Closing The Book On The 2009 Florida State Defense

Author's Note: while we have been very critical of Chuck Amato's coaching, he is in our thoughts and prayers as the long-time Florida State linebackers coach is undergoing treatment for what is rumored to be cancer.  Football is a game, and it is things like this that remind us just how insignificant that game really is.  

This is the third in a followup on last year's "did Florida State improve in 2008?" article.  While last year it was appropriate to ask whether the 'Nole's 2008 season was an improvement over the 2007 campaign, there is no debate about the 2009 team.  It definitely regressed as a whole.  So for this series, I will look at the new highs and lows set by Florida State's offense, defense, and special teams.  I ask where the team was better on the field because there is no doubt as to whether the program is in better shape now than it was at any point in this millennium's first decade.  FSU has leadership for the first time in a long while, and the improvements made in recruiting by the new coaches are nothing short of staggering as the 'Noles recruiting class has rocketed from 34th on the day Bobby Bowden retired to what is now a guaranteed top 10 recruiting class. 

Before you read this, please check out part one (scheduling and context issues) and part two (offense).  Today we tackle the defense-- something the defense often failed to do.  The conclusions in this article are far less surprising than those drawn in the offensive analysis.  Let's start with some history.  Last off-season I wrote:

According to the best available measures, the offense and the defense were about equal (21st and 19th).  Both units cost the Noles a game this year.  The offense was horrible in the Wake game.  The defense was horrible in the Georgia Tech game (31 points, 400 yards and over 8 yards per play before GT's QB went down due to injury).  Both units played poorly against Boston College and Florida.  

As I explained above there is no way that the defense should have been equal to the offense this year.  The offense wildly exceeded the expectation of even the most optimistic reasonable observer.  On the other hand, the defense massively underwhelmed the expected performance of most knowledgeable observers. 

In short, the offense improved this year despite many obstacles.  They appear to be well coached and should return 9 of 11 starters in 2009. [They actually returned 7 as Parker and Furlong left the team.]  I expect this unit to again improve as players gain a further understanding of the scheme, and develop physically and mentally.

Given all the factors, I believe the defense regressed in 2008.  If this defense performs at this same level next year, stand up and celebrate.  The losses in the offseason will be substantial and Andrews has not shown the ability to adapt to changes in the game, be they strategic (the new clock rules, placing more emphasis on the running game) or schematic (the spread, and most disturbingly the reemergence of the zone read).  He clearly has lost the ability to convey information and relate to young people, as his own players repeatedly expressed their confusion in his scheme in throwing the defensive coaching staff under the proverbial bus with their comments.  Andrews and company have done a horrible job developing the younger players who will be counted on to produce next year.  If changes are not made, this unit could be shockingly bad.  Undoubtedly we will hear the excuse of youth, followed quickly by his increasingly contentious answers blaming the players and refusing to accept any responsibility for the staff's inability to teach football to college kids at an advanced level.

All of this pretty much happened.  While Tomahawk Nation had the most extreme premonitions that a horrible defense was about to come, even we came up short in our predictions as the Florida State defense was the 2nd worst among all the BCS conference teams.  FSU should be very happy that Washington State is around.  This piece isn't about slamming the 2009 defense.  The players played as hard as they could.  But just how bad was that defense?  In order to judge the expected improvement in the coming season, we must know the true level of the previous year's unit.  Here's a pretty defining chart:


That is one painful chart. FSU's defense was not only the worst since ACC expansion, but also 10% worse than any ACC defense since 2004 (we do not have records of conference, only statistics from before 2004).  This unit was worse than the defenses Duke fielded in 2004 or 2005 or 2006.  And this defense posted that embarrassing mark without the "help" of facing the conference's best offense.  But it often allowed lesser opponents to post their best day, and in fact every offense the Seminoles defense went up against managed its best or second-best offensive performance of the season.  And to think, Florida State fans believed the coaches when they denied that closing practices was due to defensive embarrassment.  After this season, it seems those reports of 400-yard quarters during the Fall mini-scrimmages were accurate.

But much like the offense trended down until FSU could have no more, this defense has been in a slow tailspin since the early part of the decade.  Each small step forward was met with gigantic leaps back (2007 and this season).  And those leaps corresponded with the failure to replace competent coaches (like Kevin Steele and Jim Gladden) with reasonably competent coaches.  FSU fans are hopeful that the new defensive staff can turn things around in short order.

