Terps’ defense works on adjusting after ‘sudden changes’

November 7, 2013

(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

When the Maryland football team’s offense commits a turnover, defensive coordinator Brian Stewart gathers his unit on the sideline before it heads back onto the field. It’s entirely common to regroup after what is called a “sudden change,” when the defense suddenly switches from sideline meetings to sprinting onto the field, all because the offense couldn’t keep the ball long enough.

Stewart learned his technique from Wade Phillips, his mentor and former coach with the Houston Texans. So when the Terrapins have a giveaway, which has happened 19 times through eight games, Stewart and defensive line coach Greg Gattuso rally the troops, assess the ball’s placement, tell the players what they expect from the opponent in that situation – whether the offense will take a shot at the end zone or ground-and-pound or play-action – issue the defensive calls and then break the huddle.

“That way it’s a common force, rather than not running onto the field from all over the place,” Stewart said. “That’s why you got to get those guys together before they run on the field, kind of assess the situation as quickly as possible: time in the game, where they are in the field, what personnel they’re going to come out with and what we expect them to do.”

Last season, Maryland committed 31 turnovers and, as its six-game losing streak extended and more players got hurt, the defense could no longer bail out the team’s anemic offense. The Terrapins averaged just 2.84 plays per possession before their turnovers, meaning Stewart’s unit often returned to the field having just jogged off it.

This season, those 19 turnovers have occurred within an average of 3.37 plays. As the turnover rate has improved (3.88 per game in 2012 vs. 3.17 in 2013) so, too, has the offense’s ability to avoid handcuffing its counterparts.

“We’ve got to win [the sudden changes],” Stewart said. “We’ve got to force them into three-and-out, or if it’s a short field, into a field goal. No touchdowns.”

>> No word has yet leaked from Gossett Team House about injured cornerback Jeremiah Johnson (fractured toe), though the timetable for a potential return was supposed to fall around this date. Once the starter opposite Dexter McDougle, Johnson hasn’t played since the season opener against Florida International. His return would boost the secondary as Maryland again tries for bowl eligibility.

“He’s pushing through,” Stewart said of Johnson. “I think that he’s a kid that really wants to be out there, but we’ve got to let the injury take its course. When it’s time, he’ll be out there. But he’s doing a good job. His spirits are just and that’s always good.”

Johnson, it would seem, represents the final missing piece to the defense’s once-battered puzzle. McDougle and linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil are out with season-ending injuries, but all contributors who were nicked up before the bye week seem to be healthy. That includes safety Anthony Nixon (toe), linebacker L.A. Goree (back), defensive tackle Zeke Riser (ankle) and linebacker Cole Farrand (hand).

“I think at this point, there’s not a team in America that would say we’re 100 percent healthy or we’re healthy,” Stewart said. “I think we’re starting to be able to play with some of the things that we have, and I think that’s where everybody is, so there’s some type of pain tolerance involved. It’d be nice to have as many people back as possible

“It’s fortunate or an unfortunate part of the game that there’s going to be injuries and things of that nature, so you kind of get used to it. I’ve been in the business long enough to really know that you’ve got to make sure everyone’s prepared, whether they’re underneath the bench, on the bench or on the field, then coach those guys who are going to be on the field that weekend.”

>> Stewart offered little about defensive lineman Roman Braglio, who was removed from the two-deep this week. Braglio often appeared in nickel or dime packages as a smaller, quicker pass-rusher. He hasn’t recorded a sack since ACC games began and has just one tackle during that span.

“I think as we’ve progressed through the week, and looked at some of the stuff over the bye week, we’re still trying to move people and parts around to put the best product on the field,” Stewart said.

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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