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Florida vs. Missouri: Previewing the Tigers' defense with Rock M Nation

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How will the Gators fare against a fearsome front four?

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

As Florida's prepares for its sixth "must-win" game of the season, according to experts everywhere, we here at Alligator Army will again try and prepare Gators fans for what their eyes will see when the Missouri Tigers come to the Swamp on Saturday under the lights, using film techniques only Jon Gruden could fully appreciate.

With both teams under preforming and both rosters looking much different than they were just a year before, I recruited Rock M Nation's Jack Peglow to help me break down what the Tigers' defense will look like when they attempt to counter the unleashed and uncorked KURT ROPER DUAL QUARTERBACK OFFENSE 2014.

As always, we'll start up front and establish the formation of the defense. Missouri uses the traditional 4-3.

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But formations are simple; alignments are rarely that basic. Most defensive fronts will move along the line to force a running option one way or the other. This allows a front seven (or, really, eight) to funnel a play towards a direction they think they have the advantage. These are divided into what's called 4-3 Under and 4-3 Over. Missouri will run both.

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The difference in these set-ups are where the 3-technique defensive tackle is lining up. Both the Over and Under looks are meant to produce a one-on-one matchup on the outside, but Missouri likes to give both of their DEs one-on-one looks whenever they can. The Tigers' entire defensive philosophy revolves around getting production and disruption from their front four; this is the strength of their team. If they can do this, it allows their linebackers to play damage control against shorter passing plays and run plays, while the secondary can keep everything in front of them with little time required to defend.

Here's a bird's eye view.

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The above example is a 4-3 Over look, but before we go any further, let's break down the players and skill sets Missouri boasts up front.

It's tough to follow up a year in which you lose the Co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year (Michael Sam) and a second round draft pick (Kony Ealy) from your two key positions, but that's what Missouri is being forced to do in 2014 ... and it's actually fairing quite well. Markus Golden and Shane Ray are the two replacements on the edge, and, according to Peglow, most Missouri fans didn't expect a drop in talent from the outside spots -- these two may end up being even better than Ealy and Sam were, at least in terms of talent.

Golden's production was more expected, as he came into the year on some draftniks' early boards, but Ray has really come on as the Tigers' top pass rusher. With a 6'3", 245-pound frame and 4.6 speed, Ray has propelled himself to the top of Missouri's stat sheets, and, indeed, the nation's: He's second in the nation in tackles for loss, with 12.5, and fifth in the nation in sacks with 7. Offensive lines have been keying in on Golden for the first part of this year, which often leaves Ray with one-on-one match ups against a right tackle, and, frequently, he simply rushes past or outworks his blocker.

After watching him on film, I wasn't overly impressed with his pass rushing moves, but many of his backfield plays can be attributed to always moving towards the ball. Here's an example (top of the screen):

Ray is engaged right off the jump, and though he doesn't shed the block, he still moves his man to a position where he can disengage and make a play when the quarterback climbs the pocket. Not an dominant presence, but a hard-working pass rusher.

Now for the negative (bottom of the screen):

Ray presents some advantages with his length, but he's smallish for a defensive end, and I don't see him over power blockers or even shed established blocks at all once engaged properly. The above Vine shows how he's completely nullified by a firm block. Florida's first four options at tackle, D.J. Humphries, Chaz Green, Roderick Johnson, and Trenton Brown, all significantly outweigh Ray, and could neutralize his athleticism if he doesn't open up his pass rushing repertoire.

The big boys in the middle, Harold Brantley and Lucas Vincent, are asked to eat up blockers on passing situations and pressure the middle on running plays. With Missouri's emphasis on its defensive ends, the defensive tackles are there as complements, not centerpieces. On passing downs, the tackles are usually lined up in the 4-3 Over; this almost assures two one-one-one match ups to the outside, as the two defensive tackles play right in the middle of their gaps, forcing two blockers to engage each of them if they time the snap correctly.

Here's a great example of what Brantley can do very well.

That snap count reaction is Dominique Easley-level stuff. Though Brantley didn't get to the quarterback, the timing on the snap forced one of the guards to immediately double-team him, leaving all three of the other match-ups on the line with no help. It's an mpressive way to make an impact without getting the stats, and from what I've seen, Brantley is actually Missouri's top defensive lineman in terms of overall production, not Golden or Ray.

