My bid for serious, non-emotional defense discussion.

Submitted by wolverine1987 on October 10th, 2010 at 12:07 PM

One thing M fans of every stripe agree on is that talent and experience on defense is lacking. Very lacking. Another is that our expectations for our defense this year were low going in. Where opinions begin to diverge however, is what that should mean for our defensive performance. Many are in the "OMGFIREGERGUNACCEPTABLE" camp, many more are in the camp of "this is what we have to expect with so many young players, so much misfortune with departures/transfers/injuries in the secondary, and the lack of talent available at LB. Things will improve next year."

I would like this post to start a non-emotional discussion of our current defense. To do that perhaps impossible task, I would like to confine the discussion to having both camps answer a question. A question based upon what I think we all agree is a truth, which is that much of our defensive breakdowns (defined here as those things that cause our defense to, instead of being mediocre, be really awful) are due to fundamental failures. Poor angles, missed tackles, missed assignments. Poor tackling has been identified by RR as a prime culprit all year. Assignment and gap responsibility failure was identified by Ryan Van Bergen yesterday as the cause of the big plays State had. I think we can agree that these things are defensive fundamentals.

Here is my question, the answer to which I think will determine what camp, if you are undecided on this, you fall into:

Can marginally talented, very inexperienced football players be taught to play sound fundamental football, to be sound at tackling and disciplined at their assignments?

If your answer is "yes,"--then why haven't we done this? If your answer is "yes but there is more to it than that"--what more to it is there? If the answer is "no/only to a degree" - so talent is the only answer? 

Where do we go from here?



October 10th, 2010 at 12:20 PM ^

I have regularly asked posters in the "OMGUNACCEPTABLE" camp to find an example of a defense with similar talent/depth/youth/inexperience issues that is even moderately successful (not just one or two young players stepping up in an otherwise quality defense), but I am still waiting for an answer.

You are only as strong as your weakest link on defense, and like last year, we have a number of weak links.  This means quality teams will have no problem exploiting our deficiencies and that any attempt to mask them just opens up the possibility for big plays.  If anything, my only problem with the scheme was the move to get more aggressive on Saturday.  While Denard was forced to throw into tight windows in the red zone and made mistakes, MSU scored three of their four TD's (21 points and 143 yards) on just three plays where we didn't even get a hand on the guy with the ball. 

As for the future, just look at all the talent in the current freshman/sophomore class and remember that guys like Burgess, Harris, Crable, etc. didn't really even see the field until their junior seasons.  The long list of underclassmen that are only going to get better and have already seen significant game action is incredibly long (Roh, Campbell, Demens, Floyd, Kovacs, two Gordons, Johnson, Christian, Talbott, Avery, Black).  Throw in talented guys like Furman, Marvin Robinson, Ash, etc. and you have a depth chart that already looks pretty close to the one we are seeing on the field and that will turn this into a very solid defense in the next year or two.  Until then, though, we just have to be patient.


October 10th, 2010 at 12:50 PM ^

I've become bearish on our defense.  I don't like to be in that position - I'm usually a very optimistic person, and I'm still very bullish on our offense.  But I've become convinced that GERG is not going to field championship-caliber defenses.  And I don't blame that on our offense, as the lazy knee-jerk analysis goes.  You can field strong defenses alongside good offenses.  People say Oregon is "all offense"  because its total D numbers aren't great, but it was allowing fewer yards per play going into Saturday than Alabama was.  (After Saturday, they're probably doing a lot better than Bama.)  They have the best of both worlds: a high-octane offense that can score from anywhere and anytime and a hard-hitting, ball-hawking D. 

The thing I see in Oregon's D, which I don't in ours, is just a physical attitude.  They level guys when they get the chance.  And their DC gives them chances to make those hits - they play a fair amount of press coverage and challenge other teams to make plays.  Their defensive schemes don't concede anything; they show a level of confidence in the players.  I feel like our D has just become neutered.  Our guys run away from the play.  They give enormous cushions.  They flail, alligator-arms style, at ball carriers instead of wrapping them up.  They simply allow opposing offenses to get too comfortable. 

I agree that we'll get somewhat better defensively as these guys get older, but something is just missing.  I'm afraid that GERG just isn't inspiring these guys to become tenacious players. 


