What's Wrong with the FSU Defense? Part I

Why has the FSU defense been so inept, and what has led to its seemingly sudden demise? Is it simply a matter of players not playing hard enough or lacking talent or discipline? Or is it part of a systemic problem from the top down, the result of hubris on the part of a coaching staff that believes Florida State players should always be able to win individual matchups?

This is a hard pair of articles to write because I respect the defensive coaching staff at Florida State so much. They are good men, they have long been winners, and they were very good to me in my short time with the program. I have been upset this season by the constant rumor-mongering surrounding Chuck Amato, who is a class act and a great man, and a far better coach than anyone seems to want to give him credit for. Likewise, any attack against Mickey Andrews must recall that the man has overseen some of the most dominant defenses in NCAA history, and any attack against him as a person is obviously not coming from anyone who knows the man. Odell Haggins has long been one of the best DT coaches in the country, and I can't even begin to address the lives he has touched and the young men he has been a father to during his tenure at FSU. There is no price that can be put on the impact he has had on those young men's lives by setting the example of what it means to be a man.

These are the kind of men you want in your family—which is one reason FSU recruited so well for so long. They have long coached with intensity and integrity (few programs are as clean as FSU—I know that for a fact), and they want to win more than any fan does. That said, the problems on the defensive side of the ball are obvious, and they are more than simply a personnel issue. As such, if we are to understand what is going on, it will involve criticizing those responsible for the problems, even if it's not something I really want to do.

Game Planning:

Game planning at the college level is a year-round task, and that task, as I see it, boils down to doing four things:

The first task of a good coach is talent evaluation—that is, one must first determine the capability of one's own players. Every season, a good coach evaluates his own talent player by player, determining what each does well and in what areas each player is limited. (Of course, offseason training is then ideally designed to maximize these strengths and strengthen those weaknesses, but that is beyond our scope in this article.) For example, a defensive end might be very quick off the ball and an outstanding pass rusher but not so good at fitting against the run or holding up at the point of attack, a corner might be outstanding at jumping short routes and very instinctive but struggle in single coverage downfield, a tailback might be well suited for the inside zone play but not as suited for power football, etc.

The next task is to set a base scheme that puts those players in positions which maximize each player's strengths while hiding their weaknesses as much as possible. This is done both by putting players in positions appropriate to their skills and by adding or removing various packages to account for the available talent. In college football, this is why proper recruiting is so important—it's critical to ensure that a team recruits players that are not only talented but also having skills that fit within the desired scheme, making this step easier every year. Haphazard recruiting might produce a number of talented pieces, but if there is no clear direction in recruiting and the players don't fit the scheme, those pieces may not fit well together, leaving much of the puzzle blank.

This was a large component of the problems with Florida State's offense in the middle part of this decade—they managed to recruit some outstanding players, but there was no clear identity towards which players were being recruited. As a result, the on-field product never looked coordinated, and it always seemed like a great deal of talent was being wasted. One of the biggest positive changes when Jimbo Fisher and Co. came on board was that they had a clear idea of what they wanted from each position—the offense has a definite identity, and the offensive staff has a definite and largely unified vision of how each piece should fit together. Three years later, that vision is becoming clearer as the offense, though still very young and underdeveloped (generally speaking, a team wants offensive linemen to contribute as juniors, not as freshmen and sophomores), has shown flashes of brilliance this year and has a definite identity.

The third task is then to evaluate the opposition. Again, one is looking to see what the opposing team does well—what is their identity—and what they struggle to do. Again, each player should be evaluated (with defensive coaches paying special attention to the strengths and limitations of the opposing quarterback), though this process is generally to be more holistic. That is, looking at the basic scheme and personnel of the opponent, how can the matchup be optimized for success? In simple terms, the goal is to force the opponent to beat you by doing what they most struggle to do. If they're a great running team, the goal is to force them to beat you with the pass. If they're able to do so, pat them on the back—they're the better team. Likewise, if after committing everything to stopping what they do best, they are still able to do those things, they're simply the better unit. But in no way should any team be simply allowed to do what they do best.

The fourth task is to optimize one's schemes and set the best possible matchups for success. Offenses try to use formations to establish advantageous matchups, while defenses need to prepare for the various formation permutations, ensuring that offenses cannot simply line up a specific way to take advantage of various players' advantages. Again, the object of each side is to put their players in matchups that allow them to maximize what they do well while hiding their weaknesses while taking into account what the opposition will try to do. That is the essence (though admittedly a simplified version) of establishing a winning game plan.

That is also part of reason for the recent rise of the spread offense, which is predicated on using formations to create space and establish advantageous one-on-one matchups for the offense. Part of the theory behind the spread offense is that a defense that has advantages at nine or ten spots can still be beaten if the offense can line up their one superior skill player against an overmatched defender. Ten guys can win their matchup and the defense still gets beaten because there was one matchup the offense was able to exploit. That's modern football—it's a numbers game and a matchup game. With increased parity, college football is becoming more like the NFL in that running an advantageous scheme is more important than ever. FSU's defense simply has not kept pace with the offensive evolution of the past 15 years, which is why the ‘Noles have continued to have success against the few teams on their schedule still running a two-back "pro-style" (a misnomer now, as many pro teams, like New England or Indianapolis are spread-based) offense, but are getting gashed by the teams using spread principles and an eleven-man running game (i.e. including the threat of designed quarterback runs) to create advantageous matchups.

