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Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi has built a Big Ten defense at Minnesota

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Identifying the key elements that have made the Gopher defense so successful under Rossi

Joe Rossi University of Minnesota

The most important date of P.J. Fleck’s tenure at Minnesota thus far might be Nov. 4, 2018.

Twenty four hours after an embarrassing 55-31 loss to Illinois, Minnesota announced that Fleck was parting ways with defensive coordinator Robb Smith and promoting defensive line coach Joe Rossi to interim defensive coordinator. At that point in the season, the Gophers were 4-5 and had lost five of their last six games. Three weeks later, Minnesota was bowl-eligible and chopping down the goalposts at Camp Randall Stadium with Paul Bunyan’s Axe. And within hours after the win over Wisconsin, Fleck had removed the interim tag from Rossi’s title.

One year later, Minnesota is 8-0 and ranked No. 13 in the country, and Joe Rossi’s Gopher defense is a big reason why they are in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten West.

Reducing the amount of explosive plays

The most notable area of improvement under Joe Rossi has been the number of explosive plays the Gopher defense has allowed. Through the first eight games of the season, Minnesota has only allowed 20 plays of 20 yards or more. In the Gophers’ final six games alone under Robb Smith last season, the defense allowed 42 plays of 20 yards or more.

Here is a breakdown:

Explosive Plays Allowed

Yards Gained Final 6 games under Robb Smith Last 8 games under Joe Rossi
Yards Gained Final 6 games under Robb Smith Last 8 games under Joe Rossi
20-29 19 13
30-39 7 4
40-49 5 1
50+ 11 2

Smith’s defense was allowing nearly two plays of 50 yards or more per game. That’s not good. In fact, that’s very bad. Most opposing offenses were gashing the Gophers on the ground. In those last six games with Smith at the helm, teams were averaging 6.8 yards per carry against Minnesota. This season, Rossi’s defense has cut that average in half (3.6 yards per carry) and ranks 27th in the country in rushing yards allowed per game (117.7).

The key to limiting big plays starts at the line of scrimmage. Teams have to be disciplined in their run fits. What is a run fit? It is when you use a defensive lineman or a linebacker to plug a gap, eliminating a lane for the running back. Covering all gaps effectively creates a wall for the running back, forcing them to bounce it outside for a minimal or no gain. Robb Smith’s defenses were especially bad at plugging gaps, as you can see here:

Blake Cashman runs straight to the wrong gap, failing to recognize the pulling lineman. Winston DeLattiboudere gets blocked out of his gap, leaving Thomas Barber to be neutralized by the pulling lineman to spring Reggie Corbin for a 72-yard touchdown on the second play of the game.

Tasked with salvaging the wreckage Smith left behind in his wake, Rossi went about re-establishing their run fits by making changes to the Gophers’ defensive line alignments up front and simplifying the schemes for his linebackers, allowing them to play faster. They responded by limiting Purdue to negative yards rushing in their first game under Rossi.

Here, you’ll see that it starts with Carter Coughlin making the kind of play that does not show up in the box score. Coughlin, facing a double team, manages to hold the edge and force Anthony McFarland Jr. back across the formation, where a swarm of defenders are all waiting to stop him for a minimal gain. Because of the disciplined run fit, there are no cut back lanes.

And here is another good example, this time against Illinois, one year later:

It seems simple enough, but evidently it was not so simple for Robb Smith.

Trusting your secondary in coverage

Soft coverage was another staple of Robb Smith’s defensive game plans but Joe Rossi seems confident enough in his defensive backs to be more aggressive, and for good reason.

To me, the strength of the Gophers’ defense is in the secondary. This is a unit that I was bullish about coming into this year, even as members of the media labeled it a question mark in the preseason for reasons beyond my understanding. Minnesota effectively traded starting safety Jacob Huff, who graduated, for a healthy Antoine Winfield Jr., and returned literally every other defensive back who saw the field for the Gophers last season.

Winfield has been as good as advertised. He is tied for the team lead in tackles with 46 and has recorded two sacks, nabbed a team-leading five interceptions, and forced a fumble. And according to the evaluators at Pro Football Focus, Winfield is the highest-graded safety in the country.

But the Minnesota secondary is not a one-man show. Junior cornerback Coney Durr leads all other Gopher defensive backs with seven pass break-ups, and his forced incompletion rate (40%) is the highest mark among all other qualified FBS cornerbacks. Michigan transfer Benjamin St.-Juste has turned heads with his play at cornerback and usurped Kiondre Thomas’ starting spot, earning a place on PFF’s B1G Team of the Week after the Purdue game. Chris Williamson at slot corner and Jordan Howden at safety round out the starting five.

Williamson functions as a third linebacker, playing close to the line of scrimmage. He has been up to the task, ranking third on the team in tackles and second in tackles for loss. And Howden, who struggled much of last season a true freshman, has been a steady presence as a sophomore, even leading the team in tackles in the season opener against South Dakota State.

Credit cornerbacks coach Rod Chance and safeties coach Jon Harasymiak for the work they’ve done with this group this season. The results speak for themselves: Minnesota ranks 9th nationally in passing yards allowed per game (166.4) and 5th in passing efficiency defense. And it’s apparent how much trust Rossi has in his defensive backs, as both Durr and St.-Juste have seen their workloads in man coverage increase with each week. And when you have that kind of trust in your secondary, it allows you to be more creative up front.

Getting creative on passing downs

Find something in life that you love as much as Joe Rossi loves dialing up blitzes on passing downs. One of the first things I noticed about Rossi was his creativity. The Gophers don’t generate a ton of sacks, ranking 48th nationally with an average of 2.38 sacks per game. But they’ve spread out 19 sacks across 11 different players this season. Rossi likes to spread the wealth and his creativity has been key to generating pressure on obvious passing downs.

Here is an example from his debut against Purdue last year:

And this isn’t even a blitz. Rossi shows six in the box pre-snap but only rushes four. Coughlin fakes to the outside before rushing in to occupy both a tackle and a guard. This gives Kamal Martin, who faked a drop into coverage before rushing around the edge, a free shot at the quarterback. It doesn’t end in a sack, but the pressure forces an errant third down pass.

For a more recent example, we turn to the Maryland game:

Now here is your blitz and a sack. Rossi rushes six, but four of them are defensive ends. Boye Mafe and Tai’yon Devers are used as stand-up edge rushers to bull rush the tackles and pin the quarterback in the pocket. Esezi Otomewo is lined up on the right guard, and Coughlin draws a double team from the left guard and center. Josh Aune and Braelen Oliver blitz the same gap, and the running back can only pick up Aune, opening up a clear path for Oliver to get the sack.