Monday, November 25, 2013

New Metrics For Today's Defenses?


Overview and Background:
We are ten weeks into the college football season and already a highly respected defensive coordinator has been fired and the nation’s most elite unit had over half a thousand yards hung on it in one afternoon.  It would seem that offenses today must really be ahead of defenses, a thought that would seem to suggest that with time, as the offenses did in the good old bad old days, invariably catch up.  But maybe something else is at work here, something that the powers that be in the game, the Mack Browns and Nick Sabans of the world, are reluctant to admit, the possibility that the terrain upon which the game is played has so radically shifted that the old benchmarks according to which defenses were once measured simply no longer apply.  Put differently, holding an offense to 300 / game is just not a realistic goal when two teams of similar talent take the field.  With this in mind, what, then, broadly speaking, should be the goals for defenses in the age of the spread and how should they go about trying to achieve them in an increasingly frenetic, hostile, and strained environment?

It would be easy to turn this piece into something of a eulogy for Manny Diaz and scathing critique of Mack Brown.  Readers of this blog know that we respect Coach Diaz and thus, for that matter, by logical extension, know that we view the situation developing in Austin as being a classic example of the “you reap the seeds you sow” whirlwind.  The fact of the matter is that against today’s increasingly efficient and streamlined spread offenses defense as traditionally played, evaluated, schemed, and executed is no longer feasible.  Monte Kiffin returned to the NFL not just because he wanted to buoy his son on another year, but because he wanted to coach in a league without Oregon, UCLA, Cal, Arizona State, and Arizona; little did poor Monte know when he fled for Dallas that he’d have to face Chip Kelly.  Oh, well.

But Texas is not the only place where proud defensive units with excellent personnel are getting ripped up by offenses, sometimes with younger, rawer, and less talented personnel.  Yes, Alabama won, and yes they were playing against one of the best offenses in the country, but according to virtually every metric, they played worse in Sunday’s victory than in last year’s defeat.  And what about the famed black shirts of Nebraska?  For the second year in a row they were scorched by a no-frills spread attack predicated not on trickery and chicanery but straightforward football, which is to say, a lot of inside zone (and a watered down version of that, to say the least), key screens, some verts, a new interpretation of Go Switch, and a nifty little snag game that everybody knows is coming on third down when Coach Mazzone needs to make a money call.  Oh, and don’t forget about the new and very young crew slinging their version pure blue sky up there on corners of Berkeley, freshmen and sophomores, mostly, going toe to toe  against Northwestern and Ohio State, snapping the ball over 90 times / game and averaging over 500 yards every time out.  Clearly the game is up.  What used to work is no longer applicable because not simply has the vocabulary of the game changed, but so has its very language. 

We will sketch here in broad strokes what we think the new metric for defense should be.  We will then, and again, in broad terms, review how some teams, such as Alabama and Nebraska, are defending spread teams this year.  Our next step will be to consider specific keys that defenses need to consider as they prepare every week.  Finally, we will suggest, perhaps controversially, that they best way to defend the spread today is to regress a little.

The New Metric:

We believe that there are five basic criteria according to which defenses today, in one form or another, must be measured.

  1. Negative Yardage Plays: these plays are incredibly disruptive to up-tempo, spread outfits.  They derail them, force them into a type of safe mode that makes them slow down.
  2. Limit Explosives: by this we mean, any play of twenty yards or more.  These plays are certain to elicit a NASCAR type response from an up-tempo offense, a response that can be no more complicated than inside zone, but now, with keys and quicks attached to them as automatic parts of the base play.
  3. 3rd Down: obviously, this draws heavily on the above results, but it must be accounted for.  Up-tempo teams are incredibly stripped down outfits that carry a bare minimum number of plays into a game.  What they run on 3rd down thus should be painfully evident.  Like the Huskers of yesteryear, the Bruins today have a very finite number of things they run on 3rd down. 
  4. What you can live with: This is essentially a supplement to point 3 that deals with the multi-faceted element of every play today.  Virtually all teams tag quicks and screens to everything they run.  The question is, then, what can you live with getting beat by and what you absolutely cannot tolerate.
  5.  Limit scores / settle for FGs: When Mike Leach was at Texas Tech his defenses under Ruffin McNeil were none as fairly vanilla units, basic match-zone stuff that brought very little heat.  This was by design for Leach’s goal was to turn the game into a duel of possessions.  Confident that his unit would score touchdowns more often than not the goal on defense was to either minimize the possessions of the opposition or to create more possessions for his own offense through turnovers and stalled drives.  In a way, this is what Tommy Spangler tried to do at LaTech, something his units were often successful at when healthy.  

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