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Notre Dame Football

Film Don't Lie | Making Brennen Armstrong a Pocket Passer

September 12, 2023

NC State scored 24 points against Notre Dame. I know this because the scoreboard told me so, but it didn’t accurately reflect how strong the performance from Al Golden’s defense was.

It was 17 points before the final garbage time drive at the end of the game. That means they scored 17 points on 15 total drives and before that final drive, they only allowed 4.0 yards per play.

Brennen Armstrong had 68 yards passing on the last drive. Prior to that he had thrown for 192, only 4.7 yards per attempt, threw three interceptions, and completed 41.4% of his passes.

Notre Dame wanted to make him a pocket passer because a) they knew he couldn’t beat them doing that and b) they knew that NC State didn’t have the receivers to win against Notre Dame’s secondary.

Step one was keeping Armstrong in the pocket. Not only did they have to stop Armstrong on designed runs, they also had to contain him as a scrambler (10 scrambles last week).

Mission accomplished. His longest run of the day was nine yards and he only scrambled four times.

To keep him in the pocket, sometimes that meant utilizing a spy. Sometimes that meant squeezing the pocket with their pass rush. They couldn’t be reckless with how they rushed the passer, which equalled to less obvious wins in terms of sacks, but it ended up being a successful strategy because he’s more dangerous as a runner than as a pocket passer.

This is a five man pressure with Marist Liufau and Javontae Jean-Baptiste as the edges with Jordan Botelho and Howard Cross lined up as 3-technique tackles (outside shade of the guards). Everything about the way they attack has to do with keeping the integrity of their rushing lanes.

JD Bertrand adds in as the blitzer who is knocking the center back into Armstrong. The walls were closing in and with no running option, Armstrong elects for the low percentage throw on the slot fade.

Even though his receiver won the route, the throw was nowhere close and it’s been that way with Armstrong. He might have dropped that one in the bucket to beat Cam Hart later in the game, but that made him 1 of 9 on deep balls (20+ air yards) in this game. He’s 1 of 12 on the season.

This also leads into another important piece of the game plan for Notre Dame. Armstrong was bad against the blitz in 2022 at Virginia (6.6 YPA, seven interceptions, 61.9 NFL passer rating) and he was bad in week one when blitzed against UCONN.

He was bad again in this game.

A lot of it is that they knew when he felt the heat, he was going to get rid of the football. A lot of the time he has predetermined where he is going with it and this was an example of that.

This is 3rd and 5 and it’s a five man pressure with Liufau dropping in coverage from the edge rather than rushing. Everyone up front is slanting to the boundary and nickel back Thomas Harper is blitzing off the edge as well as Bertrand.

This is so well timed by both of them and Bertrand is able to get pressure by ripping inside of the right tackle and Harper is a free rusher that that back recognizes way too late.

There is no way this ball should be thrown, but this is what Armstrong does. He wants to avoid the sack so he is letting this go and when he saw Harper blitz, he probably thought he had the out. Hart jumps this and this could have been very close to a pick six.

The key is DJ Brown and the safeties. He is sliding over when Harper rushes and if the slot runs a slant, he’s all over it. It’s a great play by Hart and a terrific job with the blitz, but this is something that I’m sure Hart was waiting on thinking this would happen.

Armstrong averaged 3.4 yards per attempt against the blitz.

This is a different situation. It’s a run blitz on first down with Liufau timing this up perfectly. It’s outside zone and if Armstrong gives the ball to the back, it’s a tackle for loss. He pulls on the RPO and throws the slant instead.

The blitz impacted the pull, but this wasn’t exactly open. Ben Morrison was all over it and even if this ball was perfect and the receiver catches it, Bertrand could have lit him up.

Technically this was the right decision to pull and throw, but even the right decision wasn’t a good option. There is no way that wasn’t frustrating for Armstrong.

This was also the game where we saw “Spear” have success. I think everyone assumed that this was going to be a sub-package defense where we saw the “Aztec” used as a blitzer often, but that’s not what they showed in this game. (I think we’ll see that in future games)

What we saw in this game is a great use of Notre Dame three safeties and them being able to switch roles depending on the call or motion. My guy Greg Flammang has a great explanation of Ramon Henderson’s pass breakup when he was the “robber” on a play where the call would have been cover 1 robber, which means that it is man coverage with the four receiver,s a deep safety in the middle of the field, and another “robbing” any throw over the middle of the field.

Greg breaks down the Notre Dame side of the coverage there, but the key on that play when looking at Armstrong is he is again squeezed in on the pocket with a five man pressure normally he is seeing that and running.

Without running being an option unless he wants to get sacked, he is basically counting off the seconds in his head like he is a seven on seven drill. He throws that ball without even thinking because he only sees man and was lucky it wasn’t picked.

He was not so lucky this time around at the end of the game when he was picked off by Brown.

This isn’t even Notre Dame bringing any kind of pressure and most of the focus of the rush appears to be keeping him in the pocket. And it’s the clock going in his head that makes him throw this ball because he only has eyes for Liufau and Armstrong thinks this is open because the receiver clears him on the in breaking route.

Armstrong sees ghosts when he is in the pocket. That’s why he is typically so quick to run or get rid of the football. 

He saw plenty of them on Saturday. Notre Dame was clearly aware of it and was ready for who he was, both good (the scrambler) and bad (the pocket passer).

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