SEC film study: How Florida’s offense overcame Tennessee’s aggressive defense
When Florida’s winning streak over Tennessee began, the Gators were in their first year under Urban Meyer. Since then, Florida has won two national titles and parted ways with two coaches — but the Gators haven’t lost to Tennessee. Why?
For those of you who are reading my work for the first time, welcome! Before we dive into the game tape to break down how and why the Gators were able to keep the streak alive, I’ll briefly explain what you can expect to see when reading this and future AJC film sessions.
In this space each week, I’ll be covering the SEC’s game of the week from a film junkie’s perspective. I’ll talk to beat reporters or team writers from both schools in the days leading up to the game to get a background foundation of what each team is all about including personnel, game plan, strategies and more from a detailed perspective that you can’t get from simply watching a few games. Then I’ll take that knowledge and dive into a replay of the game, using screen shots, Vines and other visual elements to go beyond the box score and explain how an outcome came to be.
Obviously, the turning point of the game was Florida’s furious rally in the final minutes. But before the Gators did that, Tennessee was winning a back-and-forth battle on defense.
As a foundation for analysis on Tennessee’s defense, you have to understand the following: the Vols are based out of a 4-3 formation, Cam Sutton is their lock-down corner used in press coverage at all times and they play a very aggressive style of defense. Their aggressive style usually leads to one or more of their corners being deployed in press man coverage with little help from the safeties — who, in turn, are free to move near the box or fly towards the ball as quick as they can.
So, for Tennessee, defensive success depends on getting pressure up front and good, tight coverage from the cornerbacks that lasts long enough for the pressure to produce a stop. That’s it. It’s that simple.
This means the brunt of Tennessee’s defense comes from their attack on the trenches. Here’s what they did early on:
What we see there is a three-man rush with the defensive end dropping back to spy the QB in case of a run. Butch Jones knew the inexperience of this Florida offensive line meant it had a chance to be overwhelmed. His defense proved that here, showing that all it took to collapse the pocket was a three-man rush. Will Grier, who proved excellent at breaking the pocket against Kentucky, was neutralized and stopped.
Tight End Movement & Zone Blocking
Florida played its spring game with just six healthy scholarship linemen, so Jim McElwain knew coming into the fall that inexperience and a lack of depth would trouble his offensive line. If you watched any of Florida’s previous games, you know he loves to use tight ends in the passing game to create safety valves and mismatches. However, going into this game, he knew he’d have to dial that down, at least early on, to make sure he kept Tennessee’s pass rush in check. Here’s how McElwain was able to have his cake and eat it, too.
On this play, play-action to the left gave tight end Jake McGee the one-on-one assignment McElwain wanted. He served as an extra blocker long enough for Grier to turn his head, then ran to the open space created by the play-fake for a simple completion.
That creativity soon paid dividends for Florida’s running game.
This was the beginning of Kelvin Taylor’s 47-yard run. Watch it again, but this time focus on the tight end in motion. Observe how he starts on one side of the line, motions to the opposite side, then runs across and blocks where he was originally standing. This is called a split-zone concept. The point of this is to first double team one or both of the defensive tackles, then, as the tight end comes around to block the defensive end, release one or two of the double-teaming linemen to the second level to handle the linebackers.
Split-zone running requires a smart, shifty running back, but it’s a great way to throw off a defensive front that’s already worried about a tight end as a receiver. When tight ends are moving across the pocket after the snap, defenders don’t have the time to consider them blockers; they default to considering them potential receivers. And by the time those defenders do realize the tight end is blocking, they might already have a right guard in their grill.
Florida was able to use the split-zone concept to both keep their tight ends on the field as potential receiving threats and protect the line of scrimmage. This led to the Gators neutralizing Tennessee’s pressure up front early on, which paved the way for the first score of the game.
From Cover 2 to Cover 1
So how did Tennessee counter Florida helping out its offensive line? The Vols got even more aggressive and overwhelmed the help.
