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The FSU Defensive Line and the Relationship Between Sacks and Passes Defended

Today, I will be doubling your pleasure and doubling your fun. You will be fortunate enough to be reading a two part article that will go over the 2010 vs. 2011 defensive lines and also the relationship between sacks and the ability of a team to make plays on the ball.

We are all aware of the 2010 Seminoles defensive line that tied Boise State for the most sacks in the nation (48) a year after recording an abysmal 26. That defensive line featured the fine first year coaching of a young, energetic coach in D.J. Eliot and performed quite well in their first year playing big boy football under Jimbo Fisher. But, as an educated fan base, we are all mostly aware of the fact that these numbers skew the reality of our 2010 defensive line - a reality that caused us to lose football games when our young, overworked lineman couldn't generate a pass rush to save their lives. With no disrespect to our players, the 2010 FSU defensive line was simply and noticeably gassed towards the latter part of games for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to:

A) little to no useful coaching in years prior

2) a lack of quality depth or depth in general

D) a strength and conditioning program that Georgia State would laugh at

In fact, if you go back and think about the Oklahoma, NC State or Virginia Tech games, you may be hard pressed to remember Landry Jones, Russell Wilson or Tyrod Taylor breaking a sweat in the pocket or being touched. In this piece, I will analyze the impacts that this had on our 2010 team, what has changed and what we should expect going forward. The 24 sacks that we recorded in the 4 games vs. lowly teams such as BYU, Wake, Virginia and Samford also inflate our total and per game sack numbers because we recorded half of our sacks in those 4 games! In the 10 other games versus at least decent teams, we recorded the same number of sacks, 24. So in games versus crappy teams, we averaged 6 sacks per game while in games versus at least average teams, we averaged 2.4 sacks per game. A little more obvious now?

 

Now, for part two of this story, I will be analyzing a topic that is intimately related to defensive line play: the correlation between the ability of a defensive line to generate sacks and the ability of that team to make plays on the football (passes defended). In a story written by ricobert, that you should read, entitled Pass break-ups and Interceptions: Adjusted Pass Coverage Statistics [2010], he shows how the Seminoles in 2010 were only the 8th best team in the ACC for % of plays where an interception was recorded and according to the poll included in that piece, 94% of you believe the 2011 FSU team at least improve (if not drastically improve) their interception percentage as compared to 2010. Also, the Seminoles were the 21st best team in the country for passes defended per play but the 2011 version could quite easily improve upon that ranking. Why, you may ask? Defensive line pressure and sacks, my dear Watson. As ricobert explains:

"A lot of opponents threw against FSU. Quite a few of our opponents did their best to emulate OU's playcalling to hopefully take advantage of a young defense. After accounting for the number of passes against, we see FSU was not  not actually as elite as their total pass coverage stats suggest."

Most on here are knowledgeable enough about football to know that putting pressure on an opposing quarterback is the easiest way to make your secondary look like world beaters. So lets explore how our 2010 defensive line impacted our teams' ability to defend the pass and how the 2011 edition should fare, shall we?

So for starters, lets begin with the 2010 defensive line. As previously stated, most of us (and ESPECIALLY the media) recognize that FSU tied for the national lead in sacks and finished 3rd in the nation in sacks per game (3.43). But the more educated fan knows that these numbers overrate the level of play that these players were able to sustain. [Most sacks on a team come from the defensive line (35 of our 48 sacks were by defensive lineman), so as such, I will be analyzing the defensive line only.] The defensive line was largely unable to generate a pass rush throughout large portions of games and towards the end of games and towards the end of the regular season, the lineman simply had nothing left to give. Lets revisit the three reasons why the 2010 defensive line struggled:

A) Little to no useful coaching in years prior. Jody Allen was the coach of the defensive ends prior to the arrival of Coach Eliot and to be frank, Allen may not have been qualified to coach high school ball in Alaska. Odell Haggins was still on staff coaching the defensive tackles, but when you have ZERO cohesiveness among your defensive ends and defensive tackles, you simply cannot expect to be on the same page. To make matters worse, we were not using a playbook on defense so the line was in a position to fail.

