When Brian Newberry was hired as Navy defensive coordinator in 2019, he brought an aggressive, attacking style designed to keep opposing offenses off-balance.
Newberry was determined to harass the quarterback, disguising formations and bringing pressure from different areas of the field. There would be times when the Midshipmen showed blitz then dropped into coverage or vice versa.
That new philosophy paid immediate dividends during Newberry’s first season calling the defensive signals as Navy recorded 30 sacks and 37 quarterback hurries.
The Midshipmen have posted similar numbers so far this season. Defensive end Jacob Busic and outside linebacker John Marshall have led the way as Navy has notched 27 sacks and 23 quarterback hurries through 10 games.
Marshall leads Navy with 6 ½ sacks and six quarterback hurries, while Busic has six and four. Tackle Clay Cromwell and nose guard Donald Berniard Jr. have also done a good job of getting to the quarterback, posting 5 ½ and 4 ½ sacks, respectively.
“Any time we can disrupt the quarterback and make him uncomfortable it’s a good thing. If we can get a sack or just force him out of the pocket or into a bad throw that is a win for our defense,” Marshall said. “If you can get consistent pressure, it kind of rattles the quarterback and takes him out of his rhythm.”
Marshall has been a Swiss army knife of sorts with Newberry using the senior striker in a wide variety of ways. Navy’s defensive captain has improved dramatically as a pass rusher under the tutelage of first-year outside linebackers coach Joe Coniglio.
“John’s gotten better at craft every week. Last season, he would come off the edge and wasn’t great at working a pass rush move, setting up a blocker or finishing on a quarterback,” Newberry said.
“I’ve definitely refined my techniques big-time and feel like I’ve gotten a way better feel for how to beat blockers and get into the backfield,” Marshall said.
Busic is built like a prototypical defensive end, long and athletic at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds. The Westminster product started all 12 games last season and totaled just two sacks. Newberry knew there was untapped potential and Busic has truly blossomed as a junior.
Busic spends time studying the best edge rushers in the game, especially Joey Bosa (San Diego Chargers) and his brother, Nick (San Francisco 49ers). .
“My father is always getting on me about being a student of the game, so he sends videos of the Bosa brothers,” said Busic, who also enjoys watching Cleveland Browns end Myles Garrettt. “I like to watch full games of edge rushers. Last week, I watched Aidan Hutchinson’s full game of pass rush moves and really studied them.”
At the beginning of the season, Busic set a goal of reaching double digits for sacks. For now, he’s just hoping to finish with more than Marshall, who took the lead in the friendly competition with 1 ½ sacks against Notre Dame.
“John passed me on Saturday and hasn’t let me live it down ever since. When I pass him this Saturday, I’m going to let him hear it,” Busic said. “He has the sack record for one week and won’t stop talking about it.”
Navy showed its pass-rushing firepower against the Fighting Irish with five sacks in the second half during Saturday’s 35-32 loss at M&T Bank Stadium. Newberry threw caution to the wind and brought the house while playing one-on-one coverage. The fourth-year defensive coordinator admitted such tactics are not sustainable.
“People are going to have answers for zero pressure, so you’ve got to mix it in. You have to be careful when you do it and you have to disguise it when you can,” he said. “That was a little unusual what we did in the second half. It’s high-risk, high-reward and there was more reward on Saturday.”
Newberry has been pleased with the high number of sacks and pressures the Mids have mustered this season and estimates that 90% have been the result of blitz packages. However, there have been too many times when Navy committed four or five defenders to rushing the quarterback and failed to get home, leaving the pass coverage vulnerable.
During the first half against Notre Dame, Newberry often rushed three and dropped eight. Quarterback Drew Pyne had all day to sit in the pocket and wound up picking apart the Mids.
Therein lies the big difference between this season and Newberry’s first. In 2019, Navy ranked a respectable 52nd nationally in pass defense, allowing 215 yards per game. So far in 2022, the Mids stand 116th out of 131 Football Bowl Subdivision schools averaging 274 passing yards given up.
“Sacks are great, but it’s been kind of a wash because of all the big plays we have given up,” Newberry acknowledged. “We have to take chances and pressure the quarterback, but we have to be able to cover whenever we do that.”
Saturday provided a stark example of the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the Navy defense. The Midshipmen played soft zone pass coverage and got torched by Pyne, who completed 14 of 16 passes for 234 yards and four touchdowns as the Fighting Irish built a commanding 35-13 lead.
Under duress the entire second half, Pyne only completed 3 of 5 passes for 35 yards with one attempt getting deflected at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by Marshall.
Newberry said this week the Midshipmen need to improve their situational awareness. Most of the big pass plays this past Saturday were the result of mental mistakes, he said.
“On third-and-15, you don’t want to jump a 3-yard drag route and we did that twice, which opened a window behind,” Newberry said. " We need to do a better job of understanding what teams want to do and where they need to get to pick up a first down. We need to let people throw to the checkdown [receivers] then rally to the ball and make the tackle.”
Navy’s defense will be presented with the dilemma of whether to bring pressure or sit back in coverage again Saturday against No. 20 Central Florida. The Knights are led by dual-threat quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, who has passed for 2,015 yards and rushed for 708 yards. He has accounted for 21 touchdowns (12 passing, nine rushing).
Newberry said the Midshipmen must be careful when putting pressure on Plumlee, who is very adept at escaping the pocket and rambling for big yardage. UCF also has numerous designed runs for Plumlee, who will keep the ball and head out the backdoor off a fake jet sweep or shoot up the middle of a delayed draw. He is very dangerous off run-pass-option concepts and can also execute power reads behind zone blocking, Newberry said.
“You have to account for the quarterback at all times. When you do bring pressure, you have to make sure you have containment. We can’t allow him to get out of the pocket; If we have a chance to tackle him, we need to get him on the ground.”