Dismantling the Defense

In last week’s Irish Blogger Gathering, I got a question about Notre Dame’s defense and if their performance against Temple was cause for concern against Michigan. I had the following to say:

[Notre Dame] played a lot of man and press coverages, mixing in blitzes often, throughout the entire game. Even when the defensive play calling did get more conservative when the game was well in hand, the Irish were often blitzing and bringing five or more rushers on third downs to force Temple to punt.

Based on all of this, I think ND was trying to shuck the “bend, don’t break” claim to fame a bit and tried to force more pressure with blitzes and single man coverage and it backfired. They had no spy on Reilly and were getting beat repeatedly on quick routes that turned into 5-10 easy yards.

[I]f the Irish try to run mostly man coverages against Michigan, yes, there is cause to worry.

Against Michigan, the Irish did exactly what I feared. They ran loads of man coverage and blitzed as if Jon Tenuta kidnapped Bob Diaco and took his place in the booth. And the end result was the Irish giving up career days to Devin Gardner (passing TDs) and Jeremy Gallon (receiving yards and TDs) en route to a simply brutal 41-30 defeat.

The play of the defense was simply maddening. How could the biggest strength of 2012 turn into the most glaring weakness? Why go from “bend, don’t break” to “BLITZ EVERYONE”?

To find these answers, I re-watched the entire game, paying particular attention to how often the Irish blitz, when they did it, and the end result. The goal was to try to see if I could find any kind of pattern to discern the method to the new madness that Diaco and Brian Kelly are now employing.

In the game, I charted 75 total plays, excluding the final kneel down, but including every post snap penalty. The thinking here is that a penalty could be caused by the pressure or coverage that a blitz causes. For instance, if a blitz leaves a CB in single-coverage, they might be more prone to commit pass interference to try and stop the play. On the offensive side, a linemen might be more prone to holding in order to stop blitzing defenders.

Throughout the game, the Irish blitzed on 47 plays or 63% of the time. If there was any doubt that there is a radical shift in how the Irish play defense, that single number should dispel it.

Of those blitzes, Notre Dame had a five man rush 29 times (62% of blitzes), a six man rush 16 times (34%), and brought seven rushers only twice (4%). Based on these numbers, it was rather clear that the Irish wanted to be very aggressive with their blitzing as bringing six men nearly a third of the time when blitzing is a large chunk.

Further, and one thing I wish I could quantify accurately, any LB not blitzing often joined the pass rush if their assigned man was stayed in and blocked (rarely did I ever see them drop back into a zone or spy Gardner). The goal was to put major pressure on Gardner and keep him uncomfortable, but the only issue was the single coverage these aggressive blitzes resulted in, which Michigan repeatedly beat and exploited.

Digging deeper into this blitzing breakdown, I wanted to see if Irish blitzing habits were dependent on the current down. Here is what I found:

Down No Blitz Blitz % Blitz
1 16 19 54%
2 7 18 72%
3 5 10 67%

On first down, the Irish were rather balanced, but on second and third downs, the Irish became ridiculously aggressive. I wondered if this was a result of the yardage rather than the down, so I broke all the plays down by distance as well:

Yards No Blitz Blitz % Blitz
1-3 3 6 67%
4-6 1 4 80%
7-10 18 29 62%
11+ 6 8 57%

Overall, it appears that the Irish stayed rather close to their 63% blitz rate on all distances with the exception of “medium” to-go distances of 4-6 yards. Although, that situation is also the smallest sample size, so it is hard to say with certainty that would remain the case.

Since it appeared that the actual down seemed to make the Irish more aggressive, I wanted to investigate third downs further. After all, if the Irish decided to be more aggressive, it should be to get the opponent off the field. So I wanted to see how effective the blitzing really was.

