Film Room: Notre Dame Defense Adjusts

After the first four games of the 2016 football season, the Notre Dame defense could rightfully be described as a raging tire fire. As a result of the horrific performance of the defense, Brian Kelly decided to make a change and fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. After watching the defense play against Syracuse, I’m comfortable upgrading their play from raging tire fire to a tire fire that’s under control. There was improvement, but there are still a number of issues that need to be fixed. In particular, the Notre Dame defense continues to struggle with pre-snap alignment. Let’s take a look at the film and I’ll show you what I mean.

play-1-ss-1-at-snap-offense-highlighted

Early in the game, Syracuse will go into an empty set with 3 receivers to one side of the field and 2 receivers to the other side. We are going to focus primarily on the 3 receiver side where Syracuse will run two vertical patterns and one intermediate pattern (orange lines).

play-1-ss-1-at-snap-throw-the-ball-here-highlight

The Irish defense counters with what could charitably be described as a unique pre-snap alignment. For some reason Notre Dame has decided to leave the middle of the field wide open (orange circle). The safeties (yellow circles) are far apart (red line), tempting the offense to throw the ball deep over the middle (black writing).

play-1-ss-2-post-snap-highlighted

The ball is in the air (orange circle) and the inside receiver (orange arrow) is wide open. It’s pretty clear what the issue is here, the safeties started too wide apart. Although they are trying to break on the ball, they can’t possibly close the gap fast enough. Fortunately, the receiver drops the pass this time and the Irish dodge a bullet.

I know what you are thinking, this is probably just a mental error and Notre Dame will have this fixed pretty quickly.

play-3-ss-1-highligted-offense

Late in the 1st quarter, does this formation from Syracuse look familiar? Again, we’ve got an empty set with 3 receivers to one side. Syracuse will run a vertical pattern with the inside receiver (orange lines). After nearly getting beat for a touchdown on an almost identical play earlier in the quarter we won’t leave the middle of the field wide open again… will we?

play-3-ss-1-highlighted-throw-the-ball-here

Well, the safeties aren’t quite as wide as the last example, but they are still lined up at the numbers (yellow circles) which is pretty far apart (red line). This alignment will make it difficult for them to make plays in the middle of the field where Syracuse is looking to attack (orange circle).

play-3-ss-2-highlighted

The ball is about to arrive (orange circle) and once again all the inside receiver (orange arrow) had to do was run to the space vacated by the safeties. As with the previous play, poor pre-snap alignment led to a void in the middle of the defense that was easy to exploit. The two safeties are woefully out of positon (yellow circles) and Syracuse gets an easy completion downfield.

play-4-ss-1-highlighted-throw-the-ball-here

Towards the end of the 2nd quarter, another empty set with 3 receivers to one side of the formation.  Once again we see the safeties fairly wide apart (yellow arrows) and once again this leaves the middle of the field vacated (orange circle). Since they are in the red zone, Syracuse won’t attack the deep middle (because they will run out of space) instead they will attack underneath (orange line). For Notre Dame to have any chance on this play, middle linebacker Nyles Morgan (#5, yellow star) will have to prevent the receiver from going inside. If he doesn’t, the middle of the defense is pretty much wide open.

play-4-ss-2-highlighted-pass-complete

As you can see, the receiver got inside and is in the process of catching the ball (orange circle). If the safety’s pre-snap alignment wasn’t so wide he might have been in position to break this pass up (yellow circle). Instead this will be a touchdown for Syracuse.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

I really can’t tell you what the coaching staff was thinking with this alignment. I would be stunned if this was simply players lining up in the wrong spot. I believe this wide safety alignment was part of the game plan. It happened too often to be a mistake. I can only guess that the Irish were concerned about the perimeter passing game and also wanted to give their young corners some extra help over the top. While those are valid concerns, it seems insane to align your safeties so the middle of the field is wide open. It really is an odd decision from the Notre Dame coaching staff.

I must admit, I’m getting sick of writing about the defense. It’s been very frustrating watching them make the same mistakes over and over again this year. However as the heading for this section suggests, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The Irish defense did finally adjust their pre-snap alignment and when they did, it made a difference.

play-5-ss-1-highlighted

This isn’t an empty set, but Syracuse has 3 receivers to the bottom of the screen shot and they will run a vertical pattern with the inside receiver (orange arrow and line).