While the above figures are hard to swallow, they do make sense because most of the ACC plays each other.  But when factoring in all games, things get a bit hairy.  According to the NCAA, FSU ranked 108th out of 120 teams in defense.  But they weren't really that bad.  Why?  Context, of course.  If you read part one, you'd know that FSU played one of the most difficult schedules in the country.  While they may have given up a yards per game total placing them 108th in the rankings, not every team faced a slate as grueling as the Seminoles.  But how to account for the differences in scheduling?  Advanced metrics are very effective.  NFL teams are using these to make million-dollar decisions but there are only a few guys actively trying to apply the principles to the college game.  Brian Fremeau's Efficiency Index is a good place to start:

Adjusted Defensive Efficiency is the opponent-adjusted value of and Defensive Efficiency, explained here. Like FEI, the multiple-order adjustments are weighted according to both the strength of the opponent and the relative significance of the result; efficiency against a team's best competition faced is given more relevance weight.  ADE represents a team's value over/under average.  Negative ADE are the most valuable.

NOTE: remember that FEI automatically adjusts for rules changes because it measures performance on drives, as opposed to only games.  It also doesn't count non-competitive drives (drives where the game is locked up, for instance a drive when a team leads by 40 in the 4th quarter).  This explains why FSU got little credit for crushing UAB and DUKE in the 2007 ratings.  FSU received zero credit for their wins against the I-AA competition in 2008.

  • In 2006, the 'Noles had the 31st best Adjusted Defensive Efficiency
  • In 2007, the 'Noles had the 34th best Adjusted Defensive Efficiency
  • In 2008, the 'Noles had the 23rd best Adjusted Defensive Efficiency
  • In 2009, the 'Noles had the 92nd best Adjusted Defensive Efficiency.  For some context, Florida International had the 91st best Adjusted Defensive Efficiency.  Western Kentucky had the 93rd best.

That's an enormous drop.  For three years, FSU's defense hovered around the top 1/5th or top 1/6th of all teams.  In 2009, they dropped into the bottom quarter.  Was FSU's 2009 defense that much worse than the 2008 unit?  Anecdotally, I'll submit that it was not.  I believe that the 2008 defense was tremendously lucky, and the 2009 defense was slightly unlucky.  FSU fans will remember that the 2008 squad had an amazing ability to injure opposing quarterbacks.  That's not a repeatable skill.  If it were, perhaps FSU's 2009 defense might have fared a bit better.  That is why statistics do not always tell the whole story.  While they are the record of what happened, they might not always indicate why something did or did not happen.

But Adjusted Defensive Efficiency is only one advanced measure of defense.  Bill Connelly's S&P+ figure is also a good measure. If Bill's are close to Brian's, I feel much better about using these measurements.

The S&P+ Ratings are a college football ratings system derived from the play-by-play data of all 800+ of a season's FBS college football games (and 140,000+ plays). There are three key components to the S&P+:

* Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.
* EqPts Per Play (PPP): An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.
* Opponent adjustments: Success Rate and PPP combine to form S&P, an OPS-like measure for football. Then each team's S&P output for a given category (Rushing/Passing on either Standard Downs or Passing Downs) is compared to the expected output based upon their opponents and their opponents' opponents. This is a schedule-based adjustment designed to reward tougher schedules and punish weaker ones.

The S&P+ figures used in the tables below only look at the plays that took place while a game was deemed "close," or competitive. The criteria for being "close" are as follows: a game within 24 points in the first quarter, with 21 points in the second quarter, and within 16 points in the second half.

  • In 2007, the 'Noles had the 28st best S&P+ Defense
  • In 2008, the 'Noles had the 55th best S&P+ Defense
  • In 2009, the 'Noles had the 80th best S&P+ Defense

It appears that Bill's figures may have had a better handle on the true level of FSU's defensive play in 2008.  I'm not sure how Bill filtered out the luck that helped the 2008 team, but somehow he did.  In much of the same way, his system was not quite as down on the 'Nole's 2009 defense. 

Here was Bill's thought on this FSU team:

Ranking ninth in Offensive S&P+ and 80th in Defensive S&P+, the Seminoles sent Bobby Bowden out a winner with what was actually some pretty stellar defensive play (at times, at least). It is hard to know what to do with the Seminoles for 2010. They return plenty of playmakers, but we have no idea what a new staff will do with them, and we have no idea what was holding back the clearly talented squads of recent years. We think we know, but it's sometimes too easy to blame something simply on bad coaching or poor management. We'll see.

