October 3, 2013

Film Study: Defending Maryland's spread attack

While he is best known for being the head coach at UConn for 12 years, Randy Edsall is currently in his third season at Maryland. Edsall spent many years on Tom Coughlin's coaching staff in both college and the NFL. While he is a disciple of a very professional-style coach in Coughlin, Edsall's offense in Maryland is anything but pro-style. The Terps are undefeated this year in part because teams have had difficulty stopping their spread offense.

Maryland's spread

Maryland runs a bevy of formations in its spread offense, typically with three or four receivers. Among the looks employed by second-year offensive coordinator Mike Locksley are traditional three and four wide shotgun sets, traditional pistol looks and the Diamond formation. The Diamond formation is nothing new, but to quickly review, it is simply a pistol look with two receivers, the tailback at traditional depth, and two players flanking either side of the quarterback. These players can range from blocking tight ends to All-American receivers, depending on the scheme.

Though there is always consideration to the bye week and unique installations not put on film, Maryland's offensive identity does not live under center. The strength of the team resides in speed on the perimeter and a quarterback that can extend plays and threaten with his legs. The Seminoles have not seen him since Nigel Bradham unloaded a big hit on a scramble in 2011, but let's take a look at what C.J. Brown brings to the table.

C.J. Brown

Brown, listed at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, is intermediately threatening with his legs. That is to say he will not be running away from defensive backs or speedy linebackers. Brown does have above average mobility though, and often makes the first rush defender miss. The numbers are gaudy: 45 carries for 283 yards and six touchdowns, but when factoring in opponents, Brown's ability to tuck it should be respected more than feared. In games against UConn and FIU, the senior rushed 27 times for a combined 227 yards and three scores.

Make no mistake, Brown's ability to extend a play, succeed in short-yardage or red zone situations certainly has to be taken into account. More than that, it should be the scramble that has the Seminole defense on its toes. Expect a healthy amount of draw, zone read and option to feature the threat of Brown's mobility.

As a passer, Brown has been highly efficient, completing 66.7 percent of his passes for seven scores against one interception. Having weapons on the edge certainly helps his yards per attempt figure greatly (Brown resides at 10.5 yards/attempt through 99 passes), but the 176.48 rating is a welcome statistic for a team that used a linebacker behind center last season.

Overall, Brown's effect is exactly what the Seminole defense needs to get used to ahead of the mega-matchup with Clemson on October 19th: A mobile quarterback that can sling it to gifted wideouts, one of which is an elite talent. That is not meant as a slight to the Terrapins as much as it is to note that after Nevada's first-team injuries, Saturday will be the first time the Seminoles see such an offensive look.

Game breaker: Stefon Diggs

Stefon Diggs is one of the most explosive players in the country, frequently drawing comparisons to NFL receivers Desean Jackson and Tavon Austin. Last season as a true freshman, Diggs accounted for 970 of the Terrapins 3,417 total offensive yards from scrimmage. That's close to 30% of the team's entire offensive output. This year, Diggs is on an even faster pace, with 400 yards receiving on merely 18 receptions. His big play ability forces defenses to account for his position at all times.

Clearly, Maryland relies heavily on Diggs to be more than just a wide receiver. He's rushed 24 times for 157 yards as a Terrapin and it would not be surprising to see the sophomore get a few carries against FSU. The more touches that Diggs gets and the more involved he is in the offense, the better chance Maryland has to get a big play and score.

Here is an example of a run/pass option for Brown and Diggs against UConn. Note the defender locked in on Brown as a runner, and the receiver setting up for a downfield block. This play went for a simple score.

While Diggs did not put up big numbers in Maryland's most recent game against West Virginia, his presence on the field created some big opportunities for teammates. Obviously the Terrapins will need Diggs to make a few big plays for them to have a chance, but he has also proved to be quite valuable as a decoy.

With Florida State having recent struggles to defend some misdirection plays against Boston College on film, it would not be surprising in the least to see Maryland attempt something similar. Let's take a look at how the Terrapins set up their first touchdown against West Virginia using misdirection and making Diggs a decoy.

Maryland lines up here with Diggs three yards behind the line of scrimmage as a wingback. Diggs is going to motion toward the weak side of the formation and appear to be the pitchman of a triple option, garnering the attention of West Virginia defenders in the process.

Notice how the X receiver, Deon Long, is preparing to come back to the strong side of the field and take the option pitch on the reverse. With the Mountaineers focused on containing the triple option, it froze them just enough to give Long the advantage and he beats West Virginia for 18 yards down the field, setting up the first touchdown of the game for the Terps.

Long is not the same level of athlete as Diggs, but he does have 21 receptions through four games this season. While quite a few of those catches could be attributed to defenses paying very close attention to Diggs' whereabouts on the field, he is still someone the FSU defense must pay attention to. Staying at home and playing assignment football will be integral to Seminole success on defense against the Terrapins on Saturday.

As a returner

No doubt, the Seminole have hiccupped on a few occasions in the kick coverage game. Whether it's a line-drive punt or a missed lane on the kickoff itself, Florida State has sacrificed some field position due to a lack of executing fundamentals in special teams.

With Diggs' abilities in mind, don't be surprised if the Terps turn to Diggs in both phases of the return game. Kickoff returns have been more prominently a part of Diggs season, as he's touched the ball 10 times in such situations. His punt return totals are unimpressive (four returns for -2 yards), but should the Seminoles be punting deep within their own territory, that would be a prime opportunity to make an impact play.

Also of note in the cat-and-mouse return game is Florida State's strategy. Often, punting away from a game-breaker is the talking point (see FSU's opponents v. Greg Reid), but the kickoff has been more about strategy than meets the eye in Tallahassee. With either Dustin Hopkins or Roberto Aguayo, Florida State is more apt to work on hang time and angling to pin a team within its own 20-yard line, rather than letting the kicker boot away for a touchback. Jimbo Fisher is fond of pointing out how much smaller a playbook is inside an offense's own 20 or 15-yard line, but will he forego that reality to stay away from Diggs and the return game?

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