There are five primary brass tacks in my eyes, so let's get right down to it. I'll state all five facts about the defense and then give my reaction to each as LSU inches closer to the midway point of the 2013 campaign.
- Communication sunk the secondary's ship in LSU's 44-41 loss at Georgia.
It feels important for me to reemphasize this undeniable reality right off the bat. With very few exceptions, LSU's issues in the secondary are not talent-based. The Tigers aren't suddenly void of defensive backs that can run, jump, backpedal and accelerate in and out of cuts. Do all of these guys in the starting rotation have the ball skills that Tyrann Mathieu, Mo Claiborne, etc., had? No, but with the possible exception of Jalen Collins, all of the Tigers' defensive backs are starting SEC-quality players.
Which leads me back to the point of this bullet: communication was the overriding problem in the secondary in Athens. After speaking with several defensive backs this week, I got a better sense of how a play is called/signaled into the defensive backfield. Here goes: From the press box, John Chavis calls in the play over the headset to Brick Haley and Corey Raymond on the sideline; Raymond relays the call, particularly the coverage-related portions, to the cornerback nearest LSU's sideline (which obviously changes each quarter as the teams flip ends of the field); that cornerback signals what Raymond relayed him to the safety in the back nearest him; that safety then makes sure the DBs on the other half of the field know and that everyone is on the same page.
That. Is. A. Lot. And according to several players, including safety Ronald Martin, that same system has been in place for years, even predating the arrival of Raymond as secondary coach. The difference, per the LSU players themselves: Heady DBs from the past like Brandon Taylor and Eric Reid knew the defense so well that even when things were moving fast on the field and the call was coming in too slow, they'd know instinctively the coverage LSU should be in and just make the call on their own, all the while making sure everyone around them knew where they needed to be.
Unfortunately, one of those guys plays for the San Diego Chargers and the other for the San Francisco 49ers now, and the current safeties back there – Martin and Craig Loston – just aren't the same type of maestros. So LSU is struggling in the communication department and has to find some answers, especially against teams that will use pace and tempo against the Tigers, as Georgia did with regularity.
- There's a big difference in how Ron Cooper and Corey Raymond coached the DBs.
Let's cue what Les Miles had to say Monday when giving his broad-stroke overview of why the defense struggled: "If I could pinpoint it," Miles said, "I think we had guys trying to do too much."
I would submit, especially in the secondary, LSU had a lot of guys trying to think too much as well. That's a big part of what we've seen in the past season and a half since Raymond took over for Cooper as defensive backs coach in TigerTown.
Raymond wants his guys to think the game through at a level Cooper never required, stressing not only technique but a handful of pre-snap reads, checks and positioning landmarks that have LSU's defensive backs scrambling and doing too many mental reps. Combine that with the fact that calls weren't even reaching certain halves of the field against Georgia (see bullet point No. 1), and it's no wonder those guys looked – and were – out of sorts.
Cooper had a lot of success with somewhat of a "less is more" mantra with superior athletes, letting ball hawks make plays. Now Raymond may not have the exact same caliber of player under his watch (although I think Tre'Davious White, Jalen Mills and a few others are awfully close), but it's something to consider – taxing these players too much mentally, guys who we've already established in this piece aren't wired like the Taylors and Reids of the world, is affecting their play on the field.
- Miles insists the defensive changes needed are more coaching/communication than personnel.
LSU's head coach has given several quotes this week that make the coaching staff's position on the defense's problems pretty clear. Primarily: "I think we got the right guys. I don't think there's any reason to put guys to the side. But we got to get better." Miles continued on the subject, saying, "We want to get some fresh bodies out there with the veterans … We're looking for those guys who can come in and give five-snap breaks."
That phrase "five-snap breaks" says everything you need to know, and it tells me that unless LSU loses a few more games and the season is for naught, that's the way the staff is going to continue to approach things defensively. The end result will be limited time, if any, for the likes of Lewis Neal, Tashawn Bower and Christian Lacouture on the D-Line, Kendell Beckwith in the linebacking corps, and Rashard Robinson and Rickey Jefferson in the back.
