Film Breakdown: UConn Defense vs. Maryland Offense

Mitch Stringer-US PRESSWIRE

Today we break down the film for how the UConn defense needs to combat Maryland's dynamic quarterback C.J. Brown and All-ACC wide receiver Stefon Diggs.

Let’s get this out of the way.

Should the Huskies impose the same self-inflicted wounds they did against Towson—poor run contain and discipline—even on just a few plays this Saturday night, they’re going to get blown out.

Plain and simple.

Now, let’s change the game.

Should the Huskies keep contain against the run, yet let loose one of the top three offensive players they’ll see all year, Stefon Diggs, they’re going to get blown out.

Plain and painfully.

Finally, let’s change the game one more time.

Should UConn force a couple turnovers, limit Diggs and maintain decent run contain, I’m telling you that we are going to have one hell of a fourth quarter on our hands. There are never any guarantees—particularly when you lose 33-18 to Towson— but let me tell you, there is hope for a good rebound for this defense.

It’s just going to be a matter of the three things above, as the Huskies take on a team that has found new life and could do a lot of damage in the ACC this year.

2012 RECAP

As we detailed yesterday, last season seemed as if the Mayans weren’t going to have their doomsday prophecy fulfilled, they were at least going to settle by ending things early for Maryland football. Five injured quarterbacks, poor turnover luck, not a single win after mid-October etc. Late in the year, the Terps were forced to avoid throwing the ball like a modern plague, and Diggs appeared to be the lone bright spot offensively.

Now in 2013, you can forget about all that. This season is a much different story like The Exorcist is to The Cat in the Hat. Beginning with a healthy quarterback in C.J. Brown, the Terrapins have fixed their quarterback mess and are now in a much higher gear.

OFFENSIVE SCHEME

The Maryland offense is a balanced attack than primarily deploys 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers) through a variety of spread formations. Through two games, the Terps have utilized over 21 pre-snap sets, including variations of pistol, shotgun and even inverted bone. In the running game, Maryland likes to attack the perimeter of a defense with lots of read-option and regular option plays, before coming back to straight runs up the middle.

Although, their favorite run call in 2013 has not been a regular read-option. Instead, it’s a belly read-option, or what you would think of as a "triple option".

Before we continue, take a look at an excellent breakdown of the scheme here, as provided by our friends that cover the Redskins over at SB Nation’s Hogs Heaven. The Terps’ version of this play is similar to what Washington runs down the road, but they involve a bit more deception. Maryland’s belly read-option begins with Brown standing in a three-receiver pistol set with a back beside him. Then, he calls Diggs to come in motion over from his slot position, and stand behind them in a formation that looks like this:

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One second later at the snap of the ball, Brown stares at the intentionally unblocked defensive end to the front side. He then decides whether to hand the ball off to his back, or keep it and run a traditional option with Diggs. This judgment is predicated on whether the defender commits to stopping an inside run by following the back or keeping outside contain to halt the threat of a perimeter run.

In short yardage situations, the Terp’s go-to run has been a weakside power play, which is amongst a handful of man-blocking runs they have in the playbook. When inside the red zone, they love to put pressure on defense with option schemes and play-action passes. Play-action is also a favored tactic for second-and-short situations.

Otherwise, Maryland’s passing game largely takes place downfield, and occasionally with Brown on the move. They like to use levels concepts to exploit zone coverage and allow Diggs and Long to escape their men by running across the field. The duo has accounted for nearly two thirds of Terrapin receptions this year, a ratio that shouldn’t change as the season progresses. They’re far and away the team’s best receiving threats, and the playbook does not call for many throws to running backs.

2013 ROSTER

This unit has welcomed back six starters, three top-five rushers and its leading receiver (Diggs) from 2012. However, more importantly, many of the offense’s second and third-year players have entered 2013 with starting experience after last season’s youth movement and injury issues. In fact, 70 percent of Maryland’s two-deep depth-chart has returned, which provides quality depth and a bright future.

Yet, what really has College Park abuzz these days is nothing that had to do with last year. It’s the return of their leading man from 2011— quarterback C.J. Brown.

While partly a product of competing against less talented defenses, Brown’s numbers so far are undeniably impressive: 556 passing yards on a 75.6 percent completion percentage, 135 yards rushing, nine total touchdowns and zero turnovers. While I hardly need to tell you, the senior signal caller is clearly adept both as a passer and a running threat.

When he drops back, Brown possesses a strong arm and very good accuracy on intermediate and deep passes. He’s very capable when throwing on the move and exceptional when he runs to his right. Occasionally, the Pennsylvania native will fall away as he throws, sacrificing his mechanics (and thus accuracy) and solely relying on his arm strength to deliver the ball. Furthermore, his anticipation is a bit slow at times, though it did not hurt him much against Florida International and Old Dominion.

As a runner, Brown makes excellent decisions on reads and option pitches, which in two weeks has already resulted in a multitude of big plays. He’s scored on runs of 11, 29 and 31 yards this season, as well as set up Diggs for a scamper of 26.

Now while no. 16 has to be UConn’s no. 1 focus Saturday night, containing Diggs is very much 1A. The sophomore sensation is possibly the ACC’s best wide receiver, and if not, he is most certainly second behind Clemson’s All-American Sammy Watkins. At 6’ 0" 198 lbs, Diggs boasts elite speed, quickness, acceleration, body control, hands, vision and athleticism. Smartly, Maryland utilizes his talent in a variety of ways, as partially detailed above.

