Curtis Brooks / courtesy of

Houston and Cincinnati both play elite defense. On Thursday in an interview on ESPNU Radio, Dana Holgorsen said both teams are similar in many ways and are built on defense.

“They got great corners, we’ve got great corners,” Holgorsen said. “They’ve got guys up front that can pressure you, we’ve got guys up front that can pressure you, linebackers that are old that run the show.

“It’s really really, really a pretty unique situation for where both teams are pretty evenly matched. The stats say the same thing.”

Indeed, the two teams are remarkably similar when it comes to where they rank nationally:

Scoring Defense319
Total Defense86
Rush Defense508
Pass Yards Allowed316
Red Zone Defense508
1st Down Defense277
3rd Down Defense224
Tackles For Loss1517
Turnovers Gained211
Fumbles Recovered1222
Blocked KicksT1T1

Cincinnati put seven defenders on the American Athletic Conference First Team this week including the only two unanimous selections on that side of the ball (Myjai Sanders, Ahmad Gardner).

In this first of two AAC Championship Game preview articles, we look at the Bearcat defensive line and the problems they present for UH’s offense.

Myjai Sanders #21 is a long, explosive edge rusher with terrific hands. He’s agile, plays with strength and his length allows him to shed the block quickly. Sanders has batted six passes this year, three of which came last week against ECU:

Sanders has 46 pressures in 329 pass-rush snaps this season (14%) but has not gotten to the QB much (4 sacks, one hit). Still, he disrupts the passing game with his speed, rush skills and by forcing QBs to alter passing lanes.

Curtis Brooks #92 is probably the best inside pass rusher in the country. In his sixth season in the UC program, he has become a one-man interior plug. Pro Football Focus credits him with 35 stops, meaning a solo tackle that results in a failure for the offense.

Here we see the Second-Team All-AAC Quarterback (cough) Tanner Mordecai getting abused early in the game by Brooks:

Brooks gains leverage with his left hand and uses a swim move with his right to burst up the field. With Sanders coming from the far edge, the pocket starts to collapse before Mordecai can see the slot receiver crossing.

Brooks will be the third premier interior defender UH has played since Halloween. SMU’s Elijah Chatman and UConn’s Travis Jones are also widely considered top-10 inside guys nationally. Houston’s pass blocking held up against each: they two were on the field for 63 passing snaps but combined for just a single QB hurry.

The difference Saturday will be the 1-2 combination of Sanders and Brooks coming from different sides of the line. That will force UH to max protect as much as they have all season. In the following gif, Mordecai’s biggest issue is the UC coverage (more on that Saturday morning). Cincinnati’s coverage is so good that QBs end up hesitating too long and giving up the sack themselves.

The Bearcats run an E-T Stunt here with Sanders #21 and Jowon Briggs #18 on the right side. Sanders makes the first move, sliding to the tackle’s inside shoulder. The guard sees Sanders’ quick step and pulls off of Briggs to help the tackle protect. Sanders keeps them both engaged, allowing Briggs to loop around and create chaos up the field.

On the far side, Brooks makes an inside move to slip past the guard and immediately wins pad level with the center. By getting inside the center, Brooks can bull rush his left shoulder and keep his eyes on Second Team Mordecai. Brooks frees himself from the center with another swim move as Briggs blasts the LT back into the quarterback. Here’s a different view:

The running back has check- and release responsibility for the linebacker here. When the LB drops into coverage, the RB wants to release into the flat. Except he gets blown up by the edge rusher (so does the right tackle) before they know what’s happening.

Sanders and Brooks are the best 1-2 punch the Cougars have seen this year. But the defensive linemen are just one of the issues for Houston in the AAC Championship game.

Tomorrow: the sixth-year LB and those two amazing corners.

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