If you’ve ever played football you might have heard the phrase “the eye in the sky don’t lie.” Usually it came up when there was a screw up and a coach would ask the player what happened. The player would answer one way and the dubious coach would remind his athlete that the film in the camera would tell the real story.
The thing everyone understands, but also need reminding of, is box scores can be deceiving. You can look at the numbers following the game last week and decry the 345 passing yards given up and the 496 total yards allowed and be fairly alarmed. Was the blowout score all smoke and mirrors precipitated by Michigan State’s turnover laden performance? After watching the game back, I don’t believe it was. Michigan State moved the ball, but not with the type of efficiency that would make their coaches comfortable. And their errors weren’t unforced.
In all, Notre Dame is a better unit in the back end for several reasons: they are cohesive, they have their personnel, and they are well coached.
Cohesion Leads To Competence
One of my biggest criticisms during the VanGorder era was the lack of understanding and cohesion in the secondary. There wasn’t a great understanding of who was supposed to be covering who, and exactly what the coverage was. This is what happens when there are a lot of pre-snap checks and mixing of coverages. No one was really sure, and it showed in their play and their numbers.
My favorite stat to gauge the efficiency of pass coverage is yards per attempt. How many yards is the offense getting based on how many times they are throwing the ball? Think of it as points per shot attempt in basketball. If a player scores 30 points, but has to take 35 shots to get there, the defense is doing a good job. This secondary was 75th last season in yards per attempt, at 7.5. This year they sit 27th at 6.0 and that includes the 138 yards on 15 attempts in the last 4 minutes against mainly backups. Prior to that, Brian Lewerke was 21-36 for 202 yards, 5.6 yards per attempt. Whatever they got, they had to get it short. And when the defense knows that, it leads to opportunities.
On the Love pick six, it’s a perfect example of a secondary seamlessly passing off receivers to each other and players understanding where the help is and when to jump a route. Love gives his receiver to Crawford, who passes his guy to Love, with Jalen Elliot ready behind to pick up anything deep and Love pounces on the opportunity. This ball is either picked, broken up, or Lewerke has to eat it because there is nowhere to go.
The Nickel Defense Is Finally a Weapon
This is where Shaun Crawford is a such a weapon for Notre Dame and what this defense has been missing the last couple of seasons. Crawford is one of the smartest and most football savvy players on the team and playing the slot requires a level of skill unlike other positions in the secondary. It’s difficult because unlike playing inside because unlike traditional corner, there isn’t the natural barrier of the sideline to help you. The receiver can just as easily run an in route as he can an out route and the ground you have to make up is that much larger playing inside. It takes nuance. Crawford showed that in the middle of the third against Michigan State.
He faces trips to his side and he picks up the middle receiver and carries him down the field while keeping his eye on the receiver to his inside, the #3 receiver. That player will determine how Crawford plays this. When that receiver breaks on the out, Crawford has turned his hips to run with the #2 man, who is running a seam. Crawford passes him off to Elliott, executes a type of pirouette to get on the hip of the receiver and is in perfect position to break up a better throw from the quarterback. This is beautiful.
Improved Safety Play
Fun fact: I ranked this group as the worst on the Notre Dame team. Hooray! One of brightest spots on the team has been the play of Nick Coleman, Jalen Elliott, and Devin Studstill. The latter has been used more in a run stopping role, where he has been excellent, he generally comes out on third downs. So far teams have yet to get over the top of this group and there haven’t been the mental lapses we saw in previous seasons, which seemed to occur on a game to game basis. They are also able to do things in man coverage we haven’t seen the last few seasons either.
Coleman was called on to cover the slot early in the 4th quarter, with Elliott manning the single high safety spot. The receiver runs a flag route, and Coleman is athletic enough to stay stride for stride and makes a play on the ball without drawing a flag, much to the chagrin of Joel Klatt. (Also check out of the coverage from the rest of the secondary here. There is nowhere easy to go with this ball.)
There is still room to improve for these guys though, and there is a continuous question of range. We’ve seen corner routes work against Notre Dame’s cover two look a few times, and Michigan State hit it for a nice gain last weekend. A lot of teams drop the middle linebacker very deep in their cover two, allowing the safeties to play wider and protect the sideline. Notre Dame doesn’t do this. Their safeties stay on the hash for the most part, which makes the move to the corner route that much more difficult.
To be fair, these aren’t easy plays to connect on. This has to get in between the safety and the corner, not a lot of margin for error. But, the best teams will be able to exploit this, and it’s part of becoming an elite team.
All in all, this group works better together, and has taken to coaching, better than it has in the past. They are by no means dominant, but their mistakes are happening short, where they can live to play another day. With time they can become even better and this coaching staff will give them the best chance to do that.