There are plenty of discouraging facts about South Carolina’s defensive performance at the moment. Maybe the most frightening for Gamecocks fans is this: The new scheme is working the way it’s supposed to.
“The whole premise of that defense is to take away the deep ball,” former NFL defensive back and current ESPN analyst Matt Bowen said. “If the offense wants to throw the ball to the flat 12 times, that’s fine. That’s what it’s going to take for them to get the ball down the field. I believe in Cover 2 if you play it correctly.”
Bowen played safety in the NFL for seven seasons and then worked for the Chicago Tribune when Gamecocks defensive co-coordinator Jon Hoke was the defensive backs coach for the Chicago Bears.
“I have the utmost respect for Coach Hoke. I would have loved to play for him,” said Bowen, who played for the Washington Redskins during Steve Spurrier’s final season as head coach. “He’s just a great football coach, a guy who understands defensive schemes and more importantly can connect with players.”
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South Carolina fans aren’t as enthusiastic about Hoke at the moment. He was hired to share the defensive coordinator title with Lorenzo Ward and to implement the Cover 2 defensive system he coached in the NFL for 13 seasons. Through three games, the Gamecocks are No. 124 in the country in yards allowed per play (7.3).
“Obviously, we’re struggling on defense,” South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier said. “I think we need to do a few new scheme things.”
If South Carolina’s season ticket holders had their way, the first schematic change would be moving the Gamecocks’ defensive backs closer to the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped. South Carolina’s cornerbacks often are 7 yards from the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped, and that’s a standard depth in Cover 2, Bowen said.
“I would teach the same thing,” Bowen said. “Some people say, ‘Why don’t you go up and press?’ Well, you can do that if you have the athletes. If you’ve got Darrelle Revis, yeah, go play press.”
The idea of playing off the line of scrimmage is to give defensive backs time to read the wide receiver’s route and decrease the chances they get beat for a big play, Bowen said. That part is working. South Carolina has given up 53 plays of 10 or more yards, which ranks No. 117 in the nation, but only four of those plays have gone for 30 or more yards, which ranks 34th in the nation.
“You want to try to make them earn it as much as possible absolutely, but you also have to challenge, no question about that,” Hoke said. “We need to do a better job of challenging throws.”
The Gamecocks have given up very few quick strike touchdowns, just a lot of long touchdown drives. Ten of their opponents’ 15 scoring drives have covered at least 70 yards, and the 15 scoring drives have averaged 7.7 plays, with opponents content to take the short passes the defense can allow.
There was no better example of that than Georgia quarterback Greyson Lambert, who completed 24-of-25 passes last week, mostly on short slant routes. South Carolina’s linebackers are as responsible for the ease of the slant completions as the cornerbacks, and both have to be more aggressive against those throws, Bowen said.
“You don’t scheme to take away the slant. That’s just technique, going and making a play,” Bowen said. “If they are throwing slant routes all the way down the field, eventually you have to take one of those throws away from them.”
South Carolina’s current version of the Cover 2 is being hamstrung by its inability to get any pressure on the quarterback.
“The key with any zone coverage, your front four guys have to hit the quarterback,” Bowen said. “If they don’t, any Division I quarterback is going to find a throwing lane eventually. They are just going to wait until their receivers clear the zone and get into those windows. You have to have a nice mix of rush and coverage.”
The Gamecocks are No. 68 in the nation with five sacks this season and four of those came against North Carolina, which also happens to be the game South Carolina recorded three interceptions and its only victory of the season.
“All of that works together. We are a rush-and-cover group. We are never going to say it’s one part or the other,” Hoke said. “If you cover better, it buys time for the rush. If you rush better, it helps the coverage. We have to be better at both.”
The Gamecocks need to disguise their defensive intentions before the snap better, Spurrier said.
“We need to do more than just line up and say, ‘Here we are. What are you going to do?’” he said. “I think they’re told to disguise more up and back, up and back, up and back, but we didn’t quite do it last game, that’s for sure. Obviously, we have to play our assignments better.”