The Irish enter their bye week with four wins in their first five games. But after a convincing shutout victory in the season opener against Nevada, the Irish defense — a unit many believed to be ready to take a major step forward — has gone backwards.
What’s wrong with this Irish defense?
I won’t admit that I’m up to snuff on the schemes and packages of today’s college defensive coordinators. Yet part of what ails the Irish isn’t complex, it’s simply breakdowns of fundamental principles: tackling, late recognition, and poor execution.
Having reviewed the game tape of the Irish’s three most deficient outings, here are a few things that stand out to me:
Anytime you watch football, bad tackling leaps off the screen. Poor tackling is a large reason why Notre Dame isn’t sitting at 5-0 right now. There are a variety of reasons why people miss tackles, and while I won’t break down every missed opportunity, here is what jumps out after reviewing these games.
In a pressure scheme like the Irish were committed to earlier in the season, open-field tackling becomes even more important. If the Irish are committed to adding a linebacker to the pass rush, that takes away one more of the defense’s surest tacklers from making a play on a ball carrier or receiver. If you’re committed to opening up the middle of the field or isolating your secondary, you need to make sure that the players who aren’t going after the quarterback are able to make fundamentally sound tackles. What jumps off the tape in the Washington game is that from the very first offensive series, UW exploited Notre Dame’s tendencies to bring a linebacker after the quarterback, and threw quick passes to wide receivers. The Irish secondary had a hard time shedding blocks and making plays on the receiver, resulting in big, risk-averse plays for the Huskies. Catch and run plays have plagued the Irish for much of the season, often times a product of having committed too many people to getting after the quarterback.
Missing tackles happens. Yet the way many of these tackles are being missed is a problem. Confidence and control are big parts of tackling. Coming into a play under control and having the confidence to make the play are imperative when you’re going one-on-one in the open field. Too many times Irish defenders are coming onto the scene out of control, giving the ball carrier the advantage he needs to exploit the defender and slip by him. Defenses force turnovers when they come into a play under control and make a technically sound tackle. While defenders are programmed to go for the kill shot, sometimes a sound tackle helps slow a runner down, and the pursuit of teammates help jar the ball loose. On Washington’s opening drive, Kyle McCarthy’s sound tackle on Chris Polk allowed Manti Te’o to come flying into the play, jarring the ball loose from Polk’s arm for a fumble and recovery. In this case, the call was overturned by the replay booth because Polk’s knee was down, but when defenders fly to the ball, good things happen.
Recognizing what an offense is trying to do is one of the keys to playing good defense. Too often against Washington, the Irish defense was late to recognize a situation and read a play. In the first quarter alone, the Irish defense had opportunities to stop the Huskies, but a lack of recognition kept the drive alive for Washington, allowing them to convert key third downs and score a touchdown. If Jake Locker is lined up in the shotgun from the 5-yard line, everybody in the stadium should be expecting a quarterback draw. Likewise, too often did the Irish defense get sucked up into the play before realizing a screen pass was called, like the huge 3rd and 9 conversion by the Huskies on their second drive of the first quarter. Simple wide receiver screens gave the Irish defense fits all day Saturday. Steve Sarkisian noted in his post-game comments that they saw some things on tape that the Irish were doing in their nickel defense that they thought they could exploit and take advantage of. If Sark noticed it, you can bet other teams going forward will, too. With freshman Manti Te’o getting more and more playing time, it’s going to be up to veteran leaders like Brian Smith, Kyle McCarthy, and Harrison Smith to do a better job diagnosing plays.
Charlie Weis mentioned a few weeks ago that the defense needed something to “hang its hat on.” If that’s playing pressure defense, fine. If it’s playing Cover 2, fine. But the Irish can’t be a “jack of all trades, master of none” defense. They just aren’t good enough. Jon Tenuta’s prickly attitude with the media all but acknowledges the fact that he’s frustrated with the defense and its execution. Weis reorganized the defensive coaching staff to put Tenuta in charge of calling the game because he thought it would give the team a better chance to win. Yet Tenuta has been unable to orchestrate an effective gameplan on defense save the Nevada game, and the inability to get to the quarterback, stop the short passing game, or be robust in running defense signals that there are systemic problems with the new scheme.
If the Irish decide that being more vanilla will help the defense, Tenuta and the staff need to make sure that the 11 players on the field understand what vanilla is. There have been far too many broken plays on defense, miscommunications that have cost the Irish points and nearly a football game against Michigan State. If the team is going to be a Cover 2 team, the corners, linebackers, and safeties need to understand the tenants of the scheme, and stop giving up 10 yard uncontested completions in front of corners while safeties roam over the top.
This isn’t an indictment of Coach Tenuta and his schemes. He’s been an elite defensive coordinator everywhere he’s gone and he didn’t forget how to coach overnight. Yet the transition from Corwin Brown’s 3-4 system to Tenuta’s pressure based 4-3 hasn’t been smooth, and for a defense to execute soundly, they’ve got to take thinking out of the equation.