Eye in the Sky: Defensive Backs

Part II of our defensive film review looks at the Irish defensive backs, a group that yielded just 165 yards on 22 completions Saturday in Pittsburgh.

Defensive Backs

Gary Gray's ball-in-the-air issues resurfaced Saturday, but the Irish were bailed out when Pittsburgh wide receiver Devin Street couldn't reel in a leaping, but catch-able post pattern, one which Gray never saw nor jumped to defend. (Safety Zeke Motta was also late on the play, likely biting on play-action).

The play occurred with the Panthers leading 12-7 late in the third quarter and would have been a back-breaker for the temporarily reeling Irish)…The senior was flagged earlier with end zone interference that resulted in a Panthers field goal… Even when Gray turns to locate this season as he did in this penalized instance, he looks awkward and thus, guilty…

Gray was 1 for 2 vs. shifty Ray Graham in space in 3rd and short situations, missing badly on the first (resulting in a first down), then getting help after his initial hit – a key 3rd and 4 stop that gave the Irish the ball for their winning march. If Gray is going to intermittently struggle in coverage this season, his calling card must again be run or zone support as a solo tackler…He contributed at the goal line with a solo stop on Graham when game announcer Chris Speilman (blunt and accurate in his criticisms, I might add) noted the runner missed a hole…

Notre Dame's next major passing test will be on October 22 vs. USC, Gray has two competitive games and a bye week to regain his form prior to the Trojans arrival…

It's notable, however, that few of the 22 completions Saturday were at Gray's expense…Few, too, were allowed by standout senior Robert Blanton, and those caught in front of him in zone coverage usually resulted in a hit with bad intentions. Blanton is the team's best defensive player through four games, and I'm not sure who might rank as No. 2…He's a disciplined zone defender and tremendous open-field tackler as a fourth-year player…

The Irish had one communication breakdown to the boundary, with both Gray and CAT linebacker Darius Fleming covering the hook with a corner route behind them, but QB Tino Sunseri, perhaps predictably, missed the easy throw…

Following a Tommy Rees fumble, Pitt had a chance at an early lead but Zeke Motta's coverage forced a throw out of the back of the end zone – Manti Te'o had been beaten down the seam by Anthony Gonzalez… Motta later missed an open-space tackle on 6'5" wide receiver Mike Shanahan that nearly resulted in a first down – Shanahan isn't Ray Graham and Motta needs to make that play…

Harrison Smith suffered his first major miss in space, losing his feet (and likely some laundry) on a vicious cut at the second level by Graham…Smith later made the game's best open field tackle, dodging a block by contorting his body in mid-air to corral Graham on the edge – Graham would have scored easily on the play, a field reversal that began with a tremendous move inside…Smith added another diving open field stop of Graham despite a head of steam for the junior after a 13-yard gain…

This is technically a special teams observation, but backup cornerback Lo Wood does not look to be near full speed, and if he is, that's a problem…I'm not a fan of "Zero" coverage (straight man) vs. a newbie quarterback – most college passers can beat one-on-one coverage with open space and backup Trey Anderson nearly did, just missing Mike Shanahan on a corner route vs. Jamoris Slaughter. Better to bring five in pressure and make the young, erratic thrower find a tight passing window: at worse it's a completion, at best – a much needed turnover for a defense that's forced few through four contests…

Slaughter has not yet been beaten for a reception in these isolated one-on-one situations, but he has been "beaten" on three occasions, each falling incomplete. The key has been Slaughter's solid if not great coverage forces a pass into a tight space…

An overall grade for the secondary is difficult: on paper, they allowed just 165 yards on 22 completions, and the touchdown pass was a play-action effort at a linebacker's expense. But the unit was undeniably fortunate (the dropped opportunity by Street late, a missed deep corner early), and tackling on the back line was only slightly above average in a game predicated on clean stops vs. short passes. More important, for the second time in four contests, the Irish were unable to pick off a pass; and it was the first time they had no discernible shot at an interception.

The unit's chief task over the next two games will be as tacklers: in space, on the boundary, and after the catch. Following the bye, the secondary will be under siege again against talented Trojans target, Robert Woods.


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