Coach's Mailbag

Today we return with another great installment of Coach's Mailbag. The board coaches tackle a number of important topics like the 4-2-5 defense, the pass rush, play-action passes, and defensive tackle play.

We always hear the defense should be better this year with another year of experience and another year of the system. Is this true and why? Better understanding of assignments etc?

Response 1:
It's like anything else in life, the more you do something, the better you get. If an attorney practices front line law cases for a year he should be that much better his second year. It's the same for any endeavor. It will be the same for the Irish defense.

The thing that the defensive players have going for them is another year of experience, greater familiarity with the current system, another year of film study, more reps, etc. A larger aspect of all of that is that having more experience they will "react" faster and do less thinking on the move. That "thinking", or the oft labeled "spinning your wheels" is what slows down a defensive player's reaction time, and in the basic sense, defense is all about reacting.

However, linebacker is a worry and only one player, Crum, fits the criteria above. Here's hoping we have a Stams-like emergence from the other two.

Response 2:
Don't get me wrong, experience at a position doesn't automatically result in a player improving. But all things being equal, it is a huge advantage.

This advantage can be obvious to the player, or almost subconscious. A veteran might come off the field after making a great play and immediately proclaim "I saw it coming all the way" or "That might have fooled me last year, but not any more", etc. I've also experienced a player having no idea how or why he was in position to make the play. Only later does he realize he picked up each visual key, and it led him to make the play.

Some players never "get it", and we as fans always hope ND players don't end up in this category. But for every player who never gets it, there will be three to five who improve substantially with each year of experience. And hopefully one who makes a dramatic improvement.

I've been told repeatedly that moving from O-line to D-line is MUCH harder than moving from DL to OL. Can you explain the physical, mental and technique attributes that make it so hard to make the move from OL to DL? And do you think it's likely that a 'current' OL commit could move to DT? How far behind the curve does such a move put you?

Not having seen whole game films, especially those that show current players on defense, I'd be hesitant to name anyone that is capable of making the switch to D-line. It depends on how the coaches view their current defensive linemen, their feelings about D-line depth, and whether they feel the need to switch a player.

My gut feeling is, that since the coaches are trying to develop depth on the O-line, they would only move an O-line based on extreme need. When you think how thin the Irish have been in O-line numbers, how fortunate the Irish were in the injury department of O-line last year, you have to doubt that such a switch occurs.

I wouldn't mind reading some thoughts from these guys about the changes the defense has made in re: to the front four to generate a pass rush. Not really sure how to pose as a question. The 4-3: winning individual match-ups to generate pressure vs. the blitz? Or, how will the change in emphasis on the defense line affect the scheme? And, what are the pros and cons of playing gap control as opposed to turning your guys lose?

Gap control is a misunderstood term. All defenses are predicated on gap control, there are simply different ways to accomplish the goal. The simplest form of gap control is an eight-in-the-box, three-deep secondary alignment. There are also two-gap defenses where either a Mike LB or an NT is a two-gap player.

The real issue here is in techniques of controlling your gap. Ultimately it is a matter of giving something up to gain something. Some 4-3 defenses have been allowing their defensive tackles to become a little more aggressive in terms of penetration at the expense of controlling guards and keeping them off the LBs. Derek Landri has been given quite a bit of latitude in this respect. He has been permitted to be very penetration-oriented and less guard control-oriented. This makes the MLB a little more self-sufficient in terms of block protection and shedding. Also, in clear passing situations with less mobile quarterbacks, gap control is less of an issue and D-lineman are free to take the shortest route to the passer.

The bottom line here is still whether you can get pressure from four or five defenders and defend the pass or do you have to play man coverage and bring six or seven. There is a reason that football coaches at all levels put a premium on edge pass rushers. They are not easy to find, and it is not uncommon for great pass rushers to be poor run defenders. As has been said many times by Mike Frank and coaches on this board, ND does not have anyone on the current roster who has great pass rushing skills. I believe that Victor Abiamari is a better pass rusher than he is given credit for by some, but if you moved him from SDE you would see teams run the ball to the strong side of the defense with great success. To answer the last question – "turning your guys loose" would result in a susceptibility to success running the ball in light of deficiencies at the LB position.

Not sure how to phrase the question, but I'd like to hear the defensive coaches take on how to defend the play action pass. It seems ND is routinely beat on these plays and I was curious if there is a strategy or a technique to recognizing and defending these plays, especially from the safety and corner perspective?

Several things, highly intertwined, stand out to me in defending play action, film study, coaching, and practice reps.

Film study gives the defense their opponent's tendencies involving their play-action passing. Tendencies that involve down and distance, field position, hash mark position, and the type of patterns they favor. Coaching points this out to the players and develops a plan to defense the play action passing that includes practice looks, keys, and rules that players must read and follow. Practice reps, hopefully against a motivated prep team, gives them the look and keys to practice against. Rules, like playing the pass first must be stressed and said rule never violated, but kids being kids, they often do.

