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  • Todd Grantham's defenses have always built their identity around the blitz—for better or worse. But Florida is reaping the rewards for letting its new defensive coordinator tee off.
By Andy Staples
October 02, 2018

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The blitz that saddled Florida safety Donovan Stiner with a new nickname—possibly for life—wasn’t as extreme on the page as it wound up being on the field. “It wasn’t supposed to be eight,” Gators defensive coordinator Todd Grantham says with a chuckle.

But eight Gators did rush Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald on fourth-and-10 in Saturday’s fourth quarter as Florida tried to protect a 13–6 lead. Do some simple math. The Bulldogs had six players protecting Fitzgerald, who was the seventh Mississippi State player behind the line of scrimmage. That means four Bulldogs ran routes against three Florida defenders. But it also meant Fitzgerald had to process who might be open and release the ball before this happened…

If that sack didn’t already tip you off to the nickname Florida linebacker Vosean Joseph gave Stiner, turn the sound up on your phone or computer and watch this edited clip.

That’s right. Stiner’s first collegiate sack has turned him into The Waterboy. And after watching his sack and a montage of Bobby Boucher’s biggest hits for the South Central Louisiana Mud Dogs, the comparison is apt.

“They usually pick me up on that blitz in practice,” Stiner said, “but you’ve got to always expect to come free so you’ve got to run as fast as you can.”

That pressure is at least as old as the film that inspired Stiner’s new nickname. When Adam Sandler—along with former Gators James Bates and Todd Holland, who play opposing players—was filming The Waterboy in Orlando and DeLand, Fla., in the late 1990s, Grantham was in East Lansing, Mich., coaching that blitz. Grantham was Nick Saban’s defensive line coach at Michigan State, and Saban and defensive coordinator Dean Pees loved the idea of bringing one more than the offense could block on third- or fourth-and-long. The reasoning is simple: 

• Only the best quarterbacks can identify an open man in the very compressed time they have to throw the ball.

• Because the offense needs significant yardage, a hitch or slant—the two routes receivers have time to run—can’t hurt you. Tackle the receiver where he catches it, and the offense still hasn’t made a first down. (The fatal flaw here is if a corner doesn’t play tight enough or if a safety misses a tackle. More on that later.)

• The only way to get beat is if the quarterback is athletic enough to get away or if he throws up a fade and a receiver wins the fight for a 50/50 ball against single coverage.

When the Spartans were fine-tuning that blitz more than 20 years ago, it so perplexed Michigan State offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill that Tranquill would ask defensive coaches to run it at practice every Thursday so he could try to devise a protection for those downs that would keep the quarterback upright. After a while, Tranquill conceded. “He said, ‘I’d just run that blitz, because we can’t pick it up,’” Grantham says.

That’s if the pressure is run correctly. Against the Bulldogs, it wasn’t. “If there are seven guys in protection, you bring eight,” Grantham says. “If there are six guys in protection, you bring seven. Somebody missed the adjustment, but fortunately, the read was the other way.”

Still, Grantham appreciates the irony of a blitz making him the hero of a visitor’s win in Starkville. Less than a year ago, when he was Mississippi State’s defensive coordinator, he was roundly criticized for a first-and-10 pressure that Alabama picked up, allowing Jalen Hurts to hit DeVonta Smith for his second most famous game-winning touchdown of the 2017 season.

That play, which started on the 26-yard line with 31 seconds remaining, showed the weaknesses of the kitchen-sink blitz if it isn’t run as intended. First, Alabama had a seven-man protection and only six Bulldogs rushed. Remember, if they keep seven in to protect, you send eight. With more blockers than rushers, Hurts had plenty of time. Second, the cornerback covering Smith played him loose instead of jamming him at the line of scrimmage. This gave Smith an easy release on the slant. Third, the safety who was the last line of defense missed the tackle when Smith spun away. It was a recipe for disaster, and it ended in the end zone.

The blitz Grantham ran against Mississippi State on Saturday was much lower risk because the rushers did outnumber the blockers and because Fitzgerald had shown all night that he was neither accurate under pressure nor accurate on medium-to-deep throws. Still, it’s fascinating to see Florida’s social media team turn #FourthAndGrantham into a hashtag when the phrase to which it pays homage—third-and-Grantham—was originally intended as an insult. It was created by Georgia fans during Grantham’s (reasonably successful) tenure in Athens from 2010 to ’13. In Grantham’s final year there, the Bulldogs ranked 64th in the nation in opponent third-down percentage, allowing teams to convert 39.5% of their third downs. Two years earlier, Grantham’s Bulldogs had ranked third in the nation in that stat. The phrase originated not from any one play but from a general belief that Grantham took too many risks with pressure when his defense could have played conservatively and gotten off the field.

The problem is that Grantham’s defenses are predicated on pressure. Even when he isn’t bringing more rushers than the offense has blockers, he’s tinkering with the location of the fourth rusher to confuse the opposing quarterback. He knows he’ll need to be prudent with his pressure this week against LSU, because in his brief time as a starter, Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow has shown a penchant for diagnosing defenses and identifying the open man before pressure can arrive. Burrow also has shown a knack for knowing when to take a sack or throw the ball away rather than throw it into danger. While he’s only completed 53.4% of his passes, he has yet to throw an interception. 

Still, don’t expect Grantham to shy away from the high-risk/high-reward blitzes that have taken him this far. They’re a big reason Florida coach Dan Mullen brought Grantham with him from Mississippi State. “I’ve learned one thing through the years: Shut my mouth in that situation,” Mullen told reporters after Saturday’s win. “I’m going to shut my mouth. Todd, I’m here if you need me. He’s the one that watched all the film, put the game plan together, put all the blitz packages together. I just need to sit there quietly and let him go.”

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