To the casual observer, Arizona State’s reputation is based on two things: Todd Graham’s boy band microphone (R.I.P.) and blitzing. And we’re not here to talk about N*Sync.
The Sun Devils are 115th in the country in scoring defense with 37.8 points per game. They allow 6.8 yards per play. Simple enough — but wait, there’s more:
By now it’s well known that ASU’s secondary is impaired by their defensive emphasis on the front seven, which tends to isolate ASU cornerbacks with their receivers. They have, however, laid off the blitzing somewhat this year. This has been a bit of a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the defensive backs have gotten a bit more zone help, but the decreased pressure on opposing quarterbacks has taken its toll on their turnover opportunities.
While Todd Graham’s scheme has always been a high-risk, high-reward system, this year may be evidence that it’s also an all-or-nothing commitment; now that they’re blitzing slightly less than a ton — maybe 4/5 of a ton — they aren’t forcing quarterbacks as frequently into poor throws for the secondary to take advantage; yet they are still blitzing enough to deny the defensive backfield much help. The Sun Devils’ turnover margin is -3, which is 10th in the Pac-12. This is particularly difficult for them since, under Graham, much of their emphasis on defense has been forcing turnovers. Part of that is of course on the offense turning the ball over, but turnovers seem to have a direct relationship to ASU’s general success. Either that, or it’s just a random unrelated coincidence (which we should therefore ignore), that their defense this year is statistically the worst they’ve had in a long time.
Cornerback Kareem Orr is probably the most well-known name of the ASU defensive backs. He’s third on the team in tackles and last year was named a Freshman All-American. Also someone to note is CB De’Chavon Hayes, the team leader in interceptions (3), two of which came at critical moments during the shootout with Texas Tech in September.
The linebackers’ numbers accompany their propensity to blitz. Both D.J. Calhoun and Koron Crump have 10.5 tackles for loss, but Salamo Fiso is arguably the heart of the defense. The redshirt senior missed some games earlier on for a violation of team rules but is a smart player and one of the leaders of his platoon. Graham has noted that his return saw other players playing more solidly and hitting their assignments better. Fiso is a hard hitter who led the Pac-12 in tackles for loss last year, so he’s not lacking in physicality or intangibles.
Marcus Ball is another linebacker to know. Unlike the aforementioned guys, he tends to switch back and forth between playing a more traditional role, or dropping back in some assignments as being more of a hybrid safety type. He currently leads the team in tackles.
While the front seven is famous for blitzing, what stands out on film is the variety of blitzes they’ll throw at an opponent. Even just a quick glance at game reels will show everything from sending two players through a B gap or around the tackles, pinching from the outside linebackers, delayed blitzing, etc. The defensive scheme tends to be simplified when people speak about Arizona State as “They blitz a lot,” but I think it would be more fitting would be to say that they try to force blockers into screwing up by throwing them different looks as frequently as possible.
On the line ASU has another double-digit tackles-for-loss player, Jojo Wicker with ten. The Sun Devils’ defensive line though is sort of the opposite build of UW’s; none of their starters exceed 300 lbs and a few guys are as “light” (i.e. still over twice my size) as 255-270 lbs. Even with that, the high volume of blitzes gives them the second-ranked rushing defense in the Pac.
On film, one of the Devils’ defense’s weaknesses appears to be tackling once a ball-carrier gets to full speed. Against USC, Oregon, Wazzu, and UCLA one can see numerous examples of running backs or receivers slipping out of the grasp of one, two, or even three tacklers for massive chunks of yardage or scoring plays. There is a statistical reflection thereof: ASU has allowed 14 scoring plays of 50+ yards this season. That’s a lot, in case you need to be told that.
Basically, the Sun Devils’ emphasis on pressuring the quarterback means they’re decent at creating turnovers when the stars align their way, even if they’ve been having less success this year than in years past. Unfortunately it also leaves their secondary wildly exposed, and this year’s passing defense is seriously suffering because of that. Last week against USC proved for Washington, however, that even with Jake Browning’s slipperiness and pocket awareness, rattling him enough behind the line of scrimmage can significantly affect the success of the passing game — and thus the Husky offense as a whole.
Although their run defense is prime, their aggressive attacking of the trenches with linebackers means that getting through the line is frequently rewarded with big chunks of yardage. If ASU is an all-or-nothing defense, the microcosm thereof lies here; if Gaskin and Coleman can break past the trenches, there will inevitably be lots of space to be had. As they run in that space, they will face only a secondary and a couple of linebackers — who struggle with fundamental tackling at full speed.
With that in mind, I would anticipate a decent amount of dink-and-dunk passes to offset the heavy pass rush, combined with a lot of runs that go for little, and some big breakthrough runs that make up for that.
Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.