As we explained last week, we'll be doing weekly two-part series exploring different aspects of the Washington State football program. With Arizona State on tap, it only makes sense to have this week's theme be pressure, seeing as how the Sun Devils are among the country's most blitz-happy teams. Today we're going to take a look at how the WSU defense generates pressure on opposing offenses and tomorrow we'll examine how the Cougars neutralize pressure on offense.
Think about the last sack you saw. Maybe it's one of the four the Cougars got against Stanford on Saturday? You were probably watching the offensive line break down under pressure or saw an offensive lineman flub an assignment, leading to the big play, right?
Well, you were doing it wrong.
Or, rather, your conception of what led to the sack is a little different than that of the Cougars. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch coaches that sacks start far away from the football and that while great individual efforts by pass rushers can generate pressure, none of that will matter if the secondary doesn't first do a great job taking away the quarterback's options.
"We try to convince the defensive backs everything is a coverage sack," Grinch said. "So as long as we have good coverage, we're going to buy time for those guys to get there. We also feel like if you push the pocket, even if we're not truly sacking the quarterback we can affect timing."
Outside linebackers coach Roy Manning estimates that his players have just 2-2.5 seconds to get around their blocker and affect the quarterback before a pass is completed. That doesn't always mean a sack. While sacks are obviously the ideal culmination of a good pass rush – the quarterback takes a hit, the offense loses a down and yardage – they are only one potential positive result.
If the pass rusher can affect the quarterback's throw, it will likely be incomplete. Almost as good is simply pulling the quarterback's focus, bringing his eyes down so he can worry about the oncoming tackler rather than looking downfield – it doesn't matter how good the coverage is if the quarterback isn't looking at the receivers.
Creating that kind of chaos in the backfield can wear out a quarterback's psyche in the same manner that repeated hits wear out his body.
"It's huge because as that game goes on, those quarterbacks get happy feet," Manning said. "They're thinking about that running clock in their head and if you've been getting after them and getting close to them all game, it's probably going to make them make some errant throws, or rush their throws. Pressures are just as good as sacks, because they have the same effect on those guys."
While a pass rusher has a limited amount of time to get to the quarterback – depending on how good the coverage is, of course – straight-line speed is just one component of a successful pass rusher.
The defender still has to get around a blocker, so effective moves and violent hands are equally important components of a pass rusher's arsenal. In fact, speed without discipline can often be a detriment, particularly against mobile quarterbacks who are looking for space to scramble through.
"A lot of times offensive tackles are actually going to invite you upfield," Grinch said. "They're more than willing to let you be in a position where you're past the quarterback."
The Cougars are only averaging 2.5 sacks per game compared to 2.4 last year, basically a negligible improvement. But where the improvement can be seen is in the overall pass defense.
The Cougars are allowing about 90 fewer passing yards on around six fewer passes per game. Even more importantly, WSU is allowing around 7.1 yards per pass attempt after giving up 8.3 yards per pass attempt a season ago.
Those numbers seem to indicate that the Cougars are getting a similar pass rush while devoting fewer players to getting after the quarterback, thereby leaving more defenders available to help out in coverage.
"(Some) times you commit to guys in coverage," Grinch said. " We're going to find a way to make his life miserable by seeing a bunch of opposite colored jerseys in coverage and buying time for three or four man rush. Ideally, if you can rush four and affect the quarterback, that's always ideal."