Inside the Gameplan: Building a base pass rush

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In Super Bowl LIV, the San Francisco 49ers nearly took down Pat Mahomes’ Chiefs thanks to a dominant base pass rush that allowed them to restrain the lethal Kansas City passing game. Nick Bosa looked like the MVP of the game up until the 4th quarter, when KC started employing tempo and Mahomes made a few plays, leading to the sapping of energy from the pass rush and the inevitable avalanche of Chief scores.

A base pass rush is not enough to win high level games against great, HUNH spread passing teams. You still need to be able to win shootout style in the end. However, it’s still exceptionally useful and Baylor just proved that you can win a lot of games in this conference if your defense is good enough up front to focus on “bend don’t break” strategies on the back end. A strong base D paired with last year’s Texas offense guarantees at least 10 wins, but probably not a Big 12 title or playoff win.

As it happens, new Texas DC Chris Ash intends to install a method on defense that’s somewhere in between “bend don’t break” and Todd Orlando’s aggression in pursuit of such a base defense built around a strong base pass-rush. If he can build up the defense to execute that vision, it should pair with a senior Sam Ehlinger-led offense to generate a 10-win season and Big 12 title contention.

The three steps to a great base rush

There are three steps to mounting an effective base pass rush that can stymie good offenses.

  1. Coverage that makes the QB hold the ball for at least three seconds or past the first read at the end of his drop.
  2. Push in the pocket that doesn’t allow the QB to step up and find room to throw.
  3. At least two guys that can cause problems in a 1-on-1 matchup.

As Orlando’s units regularly demonstrated in 2019, if the QB doesn’t have to hold the ball for three seconds then it doesn’t matter how good your athletes up front are or how clever your blitz package can be, the ball is getting out before they reach the QB. If you had to devote five or more to the pass rush then it might really hurt when the pass does connect.

Having a single elite edge-rusher is also of limited value if the tackle can guide him upfield while the QB steps up or away, or if the offense can regularly send help from a RB or TE. An OLB named Ogbonnia Okoronkwo for Oklahoma had 17 sacks over 2016 and 2017 but you may not even remember him and likely don’t remember OU playing particularly good D in those seasons because the rest of the Sooner pass defense couldn’t check off all three steps. Where do you think opponents tended to shade help in pass-protection when they played Oklahoma in 2016 or 2017? That unit averaged 1.9 sacks per game in 2016 and 1.7 in 2017.

Then in 2019, the Sooners regularly got push up the middle with Neville Gallimore while alternating the angles at which their DEs and LBs attacked with the secondary playing press-man outside and bracket coverages on the slot. That unit had 2.5 sacks per game and won the Red River Shootout and Big 12 championship games because of their ability to pressure the QB.

If you can force the QB to hold the ball, don’t give him space to step up, and field two guys that need extra help shaded in their direction to ensure neutralization then you can take away an offenses’ ability:

-to throw from spread sets
-to push the ball down the field on anything but play-action with max protection
-to convert on passing downs
-to score many points

Leaning on the run game to move the ball is a recipe for scoring fewer than 25 per game, especially against a defense with Keondre Coburn and multiple faster than 4.6 athletes on the field who can chase down runners in the open field.

The Ash formula at Texas

Chris Ash’s 4-2-5 press-quarters defense is designed to control the game up front but to do so with a base, four-down pass-rush rather than a dizzying array of four and five man blitzes from a three-down structure like Orlando preferred. Since both coordinators prefer quarters coverage, there are a few areas of major overlap between the two approaches and a lot of significant differences.

Both approaches trust the cornerbacks to be able to stay over the top of the outside receivers on the sideline and Orlando even went on record last year in a media availability saying that he thinks this can be easier from a press alignment than playing off. A corner yielding space for the receiver is giving away the release and route options while an effective press limits the releases and allows the corner to zero in on particular techniques and releases that he knows will be coming because he’s shortened the menu. Whether or not Jay Alai and Ash can effectively teach press-man to the Longhorn DBs will have an enormous impact on this coming season.

The big difference is in the pass rush. Ash prefers to focus on fundamentals across the defense. Orlando’s charges struggled to maximize as technicians because of the constraints applied from the schematic need to teach every player in the backfield to essentially play multiple positions to accommodate the zone blitzes. Don’t be shocked if Joe Ossai has to spend some time honing his pass-rushing technique, even though he’s an obvious natural, because he spent so much of the last two years learning how to drop and play the run from a variety of LB positions.

