Film room: Badgers’ pass rush takes step in right direction against Nebraska

October 11, 2018

The University of Wisconsin’s defensive issues have surfaced at every position over the past few weeks. The Badgers struggled to consistently stop the run against BYU and Iowa and gave up more passing yards to Nebraska than they’ve allowed to any opponent in more than a decade.

One of the key differences between this year and recent seasons, of course, comes from the lack of a pass rush. UW’s recorded five sacks this season, better than only five FBS teams, after averaging at least two per game each of the last four years. In 2017, the Badgers ranked in a tie for eighth nationally with 42 sacks.

As we know, this also affects the coverage of a secondary with three new starters and plenty more inexperience waiting in the wings.

The likes of Leon Jacobs, Garret Dooley, Alec James, Vince Biegel, T.J. Watt and Joe Schobert aren’t walking through that door, but UW did show real improvement in this area against Nebraska than its last time out at Iowa.

Defensive coordinators can come up with plenty of different paths to applying pressure, but it all starts with winning one-on-one matchups. Rarely will you blitz more players than an offense has in protection, so simply put, someone’s got to beat their man to create a real pass rush. It’s something those listed in the previous paragraph did consistently for the Badgers over the past few years and the current group of players has struggled with.

Against the Cornhuskers, though, we saw a bit more success.

In each video above, both blitzing linebackers either apply heavy pressure or get severely held after gaining an advantage. To be honest, if Nebraska’s linemen didn’t resort to holding so often when getting beat UW may have recorded a couple more sacks Saturday. Officials flagged the Huskers’ line for holding or an illegal block seven times, five of which came on passing plays.

This still needs to become a more consistent theme for the Badgers’ front seven. Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez had occasions Saturday — both of his touchdown passes included — in which he had all day to throw. A healthy Andrew Van Ginkel, which we really haven’t seen over the past three games, would also help tremendously in this regard.

We should also consider UW’s game plan for this particular opponent. The Badgers wanted to apply as much pressure as they could while still containing Martinez as a runner. They used a quarterback spy on a number of occasions and didn’t want their outside linebackers straying too far upfield and opening lanes for Martinez to take off.

There are instances where Martinez had time to throw but it wasn’t necessarily a failure up front. I don’t think anyone’s expecting this three-man rush of Matt Henningsen, Kayden Lyles and Bryson Williams to get home quickly, but the coverage did its job. If Tyler Johnson doesn’t take a poor angle near the sideline, Martinez either has to take a sack or throw the ball away.

On the mailbag episode of last week’s Red Zone podcast, we discussed the possibility of Jim Leonhard pulling out more creative pressures moving forward. He did a little bit of that Saturday, mixing up the Badgers’ pass rush and creating some confusion for the Huskers.

This third-and-6 play from the red zone shows an initial surge of seven UW rushers before T.J. Edwards and Bryson Williams drop back into coverage.

We should also mention that this Nebraska line wasn’t great. They suffered from miscommunication at times, leading to some instances where a UW linebacker found his way into the backfield untouched, such as Edwards’ second sack on third-and-long early in the fourth quarter.

Right tackle Matt Farniok experienced some really rough moments, including the two plays below that helped kill off a potentially crucial drive for Nebraska late in the second quarter (he was penalized in the first).

It could be a very different challenge for the Badgers this week at Michigan, and we could learn a lot about how much progress they’ve really made in this area since the bye week.

The Nebraska game should be viewed as a step in the right direction, though, and UW could get an added boost whenever Van Ginkel returns to full strength.

— We finally saw UW’s offensive line in its true form Saturday, dominating Nebraska’s front on the way to 370 rushing yards.

The Badgers reset the line of scrimmage further downfield on numerous occasions, a refreshing sight after experiencing some inconsistency through the first four games.

UW’s running backs had plenty of room to get going all night. I probably could have picked 10 similar clips to the ones above.

The Badgers’ tight ends also stepped up. Luke Benzschawel’s return gave the Badgers a lift, and Kyle Penniston made a great block downfield on Jonathan Taylor’s 21-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.

Even the wide receivers got involved. The 5-foot-7, 172-pound Jack Dunn did a great job to hold his block on Taiwan Deal’s 20-yard touchdown, and the 5-foot-9, 154-pound Aron Cruickshank laid out Nebraska defensive back Lamar Jackson on Taylor’s 88-yard score.

While this rushing performance was certainly an encouraging one, Michigan owns one of the best defensive fronts in the country. Saturday will stand as a real measuring stick for where this offensive line (and offense as a whole) stands at the midway point of the season.

Here are a couple other bullet points after re-watching Saturday’s win.

— Lyles seemed to show some improvement in this game. He still has a ways to go, but he got off blocks a bit more often.

— The Huskers found quite a few easy completions when UW’s cornerbacks played 8-10 yards off receivers. The Badgers have taken this approach in multiple games this season, and Nebraska took advantage with quick, five-yard passes — some of which receivers were able to turn into first downs after the catch.

A few of Nebraska’s short passes came from clever plays against zone coverage, like these back-to-back snaps below where the Huskers’ slot receiver blocks Zack Baun from getting out to his spot in the flat.

One way or another, those short passes have been there at times against the Badgers this season. It’ll be interesting to see if they switch anything up in that regard moving forward.

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