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Florida State's pass defense issues weren't just about the rush: Behind the numbers

The pass rush is but one issue affecting the overall numbers.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

David Hale of ESPN is one of my favorite sports writers, and FSU and ACC fans are very lucky that he covers so much ACC football. One of the best things Hale does is utilize the data ESPN generates -- something far too few of their writers do, which is a shame because the data is proprietary. And he recently tackled FSU's 2014 pass defense issue. Please read that before reading my commentary on it. It's good and is quite different from this. Percentages in this article are derived from Hale's work.

Florida State's pressure on the QB really did not differ much in 2014 and 2013: The Seminoles pressured the QB only 1% less -- or about one less pressured dropback every three games. That's negligible.

But FSU was blitzing more -- 25 percent more. So it was having to expend more resources to generate the same amount of pressure.

The bigger issue was that quarterbacks under pressure in 2014 threw for 64 percent more yards per attempt than they did in 2013. That suggests the issue is more about the secondary.

Further evidence that this is more about the secondary and linebackers in coverage comes from Hale's numbers on QB play against FSU's defense when they were not under pressure:

  • The 2014 defense allowed 40% more yards/attempt  than the 2013 unit!
  • FSU saw its touchdowns allowed nearly double and its interceptions slash by more than half.
  • Completions of more than 30 yards when not under pressure went up by 67 percent.

All of those numbers are drastic, with the TD/INT numbers probably having the most misleading due to variance and red zone tendency, but FSU's defense allowing 67 percent more plays of 30+ yards when the QB was not under pressure, over an almost identical number of opportunities is nuts and suggests that the communication and coverage issues FSU experienced, particularly in the middle of the field due to linebacker and safety play, were very real.

FSU's defense had to replace two tremendous defenders in the back end in Terrence Brooks, who was criminally underrated, and Lamarcus Joyner. The two members of the secondary were not all-stars, as sophomore Nate Andrews was exposed as lacking range in moving from his very limited role as a sixth defensive back to a starting safety, and Tyler Hunter was not always the most committal. Brooks and Joyner went in the second and third rounds, while based on their 2014 play, Hunter and Andrews don't project to sniff that. Joyner also had a very unique ability on the blitz to impact the QB, which could have gotten home.

Add to that FSU's linebackers struggled with injury, and were not the best in coverage even when healthy, and that created much larger areas in which to throw the ball between the hashes -- areas where QBs with average arms can exploit a defense as long as they can anticipate a little bit. Florida State allowed a lot of throws up the seams.

(It's also worth noting how highly regarded cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby are by NFL teams despite the downturn in the team's pass defense.)

Another issue that Hale did not discuss (but perhaps he will) is the play-action pass. Florida State's run defense was nowhere near as good in 2014 as 2013, and it had much smaller leads overall, which meant that the defense had to respect the run a lot more, hurting the pass rush and the coverage.

But while FSU's defense had a significant dropoff, it did not fall as short of expectations as some fans seem to think. Simply put: FSU's 2013 defense was one of the best in the BCS era, and it played a lot of bad quarterbacks. Florida State's 2014 unit faced a lot of QBs and receivers who made big time throws and catches, both under pressure and into contested coverage.

If you compare the quarterbacks faced in 2014 v. 2013, it's not unreasonable to think that 7 or 8 of the best 10 between the two years were from the 2014 season. Even if the same players and coaches from 2013 had all come back in 2014, it's pretty unreasonable to think that the same results could have been achieved.