2) A lack of quality depth or depth in general. I'm going to defer to D for the explanation to this. There is a reason Jimbo is having so many defensive lineman recruited. We were replacing our tired starters with players that weren't quite yet capable of being effective.

D) A strength and conditioning program that Georgia State would laugh at. It is WELL documented how much bigger our players are on average. Heck, just today Adam Tolliver posted an article discussing the matter here. Bud has made a point of stating that we are better served to purposely recruit size, as speed will always be there (and not vice versa) in the state of Florida. Jimbo has made it clear that he intends on having this team as big as possible (much like his LSU team) as we are recruiting defensive lineman coming IN at 300 pounds, whereas we didn't possess a player in 2009 that weighed 3 bills. We are recruiting ends that weighed what our defensive tackles weighed only a few short years ago. Our average defensive tackle currently weighs 300.5 pounds and our average end clocks in at 260.7 pounds. But not only are our players big, they are STRONG and CONDITIONED (hence, strength and conditioning). What are the implications of that? Defensive lineman that can dominate the opposing offensive line. But wait, we did that last year, didn't we (after all we led the nation in sacks)? Tell that to Russell Wilson and Tyrod Taylor. The extra strength and conditioning of our players should cause them to be JUST as dominant late into games and late into the season - an upgrade that will make a WORLD of difference.

The players tried their hardest and we had talented lineman on the roster in 2010 but they were not ready. They were being effectively coached for the first time since high school and they were finally putting the right food in their bodies and working out like Division-I athletes should. The difference is night and day.

Just so you can see what I'm talking about in our defensive lineman being tired in the NCST, Clemson and Virginia Tech games and DOMINATED in the Oklahoma and game, consider this:

Versus Russell Wilson and NC State, we recorded a not-too-shabby three sacks. But Russell Wilson also happened to rush for three touchdowns and 69 yards (sure seemed more like 169 yards). Against Tyrod Taylor and the Hokies, Taylor was sacked three times but gashed us for 269 yards, 3 passing TDs and ran for another score as he was able to sit there, with ZERO pressure and dissect the defense. Against Clemson, we recorded a single sack and nearly lost the game as the mediocre Kyle Parker completed 28 passes for 239 yards. The lineman may not have been tired in the Oklahoma game but the lack of quality depth and the lack of experience and coaching was seriously exploited, only two games into new coaching. Landry Jones could've had a steak dinner in the pocket without an FSU d-lineman pressuring him as he was sacked a single, lonely time. Without pressure, the QB racked up 380 yards and 4 TD's on 75% passing. On a separate note, it is hard to say that we didn't put enough pressure on T.J. Yates, as we recorded five sacks in that game but the pressure may have not been consistent enough (I don't have the video to go back and look) as the guy threw for more yards than Landry Jones (439) and a 3TD to 0INT.

Why have Yankees fans hated Alex Rodriguez (other than the fact that he is wildly overpaid)? He's been known to hit a homerun or two when the Bronx Bombers are down 10-2 in the eighth. Translation? Coming up big when it matters and being consistent. If your defensive line records five sacks on the first two drives of the game but by the third quarter can't even make the opposing QB sweat, they have done a poor job. Of course, the stat sheet will still read an impressive 5 sacks but they will have been ineffective. This was the story of our 2010 season. We posted impressive sack numbers but by the end of games and towards the end of the season, our kids had no legs left to push. In similar fashion, due to a lack of good coaching and minimal time to develop as elite lineman, Oklahoma manhandled our defensive line and kept Landry Jones clean. What happened in the games that we struggled to consistently generate pressure on the opposing QB? We either lost (NCST, Clem, VT and maybe UNC) or BARELY won (Clemson).

Fast forward just a single year and the tides have certainly turned. We have a depth chart along the defensive line that could split into two squads and have each likely be the best in the ACC. We have EIGHT interior defensive lineman that would start for most ACC teams - meaning we go FOUR DEEP at both NG and DT! Not only do these players have another year of coaching and technique under their belts but they are ALL hovering around or over 300 pounds! And to make things even SCARIER, not a SINGLE one of them is a senior... think about that. We don't have a senior on the defensive line and yet Rivals ranks us the #1 defensive line in the nation! And as if things couldn't get any better, true freshman Timmy Jernigan might already be the best of the bunch, demanding triple teams in practice and already displaying impressive technique/moves! That's too many exclamation points for one paragraph! With Jacobbi McDaniel back at his natural 3-tech position, the former 5* recruit might finally be able to become the dominant force he was thought to become.

