With Cincinnati reportedly wearing black, you might think you're actually watching Louisville's defense out there come Friday night. Aggression, speed, gang-tacking and big plays are Cincinnati's main defensive principles, and they do a great job of abiding by them. The big question facing the unit is can they do it without star defensive end Walter Stewart?
Walter Stewart was having a season that would at least make people question just handing over the Defensive POY award to Khaseem Greene of Rutgers. Seven tackles for loss, five sacks, and two forced fumbles in just five games is probably more than one would expect from the one player on your defense that you know the offense keyed on. Stewart is a scheme-changing defensive end. You are either going to give your left tackle help or you're just going to run plays to the other side of the field. His loss is big for a defense that relies on pressuring the quarterback to make it go. The line is not completely without talent, though. Dan Giordano makes a lot of tackles at the other defensive end spot and has seven qb hurries this year. The line is not very big, especially compared to some of the fronts we've seen this year. The biggest lineman we will see line up Friday is 283-pound defensive tackle John Williams.
Another similarity that this defense has is it's reliance on it's "nickel" package. Typically Cincy likes to run with two linebackers. Greg Blair and Maalik Bomar. Blair is a big run-stuffing linebacker while Bomar is a smaller guy that makes plays from sideline to sideline. Sound familiar? Blair leads the team in tackles but he is no slouch in pass coverage. He isn't asked to run with guys down the field as much as he just plays in a zone, but he is very productive. Neither linebacker has made many plays behind the line of scrimmage but their defense doesn't really ask them to. They typically play pretty deep and they blitz too much. Bomar is however used as a "rusher" off the edge sometimes. Both safeties and their nickleback will walk up as a linebacker and they can all tackle in space. This isn't a team that will allow our backs to walk into the endzone like we've seen all year.
Cincinnati's pass defense is ranked in the lower half of the nation partly because they've been ahead in most of their games and partly because they've faced a lot of spread offenses like we have. The issue is that they've faced two FCS offenses and two MAC offenses, and people are gashing them for some pretty big plays. Because they blitz a lot and they move guys all over the place before the snap, they have to get pressure. When they don't it leaves holes in the middle of the defense and it leaves cornerbacks on an island. That's a recipe for big plays.
Drew Frey would likely garner a few votes as the best Strong Safety in the Big East even though he's having a down year (a few). He is as well rounded as they come and we all know how important that is in an aggressive defense. He and cornerback Cameron Cheatham are two of the most experienced players in the conference and they are the most likely to step up and make a big play Friday. I gave up trying to find the matchups that Teddy will likely try to exploit after he all but avoided Carier Rice in the UK game. But Teddy should play well against a defense that is designed to confuse and agitate quarterbacks. I expect him to really work the middle of the field with Eli, Radcliff, and Nord.
This defense is adaptable and is honestly the most unique we get to see this year. Everyone moves around before the snap and they blitz from everywhere. The key to success is to protect Teddy. The offensive line has done a great job of that so far this year and I don't see any reason for it to change Friday. Their run defense is good but not great and the pass defense is vulnerable. Look for Watson to run some of the outside sweeps that he ran a few times against USF. Mario and Jake Smith both pulled outside and we picked up a touchdown and a couple of good runs on it. Counters, play-action, and outside runs typically work well against aggressive defenses. We should have success with those types of plays this week.
KEY PLAYERS: DE Dan Giordano, LB Greg Blair, LB Maalik Bomar, CB Cameron Cheatham, SS Drew Frey, FS Arryn Chenault