Trojans look to discover their defensive identity

During Wednesday’s practice, USC focused on addressing its many defensive issues after a blowout loss at home.

A photo of Drake Jackson pressuring the quarterback

After suffering a second straight double-digit loss at home, the USC Trojans have gone right back to work this week to try and right the ship. In particular, the team focused Wednesday’s practice on improving defensively in all areas.

This defensive emphasis should not be a surprise after the Trojans surrendered 45 points to Oregon State, two weeks after giving up 42 to Stanford.

Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando reflected on the unit’s mistakes in Wednesday’s press conference.

“Those things nag with you,” he said. “We’re really anxious to get out there and play again. That’s not representative of this group, and we have to get it fixed.”

Specifically, USC had three points of emphasis defensively on Wednesday: playmaking on the defensive front, communicating in the secondary and defending in short field situations.

The Trojans’ defensive line has failed to provide the explosive, high-level production that they had hoped to through four games. The entire team has recorded only three sacks thus far, with only two coming from players in the front seven. The defensive line and linebackers focused on explosiveness getting to the quarterback, working not only on evading blocks quickly but going for the ball once they were near the passer.

The coaching staff knows that one of the best ways this defense can disrupt the timing of the opposing offense is to naturally put consistent pressure on the quarterback. Additionally, the defensive line can change the entire complexion of a football game by forcing the ball out for a strip-sack.

One goal for the defensive front is to bring more pressure in one-on-one situations so the team does not have to call as many blitzes to manufacture pressure on opposing passers.

“We’ve gotta be smart in terms of the amount we’re giving guys to make sure that we don’t get critical mistakes,” Orlando said about what he wants to fix in terms of his defensive approach. “We run a pressure and had two guys on the same side, we lose contain, it was a fourth down play, and then later on we cut a guy loose that’s in the backfield that we’re pointing to, but it just doesn’t process. That’s not on the kids, that’s on me as a coach.”

The coaching staff worked extensively with the secondary on communication and play recognition, specifically before the snap. They wanted the players on the back end to constantly communicate with each other in the face of pre-snap motions and different formations. The goal is for the unit to improve their recognition of what the opposing offense may be about to do, as well as their understanding of every player’s assignment in the face of quick offensive adjustments.

At times last Saturday, this was a major area of concern for the defense, as breakdown in the secondary led to many big plays in Oregon State’s passing game. The Beavers also had USC completely fooled with jet sweeps in the running game, which were a constant source of easy yards and first downs last weekend.

“They did a good job off the fly sweeps. They got them into good plays off of that. The pressure part of them recognizing and putting them into better plays, that’s the part that we knew coming in that they would do it, but the flys coming off of some of the internal stuff was the ones,” said Orlando reflecting on the Beavers’ prowess in the running game. “There’s things that we can do. We’re gonna see the same type of stuff versus Colorado, so it’s a little bit sensitive in terms of the adjustments and all that stuff … We know we’re gonna see it, so we’ve been working at it to get it ironed out.”

One final area of emphasis for USC’s secondary was defending in the red zone. Oregon State scored four touchdowns in red zone trips on Saturday, a mark much higher than Orlando is satisfied with. The unit got some valuable time defending the USC receivers one-on-one, and they had to defend closer and closer to the end zone with each rep.

This drill was a very competitive one, and both the receivers and cornerbacks made some highlight plays, especially when the defense was backed up close to the end zone. Not only did the drill force this secondary to defend the NCAA leader in contested catches in junior wide receiver Drake London, it gave junior quarterback Kedon Slovis an opportunity to continue to develop chemistry and trust with all the receivers on the roster.

Colorado has struggled on offense of late, scoring the fewest points per game in the Pac-12. When the Trojans head out on the road for their upcoming game against the struggling Buffaloes, they hope to bring a new defensive identity with them — and bounce back over .500 in the process.