To put it mildly, the Notre Dame defense has struggled this year. Through three games the Irish have surrendered 71 points. Last season Notre Dame didn’t give up its 71st point until game 8 when they traveled to Oklahoma to take on the Sooners.
|Notre Dame Defense 2012 vs. 2013|
|Red Zone TD||34%||73%|
Points aren’t the only alarming statistic from the Irish defense though. Notre Dame has just three sacks through three games after averaging 2.6 a game in 2012. Turnovers are down too while yards and points per game are all up (see table to the right)
The struggles of the Irish defense have fans asking why one of last year’s elite units is struggling to slow down first time starting quarterbacks like Connor Reilly of Temple. There isn’t a definitive reason for this drop-off, but when looking at this year’s unit versus last year’s, here are a few reasons the Irish defense has fallen off.
Notre Dame really misses Manti Te’o
OK, so this one is pretty obvious, but Notre Dame is really missing Manti Te’o right now. A lot of us convinced ourselves that Manti was not as integral to Notre Dame’s magical defensive performance in 2012. Everyone saw him drop to the 2nd round of the draft and run a slow 40 time and thought, maybe Notre Dame’s scheme just put him in a position to make all those plays.
Well, that Kool Aid has seriously soured and reality has set in. Manti Te’o was really good. Really, really freaking good and Notre Dame is missing his production and his leadership on the defensive side of the ball.
Manti was the heart and soul of the Notre Dame defense last year and his absence is one of the biggest reasons that the Notre Dame defense has been surrendering more yards and points than they were a year ago despite playing against quarterbacks that haven’t exactly set the world on fire when they haven’t been playing the Irish.
Jarrett Grace is starting to play well on the inside of the linebacking corps for Notre Dame, but the combination of Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese has been exploited in passing situations so far this season. In order for the Irish to mitigate the loss of Te’o over the final nine games, they will need Grace to step up and show he is ready to be on the field more.
The Irish are missing Danny Spond, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Zeke Motta too
Manti Te’o isn’t the only veteran from the 2012 defense that Notre Dame is missing. The leadership of Zeke Motta, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Zeke Motta are being sorely missed by the defense right about now too. Notre Dame had all off-season to plan for the loss of Motta and KLM but right now the Irish just don’t have a veteran safety capable of helping the rest of the secondary get set the way Motta did last year.
Unlike Motta and KLM, the Irish didn’t have as much time to plan for the loss of Danny Spond who had to abruptly retire due to complications from the migraines he’s suffered the last few years. Jaylon Smith has all the talent in the world and is starting to play well, but as a true freshman, it’s impossible for Smith to replace Spond’s leadership and experience.
Notre Dame over estimated it’s secondary
Notre Dame has blitzed a lot more this year and as a result has played more man coverage. The result has actually been fewer sacks and a lot more passing yards allowed. Why? Because the pass rush hasn’t gotten to the quarterback in time and the secondary has been placed in vulnerable situations – situations they haven’t been able to make plays in.
Did Bob Diaco over estimate what his secondary was capable of and change his approach to rushing the quarterback as a result? Quite possibly. Notre Dame generated a pass rush last year without needing additional blitzers because they play sound coverage and didn’t give quarterbacks opportunities to get rid of the ball. Brian Kelly talked on Tuesday about how much more man coverage they’ve played and it sure sounded like we might be seeing more zone from the defense soon.
Poor red-zone performance
Notre Dame was beyond stellar in the red-zone last year and it was not reasonable to expect the Irish to replicate that success this year. It was also not reasonable to think that they would completely fall off in the red-zone either. Last year Notre Dame held opponents to just a 34% touchdown rate when they reached the red-zone. This year, that number has more than doubled to 73%.
73 percent! Notre Dame is allowing opposing offenses to score touchdowns 73% of the time they reach the red-zone. That kind of performance is not going to win anyone a whole lot of football games. For comparison sake, Notre Dame didn’t let opposing offenses even get three points in the red-zone that frequently last year allowing them to score any points just 68% of the time.
Past of the reason for the lack of success in red-zone goes back to our previous point. Facing a 4th and goal down 14 points in the 4th quarter, OUrdue quarterback Rob Henry dropped back to pass and was greeted with a blitz from Notre Dame. The rush just barely failed to get to Henry, hitting him as he released the ball. Henry’s pass ended up finding its way into Justin Sinz’s hands for a 9 yard touchdown to cut the Irish lead to 7.
Congrats that to red-zone performances like those against the likes of USC and Stanford last year.
Tackling, tackling, tackling
We can talk about Notre Dame missing players and changing philosophies all day, but at the end of the day, the Irish defense would be a heck of a lot better this year if the Irish would just tackle better. A year ago the Irish Notre Dame was as sound of a tackling unit as we’ve seen in years. This year? Not so much.
Just ask Jeremy Gallon. Gallon was surrounded by three defenders at the 35 yard line in the first quarter of Notre Dame’s loss to Michigan but broke out of a tackle, spun around and then raced into the end-zone for a 61 yard touchdown when he should have been tackled at the 35. Again, that just wouldn’t have happened last year and needs to be cleaned up in order for Notre Dame to make a serious BCS run this year.
Stephon Tuitt isn’t quite the same this year
Last year Stephon Tuitt came storming out of the gates. This year he has just one sack in the first three games and looks like someone who lost a lot of time in the weight room in the off-season. Tuitt was a monster last year. He was a beast that opposing offenses couldn’t handle. As he recovered from off-season hernia surgery though, he lost a lot of time in the weight room and he it looks like he is still playing a little catch up. That much was evident in the summer when there was endless debate on the blogs and forums about his conditioning.
This isn’t a knock on Tuitt at all either. On the contrary, it’s a testament to how good he was last year and how high a level that he is capable of playing at. Tuitt still has a lot of time to get back on track this year and it would be a huge mistake to write him off at this point, but as he and Louis Nix go, so goes the Notre Dame defense. If Tuitt can start to turn things around, the Notre Dame defense will start to resemble the unit that carried them to Miami last year.
There are still nine games left in the season for the Notre Dame defense to gel and start to look like the squad that carried the Irish to a National Championship game berth last year. This weekend they face off against an offense that is very much a ground and pound unit – something that plays into their strength and could be a jumping off point for a strong finish to the season.