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Stories of the Season: Defensive Turnarounds -- PFF
Stories of the Season: Defensive Turnarounds
November 11th, 2011 | Author: Steve Palazzolo
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of being a football fan is watching a completely inept defense on your favorite team. With every third down conversion and time consuming drive, you sit and hope for just one big stop to get the offense back on the field. As the league continues to evolve into a passing league, the need for pass rushers and cover men is at an all time high. Teams who can’t find either are facing a recipe for disaster.
So when a defense has a history of poor performance, how quickly can it be turned around? In a league where coaches feel an increased pressure to win now, and leeway to rebuild has turned from five years to as little as two or three, can a team make wholesale changes defensively and see immediate results? Let’s take a look at three teams who have made tremendous one year gains through scheme changes, solid drafting and shrewd free agent pickups.
2010 Rank: 31st, -54.5
2011 Rank: 5th, +49.3
Ranking Swing: Up 26 Spots
What Went Wrong in 2010
Let’s start with the pass coverage. For most of 2010, the Texans were giving up passing yards at a record setting level. As a team, the Texans graded at -67.5 in pass coverage, worst in the league. Not one player in the secondary achieved a positive coverage grade and linebacker Zach Diles was easily the worst coverage LB in the league at -18.2. At cornerback, Kareem Jackson struggled through his rookie season allowing 10.7 yards/attempt on balls thrown his way. Working mostly in the slot, Glover Quin turned in the best coverage grade amongst Texans with at least 400 snaps, at -3.7. The safety position was not much better with Bernard Pollard (-6.3 cov) and Eugene Wilson (-10.7 cov) seeing the majority of the snaps. A series of late game collapses in pass coverage had Texans’ fans wishing for at least an average defense to complement one of the better offenses in the league.
Perhaps most interesting about the pass coverage is that the Texans’ actually had a good pass rush, ranking 8th in the NFL at +51.4. So even with pressure from the front four, teams still had their way with the Texans’ back seven. Stopping the run was not much easier as every defensive lineman graded negatively and no linebacker made a significant contribution in this area. With weaknesses in both pass and run defense, the Texans had trouble stopping anything teams threw their way.
What is Going Right in 2011
The top story is the change in scheme to a 3-4 under new Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips. Much was made of Mario Williams and his move to OLB in the new scheme, and while he struggled at times, he was still his disruptive self when rushing the passer. Unfortunately Williams was lost after just over a quarter of the season, but the defense has continued its success. With the pass rush performing at a similar level, it’s been the improvement in the secondary that has made the biggest difference.
After the atrocious cornerback play in 2010, even the slightest improvement would go a long way to helping the pass defense. Instead, the Texans hit on one of the best free agents on the market in Johnathan Joseph. Currently our fourth best CB in coverage at +5.4, Joseph has been everything the Texans needed and more. The CB play around him has also improved, with Jackson showing much better than his nightmare rookie season. The other key move has been Quin’s move to safety full time, and rightfully so, he was the team’s best run defender per his position last season. Quin and free agent Danieal Manning have not been the best safety tandem in the league, but they are certainly much improved over the 2010 version.
In addition to the scheme changes and free agent pickups, the Texans clearly looked to revamp the defense through the draft. They spent their first five picks on the defensive side of the ball with first round DE JJ Watt and OLB Brooks Reed becoming immediate contributors. Lastly, Brian Cushing has taken his game to a new level after a subpar (for him) 2010. He has played a well rounded game in all facets, but his ability to blitz and provide pressure is unique. He uses his great agility and athleticism to juke potential blockers and closes the gap quickly on the quarterback. With Cushing’s high level of play, combined with a dedication to drafting defense and sprinkling in a few key free agents, the Texans may finally have the defense to not only win the AFC South, but compete for supremacy in the entire conference.
2010 Rank: 30th, -42.7
2011 Rank: 6th, +47.9
Ranking Swing: Up 24 Spots
What Went Wrong in 2010
Much like the Texans’ issues started in the secondary as did the Jaguars’, with their -66.7 pass coverage grade was a notch better than Houston. They trotted out a revolving door of terrible safeties in Don Carey, Courtney Greene and Sean Considine. Carey was overmatched in all phases, while Greene and Considine could at least hold their own as “in the box” safeties, yet were torched in coverage. The cornerbacks were not much better as Rashean Mathis’ career appeared to be on the downswing while Derek Cox rated as one of our worst CBs for the second year running. The linebacker corps consisted of solid run defenders like Kirk Morrison and Justin Durant, but were not up to task when asked to cover. Even PFF favorite Daryl Smith had a down year by his standards, and teams continued to take advantage of the back seven in the passing game.
