Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Ranking the Positions: Defense

Yesterday, we decided that on offense, the most important positions are quarterback and interior offensive line, while the least important are tight end and fullback. Today, we look at the defense. What are the keys to having a successful defense? While it certainly helps to have good players everywhere, there are certain positions where it is extra-important to have talent and skill. Let's take a look:

1. Defensive Tackle: There is no equivalent to a quarterback on the defensive side of the ball. I know, a lot of people say that the middle linebacker is the "quarterback of the defense", and that may be true in the sense that one particular linebacker may make the calls, but there is no position that is as essential to every play or as specialized as the quarterback. Given that, it is no surprise that I am picking the defensive tackle as the most important position on the defense. After all, I picked "interior offensive line" as the second most important on the offense, saying, "I think the key position-to-position matchup on any football field is the battle between the center/guard combination and the defensive tackles on the other side of the ball. Whoever can win the battle on the interior of the line goes a long way towards having success, both in running the ball and in throwing." These guys don't have to pile up a lot of statistics to be effective, and usually do not. If your tackles are effective, you will see the linebackers and the ends getting a lot of tackles at or near the line of scrimmage, because the tackles are moving the line of scrimmage back into the backfield and keeping the blockers off of the linebackers.

2. Cornerback: From the biggest guys on the defense to the smallest. Great cornerbacks free up your defense to do all sorts of things to wreak havoc on an offense. If your corners can consistently and reliably handle the opponent's wide receivers one-on-one, your linebackers and safeties are free to blitz the quarterback or jam the box for the run. Superior cornerbacks allow the defense to play aggressively and take the initiative away from the offense. Average cornerbacks change the character of the defense dramatically from that scenario. Average corners mean zone defense, which means there is little blitzing and the offense has the initiative on the defense. While this may seem strange considering I ranked the wide receivers as the #5 priority on offense, consider that the matchup here is not just the corners against the receivers. It's also the corners against the quarterback. One-on-one, a cornerback has to refuse to give the quarterback enough room to get the ball to the receiver.

3. Defensive End: No real surprise here if you read yesterday's column. The key battles are in the trenches, and this is where the trenches are. The defensive ends are especially important in the passing game, as they are your key every-down pass rushers, and they also are important against the run.

4. Backup Defensive Tackle: If I have any complaint about how Miles or Pelini or whoever responsible has run the defense these last few years, it is in how they have managed the defensive tackle position. College football games are long. The clock rules call for a lot more stoppages of time than in the NFL, meaning there are more plays per game in college than in the pros. In that environment, I think it is very important to keep your players fresh, and nowhere is that more important than at defensive tackle. These guys run at over 300 pounds, and they play probably the most physically demanding position on the field, often being leaned on and pushed around by two 300-pounders. Unlike a wide receiver, who can come out for a breather and be OK in a play or two, when these guys run out of gas on a Saturday night, they don't come back until Monday or Tuesday. They're just too big . Not only do they get worn out during games, they can wear down over the course of a season. Not to mention there is a particularly heightened risk of injury at this position. For these reasons, I think you absolutely need a rotation of 4 defensive tackle, and you need to carefully regulate how many plays your best tackles play in a game, and get them out in games that have already been decided. The result is, backup defensive tackles should play quite a bit. I think Miles/Pelini haven't played backup defensive tackles enough, and it has worn down our starters, limiting their effectiveness.

4. Outside Linebackers: These guys are absolutely essential to containing outside running, especially if (like LSU) you have defensive ends who are a little big and consequently don't necessarily have the 4.6 speed necessary to get outside. Outside linebackers are also important for providing pass coverage on inside receivers (tight ends or slot receivers) and/or running backs. Also, the occasional blitzing, particularly if your corners are good. Speed and quickness are particularly important here. In LSU's scheme, one of the outside linebackers comes off the field in passing situations, so you can imagine the one that leaves is not as important as the one that stays.