On the top of the screen shot, you can see that Notre Dame still has one of their safeties wide and over the numbers (yellow arrow). The adjustment is that they have moved the safety on the 3 receiver side of the formation head up on the inside receiver (blue line). You can just barely see Drue Tranquill (#23, blue arrow) behind the icon with the score. He has moved from an outside alignment over the numbers to more of an inside alignment towards the hash, which puts him in great position if the inside receiver runs vertical.

play-5-ss-2-highlighted

A fraction of a second after the snap. You can see the quarterback looks immediately (orange line) to the inside receiver running the vertical route (orange arrow). Notre Dame has him well covered though. Nyles Morgan is underneath (yellow star) and Drue Tranquill is over the top (yellow arrow, note: Tranquill is out of the screen shot, but he’s there).

This simple adjustment to the pre-snap alignment of the safety means that the middle of the field is no longer vacated. As a result, the quarterback didn’t have an easy throw, instead he had to hold onto the ball and was almost sacked. Nice defense by the Irish.

play-6-ss-1-highlighted-adjustment

Another 3×1 receiver set, with the inside receiver running a vertical pattern to the deep middle (orange line). The safety at the top of the screen shot remains wide (yellow arrow). However, the safety to the 3 receiver side is lined up directly over the inside receiver (yellow circle). Again, this alignment puts him in much better position to defend the deep middle portion of the field.

play-6-ss-2

The quarterback looks initially to the inside receiver on the 3 receiver side (orange line, orange arrow) and he sees Greer Martini underneath (# 48, yellow star) and the safety over the top (yellow arrow, note: the safety is out of the screen shot, but he’s there). Like the previous play, the quarterback is forced to tuck the ball and scramble for only a short gain.

play-7-ss-1-highlighted

Here is another empty set with 3 receivers to one side and 2 receivers to the other. Once again at the top of the screen shot the safety is aligned fairly wide (yellow arrow). On the bottom of the screen shot Drue Tranquill (yellow arrow) is lined up over the inside receiver and is in good positon to defend a vertical route to the middle of the field (orange line).

At the start of the game, Tranquill would have been lined up more to the outside (yellow star) and Julian Love (#27) would have been lined up somewhere near the blue star. This would have left a pretty obvious void in the middle of the defense which Syracuse could exploit (and they did in the first half!). By moving the safety to a more traditional alignment inside, the Irish were able to effectively defend the middle of the field and decrease the number of big plays they surrendered.

Bonus Play!

play-8-ss-1-blitz-adjustment-highlighted

This one is a little different from the other plays. Notre Dame is playing a game of cat and mouse with Syracuse. On the 3 receiver side they have aligned the safety wide (yellow circle) like they did early in the game. This gives the illusion that the middle of the field is wide open. In this instance, the Irish are baiting Syracuse. They’ve moved the safety at the top of the screen towards the middle (yellow star), hoping Syracuse will look to throw deep over the middle.  Also, the Irish will blitz Nyles Morgan off the edge (red line) instead of having him drop (blue line).  Julian Love will have the inside receiver in man coverage (black line). Even though Syracuse didn’t take the bait on this play, it is a nice little change up by the Irish coaching staff.

Final Thoughts

Things didn’t start well for the Irish defense against Syracuse. Poor pre-snap alignment left the deep middle of the defense wide open. The good news is that Notre Dame eventually adjusted and ended up playing a relatively solid final 2.5 quarters of football. Let’s hope this trend of solid play continues.

By |2018-05-09T22:26:58+00:00October 6th, 2016|18S Reads, Film Room|44 Comments

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tlndma
tlndma

God job as always Larz.

This defense just seems it needs to hit the reset button. A new DC next year with lots of experience would be the first step. That Syracuse offense came into the game looking very one dimensional and with a woeful offensive line. Therefore, I haven’t gained much confidence in our defense from 30 minutes of decent play.