FSU is Running a Defense without a Scheme

It has been extremely frustrating that Florida State's defensive staff has not consistently done these four very basic things, at least as far as I can tell. The ‘Noles continue to run the same base 4-3 pressure defense featuring man-free coverage with a rover that they were running in the late 80s and early 90s. Aside from an occasional wrinkle (like the use of the "UFO" or "Prowler" defense on third and long this year and a few odd-front zone-blitz packages when Kevin Steele was on staff), teams know exactly what they're going to be facing when they play the ‘Noles. There is no guesswork and little need for adjustments; teams know that they'll be facing around 80% man-free coverage, with "robber," "quarters," and (rarely) cover-two man comprising the bulk of the other 20% (the exceptions are on long passing downs, when FSU does turn to a safer zone coverage, often out of the "prowler" this year).

Teams also know that FSU doesn't move their players around much—they can count on predictable responses to formation, irrespective of personnel groupings. As such, good coordinators used formations to take advantage of advantageous matchups to create big plays for several years. As far back as 2002, I remember Clemson putting speedy Airese Currie (if my memory serves correctly) in the slot in a formation designed to match him up with then-freshman free safety Pat Watkins in single coverage—as soon as I saw the matchup, I turned and said, "here comes a touchdown." It's not that Watkins was a bad player (far from it; he's still in the NFL). Watkins was one of the best center-field safeties in the country even as a freshman (and the last true free safety FSU has had), but he wasn't a good one-on-one cover guy. At 6'5, he simply had trouble getting turned around and couldn't make the sudden moves necessary to be a solid cover guy. Against one of the fastest and shiftiest players in the country, it was no contest. Clemson did this repeatedly to Watkins the next four years, using their fastest receiver in the slot and scoring several touchdowns against a guy who, quite frankly, should never have been put in that situation by our defensive staff.

Even further back, Florida State lost a chance at the national championship in 1997 when Florida receiver Jacquez Green ran past cornerback Samari Rolle for a 63 yard reception with a minute and a half left, setting up a game-winning touchdown for the Gators. Seminole fans have been asking for twelve years now why FSU was in one-on-one coverage with one of the best receivers in college football with a minute and a half left. Looking at that play and Rolle's Seminole career in general, one would be convinced that Rolle would have a chance to be a decent but not outstanding NFL corner, and his second round draft status suggested as much. But who would have anticipated that Rolle would be a top NFL corner for nearly a decade, going to the Pro Bowl as early as 2000? Why was he less dominant in college, where he was facing lesser talent, than he was in the NFL? The answer to these questions is found in the extreme pressure FSU's defensive scheme puts on its corners.

I was going to criticize FSU's scheme at this point for putting Ochuko Jenije in an impossible matchup with zero coverage (i.e. man coverage with no deep safety help) against arguably the most talented receiver in the country, but in preparing the video, it's not clear that the coverage call was the problem. Instead, since Jenije lined up with outside leverage, it appears there was a safety responsible for deep middle help who allowed Thomas and Jenije to get about 25 yards behind him.

If that's a correct read of the call (it's hard to tell, because the initial camera angle doesn't show the safety's alignment), the safety was so badly out of position on the play that he isn't even in the picture other than when the camera pans on the throw. If that is indeed the scenario, it is yet another example among many this year in which poor safety play has led to a big play in the passing game, leaving the cornerback (in this case, Jenije, who was in acceptable position) holding the bag. Due to his size and strength, Thomas is borderline uncoverable in that situation without deep help, and it resulted in an easy touchdown. If it was instead zero coverage, putting a corner (even if that corner had been Patrick Robinson) in full man coverage against Thomas is setting him up for failure. (That said, if the 'Noles had used zero coverage as a way of selling out against the GT option, I'd have less of a complaint because it would mean the staff had decided to force the Jackets to beat the defense by throwing the football. As it stands, however, the defense tried to have it both ways and ended up stopping nothing.) (Watch the entire video for full analysis of the coverage and techniques involved.)

Miami had similar problems with Thomas, even though they had more players in position:

All too often, either because of missed safety assignments or pure man coverage, Florida State corners end up in one-on-one deep coverage against elite wide receivers, who are at an advantage in that situation. It's unfortunate, because as the year has carried on, it has become clear that the one place FSU has outstanding talent is at the corner position, but the pressure the FSU scheme is putting on that position is greater than any other team I've watched this year. Watch Virginia Tech, Alabama, and Clemson—all teams playing more modern schemes and a lot more coverage variations—you'll almost never see a corner in single coverage down the field without safety help. There's almost always a second DB near the ball, with better receivers being bracketed (Virginia Tech's scheme against Alabama's Julio Jones was masterful at this).

That FSU corners live with so much pressure typically leads to one of two results: the corner either develops into an elite player and thrives (often due to being an elite talent), often becoming an elite NFL DB (Sanders, McFadden, Cromartie, Buckley, soon to be Patrick Robinson, etc.) or he ends up with shattered confidence (a list including more guys than I can count, including too many good corners that I knew and watched as their confidence was shattered by the relentless pressure, getting further torn down every practice).

Continue to Part II

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