What's wrong with the defense? Part III

It's a lot easier to point out what's wrong than to find solutions. In the third and fourth installments, we look at how the defense can improve, how likely it is that we see these changes, and why the return of Justin Mincey should significantly improve FSU's defense overnight.

Related:
In the first two installments, I criticized the Seminole coaching staff's unwillingness or inability to alter the defensive scheme to account for not having a distinct talent advantage, suggesting that the players were often being set up for failure by asking them to do things they could not. But half the season remains and with it, an opportunity for the defense to show improvement. In this installment, I'll show that there is the potential for dramatic improvement over the second half of the season for three reasons: 1) schedule, 2) personnel and scheme adjustments, and 3) the return of FSU's best defensive lineman, Justin Mincey. I'll deal with numbers 3 and 1 in this piece, leaving #2 for part four.

Mincey's Return: Instant Improvement?

Coming into the year, I thought there were two players most important to FSU's defensive success: Justin Mincey and Patrick Robinson. These two players are (along with Dakoda Watson) the ‘Noles most talented seniors, and they play arguably the two most important positions in FSU's style of defense, as will be explained shortly. Unfortunately, Mincey was injured in preseason camp, meaning he has yet to set foot on the field for the ‘Noles this season, while Robinson missed the majority of the Boston College game and was unavailable for the loss to Georgia Tech (a major loss, given his ability to match up with super receiver Demaryius Thomas).

Understanding Defensive Line Responsibilities:

The last two articles showed the pressure FSU's scheme places on solid cornerback play, but the "3 technique" defensive tackle (Mincey's position) might be the most important position in FSU's defense. In order to understand the reason for this, one first needs to understand the basic number scheme used by defenses everywhere to describe where players line up on the line of scrimmage. The picture below shows this numbering scheme:

As you can see from the picture, the numbers start at "0," which denotes a player lining head-up on the center, with a "1 technique" representing a player lined up over one eye (or shoulder) of the center, "2" signifying the inside eye/shoulder of the guard, "3 technique" representing lining up over the outside eye/shoulder of the guard, and so on. (The letters are used for the various "gaps"—"A" gap is between center and guard, "B" between guard and tackle, etc.)

There are two basic strategies for "gap control" (controlling each possible "seam" that could be used by the offense) using the defensive tackles, the "two-gap" responsibility and the "one-gap" responsibility. It is just what it sounds like: a "two-gap" defensive tackle is responsible for simultaneously controlling two different gaps, usually lining head up on the offensive lineman. For example, Terrence Cody, Alabama's huge nose tackle, usually lines up in "0 technique" and is responsible for controlling both "A" gaps, redirecting running plays into other gaps and protecting the linebackers behind him. The Super Bowl XXXV champion Baltimore Ravens used two huge "two-gap" defensive tackles (i.e. Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams) to protect middle linebacker Ray Lewis, keeping him free from being blocked by the guards or center, who had to concern themselves with the Ravens' huge tackles. The basic job of a "two-gap" DT is to hold his ground, keeping linemen occupied.

Most teams (including FSU), however, use a "one gap" scheme, in which each player is assigned one gap. One-gap teams emphasize penetration from their defensive linemen, forcing double teams not by holding their ground but by forcing the offensive line to prevent penetration. One-gap DTs tend to be quicker, more explosive players (Warren Sapp was a prototypical one-gap 3-technique DT), and a one-gap scheme allows the defensive line to have a greater impact in rushing the passer (two-gap schemes often rely more on blitz packages to create pressure, especially when employed in the 3-4 defense). Neither approach is inherently superior to the other; each has strengths and weaknesses and requires a specific type of personnel.

Why the Three-Technique DT is So Important for FSU:

Florida State's defensive front typically aligns the nose tackle in the weakside 1-technique, with the two defensive ends in 5-techniques, and the other defensive tackle lining up in the strong side 3-technique. During the 90s, FSU deservedly gained a reputation as "Defensive End U," but many fans (and even some analysts) don't understand that the key player in FSU's defensive front is actually the 3-technique DT, a position manned by the likes of Andre Wadsworth (before moving to end his senior year), Darnell Dockett, Travis Johnson, Corey Simon (who played both DTs), among many other stars.

