Penn State’s secondary was really tested against the heavy passing offense of Purdue on Thursday night, and the defensive backs did pretty well at keeping quarterback Aidan O’Connell and his receivers in check.
Their performance wasn’t perfect, but O’Connell did throw the ball 58 times in the contest, so they were bound to make some mistakes.
This week against Ohio, Penn State can fix some of the shortcomings and keep building on the parts that were really good against the Boilermakers.
Here are some areas Penn State’s secondary still needs to improve and what went well in its season opener.
Penn State brought in a new defensive coordinator in the offseason in Manny Diaz, and he didn’t hold back against Purdue, risking it on some plays by blitzing his corners.
The corner blitz can go well or can go horribly wrong because you’re taking a man out of coverage. Against a team like Purdue, the more players in the secondary you have, the better because of how much O’Connell throws the football.
The Nittany Lions’ corner blitz worked in a big way, but it also was exposed on another play.
In this play, Diaz sends redshirt-junior cornerback Joey Porter Jr. on a blitz and lines up like he’s playing in man coverage.
With Porter Jr. on a blitz, Penn State had sophomore safety Jaylen Reed take the outside receiver.
Porter Jr. couldn’t get to the quarterback in time, allowing for O’Connell to let it fly. Reed came downhill too hard, which allowed for the receiver to blow by him and make the catch.
If Reed didn’t overcommit, he could have been in position to make a play. But he took the wrong angle, and with Porter Jr. not getting there in time, Purdue made a big gain.
Even with the blitz not working, Diaz didn’t shy away from trying it again when the defense needed to make a big stop in the fourth quarter.
In this clip, Diaz sends junior corner Johnny Dixon on a blitz, and with the receiver lined up close to the linemen, Dixon was almost lined up like a defensive end.
Dixon got a great jump and shed the block from running back King Doerue to make the sack on O’Connell.
Diaz’s corner blitz can be really successful when it’s executed properly but can hurt big time if just one person messes up, so he needs to use it sparingly.
Purdue is a tough team to corner blitz because of how fast O’Connell gets the ball out, so the blitz may work better against a different team.
Missed assignments in zone coverage
Most of Purdue’s big plays came when Penn State was in zone coverage and had missed assignments.
Boilermaker offensive coordinator Brian Brohm drew up a lot of plays that got his receivers open in the dead zones of Diaz’s zone coverage.
However, Penn State’s zone coverage would've worked better if the Nittany Lions knew and kept with their assignments.
In this clip, Penn State is lined up in a variation of Tampa 2 with Porter Jr. taking the far part of the field, linebacker Curis Jacobs with the middle of the field, corner Kalen King with a close part of the field, and then freshman safety Zakee Wheatley over the top of him as the deep man.
Safety Ji'Ayir Brown cheats up to take tight end Payne Durham, which is why Jacobs drops back deep in coverage.
Penn State also drops defensive end Adisa Isaac to take the flat.
The Purdue receiver runs a deep hitch, which as soon as he goes off of the line of scrimmage, Isaac takes him, but he can’t keep up, allowing for him to be open.
Porter Jr. could’ve made the play, but he had his back turned to the receiver and instead took the tight end coming down the middle of the field.
If Porter Jr. stayed down the numbers, he’d be in a position to make a play on the receiver.
This play was really well-drawn up by Purdue to expose Penn State’s zone coverage.
Penn State’s zone coverage only works if every player knows his assignment, and this clip is another example of where the Nittany Lions get caught.
The receiver lined up at the top of the screen runs a deep in route, which causes a problem for Penn State’s secondary playing zone.
He runs through multiple zones, having each defensive back switch and pass him off. The Nittany Lions do it well until Wheatley switches too slowly.
He tries to catch up, but stumbles, allowing for the receiver to be open in the back of the end zone.
A zone defense is difficult to play in the end zone because it’s very easy for receivers to get lost in coverage, and it's very easy for the offense to flood a zone because the end zone confines the real estate.
Playing zone coverage improves with practice, but it also improves with chemistry because you have to rely on your teammate to pick up receivers.
Penn State switched in and out many members in the secondary, and most of them are on the younger side.
The more they play together, the more they will know the zones and trust each other.
Joey Porter Jr. man coverage
Penn State’s highest projected draft pick is Porter Jr., and against Purdue, O’Connell wasn’t afraid to throw his way.
Porter Jr. almost had an interception and forced six incompletions in the matchup with the Boilermakers.
His performance was solid, but there are still some things for the redshirt junior to work on for the remainder of the season.
In this clip, Porter Jr. is pressed up with the receiver out wide. The receiver makes a move, and Porter Jr. gets caught on his back foot, so he was slow to pick up the slant, resulting in a catch for the receiver.
If Porter Jr. stays square, he’d have a better break on the ball, but he does recover quickly to make the tackle after the catch.
In this clip, Porter Jr. is lined up pressed against the receiver. The receiver runs a slant again, and Porter Jr. creates contact on the line to slow up the route. Porter Jr. almost runs the route for the receiver and breaks up the pass.
A slant route isn’t easy to cover, but here, Porter Jr. shows textbook coverage.
Porter Jr. showed out against Purdue, but he can still work on his man-to-man by staying square.
For the number of times Porter Jr. was targeted, he didn’t let up that many catches, and trying to find instances where he messed up is hard to do.