On to the next level: linebackers. In Missouri's 4-3 set, as stated before, they like to get as much production as they can without blitzing their linebackers. Missouri's ultimate damage control player in a unit that is designed to do exactly that is Michael Scherer. After losing one of the most productive middle linebackers to play at Mizzou in terms of statistics (Andrew Wilson), Scherer has stepped in and averaged nearly 10 tackles per game.

If executed correctly, the 4-3 allows Scherer to sit back, evaluate a play's design, and react to wherever the ball may be going -- and he's damn good at that duty. He's not the quickest linebacker in the league, and he won't hit as hard as Wilson did in years prior, but he's a play stopper when he arrives to the ball. The man next to him is Kentrell Brothers. He's the coverage linebacker to Scherer's run-stopper.

But that's not to say Brothers is the best in coverage.

Missouri likes to run most of their coverage out of zone. Peglow broke down the coverage percentages into 60 percent Cover 3, 35 percent straight Cover 2, and then the rest of the time in a press Cover 2, almost a Tampa 2 look where the corners are at the line of scrimmage and cover the short passing zones and the flats. With that in mind, Brothers is often asked to play the deeper coverage zone in the middle of the field, and it can hurt him, and Missouri, at times.

At 6'1" and 240, you can see on tape how Brothers' body type doesn't allow him to be successful when going downfield -- he's much better when the play is in front of him. If he's matched up against a speedy player on any kind of deep route, in order to prevent the receiver blowing by him, Brothers is forced to either body up his player within the 5-yard line or commit a penalty as to not give up a big gain. (Think of the challenge Antonio Morrison faces in coverage.) Brothers is much more consistent as a spy for RBs out of the backfield or on short crossing routes, but that's a mismatch option if Roper sends receivers deep on him.

The second biggest weakness of this Missouri's defense is at their third linebacker (and no, I haven't gotten to their bigggest weakness yet). Donavin Newsom and Darvin Ruise tend to rotate in that spot, but neither are capable of being relied upon in coverage consistently, often overcommitting to run support and getting caught too far up to the line of scrimmage to drop back. Because of this, Mizzou isn't afraid of getting tighter in coverage with less size in the middle by going to the 4-2-5, as they did against Toledo.

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(Sorry for the blurry image. The Internet can't be perfect all the time.)

Finally, we reach the secondary, one that is missing one of the best corners Missouri has had in a long time in E.J. Gaines, who declared for the NFL Draft last offseason. Though Cover 3 and Cover 2 zone assignments are easier to execute than straight man coverage when you have less talent in the secondary, either coverage still leaves vulnerable areas.

The most solid player on the back end for the Tigers is safety Braylon Webb. He's a redshirt senior who reminds me a lot of Josh Evans in the way he brings the secondary together. Webb is an all-around talent in run support and in pass coverage, but he's not elite in his athleticism or range.

The biggest complaint from Missouri fans about their secondary is the way they play their "bend but don't break" strategy. Watch a bunch of Mizzou snaps on defense, and almost 95 percent of the time you'll see them play "off" coverage, with a five- or six-yard cushion.

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That's a lot of room to give a wide receiver every down, and it results in plays like this:

That kind of space on third down is like taking candy from a baby .... who's asleep ... while holding the keys to a larger candy store he's supposed to be guarding ... with the door unlocked ... and the loading bay fully cleared ... and the candy in boxes on a forklift.

That, along with the biggest weakness for Missouri -- second corner, held down by either Kenya Dennis or Josh Gibson -- could be what turns the game into Florida's favor, if exploited correctly. From Peglow himself: "If you want to look at a certain game (in which Dennis and Gibson) struggled, you can just look at any old game."

As each film session comes to an end, I ask my guest what their prediction of the game is, both of a score and the way it could play out. Jack said all this:

"This has Weird, Ugly Game written all over it... All signs are pointing to a 16-9 game; a 'Let’s get weird!' game. There might even be a safety that happens to win the game... I'm split 50/50 on who the winner will be, but I bet it's whoever gets that one big screw-up to go their way."

I really couldn't have said it any better. But I think Florida wins this weird one.