October 10th, 2010 at 1:00 PM ^

The Dell TD pass is a prime example.  GERG gave them the chance to be agressive.  A blitzer was right in Cousins' face, the DB went one-on-one.  Basically it was everything you would ask for from an agressive, hard-hitting defense.

In that situation all we needed was for the corner to force Cousins to hold the ball (sack) or stick with the receiver on the softly thrown ball (INT or pass break up).  Instead, a true freshman corner got toasted and the play went for six. 

Things like bad tackling and missed assignments are what you get when you put freshmen and sophomores on the field.  It is also tough to be aggressive if the other team knows one guy is likely to screw up.  When you have more than one guy who is likely to screw up (and basically all our corners fall in this camp due to either youth or a lack of talent) there isn't a whole lot the defensive coordinator can do. 

Guys like GERG and Monte Kiffin can coach championship defenses because they have a long track record of coaching championship defenses.  Both are now in charge of units that look like garbage because young players are playing just as you'd expect young players to play.


October 10th, 2010 at 1:39 PM ^

Isn't the desire to play aggressively something you either have or you don't? Like Taylor Lewan, who describes himself as nasty. It's just naturally in him, and if anything, he needs to be coached to pull it back so he doesn't rack up penalties. But what about guys who are hesitant - how do you coach aggression? Wouldn't you do better recruiting aggressiveness? Also, by the time a player makes it to a Division 1 team, I would think aggressiveness is a given. Do these players lose their aggressiveness because they're uncertain about what they're supposed to be doing? This is one concept I have a tough time grasping. 


October 10th, 2010 at 2:07 PM ^

Earlier in the year, there was lot's of complaining about GERG only rushing 3 or 4.

Now he blitzes, puts his true freshman corner in one-on-one, and his corner gets burned and we're complaining about that.

I think it speaks volumes to the level of talent that just about any true freshman on D is getting a shot.


October 10th, 2010 at 2:15 PM ^

If you are lost as to what you are to do, it is hard to be aggressive while doing it. If you are talented and aggressive, but do not know what you are doing... you just end up out of position faster then everyone else. Ultimately, I look at the transformation of JT Floyd from last year to this year. Last year, he had to have a 10 yard cushin to be able to see the play develop in front of him and buy time to make a play. Even then, he didn't make plays and got burned. This year, he has been able to play "closer" to the line (when scheme has allowed), diagnose plays faster and make more plays (like the screen he diagnosed and blew up)... at least more in comparison to last year. He is by far the least liable cornerback we have.

This year is a bunch of hard knocks, much like the first two years of our offensive line play. If our Freshman DBs make a similar leap in one year the Floyd has, and then add in Woolfolk to the mix, we can make big strides from suckage to mediocrity. In 2012, they should jump from mediocrity to something close to good, as you now have a secondary made up of Juniors who have played together in the same scheme for going on 3-4 years, with talented backups behind them (Holowell & Brown + future recruits). Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes. Even if you were to bring in a new DC, you are then setting this group back again with both their general inexperience at playing their position PLUS a new scheme.

Right now, we just need to hold on, keep recruiting, and pray that Denard will remember he is not human this week, and play to his level of super-hero greatness against Iowa and the rest of the Big Ten in the process.


October 10th, 2010 at 4:34 PM ^

We currently have a leathal combination of inexperience and lack of talent.  Across the board, our talented players lack experience and our experienced players lack talent.  There are only a few exceptions to this.

Neither of these things can be fixed fast.  You just can't scheme your way out of it.  Our D gets burned when it plays soft, when it plays aggressively, with 3 man fronts, with 4 man fronts, with whatever.

Unfortunately, it is going to take a couple years, for our existing players to gain experience and for new recruits to get integrated into the system.  There is no magic game plan that will change that this year.

So sit back, relax, and take the Over.

Steve in PA

October 10th, 2010 at 5:07 PM ^

I've been on record as not being a GERG fan since his hire except to say he could be an improvement to Hopson with the LB's.  I am familiar with GERG from when he coached the Chiefs and Broncos.  This defense is typical of what his NFL defenses were like.  I gave him the benefit, but at this point he has not shown any reason to keep the faith.

As a longtime Chiefs fan I watched the defense go from being an asset in the days of Martyball, Derrick Thomas, and Neil Smith to being a liability and the offense was pressured to outscore the opponent knowing they could not win the game with D.  Had it not been for Priest Holmes, Tony Gonzalez, and Trent Green those teams would have been awful.

