What's Wrong with the FSU Defense? Part II

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?

Part I dealt with the four essential elements to constructing a solid game plan, while starting the examination of FSU's defense has not evolved in step with the modern offensive developments. Part II continues by looking more closely at the Georgia Tech game, applying these principles to more specific specific scheme analysis.

Exposed

Even beyond establishing advantageous player-by-player matchups, the Georgia Tech game yet again exposed FSU's defensive staff's inability or unwillingness to adjust its scheme or attack offenses with anything other than an "our ‘X' is better than your ‘O'" mentality. (This is not the first time this has been exposed even this year; Boston College has had tremendous trouble moving the football against zone-blitz teams like Clemson and Virginia Tech. So FSU naturally decided to play them with their base man-free defense most of the night. It's mind-blowing, really.)

Against Georgia Tech, it was embarrassing to watch as FSU stayed in the same defense as the Yellow Jackets, having found a formation they liked (featuring trips to the wide side), repeatedly ran the midline option (an option series including what Bob Davie puzzlingly kept calling the "quarterback duck"). This series is sort of like the standard zone-read play, only it "options" an unblocked defensive tackle. If the DT hesitates, the QB hands it to the dive back; if the DT tackles the dive back, the QB keeps it and runs right behind the DT, following the guard who released the tackle and blocks the linebacker. Georgia Tech ran the midline repeatedly, rarely being stopped for less than five yards.

FSU took the odd tactic of playing a 4-3 defense with their ends in a two-point stance, essentially guaranteeing that they would take on the initial block going backwards. To make matters worse, the ‘Noles lined their nose tackle in the opposite "1" gap as the 3 technique, as opposed to head up on the center or in the 1 technique on the strong side, as two defenses earlier this year (Miami and North Carolina), each of which had some success in stopping Tech, had done. Doing so offers the ability to take away the midline option by eliminating much of the space needed to run it and giving the linebackers a freer flow to the quarterback. The first principle of stopping option football is to stop it from inside out—you've absolutely got to stop the inside runs or you'll never have a chance. If you can force the ball outside, then it's a matter of having the athletes to make plays in space. Unfortunately, FSU never stopped the basic midline play, meaning the Ramblin' Wreck rarely had to pitch the football or run outside, and Paul Johnson was patient enough to keep running the midline option series until it was stopped. As for UNC and UM, the following video (from the Miami game) is an example of how those teams approached Tech's option package (I've put notes in the video):

Both Miami and UNC used the alignment of their defensive line to provide penetration and strategically take away the midline option with the defensive tackles, who were either to take up all three interior OLs or to stop the dive back themselves with penetration. This freed up the linebackers to flow to their assignments much more quickly. It's clear that the one thing FSU needed to stop above all else was the midline option—the fullback dive and the quarterback keeper off the fullback dive—if you can't stop those things, you're letting Tech beat you with their strength, as opposed to forcing them to beat you with something they don't do quite as well. Again, a primary component of a good game plan is forcing the opposition to beat you with something other than their primary strength, which against any option team means taking away the inside running game. (Incidentally, Florida's inside run package for Tebow includes the midline option out of the shotgun; this game offered a glimpse of how that might look in November, and it's not pretty. UF also runs the veer and speed options, as well as the zone read—all from shotgun—but I digress.)

You'll also note that neither UM nor UNC had their DEs in a standing position to "catch" the block. Rather, they had their ends in their usual stance, but the ends' assignments varied; sometimes they crashed hard, sometimes they were upfield contain, and other times, they were simply to occupy the proper gap. This variation makes it more difficult for the option team to anticipate and call the proper response to each defensive look. Either way, they did not take away their ends' aggressiveness by asking them to catch anything. Instead, they delivered the blows. Contrast FSU:

This scheme was maddeningly retained even on Georgia Tech's last drive, when they were obviously not going to pitch it or run anything risky:

In addition to scheme differences, the size difference between the UNC and Miami fronts and FSU's is also noteworthy. This is not an "X's and O's" issue but a personnel issue. Put plainly, FSU is small up front, and that hurts. That said, the ‘Noles are still big enough (especially McDaniel, who is plenty wide) that the tackles could have prevented the center and guards from getting to the second level, given proper alignment.

Matchups

I do not mean to suggest that Florida State has a full cupboard on defense—at least not up to FSU standards in the past. This is the smallest starting Seminole front seven I can recall, and the defense is very young. But that is all the more reason to question the ‘Noles decision to run essentially the same schemes they ran in 2004 with three of the best corners in football (Bryant McFadden, Leroy Smith, and Antonio Cromartie), an outstanding defensive line, and a stellar linebacking corps led by Michael Boulware and a young Ernie Sims. To paraphrase Rick Pitino, "Deion Sanders isn't walking through that door; Andre Wadsworth isn't walking through that door." But the FSU staff continues to run a scheme that requires each of their players to dominate the man across from them.