In one man's opinion, that is a shame when it comes to the front seven. I'm not sure inserting Robinson at cornerback or Jefferson at safety (Corey Thompson would be next in line at safety before Jefferson even) makes too much of a difference. It's a different ballgame up front, though, where LSU is crying out for depth at both end and tackle. Why LaCouture especially doesn't play more to spell Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson inside is one of the great mysteries of this season to date. I'll touch more on Beckwith below, but it also seems counterintuitive not to give a guy with his size and potential a few snaps at middle linebacker.
All in all, I tend to agree with Miles that a youth movement won't cure what ails this defense. Proper channels of communication and leadership/accountability need to be established no matter who is out there. It does feel like a mistake, however, not to rotate in more (talented) fresh faces … and more than five plays a game.
- Against all preseason projections, the linebacking corps is not the rock of the 2013 defense.
This one's still a stunner to me, and since I hadn't written it in so many words yet through five games, let me just say it now. The linebacking corps has disappointed. Much of the fan base's ire has pointed directly at middle linebacker D.J. Welter, but he's not even the most disappointing member of the bunch. That (dis)honor would have to go to Tahj Jones, who has registered only six tackles on the season, or two less than special teams-only player James Wright, a wide receiver. Jones is dealing with a hamstring injury, but he's had no affect on ballgames when healthy.
Jones' performance so far is indicative of how this season has gone in general for Chavis' bunch in the middle. Fellow starters Lamin Barrow (30) and Welter (26) do lead the Tigers in total tackles, but far too often that duo is catching tackles 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage. Then, the only LSU ‘backer who seems to consistently make plays when given snaps, Kwon Alexander, isn't even featured in a number of the Tigers' packages and plays far too few snaps.
Going into the fall, I made the statement that LSU had what I considered two different lineups of LBs capable of starting at a lot of places in the SEC. The first team was T. Jones, Welter and Barrow, and the second team was Alexander, Lamar Louis and Deion Jones. An honest assessment at this point is that Alexander is the only one who's played up to snuff of that group. Barrow, based off last year's performance, has earned some rope, in my opinion, but the rest should be on thin ice in terms of P.T.
The next player in line is quite obviously Beckwith. Welter has had his struggles in the middle, and the last we saw of Beckwith, Chavis had moved the freshman almost exclusively to Mike linebacker for the final three quarters of the Kent State game. I'm not saying the time has come to turn the starting job over to Beckwith, but he has to be utilized more than just in kick coverage. He's too talented, has too much size and will help solidify LSU's run defense.
It may not be the super-unit many (including me) anticipated preseason, but a linebacking corps that goes down the stretch of this season playing a lot of Alexander, Barrow and Beckwith would be solid and could do some real damage for the Tigers.
- With 5.5 sacks so far, LSU's front four can't generate a pass rush on its own.
This wasn't totally unexpected after the loss of Edwards, Logan, Mingo and Montgomery, but I'm not sure anybody thought LSU's pass rush would dip down quite this low. Through five games the Tigers' defensive linemen have combined for only 5.5 sacks. The team as a whole only has 7.0 QB takedowns, when you throw in 1.5 sacks from Barrow and Welter. Against Georgia things reached rock bottom, as LSU failed to register a single sack or force even one quarterback hurry.
My immediate reaction is two-fold. First, LSU's two veteran defensive ends – Jordan Allen and Jermauria Rasco – lack the explosiveness needed to crash the perimeter of a pocket with consistency. Second, there's just simply not enough depth rotating into the game at defensive tackle to spell Ferguson or Johnson, the latter of which is still dealing with a shoulder injury.
Without LaCouture or Quentin Thomas – who himself has been dealing with a leg injury – playing meaningful minutes, it's essentially a two-man crew at DT. It should be no surprise to anyone then when they wear down in the second half, as they have against the three best (and fastest) offenses LSU has faced – TCU, Auburn and Georgia. Those guys have to play more, and Brick Haley may have to put legitimate thought into taking the redshirt off either Greg Gilmore or Maquedius Bain.
At end Haley has already begun to address the pass-rush issue by starting Danielle Hunter the last two games, a move that paid some dividends against Auburn and the War Eagles' perimeter-based rushing attack. But, like at tackle, LSU will have to go deeper. Neal seems to be preferred to Bower, but both merit at least some time at this point, in my opinion.
Whether LSU finds some or all of the answers its seeking on the D-Line for depth, one truth is inescapable through five games: Chavis is going to have to bring more pressure from linebackers, nickel and dime backs.
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