I watched the Spring Game live in the Shoe Saturday, and like many others, I came away quite impressed with how the defense performed. It is very true that the Offense's biggest threats were sidelined (no Brax, Dontre, only 3 carries for Zeke, and our 2 best OL resting), but the defense also sat out its entire best unit (Bosa, Spence, Washington, Bennett) along with our best corner Grant.
I am not very concerned with how the offense looked. We were without our aforementioned studs and also played entirely out of our comfort zone. Our offense is best when we can run to set up the pass and have our QBs be running threats. We obviously did not attempt to do that in this scrimmage (the most successful drives featured pounding the ball on the ground to open up the pass). We have 2 years of record setting offenses with this coaching staff that put my mind at ease about what our O will look like this year. Our OL is a legitimate concern, but it was just as much of a concern 2 years ago and Warriner produced one of the best units in the league. I believe our offense has a floor of "decent" and a ceiling of "great," with it mostly likely falling into the "good" category. That will be a step back from last year, but plenty good enough to win us games.
On the other hand, I was very encouraged by how our defense looked. I know that the offense wasn't great and they knew that they were passing about 70% of the time, but the D as a whole simply looked like they were always in the right spots and very rarely gave up easy yards.
I mostly focused on the secondary on my re-watch of the game thus far, and I was quite impressed with what I saw through just the 1st quarter so far. I decided to try to capture a few impressive plays by the defense from the 1st Q in GIF form (please bear with me if they don't work or are bad quality).
1) Empty Backfield, Press Corner, Quick Slant
The offense goes 5 wide on 2nd and 7. Here we see that our press coverage emphasis this spring wasn't just talk. Despite being threatened with 5 WRs, the boundary corner Apple is up tight playing press (I think the WR is Dixon). JT attacks this single coverage with a quick slant, but Apple gets a great jam and jumps the route, easily breaking up the pass (he really should have picked it off). This is just one play, but this press coverage was heavily present throughout the game, resulting in many contested passes like this one.
2) Empty Backfield, Press Corner, TE Quick Out
DC Ash may have emphasized mastering our base coverages this spring, but our defense is far from a 1 trick pony. Here we have pretty much the same offensive formation with the same pre-snap defensive look featuring the pressed boundary corner. This time JT decides not to challenge Apple with what appears to be 1 on 1 press coverage, but instead opts to throw the quick out to the TE. The safety is playing off and the LB has inside leverage on the TE, so it should be an easy 8 yard gain, right? Wrong. What looked like the Cover 4/Press Man style coverage from the 1st GIF is actually Cover 2 on this play. Apple jams the 1 WR then sheds him just as Vannett runs his route right into him. Apple easily separates Vannett from the ball and Nick probably didn't even know what hit him.
3) 2x2, Play Action Crossing Route
Finally, here's a play that shows how far the LB unit has come as well (featuring everyone's favorite Freshman MLB). Offense has 2 WR to either side with a RB next to Jones. There is play action from the defense's right to left. This action forces Kwon's first 2 steps to his left to respect the run. The offense wants to pull him this way so that they can sneak the right slot WR in behind him on a crossing pattern, exploiting the opening behind the LBs and in front of the safeties. Kwon (no doubt familiar with this play from earlier spring practices) has other ideas, however. As soon as he reads that the RB doesn't have the ball, he wastes no time in changing direction and busting ass to his right. He immediately looks back to spot the crossing route that he clearly expects to be run behind him, and sprints to get enough depth to undercut the route. Jones tries to force the ball in, but Kwon is able to get a hand on the pass and knock it away. Just for good measure, Tyvis Powell, the boundary side safety in Cover 4, saw his #2 WR run an out ("okie") to the flat. That route is easily picked up by the LB to that side, so he is ready for the crossing route coming his way, absolutely obliterating the poor slot WR after the ball is tipped. Even if Kwon hadn't undercut the route, I very much doubt the WR could have held onto that ball. That is a beautiful defensive snap, even if they were familiar with the play from spring practice.
Let me know how the GIFs work for you. If they are not good, I can link directly to these plays on YouTube. If you guys like these, I will try to make more of them. Let me know what you think.
Nobody should be appointing our defense as great yet, considering they went up against a weakened offense and knew that the offense would be passing 80% of the time. But considering how they struggled at times last year even when they knew the pass was coming, I can't see it as anything other than steps in the right direction.