LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis' 3-2-6 "Mustang" package is the defensive version of a "spread" offense. It uses speed and space to create matchup advantages for the Tigers defense. No player benefitted more from this than "The Honey Badger".
LSU has many holes to fill in this innovative formation, none bigger than Mathieu. This film study will show why.
Let's dive into one of many Mathieu's iconic plays from last season: the strip, sack and touchdown versus Kentucky in Tiger Stadium. Let's hit the tape!
In the above photo, LSU is lined up in Chavis' 3-2-6 "Mustang" package. The numbers before the word "package" simply means how many of each position are on the field at one time. As you can see in the photo, LSU has three defensive lineman (players with their hand on the ground), two linebackers and six defensive backs, thus the numbers 3-2-6.
Before we continue with this defensive masterpiece from "Chief" Chavis, let's go through a couple of important pre-snap situations.
1) The formation's personel.
The best aspect of the "Mustang" defense from last season is it allowed LSU as many defensive backs on the field as possible. With six defensive backs who all can tackle and force turnovers, it causes headaches for offenses.
"Mustang" uses the best aspect of LSU's defensive line from last season and will be again this season, which is their speed. LSU has three defensive ends on the field for this play in Kiki Mingo (nearside defensive end in a "5-technique"), Lavar Edwards (noseguard in a "zero technique") and Sam Montgomery (farside defensive end "5 technique"). All three are athletic enough to drop back into coverage, which is important to remember as we move along.
The defense more importantly masked the Tigers' lack of depth at linebacker after losing Kelvin Sheppard from the year before. The linebackers on the field could be easily mistaken for defensive backs. The undersized Ryan Baker had great speed and Karnell Hatcher was a converted linebacker after being a safety the year before.
In personel alone, LSU has 11 players on the field who can all tackle, make plays on the ball and drop back in coverage. I would hate to be Kentucky quarterback Max Smith.
2) Game Situation
It is third and 10 Kentucky's own territory. LSU is up by three touchdowns and the Wildcats have been 1/9 on third down conversions. While Chavis is known for being conservative on third and long, even he knows this is an opportune time to take a chance against an awful quarterback.
3) This play's "Mustang" variation
Chavis shows an all-out blitz before the snap. To go along with three defensive lineman, LSU has four other defenders lining up along the line of scrimmage. Mathieu (labeled "TM) is the nearside "nickelback" and Ron Brooks (labeled "Ron") is the farside "dimeback". As previously mentioned, Hatcher (labeled "KH") and Baker (labeled "Ryan") are the linebackers. Both linebackers form a "Double A-Gap" blitz look presnap, which puts even more pressure on the center who usually makes the blocking calls for the rest of the line.
(Note: "A-Gaps" are the gaps located between the center and guard, "B-Gaps" between guard and tackle, and "C-Gap" is between tackle and tight end)
These type of plays can't be possible without lockdown corners on the outside. Tharold Simon is the far side cornerback and Mo Claiborne (not pictured) is on the near side. Both are playing press-man coverage, which means Chavis has plenty of faith in them to not get beat deep. Reliable safeties Eric Reid and Brandon Taylor helps too. Their job is simple, locate receivers and don't let them get behind you.
Kentucky is lined up with three receivers. With a running back to the left of the quarterback Smith and a tight end on the left side of the line of scrimmage, the Wildcats theoretically have seven possible blockers to block the seven possible defenders going directly to the quarterback.
The running back being on the left side of the quarterback shows respect to Mathieu's playmaking ability. Chavis and the LSU defense wins big on this play because they manipulate the running back's assignment, forcing him to choose which defender to block.
Chavis says Mathieu is "the most natural football player" he has ever been around. Chavis designed this blitz for Mathieu to make a supernatural play.
After the snap, it seems all seven LSU defenders at the line of scrimmage are coming after the quarterback. All seven fired off hard and low, getting good push on the Wildcat offensive line. Because of the "Double A-Gap" look pre-snap, the running back's first read is to block one of the blitzing linebackers.