Compounding the issues was the lack of pass rush. Aaron Kampman was a nice free agent addition, but he was lost for the season after Week 8. Still, he was easily the most disruptive defensive lineman on the team, finishing with a +9.3 pass rush grade. Despite missing half the season, he still led the team with 32 QB Disruptions. With no pass rush and no coverage, the Jaguars were easy pickings as their 250 passing yards/game will attest.
What is Going Right in 2011
After the NFL work stoppage was lifted, the Jaguars became immediate players in free agency. Paul Posluszny was the first signing with Dawan Landry and Drew Coleman added to a woeful secondary. They then added Clint Session and just before training camp, Dwight Lowery was added to the roster. It was clear that Jacksonville was looking to veterans to shore up the team’s weakest links. The Landry and Lowery signings may not have been the best, but they may have been the most important. They have been a huge upgrade over the 2010 safeties and one of the key reasons for the Jaguars’ +7.4 Coverage grade. At cornerback, Mathis has looked better for the most, but the big story is the development of Cox. The Jaguars had high hopes when they traded a future second round pick to move up to get him in the draft, but as mentioned, his first two seasons were huge disappointments. He has great size and speed and this season he has finally started to live up to that potential.
The revamped linebacker corps has been the other big story. Posluszny has provided similar run stopping ability as Morrison while being a huge upgrade in pass coverage and providing great pressure up the middle. He never comes off the field and plays in every defensive package. Session has played well as a base LB, and Smith is back to playing at a Pro Bowl level. As far as the defensive line goes, it’s been pretty average, but there have been bright spots. Another free agent signing was Matt Roth and he’s been a solid run defender, much like Terrance Knighton. The best lineman has been Jeremy Mincey as he’s become a solid three-down DE, perhaps becoming the player the Jaguars hoped for when drafting Derrick Harvey with the eighth overall pick in 2008. Third down specialist John Chick has been the most effective pass rusher and his explosion off the edge has not been seen around Jacksonville in many years.
It should be noted that Defensive Coordinator Mel Tucker has taken over the play calling duties from Head Coach Jack Del Rio and Jacksonville appears to have simplified the defense. Unfortunately for them, the defensive revival has coincided with the worst offense they’ve fielded since their inaugural season in 1995, so the on field record has not reflected the defensive improvement. The strategy of plugging in free agents can’t be denied, however, and their one year turnaround has been one of the best in the league.
2010 Rank: 21st, +18.2
2011 Rank: 2nd, +70.7
Ranking Swing: Up 19 Spots
What Went Wrong in 2010
Unlike the Jaguars and Texans, the Bengals rise is less about their ineptitude from 2010 and more about their dominance in 2011. Still, last year’s defense was fairly average and the biggest culprit was the lack of pass rush. The two most promising players were rookies, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins who spent the majority of the season as role players. Still they made the most of their time, grading as the best defensive linemen on the team. The three linemen who saw the most snaps, Robert Geathers, Michael Johnson, and Domata Peko supplied little pressure, while the linebackers were filled with run stoppers who struggled in coverage.
In the secondary, Leon Hall combined with the aforementioned Jonathan Joseph to provide solid CB play when healthy, but a rash of injuries forced a series of subpar players trying to fill the third CB spot, while safety play was average. Still, 2010 was all about the lack of pressure on the QB.
What is Going Right in 2011
Last year’s weakness has now become this year’s strength. Perhaps it’s a one man show, but Dunlap has developed into one of the best pass rushers in the league in his second season. His 37 QB Disruptions on only 202 pass rushes have him rated as our top rated 4-3 DE, and despite only getting to the QB for three sacks, right tackles around the league are taking notice to his dominance. While Dunlap is carrying the load rushing the passer, the Bengals boast amazing depth along the defensive line as eight players have played at least 150 snaps and all grade positively against the run. Atkins has built on his strong rookie season and is now playing 62% of the snaps, as opposed to only 35% in 2010. Peko has upped his game as well and is now third in the league in defensive stops with 18. Over in the secondary, with Joseph moving on to Houston, the Bengals replaced him with free agent Nate Clements. Clements has not played up to Joseph’s level this season, but he has been more than adequate playing opposite Leon Hall. Reggie Nelson is easily playing the best football of his career while Chris Crocker has not embarrassed himself on the other side.
When looking at the roster construction for this Bengals team, they have gotten most of their talent through drafting, with the 2010 selections of Dunlap and Atkins really standing out. Throw in a solid free agent here and there as well as the low risk move of bringing in Nelson, and the Bengals have put together our No. 2 defense in 2011. It should be mentioned that the Bengals have had the benefit of playing against five of our bottom six rated offenses, but weak schedule or not, they have put themselves in position to compete with the heavyweights in the AFC North in the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers.
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