When working properly, the result of the Ash approach should be bracket coverage on inside receivers from the safeties, press-man outside, and a four-man rush drilled in techniques for beating blocks and getting to the QB. All of those methods in conjunction should eliminate easy options for the QB and force him to hold the ball long enough for the base rush to get home or disrupt his ability to execute the play with the right timing.

But here’s how that looks against a particularly Big 12-ish concept like the dreaded slot fade.

Typically the read for the QB goes fade to stick route or else to the backside route by the RB. The defense needs to take away the slot fade and closely match the stick and backside RB route so that the QB either has to try and force something into a tight window underneath or else hold the ball and then take the sack.

Here’s another example against a concept like Mesh that’s designed to beat man coverage:

The initial reads for the QB are the wheel route by the RB, then the shallow by the slot, then that curl route over the middle by the Z receiver. A press-quarters D is designed to take away the curl route with safety help but the wheel might be an issue and that shallow route by the slot is hard to cover when the nickel has to chase him across the middle of the field where there’s a ton of traffic. The better the pass-rush is the fewer progressions that the defense actually has to defend, but when you sit in man coverage then you’re going to get some targeted play calls designed to make life hard.

In both instances, the offense is attacking with the inside receivers and the matching/man under coverage by the nickel and linebackers. If you don’t take away those quick reads with good underneath coverage then the ball is out before the pass rush matters. This is why the nickel position is best manned by either a corner or a particularly coverage-savvy safety and why one of the LB positions should be manned by a converted safety. Otherwise it’s hard to match and pressure the underneath routes well enough for a four-man rush to amount to much.

The floor for the 2020 Longhorn defense will be set by the linebackers and safeties, the ceiling by the cornerbacks.

From there you can start to worry about aligning the front to get after the quarterback. Texas has at least two of the three necessary ingredients to find real success here. Keondre Coburn, Ta’Quon Graham, Moro Ojomo, and T’Vondre Sweat (to name a few) give them a lot of guys that can push the pocket and also that can do damage in a 3-technique isolated on a guard. The guard across from the 3-technique can’t get help from the tackle if he’s across from Joe Ossai.

Ossai is being counted on to offer Texas at least one guy who’s a problem in most any 1-on-1 matchup. He’s looked most comfortable thus far in his career working in space on the edge against a tackle but he might also be effective looping inside on some twists and stunts. TCU built their defense in 2017 and 2018 around executing tackle-end twists with Corey Bethley and Ben Banogu.

The missing piece for Ash to find this spring is the DE opposite Ossai. The 3-techniques on this roster will likely be helpful for pushing the pocket and picking up sacks if and when Ossai or the coverage sends the QB into their waiting arms. But Texas needs someone else that can cause problems and can’t be handled by half-slide protections that shade help towards Ossai. Marqez Bimage is the current favorite but it’d also be helpful if Texas had a passing down package that got more speed on the edge.

When Will Muschamp was hired for the 2008 season he installed a defense that was very close to what Ash figures to run in 2020 and he made three tweaks to ensure that his base pass rush could give them what they needed.

He moved veteran corner Ryan Palmer to the nickel (then replaced him late in the year with 5-star Aaron Williams).

He played his most athletic linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy over the most dangerous coverage assignment confronting the two inside linebackers.

And he upgraded the speed and athleticism across the defensive front. RB Henry Melton was moved to DE, DE Lamarr Houston was moved to DT, and finally he spun down Sergio Kindle into full-time pass-rusher to play off Brian Orakpo.

Texas is looking to turn Ossai into their Orakpo, but to play exceptional defense in 2020 they also need to find a Kindle. There aren’t any 5-star, out of position pass-rushers on the roster (outside of Ossai). Jacoby Jones and Marqez Bimage may show something when they’re playing at a more natural position after cutting some weight and young linebackers recruited by Orlando like David Gbenda or Prince Dorbah may offer something in a third down package.

Ash is inheriting a deep roster with a lot of good athletes with potential for playing good defense and some solid experience. If he can optimize the fit in year one there’s a chance they can be a big part of a Longhorn breakthrough.

History major, football theorist.