Florida State's Defense On Third-&-Long

A lot of Seminole fans have been freaking out about the defense on third/fourth & long downs. Let's clear some things up:

1. FSU's defense on third/fourth & long was not an issue against Duke before garbage time.

2. This has been an issue in other games

3rd/4th & Long before 34-3 score
3-10 Duke 20 Renfree, S pass complete to Vernon, C for 11 yards to the DUKE31, 1ST DOWN DUKE P1 (PARKS,T.). Quick strike over the middle, good route, miscommunication between Rhodes and Parks I think.
3-9 Duke 32 Renfree, S pass intercepted by DAWKINS,E. at the DUKE25, DAWKINS,E. return 0 yards to the DUKE25 (Renfree, S). Excellent pass rush by the defensive line, Werner bats the ball and Dawkins with good awareness intercepts. Terrible broken ankle here for McDaniel.
3-6 FSU 22 Renfree, S pass complete to Helfet, C for 2 yards to the FSU20 (PARKS,T.). FSU blitzes, forces quick throw, and Parks is actually there to make the stop.
3-12 Duke 30 Renfree, S pass incomplete to Varner, D. ^$^*# Jenkins is badly held, no flag. FSU forces the short throw and the coverage is excellent.
3-17 Duke 38 Renfree, S sacked for loss of 6 yards to the DUKE32 (WERNER,B.). Nice pass rush from Werner and hey, Demonte McAllister gets pass pressure. Timmy Jernigan is badly held!
3-19 Duke 35 Renfree, S pass complete to Vernon, C for 17 yards to the FSU48. FSU makes Duke throw short of the sticks and this is a really tough throw on the skinny post. Successful third down IMO.

Let's first look at how defended third and fourth & long against Duke. This is defined as "5 or more yards to go." 

When the outcome of the game was still remotely in doubt, FSU's defense dominated, stopping Duke on 5 of 6 attempts.

You can see the breakdown of these six plays, at left. These are pulled from the Florida State Film Review.

Below, you'll see that once FSU got up 34-3, they let up a bit on the focus and Duke made some very nice plays. That combination allowed Duke to convert a few. 

But should you care that Duke converted some in the fourth quarter, down 34-3? I wouldn't.

Yet FSU's issues aren't necessarily solved. Inside, I examine the garbage-time downs against Duke, what happened in the other games, and what will change going forward.

3rd/4th & Long after 34-3 score
3-12 Duke 27 Renfree, S pass complete to Braxton, B for 15 yards to the DUKE42, 1ST DOWN DUKE P7 (RHODES,X.). Lamarcus Joyner comes on the blitz and misses the QB. He got there clean. Well-designed blitz and Mike Harris does a great job occupying. But Joyner must make this sack. He was unimpeded.
3-10 Duke 42 Renfree, S pass incomplete, QB hurry by DAWKINS,E.. Another blitz by FSU. Not well executed as Harris and Telvin hit the same gap. Miscommunication by Duke causes pass to be overthrown wildly.
3-21 Duke 45 Renfree, S pass complete to Thompson, J for 14 yards to the FSU41 (WILLIAMS,V.). This I don't like. Why is Vince Williams on the field for third & 21? Perhaps Stoops wanted him to work on his coverage, because he definitely should not be out there in a non-garbage situation. Williams misses the tackle in space and gives up an extra 8 yards. Vince better not be on the field for 3rd and 5+ next week. In which case I do not care.
4-7 FSU 41 Renfree, S pass complete to Holliday, B for 9 yards to the FSU32, 1ST DOWN DUKE. P8 Greg Reid didn't play nearly as bad as some suggest, but I do put this one on him for not being alert. Too slack on the comeback against a slower player.
3-17 FSU 39 Renfree, S rush for 5 yards to the FSU34, out-of-bounds (LUC,J.). Jeff Luc and Telvin Smith looking good here, forcing QB to the sidelines.
4-12 FSU 34 Renfree, S pass complete to Vernon, C for 13 yards to the FSU21, 1ST DOWN DUKE. P9 FSU is clearly blitzing. Duke sees the blitz. FSU elects to blitz anyway. In a competitive situation, I'd like to see FSU check out of this. Some put this on Greg Reid, but Greg's body language suggests Jeff Luc did not get deep enough in his drop for a 4th-12 situation. I am convinced Stoops was repping some stuff here with the younger guys, because he didn't call the defense like this when FSU was stopping Duke on 5 of 6 third and longs.
3-7 FSU 18 Renfree, S pass complete to Vernon, C for 17 yards to the FSU1, 1ST DOWN DUKE (REID,G.). P10 This is not a bad play by Greg Reid at all. In this play, Reid is required to play tight man coverage and not allow the receiver an inside release. He does his job. The weakness in this coverage? A perfectly thrown back-shoulder fade. Which is exactly what Duke's QB threw. And it still took a circus catch by the All-ACC receiver to make it work. I hope Greg got a "+" for this coverage because there is nothing wrong with the job he did here. Every defense has a weakness, and if the opponent can identify it and then make the difficult throw, you have to tip your cap. This is a good QB and FSU shut him down for most of the day. He'll have a few of these.
3-6 FSU 24 Renfree, S pass incomplete to Braxton, B, QB hurry by JENKINS,B.. Why is Vince Williams on the field for third & 6? Duke misfires.
4-6 FSU 24 Renfree, S pass complete to Vernon, C for 19 yards to the FSU5, 1ST DOWN DUKE (MOODY,N.). P12 FSU brings a big blitz, it does not get home, and QB has time to find the All-AC receiver. Mismatch on Moody. Also, I think Rhodes was supposed to be dropping to a sideline hook zone and he didn't. Lack of focus with the big lead.

