Florida State's 2009 defense was one of the worst defenses in the history of the ACC. And while the run defense was absolutely worse and fixing it must be the top priority, FSU also had trouble pressuring the passer. The 'Noles relied on old techniques that college coaches have long since schemed around (mainly thinking that using only speed off the edge will get the job done). Too often FSU did not push the pocket. We warned in the 2008 season review that the lack of blitz coordination and the general lack of a pass rush plan would probably render the 2009 pass rush less effective. And it did, but worse than any of us ever expected.
The graph at right shows how often teams sacked the quarterback in ACC play. The way to figure this out is quite simple: Sacks divided by pass plays (pass attempts + sacks). This measure is for ACC games only as that controls for differences in non-conference scheduling. And yes, this does not account for QB scrambles, but it is the most effective measure we have for this. As you can see, sacking the quarterback is not essential to playing good defense. But getting pressure relative to the resources a team devotes to playing coverage is how great pass defenses work. The best example of playing great defense without sacking the quarterback is Boston College. The Eagles rarely if ever send more than 4 men at the passer. They prefer to play coverage. And they've had one of the best 5 defenses in the country for 2 years running. It's clear that finding the optimal mix of pressure and coverage is the key. But FSU did neither well last season, and it came up with sacks on only 4.2% of pass plays. And while that might have worked if the 'Noles preferred to play coverage, it was downright disastrous because FSU devoted most of its resources not to coverage, but to pressure. Also keep in mind that FSU did not get to play its own offense, which was the best pass protecting unit the ACC has seen in some time.
Coach Jimbo Fisher hired Mark Stoops of Arizona to fix the defense. Stoops has quite the track record as a defensive guru. His Arizona defense finished 28th in the country. But I wanted to know how effective his Arizona defense was at pressuring the passer. Did they do it well? How did they do pressure the passer? Was the pressure more a result of personnel, or coaching/ scheme? Let's go to the chart:
This measure is for Pac-10 games only as that controls for differences in non-conference scheduling. As you can see, no team sacked the quarterback more often than Arizona. For those who do not like the frequency measure, 'Zona recorded 28 sacks in conference play. FSU recorded 9. Additionally, Arizona did not have a single 1st-team ALL-Pac 10 player on defense. They did have several on the 2nd team. Most of those were seniors and none of those seniors are getting serious NFL consideration. Certainly none of them are likely 1st-day draft picks. That's consistent with the recruiting talent available to Arizona.
We often hear the popular refrain from FSU fans that "FSU's defense doesn't have that dominant defensive end and that is what's wrong with the defense." But Stoops defense did not feature dominant, NFL-prototype defensive linemen either. I've watched a bit of Arizona recently and one thing that you don't see from them that unfortunately you do see from the 'Noles is guys running past the pocket. "The worst place for a pass rusher to be is behind the quarterback." -- Bill Belichek. They might not have the fastest guys, but Stoops' players effectively shrunk the pocket and the various zone blitzes he threw at the quarterbacks in the Pac-10 (some pretty good QBs) confused them. Often the quarterback would pull the ball down after realizing his target was not open. Then came the sack. When 'Zona blitzed, it was clear that the goal wasn't for everyone to get to the quarterback, but for everyone to execute their assignment (occupying a blocker) so that the player designated by the scheme could get to the passer.
Sacking the quarterback more often than any other team in a major conference like the Pac-10 is not an easy feat. Doing so without top-level talent is even tougher. I'll get into the scheme later this off-season when I have more time and a better feel for it. It will take time for FSU to adjust to this scheme and defenses typically take two years to fully adjust, but his results at Arizona are certainly encouraging for Florida State fans.