The Arkansas defense last season made a huge turnaround and a big part can be attributed to better tackling. Another tool that defensive coordinator Robb Smith used, along with his emphasis on tackling, was multiple pressure packages in obvious passing situations and run blitz on early downs. This led to more tackles for loss, less time in the pocket for the quarterback and putting the offense in more difficult situations.
It seemed during that stretch of games from Mississippi St. to Missouri, on every play there was a flurry of arms, chopping at the ball after another defender had the ball carrier stopped which led to turnovers. Arkansas racked up six of them against Ole Miss which led to a shutout, and started a trend that carried throughout the rest of the season. Two turnovers by the defense led to an opportunity to win in the fourth quarter at Missouri but they just were not able to make one last stop. Continuing the hot trend in the bowl game, Robb Smith's game plan forced an interception and a fumble by the struggling Texas offense.
"Last year it was step A, B, C and D, now we can talk about L, M, N, O. When this happens, this is what you should expect to see. I think our guys have worked hard at that, and we have to use that as an advantage for us next season." Defensive Coordinator Robb Smith.
Against SEC opponents Arkansas averaged 5.75 tackles for loss. Ranked 3rd in the SEC with 9 forced fumbles.
In 2014, future draft picks Trey Flowers and Darius Philon were able to put pressure on the quarterback many times just by simply beating the offensive lineman across from them on stunts and twists. Early in SEC play this was not the case, where Auburn was able to create enough time to complete passes down the field by using play action and a faster pace to keep those two off the field a few more plays. Texas A&M had success doing the same and matching up taller wide receivers on the Arkansas secondary, who were not yet comfortable in Smith's press coverages.
Here you can see Arkansas sends a blitz on a 3rd-and-5 situation. On this play, they have a trick to spy the QB by dropping the DE Flowers to take away the shallow cross, and send pressure off from the field side. The problem in doing so the corner is left without any inside help and with Coleman moving down in the box at the snap it creates a man free look.
In the first half, with Jeremy Johnson at QB, Auburn took advantage of this mismatch several times. Arkansas backed off the pressure as the game went on.
The Aggies looked to spread the Arkansas defense out like the first half of the Auburn game. Lining up in 4 and 5 wide sets to keep opponents in base defense is what Sumlin wants to do against everyone, but even more so last season against Arkansas. At that point in the season the pass rush could not generate much pressure and forced the inexperienced secondary into unfavorable situations. As the season progressed the play of the Arkansas secondary improved and could be left without help.
In this example A&M uses 5 wide verticals to hit the open hole between the corner and the safety who is late rotating over.
The Hog defense had a lot of success putting pressure on Blake Sims and in the running game. By this point of the season the front seven had hit their stride and were able to produce that rush mostly by themselves. Throwing the safety in run support gave opportunities for tackles for loss but also opened up a few big chunk plays.
The Tigers tried to max protect when throwing late in the game after ARK put pressure on Jennings and sacked him several times. On this play right before the end of the half LSU has an important 3rd and 7 inside the 10. They draw up a screen to the slot WR that should be a perfect play against most pressures. The offensive line can not block the pressure up the middle from Spaight which forces a quicker throw. Dean playing tight press technique takes away any thought of a quick route inside.
Then later on backed up in their own territory, Smith dials up the safety crashing down into the box on 1st down and then a field pressure blitz that destroys the LSU pass protection.
The question is whether Smith will look to create more pressure by sending 5 and 6 rushers in 2015, which is more than he did last season. His front four has more depth but I am just not convinced they will be able to get to the quarterback as often. They might not need to if the linebackers and secondary can play man in some situations and cover with less help.
As a whole, looking at the progression in game planning from week one against Auburn to the bowl game against Texas, the improvement was monumental. For instance, Coleman played a lot against Auburn but was not used much beyond then and only recorded a handful of tackles the rest of the season. It seems Smith and his coaches went in a different direction from that point onward and it will be interesting to see what tricks he has planned for this fall.
The entire staff on defense has a better understanding of what they have at every position and how they match up against a given opponent. Being able to rely on those corners and nickel defenders will be a key aspect of what we see, and it opens up all kinds of options. My feeling from watching the film is that when needed this Arkansas defense will be able to turn the pressure up to an ever higher level in 2015.