First, let’s examine the blitzing habits on various to-go distances on third down:

Yards No Blitz Blitz % Blitz
1-3 1 2 33%
4-6 1 2 33%
7-10 2 2 50%
11+ 1 4 80%

And the results:

Yards Stopped Without Blitz Converted Against No Blitz Stopped With Blitz Converted Against Blitz
1-3 0 1 0 2
4-6 1 0 0 2
7-10 1 1 2 0
11+ 0 1 2 2

In general, the Irish did not have a good night stopping Michigan on any third down. Further, it is hard to make a case that blitzing helped give the Irish a better chance at stopping drives on third down. Although it should be noted that three pass interference calls were responsible for three of these conversions (one on third and 4-6, and two on 3rd and 11+) and two of which came on a blitzing play.

Figuring that third down didn’t hold the answers I was looking for, I took one final look at the results of blitzing plays compared to non-blitzing plays:

No Blitz Blitz
Total Yards 281 198
Yards/Play 10.04 4.21
Plays 10+ Yards Allowed 11 8
Plays with loss of yardage 1 8

Finally a pattern emerges.

The yardage numbers are slightly misleading on plays with no blitzing as three of those plays the Irish gave up 61, 41, and 35 yards which account for nearly half of that total. The three explosive plays that the Irish gave up while blitzing weren’t nearly as damaging at 31, 22, and 22 yards.

What stands out though is the fact that ND only managed to have plays that resulted in a loss of yardage while blitzing. Notre Dame’s only sack was also the result of a blitz. The INT that Tuitt snagged was also the result of a blitz.

In 2012, we could easily depend on the defensive line to cause plenty of pressure and Manti Te’o to fill in gaps as needed. With Te’o gone, our gap fills are not what they once were and opposing offensive lines seem to be able to put more focus on Nix, Tuitt, and Shembo. As of now, it appears that the Irish staff are trying to counter this by bringing in additional blitzers, forcing opposing lines to stop them and leave our stronger d-linemen in one-on-one matchups or take advantage of a double team to have a blitzer hit the backfield unblocked.

The problem with this though is what we saw during the Michigan game. Our secondary cannot match up against more talented wide receivers in single coverage consistently. Further, our blitzes rarely hit home and mobile quarterbacks like Reilly and Gardner have been able to scramble out into the open field once they avoid the initial rush.

Against Temple, the Irish went back into softer zone and man coverage and had much greater success, but against Michigan they stuck to this blitz-heavy plan. It will be interesting to see if we revert back into a more 2012 style of defense as the season moves on. However, if the coaching staff believes that this blitz-heavy scheme is the only way to create pressure and cause disruption behind the line, we could be in store for a couple more frustrating defensive performances.

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  • http://twitter.com/BrianJMcKeown Brian McKeown (@BrianJMcKeown)

    Remembering your IBG contribution as the game unfolded, I grew more and more frustrated by Diaco’s game plan . I hate to admit it but I’m starting to agree with some of NDN’s claims of coaching rigidity. How else could you explain their unwillingness to change course when the plan was obviously not working?
    At least special teams looked okay….

    • NDtex

      Well the mind boggling part is that it was and wasn’t working at the same time.

      ND’s best defensive plays came on the blitz, but they were still getting beat on single coverage or from Gardner scrambling repeatedly.

      When you stick to something like that, I would wager that you are trying to cover for a weakness. As I said in the post, I think we are seriously hurting from the loss of Te’o more than we expected, hence the heavy dose of blitzing.

      • Aaron G

        It seems to me that part of it was Gardner just playing a ridiculously good game. The gameplan didn’t account for him playing this well. It sucks that Michigan QBs always seem to dig deep during ND but that’s what we have to deal with. He had several throws that were money shots.

