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.
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).
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).
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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.