ANALYSIS: Scouting the Memphis Defense

The Memphis defense ranked 121st in the country in yards allowed during the regular season at a whopping 475 yards per game. Iowa State only gained more than 475 total yards in two games (Akron and Oklahoma State).

Six of the Memphis opponents ranked lower than they did in yards allowed per game (there are only 130 teams).

Needless to say, defense is not a high priority in the AAC, nor was it at UCLA this year. Each year Memphis struggles with Navy, a disciplined, triple-option team. This year, they squeaked out a 30-27 win by racking up five turnovers.  Therein lies the key to the Memphis defense.

It is a mighty stretch to state that the Memphis defense is solid in any one area of defensive play, however, they were outstanding at creating turnovers. Memphis is tied for fourth in the nation in turnover margin and recorded a salty 30 turnovers this season (16 int 14 fumbles). They caused 26 total fumbles.

To round out the Memphis style of play, the potent offense is the key to their wins and it is supported by a defense that gains additional opportunities for the offense by taking the ball away from the opponent.

Turnovers can be the result of luck. A schedule can be full of teams that liberally turn the ball over. But, some defensive coaches place a high priority on attempting to create sudden change. A team with this emphasis will often utilize pressure to force quick decisions, overload coverage to a target zone, and tackle the football versus the man. Memphis does all of these things.

The style of play employed in Memphis is often vulnerable to big plays and is not designed to stifle an offense. Instead, it is a big play defense just as the offense is a big play offense.

Bottom Line: The Memphis defense can and will be gashed liberally. If an opponent does not turn the ball over, then possessions are limited and it becomes a game of stops–who can get more.


The Memphis scheme is a base 4-2-5 on most downs with a 3 man front drop 8 employed on third and long. A solid number of the Memphis  interceptions occurred when they utilized the drop 8 scheme. They are quick in coverage and can make plays on throws in to the teeth of the 8 man zone.

Up front Memphis is not big or powerful, but they are very quick. They slant and rush up the field on the ends. The defensive line will shoot gaps which puts them out of position, but also will provide pressure and tackles for loss. Closing down the gaps and neutralizing their speed is key in exploiting the front.

The linebackers are subpar in read and react situations and are very vulnerable to play fakes. They are not a solid tackling unit, but will guess right enough to get off the field on third down a few times a game.

The secondary plays its safeties wide, at the numbers, way more than I would deem advisable. The corners are solid cover men and Memphis will utilize man coverage when bringing pressure and as a change of pace. They cover tight and Iowa State does not have the speed to create much separation.

The back 7 is extremely aggressive in the horizontal passing game and in attacking the edge run game. They fly to the target, or where they think the target is. That means that they are influenced heavily by play action and misdirection. Double moves and misdirection are hugely successful against the back 7. Teams that threaten the edge consistently can find tough sledding.

Memphis is undisciplined in its scheme which leads to consistent breakdowns. The most common of those I will show below. The lack of discipline, poor tackling, and turnover focus can lead to big gains for an opposing offense.

Film Review

I have organized the clips under broad headings which illustrate the purpose of the clip. First, what Memphis is good at. Second, what they struggle with.

Strip Fumble

Memphis tackles the ball and looks to strip the ball any time they are in a position to do so. They rely on this method so much that they miss tackles and give up big plays because of it. However, 26 times, they were successful. That does not mean that they stripped the ball 26 times, but it does mean that a lion’s share of the fumbles created were the result of doing so.

This is a pressure look from Memphis and a broken play for SMU. Notice the tackler. His hands are reaching for the player and specifically for the ball. The first point of contact is necessarily the midriff, but as the tackle is carried out the rake is primary.

Next, notice the rabid manner in which the loose ball is corralled by Memphis. If a ball is on the ground they swarm. It indicates a team that expects to see the ball on the ground and is trained to attack it.