Coaches can only do so much. I disagree somewhat with the oft quoted Weis-Parcells theory of "if they don't know it then it's the coach's fault" concept to some degree. To me the onus is on the players provided they've been given proper preparation. Two instances illustrate this:

We play a team renown for their wing counter series. At the half we have a cornerback, leaning on a drying rack, berating himself for getting beat on the wing counter fake-flag to the tight end play they ran for a score. A senior corner, he tells me that he knew it was coming, we'd prepared him well, but he still bit and got burned. Purely a player error. It happens.

We're playing a team and our quarterback gets hurt and is out of the game. Our backup can't throw the ball twenty yards. Clock winding down, we're down by four, and if we have to depend on the backup QB, it's over, and the opposing coaches know that. Solution? Tailback pass, something we've done all season. As we call it and break the huddle their coaches are screaming, "tailback pass, they're coming with the tailback pass, it's the tailback pass, look for the tailback pass," etc. I could clearly hear them across the field in the press box. Despite their pleas, having learned later how much they worked on defending it, we throw the tailback pass, score easily and win. Again, it happens. Who really knows what goes through kids' minds sometimes.

Football is like any other endeavor in life. People are trained and prepared to act in certain ways, but sometimes there's a "gap in the synapse."

Response: 2
Welcome to my weekly nightmare!
Play action pass is the Devil's creation. As for the difference between how it is played by the corners and the safeties, that depends on the responsibility of each player. Times have changed in defensive backfield play. In the old days, the safeties were always the last line of defense, and the corners often contributed run support. Those days are long gone. In most defenses today, it is the exact opposite.

If a defense is playing any type of "robber" technique from the safeties, the safeties are taught to read the release or block of the No.2 receiver to their side, often the tight end. If the TE blocks down before releasing, or does a good job of faking a down block to the inside linebacker, this is a very difficult read. If the corners have secondary run responsibility, any inside route by the wide receiver can be mistaken for a crack block.

I mention secondary run responsibility for a reason. We teach our DBs the following thought pattern in zone coverages. First responsibility for all DBs is pass. Depending on the coverage call, either the corners or the safeties will have a secondary responsibility of run, the other will still have pass. In other coverage calls, those responsibilities are reversed. So in each coverage, either the corners or the safeties are thinking pass first and second, run third. You would think that would work, but human error comes into play, often with horrendous results.

I preface the next thought with the following, and if you've played in the defensive backfield, you'll agree: A successful running game by the opposing offense will make your life hell. I'll use ND from '88 to '93 as an example. I love Rice, Mirer and McDougal, but their fabulous success had a little bit to do with their running games. When the opposing offense is slowly but surely running the ball down a defense's throat, the DB's creep up. It is simply human nature. The DB is part of the team. The team is hurting--call it a slow but obvious blood-letting. To help your teammates, you ignore what you've been taught, abandon your primary responsibility, and try to put another hat on the ball. A good OC is keeping an eye on this, and will make you look like a complete fool very soon.

I'm not so sure this doesn't happen at times even when the opposing team isn't having a lot of success running the ball. All your teammates are having the times of their lives crushing the running game, you haven't had many chances to get involved in the game up to that point, and you slowly creep up. Don't get me wrong, this is inexcusable. But I'll bet it happens.

It's all about discipline. Something like the last paragraph simply CAN'T happen. But it does happen to lesser teams and lesser players. Hopefully each player is drilled over and over to do HIS job, and HIS job only. But we've all had a laugh over a team running a play action pass on third-and-12, and seeing a DB somehow, for some reason, hesitating for the split-second it takes to get burnt for a completion while honoring the play fake.

ND has a fabulous DB coach. I'm sure Coach Lewis is well aware of his backfield's propensity to bite on play action. His only response to this is to drill it over and over and over. It's probably a bit more difficult when a safety is a natural play-maker. Play-makers have a computer chip imbedded into their brains that makes them think they have to be involved in every play. This thought process has to be changed. Each player needs to stay true to his responsibility, and trust his teammates to do the same.

Question: I saw a few high school teams running a 4-2-5 defense last year, is this a trend throughout the country, and do you see this as something to be used more at the college level in the future?

The 4-2-5 is still a 4-3 to me. I believe that colleges will still primarily rely on nickel and other personnel packages to accomplish varying defensive objectives. I think that calling ND a 4-2-5 is a misnomer in light of how often the Apache (field LB) is subbed for to get a fifht DB on the field. I have yet to see how the field LB (Apache) significantly differs from a conventional 4-3 strong side OLB. Top Stories