Size Matters Part Deux: Evaluating ACC Run Defenses by Sacking the Sack

In the second part of the "Size Matters" series, we attempt to better gauge run defense by focusing only on running plays.  Obvious enough as that may sound, it's not quite that easy. 

Note:  If you haven't read part one, you need to do that first.  

Despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, many fans still believe last year's defense was an elite unit.  It's not that these fans are dumb or lazy.  They just don't know what to look for. 

The defense had good total numbers last year, finishing 2nd in the ACC in yards allowed,  but that's not the important stat.  Why?  Total defense doesn't account for how many times the opponent had the ball, which is as much a function of a team's offense as it is a team's defense.  Simply put, FSU's offense held the ball for long stretches last year, averaging the 2nd most time per game in ACC play.  In fact, FSU's defense faced the second fewest offensive plays per ACC game.  It is much easier to have a "good defense" if your defense faces fewer plays per game than everyone else, if you define “good defense” in terms of total defense.  The mainstream media is just catching on to this, but I expect Tomahawk Nation readers to understand that yards per play is a much better measure than total defense. 

But this article is about run defense, and even those who rely on aggregate numbers can see that last year's run defense was not special.  And I hope that they are willing to step out on the ledge and accept "yards per carry" as a measure of rushing success.  Well, how about Yards Per Carry Allowed?  To the Chart!

NOTE:  Numbers are from ACC games only, as out of conference scheduling varies wildly from team to team.

Name Att Yards Avg.
Boston College 298 830 2.8
Wake Forest 254 784 3.1
Virginia Tech 312 996 3.2
Virginia 327 1097 3.4
Florida State 265 995 3.8
Georgia Tech 270 1018 3.8
Duke 333 1265 3.8
North Carolina 297 1140 3.8
Clemson 285 1121 3.9
North Carolina State 256 1027 4.0
Maryland 317 1345 4.2
Miami (Florida) 344 1497 4.4

So, FSU was tied for 5th, along with 3 other teams allowing 3.8 yards per "carry".  That's certainly not what we expect from a Mickey Andrews defense.  We wish we could say FSU's run defense was better than that 3.8 yards per "carry" suggests, but that is not the case.  There's a reason why we used quotation marks around carry.  FSU's 2008 run defense was broken. 

In American football, a carry is a statistical term equivalent to a single rushing play.  A sack is defined as tackling a ball carrier who intends to throw a forward pass. A sack is also awarded if a player forces a fumble of the ball, or the ball carrier to go out of bounds, behind the line of scrimmage on an apparent intended forward pass play.

For reasons that are probably rooted in the college game's option roots, the NCAA counts a sack as a running play.  The NFL does not.  This us dumb, especially when you consider that official scorers denote sacks in the same way (see above definition).  Can we all agree that a properly scored sack is not a running play?

While conceding that there are differences in each stadium's official scorer, let's have a look at run defense against running plays.  Let's sack the sack.  A sack is an outcome of a passing play, and in a later article we'll include sacks where they belong.  Here are the sack results from the 2008 ACC season:

Team Sacks Yards Lost
Virginia Tech * 27 240
Boston College * 25 161
Florida State 24 179
Miami (Florida) 19 134
Duke 18 95
Georgia Tech 17 128
Maryland 17 85
Virginia 16 125
Wake Forest 15 92
North Carolina State 14 94
North Carolina 12 66
Clemson 9 65
* Includes ACC Championship Game

Florida State had the conference's best pass rush in 2008, led by All-American Everette Brown.  The goal here, however, is to find the most accurate gauge of run defense.  To do that, we need to sack the sack. 

That's atrocious.  2nd worst in the conference isn't an off year.  It's a serious problem that needs to be immediately addressed.  The problem is, we're not even sure FSU knows it has this problem.

Acc_yards_per_carry_allowed__without_sacks__medium

That's 1174 rushing yards allowed on 241 carries, for an average of 4.87 given up per carry.  We really can't underestimate the magnitude of this problem.2nd worst in the conference is not an off year, it's a systemic issue.

This chart illustrates how much each team benefited from their sack numbers being included in their run defense totals. 

__deflation_medium

In Part One (see link in lead paragraph), we discussed the reasons for FSU's poor run defense.  Simply put, FSU's defense lacks the minimum bulk in its front 7 defenders to stop the run without dedicating another defender (from the secondary) to the cause.  Committing an extra defender to the run overtaxes our secondary, leaving us vulnerable to play action fakes.  FSU further complicates matters by misusing its resources and playing guys out of position (most notably at strong side defensive end and outside linebacker).  See the first article for a huge explanation.

As a last check of our numbers, we put together a game-by-game chart.

Opponent YPCA w/o Sacks Carries (w/o Sacks) Rush Yards Allowed (w/o Sacks) Att Yards Avg. Sacks Sack Yards
Wake Forest 2.1 36 75 38 59 1.6 2 16
Miami 5.8 12 69 14 51 3.6 2 18
N.C. St. 7.9 21 166 22 157 7.1 1 9
15 Virginia Tech 4.2 28 117 34 82 2.4 6 35
Georgia Tech 6.4 45 288 45 288 6.4 0 0
Clemson 4.3 30 128 36 79 2.2 6 49
Boston College 4.0 46 185 47 176 3.7 1 9
Maryland 6.3 23 146 29 103 3.6 6 43

7 of the 8 conference opponents ran for 4 or more yards once sacks were excluded, and half the opponents ripped off over five and a half yards per carry.

 

You don't have to take our word for it, however, as there are far more advanced metrics saying the same thing:  FSU's run defense was really poor.  For instance, Bill Connelly of RockMNation (Missouri) and FootballOutsiders (where he writes the widely acclaimed Varsity Numbers column).  Connelly's "Conference Report" is often referenced here, as it focuses only on conference games.  Here we see Bill's Run Defense Efficiency Data and made it into a handy graph.  Note that this data does include sacks as running plays, we think (though we hope Bill will exclude that next year).  While it does include sacks, it is adjusted for opponent (some teams didn't have to play top running offenses like FSU or Ga. Tech) and doesn't include numbers after the game is already a blowout.   The higher number is better.  A score of 100 is about average.  FSU scored a 95.6, a score placing them in the bottom half of the conference.  VT and FSU clearly receive an undeserved bump due to their sack numbers here, jumping 6 and 3 spots ahead of their rankings in the "rushing yards per carry allowed without sacks" category.  The key point here is that FSU is again not a good run defense.

Rush_defense_efficiency_medium

If these numbers excluded sacks, FSU might be dead last (as opposed to 2nd to last in our less refined measure).

This problem likely won't be fixed this year as FSU doesn't have the personnel in its front 7 after the wasted 2006 and 2007 recruiting classes, and it could get significantly worse if injuries strike the 'Noles.  It is up to Jimbo and the future staff to make sure guys play the proper position and to recruit the players the FSU needs to execute its defense of choice.  As noted in part one, this includes having Everette Dawkins play his natural position (Strongside End), moving Nigel Bradham to the opposite side, and having a bigger middle linebacker.

 

GO NOLES!!

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