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.