Add that to the evolution of offenses over the past twenty years—the last ten in particular—and it's a recipe for mediocrity or worse. Offenses are far better now at using formations to create mismatches, and it's a defensive staff's job to find ways to minimize these bad matchups. Miami did it on two obvious touchdown plays: first putting Travis Benjamin (their fastest receiver) in the slot against Korey Mangum, FSU's starting rover, who was responsible for man coverage with no deep help. As with Watson, so with Mangum—an easy touchdown. Later, Whipple lined tailback Graig Cooper (an outstanding receiver) outside, hoping to match him up with coverage-challenged middle linebacker Kendall Smith. Sure enough, FSU happily acquiesced, leading to another easy Miami touchdown.

Allowing these kinds of matchups to happen so easily is inexcusable, but it has been a regular feature of the Florida State defense for nearly a decade now. When a team knows exactly what coverage the defense will be playing, exactly where the rush will come from, and exactly where each player will line up, the offense's job becomes much easier. Still, FSU is making no real effort to disguise or vary coverages, and stubbornly sticking with man coverage has made it easy for teams with one superior athlete at receiver to count on at least one big play per game—if not far worse. It's a recipe for making an otherwise good coverage player look average and an average player look awful.

Nowhere has this been more evident than at defensive back. Stanford Samuels had one of the best senior seasons of any FSU corner in the last twenty years, but fans had been ready to give up on him during his junior year, when he gave up numerous long pass plays. I went against Samuels every day in practice, and he had definite strengths and weaknesses as a corner. In the short to intermediate game, he was one of the best corners I have ever faced, with great instincts, tremendous jump on the ball, and outstanding route recognition. He also did an excellent job getting his hands on a receiver and knocking him off his route. But he was even better as a slot corner, where he was typically more assured of deep help and was able to let his instincts take over.

But when lined up outside, I always felt that any ball thrown downfield and above his head was mine. The one (and only) route I could consistently beat him on was the fade (or take-off). He was a shorter corner, didn't have the best ball skills with his back to the ball, and it was possible to get him "out of phase" on that kind of route. Samuels was the ideal cover-two corner (or slot corner)—fantastic in the short-intermediate area, great instincts, outstanding tackler, excellent in run support—but not as natural in the deep passing game. But what did FSU do with him? They put him in man-free coverage with minimal deep help, just like every other corner. As a result, he looked awful at times in his junior year, despite being a much better corner overall than it seemed, as he proved with his stellar senior season.

Defensive backs without these kinds of limitations (examples: Watkins was a great center fielder but weak in man coverage, Samuels outstanding except on deep coverage) are extremely rare, though FSU has gotten more than its share (McFadden, Cromartie, Deion, and Terrell Buckley immediately come to mind). Yet, FSU's scheme treats every defensive back as though he's simply an "X" that should be able to neutralize the opponent's "O." But in today's game, it's not enough to simply say, "your job is to stop him"; it's the coaches' job to put their "X" in positions that maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses. Let's face it: Korey Mangum's "X" is simply not as fast as Travis Benjamin's "O," and to ask Mangum to cover Benjamin one-on-one with no deep help is setting him up for failure. Allowing that kind of matchup a big part of why FSU is giving up a Heisman-esque pass efficiency rating of 158.40 (to put it in perspective, that rating is higher than that of Christian Ponder, Colt McCoy, and Jacory Harris and would rank 11th in the country).

Mickey Andrews has long said that his defense basically involved "not screwing things up." Essentially, FSU's scheme has long relied on having better athletes and then just "turning them loose." And when every player is better than (or at least equal to) the guy across from him, that works—there are no holes to take advantage of, because everything is always "chalkboard sound." That is, there's always an "X" to account for each "O." But when the playing field is leveled and some "O's" are better than the opposite "X," scheme comes into account to a much greater extent (that's why the NFL is a coaches' league, while college ball is a player's game). No longer can you simply rely on each player to go out and dominate his man. It works when every player is elite and without a glaring weakness. But as soon as there's one player with a weakness on the field, he can be exploited unless he's protected by the scheme.

All too often this year I've seen and heard the FSU defensive staff castigating their players for "not playing hard enough," telling them "they just want it more than you." No, coach, I'm sorry. I'm watching the players; I'm watching their body language, and they want it as badly as anyone. They're just being set up to fail. These kids are doing everything they know to do, and they're more confused and frustrated than anyone that they can't get the job done. They thought that if they just went out and gave it everything, the fact their jerseys say "Florida State" would mean they would win their matchup.

And, quite frankly, that's obviously what the FSU defensive staff thinks, too. What other team is taking the "we're just going to let our ‘X' whip your ‘O'" approach in today's game? It's hubris to think that if the players would just go out and play as hard as the players of the past did, they'd be able to dominate just like Andre Wadsworth, Peter Boulware, Deion Sanders, Marvin Jones, Derrick Brooks, Corey Simon, and the rest. The gap is narrower now than it was then; they're not more talented than the players across from them simply because their jerseys say "Florida State."

No, coach, if anyone isn't trying hard enough, it's the guys being paid to put the players in an advantageous position but instead just line them up and "turn them loose." And there's no one else to blame for the lack of experienced and disciplined talent to fit the desired scheme, either. Like it or not, the players are giving it all they've got within the confines of what they're asked and taught to do. The responsibility for failure does not lie with the players but falls on the shoulders of the ones being paid handsomely to bear that responsibility.

You can follow Jason on Twitter at jasonstaples


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