front who’d at least push peak-Vince Wilfork in an eating contest.

NFL size with an NFL get off. That’s unblockable.

Notre Dame found out the hard way. Over and over again, The U’s front caved in the Irish’s line off the snap: Their signature “buck sweep” had no chance.

Miami’s down linemen slanted rather than rushing “head-up”. The idea: Beat the pulling lineman to his spot, and make it difficult for offensive linemen to flip their hips and block at the correct angle; Or shoot through the vacated space as a backside guy tries to cut or reach block.

It worked. The Irish’s line was made to look like a bunch of kids who didn’t belong on the field with NFL-caliber athletes. They start four seniors.

The reach block is the toughest in football. Whether it’s a zone-stretch play, or sealing the backside while the guy beside you pulls to lead block, an offensive lineman must get across the face of a defensive linemen, and get in the perfect fit, before that player zooms into the backfield.

It’s tough. When the guy you’re reaching for is springier than you it’s hard enough. Add in tentacles for arms and it looks like this:

That’s a ridiculous play.

The U’s edge defenders have the quickness to beat linemen to their spot. Plus, they have the length to control blockers or nonchalantly dispatch their flailing arms at will, without the opposing linemen able to lay a hand on their pads.

They play keep away. McGlinchley, at least, has the length. He couldn’t cope with the speed.

Notre Dame’s offense looked ill-prepared for Diaz’s game plan. The Canes’ defensive coordinator consistently slanted his guys toward the strength of the formation. It’s hardly earth shattering.

Speed kills. That’s bad news for any of the top teams whose offense is based around a gap-run scheme (hello, Alabama). And it’s equally bad news for those who’ll have to face Miami’s front without two potential first-round picks (hello, everybody else).

Anything that Kelly’s crew came up with to counter (including counters!) was rendered null-and-void by Miami’s discipline.

Here: The Irish ran a lead-zone option. They slanted their line with Miami’s line (toward the strength of the formation – where the tight end is aligned) and pulled their tight end across the formation to lead ahead of an initially unlocked edge defender – who was accounted for by a read. It was an RPO (run-pass option). If the edge defender over-committed, Wimbush would take off with his tight end out in front. If not, the quarterback would roll and look to his near-side receiver.

It was a fresh wrinkle to try to out leverage the defense.

Miami’s edge defender, interior lineman and backside linebacker read it perfectly.

No player exemplifies the side’s improved run-down discipline more than linebacker Michael Pinckney. If you like run-game nuances, Pinckney is F-U-N.

Pinckney leads the team’s linebacking corps in run stuffs. He has a knack for slithering and crawling through crevices in the front. As teams zone block, or pull linemen, the levels up front distort, giving a running back the chance to use his vision and agility to dance up field. Linebackers can get lost trying to find the ball carrier.

Pinckney navigates through it with slickness and elegance. It’s as if he’s moving in slow motion. Then, BOOM! He arrives like that early morning hangover that makes you swear off drinking:

That’s a great individual play. The type that ends up on a highlight reel.

This play speaks to Pinckney’s development within the team construct:

As a freshman, Pinckney would have been keen to hammer down inside and shoot toward the mesh point. Instead, he sat down and held the outside shoulder. He didn’t get caught up in traffic nor cheat inside. When the quarterback pulled the ball, Pinckney exploded and dropped the QB for a loss.

It’s a play that speaks to his football acumen (I hear you, Tony!). And it speaks to the team’s defensive culture.

It’s not just Pinckney. The team has two other studs at linebacker: Zach McCloud and Shaquille Quarterman (a future first-rounder). The three are sophomores. They played “see ball, get ball” football as freshmen. They were great at it. Now, they’re developing more nuance to their game. Good luck!

The burst of the front-four wrecks plays, while linebacking corps fly around clearing up the mess their buddies have made. TJ McIntosh is a one-man wrecking crew inside. His gravitational pull makes life easier for everyone orbiting him.

It gives the defense that swarming feeling.

I’ve written before about the concept of team speed. It comes not only from athleticism, but an understanding of the scheme, and trust in teammates. Understanding your job, and trusting your teammate to carry out his allows a group to cut loose.

Miami has elite team speed. It swarms to the ball:

I mean, come on! That’s four defenders closing in an instant on one player (including a late rotating safety. There’s speed everywhere).

And this isn’t cherry picking an example. This is happening on a quarterly basis.

The group has the hops to make splash plays. But great defense resides in the absence of spectacle. Third down stunts are fun and stuff, but you have to get there first. The Notre Dame game showed us this team is picking up some tricks of the trade to go along with its athletic profile. It was dazzling.

If this is the level of discipline we’re going to see from Miami’s front from here on out (games against Georgia Tech and North Carolina were not pretty early on), they’re going to be a problem for anyone.

How about that pass rush?

OK, how about we get to the stuff you enjoy: A nasty pass rush.

Get to third downs this group is lethal. It’s Miami at its best.  The team ranks 16 th in passing down sack rate, per Football Study Hall. Six down linemen have at least 2 sacks.

They have the perfect blend of players and plays. Diaz deserves credit for putting supreme athletes in spots to succeed.