 

But this was an issue against Clemson and Wake Forest. FSU's defense has been 8th on standard downs, but just 38th on passing downs.

Why? I have my theories on this.

First, there is a perception problem. FSU's defense is so vastly improved that it is forcing more long down situations. In previous years, the defense would face third and short, or simply give up a first down on first or second down.

Second, even though the defense is forcing more of these situations, we are still dealing with a rather limited sample set of perhaps 50 plays, if that. Even fewer in non-garbage time. In such a limited sample set, things can be skewed by a great offensive play or two, random bad luck, or a horrible call.

Third, is just that, penalties. FSU has been the victim of some atrociously bad calls on third down and long situations this year. You'd like to think it will even out, but even if it doesn't, that's not something FSU can control. 

Fourth, overconfidence in the linebackers. FSU's linebackers played a great game against Oklahoma. Much better than anyone expected. You have to wonder if Mark Stoops wasn't overconfident in the surprising coverage skills of his linebackers. Not that this was unjustified, because Stoops had every reason to be confident. To him, it made more sense to stay in the base defense that had worked so well against Oklahoma, rather than trying to run some new nickel package without Greg Reid.

Unfortunately, it didn't work. They were exposed against Clemson and to some extent, Wake Forest. But they also had to play a bit, because FSU was without at least one of its top three cornerbacks for a decent part of those games, making nickel and dime formations difficult to play. 

Fifth, the injuries mentioned above. None of FSU's corners have been healthy for the first six games. The injuries haven't been major, but they have definitely impacted FSU's defense. 

How often did FSU play nickel/dime defense (5 or 6 defensive backs) on 3rd/4th-&-long:

9% of the time against Clemson (no Greg Reid b/c of leg injury)
3 7 Three-Four
3 9 Four-Three
3 5 Three-Four
3 29 Four-Three
3 5 Four-Three
3 10 Three-Four
3 5 Three-Four
3 10 Three-Three
3 14 Four-Three
3 10 Four-Three
3 6 Four-Three

33% of the time against Wake (no Mike Harris for much of the game due to injury)
3 13 Three-Four
3 5 Three-Three
3 5 Three-Four
3 12 Four-Three
3 5 Four-Two
3 19 Four-Three
3 25 Four-Three
3 10 Three-Four
3 11 Four-Three
3 8 Three-Four
3 8 Four-Two
3 6 Four-Two

100% of the time against Duke
3 10 Three-Three
3 9 Four-Two
3 6 Four-Two
3 12 Four-Two
3 17 Four-Two
3 19 Four-Two

Source: The best play-by-play stat sheet on the net.

Duke was the first game since Oklahoma that FSU had all three corners stay on the field for most of the game. 

With the corners apparently healthy, and the emergence of extra defensive back Terrence Brooks (the one positive to come from the injuries to the corners has been then Stoops can now trust Brooks more), expect to see more nickel/dime on passing downs from this defense, and far fewer instances in which Nigel Bradham and Vince Williams are on the field together.

Here's DRN's thoughts:

Even though Rhodes got banged up again, he just looks healthier and more like himself. Saw signs of his old burst/closing speed against Wake and again last week. If Harris isn’t completely healthy…God help opponents when he is. Very pleased with Brooks’ play overall. Thought he looked good in spot play previous two weeks and played a lot against Duke, looks like a freshman at times…but lots of upside.

With an elite defensive front, FSU doesn't need to blitz all that much. Playing coverage with players suited to cover behind a great pass-rushing front will take this defense from very good to elite.

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