5. Middle Linebacker: Cleans up the garbage left by the defensive line in the inside running game and is also important in covering the tight end or running back coming out of the backfield. Speed is not as important for an inside linebacker, but they need to be quick with the first steps and have enough strength to shed blocks from the fullback or interior linemen.

6. Safeties: In LSU's scheme, the safeties are more-or-less interchangeable with one another, but in many schemes the safeties are split into two different roles, the "strong safety" whose primary job is run support, and the "free safety" whose primary job is to cover receivers and provide double teams in the passing game. In all schemes, both safeties do a little of both, but in LSU's scheme, there seems to be no distinction. Some are saying that with the advent of the "spread" offenses in major college football, safeties may become more important in the future, as safeties provide the "sideline to sideline" run support, but I still think this job will remain with the linebackers, who may become smaller and faster to compensate for the horizontally stretched field.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

This upcoming season LSU should have 4 or 5 DT's that could play significant minutes, barring injuries.

CParso said...

Other lists similar to this, but I suspect in a different order, could be: Which positions can be masked the easiest with mediocre players, and/or which positions a single great player could make the biggest impact from.

Richard Pittman said...

Those are pretty similar topics. Not identical, but pretty similar. To answer your questions, I think it's easy to mask a mediocre running back if the blocking in front of him is great. It's also easy to mask a mediocre safety if the talent around is great.

Where can a single great player make a huge difference? The obvious answer is "quarterback", and the obvious answer is correct. If you have a truly great QB (think Vince Young or the college era Ryan Leaf), you can go a very long way with little else. Heck, Ryan Leaf actually had VERY LITTLE talent around him at WSU, and took that team to the Rose Bowl. A truly great running back can also take you pretty far with little other talent around, if he can stay healthy.

On defense, I think a truly great linebacker can make a huge difference, perhaps moreso than any other position.

Anonymous said...

"On defense, I think a truly great linebacker can make a huge difference, perhaps moreso than any other position."

This does not make sense Dick, you rated LBs 4th and 5th. LBs should be 1 and 2 as they account for all tackles that occur on defense. Look at the 2008 SEC leaders in tackles and you will find a list of LBs.

RF

Anonymous said...

