Photo Credit: JC Ridley/FAU Athletics
When Florida Atlantic travels to Huntington to play No. 22 Marshall, the Owls’ offense will see two islands on both sides of the fields.
The Marshall secondary, which has allowed 245 passing yards per game, has long put its cornerbacks on islands. There are not many complex things to Marshall’s defense but the main difference is how its cornerbacks line up pre-snap.
Man Coverage With a Twist
Marshall tends to play man coverage, placing its cornerbacks on ‘islands’. All that means is there often isn’t help over top of these cornerbacks. The boundary cornerbacks often track the opposing wide receiver one-on-one.
The reason Marshall can do this is because its secondary is experienced throughout. Headlined by junior Steven Gilmore and redshirt senior Jaylon McClain-Sapp, the Thundering Herd’s cornerback room is not only experienced but also talented.
So far this season, Gilmore has posted a Pro Football Focus coverage grade of 78.3, allowing 12 receptions on his 24 targets. Senior cornerback Nazeeh Johnson has posted the second-highest coverage grade on Marshall at 80.7.
“The corners, they put those guys on islands, because they do have experience and they do feel comfortable with them out there,” FAU co-offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer said. “You’ve seen some people test those guys out there on the edge. I think they’re a physical group of corners; they’re not afraid to put hands on people and force you to make plays.”
Along with placing the cornerbacks on islands, Marshall tends to stray away from the press man coverage that we see multiple teams utilize. Instead, Marshall opts to place their cornerbacks multiple yards off the line of scrimmage, playing soft man coverage.
“They play a lot of corners coverage which turns into man coverage. So, they can play it on the line, press them and play the same coverage because their corners are basically manned up with the receiver,” FAU head coach Willie Taggart said about the defense.
“I don’t think it’s anything new or anything that’s really different than [what] most people play. They do it consistently and they do it well. They’re not inviting you to throw it. They’re playing top down; they don’t allow you to get a lot of explosive plays behind them. [Marshall] force you to drive the field.”
Above is a common look that Marshall has. Marshall often opts to place their cornerbacks five to 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, not allowing much deep. This keeps the routes and plays in front of them, preventing the big plays. The Marshall defensive line has found ways to generate pressure this season, allowing this wrinkle to work.
The Linebackers’ Greatest Flaw
The Marshall defense has been as efficient and strong as they’ve been. The linebackers are prone to their mistakes, especially when it comes to reading the differences between run plays and pass plays.
Since Marshall’s secondary and defensive line are stacked, the linebackers have multiple instances where they get aggressive. The linebackers have fallen for play actions on multiple occasions, leaving the middle of the field vulnerable.
Late in the game against Louisiana Tech, Marshall’s linebacker at the top of the screen bites at the play action fake. While Louisiana Tech runs a deeper concept, hoping to get back in the game, the middle of the field is open. A properly timed route across the middle of the field will be open and will get yards.
After running the ball on most of the first drive, Appalachian State took a planned throw deep. Marshall’s linebackers and safeties bite on the play action, allowing an open deep shot. The throw, although overthrown, is an effective throw that opens up more of the offense.
How FAU Should Attack It
No one team has found out a way to stop Marshall’s defense and beat them. At 4-0, Marshall enters atop the Conference USA East division and are the early favorites to win the conference.
No one knows who FAU will have available for the contest. After another outbreak inside the program, Taggart has mentioned that many players are “game-time decisions” for the contest against Marshall.
When FAU starts to play on offense, it would be wise for the Owls to take a shot deep. Even if the play isn’t open, the one throw should open up more for the offense and keep the secondary honest in its decision making.
In the middle of the first quarter of last year’s contest, FAU took its first deep shot and although it was ruled an incomplete pass, contact with John Mitchell opens up the possibility of pass interference and a first down.
Although Mitchell is not known for his speed, the safeties bite on the motion and play action, opening up the deep post. As Mitchell begins to break his route to the middle, the 6-foot-4 wide receiver has a step at the beginning. This is, in large part, because Marshall’s cornerback allows Mitchell to take the inside.
This season, FAU has more prototypical deep threats to take this shot. Freshman LaJohntay Wester has long been credited as a deep threat with blazing speed. Senior TJ Chase is listed at 6-foot-1 and is a solid route runner with the capabilities to beat teams deep. There are weapons to beat the Thundering Herd deep for FAU, should they choose to take a deep shot.
Outside of the deep shots, FAU will have open short routes after play actions. With the aggressiveness from the Marshall linebackers, RPOs (run pass option) and play actions should open up the middle of the field. Also, timely runs should allow the entire offense to flow.