A quick look at FSU's basic alignment explains this: the 3-technique DT is very difficult to double team. In order to double team the 3-technique, the offense either has to commit the strongside guard and tackle slide the offensive line to the strong side, doubling with the center and guard. But each of these puts the offense in a bind. Using the tackle to double team puts the strongside defensive end one-on-one with a tight end or a back—a bad mismatch for the offense. Doubling with the center requires the entire line to slide, requiring the weakside guard to cover a lot of ground to block the 1-technique nose tackle and the center to first block the nose tackle, hand him off to the guard, and then slide strongside to help the guard (who himself has to slide outside quickly to prevent instant B-gap penetration from the DT). And to top that off, sliding the OL in this fashion forces a one-on-one with the weakside end and offensive tackle. In addition, having to focus that attention on the disruption caused by the tackle prevents the offensive line from being able to get to the second level, allowing the linebackers to play "cleaner" and with more freedom. Needless to say, if the 3-technique tackle is the kind of player who demands a double team, it can cause a lot of headaches for offenses.

For the last 20 years, FSU has always had a tremendous 3-technique tackle with major NFL potential (Odell Haggins is especially good at coaching this position as well), as the list of names above demonstrates. Not so in 2009, where that position has been manned by players better suited to the nose position and also lacking NFL draft potential. Coming into the season, FSU had two players on the roster with the size and explosiveness suited to be disruptive out of the 3-technique tackle: Justin Mincey (a top-three round caliber player with first round upside, a huge wingspan, and defensive-end caliber explosiveness) and true freshman Demonte McAllister. Each player was hurt in the preseason, and neither has played a down so far this season. So where FSU's defense requires a disruptive, explosive player, they have had no explosion and no disruption.

The good news for Seminole fans is that Mincey is slated to return this week against North Carolina. If healthy and in shape, Mincey's presence alone (along with playing the anemic UNC offense) will make a major difference in the FSU defensive performance. If he is able to stay healthy and play to a high level the rest of the year, even if nothing else changed, I would expect FSU's defense to go from a bottom-5 defense to around a top-60 defense, even without a benefit from an easier segment of the schedule.

Schedule

So far, according to the best measures, Florida State's schedule is the toughest in the country—the combined record of FSU's FBS (D-1a) opponents is a staggering 26–6. (For what it's worth, the rest of the top five in SOS is Oklahoma, Arkansas, Miami, and UNC; note that of those teams, only Miami has performed to expectations, with close wins against FSU and OU aiding their record.) Equally interesting is that FSU's Fremeau Efficiency Index—one of the most reliable indicators of opponent-adjusted performance—was 26th in the nation going into this weekend. So in many ways, things are not as bad as they may have seemed (though the opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency rating of 116 is every bit as bad as it sounds). Fortunately, other than Clemson (which has a ton of speed on offense and whose defense is among the top five in the country in my opinion), none of the teams on the rest of the ‘Noles' ACC slate is set up to take advantage of the ‘Noles weaknesses. Even without Mincey's return, I would have been thoroughly unsurprised if Florida State had won each of their remaining ACC games by 14 or more—and equally unsurprised if they had lost any one of those games. With Mincey's return, the ‘Noles should be firm favorites in all but the Clemson game, which is a toss-up between two inconsistent teams with major weaknesses.

So, even if nothing else changes, there is good reason to expect the FSU defense to be dramatically improved in the second half of the season as long as Justin Mincey is able to return and provide a solid contribution (Patrick Robinson's return would obviously also provide a boost.)

Premium subscribers, stay tuned for Part IV, where we'll deal with other changes the coaches can make to potentially improve the defense even more.



Jason can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonstaples .

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