Bend-don't-break defense suits Irish perfectly at Oklahoma

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Bend-don't-break defense suits Irish perfectly at Oklahoma

NORMAN, Okla. -- Landry Jones looked in rhythm on Oklahoma's first drive, slinging passes around the field like a quarterback who would move into sixth place on the NCAA all-time passing leaderboard Saturday night. But that was all part of Notre Dame's plan.
The Irish allowed Jones to make all the short, quick passes he could in order to take away Oklahoma's quick-strike capabilities. Jones' longest completion was for 35 yards, his second-lowest longest pass in a game this year. Against Kansas State, Jones' longest completion was 27 yards -- and K-State won that game, too.
"It was a little difficult at first because it was very fast-paced, and you can't really simulate in practice as much as you try," safety Zeke Motta explained. "So we came out and just tried to find a groove and rhythm. We knew they would get some yards on us initially, but just to have that confidence as a defense play after play, get lined up and ready to go, obviously you're going to be tired a little bit. Once the play starts, you just go balls to the wall no matter what."
Notre Dame quickly adjusted to the pace, though, and locked down whenever Oklahoma neared the end zone. 
Jones threw for 356 yards against Notre Dame, but didn't come close to throwing a touchdown when it mattered. It took the Belldozer -- 6-foot-6, 254-pound quarterback Blake Bell -- to get OU in the end zone, and while that was the first rushing score Notre Dame allowed in 2012, it was the only touchdown the Irish allowed on Saturday.
Limiting an Oklahoma offense that had racked up 156 points in its last three games was critical for Notre Dame. Coach Brian Kelly understood the Irish wouldn't win a shootout. If the points started rising into the 30s and 40s, chances are, Oklahoma was going to come away with a victory.
"We were going to give up yards to keep the points down," Kelly said after the game. "We could not let the points get out of reach for us. This was the first time that we showed we could be on our own a bit offensively and put some points on the boards. But we could not have won this football game if the points got up into the numbers that were probably out of reach for our offense."
So Notre Dame's cornerbacks gave OU's receivers large cushions, forcing Jones to throw almost nothing but short passes. But the strategy wouldn't have been executed well without quality tackling, which Notre Dame's secondary certainly pulled off -- led by true freshman KeiVarae Russell. And holding Oklahoma's run game to 15 yards on 24 carries helped Notre Dame's case a little bit, too.
"It worked great," cornerback Bennett Jackson said. "We all stuck together, we all rely on each other, we got total confidence in everybody on the team and we stuck it out and had a great win."

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Bears DL Akiem Hicks making the most of a chance the Saints never gave him

Living well is indeed the best revenge, and sometimes nothing feels sweeter than proving doubters wrong. Akiem Hicks is savoring that exact feeling.

When the New Orleans Saints made Hicks their third-round pick in the 2013 draft, they typecast their big (6-5, 318 pounds) young defensive lineman as a one-trick pony.

“There were people in New Orleans that said, ‘You can’t rush the passer,’” Hicks recalled after the Bears’ win Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers. “They told me from my rookie year, ‘You’re going to be a run-stopper.’”

This despite Hicks collecting 6.5 sacks and 3 pass breakups as a senior at Regina in Canada. The Saints forced Hicks into the slot they’d decided he fit – nose tackle – then eventually grew disenchanted with him and traded him to New England last year – where he collect 3 sacks in spot duty.

Interestingly, Bears GM Ryan Pace was part of the Saints’ personnel operation. Whether Pace agreed with coaches’ handling of Hicks then isn’t known, but when Pace had the chance to bring Hicks to Chicago for a role different than the one the Saints forced Hicks into, Pace made it happen.

Pace likely saw those New England sacks as a foreshadowing or a sign that the New Orleans staff had miscast Hicks. The Bears defensive end now is under consideration for NFC defensive player of the week after his 10-tackle performance against San Francisco. Signing with the Bears last March 13 as a free agent was the career break Hicks has craved. For him it was a career lifeline.

“They have given me the ability to go rush the passer,” Hicks said. “So I love this organization – [GM] Ryan Pace, coach Fox, Vic [Fangio, defensive coordinator] – for just giving a guy the capability to put it out there and do what you feel like you can do.”

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Hicks has been showing what he can do, to quarterbacks. For him the best part of win over the 49ers was the two third-quarter sacks of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Those sacks gave the massive lineman, who the Saints said couldn’t rush the passer, 6 sacks for the season – more than any member of the Saints defense this season. It has been a classic instance of putting a player in position to maximize his skills, not jam someone into a bad fit.

“Akiem has been in a couple of different types of packages before with New Orleans and New England,” said coach John Fox. The Patriots switched from a long-time 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 but “we’re more of a New England-type style. But we’re playing him more at end; he played mostly a nose tackle [in New Orleans]. He’s fit really well for us as far as his physical stature.

"But he does have pass rush ability. It shows a little about his athleticism. So he’s got a combination of both.”

That “combination” has been allowed to flourish at a new level, and the Bears’ plan for Hicks was the foundation of why he wanted to sign in Chicago as a free agent. The Bears do not play their defensive linemen in a clear one-gap, get-upfield-fast scheme tailored to speed players. Nor do they play a classic two-gap, linemen-control-blockers scheme typically built on three massive space-eaters on the defensive line.

They play what one player has called a “gap and a half” system, which requires being stout as well as nimble.

One Hicks rush on Kaepernick featured a deft spin move out of a block, not the norm for 336-pound linemen. He got one sack with a quick slide out of a double-team.

“I’m not freelancing,” Hicks said. “But I’m rushing ‘fast.’ There’s a portion of the defense where you have the [run] responsibility and don’t have the freedom or liberty [to rush]. It’s a great system for me and I love what they’ve let me do.”