Entering the season, there was hope that the Rutgers defense was ready to take a significant step forward as a unit. Through two games, that hope has been reinforced by two strong performances. The defense is averaging just 7.0 points allowed and only 249.5 yards of total offense per game.
In addition, the defense has 41 quarterback pressures, 29 hurries, 10 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 8 quarterback hits, 4 forced fumbles, 4 interceptions and 18 pass break ups.
Northwestern was overwhelmed in the second half by the Rutgers pass rush. Against Temple, quick passes negated pressure at times but RU registered 13 pass break ups in the game.
Both foes fell victim to the safety blitz, with Shaquan Loyal coming up big on third down in the season opener and Desmond Ibginosun doing the same against the Owls.
As expected the depth and talent of the defensive line is wearing down opponents faced so far. Aaron Lewis leads Rutgers with nine quarterback pressures through two games. The only other player who comes close is hybrid defender Mo Toure with seven. Six different players on the defensive line have registered multiple pressures through two games.
Obviously as the competition ramps up, the defensive line needs to continue to be as disruptive as they have been to start the season. Head coach Greg Schiano said on Monday during his game week press conference for Virginia Tech that more should be expected from this group.
“I think we played good. I think we can play much better. Probably not what you thought I’d say,” Schiano said. “But I think we can play at a much higher level on a defensive front because I think we have enough depth for guys to be fresh and when you have guys that you have enough people to go out there and play and be fresh, then I expect, you know, darn near perfect execution. Fatigue is one of the things that can affect your execution. Obviously your opponent is the other.”
Certainly the productivity of the offense and ability to control time of possession has been key for the defense so far. That’s a major factor long term this season.
The ability to stop the run and force opponents into third and long situations is key as well. In Big Ten play, the defense needs to hold its ground and now allow for offenses into high percentage conversion opportunities.
Safety Flip Dixon, Linebacker Tyreem Powell and LB/EDGE Mo Toure all have run defense grades above 80 per Pro Football Focus. As a team, Rutgers graded out at 88.8 on run defense against Temple, an elite grade. All three levels of the defense are important in RU preventing big gains in the run game once Big Ten play begins.
As for whether Rutgers can continue to defend the run at such a high level, Schiano explained there is a lot that goes into that.
“I hope so but it’s too early to call it. Playing run defense is a couple of things. No. 1, it’s knowing your job, and then No. 2, it’s chopping your job. You have to go chop your job,” Schiano said. “What does that consistent of? Playing with great technique, playing with great pad level in the front four. Having proper run fits by the linebackers everybody swarming the ball and when you get there, tackling well. We do that for the most part.”
There was a stretch in the second half when Temple was able to sustain drives that Rutgers struggled tackling a bit. They’re PFF grade still good at 77.3, but six points lower than against Northwestern.
“When things started to unravel a little, you saw we missed three tackles on one play that that’s when I knew, all right, let’s go,” Schiano stated. “Let’s get back to playing our brand of football. But that’s what happens when things going to start rolling on and you that’s where you have to be able to put the brakes on and go right back to technique, scheme, execution and effort.”
The early signs for the Rutgers defense have been positive to start the season. The swarming to the ball and the play has been most encouraging. The defense is playing urgency and energy. Defensive coordinator Joe Harasymiak has his unit playing together as one. With another power five opponent up next followed by a trip to Michigan, the time for the defense to rise up even more is now.
Editor’s Note: All grades and advanced stats are from Pro Football Focus (PFF)
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