It's almost a mirror of the same situation we're in now.

I really hope that GERG "retires" at the end of the year.  The whole continuity aspect is BS when the only thing displaying continuity is poor tackling and lack of development.  There are plenty of DC's in their first year doing much better than GERG at this point.  Hell, with the last place defense in some catagories, you could say they are all doing better.


October 10th, 2010 at 5:47 PM ^

Their defense was good enough to win the Super Bowl (and it isn't like they had a bunch of superstar players on that side of the ball). 

My point isn't that he did a good job in KC but rather that you need to judge a coach by the results he's getting from the material he has to work with.  Blaming GERG for the current bad results of our own defense makes zero sense considering the material he has to work with right now.  In terms of personnel, this defense is basically the equivalent of our 2008 offense (woeful lack of talent among the upperclassmen aside from a few standouts, glaring weaknesses at key positions, and a bunch of talented young players who are going to struggle painfully for a bit before they break out with the benefit of experience). 


October 10th, 2010 at 6:21 PM ^

do you begin to hold coaches accountable for player development?  It would be one thing if we started out really bad and saw improvement through the end of the year.  It's quite another if the defense is really bad throughout the entire season or gets worse as the year progresses.  


October 10th, 2010 at 6:32 PM ^

The only player I've seen who has failed to develop on this roster is Obi Ezeh (and I'm not sure how high his ceiling was to begin with).  Can you name another player who has failed to improve under this staff the last two years?  I can name a few who dramatically overachieved from what I thought they were capable of (Floyd, Stevie Brown) and others who have approached their own ridiculously high ceiling (Martin, Graham).  A lack of good/experienced options isn't a player development issue, it is a roster development issue and those problems have been well documented.  Our secondary has three upperclassmen on the roster (and two are out for the season).  James Rogers is playing about as well as he possibly can (player development) but when all you have is James Rogers your secondary is going to suck. 

Freshmen don't get better on a game by game basis.  The defense is also not getting worse.  They are having good weeks and bad weeks while playing much improved competition that now has film on how to attack the myriad weaknesses we have.  The defense will be much better next year and really good in 2012.  These coaches have done a good job on player development, they just haven't had the bodies (and do now in the freshman/sophomore class).


October 10th, 2010 at 5:29 PM ^

You're statement about them not seeing the field until their jr year is a bit incorrect.

Burgess played in 8 games as a freshmen('03)  and 9 games as a sophomore ('04) and both years he played and recorded tackles against OSU and had 7 against Texas in the Rose Bowl so I don't think all of those games were mop up duty.

Crable saw the field as a freshmen ('04) in 5 games and 6 games as a sophomore.  He had tackles against both OSU and Nebraska as a sophomore so I'm guessing that wasn't mop up duty.


October 10th, 2010 at 5:52 PM ^

They got on the field for special teams and Burgess finally got some PT after bowl practice at the very end of his sophomore year.  There is a huge difference between that and starting every single game as a freshman and sophomore.  Both guys made zero impact until they were upperclassmen, despite being highly touted recruits who went on to be pretty outstanding players.  As such, expecting more from the guys currently forced to play as underclassmen (and we have 5 in the starting lineup) is pretty silly.


October 10th, 2010 at 9:31 PM ^

Tenn defensive was very bad before the kiffins took over and when they got there the defense became ok with just one NFL player, Eric Berry.

Another example was the Nebraska team. There defense was awful before bo got there. They became respectable once he became the coach.


October 10th, 2010 at 12:23 PM ^

we're 5-1. if people were offered 5-1 in August with our sole loss to MSU they would have snapped it up in a heartbeat. i'm ok with it. i'm not ok with their trashbag fans who picked fights with women and the elderly only to turn and run when confronted by people who actually could defend themselves. but that's another post...

Mitch Cumstein

October 10th, 2010 at 12:27 PM ^

I actually don't think I would have signed on to:

if people were offered 5-1 in August with our sole loss to MSU they would have snapped it up in a heartbeat.

I knew going in that our schedule was severely back loaded and with the exception of a suspect ND team (1st year coach), State is our first real b10 test. Now they are better than I thought they would be in August, but I think 5-1 was the bare minimum in my mind through the first 6 games. Especially b/c before the season OSU, PSU, Iowa and Wisco all looked like losses. We'll see what happens from here, but MSU is a game I would have definitely liked to have had.


