Alabama and Clemson outscored their opponents on New Years Eve, but they did so because of their dominate defenses. Cliche or not there really is something to the saying, "Defense Wins Championships." However, what makes these two team's defenses so dangerous and why has the Hokies defense slumped as of late? Well, the answer to both questions is the same and it is executing effective schemes with stellar linebacker and defensive line play. Before discussing what corrections Bud Foster needs to make moving forward I want to breakdown the Alabama and Clemson defensive schemes to highlight why they are so efficient.
A quick look at Alabama's defense in the first half: pic.twitter.com/1OA58J11d1— SEConCBS (@SEConCBS) January 1, 2016
While both of these teams have elite talent at every position, their biggest success comes from the schemes they run and how successful they are on 1st and 2nd down. Historically, Saban used a combination of the 3-4 pro-style defense with a 0-technique nose tackle and the traditional 4-3-cover 2 with two safeties over the top, 3 linebackers, 4 down lineman and 2 corners in man coverage. Both schemes are not hard to identify, hell dozens of teams run these defenses, but are very hard to move the ball against for several reasons. First, it is tailored from week to week for the opponent. If the opponent runs a spread attack you will see Bama use the 3-4, which allows them to play hybrid linebacker/safety types to help in covering the spread coverages. If they play a traditional I-Pro offense or multiple attacking team you will see them in the 4-3 because it is most effective at stopping the run and forcing opposing quarterbacks to throw into tight windows.
Brent Venables on the other hand runs a defense that is similar to the 4-2-5 that Bud Foster has run for for years in that he has a nickel package to aid in defending spread-option attacks. The biggest difference is that Clemson historically plays much more zone-coverage than the Hokies by shifting to 4-3 over defensive set with a cover 3 or cover 2 package depending on what he sees. Recently, the Tigers have had the ability, due to exceptional corner play, to shift to a cover 2 with 2 over the top safeties, 3 linebackers, 2 corners and 4 down linemen. If there is a need Venables will substitute in another defensive back to cover a 3rd receiver and shift to the nickel or 4-2-5.
Clemson’s opponents have had on average 8.7 yards to go on 3rd down this season, second-best of any defense. OKLA today: 11 yards to go.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 31, 2015
Now, that I've discussed the schemes of the nations most efficient defenses lets breakdown Bud Foster's defense and where the Hokies are lacking schematically. There are 3 big drop-offs when comparing the Hokies defense to the elites. First, poor pressure from the 4 down linemen; second, the two linebackers (mike and whip) fail to execute the right reads in the run game; and third, inconsistent play from all 11 players from play-to-play.
For the 4-2-5 to be successful the linemen have to win the line of scrimmage in the run game and get pressure on the quarterback to force poor throws. This season the Hokies had trouble winning the one-on-one battles at the line of scrimmage, which gave opposing quarterbacks time to find favorable match-ups down the field or to hit their check down receivers. The linebacker play was very poor at times, but also decent at times, which is where consistency comes into play. Both linebacker positions missed critical reads throughout the season in the run game, which gave opposing offenses balance, which is how you beat Bud Foster. In the secondary there were lapses due to poor technique and defensive back playing the receiver and not the ball. However, both techniques work depending on the players positioning. If the defensive back is trailing a receiver he is taught to play the eyes and hands of the receiver whereas if he is playing tight coverage then he should play the ball. Without getting too detailed the defensive backs would have had more success with better discipline and more consistent play.
For years Bud Foster's squads were successful because all 11 players won the one-on-one battles and consistently executed. This season they were not very good because the execution of all three levels was sub-par and it takes all 11 players playing well for the 4-2-5 to be successful. If the linemen don't get pressure then the running holes open up and they are into the 2nd and 3rd levels. If the linebackers do not hit their holes and win one-on-one the running game and passing lanes open up and force the defensive backs make plays in the open field.
Moving forward, Bud has to get his squad back to executing and playing more disciplined football. There were many plays week in and week out that the defense was out of position or slow to the line of scrimmage before the snap, which set them up for failure. I would like to see a more urgent defense that attacks opposing offenses instead of letting the offense come to them. As a team the Hokies tried tricking or baiting their opponents into poor performances, which failed more often than it worked because of the lack of experience on both sides of the ball. Virginia Tech was great for many years because of their toughness and "downhill" play. I look forward to watching Virginia Tech get back to proactive football where both sides of the ball attack the opponent and play to win instead of playing not to lose.