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October 10, 2013
Arizona State coach Todd Graham came to Tempe, Ariz., with the reputation for pressuring the quarterback.
Other teams in the Pac-12 took Graham's mantra with a grain of salt last season and paid the price, as the Sun Devil defense racked up 52 sacks and 117 tackles for loss.
This season, opponents have recognized.
After five games the defense has only seven sacks and 28 tackles for loss. Even more alarming, senior defensive tackle Will Sutton only has one sack after 13.5 last year.
Blame has been put on Sutton's weight, the defensive line's inability to compete against large offensive line units or the defensive game in place for the lack of production from the ASU defense.
Not a lot of attention has been focused on what other teams are doing to slow down the ASU pass rush. But opponents are finding creative ways keep ASU defenders out of the back field.
If the quarterback only has the ball for a couple seconds then it is tough for him to get sacked.
Sacramento State had the same mentality in the Sun Devils' first game of the year. The Hornets were an undersized offensive line and were going have a hard time dealing with Sutton and junior linebacker Carl Bradford.
Therefore, any pass play was either a one-step or a three-step drop by the quarterback. Downfield throws? There weren't any. The Hornets lost the game but their plan worked and the Sun Devils only had one sack from back up sophomore linebacker Antonio Longino.
Graham has noticed this tacit from other opponents this year.
"We have come very close to getting sacks, but I think the teams we have played have done a great job getting the ball out," Graham said.
Junior linebacker Carl Bradford definitely does not like when he has only one or two seconds to get to the quarterback.
"You get real irritated, real fast," Bradford said. "The first game, Sacramento State, I'm like, 'Man, how can I not get to this guy?' It was like one second the ball's out. Two seconds the ball's out. You can't do really do anything about that. Quick game's quick game."
Here is another strategy. If the defense is sending the house, the offense will keep more at the line to protect its quarterback.
Teams have been adding extra barriers for the ASU defenders to get through besides the five offensive linemen. The normal addition of a pass blocking running back can help, but teams have gone a step further and kept in tight ends and full backs along with a running back to give their quarterback plenty of time.
Defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Paul Randolph said this it presents a challenge, no doubt.
"Naturally it makes it tougher when you got eight guys blocking four guys or eight guys blocking six guys," Randolph said. "We just had to pick and choose the direction that we were pressuring from field, boundary, different things like that. So that's all what was going on early in the season."
Notre Dame exhibited this game plan against the Sun Devils last weekend. It was obviously successful because ASU defense did not have any sacks the entire game.
Graham said Notre Dame junior tight end Troy Niklas was a difference maker.
"From a blocking standpoint they protected him, they kept [Niklas] in protection and that was very difficult," Graham said. "He did a great job blocking on Carl, did a great job blocking on (senior defensive end) Gannon (Conway) and that was something that was tough."
Niklas is 6-foot-6, 270 pound tight end and when he stayed in to block on pass plays he was like very athletic extra tackle for the Irish.
Randolph said Colorado will keep extra blockers at the line this Saturday, especially to set up a deep throw to junior wide receiver Paul Richardson.
Before the Notre Dame game, senior linebacker Chris Young was moved back to Spur in part because of his blitzing ability off the edge.
Young said the blocking tight end does make it more difficult to get to the quarterback when he is called to blitz.
He said linebackers like himself need to get in better position before the snap to get past those extra blockers.
"It's all about alignment," Young said. "If you line up right then just playing is going to take care of itself. But the big issue with that is just being physical and alignments."
Opposing offenses have one more trick to slowing down the Sun Devils. Teams have been studying.
Watch the moments leading up to the snap when the ASU defense is on the field. It has been a constant cat and mouse game between the defensive players and their opponents, especially against Stanford, USC and Notre Dame.
The Sun Devils will have a blitz package called. The opposing quarterback will call out hard snap count not only to make the Sun Devils jump off-sides but also make their linebackers or a defensive back creep forward and indicate where they are blitzing.
The quarterback then audibles to a new play and the defense in turn checks to a new blitz. The pattern repeats itself a couple times until the quarterback has to snap the ball in order to avoid a delay of game penalty.
"You've see a lot of delay penalties there because we're audibling back and forth, back and forth, back and forth," Graham said. "I really don't want people doing that. I'd really rather just call the play and let us have the call last When that happens you don't always have the best call."
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