October 10th, 2010 at 2:36 PM ^

Sparty was the most important game on our schedule for numerous reasons:  1) It reinforces all the crtiques that UM is finese and Sparty is tough, 2) Sparty could easily make the Rose Bowl now which is nauseating in itself, 3)  the Sparty love fest will go into warp drive, 4) perception is often reality in recruiting and the perception locally is that State's future is now as bright or brighter than ours, 5) we play at MSU next year with a serious chance for them to take 4 straight, and 6) I just can't stand the idiot spartan fans.


October 10th, 2010 at 12:29 PM ^

I'm gonna say better coaching can help improve this D.

GERG has been around long enough, both in college and in the pros, to have seen this before.  There's only one way to overcome youth and inexperience....preparation.  If the kids are physically limited in talent then they have to spend addditional time studying film.  The kids are clearly not confident in their assigments.  That lack of confidence leads to opponents gashing them for big plays and lots of yards.  The only fixable problem, six games into the season, is to help build confidence with more studying.


October 10th, 2010 at 3:04 PM ^

They had four men down in stance for almost every play. It was a 4-3-5 or 4-2-5 unless they were in their dime package. For many plays, the only true linebackers out there were Ezeh and Mouton.

C Johnson and JT Floyd both came up to play the outside linebacker position. Roh was almost never off the line, but rushed the passer or played against the run from a three point stance.


October 10th, 2010 at 12:33 PM ^

I think a lot of people from the "OMGFIREGERGUNACCEPTABLE" camp look at a defense like Alabama. They replaced 9 starters, and have a very inexperienced secondary. So, OK we have an inexperienced secondary too! It must be the same situation! They think the difference is they have Kirby Smart and we have GERG.

Well, they have the luxury of plugging guys like Dre Kirkpatrick into the line up. We have James Rogers. I think another issue is coaching, but that coaching problem isn't GERG, it's Tony Gibson. I'm hoping the downfall of RR isn't cronyism. We'll see.

Please come back to us Vance.... pretty please?


October 10th, 2010 at 12:31 PM ^

I don't have the time or interest level to research ages of good defenses in the past.  Maybe others do, but I'll offer my thoughts with the caveat that the research may prove otherwise...


I don't think we have a "young defense."  I think we have a "young secondary."  Our starting linemen and linebackers include:

Van Bergen: fourth year junior, second year starter
Martin: junior, second year starter
Banks: fifth year senior, first year starter
Mouton: fifth year senior, third year starter
Ezeh: fifth year senior, four year starter
Roh: sophomore, two year starter

That's quite a bit of age and experience, with the exception of Roh (who arguably is the best overall athlete of the bunch).

Perhaps a more useful question would be, How experienced does a team's secondary need to be in order to be successful?  Because this is one of the worst secondaries I've seen, there's no depth, and aside from mental mistakes, they're not that physically talented, either.


October 10th, 2010 at 12:44 PM ^

The "experience" meme is done for me. We just plain suck on that side of the ball. After 3 years, we still suck. After 2 years with same coach and scheme, we still suck. I refuse to sugarcoat this issue anymore. When we actually recruit the talent to play at D1 level, things will change. Ask Ron English how his defense is doing at Eastern against similar competition. When teams like Stony Brook can hold UMASS to 26 points, it reiterates how much, we suck. Neg away.

Maize and Blue…

October 10th, 2010 at 2:41 PM ^

and as far as Ron English goes please. How many did OSU torch us for in the 2006 game despite having future NFL pro bowlers at DE/OLB, MIKE, and CB not to mention many other NFLers.  When will he get his first win as a college coach?

Everyone on this board was thrilled by the recruitment of JT Turner and Cullen Christian as were the recruiting services that rated them.  JT didn't pan out and the jury is still out on CC who is only a true freshman.  Vlad didn't work out because it appeared that he never regained his speed after his injury.  Throw in Demar and Witty not making it in, DW leaving early, and Woolfolk going down before the season and your missing 7 DBs off of your depth chart. Where are the upper class DBs who should be here from LC's tenure? 