TACKLES (All positions)
Player Team Cl G Pos Solo Ast Total Avg/G Sack
1. Wesley Woodyard UK SR 13 LB 78 61 139 10.7 2.5
2. Brandon Spikes UF SO 13 LB 81 50 131 10.1 1.5
3. Jerod Mayo UT JR 14 LB 87 53 140 10.0 1.5
4. Jonathan Goff VU SR 12 LB 61 52 113 9.4 3.0
5. Matt Hewitt AR SR 13 SS 55 57 112 8.6 1.0
6. Emanuel Cook SC SO 11 SS 77 15 92 8.4 4.0
7. Jamarca Sanford UM JR 10 DB 48 35 83 8.3 0.0
8. Rico McCoy UT SO 13 LB 54 52 106 8.2 1.0
9. Ashlee Palmer UM JR 11 LB 50 39 89 8.1 0.5
10. Tony Fein UM JR 11 LB 53 31 84 7.6 0.0
11. Rashad Johnson UA JR 13 57 37 94 7.2 1.0
12. Ali Highsmith LS SR 14 LB 45 56 101 7.2 3.0
Craig Steltz LS SR 14 63 38 101 7.2 1.0
14. Dannell Ellerbe UG JR 13 LB 63 30 93 7.2 4.5
15. D.J. Moore VU SO 12 CB 63 20 83 6.9 1.0
16. Jonathan Hefney UT SR 14 DB 61 35 96 6.9 0.0
17. Jamar Chaney MS JR 13 LB 41 48 89 6.8 0.0
18. Darren Mustin UA SR 12 51 28 79 6.6 1.0
19. Dustin Doe UF SO 13 43 42 85 6.5 0.0
20. Marcus Buggs VU SR 12 LB 42 34 76 6.3 3.0
21. Greg Hardy UM SO 10 DL 40 23 63 6.3 10.0
22. Kevin Woods AR SR 12 SS 50 25 75 6.2 0.0
23. Wallace Gilberry UA SR 13 47 33 80 6.2 10.0
24. Eric Berry UT FR 14 DB 58 28 86 6.1 0.0
25. F. Fairchild AR SO 13 43 36 79 6.1 4.0
26. Ryan Karl UT SR 14 LB 52 33 85 6.1 0.0
27. Dominic Douglas MS JR 13 LB 38 40 78 6.0 1.0
28. Weston Dacus AR SR 13 MLB 38 38 76 5.8 3.0
29. Rolando McClain UA FR 13 38 37 75 5.8 1.0
30. Eric Norwood SC SO 12 DE 46 23 69 5.8 6.0
31. Gabe O'Neal MS SR 13 LB 47 27 74 5.7 1.0
32. Ryan Hamilton VU SO 12 DB 48 20 68 5.7 1.0
Darian Stewart SC SO 12 DB 56 12 68 5.7 0.0
34. Reshard Langford VU JR 12 40 25 65 5.4 0.0
Zac Etheridge AU FR 12 39 26 65 5.4 0.5
36. Michael Grant AR SR 13 47 23 70 5.4 0.0
37. Darry Beckwith LS JR 12 LB 30 34 64 5.3 1.5
Rodney Paulk SC SO 12 LB 41 23 64 5.3 1.0
39. Prince Hall UA SO 11 29 29 58 5.3 0.5
40. Joe Haden UF FR 12 43 20 63 5.2 0.0
Jamie Phillips UM SO 12 LB 35 28 63 5.2 0.0
42. Josh Thompson AU SR 13 32 35 67 5.2 0.0
M. Wright UF FR 13 47 20 67 5.2 0.0
44. Marvin Sapp SC JR 12 LB 50 11 61 5.1 0.0
45. Trevard Lindley UK SO 13 CB 50 16 66 5.1 0.0
Kareem Jackson UA FR 13 48 18 66 5.1 0.0
47. Jamon Hughes MS SO 13 LB 35 30 65 5.0 0.0
Johnny Brown UM FR 12 DB 36 24 60 5.0 0.0
49. Glenn Dorsey LS SR 14 DT 38 31 69 4.9 7.0
50. Jermaine Cunningham UF SO 13 34 30 64 4.

http://www.secsports.com/new/sports/fbc/07stats/confldrs.htm

RF

Richard Pittman said...

Yes, it is problematic that I rank linebackers so low, but the rankings are not separated by that much. And yes, while I believe a truly great linebacker can make a huge difference, I think on balance the defensive tackle position is the more important, in that the gap between a really good tackle and a mediocre tackle is very wide. I think a weak linebacker can be hidden, while a weak tackle hurts a lot.

And don't just look at tackle stats. Defensive tackles are like the offensive linemen of the defense. They help make other players' stats better without really getting any stats themselves.

Anonymous said...

You are right about a bad defensive tackle can make it harder for LBs. You LB argument is circular. If defense is set up for LBs to make all tackles and its easier to hide a bad LB, then a bad LB would have less tackles (i.e. miss tackles) and therefore have more of a negative impact. Agree to disagree here. Good topic however.

RF

Richard Pittman said...

I think the best way to say it is to say that even a mediocre linebacker can have success if he's not getting blocked. We're not talking about a complete incompetent here, but merely a mediocre player. Obviously, no defense will do well if it is playing 10 vs. 11.

If the question is whether a mediocre linebacker can be "covered" by other good players, I think the answer is yes. At least, moreso than other positions. At the same time, a great linebacker can make a huge difference because he can a) cover the entire field sideline-to-sideline, b) can get off blocks that the DTs didn't stop, and c) cover for other mediocre players.

I don't think there's a contradiction in there, but I acknowledge it's a very subtle point. Perhaps too subtle to have any real meaning. Whatever. The whole point is to generate discussion, anyway, so I don't really think it matters.

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