One key difference between Bill's system and Brian's system is that Brian's system is drive based while Bill's is based on individual plays.  Because of its play-based nature, Bill's system can separate run defense from pass defense. 

Run Defense Pass Defense
2007 23rd 35th
2008 64th 43rd
2009 92nd 72nd

For all the long pass plays FSU gave up, FSU's problem was once again run defense.  Hidden problems with run defense was far and away the top theme of last year's off-season.  People fail to realize poor run defense when poor pass defense is present because pass plays are easier to view. 

Why is FSU so bad against the run?  When the program began to fall apart, FSU had to choose whether to recruit speed or size, because they could not land the players who had both attributes.  In addition, the players they did have were horribly coached.  After seemingly writing about this every day of last off-season, including our acclaimed "size matters" series, I feel pretty vindicated.  But there is yet another measure by bill that demonstrates FSU's size problems:

Standard Down Defense (1& 10, 2nd & 7 or less, 3rd and 4 or less Passing Down Defense (2nd and 8+, 3rd and 5+)
2007 30th 38th
2008 56th 42nd
2009 100th 55th

Look at the differences in 2008 and 2009!  All teams should play better defense in passing situations than standard situations, but this difference is enormous and should be setting off red flags in your head. 

Update: csfffu interjects: 

The assumed fact that all teams play better defense in passing situations than in standard situations does not suggest that any given teams rank (as opposed to their absolute performance) on passing downs should be better than their rank on standard downs. The argument should be that if not for player (e.g., size, speed) and coaching attributes (e.g., scheme) that cause some teams to be relatively more effective in one type of situation than in the other, we would expect a team’s ranking on passing downs to be similar to their ranking on standard downs. The fact the FSU’s rankings on the two types of downs are so discordant suggests that our defense (player attributes and/or scheme) may be oriented (intentionally or not) too much toward stopping a team on obvious passing downs, and not enough toward stopping them on standard run/pass downs.

When FSU got to run around and not worry about the threat of the run, its speed allowed the defense to play at a slightly below average level (as opposed to a laughably bad level on 1-10, 2-7 or less, and 3rd and 4 or less.  But when they had to worry about the run and couldn't sell out against the pass, they were doomed because they had to cheat so much in order to have any shot at stopping the run due to their lack of size. These problems aren't new, folks!  They were very much there in 2008 and we wrote about it time and again.  The old defensive staff didn't see it but you can bet that the coaches who had been at other schools before coming to Florida State saw it, and that includes Coach Jimbo Fisher.  Under Fisher's mandate, look for a much bigger team in 2010.  The key to defense isn't 3rd down

FSU fans are hopeful that the defense can return to respectability next season.  Having the worst defense in the ACC since a middle-decade Duke team and by far the worst FSU defense in 30 years is just not acceptable.  Thanks to author RaysnNoles, we have figures on FSU's defensive drives. 

Click "continue reading this post" for the conclusion.

Here's a chart that breaks down just how long FSU was on the field in each game:

1st Pnts. 2nd Pnts. 1st Half Pnts. 3rd Pnts. 4th Pnts. 2nd Half Pnts. Total Pnts.
Miami 5:41 7 7:34 7 13:15 14 6:13 3 9:07 21 15:20 24 28:35:00 38
at BYU 2:21 0 8:00 14 10:21 14 6:16 7 3:34 7 9:50 14 20:11:00 28
USF 5:59 0 5:34 14 11:33 14 8:55 0 11:12 3 20:07 3 31:40:00 17
at BC 5:16 7 8:59 14 14:15 21 7:37 0 6:25 7 14:02 7 28:17:00 28
GT 4:55 14 4:42 14 9:37 28 10:51 14 7:21 7 18:12 21 27:49:00 49
at UNC 7:40 14 8:58 3 16:38 17 5:00 7 7:42 3 12:42 10 29:20:00 27
NCST 6:21 7 11:30 14 17:51 21 3:52 7 8:47 14 12:39 21 30:30:00 42
at Clem 7:56 6 5:39 8 13:35 14 3:46 7 9:57 19 13:43 26 27:18:00 40
at WF 8:00 7 6:38 7 14:38 14 9:45 7 5:44 7 15:29 14 30:07:00 28
MD 6:17 0 9:25 13 15:42 13 11:19 0 10:04 13 21:23 13 37:05:00 26
UF 10:03 7 9:54 17 19:57 24 2:38 6 8:49 7 11:27 13 31:24:00 37

70:29:00 69 86:53:00 125 157:22:00 194 76:12:00 58 88:42:00 108 164:54:00 166 322:16:00 360