      • http://gravatar.com/ndfan606 ndfan606

        Interesting analysis on the pressure strategy. Thx for the work. I’d add to your observation about non-blitzing linebackers adding to the pressure when their responsibility didn’t leave the pocket area: Against both Michigan and Temple when the Irish blitzed, I noticed multiple occasions when one of the middle linebackers rushed the same gap as the first linebacker (e.g., Fox following Calabrese through the B gap), leaving the Defense vulnerable to counters, cutbacks and misdirection plays that both Gardner and Reilly took advantage of with their awareness and feet, and even on a couple of late First Half read option plays by Gardner, including his rushing touchdown. This reminded me of the Bama game, where the same thing happened, aggressive linebackers filling gaps too quickly then in poor tackling position being forced to lunge after the ball carrier. ND’s safety play was also suspect somewhat during the game, namely biting on play action fakes and getting out of position when the scheme called for man coverage. A key ingredient in last year’s defensive schemes was the safeties keeping the ball in front of them. Farley’s angle on the first touchdown by Gallon is a good example. Not to pick on Farley so much, Shumate was also guilty.

        • NDtex

          I noted that in my post, but there was no way I could quantify it because I can assume what those LB are reading/doing.

          With Gardner, I would have preferred that they drop back to spy instead of going into the rush, because I completely agree with the additional weakness that can cause.

  • Joe Schaefer ’59 Universal City TX

    Another emergent find: the linebackers. Fox and Calabreese. Fox is slow but is a good tackler. Calabreese is faster but can’t tackle. Neither are good at pass coverage underneath.

  • Joe Schaefer ’59 Universal City TX

    Diaco appears to be a slow learner and probably should consult some of the older heads around, viz., Holtz. Think what he should have learned from Temple last week and the infamous Navy game at Baltimore in 2010

    • NDtex

      Slow learner, but yet he put together one of the best defenses in the nation in 2012? That doesn’t jive.

      Further, Diaco learned immensely from the 2010 Navy disaster. Look at the results of any pure option attack against ND since then.

  • Joe Schaefer ’59 Universal City TX

    Does anyone know how many of the top college defenses play the 3-4? It seems to me that it works best when the nose tackle can clog up the middle. Nix was unable to do that against either Temple or Michigan. If they played the 4-3, they would have the flexibility to use both Nix and Schwenke, or just another interior lineman. With Smith and Shembo as linebackers, they could rotate Fox and Calabreese on obvious run or pass downs?

    NDTex: I think the key to 2012 was that Te’o had such range that he was in effect a middle linebacker all by himself and he vastly improved his pass coverage over the previous year. Diaco was not the only coach who had difficulty the first time he faced the option. Think Gerry Faust. My point is that Ara devised the “mirror defense”. Would it be too much to ask a coach who had not faced a certain defense to ask WWLD? or WWAD?

    • NDtex

      Um…seriously? The first question is easy to answer: Alabama and they are by far the best at it. Georgia also runs a 3-4 and I believe BYU still might run it.

      And Nix has been doing his job. He’s commanding double teams almost every play. He’s opening up gaps for the LBs to fill, but they aren’t filing them. Sure, it’d be nice if he could disrupt more plays behind the line, but that’s a bonus. A good NT doesn’t always light up the stat sheet.

      The thing about the 3-4 to realize is that you can still give a lot of 4-3 looks, but the difference is that your OLB (the DOG and CAT) have more speed than your traditional DE, allowing them to play coverage and help with outside contain. While the DOG is the usual coverage LB, the CAT can drop back too as a changeup, which is something ND did on a handful of plays with Shembo.

      In regards to your other point, I’m not sure if you understood my post. Diaco was blitzing like a mad man because it was the only avenue in which ND had any success against Michigan. Because he kept blitzing, ND finally got a sack and forced Gardner’s INT.

      The part that worries me is that the secondary isn’t keeping up their end of the deal, but that was the sacrifice that Diaco was willing to make.

      Further, Diaco did change up the way he was blitzing even though it isn’t discussed in this post. He put Ishaq Williams up the middle to give Michigan a different look (resulted in a sack) and had the safeties blitz as well (Collinsworth put the hit on Gardner that caused the INT).

    • http://twitter.com/#!/PootND PootND

      I agree with Joe. The fact that Brian Kelly hasn’t consulted with Leahy or Rockne by now is criminal.

