Football’s brittle defense buckles under pressure throughout first five games
Freshman defensive lineman Atonio Mafi has nine tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss this season, but has not yet recorded a sack. UCLA football has just nine total sacks in five games this season. (Liz Ketcham/Assistant Photo editor)
By Ryan Smith
October 8, 2018 4:48 pm
The Bruins are trying to figure out their pass rush problem.
UCLA football (0-5, 0-2 Pac-12) is tied for seventh in the conference in total sacks this season, and despite the Bruins recording a pair of sacks against Washington on Saturday, they still allowed Washington quarterback Jake Browning to run for 49 yards.
“It’s something we really need to work on,” said coach Chip Kelly following Monday’s practice. “That was one of the issues from Saturday of getting them off the field on third down and generating pressure on (Browning).”
Browning entered Saturday’s contest with -1 total rushing yards on the year. The senior quarterback had just 105 career rushing yards in his first three collegiate seasons combined.
Kelly said the lack of a pass rush could be due to a number of reasons, but that everyone on the defense is responsible for its early season struggles. Kelly also said that it has been frustrating considering how well he thinks the defensive backs have played in coverage.
“It comes from everybody,” Kelly said. “It can come from the rush of our defensive line, it can come from our scheme. I think we’re doing a decent job in coverage. I mean, if we can cover for that long then we need guys that have got to be able to get home.”
Sophomore linebacker Jaelan Phillips – a former five-star recruit and the team’s eighth-leading tackler – missed Saturday’s game with an undisclosed injury. Phillips’ closing speed on quarterbacks is something other players on the UCLA roster do not possess, making his absence that much more noticeable.
Kelly said Phillips’ injury will keep him out, but added that his absence from the lineup cannot be used an excuse for the lackluster pass rush moving forward.
“He’s out right now,” Kelly said. “We’ll see how that (plays out) but when a player’s injured, we don’t sit there and say, ‘Hey, we could have a good pass rush if this guy’s here.’ He’s not available to us right now, so we’ve got to generate it with who’s available to us.”
Without Phillips’ presence on the field, the Bruins will have to rely on other players up front such as true freshman Atonio Mafi. The 380-pound defensive lineman has played in all five games this season, recording nine tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss.
Mafi said he has seen the defense’s ability to get to the quarterback in practice, and emphasized that it needs to carry over that ability to game days.
“We just need to get our motors started,” Mafi said. “Work our techniques and transition what we do in pass rush drills over here into the game because we obviously know what to do, it’s just whether or not we’re going to do it in the game.”
The Bruins have also struggled with penalties and getting off the field on third down, giving up 62.2 penalty yards per game while currently owning the worst third-down defense in the nation.
Washington finished 12-for-19 on third and fourth down on Saturday. The Bruins were also penalized twice on third down, with both of those drives resulting in points for the Huskies.
Redshirt senior defensive back Adarius Pickett said the team cannot continue to shoot itself in the foot, especially in game-changing situations.
“There have been certain drives in a few games where you’ve been in third-down situations and we have had some crucial penalties that really hurt,” Pickett said. “Whether they be roughing the passer, face mask or pass interference, those are the penalties that we’ve got to eliminate and we’ll be successful.”