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The power of safe pressures, and what Patrick Toney brings as Florida’s defensive coordinator

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Florida’s new DC “seems to be on the leading edge of modern defense.” Here’s how he — and his teams — get there.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 Appalachian State at Louisiana-Lafayette Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In this space, we’ve talked several times about Billy Napier’s offensive scheme and the challenges it can present to a defense. I touched briefly on the defense, but wanted to wait to see how the staff played out on that side of the ball before going more in-depth.

Early on in the coaching search, we heard Jim Knowles and Doug Belk as names being thrown around as potential hires as Florida’s defensive coordinator. And even after Patrick Toney was announced, there were still thoughts that Florida might bring in another big name with a co-coordinator title. Now that the dust has settled, though, it certainly seems as if Toney will be the man ultimately in charge of the Gators defense.

I knew a little bit about Toney just based on reputation. When Todd Grantham was fired, friend of the program Riley Reed suggested Toney as a replacement candidate. Coach Reed does a great job with his defense, so I hold him in high esteem, and I filed Toney’s name away as somebody that I should look into further in the future.

Once Billy Napier was hired, that timeline became accelerated.

I began to do my research at one of my favorite spots to learn about defensive football: Match Quarters. Match Quarters is run by Cody Alexander, who was a GA at Baylor and currently coaches high school ball in Texas. He has written several books and is a great resource to learn about defensive football.

Looking through his site, I noticed a ton of pieces of his that referenced Toney. I then found a 20 minute or so sit-down they had. I decided to reach out, and Coach Alexander was gracious enough to join me and talk about Florida’s new DC.

Check out the talk we had below. I’ll include some examples of the schemes we talked about below the video.

During our conversation, I asked Coach Alexander about Toney’s use of “creepers” and “simulated pressures.” Both of these are different types of so-called “safe” pressures.

Typically, when defenses blitz, they play man coverage. You often hear when watching a broadcast that, when calling a blitz, a coach must weigh the risk of getting beaten for a big play against the reward of getting a tackle for loss. (If you’re familiar with Dick LeBeau or the Pittsburgh Steelers, you might also know how zone blitzing was a radical concept for a long time.)

Safe pressures, though, allow a team to minimize the risk associated with traditional blitzing while providing some of the same opportunities for disruption. Both creepers and sim pressures generally bring four rushers, allowing you to keep seven players in coverage.

Creepers

A creeper involves bringing one non-traditional rusher, and dropping a traditional rusher into coverage. In the example below, the slot defender from the field blitzes and the boundary defensive end drops into coverage.

One of the great advantages of using creepers is the element of surprise — there is, in theory, no tipping your hand with a creeper, no presnap diagnosis of a blitz available in a scan of the defensive alignment. Creeper pressure is not, to use an example relevant to anyone who watched a Todd Grantham defense for many moons, like a cornerback cheating up to the line of scrimmage for a cat blitz, only for the quarterback to sniff that out and throw over the top to the space he vacates by blitzing.

But there are a couple of other elements that make creepers so impactful. With the explosion of RPOs, many coaches are often having their quarterback read a second-level defender to make his give/keep/throw decision. With creepers in play, the quarterback may see the second-level defender blitz and make his read based on that — while not realizing that a first-level defender is dropping into coverage, typically replacing the blitzer with rotation, and making the quarterback see something that he’s not really seeing.

Toney has said in the past that typically he likes to run zone coverage when calling a creeper. In the above clip, Louisiana is able to get a free runner on the quarterback while only rushing four. There are seven defenders in zone coverage behind it. The quarterback gets confused, the pressure makes him step up, and his bad decision and poor throw eventually lead to a turnover, a massive win for Toney’s defense.

Simulated Pressures

Another version of a safe pressure, simulated (sim) pressures have a different presentation. Sim pressures show an all out blitz look. Typically, there will be six players lined up on the line of scrimmage with rush demeanor. At the snap, four players will rush.

The offense doesn’t know which four are coming, though, and placing the defenders on the line of scrimmage forces the offense to account for all of them. Yet those defenders can do multiple things, and the four rushers don’t always come from those on the line of scrimmage — as seen in the tweet below, you can bring rushers from all over.

You can play different coverages behind the sim pressure, just like you can with creepers. Toney has said in the past that he likes to play more man coverage looks with sim pressures, but you can still mix things up in the back end with this look.

Defenses are often playing catch-up in modern football, as offenses operate at a variety of tempos and often look to the sideline and get the play call from the offensive coordinator instead of huddling and allowing defenses to suss out personnel. Lining up fast enough can make the defense tip its hand, too, and offenses sometimes get the perfect play called as a result. If you stay static as a defense, you take a lot of pressure off of the quarterback by letting his OC make him right with the play call.

But if the defense can shift after the snap, it can swipe the power of pre-play preparedness away from the offensive coordinator, and put the responsibility of a swift diagnosis back on the quarterback. That’s the primary advantage of creeper and sim pressures: Forcing a quarterback to process a lot of information in a very short window of time, often while also facing pressure from a pass rush. That’s a lot to put on most college quarterbacks.

After listening to Coach Alexander, I think you will be excited to see what Patrick Toney is going to bring to the Florida defense.

Every single coach I have spoken with, in fact, has given Toney rave reviews. Schematically, he seems to be on the leading edge of modern defense. On the recruiting trail, he has shown very well thus far. Time will tell if his prior success will translate, but he certainly seems to have all the qualities you’d like in a defensive coordinator.

And if you’ve got a little time to sink into hearing detailed coach talk, check out this podcast Toney did in 2019 — but be aware it’s more than an hour long.