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Utah's super-aggressive defense prepares to meet the Pac-12's best teams

The Utes defense has set up camp in opposing backfield all season long. But the schedule's about to put those eye-popping numbers to a serious test.

Every decision has a tradeoff. With every personnel move, scheme, style, technique, or play call there are potential positive and negative outcomes. Such is life.

College football defenses are perpetually trapped in the struggle to have answers for the challenges posed by the various offenses on their schedules. They have to do this within the constraints of their recruiting base, current personnel, practice schedule, and preferred philosophies.

The 5-1, No. 19 Utah Utes have made one particular choice as to how they've built their defense. They are aggressive, and they are coming after you.

Some have been able to run the football on them; opponents are averaging 146.5 non-sack yards per game. Others have been able to throw it, with Fresno State and UCLA posting high passer ratings.

But most of them have gone down for one reason: damage done by Ute pressure. They average 5.5 sacks per game, 1.5 more than the nation's No. 2, with a nation-leading 10.2 tackles for loss per game as well. That's the biggest reason the D ranks No. 11 in F/+ despite giving up 13.3 10-yard plays per game, a mediocre number.

The process

Because the nature of the Utes' front seven is to be aggressive with the blitz, they lean toward playing it safe in their pass coverages. They tend to rely mostly on cover 3 ...

... and a style of cover 2.

They'll pattern-read out of these coverages and try to take away passing angles with smart, deep drops by their underneath defenders. They aim as a general rule to protect their deep defenders.

Consequently, they aren't running quarters coverage to try and get extra defensive backs involved in stopping the run, so they aren't leaving themselves vulnerable to play action. In their base defensive coverages, deep pass defenders are protected from run/pass conflicts and from receivers who have chances to run free into zones.

The upshot is that the Utes don't always get extra numbers to stop the run, although cover 3 has the advantage of allowing the linebackers to stay in the box more. So the defensive line techniques are designed to help protect their backers.

Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake will play his DL in techniques that get them charging upfield, playing through blocks, and making sure they don't get reach blocked. He stocks those lines with lots of big men like freshman Lowell Lotulelei, brother of former first-round Ute Star Lotulelei, who share the Tonga native's Pacific Island heritage.

Opponents are then forced to respond with double teams to win the point of attack. They frequently struggle to get a clean release to the second level against the linebackers, who are free to run to the football:

The Utes will use some very conservative four-man zone blitzes that bring an extra defender off one edge while dropping a defensive end on the opposite side into underneath coverage. They'll also bring a variety of classic fire zones with five pass-rushers and play a pattern-matching cover 3 behind them:

These serve as forms of their base cover 3 defense and are relatively safe to call, since the defense gets three deep pass defenders, plus their players are great at matching up routes underneath while getting a little more pressure. Due to the excellence of their linebacker corps, as demonstrated above, their blitzes often get home.

But they also use the dreaded six-man zone blitz perfected by Pat Narduzzi at Michigan State:

The structure of the six-man zone blitz is a great peak into the Utes' philosophy on defense. Most six-man pressures are man blitzes in which every defender who isn't blitzing is assigned a specific man to cover. If your man stays in to protect, then you join the six blitzers as a seventh or eighth rusher. The six-man zone blitz can work more like this:

Ute 6-man zone blitz

The coverage still has three deep pass defenders, so it's not going to be easy to beat it over the top. As a general rule, heavy blitzes are most easily defeated by hot reads and throws over the middle to receivers on the run, but the two shallow droppers (in this instance the two true linebackers, "rover" and "mac" in Utah terminology) are looking to match and take away the quick and easy short routes that offenses run in response to pressure.

That leaves the QB to try and beat pressure outside and away, which is difficult all the time and especially when the offensive protection is overwhelmed by an overload blitz like this.

This blitz nearly resulted in a sack for the free safety. It's been a mighty tool for the Utes in getting big-time pressure. It either sacks the QB or forces him to scramble and beat those two shallow linebackers playing hot coverage in the middle of the field.

Here's the re-occurring theme in all of the Utes' defensive schemes, the overriding philosophy that dictates their approach: They get after you hard with speed and pressure up front, but never at the cost of giving their deep pass defenders any assignment other than keeping the ball in front of them.

The personnel

Perhaps the greatest advantage to having a firm identity is that you can recruit players whose strengths and weaknesses are accounted for by the scheme.

Since Utah's defensive philosophy defers playmaking to the linebackers and looks to mostly protect the secondary, the defensive tackles do not have glorious roles. While they get to attack both the backfield and the offenses' blockers, technique-wise, they do so in a way that's likely to draw attention and unlikely to mean many tackles.

For this purpose, the Utes, like their rivals at BYU, load up on Pacific Islanders, finding many with powerful frames that are ideal for getting low and winning leverage battles. Eight of Utah's 10 defensive tackles share that identity. They're joined up front by defensive end Nate Orchard, who's second in the country in tackles for loss per game.

The rest are players who can run and hit. They aren't loaded with amazing cover corners, and the linebackers are best at dropping, escaping blocks with speed, and scraping. Neither their star back-seven playmaker, rover Jared Norris, nor mac linebacker Gionni Paul is great at plugging inside or blowing up blocks in the hole. Where they do excel is in matching routes underneath in coverage, running to the football from sideline to sideline, and blitzing.

Norris stands at 6'2, 237 pounds while Paul is 5'10 and 227. Their nickelback, Justin Thomas, another active member of the run defense, stands at 5'8 and 178 pounds. These guys are hard to block and cover ground quickly in coverage. If you can get hats on them, they can be run over and pushed around, but good luck getting there, as the defense isn't asking them to deal with that very often.

That's a very typical down of Utah defensive football. A zone blitz brought with disguise and backed by speedy players in the defensive backfield who can all blitz, hit, and have the quickness to run with players in coverage.

The secondary features big hitters and strikers who excel when asked to drop into deep coverage and then come downhill and blow up ball-carriers:

They can be beat in coverage. They can be blocked. But they can all tackle, and they are all willing to hit you. They'll give you that one big play. Just make sure you go down before you reach the end zone, or the next play may very well end with four Utes on top of your quarterback, seven yards behind the line of scrimmage.

The prospects

After a manageable first half of 2014, the next several weeks for the Utes are going to get real in a hurry. They face No. 20 USC, travel to No. 14 Arizona State, come home to play No. 6 Oregon, travel to play at Stanford, come home and meet No. 15 Arizona, and then conclude in Colorado.

The greatest potential threat to their system is a team with offensive linemen who can handle their DL without having to linger on double teams. If lead blockers also have the athleticism to track down the Utes' linebackers at the second level, Utah will get run over. Stanford's plan could fit, with its outside zone and power blocking schemes that are designed to work in exactly that fashion, though the Cardinal have only averaged better than 4.7 yards per carry twice this year.

Another issue could be a team with elite receivers that could shred Utah's secondary with great route running. USC's Nelson Agholor comes to mind.

But those teams have to be able to block Utah's blend of zone blitzes, or none of that will matter. The Utes are betting they can't.