There’s been much discussion here of ND not recruiting enough 4&5 star talent. More so, the problem has been going after the wrong 3, 4 & 5 star talent. Too many players have not panned out. ND needs to do a better job identifying the better players. TOS in their podcast says that a high % of the players ND has come close and missed on, have not panned for other schools.  We have players who don’t “stay focused” or take “too many plays off” or “play soft”. These are traits that should be identified in recruiting. When the question is, “How can the likes of BC and Temple, have better defenses?”, I think this is where it starts.

 

 

More Noise
More Noise

Hi Larz,

Please don’t get tired of analyzing the defense, because its evolution (we desperately hope) could be a huge story line this season. Drama galore (tons of frosh, BK leaving his comfort zone, former ND LB now in chatge of putting fighting spirit in the D… all of which requires your superb analyses to help us understand what is going on.

As another example, DB coverages as opposed to pre-snap lining up, let me repeat most of what I said a few days ago on another thread:
Towards the end of [BK’s post-game presser], he used several very technical words to describe how he and the Hudson-led D coaches had changed defensive back coverages. None of which I understood but they sounded like major changes, esp when he talked about changing 2 1/2 years of scheme, and why changing Cole Luke to nickel helped as Cole had less muscle memory from those past years;  and on the other hand how the frosh were more like blank slates, so easier to coach up.
I wonder if you could translate those terms BK used and maybe even do a film analysis showing the difference?
As much as we have been collectively critical of BVG, it strikes me that this would be an important x’s & o’s contribution to our understanding.

Concrete Charlie
Concrete Charlie

My impression during the game was that Etta-Tawo usually lined up on the side with fewer receivers.  I wonder if they spread the safeties so wide early in hopes of doubling him?  Regardless, it clearly left things wide open in the middle, but one would have hoped the cornerbacks and safety on the “Trips” side would do a better job staying with their guys.

I salute your selection of a tire fire rather than the typical go-to of a dumpster fire.  Tire fires are far more dangerous.  I’m just happy we have not progressed (yet) to a multi-decade coal mine fire.

comment image

Publius2010
Publius2010

Can we say that Purdue = Centralia?

Brendan R

Does Centralia have the World’s Largest Trumpet or something like that? If so, I think it checks all the boxes.

KG
KG

@Fire Hudson@

Orlok
Orlok

Larz,

Thanks for a great article.  I love these.

I feel compelled to weigh in yet again on the talent vs. coaching question:

http://www.uhnd.com/football/2016-season/debunking-notre-dames-lack-defensive-talent-32126/

If our staff is so bad at evaluating talent, apparently the same is true of other elite programs and recruiting professionals.  Also, we had three players on defense drafted last year – and our defense was still a below average defense.

Now, I don’t question that the staff was bad at player development.  All those players who were drafted were Diaco’s guys, and I haven’t been blown away by the young guys on this defense.  The defense has just gotten worse under Van Gorder.  But to say the talent isn’t there is, I think, to mistake talent with development.  Take Bob Diaco.  I never thought Harrison Smith would see the field after 2009.  Diaco turned him (and a defense that got Charlie Weis fired) into a first round draft pick (and one of the best defenses in football).  Pretty much the same level of talent (though Tuitt was a huge recruiting addition).

tlndma
tlndma

Keith Gilmore has forgotten how to develop DL since arriving at ND? Or, is it a talent issue?

Irishchamp23
Irishchamp23

Part of development is scheme.  A player might be developing his skill but if you put him in a bad scheme (at least bad for this particular player) then it won’t work well.  I think Brendan said earlier sacks are more on scheme than talent so it could be bad scheme makes DL coach look bad.

nd09hls12
nd09hls12

Irish Illustrated did a survey of all the safeties and defensive linemen over the last ~5 years – not only the guys we managed to convince to come, but those we missed out on.  By and large, almost nobody (other than arguably Day and Rochell) lived up to the recruiting hype.  The point is, at least at those positions, the staff has been particularly bad at identifying which talent to go after (i.e., which 3- and 4-stars are worth recruiting).

Note: that’s not to say that scheme isn’t the primary problem – I just wouldn’t say ND’s coaching staff is any good at picking defensive players and, instead, available data indicates they’re either bad at it or have been extremely unlucky. I’m hoping the latter, but suspect it’s the former. Maybe things will get better with a DC who actually cares about recruiting.

