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Notre Dame Football

Film Don't Lie | Locking Up Leonard

October 3, 2023

Riley Leonard came into this season ranked 28th in Dane Brugler’s top-50 2024 NFL Draft prospects list. The well respected analyst called Leonard “possibly the best quarterback you haven’t watched yet” and two of his listed strengths are that he reads coverages well and he’s productive as a running threat.

As Brugler noted, he was ranked in the top-25 in EPA (expected points added) as a scrambler and his running ability was a huge factor in Duke’s upset win over Clemson. Notre Dame was keenly aware of that and knew that Leonard would present unique challenges.

If they played a traditional spy against him, it would take away from what they were doing in coverage. If they pressured too much while playing man coverage behind it, they risked giving up big yards to him as a runner.

Leonard did damage in that area against Notre Dame. In the second quarter when Notre Dame ran a five man pressure, they didn’t hit home and he saw an opening and ran for 21-yards. He added 33-yards on a designed run in the fourth quarter and had one other scramble for 10-yards on a key 3rd down play.

Those three plays added up to 64-yards and were all significant plays in the game.

However, the Irish were able to get him on the ground 15 other times that added up to only 24-yards and were able to sack him three times after he had only been sacked once in the previous four games. (Clemson did not sack him)

Against the Irish, Leonard had his worst overall PFF grade in two years, his worst passing grade, and his worst QBR of the season. It was 46.0 against Notre Dame. Against Clemson it 89.9.

Al Golden’s defense did a fantastic job of disguising coverages to confuse Leonard as a passer. They also took away lanes from him as a scrambler while confusing Duke’s protection schemes up front. It was a great game plan that the players executed extremely well.

I picked out some examples to show exactly what they did. (I encourage everyone to click on the GIF within the tweet to pause it at different points)

Here we are in the red zone on the first drive of the game and Notre Dame has five defenders at the line of scrimmage at the snap and it looks like cover 1 (man coverage with a single high safety). It quickly morphs into cover 1 robber (I incorrectly said it was 2-man in the tweet).

DJ Brown (2) is lined up at linebacker depth, but drops. It looks like he will have man coverage on the back so Leonard is thinking five man pressure and the protection is as well. Brown is actually dropping and ready to “rob” an in-breaking route here if it comes from the outside receiver.

Everything shifts right at the snap with JD Bertrand (lined up outside shade of the right guard) stepping forward to occupy the guard, but then going out with the back in man coverage. This means the right guard is left there blocking no one. That makes it a four man rush, but it is really more of a three man rush with Marist Liufau as a spy.

He is stepping up and the left guard is preparing to block him, but this is only to occupy the attention of that guard.

Howard Cross, lined up as the nose tackle, gets engaged with both the center and the guard. It then turns into what is essentially a T-T stunt (tackle-tackle), but the whole point is Liufau waiting to see if Leonard will take the bait to run.

He does. It looks like he has a big hole to run through for a first down, but that was an illusion. Liufau loops over to the vacated area and Leonard, who was already committed as a runner, has no choice but to try and cut back to avoid the tackle and ends getting swarmed for no gain.

There was no one open on the back end and what the protection thought they saw wasn’t what they got. What Leonard thought he had in coverage wasn’t what he got either. That lane to scramble also didn’t exist when it looked like it did.

This was dang good defense.

This is another 3rd down and it’s five men on the line of scrimmage, but this time it’s Bertrand over the center (he drops into a zone). Liufau is one 3-tech (outside shade of the left guard) and Javontae Jean-Baptiste is the other one (outside shade of the right guard).

They are running double stunts on both sides here with Jordan Botelho as the edge beside JJB and Howard Cross as the edge.

Please excuse me for calling this a T-E stunt in the tweet. It’s an E-T stunt, which means end first and tackle second. (I blame the two hours of sleep I got yesterday. Dad life, am I right?)

It’s a brilliant move with how this is constructed because Cross is crashing down with Liufau as the looper and JJB is the looper on the other side, which means they have athletes who can contain Leonard to escape the pocket.

Duke’s O-line does a terrible job passing this off, which is not unexpected considering they were playing with a backup left tackle. That left JJB unblocked. Botelho and Cross do well to collapse the pocket and with no obvious options down the field, Leonard is looking to run right after getting off of his first read. He looks to go right, but JJB is there.

When he goes back left, Liufau is there after beating whatever the heck that was from the back in protection. JJB and Liufau combined for the sack.

This is the final play of the game for the defense and it’s similar to that first play I mentioned where it’s a four man rush, but more of a three man rush with Liufau as more of a spy.

Bertrand (off the ball over the left guard) is a potential pass rush threat so the guard has to respect that, but he respects it way too much. He pretty much ends up blocking nobody when he could have either tried to help the left tackle earlier or move to help inside.

It’s a big deal that he doesn’t because that means Cross has a one on one with the center and we know he wins that and ends the game with a sack/forced fumble. The other reason he gets a one on one is that Liufau, again, gives the illusion that he is rushing up the field.

The right guard is expecting it and going with him, but Liufau is actually rushing passively and waiting as a spy to see if Leonard will run. It’s like a T-T stunt inside, but it’s really just Cross winning a one on one look as a nose tackle, a rare situation to get, and Liufau waiting to see if Leonard will run.

It never came to that because Cross finished, but Notre Dame was set up well to stop it if it did. They confused the protection again and it helped lead to the game-winning play.

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