In the middle of the screen, you see Hatcher (KH) attack the right side "A-Gap" he was lined up over pre-snap and the nose tackle, Edwards, shoots the left side "A-Gap" Baker (Ryan) previously occupied. What Baker does on this play is what some coaches call a "loop" or a "twist" to the opposite side "B-Gap".
The goal of this play was for Hatcher and Edwards to occupy blockers so Baker can run free without any offensive lineman touching him. Kiki Mingo (Kiki) does a great job of getting a push on the offensive tackle to make sure he doesn't chip inside to help block Baker. This also essentially gives Mathieu (TM) a free run to the quarterback because Kentucky's tight end was assigned a passing route.
After looking at this slide, we see some new developments for the LSU defense. The first of which is Mingo (Kiki).
After giving the tackle the impression he was on a regular pass rush, Mingo drops back into coverage. This is called a "zone blitz". Even though he is no longer rushing, the Kentucky left tackle is still keyed on Mingo. Because Mingo faked the rush so well, the tackle has no chance to help out on Mathieu (TM) or Baker (Ryan).
Before we get to Mathieu, praise must be given to two players.
Cornerback Tharold Simon (TS) is at the top of the screen. Smith sees man coverage on the right side, but the receiver is struggling to get off of Simon's "Jam" because of his strength, speed and long arms. Because Smith is a garbage quarterback, he is dead meat holding on the the football so long after an easy "all-out blitz" pre-snap read.
Also, Ron Brooks (Ron) on the top of the screen is having a technically beautiful rush versus a huge right tackle. After a great fire-off, Brooks is dipping his shoulder around the corner and not allowing the tackle's arm to extend to his body.
But where the true beauty of Chavis' is seen with Baker (Ryan) and Mathieu (TM). Usually, a running back's first option in blocking in shotgun is a free blitzer to the inside. In this case, Baker has a free lane to the quarterback.
But Baker was intentionally sent on a loop to that side because it is essentially created delay to give Mathieu more time to have a free run at the quarterback. While the running back is still keyed on Baker, Mathieu's speed and angle of a blitz allows him a free shot at Smith. In the above picture, it is clear the Kentucky running back is "no-man's land".
Simon still is not giving his receiver any room to breathe and quarterback Max Smith is about to get pulverized because he has no time. Hatcher (KH), Edwards and Montgomery all are doing a solid job of occupying their blockers and coverage everywhere else is great.
Smith is crunched by Mathieu (TM) and Brooks (Ron) at the same time. If for some reason they missed the quarterback, Baker (Ryan) would have leveled him too. Now what Mathieu does after that is just special.
Mathieu located the football in Smith's hand and stripped it while in mid-air. His timing on the strip was impeccable. The ball is loose and all "The Honey Badger" has to do is pick the ball up and walk into the end zone.
I believe this play summed up LSU's historic season on defense. It had a mixture of every great aspect of the LSU defense. The genius and innovation of Chavis (the "Mustang"), unselfishness of some to hold blockers (Mingo, Hatcher, Montgomery, Edwards), the athletic ability of beating their man in one on one battles (Brooks, Claiborne, Simon), reliable safety play (Reid, Taylor), spectacular blitzing (Baker, Mathieu) and a special play from "The Honey Badger".
The defense was stingy. They bludgeoned their opponents. It's not that often a defense runs up a score on an opponent. LSU took pride in that.
As we know by now, Mathieu was kicked off the team. Everybody seems to have the opinion of "the 2012 LSU defense will survive without Mathieu but will miss the special play". They are right, and this is film proof of that.
As we saw on this play, LSU still would have gotten a huge sack from Brooks or Baker if Mathieu was replaced by somebody else. But the Tigers probably wouldn't have gotten the strip sack for a touchdown.
This is why Chavis must find answers soon. LSU struggled getting pass rush without blitzing last year. If the Tigers have to play more traditional defenses and blitz less frequently, there could be trouble for the Bayou Bengals defense.
They need to have defensive backs who can fill the roll of not only Mathieu, but Brooks as well. Losing Mathieu may have as much to do with depth as it does production. On this play, all six defensive backs are bonafide NFL players. LSU will be without four of them next season.
The LSU defense can be special this season. How special is...to be continued.
Especially if their most special player is "The Honey Badger".