Brendan R

Great stuff as always Larz! This caught my attention:

I can only guess that the Irish were concerned about the perimeter passing game and also wanted to give their young corners some extra help over the top. While those are valid concerns, it seems insane to align your safeties so the middle of the field is wide open.

Obviously the reason Syracuse uses a 3×1 formation is to force you to respond to it, so you have to do something. And yet what was done in the early going… Yeesh. So my question is, what would have been a better way to address those “valid concerns”? Our adjustment was one. What about the much-promised single-high safety look, which I don’t think we’ve really seen yet? Would that help?

Also, as correctly aligned and defended by our adjustment, where is the hole in this coverage? I guess you’re trusting the corner on the “1” side to more or less be in man coverage, and the linebackers being sharp enough to cover underneath zones. Are you vulnerable down the sideline on the “3” side? If so that’s probably a pretty decent trade-off as it’s a pretty hard spot to hit.*

* Unless you’re Shane Buechele and John Burt. [curls into fetal position]

spider-man
spider-man

Larz, I love your breakdowns! As noted above, we hope you don’t get sick of analyzing the defense because there are lots of us who want to follow its progression improvement.

Based on your experience with film breakdowns, do you have any preferences for a bend defense vs. an aggressive one? Or does it completely depend on the talent available? Personally, I favor a bend defense (with sprinkles of aggressiveness) over an aggressive defense. I think that Diaco did a great job while at ND, and that the beatdown by Bama was over-emphasized in terms of the argument for changing the ND defense philosophy. For example, I think that Bama would have destroyed a BVG defense just as easily in that game.

P.S. I know that the 18s staff has their own ideas for articles, but an article doing a talent comparison of different defenses would be enlightening. For example, how does ND compare, talent-wise on d-line (backers, and DBs) compared to tOSU, Clemson, FSU, USC, and Stanford.

Brendan R

Hmm… That is a good idea for a post. I might start working on it… Off the top of my head, I think we’re almost certainly ahead of Stanford’s DL recruiting rankings. We’re not even close to OSU and Clemson, and probably not FSU either although I’d give us a fighting chance there if we’re up and they’re down.

kiwifan
kiwifan

Hmmm, I wonder how you’d do that? Just compare recruiting stars? As noted above, not all star ratings at each level are equal. Is ther a way to do it based on how they are playing in college?

Irishchamp23
Irishchamp23

you would certainly use the composite score not just # of 4 stars, etc.  That would be more accurate – and I think would show that while we may have the same number (or close to it) of 4 stars we still have less elite (high 4 star/5 star) players.

Talent just means raw material so certainly the recruiting rankings even with all their warts is the best way to measure talent (even if, again, not perfect).

Brendan R

Yeah. Check the front page. 🙂

The Guys Get Shirts
The Guys Get Shirts

Anything Larz puts on this site, I will read.

I’m TGGS?

A to the J
A to the J

Am I the only one who read

I know what you are thinking, this is probably just a mental error and Notre Dame will have this fixed pretty quickly.

And thought, “Nope, that’s just ND defense right now…” But thanks for the write up, good stuff!

IrishTexan
IrishTexan

Is there any chance that Charlie Strong would be interested in a DC position after (presumably) flaming out at Texas?

Irishchamp23
Irishchamp23

For argument’s sake let’s grant that he would be.  Wouldn’t he probably only take the job for a year or at most 2 years?  It is tough to consistently rotate through coordinators.  If we could be sure it would be 2 years then it may be worth it, but I think the consistency might be more worthwhile then one year of a great coordinator (unless the stars aligned and Kizer came back, then it may be one year and a National Championship if Strong worked his magic with the D).

More Noise
More Noise

Like Barry Alvarez for Lou Holtz, ’88 and ’89. Magic for two (great) years.

kiwifan
kiwifan

Isn’t the Texas defense really the pits the last couple of years?

Greenore
Greenore

Thanks Larz. Also, a big thanks and tip of the hat to all of you that participate in these discussions. There is always a lot to learn on this board. Cheers!