Defensive recruiting as a whole has been down for years.  Can you name the last true LB we recruited until last season?  While our secondary is young, inexperienced, and probably not as talent as we would like our play at middle LB with a fifth year senior is just as bad if not worse.  I couldn't believe they kept sending Obi out on the field after he would run past the hole he was supposed to be filling (two TDs).  He won't be back next year and has proven repeatedly that he can not play the position so at least send someone else out there as I don't believe the play out of that position can get any worse.

Louie C

October 10th, 2010 at 12:54 PM ^

I agree. To me, the secondary is the most crucial aspect to the defense, and if you have kids out there that are inexperienced, or simply not as talented as advertised, then you are going to have some problems. Any coach with half a brain is  going to take advantage of that. The thing that worries me is a lot of people are starting to pin their hopes on younger players coming in the future, but a) that takes us back to square one in terms of having inexperienced players on the field, and b) even if that was an appropriate fix, that doesn't alleviate what's happening now.


October 12th, 2010 at 11:10 AM ^

how well have all those guys performed as a unit though? Martin is the only one you can say has been consistently good. Everyone else has been inconsistent and you cannot have that out of your upperclassmen in units that are supposed to be strengths of the defense when you know that you  are playing so many young guys in your secondary. Ezeh and Mouton especially should be playing better with the number of starts they have under their belts and they (more Ezeh than Mouton) are generally underwhelming.


October 10th, 2010 at 12:35 PM ^

its coaching and fundamentals. Ezeh just clogs the wrong holes, or simply takes himself out of the play. Poor tackling and angles in the secondary. What happened to the hard hitting Cam Gordon. I saw him miss a big hit opportunity yesterday, and instead, took out Floyd I believe. We have 2 or 3 positions that are simply voids and hinder the concept of team defense. 


October 10th, 2010 at 12:40 PM ^

Can marginally talented, very inexperienced football players be taught to play sound fundamental football, to be sound at tackling and disciplined at their assignments?

Yes.  Are they being taught the fundamentals?  If so, they are not learning as fast as we would like.  Being a college football player, you would think that your high school experience and pure instinct would not lead to such poor angles.  Yet, we see it every game with our safety's and the CB's always seems to be a couple steps away.  How many times do we see 2 or 3 of our players near the ball, but never make a pass breakup and land a big hit?  You'd think by sheer luck we would be in the right position once in awhile. 

Tackling...again, this should not be hard to teach.  I think we have tackled a little worse each game.  How do you get worse at tackling?  lol.  Maybe as the season goes on, GERG is all about schemes and not the fundamentals.  Who knows.  It just seems like they can't catch a break.  Should RR be preaching fundamentals and tackling?  I hope and think that he probably does.  Maybe it just boils down to our young secondary being somewhat small and not heavy hitters.  But either way, just go for the legs.  It's amazing that we are still seeing shoulder tackle attempts.  Especially on big bruising RB's.

So I guess I'm in the camp that blames some of this on poor coaching.  Not all of it, but certainly some of it.


October 10th, 2010 at 1:13 PM ^

The problem with trying to translate things instilled in HS is that the majority of these kids were so athletically superior to the competition that taking a "good angle" in HS resulting in a TFL results in bad angles and 6 in D1 play.

I think the biggest failure of this defense is that the scheme basically requires quick initiative and aggression around a DT-ILB-SS .... In this scheme those 3 guys have to make plays. We essentially only have one of those roles filled with a solid player. I have defended Cam in the past, but yesterday it was painfully obvious that he is indeed a RSFr in need of some weightroom time before he can bring the hits he wants to.. I think his coverage is getting better, but I am not to sure if there was deep help on the CC Td.. Ezeh might be the most frustrating player I have ever seen play LB. I dont know what the alternative is, but he legitiimately cost us 7 points almost by himself... (terrible assignment on the 66 yd run, and when we had State at 3rd and 16 he failed to fill the middle of the field and tackle that shifty bastard).

I don't realy know what else to do, but I dont think there is a good answer to any question in terms of how to fix this D. Simply put, the kids were in the right spot to make plays on Saturday, they just didn't. Whether its fundamentals, schemes or what have you there isnt any question that our D is terrible.


October 10th, 2010 at 12:41 PM ^

You would all know that it is Rodriguez's fault because he 1) ruined all of the defensive players that Carr had, and 2) cannot recruit defensive players.

It took a lot to not punch him.