    • http://twitter.com/IDtheMIKE Matt Q. (@IDtheMIKE)

      Put the laptop down, Grandpa, and focus on your vegetable garden.

  • Old George

    Last year Tao and Motta had the on field calls and probably could and did modify coverage up to the snap. That knowledge and experience is gone. My guess is the side line calls are therefore less likly to be adjusted, even if they should be. I hope the coaches have a chart of what was called and signaled in and what, if any changes were made on the field. That is where they need to coach them up.
    I suspect the oppisit is true on offense. My suspicion is that Tommy may be switching out of some runs (maybe a lot of times), which resulted in the pass/run imbalance that drives us fans crazy. Again I hope there is a chart and an analysis of the results and coaching points are being made. This staff makes the big bucks. Now they need to analize the problems and earn them.

    • IrishElvis

      I’m concerned that last year’s extensive knowledge/use of Chinese philosophy of Tao is contrary to Notre Dame’s Catholic mission.

      • NDtex

        And then we had a Mormon on the team. SMH

    • http://ndeddiemac.tumblr.com NDEddieMac

      I hate when quarterbacks audible out of runs due to reading a defense. If the coach wanted a pass called they would call a pass. Also, analizing is important

  • http://ndeddiemac.tumblr.com NDEddieMac

    Come on Tex, how come Diaco is even allowed near football? Pretty sure Ara would have expelled all these self entitled sissies. And what are they doin dropping in coverage. Back in my day you watched out for the veer damnit! How are these boys supposed to compete against a wishbone offense? Shameful if you ask me

    • http://twitter.com/#!/PootND PootND

      Great analizing Eddie.

  • http://gravatar.com/goodmanbluff Mark G

    I think that the stats bear out what I saw. We were actually pretty good — not great, but pretty good – against the run. Their running backs had about 90 yards total, and Toussaint’s YPC was well below that of our two lead backs. What killed us, obviously, was their QB (both running – he had half of their running yards – and passing) and one of their receivers. (Toussaint’s 31 yard catch out of backfield when Ben Councell completely blew the coverage was also a killer.) We did not get outphysicalled at the point of attack. We simply got outplayed by skill players, at inopportune times. Does not make it any easier to digest, but the problems are not systemic or uncurable.

    What was frustrating is the Tenuta like blitzes that seemed not to result in any presssure. Rather than bringing two blitzers up the middle, who then get glogged up behind masses of huge bodies and go nowhere, I would like to have seen at least a bit more corner or saftey blitz from the blind side, leaving the backers in coverage.

  • tim

    Part of the problem may be the secondaries inexperience in man coverage. We didn’t do a lot of it last year, so we can’t expect them to be good at it right away considering how young in experience they all are and that 3/4 starters are converted from offense. Lets hope they can make some strides. The next 2 weeks should provide some good practice against crappy offenses.

  • The Biscuit

    I think this also indicates a much stronger belief in our defensive backfield this year. BJ and KR are one more year experienced with a deep (though relatively green) safety corps. I think they figured they could handle it. Sadly, they couldnt.

  • kyndfan

    I thought we were at the point of reloading, instead of rebuilding. I hate everything.

    • NDtex

      Who said we were rebuilding?

      We just have to learn how to better deal with the loss of Te’o and use the defensive weapons that we have because we do indeed have them.

      I wouldn’t be surprised to see Max Redfield find his way into the mix soon to shore up the secondary and join Jaylon as a freshman impact player.

      • KyNDfan

        After 2 games I’m still waiting to see a dominate running game and at least a decent pass D. Feels like a rebuilding year so far. We’ll see how this plays out.

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  • walt_71
    • NDtex

      BRB, DOING A VICTORY DANCE!!!

      In all seriousness, that is amazing. I’m floored.

  • walt_71

    Yeah, it’s pretty awesome – congrats! Should generate a bit of traffic :)

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