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:[table “” not found /]
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:[table “” not found /]
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:[table “” not found /]
And the results:[table “” not found /]
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:[table “” not found /]
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.