Diaz likes to run split fronts on third downs. Meaning, he widens the front – playing with two three-techniques (lining up over the shoulder of a guard). That makes it awfully difficult to double team any interior defender (particularly someone with a good get off) and is a more potent look to run stunts, loops or any kind of gap exchange.

Diaz’s group bamboozled Virginia Tech with a series of stunts and twists.

Here: Edge defender Chad Thomas (No. 9) kicked inside as a three-technique, with Demtrius Jackson (No. 31) lining up at the other spot. Pre-snap, Diaz showed an offset five-across look. Five players were lined up on the ball; the two three-techs; two edge linebackers; a lineman (No. 33 Trent Harris) stood up in an A-Gap as though he’s a linebacker.

It’s a common third down look – albeit with a funky personnel grouping – as it gives every player a 1-on-1 look.

That’s where things get fun.

Both three-techniques were to rip across the face of the guard in front of them, hoping to draw help from the offensive tackles. It’s a classic stunt: Draw the double team, have an edge defender loop back inside and hope the defender gets into the hole before the guard can pass off the inside guy and get back into a pass set.

But only one edge defender looped. The weakside edge (away from the running back, left on the image above) looped inside. Opposite him, the linebacker dropped back into coverage, to take away any “hot” throw to the running back.

The nice looking five-across front morphed post-snap. Instead of sending everyone, one edge guy dropped out and Diaz brought an extra linebacker to blitz both A-Gaps (either side of the center).

When both of Miami’s three-techs got across the face of their respective guards, the Hokies were cooked. The running back stayed in to pick up one of the free A-Gap runners, but the looping edge defender ran untouched to the quarterback.

High-five party in the backfield, everyone’s invited.

Thomas has been particularly effective on stunts. He routinely beats the guards into their pass set, showing impressive bend as he swoops:

Another widened front. Another pressure. Another should-have-been sack.

What’s most impressive is the cavalcade of guys at Diaz’s disposal. One goes out, here comes another one. And the unit is able to get pressure rushing just three or four.

That opens everything for a play caller. Just when you think that fastball is coming, Diaz will change it up with a three-man double stunt. And when you sit on that routine four-man rush, here comes a flock of guys; who, and from where, is anyone’s guess.

The impact goes beyond sacks.

Quarterbacks are throwing from muddied pockets. They see ghosts, have free runners in their face or are forced to throw from awkward platforms. You know what comes next:

Diaz’s defense is sixth in the nation at limiting explosive plays. Teams do not have the time to set up deep route combinations. And even when they do, the Canes’ secondary has been largely on-point.

Bringing the swagger back

Miami’s swagger is back.

Swagger is not unrelenting dancing. Swagger is not even the greatest chain ever made by man. Swagger is that and much more.

Swagger is dropping an opponent, and jumping back into your position ready for the next play, with a gleeful look in your eye, as you watch the competitiveness drain out of the opposition.

They know you’re better. You know you’re better. They know, you know, you’re better.

Swagger is lining up the next play and dropping them again.

Those heyday “U” teams were remorseless. This 2017 outfit is trying to recapture that. A speedy run defense and ferocious pass rush will do that for you.

Make no mistake about it, this front-seven makes Miami a national championship contender. They can play with any offense is the country. The big question: Can the Canes offense score enough points?

I’m not sure you can win a national championship with this iteration of Malik Rosier at quarterback. He will be fine long term – excellent, even – but against elite defenses he has a chance to be exposed.

Richt and his staff have done a great job of coaching around his deficiencies.  They’ve built in a ton of lead plays, a bunch of creative draws and a nice QB-counter package.

(Hey, opposing teams, you should probably be running a bear front and spying Rosier on each and every down. Just a thought.)

The quarterback runs have been supplemented by a quality ground game that hasn’t declined despite the loss of top running back Mark Walton.

Yet the offense remains limited in what it can do. There’s too much lateral stuff. That will be an issue against teams with speed such as Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Auburn.

It’s tough to run a “play makers in space” offense when it takes Rosier as long as it does to get rid of the ball. And it’s not like has the arm strength to overcome his icky release (load-to-arrival time, folks).

Watch how long it takes the ball to get to the receiver when Rosier throws from the far hash on a bubble screen:

Ugh. It was a long, winding hey-guys-here’s-what-throw-is-coming delivery. And the ball was dying as it approached.

It’s not like he can’t make every throw. When everything is working in sync and his footwork is right, Rosier can rip it. He’s just nowhere near consistent enough.

That will place more burden on the defense to win games as it heads through its championship stretch; starting with the ACC title then onto the playoffs.

But it would be tough to count against them at this point. What the Hurricanes’ front did to Notre Dame’s offense last week was the most impressive thing I’ve seen from any team this season.

Richt was fired from Georgia after 15 years of “not winning the big one.” Diaz was run out of Texas when the school needed a fall guy for another failing era. In their second year together at Miami, their front might carry them a neat redemption story; to heights many doubted they could reach.

At the very least it’s great to have The U back playing this kind of football in meaningful games. Welcome back, Miami. You’ve been missed.

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