After three games the UC defense is performing a notch or two above what it did last year. 347 yards allowed per game, 100 on the ground, 247 yards through the air and 21.7 points allowed. Not great, granted, but to date the defense is not the visual abomination of a year ago. There is one crucial difference between this year and last. It is suddenly much more difficult to run on UC than it was a season ago. Part of that can be attributed to switching schemes back to one that matches personnel, from the ill fated 3-4 back to the 4-3, the other has been the solid to spectacular play of Derek Wolfe and JK Schaffer who have both exceeded expectations this season. The solid play of the front four against the run does present some unique opportunities for the back seven, opportunities that have so far been overlooked and left unexploited.
Lets take some inventory on the assets currently at the disposal of Tim Banks and John Jancek. They have a good and highly productive rotation at DT between Wolfe, John Hughes and Jordan Stepp, they have a below average to average rotation of Defensive Ends. At the linebacker spots they have a huge matchup problem in Walter Stewart, and two guys beside him who cover a ton of ground and are excellent making plays in space with Malik Bomar and Schaffer. In the secondary they have four good corners, Dominique Battle, Ruben Johnson, Adrian Witty and Cam Cheatham for 2 spots. Then at safety there is Wes Richardson and Drew Frey, two big, physically safety's who can make plays in the box, and occasionally in coverage. Banks and Jancek have played a ton of zone coverage through three games and there have been numerous breakdowns and busts in coverage. Last week gave us this play.
Russell Wilson Touchdown NC State Cincinnati 9/16/2010 (via bachandl)
On this play you have Dominique Battle, the best and most experienced corner on the roster in coverage of Jay Smith for the Wolfpack. UC is in a cover three scheme with Battle assigned to the deep left third of the field. Cam Cheatham is assigned to the short left third of the field. Smith just runs a simple stop and go route where he takes two hard steps to the inside like he is running a stop, and breaks vertical. Battle has inside help, if Smith runs a curl Cheatham is there to make the play, and most likely picks it. But Battle abandons his deep third responsibilities and jumps all over the non existent curl. It is OK to be aggressive, but when a player has deep third responsibilities, he can't abandon them, he must stay in his back peddle until the ball is in the air. This is just a case where a guy forgets his primary responsibility to chase the rainbows, this time a 10 yard curl route and he was burned as a result.
The Fresno State game yielded several more examples of defensive backs, particularly corners, getting lost in coverage.
Fresno State Vs Cincinnati (2010) (via DACM4N)
On this play the defense is again in a cover three look with 4 men arrayed in a zone to stop the intermediate routes, from the bottom to the top of the field you have Ruben Johnson picking up the TE in the flats, Malik Bomar and JK Shaffer covering the middle of the field and Walter Stewart covering the back, Robbie Rouse, in the flat. In the back end you have Wes Richardson, Drew Frey and Cam Cheatham from top to bottom each of them are assigned a third of the deep areas of the field to cover. Robbie Rouse is ultimately the guy who scores on this play, at the time this happened live I, like nearly everyone else in Red and Black uttered a kingly string of profanities at Walter Stewart for getting lost in coverage that badly. Turns out I was wrong, the blame for that play falls, not on Stewart, but on Cam Cheatham. Walt did his job, he pushed Rouse out to the sideline and was in fantastic position to make a play if Ryan Colburn tries to throw to his back. When Rouse turns to push his route vertical Stewart does what he has been taught to do, stay in his area and hand the back off to his deep third help, which in this case is Cam Cheatham. To his, and everyone's, surprise Cam Cheatham is no where to be seen. Cheatham was not in the picture for the touchdown because he was chasing the flanker into the middle of the field on a deep post. He chased him deep into Drew Frey's area instead of handing him off which is how the defense is supposed to work. It was a complete bust, Ryan Colburn threw Robbie Rouse to a stop, which is what QB's are taught to do when they have a receiver that wide open.
There are countless more examples of missed assignments and busted coverages but I think the two I pointed out kind of help to prove my point. The corners on the roster now are very, very talented players. I would argue that the two deep at corner now is almost as good as it was when Brandon Underwood, Deangleo Smith and Mike Mickens formed the core of the secondary in 2008. They don't have the experience that group had, but they have every bit of talent that those guys had. But all that talent is wasted in the vanilla zone schemes that the defense is employing.
I think that it is time for the defensive game plan to get a bit more exotic. Most teams are going to have a very hard time running at the interior of this defense, Derek Wolfe is pretty close to unmovable against the run and John Hughes is developing into an excellent run stuffer in the mode of Adam Hopple. That basically stabilizes the defensive front against the run and frees up the the back seven to get very creative in how to bring pressure. This defense right now is struggling to put pressure on the passer, just 6 sacks through 3 games compared to 11 at the same point last season. The pieces are there to develop some creative blitz packages to start putting pressure on opposing passers. Stewart is really a hybrid player who can be very effective off the edge as he showed last year. Schaffer and Bomar are tremendous athletes who excelling playing in space. Both Wes Richardson and Drew Frey are big physical safeties who you can bring it in run support and provide adequate center field coverage. Then you have a slew of cover corners who are all pretty good in man coverage but have a demonstrated propensity to blow coverage schemes when given zone responsibilities.
I know the counter argument to this will be "why complicate things when this defense has shown precious little ability to master the basics of Banks and Jancek's scheme." The reason UC should go to a more aggressive scheme of defense is that it takes the initiative away from the offense. As a fan you should never want your teams defense to play a reactive brand of Football, but that is exactly how UC has played this year. On Thursday night Dana Bible was playing Chess, Tim Banks was playing checkers. Russell Wilson effortlessly manipulated UC's defense on play after play. He knew the coverages instantly and made the right play every time. 40 attempts, 26 completions, 333 yards and 3 TD's to 0 INT's. It did not help matters that UC didn't execute very well at all, but improving the level of execution will only go so far when any offense UC plays will seize the initiative right off the bat. Fresno State did, Indiana State held it for about a quarter and NC State had it all night on Thursday. The only way for UC's defense to start dictating the outcome of games is to be more aggressive. That means more pressure, more blitzes and more risks in coverage, but all of that is acceptable. To me at least. The goal of any strategy, be it football, politics or economics is to improve the chances of obtaining victory. It is a small sample size, just 3 games, 2 real games. But it is pretty clear to me at least that the current strategy does not work. The defense currently being played does not increase the probability of victory in the least. This style of defense can work, quite well actually, but you need a few things to make it great. Defensive depth, experienced players, and a very high quality of starter. UC has one, probably, arguably none of them. It is counter intuitive to want a young, thin and primarily untested defense to go out there and attack with a vengeance, but the UC defense is at a bit of a cross roads. The current strategy is ok, not great, not terrible. It is solid, but it is not going to win games with what is suddenly a dreadful offense. The coaching staff has three choices, go more conservative, keep it as is and hope to execute better, or become a more aggressive attacking unit. My position is pretty clear. However I fear that the staff won't make much in the way of strategic adjustments, with the end result of the defense being paper cut to death in the remaining games and with it my sanity.