Florida State entered the 2011 season expecting, at the very least, modest improvement over its 41st ranked 2010 defensive performance. It was the second season under excellent coaching, most of the key pieces returned and Mark Stoops' system was no longer brand new to his players. The magnitude of expected improvement was a popular topic here at TN leading up to opening kickoff. I expected top-15, with a chance at top-10 if they stayed relatively healthy. What they did was turn in the NCAA's 6th best performance. If you look closely at the performance numbers from last year, there were really only two defenses in the entire country clearly better than FSU's: Alabama and LSU.
Last August I expected Defensive End and Cornerback to be the strongest position groups. Based on that assumption it seemed reasonable that pass defense would be the better half. It did not turn out that way, but the pass defense was still very, very good. Let's take a closer look at the numerical evidence.
Let's start with some overall numbers, courtesy of cfbstats.com. If you have not visited that site yet, you should. They have terrific filtering and sorting capabilities. Since I've always hated that official NCAA stats count QB sacks as running plays, I took the sack numbers and applied them to passing defense for all 120 teams. The ranking chart below contains data from Div 1-A competition only, with ACC teams highlighted. The chart is sorted to show per play rankings. I also included per game ranking just to illustrate how misleading "total" stats can be. I find it sad that just a couple years ago the ACC was a fabulous defensive league, topped only by the SEC and not by much. Last year, except for FSU and Virginia Tech, it was quite bad.
Intuition should be enough to convince yourself pass defense should be better with extra defensive backs on the field. But since that is the point of this, just go with it. First let's look at how much FSU utilized the 7-man front in the chart below.
The five games featuring the highest percentage of 7-man fronts: Oklahoma, Clemson, Notre Dame, Miami and Wake Forest. Why did FSU utilize so little nickel and dime personnel in these games? Of course there are many factors coaches must consider when choosing game plan and in-game adjustments, but I'll offer a couple of possible reasons.
Starting with the Oklahoma game, and throughout the three game losing streak, at least one of the Noles top three corners were not healthy and a fourth corner had yet to emerge as reliable. Also, FSU turned in one of the best defensive performances anyone had displayed against Oklahoma in years using almost nothing but 7-man fronts. The linebackers more than held their own in pass coverage, which perhaps gave the coaching staff a false sense of security heading into Clemson.
Against Notre Dame, FSU found itself down two starting corners and ran low on secondary options. However, that game illustrated the importance of Fisher's preference on recruiting and cross training versatile defensive backs. How many teams could lose both starting corners, move an all-conference caliber safety to one corner, insert its nickel back at the other corner, insert its dime back at the vacated safety position and NOT experience passing defense meltdown? Not many.
As for Miami, my guess is Stoops was much more concerned about their offensive line and running back than their QB. Just a guess based on them having an NFL running back and two or three linemen who were or will be drafted.
FSU typically wants to take away the run first, so it should be expected that 7-man fronts would be used more frequently when the opposing offense has a down/distance advantage. We call these standard downs. If we separate standard downs from passing downs we can get a better look at FSU's tendencies, as shown below.
Now the split becomes more obvious. FSU clearly changed its approach to pass defense after the Wake Forest game, preferring to pull LBs and add DBs in long yardage situations. How much different were the results with an extra DB or two? The next couple of charts should give you some idea.
FSU gave up just 3.25 yards per pass play (including QB sacks) when five or six defensive backs were on the field and 6.59 with only four. Completion percentage against was 20% lower. Also, FSU surrendered passing plays of 25+ yards at a 5.96% rate with 7-man fronts on the field against 0.8% with nickel/dime. Still not convinced? Let's take a closer look at where the Noles were vulnerable on passing defense.
FSU's pass defense suffered considerably more in the middle and underneath when playing 7-man fronts than nickel/dime, which happens to be the area of field for which linebackers are typically responsible. And an extra defensive back certainly helped defend against the deep ball, as well. However, teams did not challenge FSU deep very frequently with extra DBs patrolling.
Would more nickel and dime defense have made a difference in FSU's early season three-game losing streak? We can't say with any certainty, but what do you think? I think, yes.