CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — There’s never a dull week for the University of Wisconsin football team’s pass rushers.
The Badgers spend walk-through time on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday of every week learning new pressures installed by first-year defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, more than was ever required in recent years.
With as many as seven or eight new plays designed for a specific game, Wisconsin’s defenders need as many mental reps as they can manage to perfect them. One can only imagine, then, how difficult those unpredictable pressures are to protect against.
“It’s a lot of things to learn in a one- to two-day span,” outside linebacker Garret Dooley said. “(Opponents) never really know what to prepare for. There’s so many things in the playbook that we’ve done that they have to get ready for that when we have something new, they’re not ready for it.”
Despite losing two elite pass rushers — T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel — to the NFL, Leonhard and the fifth-ranked Badgers are changing up their philosophy in order to harass quarterbacks even more often this season. Heading into today’s game at Illinois, Wisconsin’s 3.14 sacks per game are the most since 1998, and the Badgers are pressuring opposing passers on 35 percent of drop backs, per Pro Football Focus.
Not only have Dooley and Leon Jacobs excelled in the place of Biegel and Watt at outside linebacker, but defensive linemen are finding more production in pass-rushing situations than a year ago.
That’s no accident. Leonhard has allowed those linemen more freedom to create their own havoc this season, rather than eating up blockers and positioning Biegel or Watt with a one-on-one matchup.
“It’s a little bit harder (for offenses) to game plan,” Leonhard said. “At times in the past, you could kind of try to find those outside backers. … I have a lot of confidence in that whole line, outside linebacker group to get to the passer. Sometimes the interior pressure on the guards and on the center is really a great way to go. You’ve got to open those guys up to have a little freedom to get to the quarterback.”
Wisconsin’s success rate in winning one-on-one match-ups from one edge of its defense to the other has allowed Leonhard to hold back on the number of blitzes he calls throughout a game. He’s installed plenty of stunts, twists, overloads and other wrinkles, but most of that to this point still involves just three or four pass rushers.
The Badgers have blitzed five-plus rushers or a defensive back on just 18 percent of passing plays this season, per PFF, the second-lowest in the Big Ten and nearly 10 percentage points lower than last season under former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. Wisconsin blitzes just 14 percent of the time on first and second down, compared to 26 percent in 2016.
“The line’s the backbone of our defense,” safety D’Cota Dixon said. “They make it so much easier for us. I feel like they’re like the O-line and we’re the running backs. When we catch an interception, they make it possible. They’re just doing a really great job of winning their battles and executing.”
Leonhard said the ability to drop seven or eight players in coverage and still apply pressure frees up more options for him in coverage, and it makes it easier to eliminate a talented wide receiver from the game, rather than giving him one-on-one match-ups in man coverage.
Last week against Maryland, Wisconsin dropped seven or eight into zone coverage often, and Big Ten leading receiver DJ Moore finished with just three catches for 44 yards.
It’s also led to a number of turnovers for the Badgers, who are tied for ninth nationally with 10 interceptions. On the first defensive series against the Terrapins last week, Dooley stunted inside on a four-man rush and hit quarterback Max Bortenschlager as he released a pass, allowing inside linebacker T.J. Edwards to pick the ball off and return it 54 yards for a touchdown.
“If you’re bringing four guys and you can get to the quarterback in two seconds, there’s really nothing you can do as a quarterback,” said Dooley, who leads the Big Ten with 5½ sacks. “I think that’s just something where, I think our coaches have the confidence where we can rush four and we’re going to win our match ups. We have a lot of really good pass rushers on this team, and I think that everyone’s taking pride in that.”
With plenty of talent and experience in the secondary, Wisconsin’s excellent coverage leads to more sacks and hurries as well.
On plays in which the Badgers do apply pressure on an opposing quarterback, they take an average of 2.66 seconds to create that pressure, the second-longest in the Big Ten, per PFF. When Wisconsin’s front seven players don’t win immediately, the secondary has often picked up the slack.
“It’s hand in hand,” cornerback Derrick Tindal said. “Sometimes they cause the interception, sometimes we cause the sack. I feel like we just work well off each other.”