Thursday, September 12, 2013
FSU working out kinks in new defense
By David M. Hale
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It wasn't until he watched the tape that Timmy Jernigan felt some satisfaction. On the field against Pittsburgh, he'd been frustrated. The Panthers' offense mustered too many big plays, and Jernigan felt responsible. But the film told a different story.
Jernigan had four tackles -- including two for a loss -- and a sack, but it wasn't until he slowed down the tape, watched each play unfold in intricate detail, that he saw how much he'd contributed.
"I didn't realize how I was affecting other guys," Jernigan said. "I just got a little frustrated with the two or three big runs [Pittsburgh] had in the first half."
In the 10 days since Florida State debuted its new-look defense, the mixed emotions have been a hallmark. On the positive side of the ledger, the Seminoles held Pitt to less than 300 yards of offense, picked off two passes and kept the Panthers out of the end zone on their final nine drives.
On the flip side, however, there were too many early mistakes, too many big plays off the edge, and too few sacks of a quarterback with limited mobility.
"It was mostly just guys getting settled in," Jernigan said. "The first-game jitters. I feel like once everything slowed down a little bit and we got comfortable, we began to play the way we usually do."
Florida State's opener underscored both the strengths and the potential weaknesses of this defense -- a ball-hawking, aggressive crew that's still looking for ways to address enormous turnover among the front four and still learning the nuance of coordinator Jeremy Pruitt's new scheme. It's those latter concerns that have been a focal point during practice the past two weeks.
Start with those big plays that earned Jernigan's ire in Pittsburgh.
For the past two years, Florida State has been among the toughest defenses in the nation to run against. The Seminoles finished 2012 ranked third nationally against the run, but with four new starters on the defensive line and a markedly different scheme on game days, this year's crew looked lost at times.
Jernigan wasn't the problem, in spite of his initial concerns. When Pitt ran up the middle, it found few holes. But when the Panthers bounced runs outside, Isaac Bennett and Tyler Boyd caught FSU defenders out of position and picked up big gains.
Excluding yards lost to sacks, Pitt mustered only 2.1 yards per carry between the tackles, but when the Panthers found the edge, they moved the ball, on average, 8.3 yards per rush, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
"We've got to be assignment perfect," said linebacker Telvin Smith, who had eight tackles, including two for a loss, against Pitt. "In those situations, one guy just busted an assignment, and you can't have that or you'll see those long runs for 20 or 30 yards."
Few teams in the nation run the ball more often or more effectively than this week's opponent, Nevada. The Wolfpack's pistol offense has gouged its share of defenses over the years, and quarterback Cody Fajardo offers a dual-threat weapon that Pittsburgh didn't have.
It's possible Fajardo will be limited this week as he recovers from a knee injury, but Florida State is preparing for him to be at full strength, defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. said.
"That's basically who we have to stop in the offense is the quarterback," he said.
Against Pitt, FSU's defense did a decent enough job of forcing senior Tom Savage into mistakes, but the bulk of the pressure came from the blitz, not from the front four.
Cornerback Lamarcus Joyner recorded two of the team's three sacks against Pitt, a remarkable stat given the Seminoles didn't have a single sack by a defensive back all of 2012.
It's a changing of the guard for a defense that figures to be even more aggressive as players master the scheme. Florida State blitzed Savage on 12 of 31 passing plays, sacking him twice. But for all the aggressive posturing, the Seminoles actually managed to disrupt Pitt's offense even when they didn't record the sack.
On plays when FSU rushed just four defenders, Savage had a lower completion percentage (50 percent) and threw for fewer yards per attempt (7.3) than when FSU blitzed. His lone touchdown came on a blitz, too.
"I think we did a really good job of getting some penetration at some points, but at other points, we didn't," said senior Dan Hicks, who played a hybrid role bouncing between linebacker and end. "We were really expecting a lot of run, and that was our main focus. We weren't really focused on the pass, and I think that showed."
That mind-set isn't likely to change much against Nevada, but Edwards said disrupting Fajardo's rhythm in the pocket will be a key.
"Getting pressure is definitely a big, big deal," Edwards said. "If you don't get pressure, he can bounce it outside, and if the corner isn't there, it's a touchdown."