That chart might be confusing.  Here is a chart indicating how long it took the opponent to score in each game:

< 1 min 1-2 mins 2-3 mins 3-4 mins 4-5 mins 5-8 mins 8-10 mins Total

Miami       1 3   1   1           6 5 1
Jax St.        1     1               2 1 1
at BYU 1   1       1   1           4 4 0
USF 1       1 1                 3 2 1
at BC         1   1   1   1       4 4 0
GT 3           1   2       1   7 7 0
at UNC 1   1       1     1   1     5 3 2
NCST 1       1   4               6 6 0
at Clem 2   1   2   1               6 6 0
at WF     1   2           1       4 4 0
MD     1       1 1   1 1       5 3 2
UF     1   2     1 1   1       6 5 1
Total 9 0 6 2 12 1 12 2 6 2 4 1 1 0 58 50 8


Interestingly, 52% of all opponent scoring drives took under 180 seconds.  Wow. 

But I noticed something else.  Look at the ratio of TD's to field goals!  At the very least you had to figure the defense could have held the opposing offense to a field goal rather than a touchdown.  But it just did not happen. And it was particularly bad in the red zone.  For comparison purposes, I used ACC play:


FSU allowed 27 touchdowns compared to just 4 field goals in the red zone!  I still have trouble understanding how that happens. 

But to get to the red zone, FSU also allowed opponents to march.  A loooooooong way.

90+ 80+ 70+ 60+ 50+ 40+ <40

Miami         2   2   1         1
Jax St.          1     1            
at BYU     3   1                  
USF 1       1                 1
at BC     2   1   1              
GT     1   2   2   1   1      
at UNC     1 1           1 1   1  
NCST     3   2               1  
at Clem 1       2           1   2  
at WF         4                  
MD         1       1 1     1 1
UF     1   1   1 1     1   1  

2 0 11 1 18 0 6 2 3 2 4 0 6 3
  • 2 TD Drives of 90+ yards!
  • 13 TD drives of 80+
  • 31 TD drives of 70 or more yards.  That is incredible. 
  • Think about this.  In their 11 games against D1 competition, FSU allowed more than 2 TD drives of 70+ yards, on average.  In fact, 30 TD drives of 70+ yards in just 11 D1 games is almost 3 per game.  Simply amazing. 

But those drives were not always time consuming.  FSU also allowed an unbelievable amount of long scores.  That was the worst part of the defense.  Common sense would hold that forcing the opposing offense to use more plays to traverse the field would increase the chance that the offense will make a mistake resulting in a drive-ending turnover or leading to a punt.  So teams just elected to go a long distance in relatively few plays:

1-4 plays 5-9 plays 10+ plays 1-3 plays 4-6 plays 7-10 plays 11+ plays

Miami     4 1 1       3 1 2      
Jax St.        1 1         1     1  
at BYU 2   1   1   1   1   1   1  
USF 1 1 1       1   1 1 1      
at BC     3   1       1   1   1  
GT 3   3   1   3       3   1  
at UNC 1   1   1 2 1   1   1 1   1
NCST 1   5       1   1   4      
at Clem 2   4       2   3   1      
at WF     3   1       2   1   1  
MD 1   1 2 1       1   1 2 1  
UF 1   2 1 1       3   1 1 1  

12 1 28 5 9 2 9 0 17 3 17 4 7 1

22.8% 57.9% 19.3% 15.5% 34.5% 36.2% 13.8%

Given what we know about the length of opponent drives, these numbers are amazing.  One immediate takeaway from this is that FSU needed to play more soft coverage.  Given the limited practice time in college football, offenses are often sloppy and unable to execute drives consisting of many plays without committing a drive-killing turnover or being forced to punt.  All indications are that new defensive coordinator Mark Stoops will play more 3-deep coverage which should lessen the frequency of the big plays allowed.  

Half of all scores allowed were a result of drives encompassing 6 or fewer plays.  Does that seem surprising to you? 

The most important takeaways from this are that FSU's defense was a lot worse in 2008 than most believed.  The cracks in the foundation were there and if you read TomahawkNation, you knew what was coming in 2009.  Because the 2008 defense was worse than the facial numbers indicate, the dropoff from last year to this year was smaller than many believe.  FSU must change its defensive mentality, philosophy, and scheme.  And they must get bigger.  There's every reason to expect that will happen, but a return to the top 30 is unlikely in year one of the Mark Stoops era.

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