So, what is the implication of all of these goodies at interior defensive lineman? Doing a quick calculation, there are 5 offensive lineman. We play one defensive tackle and one nose guard at a time in our base 4-3 defense. Those two players will be elite - almost guaranteed to be stronger and more talented from the o-lineman attempting to block them. And guess what? When our DT/NG gets tired... we will sub them for a player that presents little to no dropoff. Good luck blocking that. So, what does the offensive line do? Well, typically the center and one or both guards will be responsible for blocking these two interior lineman. The only problem there is that if you double team the talented DT, the talented NG has a much easier road to leveling your QB against only a single offensive lineman (and vice versa). Which leads me to my next point...

Junior defensive end Brandon Jenkins all but certainly has just a single year left on campus. The nice thing about third year college players that know are good enough to be high draft picks after their third year are in a "contract year" mentality all year. Football is about money (as Miami football) and Brandon Jenkins stands to make a LOT of it if he can simply repeat his performance of last season. In his first REAL season (I don't even consider the 2009 season to be real), Jenkins finished as a second team All-American and entering the 2011 season, the premier end has already been picked as a preseason All-American and has been named to the Lott, Nagurski and Bednarik award watch list. And do you know what the scary part is? Jenkins has put on over 20 pounds since the end of last season. Jenkins is one of the best defensive ends in the nation and could very well be better than Everette Brown. 13.5 sacks as a sophomore is ridiculous. He will most certainly command consistent double teams, but I will save that for a minute.

We do lose Markus White at end (he performed quite well last year) but we replace him with a guy that is besser. No, I didn't misspell "better", I just said it in German. Sophomore Bjoern Werner is a bad, bad man. At 6'4" 273 and naturally strong as an ox AND he has a premier S&C program at his disposal  - watch as he throws up three plates in this video. Wesley Bunting recently tweeted "Going over FSU tape now...I agree that the best senior OT prospect goes to #FloridaState, but I think it's Sanders over Datko." Why is this significant, you may ask? Well, our boy Bjoern Werner drank Sanders milkshake in the scrimmage, beating him on FOUR STRAIGHT PLAYS for a sack. Rewind. True sophomore end beats senior and likely top NFL draft pick on FOUR STRAIGHT PLAYS for a sack. Werner was rewarded for his impressive effort and improvement when he was named the springs Defensive MVP. and he has done nothing but continue that reputation into fall camp. In his freshman season, Werner seemed to ALWAYS put pressure on the opposing QB (even if he didn't get the sack) and with another year of good coaching under his belt, there is no reason to believe that he won't blow up. Much like Jenkins, Werner is the kind of player that will require frequent double teams. I'll get to this in just a minute, however.

Also, spelling Werner just so happens to be the top JuCo player in the nation in Cornellius Carradine. If you have never seen him, this is a picture from BEFORE he got to FSU and he has only gotten bigger since, gaining 12 pounds over summer. Carradine is a physical freak that dominated the junior college ranks and as Bud said in his commitment post, "Carradine is an elite athlete and a dangerous pass rusher.  His technique needs considerable work, but he has the explosion and balance needed to get after the quarterback." We are actually in a good position to let him work on his technique, with two cupcake games up first on the schedule, two great players (Werner and Jenkins) to learn from and no pressure to perform at the highest level immediately with Werner playing so well in front of him.

