Wommack’s Wrinkle: IU’s Passing Defense Personnel

Courtesy iuhoosiers.com

There haven’t been many noticeable differences in IU’s defensive scheme in new defensive coordinator Kane Wommack’s first year at the helm. That stands to reason, as Wommack and Tom Allen come from the same defensive coaching tree – both in the usual, career sense (both coached under and generally employ Dave Wommack’s defense) and for Kane, in the literal sense as well (because, you know, Dave is his dad). Further, Wommack coached under Allen last year as IU’s linebackers coach. That said, there has been at least one significant difference: Kane Wommack has made more frequent use of specialized personnel on passing downs.

While Coach Allen’s defenses occasionally swapped out the Husky for a third corner, this year Wommack has made almost wholesale changes to his defensive personnel on nearly all obvious passing downs. Wommack’s usual passing down personnel is:

This differs from Wommack’s standard down personnel in a few ways:

  • Tiawan Mullen comes in as a nickel CB in place of the husky position (hybrid DB/LB who plays the “field” (wide) side of the field).
  • Starting husky Marcelino Ball slides down to a defensive end position in place of one of the normal DEs.
  • Starting CB Andre Brown shifts out to field safety.
  • Jaylin Williams comes in at one of the outside CB spots, usually with Raheem Layne at the other.
  • Starting field safety Devon Matthews shifts over to boundary safety (noted as “SS” above).
  • Cam Jones and Micah McFadden are the linebackers, regardless of which LBs had been in on 1st and 2nd down.

In theory, this personnel should be much better in pass coverage than the standard defense. Four corners are on the field (even though one of them is playing safety), with five defensive backs in total. The linebackers are IU’s best at playing in space.

Through four games, how has it done in practice? The jury is still out. Excluding Eastern Illinois (we always exclude FCS opponents from our numbers) and garbage time against Ohio State and UConn (essentially the 2nd half of each game), we only have about three full games of data. That’s not enough to draw any meaningful conclusions. But we’ll go ahead and draw some semi-meaningful conclusions anyway.

As the chart above shows, IU’s total success rate1 on passing downs2 is slightly better this year than in 2018, but isn’t as good as in 2017. Focusing strictly on passing plays on passing downs, the gap between 2019 and 2018 grows a bit, while on running plays, the 2018 defense is better. This stands to reason because a defense involving more corners is necessarily going to be weaker against the run. Interestingly, the 2019 defense is significantly better than 2018 when blitzing on passing downs (rushing 5 or more), while it is significantly worse than 2018 when it rushes 4 or fewer.

Again, we have to take this all with a grain of salt because a few plays here or there can swing the 2019 percentages significantly. Anecdotally, IU struggled on 3rd and long (obvious passing downs) against Michigan State. Early on, they gave up 12 yards on a 3rd and 13, setting up a 4th and 1 that MSU converted. Later, IU gave up 20 yards on a 3rd and 8, 12 yards on a 3rd and 9, 9 yards on a 3rd and 8, and committed a penalty on a 3rd and 8. Four conversions and one near conversion on 3rd and 8 or longer is certainly not what Coach Wommack is looking for out of this personnel.

Those struggles, however, are no reason to scrap this personnel or even dial it back. Putting more coverage skill on the field in situations where the offense is likely to pass is tactically sound and is quickly becoming standard operating procedure in college football (and already is the standard in the NFL). That Coach Wommack implemented this change is a credit to him. That said, there are some possible tweaks that could make a difference. First, I would put an end to the Marcelino Ball-as-DE experiment. I understand the thinking behind it – Ball is one of the best athletes on the defense, and while Kane wanted to replace him with a nickel corner for coverage purposes, he didn’t want to take him off the field entirely. And I suspect that Ball showed some promise in practice at that spot. Unfortunately, it has not translated to games. Ball has not recorded a QB pressure as a DE (or at all) in 2019. His speed advantage over O-linemen hasn’t translated to pressure, and his strength disadvantage (and likely lack of developed pass rush moves) has worked against him. I would much rather see a true DE on the field, who actually has practiced and developed pass rush skills.3

In fact, I would like to see James Head, Michael Ziemba, and Allen Stallings all on the field for passing downs, with Jerome Johnson as the only true interior lineman. Head could easily slide inside in this scenario. That DE trio has tallied 14 pressures so far in 2019, and Johnson has 6. Why not maximize their opportunities? Having four true DL on the field probably also positively impacts run defense in the rare instance when the opponent runs the ball on a passing down.

Finally, Tiawan Mullen made in pretty clear against Sparty that he’s IU’s best cover corner:

Armed with this knowledge, it seems a little inefficient to limit Tiawan to matching up with whomever the opponent happens to line up in the slot. In 2016 during Rashard Fant’s senior season, then-DC Allen occasionally matched Fant up with the opponent’s best receiver on passing downs, regardless of where that receiver lined up. I don’t think it’s too early to deploy the same tactic with Mullen.

Very little of this should matter on Saturday against Rutgers, but as we look ahead to matchups with decent or better passing attacks like Maryland, Nebraska, and Penn State4, IU’s ability to defend the pass will loom large. Kane Wommack has the right idea when it comes to specializing his personnel. Now he just needs to continue tweaking, while his players need to improve on the execution front.

  1. 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.
  2. Second-and-8 or more, third-and-5 or more, or fourth-and-5 or more.
  3. If Ball absolutely has to be on the field in passing situations, I would rather have him take McFadden’s MLB spot, which has become very blitz-heavy under Wommack, especially on passing downs. While McFadden has been a decent blitzer so far in his career, Ball might have more success blitzing from the middle of the field than he’s had on the edge, and Ball is better when it comes to dropping into coverage.
  4. Maybe Michigan will have their passing game figured out by mid-November, and Purdue would certainly qualify if they ever get healthy.