In Florida’s 27-16 streak-busting loss to Kentucky on Sept. 8, the Gators’ defense looked hapless, generating next to no pass rush and defending the run about as well as a traffic cone in yielding 303 yards to Benny Snell and the Wildcats.
Expected to be a strength of Florida’s football team in the summer, the Wildcats gashed Florida’s front seven all night, dominating at the point of attack and bullying Florida’s linebackers on the second level. All told, the Gators missed 15 tackles, and suddenly, a perceived strength looked like a glaring weakness.
We’ve learned since that night in The Swamp, of course, that Kentucky is tremendous up front, and we already knew that Snell would be one of if not the most complete back Florida will face this season.
Nevertheless, those numbers were abysmal and coupled with the 222 yards Florida surrendered on the ground to FCS afterthought Charleston Southern, it’s safe to say Florida’s physicality and ability up front were a huge question mark as the Gators entered the late September-early October meat of the SEC schedule.
What a difference a month makes.
Florida’s run defense has improved dramatically, limiting its past four opponents, including the mighty rushing offenses of Mississippi State and LSU, to 3.0 yards per-carry (top 10 in America in that span) and holding each offense well below its season average per rush.
While some of the improvement can be chalked up to the return of preseason All-SEC middle linebacker David Reese and All-SEC defensive end/linebacker Cece Jefferson, a closer analysis reveals that the main difference for Florida’s run defense has been the improved play of linebacker Vosean Joseph.
The junior from Miami had one tackle for loss in Florida’s opening four games, making 21 tackles but missing seven. In wins over Miss State and LSU, he’s been a one-man wrecking crew. He collected 7 tackles and a sack in the Gators’ upset win in Starkville and followed that performance with the game of his life against then-No. 5 LSU this past Saturday, when he tallied an astounding 14 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. For that performance, Joseph was justifiably named SEC Defensive Player of the Week and Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week.
What’s changed? Why is Joseph suddenly a force after two-plus seasons of mostly being remembered for that hit on Danny Etling at the goal line in Baton Rouge?
Maybe Joseph just likes playing LSU.
More likely, two things have happened.
First, Joseph is playing fast and downhill, thanks to the return of Reese and edge-setter Jefferson. Instead of being thrust into a leadership role where he has to call out defenses and run the show in the middle, Joseph can rely on Reese to do that work and just play. It’s no coincidence Joseph’s Pro Football Focus effectiveness ratings have increased at least 10 points-per-game since Reese and Jefferson returned.
Second, Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, long a master of orienting defenses around the strengths of his personnel, has designed blitzes and schemes that tap into Joseph’s elite speed and instincts.
Joseph’s first sack Saturday exemplified the way the linebacker has benefitted from Jefferson’s return and the way Grantham is using his speed and talents as a blitzer. Here, he hides behind Jefferson until the last moment, disguising his blitz beautifully before picking up a vital sack on 3rd-and-4.
LB Vosean Joseph looked great yesterday. Electric as a blitzer. pic.twitter.com/4QVzTTeiKB
— Jared Stanger (@JaredStanger) October 8, 2018
The first play in the following sequence — where Joseph disguises himself again, moving off Reese just prior to the snap and quickly filling the gap to cause a loss — are an example of Joseph’s elite instincts, and explain how Joseph uses Reese and vice versa to make the Florida starting linebacking corps a suddenly formidable unit.
Looking back through last night's #Gators highlights against LSU, continue to be impressed with Vosean Joseph (@gloryboy_Sean ). Stand out player on defense, with his best game of the season by far (14 tackles, 2 sacks).
Here's 60 seconds of some of his best plays from yesterday pic.twitter.com/EwKz9gLymi
— Jonathan Acosta (@jonacosta_10) October 8, 2018
Meanwhile, as the run defense has continued to improve behind Reese and Joseph, the defensive line has become an electric, dominant unit in terms of its ability to pressure the opposing quarterback.
Florida had 23 sacks in 2017. Through half a season in 2018, Florida has 20, ranking eighth in the country and first in the SEC in that category. The Gators rank sixth nationally in “sack rate”, which measures the percentage of drop back throws that result in a sack, also good for first in the SEC.
Against LSU, Florida collected 5 sacks, pressuring multiple other Joe Burrow passes, including his second interception on what was functionally the game’s final play.
Jachai Polite in particular has been virtually unblockable. On this play, Polite forces what is ultimately ruled an incompletion with an easy spin move to embarrass LSU’s Saahdiq Charles, a blue-chip recruit who was part of the All-SEC Freshman team last season.
Jachai Polite is good at football. pic.twitter.com/poGbmewyVz
— Greg McElroy (@GregMcElroy) October 8, 2018
The Tigers adjusted by bringing a running back or tight end over to Polite’s side on nearly every passing down, but that move has obvious consequences.
First, it frees Jabari Zuniga up to beat defenses one on one, and he’s done so plenty this season, to the tune of 5 sacks of his own. In fact, Zuniga’s ability to win one on one battles means Polite is even more difficult to contain, because Florida rolls out multiple guys who can command double teams or help.
Jachai Polite is the DE who is gaining some steam, but don’t forget about Jabari Zuniga. Wins with a nice outside swim and finishes with a rip to sack Nick Fitzgerald. pic.twitter.com/2MaXVYjfER
— Gavino Borquez (@GavinoBorquez) October 1, 2018
Polite’s dominance also liberates Jefferson from his usual meal of double teams, which is why Jefferson had his most productive game this season against LSU.
Second, it makes the offense predictable when their blocking scheme gives away pass or throw. This predictability takes pressure off a Florida defense that is green behind the ears in the secondary in the absence of All-SEC corner Marco Wilson. The Gators gain an even larger schematic edge when they can easily get to the quarterback with three or four rushers as well. The net result has been a pass defense that ranks No. 6 in America and tops in the SEC in opposing pass completion percentage and efficiency.
In the end, double teams and altered blocking schemes haven’t mattered much against Florida’s front the past three weeks.
Zuniga is dominant and Polite is playing like a first-round draft pick, leading the nation in forced fumbles (4) and is second in the SEC in sacks (6.5). He’s among the league leaders in tackles for loss (7.5) as well.
Florida’s combination of improving run defense and relentless quarterback pressure is part of the reason they rank second nationally in turnover margin and have improved from a defense ranked in the 70s after two games to one that sits 19th in total defense and 11th in S&P+ defensive efficiency.
It’s also why the Gators have flipped the script on their season since the Kentucky loss, and why Florida heads to Nashville and a date with Vanderbilt a confident football team this Saturday.