So, again, lets do some quick math. We already noted that Jenkins will require double teams and Werner likely will too. That's four opposing players needed in order to block two of our ends. We've already said that the three interior offensive lineman will be required to block our DT and NG, so we're talking about seven opposing players needed in order to block our defensive lineman - and that will leave either our DT or NG with one man to beat. Given that all five of the opposing offensive lineman will be occupied, teams will have to keep at LEAST one tight end in to block and also likely keep a running back in to chip. What just happened there is that we took two of the opposing teams weapons off of the field. We now have seven players in coverage against only four players eligible to receive. I like those numbers and that will lead to a number of coverage sacks and plays on the ball (hmm, I wonder if we'll be visiting this in a little bit). We can even afford to blitz a player (who could quite easily be running free through a gap) and still have six in coverage against four opposing offensive threats. And the best part is that when our guys get tired, we will rotate them our for other lineman that should not be considered much of a drop-off (except from Jenkins to Hicks, although Jenkins should be on the field a LOT and should be conditioned to handle it this time). There should be no more instances where we reach the end of games and our coaches have to decide whether to play the gassed lineman that have no chance of pressuring the quarterback or replace them with low-quality players than also have no shot of touching the QB. The game is won in the trenches and our trenches just so happen to be the best.

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What have we learned here? We have a dominant defensive line and that one of the effects of this should be freeing up the rest of the team to make plays - plays on the ball. As ricobert explains in his article:

"Good coverage means you're in the hip pocket of your offensive opponent, ready to swat or steal the ball out of the air should it be thrown your way. Or, especially in the zone-heavy schemes of today's college football, you've hidden underneath perfectly near the seam of an opponent's route - unbeknownst to the college quarterback. Pitch and catch, pick-six."

The easiest way to allow your defensive back to make these plays is by forcing the opposing QB to make bad decisions. In 2010, our defense managed to get to the quarterback the most times of any team in the country but they failed to consistently force the opposing QB to make bad decisions (hence NCST, Clem, VT, UNC, OU). We recorded just 14 interceptions in 2010, despite sacking opposing QBs 48 times, so what does that mean? I'm not going to be ignorant and refuse to acknowledge the fact that pressuring and sacking the QB can also result in a PBU, which is sometimes just as effective as an INT. We were extremely good at breaking up passes in 2010. In the first year of Mark Stoops bend-but-don't-break scheme, our players were put in position to make plays on the ball and they often did. Our 62 pass breakups were good for sixth best in the nation and our passes broken up per pass play was good for 17th in the nation. So, we did do a pretty good job of putting our team in position to make plays on the ball. But, was this the result of our consistently putting pressure on the quarterback? Going simply off of what I remember seeing last year (and I've watched every game 3+ times), I don't believe so. Our line was ineffective against the pass during large periods of games. We just so happen to have three cornerbacks that were excellent at making plays on the ball. Greg Reid (17), Xavier Rhodes (16) and Mike Harris (9) finished 1,2,3 on the team in passes defended and combined to accumulate 42 of the teams 62 breakups - good for over 67%!!

So let's examine how the top-20 teams in the country in passes defended fared in sacks and vice versa in 2010.

2010 Passes Defended vs. Sacks

Team PD Sacks Sacks Rank
Oregon 102 33.0 23
Oklahoma 90 37.0 9
UCF 83 32.0 27
Virginia Tech 82 34.0 14
Kansas State 81 20.0 86
Hawai'i 79 31.0 32
Miami (Ohio) 79 35.0 14
Alabama 79 27.0 51
Florida State 77 48.0 1
Oklahoma State 76 29.0 41
Tulsa 76 30.0 32
Maryland 76 28.0 46
San Diego State 74 28.0 46
Texas Tech 70 25.0 61
Nebraska 70 31.0 29
LSU 70 34.0 17
Michigan State 69 20.0 86
Arizona 69 33.0 23
Stanford 68 35.0 11
Ohio 67 24.0 65
Averages 76.85 30.7 36th

Now, let's take a look at the opposite table: how the top 20 (22) teams in sacks performed in defending passes.

2010 Sacks vs. Passes Defended

Team Sacks PD PD Rank
Florida State
48.0 77
23
Boise State
48.0 54
9
West Virginia
45.0 64
27
NC State
42.0 54
14
South Carolina
41.0 54
86
Troy 40.0 59
32
Louisville 39.0 39
14
Missouri 38.0 65
51
Oklahoma 37.0 90
1
Miami (FL)
37.0 63
41
Arkansas 36.0 52
32
Stanford 36.0 68
46
Kent State
36.0 60
46
Miami (OH)
35.0 79
61
Virginia Tech
35.0 82
29
Fresno State
35.0 46
17
Auburn 34.0 51
86
California 34.0 56
23
LSU 34.0 70
11
Pittsburgh 34.0 55
11
Mid Tenn
34.0 51
11
Nevada 34.0 57
65
Averages 37.8 61.18 41st