Against UConn there was a fumble created on special teams. Memphis covers well and gets an early hit. The hit is on the ball side which is not a fundamental tackling position. The play happens at speed, but the target was the ball.

After falling off the tackle, the Memphis player reaches back in with both hands to strip the ball. He does so and Memphis takes this recovery to the house. Another example of a player trained to find the ball, hit the ball, and strip the ball.

This replay against UCLA gives a close up visual of why ball security is paramount against the Memphis defense. The player is reaching for the tackle, but he doesn’t even wrap up or grab an ankle. Given, this could just be a result of him being stretched out to grab a cutting back, but watch closely.

The Memphis defender locates and looks directly at the ball and reaches across to get a hand on it. The primary movement was to the ball with the wrap up being secondary. Most will be focused on wrapping the player and getting them to the ground. Not the Memphis player, he is efforting to impact the football.

The UCLA back is not well versed in keeping five points of pressure on the ball and it is a big turnover for Memphis.

Memphis purposefully tackles the football and is constantly reaching for the football. If they don’t get it, they give up extra yards to a ball carrier.

How many fumbles does ISU have on the season?  Just sayin….


This is a pick six against Josh Rosen using the drop 8 coverage on third and a mile. Stupid throw by Rosen. As he throws the ball look at the 40 yard line. Do you see the wide open receiver cutting to the sideline? I was screaming from my seat because he was open before the point of the throw.

Rosen tries to make a play and throws across his body to a Tiger ready to pounce. This is how Memphis gets many of its interceptions. There is either pressure from the front or coverage pressure on the quarterback who then makes a bone head decision and tosses it to them.

To Memphis’ credit, they have good hands in the secondary and they are covering the throwing lanes often enough to be in position to take advantage of these errant throws. Not all, but many of their 16 interceptions looked similar to this throw. I chose this clip because even a high quality quarterback like Rosen was sucked in to the Memphis turnover vortex.

Cover No one

Now to the things Memphis does poorly and how they get gashed. It is possible to be conservative against them and power your way down the field. But, there is some risk in that because they have the ability to put three plays together and get off the field. Remember, you want the defense on the field as much as possible (interesting fact is that Memphis only averaged 26 minutes of possession time for the season).

“Cover No One” is my nomenclature for the Iowa State safeties penchant for jumping in to a coverage zone that is not threatened while leaving a streaking receiver open in the vacated slot. ISU got better at that throughout the year, but Memphis did not.

On this play against SMU you will note there are two players trailing the play that release the double move deep and remain covering nothing but green turf. In fact, two Memphis players are right next to each other covering the same spot on the field.

Spacing and route recognition is not a strength of the Memphis defense and they often get themselves in trouble by jumping in to cover no one. The second deep safety walks in to the picture as the SMU player crosses the goal line. This indicates the wide two deep safeties that leaves a huge gap in the deep middle. That is an alignment that is recognizable in the pre-snap reads and can be accounted for by an astute quarterback.

Against ECU we see an even more egregious example of the coverage scheme. Again we have the wide safeties indicated by the safety that overruns the play at the catch point.

Honestly… how does this happen? The under player may think he is covering the man running five yards behind him. Maybe. The deep safety takes an extremely poor angle and does not attack the ball or the catch point. Plus, he is running counter to the motion of the receiver. The other deep safety jumps on a covered player instead of keeping his spacing between the divergent routes and is out of the play. Three defenders cover no one.

Brain Fart

Yes, like myself, the Memphis defense is vulnerable to the brain fart. That moment where your mind reboots inexplicably in the middle of doing something important.

The safeties are both covering the wide side of the field leaving an open gap to the deep short side. UCONN runs a seam route in to the vacated zone and the safety can’t recover. But, that isn’t the error.

Watch the two inside linebackers. Both are influenced by the receiver at the line with his hands in the air. Pretty nice trick by UCONN, but the linebacker on the tight end side has to check the tight end first and drop with him in the seam. The movement of the other linebacker is more excusable, but he should still be dropping with an eye on the quarterback. If he drops he has a chance to catch a slow tight end and stop a score.

