Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Lack of Run Defense Leaves Navy's Postseason in Question

Let's start by making a clarification, because I've been getting the feeling that some people are incorrectly identifying what exactly is the problem with Navy's defense. Over the last couple of seasons we've heard a lot about the "lack of a pass rush" and the inability of Navy's secondary to stay with speedy, athletic receivers in the open field. I won't dispute the validity of either of these arguments, both of which have for the most part been true and continue to be true this season. However one most realize that despite the gross amount of pass yards Navy has given up over the past few seasons (100th in the country according to Phil Steele magazine last year) the defense has, for all intensive purposes, given the offense the ability to win games. Navy's defense is designed in a way that makes it inviting for teams to throw the ball against, but it also designed to force teams into third down conversation and to execute for the length of drives. Part of Navy's past success on defense is due to turnover margin, as Navy was +2 last season, +3 in 2004, and a very generous +7 in Paul Johnson's first winning season here in 2003. One thing I have harped on over the past few weeks is the importance of playing opportunistically, something that Navy's often mismatched defense did last season, and has been unable do this season.

But even without forcing a ton of turnovers, Navy's defense could be playing better than it currently is. Case in point, take a look at the 2005 season, in which an inexperienced Navy team went -6 in the turnover department and still went 8-4 with a bowl victory over Colorado State. So, if forcing turnovers aren't the issue, what's so different about this year's defense that has caused all the panic?

Obviously, the answer at this point is Navy's run defense, which let's face it, sucks. But it's not like this has been a reoccurring problem, at leats not in the recent past. Let's go back again to last season and explore this facet of the game. Last year the Mids ranked 32nd in the country against the run, due largely to two separate dynamics. The first, or the cynics view as I like to say, has to do with the relative ranking of the pass defense (the aforementioned 100th in the country, leading other team's to throw more.) The other reason, however, has to do with how Navy's personnel understood the scheme and executed their proper assignments. This is the part where I throw out terms that make me look like I know what I'm talking about, namely gap responsibility and containment, something that the Midshipmen excelled at last year and struggle with this year.

So, what exactly is the problem this year which has caused Navy's defense to give up large amounts of rushing yards and fail to do the things last year's defense did? Obviously, we have to start with personnel, even though I'm usually not huge on emphasising the role of individual players. The reality is that this year to date, we have seen a considerable drop-off in ability at the linebacker position, specifically the outside backer position that was vacated by David Mahoney and Tyler Tidwell after the Care Car Bowl. I don't know if this is so much a referendum on how good the Matt's are (Humiston, Wimsatt, Nechak) so much as it demonstrates just how special David Mahoney and Tyler Tidwell were. Dave was seriously one of the most dynamic defensive players to ever play at the Academy, and just had the raw athletic ability and omnipresent football sense to come off blocks and fly to the ballcarrier. Tyler had similar ability, although not to the level Mahoney had, but most importantly these guys were smart and understood their roles. When I see the defense missing tackles in the backfield and failing to bring down the quarterback in blitz situations, I can't help but think that Mahoney or Tidwell would have made at least some of those plays. This was especially a problem against Ball State and Temple, as we saw Nate Davis and Adam DiMichele extend drives by using their feet to either buy time or rush for the first down in third down situations.

The other main problem has to do with defensive alignment. I could try to explain what exactly is going wrong, but because I'm no expert on the subject and because Phelix already has it covered, I'm going to refer you to the Bird Dog for a more thorough explanation. Below, Phelix takes over for Bill Wagner when discussing defense alignment:

PJ is referring to how the defensive line and down linebackers are supposed to line up across from the offensive line. These assignments are the fundamentals of pass rushing and gap control in the running game. For example, in the five technique that PJ is talking about, the lineman/LB is lined up on the outside eye of the tackle . His responsibility would be the C gap, between the tackle and tight end. In the nine technique, the lineman/LB is lined up on the outside eye of the tight end and is responsible for outside containment. Now, multiply missed assignments like this by each down lineman or LB and it’s obvious how there can be such wide running lanes for opposing RBs, and why opposing offensive lines have no problem handling our pass rush.