The results of this little experiment are rather interesting. In both cases, there is a relatively strong correlation between the two variables. The top-20 teams that defend the most passes in the nation record on average the 36th most sacks in the nation. In the case of the top-22 teams that record the most sacks, they record on average the 41st most pass defenses in the country. These two results are only 5 places off (36th and 41st) but it still shows that teams who defend the most passes are better at recording sacks than teams who are the best at recording sacks are at defending passes. Translation? You can be good at getting to the opposing quarterback and still not have all that many chances at making a play on the ball. On the other hand, if you are good at defending passes, you are more likely to have been good at getting to the quarterback. Lets look at this another way:

The teams that defend the most passes hold, on average, a 2.5 to 1 PD/Sack ratio.

The teams that record the most sacks hold, on average, a 1.62 to 1 PD/Sack ratio.

That my friends, is a big difference. I would expect (as was the case) that both scenarios - being top-20 at sacks or pass defenses - would lead to being in the top half of the other category. If any of you statistics guys want to run some variance and R2 on this, please, be my guest.

The good news for us this year is that we have one of the best secondaries (so long as we get a solid starter out of the FS spot) in the nation paired with the best defensive line in the nation. Translation? Guys that will make plays on the ball whether there is pressure on the quarterback or not and guys that will make plays on the ball because our D-Line is making the opposing QB make bad decisions. Obviously, an interception is better than a pass breakup in most cases and we are VERY likely to see that total increase this year for multiple reasons:

A) Players become more comfortable in their zones. In all likelihood, players were landmark dropping instead of pattern reading (we saw this disappear towards the end of the '10 season). In some cases, players were missing their zones altogether.

2) We now have one of the safety spots occupied by a guy that is great in coverage and has ball skills in Joyner.

D) We have a defensive line that will get consistent pressure on opposing QBs and will do so late into games and late into the season. I think I've amply shown how pressure by the line will create an opportunity for plays on the ball.

Sacks and passes defended are intimately related. Six teams in the nation finished in the top-20 in both categories in 2010 (Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, Miami (OH), FSU, LSU and Stanford). Re-read that list and then take a look at the postseason rankings. Other than Miami (OH), ALL of the other teams finished the season ranked no worse than 17th in the country (and Miami (OH) even received votes than ranked them inside the top 30 in the AP!). Stanford (4/4), Oklahoma (6/6), LSU (8/8), Virginia Tech (16/15), FSU (17/16) and Miami (OH) (30/31) ended with a composite ranking of 13.5/13.3! That is not a coincidence folks.

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Well, there you have it folks! It's been a fun ride and I apologize in advance if I stopped making sense at any point, because those tables took me so damn long that I lost my train of thought and ability to use my brain.

Many thanks to ricobert for the great info that he provided in his piece that I was able to get a lot of good info from (and for the code for the tables)!

Hope you enjoyed reading and feel free to tear it to shreds!

15 days and we'll have no more need to speculate.

**Addition***

It’d surely be tough to argue that our ridiculous number of sacks were the result of good coverage (coverage sacks) because we were running a very simple bend but don’t break zone. We definitely has such plays happen but I’d be more inclined to say that we has a dead even distribution of

1) Pressure on the QB causing passes to be defended (Jenkins was held a shitload and nearly got to the QB a TON more than he did – scary, huh? – therefore pressuring the QB into making bad decisions and causing PDs)

2) Having a good combination of guys in the secondary that are in good position almost all of the time (Xavier Rhodes and Mike Harris) and guys who take risks on the ball (Greg Reid). This is why the trio accounted for such a large percentage of our teams defended passes and certainly not all of those were caused by pressure on the QB (recall the play by Joyner in the back right corner of the endzone on a deep, deep fade – the QB was NOT pressured and Joyner just made a good play on the ball. Guess who’s starting this year?) It’s weird that for us, we seemed to have a pretty even distribution of both and although our team should be one of the premier teams in the nation at defending passes, our defensive line should be SO dominant that sacks will cause more defended passes than vice versa (although we will see our fair share of coverage sacks).

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