Yet, the most impressive part about Diggs’ game is his unreal ability to not lose speed when making a change of direction. This poses tremendous problems for defenders, even those in position or with a clear path to tackle him. Pre-snap, the D.C. native can be found positioned in either the slot, at outside receiver or sometimes behind Brown in the backfield.

Locating Maryland’s top weapon on every play must be a priority for the Huskies, though they can’t count on him to always stay in the same spot pre-snap.

Opposite Diggs is Deon Long, a junior transfer who finished no. 1 in the junior college ranks for receptions, yards and touchdowns last season. Prior to his time in lower college football, Long was a five-star recruit who spent time at New Mexico starring in struggling offenses. He runs very crisps routes and is a good downfield threat, which explains his Maryland debut of nine catches, 110 yards and a touchdown.

The other Terrapin receivers are nothing to sneeze at, though they’re unlikely to see many targets given the capabilities of Diggs and Long. The 6’ 3" Nigel King has caught only three passes so far in 2013 as Maryland’s third receiver. The same can be said for fellow sophomore Levern Jacobs, who Paul Pasqualoni mentioned specifically in his mid-week press conference.

When Brown, Diggs and Long aren’t stealing the show, you’ll often find running back Brandon Ross with the ball in his hands. Ross is a decisive sophomore runner with decent explosion and better long speed than quickness. He’s got good size at 5’ 10" 210 lbs, and does a nice job of setting up defenders to maximize his yardage. Ross has rushed for over 100 yards in three of his last five games.

Fullback Kenneth Goins Jr, is often blocking out ahead for Ross, as he lines up as the second back when Maryland goes to a two-back pistol formation. Goins also blocks for second-string tailback Albert Reid, who has a very similar running style to Ross, but lost his starting job to him a year ago. Tight end Dave Stinebaugh can be seen in the backfield every now and again. Stinebaugh is a very sound, physical blocker, who’s also reeled in four balls this year for 44 yards.

Up front, none of the Terrapin offensive linemen tip the scales at more than 295 pounds, which may in fact be generous for some of them. Though they’re all able to make up for their lack of typical bulk with above average athleticism. This fits perfectly with Maryland’s blocking schemes that quite often have them on the move.

The left side of the line returns both starters from a year ago, including left guard De’Onte Arnett, who is likely the team’s best blocker. Center Sal Conaboy, who also started last season, could challenge him for that title in 2013. The two newcomers are right guard Michael Dunn and right tackle Ryan Doyle. Neither stood out for particularly good or bad reasons on tape, though Doyle did struggle occasionally with a faster ends and Dunn with a strong bull rush. Both Old Dominion and Florida International recorded a pair sacks against the Terps.

MATCHUP

With the suspension of nickelback David Stevenson, UConn is thinner in an area its already been a bit fragile—the secondary. This is the last place they can afford to be showing weakness against Diggs, Long and company. Furthermore, there is no real area that the Huskies have a significant advantage over Maryland on this side of the ball. Yet, excluding the defensive backs, there’s neither no demonstrative mismatch either.

The good news is that the Huskies have had two weeks to scheme their back seven against the Terrapins passing attack. Moreover, if they’ve become more sound with their fundamentals in practice, like Pasqualoni says they have, that will go a long way to slowing the Terrapins’ option runs. Last year, UConn allowed the Terps a paltry 2.4 yards per carry en route to a 24-21victory.

However, as we all know, a lot of talent from that unit is now gone. In addition, Yawim Smallwood was on fire that hot afternoon in College Park with 14 tackles, a forced fumble and 2.5 sacks. This weekend he has to do that again while getting help from Shamar Stephen’s defensive line. Stephen should have decent individual success Saturday, especially when going against the right side of Maryland’s line.

GAMEPLAN

Stay disciplined.

There are many ways to slow an option running attack, but the best way is to keep gap control and stay true to assignment. This means the Husky linebackers have to take good angles, stick to their man and see the ball on read-options. Defensive ends Tim Willman, Angelo Pruitt and Jesse Joseph cannot crash in recklessly towards the middle, but instead stay at home to keep Brown and Diggs from gaining the corner. Tackling in the secondary will also be key as it’s likely UConn will drop a safety into the box for run support on early downs.

Produce at least one turnover.

At a minimum, this defense has to hand the ball back to the offense at least once for a chance to win. Inside pressure is the best way to force Brown into a mistake because that’s when he’ll fall away from throws and lose accuracy. Next, Diggs had a tendency to carry the ball in his right arm, even when running along the left boundary, which leaves it vulnerably to strips and punches. Finally, Maryland fumbled 31 times a year ago and has already put four balls to the turf in 2013.

Time to go get ‘em.

Play Byron Jones on Long and give help to whoever’s covering Diggs.

The determination and execution of how to cover Diggs and Long could very well be the deciding factor in this game. I like the Huskies to mix their coverages and bring more varied pressure than they did against Towson, when they called a very vanilla game. The final key here may not be possible depending on how the UConn defensive playbook is structured. But, when in man-coverage, I would have my best corner Jones follow Long wherever he goes.

Next, because of the different ways the Terrapins deploy Diggs, there’s no way you can have anyone consistently follow him, especially when he’s in the backfield. So, give help and shift zones over the top or underneath to the area of the field Diggs is in. UConn played a lot of Cover 1 (man coverage with a safety in a deep zone) against Towson with Smallwood in a short zone and safety Obi Melifonwu deep. I would not be surprised a lot of this coverage again with both of those players keeping an eye on Diggs.

Brown is going to throw at these two more than 50 percent of the time, so they have to be blanketed. After that, the Huskies should be happy to live with whatever happens otherwise.

Follow Andrew on Twitter for all things UConn Football: @UConnFB_Andrew

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