So there you have it. In a nutshell Navy's defensive lineman and linebackers are not keeping gap responsibility, and because of this are getting blown up on running plays and basically taking themselves out of plays because of where they are lined up pre-snap. This is largely due, I presume, to the loss of Clint Sovie at the middle linebacker position, a point which has forced Coach Green and Coach Johnson to try to simplify the defensive shceme. What I don't understand is why exactly Irv Spencer couldn't make the calls, and despite the question being brought up in a previous presser, I don't remember hearing a straight answer (anyone?) In any case, this may be slow and trying process, but at some point this year either Pospisil or Haberer are going to have to step up and take responsibility for lining up the defense. This concept also goes hand in hand with the personnel argument, and if we explore the issue we can see how last year's defensive linemen understood their gap responsibilities and for the most part were where they needed to be. John Chan was especially disciplined in this regard, as well as being an underrated player against the run. While the Midshipmen defense last year may not have been as fast as this year's, they were more often in position to make plays because they had been groomed in the scheme and understood their responsibilities, something Navy's young defense this year has struggled to do without the likes of Clint Sovie and Jeff Deliz. This is why it drives me crazy to hear the talking heads on ESPN and the like go on all day talking about size, speed, etc, because at the basic core of defensive football, you're not going to succeed if you don't play smart and know your assignments.

I genuinely believe that our offense is good enough this year to score on everyone we play, but obviously that's the least of the team's concerns right now. Still, if the defense can find something of an identity and perhaps correct some of these problems with alignment and scheme, Navy will still have a good shot at the postseason, and could be well on the way to achieving the ultimate goal of the CINC trophy.


football dad dan said...

No argument here ----> The inability of this defense to stop both the run & pass will lead to a very long (and losing) season. Forcing a team to default to the pass on third downs (because you can effectively stop hold them to minimal yardage on running plays), plays to the historical success of Buddy Green's "bend but don't break" defense ---> It's gets much harder to complete passes when the size of the field "compresses" (ie ... they get closer to your "red zone").
That all being said, ... If the Offense would have eliminated just one of those 4 mistakes against Ball State (2 fumbles & 2 blocked FG's) Navy would have another "W". Likewise, ... take away those two "careless" end zone INT's ... and that Rutgers game would have become much more "interesting".

Gary said...

Make a 32 yard field goal and beat Ball State and this defense still would be a concern.
But certainly less so...our special teams have to rank as one of the worst in the country.

football dad dan said...

The defense was a "concern" going into spring practice because not only was Navy replacing 9 starters from the 2006 season, ... but the majority of the experiance back-ups were also seniors (class of '07), ... so projected starters were guys who hadn't even played a varsity down!
So the pressure was on the offense (who was returning the core of the talent ... minus a few key O-Linemen) to stay on the field on yardage/clock consuming drives & to maximize scoring opportunities so Navy could win these potential "shoot out" games until the defense could "gel" and develop, with valuable "PT" under their belts. How else can one explain the prognostications of a 8/9/10 win season???
What's is troubling thusfar in the season is that the offense is making critical mistakes (9 total turnovers so far, ... if one includes the two blocked FG's), ... and the loss of two key defenders (Sovie and Dielz) to injury has caused the defense to "regress". Even though you earlier stated that going to a bowl game w/ only six victories isn't "worth it", ... let me tell you it is a very big (and positive motivational) deal for the young players to experiance the bowl experiance. These football players work their butts off during the semester (they get no slack on the academics + standing duty during the course of the year), ... so the "perks" of going to a bowl game is a nice reward, & a huge motivational tool. Beating Duke this Saturday is a "must win" for Navy to continue this pursuit, ... and no future opponent this season is a "gimme".

Gary said...

I may have caused a misread- or miswrote it but what I meant was that in my eyes going to a Bowl but just beating the beatable teams was a "bad" season to me.
Now bad in the context of one who wants to see some wins against "the teams" too in the record.
Thats a personal issue and comment.
But no- I do realize what a Bowl game no metter which one means to Navy-Its huge and I have seen the rewards.
Yes you are 100% right on that- I must have been off in how I tried to convey my thoughts.
Yes- Duke is a MUST WIN...we need to stop the negative momentum.
But lets hope that PJ will pull Kaipo as soon as things stall or if he plays timid-despite the occaisional big play.
He does not seem to want to pull him-rather let him play too long.
I really want to see JB get in there.

football fan dan said...

"Roger all" ... Historically Johnson has not hesitated to pull out a starter (even QB) to get their attention if they screw up (remember Hampton a few times in the UMASS game last year), ... but I think that he might have been reluctant to pull Kaipo (before) because Bryant doesn't run the triple option as smoothly/comfortably ... and frankly, doesn't like to "pitch". After seeing his commendable performance in the 2nd half last week, ... PJ may not harbor that same "reluctance"???