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Examining the Air Force Defense

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Such as it is

A few weeks ago, I took a look at the Falcon offense, and that was a very enjoyable experience due to the fact that the Falcons are usually in the upper echelons of the country in that regard. But the Falcon defense can be problematic. In this article, I will try to explain what the Falcons try to do in the defensive realm to win games. I will use last year’s Boise State game to analyze the strategy used by the Falcons. The Falcons lost that game, but I believe the defense performed well enough to win, but the loss was a result of a couple of missed assignments and key errors and circumstances on the offense. Given the talent on the Bronco side, there was little margin for error.

If I were to summarize what the Falcons do on defense in a few words, I would say it would be “stop the run, don’t let receivers get behind you, and try for a few big disruptive plays.” The first objective is one that the Falcons are usually very good at achieving. Over the last six years, the Falcons have allowed an average of 137, 144, 114, 222, 117, and 100 yards per game. Given that they have two games every year against Army and Navy, two of the top rushing teams in the nation, that is an enviable record. They also seem to be very good at stopping some of the best running backs in the conference. Last year, Mahone and Holani for Boise State had 80 yards for Boise, Valladay had 39 yards for Wyoming, Gerold Bright had 24 yards for Utah State, Ronnie Rivers had 50 yards for Fresno State, and Marcus McElroy had 51 yards for Colorado State.

There is no doubt that part of the success against the run is that opponents see an opportunity to throw the ball. To be successful against the pass, Falcon DBs have to keep opposing receivers in front of them. Yardage and first downs are not as important to prevent as touchdowns. If the Falcons can at least shorten the field down to red zone opportunities, there are more opportunities for third and fourth down stops and turnovers. I know it’s not what very talented teams would do but, given the Falcon offense is very efficient, it can be good enough for a good season. Even a forced field goal attempt can be a win for the defense.

In the attempt to create disruptive plays, the Falcons try to rush the passer from as many angles as they can. Linebackers play a key role in that attempt. They employ a 3-4-4 defense, with one of the four linebackers alternating between a pass rushing linebacker or a pass coverage linebacker, which in Falcon terms is the “spur” linebacker. Last year, Jake Ksiazek, Lakota Wills, Kyle Johnson, Grant Donaldson, and Demonte Meeks all had some big plays in the opposing backfield in addition to their role in stopping the run. Grant Thiel served as the spur linebacker on passing downs, and made the big pass deflection that resulted in a touchdown for Tre Bugg against Hawaii. Safeties also participate, and Weston Steelhammer was a notable playmaker in the backfield a few years ago. Last year Jeremy Fejedelem was a big playmaker on key downs in stopping runs on third and fourth down. Just ask Max Borghi of Washington State about that, who Fejedelem stopped twice on fourth down in the red zone in the Cheez-it Bowl.

Now we will look at the application of these principles in the condensed version of last year’s Air Force-Boise game which is posted below.

The first play of the summary is a screen to John Hightower, and results in an easy first down. The defenders hang back, and ensure Hightower doesn’t turn it into a long gain. On the second play, which is a third down and two situation, the Falcons bring the pressure with the three linemen and linebackers Wills and Johnson on the outside. Jordan Jackson pressures Bachmeier out of the pocket and Johnson wraps him up for a small loss of yardage. A punt ensues, and the Falcons can mark it down as a successful defensive series.

On the next series for the defense, the highlight shows that the Falcons successfully force a third and long, and the Broncos go for the deep pass to CT Thomas, and he is able to get a little behind his defender. Ksiasek puts a hit on Bachmeier as he throws and the hit results in the ball being thrown just a little short and Grant Thiel is able to recover and knock the ball away. The Falcons dodge the bullet on their failure to keep the receiver in front by getting just enough pressure on Bachmeier.

Later on the Falcons get the first touchdown on an option keeper by Hammond. Keep this play in mind when we get later into the game. The turning point in the game occurs early in the fourth quarter when the Falcons execute this play again with one key difference.

The next series by the Broncos results in a long touchdown with about 12 minutes remaining in the half when Fejedelem blunders and lets CT Thomas get behind him. The pressure that the Falcons bring arrives at Bachmeier just a little too late.

On the next Bronco series, Bachmeier completes some nice passes, but at least the Falcons keep the receivers in front of them, the drive stalls, and the Broncos have to settle for a field goal. The Falcons respond with a field goal of their own at the end of the half to tie up the score.

The summary of the first half for the Falcon defenders is that the pass defense was weak with a couple of big mistakes, but the pass rush and run defense made up for that somewhat and kept the Falcons in the game.

In the second half, both defenses start off with stops. The Falcons get the ball again and get the running game moving with a nice drive, but you’ll notice in the video that the quarterback is now Isaiah Sanders because Hammond hurt his ankle at the end of the first half. The Falcons have to settle for a field goal to go up 13-10. Then the Broncos start picking apart the secondary with throws underneath and are able to provide much better protection for Bachmeier. That drive ends with another touchdown as the tight end John Bates get behind Fejedelem again.

On the next play of the video, with about 13 minutes left in the game, you’ll see the Falcons lining up on fourth down and a yard to go and the play call is the option. Hammond is now back in the game, but with a gimpy ankle. If you remember the touchdown earlier in the game, in this same circumstance, Hammond read the defense and pulled the ball out of the fullback’s hands, and took the ball through the gap for a touchdown. In this instance, it’s obvious that Hammond doesn’t have the confidence to make that cut on his ankle through the gap and gives the ball to Birdow. You can even see Hammond stumble after the play and clap his hands in frustration over the play. The Broncos defense is just too good to make the wrong decision on that play, and the Falcons turn it over on downs. As far as I can remember, this is the only time on fourth and short yardage in non-garbage time that the Falcons failed to make a first down all year.

After that, the wheels fall off the Falcon defense, and the Broncos sandwich two touchdowns around an interception by Hammond, and take command of the game. The defensive numbers that Air Force allowed were 95 yards rushing and 260 yards passing, which was a decent showing, given that Florida State had given up 214 yards rushing and 407 yards passing to the Broncos the previous week. But the coverage mistakes and the big fourth down stop were too much to overcome against a very strong Bronco roster.

I’m really looking forward to the rematch between these two teams this year in Falcon Stadium, and hopefully all my readers can watch the game with a little more awareness of the Falcons defensive methods. Thanks for reading.