As the game went on, and more importantly, as Grier showed he was hesitant under pressure, Tennessee moved from a Cover 2 to a Cover 1, leaving one safety deep to play a deep zone and pushing the other safety up near the linebackers. The logic: If the Vols’ cornerbacks kept their man coverage tight for the first three or four seconds of a play, Grier would panic and throw a pass he would regret. That theory paid off for them here.
Grier senses the pressure, but forgets about LaDarrell McNeil playing the single-high safety position, and he camps under an overthrown ball for a pick, allowing Tennessee to take its lead into halftime. Tennessee’s goal all day was to create chaos up front by overwhelming Florida’s young offensive line and quarterback, and not permit McElwain’s offense the time to get receivers open on intricate routes. It worked — for a while, anyway.
As the game went on, Tennessee’s pressure continued to disrupt Florida. The Vols were able to adjust on some of the tight end routes that were previously called, and ultimately did a great job of bottling Grier up and forcing him to win the game with his arm.
But then the unpredictable happened.
The goal of any defense is to get to fourth down, but that wasn’t enough for Tennessee down the stretch. Not only did Florida enter the contest a perfect 5-for-5 on fourth down, but the Gators left it a still perfect 10-for-10 on the year. And those five fourth downs were their keys to the game.
When you play tight man coverage like Tennessee does, you’re putting a lot of pressure on your cornerbacks to contain receivers who know where they’re going. That sets up very well for players like Brandon Powell, a great change-of-direction player who can create separation with quick cuts.
The play above was almost something you’d see in a backyard football game. Powell goes wide out of a bunch formation, waits until the corner flips his hips to commit to the sideline, and then cuts back inside. And because the other two receivers streak down the field have opened up the space, Powell is running free underneath coverage. Finally, we have to look at the play that brought down the house: Antonio Callaway’s game-winning catch-and-run.
Three factors led to that play working the way it did.
- The first was the recent past: On the previous third down, Tennessee only rushed three players and were able to get Grier to the ground for an incompletion, thanks to a blown block. Because of this, they thought they could get away with it again. Watch as they only send three rushers, and leave the right defensive end to spy Grier. Why? Florida had 13 yards to go. Was Grier running really a threat at that point? Rushing three backfired, as it gave Grier more time and relegated a rusher to a pointless role.
- The next factor was the chemistry between the corner covering Callaway (Malik Foreman) and the defensive back (Quinten Dormady) playing deep. In a situation like that, role clarity is crucial: Either the player covering deep is taking the middle of the field or the outside, and the corner should shade his coverage appropriately based on that help. Here, Foreman lets his man go, and reads Grier’s eyes … but just holds in place, rather than running with Callaway or the ball. That leaves Dormady confused and forces him to make a decision; he decides to cover the sideline. At the moment Grier releases the ball, Foreman has every receiver behind him, with no idea where they’re going; he’s occupying a zone but it may as well be no man’s land.
Just in those first two factors, we see how Tennessee decided its own fate. All game, Tennessee built its lead with aggressive defensive pressure, and when the moment came for one last stop, the Vols let the moment change what got them there. A team that relied on pressure up front was suddenly only rushing three. A secondary that was playing so aggressively was now showing soft coverage, giving five to 10 yards of space. Some could make a case that Tennessee’s defense didn’t give up that last touchdown, because that wasn’t Tennessee’s defense at all.
- The final reason the play worked, and the reason it went for a touchdown, was Powell laying out for a beautiful block. As Callaway hit top speed down the sideline, Powell launched his body at not one but two Vols trying to catch him, slowing both down without engaging either one or risking a block in the back. That block created a foot race. Callaway won it.
That play would’ve never gone for six without all three of those factors playing in. They did, and the rest, they say, is history.
I know Tennessee fans will hate to hear this, but the reason their team lost that game was because they went away from their identity. As the time ran down, they dialed down the defensive pressure that built them the lead. It’s a concept that is so common in college football, and one I do not understand. The extra time created from less rushers gave McElwain the opportunity to call those long, complex routes that Grier was comfortable throwing into once Tennessee went into a prevent zone defense.
No matter how much time is left on that clock, you cannot change what got you ahead. Tennessee has twice now this season, and they’ve paid for it just as many times.