Remember in the “scheme” section I mentioned that Memphis is very aggressive in attacking the horizontal pass. This would be an example of where that aggressiveness caused a mental lapse on the part of the primary defenders against this route combination. They were geared to fly to the ball, forgot their route keys, and gave up a touchdown. The Memphis defense is prone to this type of out-of-phase reaction to plays and they give up a lot of plays because of it.

Stuck on you

Memphis is not good against the run, but they aren’t terrible either. When they struggle, it is usually a result of getting stuck on blocks. That means they are unable to disengage and shed their blocker to follow through to a tackle point.

Prior to this season, Iowa State was notorious for this in its front seven. In 2016 against Iowa, Iowa State seemed to have players present to make the tackle on the stretch play, but were unable to disengage and make a tackle. Memphis will show you the same thing.

This is an awesome 96 yard touchdown by Killians from UCF in the first meeting between the schools. At the very end of the clip notice that Killians “breaks the tape” at the goal line. I love that and had to point it out.

For our purposes, notice the defensive line. Not only are the driven out of position, but they incapable of shedding the blocks. They instead do the waltz ( an old coach screamed that at me a few times). Watch the back side defensive end who is unblocked and has an angle to the ball carrier. OOPS – the turf monster got him.

This is a power dive, a quick hitting run. Pretty simple base blocking scheme where the defender should collision, press and shed. Instead, Memphis is stuck like glue.

This does not happen on every play. As I stated, Memphis is quick up front, but they generally make hay by shooting a gap versus winning a one-on-one with a lineman. If you can contain their quickness, then big plays like this one are available to you.

Iowa State’s Formula

First, Iowa State does not fumble and rarely turns the ball over. Do that.

David Montgomery is a different kind of beast that Memphis has not seen and will not see for years to come. Tackling Montgomery, or even Croney for that matter, is not an easy task and requires focus and fundamental skills. Memphis lacks in both.

The issue I see is in play selection. Iowa State’s slow developing interior runs could allow time for the Memphis quickness to disrupt the plays. Running to the edge is viable, but Memphis is very aggressive and fairly adept at shutting it down. I would expect to see the base run package and a reliance on Montgomery’s elusiveness.

The Iowa State offensive line is not a good run blocking unit. It is my hope that they have made some progress in the 15 extra practices.

The horizontal passing game is generally well defended by Memphis. But, they have not had to try and beat the blocks of Iowa State’s receivers. There are few better blocking receiving corps in the country than Iowa State’s receivers. There are plays to be made by both passing and running behind the receivers as primary blockers.

Iowa State can win the 50/50 balls all day long. If Memphis is in man coverage then the back shoulder throw and the jump ball will be caught by Lazard. Memphis will likely have a safety alignment that provides help for those passes, but it will necessarily open the opposite side of the field up for the same throw. Kempt will have to recognize it and get the ball to the solo defender side of the field.

The most open area against the Memphis defense is the deep seams. I expect Iowa State to utilize Butler in these areas extensively. Similar to the breakout game against UNI, he is a mismatch there and there will be open spaces. Lazard works the middle very well also and I expect to see Iowa State’s big plays to come in that area of the field to those two players.

Iowa State does not utilize play action or misdirection very often. I am hoping we see a more pronounced commitment to those types of plays. Memphis is gashed most often by these types of plays and an effective Montgomery sets them up.

Regardless, Iowa State has to score. They cannot get conservative and give the Memphis defense stops due to overly conservative play calling. While ISU is capable of being quite stingy against the Memphis offense, you are rolling for snake eyes if your offense is not geared to put big points on the board.

Iowa State can do what they do and gash the Memphis defense. Montgomery, Lazard, and Butler are the targets here and each can have memorable games. Over/Under on Lazard is 100yds/3 scores.