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By the numbers: Florida State's defensive struggles run deep

4/8/2015

Last week, we took a look at the significant decrease in Florida State's pass rush in 2014, with the big takeaway being that the overall pressure on opposing quarterbacks didn't change much, but the success in recording sacks and, more importantly, the work of the secondary dipped markedly.

With those numbers in hand, the FSU blog Tomahawk Nation dug a little deeper to find some reasonable explanations for the precipitous drop in production from two areas that projected to have a lot of NFL talent (Mario Edwards Jr., Eddie Goldman, P.J. Williams, Ronald Darby, Jalen Ramsey, et al).

Among the numerous possibilities posited were:

  • The margin of victory for FSU was much smaller, which meant opposing offenses were more balanced

  • FSU faced far better quarterback play in 2014 than it did in 2013

  • The run defense struggled, forcing FSU to adjust defensively to cheat more against the ground game

  • The play-action passing game was far more effective because of the deficiencies against the run

  • The quality of FSU's safety and linebacker play significantly impacted performance

Let's take a look at those explanations one by one.

First off, the margin of victory metric certainly matters. In 2013, FSU won virtually every game before halftime. In 2014, it was quite the opposite. But setting aside the notion that the lackluster play of the defense had a lot to do with those closer scores, it still doesn't explain away the larger struggles of the unit. In 2012, when FSU finished 12-2 and played numerous close games, it had a higher rate of pressure (24.13 percent), significantly more sacks (36) and allowed a far lower yards-per-attempt (5.0) than it did in 2014.

Next, there's quarterback play. There's no doubt the Seminoles had a far tougher run of opposing quarterbacks to deal with in 2014, with Marcus Mariota, Jacoby Brissett, Deshaun Watson, Justin Thomas and Brad Kaaya all on the docket. But let's filter out that variable by comparing FSU to how other opponents performed against those quarterbacks.

In all, FSU allowed 7.37 yards per attempt to opposing FBS quarterbacks in 2014, which was roughly 1.3 percent better than other defenses performed against those same teams. Essentially, FSU's performance tracks incredibly closely to the opponent's averages. In 2013, however, things were much different. FSU's YPA allowed was just 5.20 against FBS quarterbacks -- a whopping 31 percent improvement over opponent's averages. There wasn't a single game in which FSU's defense didn't hold an opponent below its season YPA.

Then there's the run defense. Given the loss of Timmy Jernigan and Telvin Smith from 2013, FSU should've expected a step back in this department, and odds are Charles Kelly worked hard to adjust for those losses. Still, the step back was significant. FSU allowed just 3.26 yards per carry, 125 yards per game and seven total touchdowns on the ground during its championship run in 2013. In 2014, those numbers tumbled to 4.16 YPC, 170 YPG and 21 scores.

It's worth noting, however, that the margin of victory metric likely had a lot more impact on the rushing defense numbers than the passing ones, since teams in 2013 were effectively forced to abandon the run in the second halves of games. When it comes to cheating against the run, the aggregate numbers suggest that wasn't an issue. In 2013, FSU had an average of 6.48 men in the box on all plays, according to ESPN Stats & Info. In 2014, it was 6.49 -- effectively no change. Moreover, if we include sacks as pass plays rather than runs, we see that FSU's yards-per-play allowed on the ground was up 12.7 percent from 2013, but it's YPP against the pass was up a staggering 48.3 percent.

Lastly, let's look at the play-action pass. This is where the numbers are really staggering.

In 2012, FSU had the lowest completion percentage allowed by any Power 5 defense and the sixth-best yards-per-attempt. In 2013, the completion percentage went up by a bit, but the YPA was way down -- meaning essentially no one completed deep balls on the play-action (just seven completions of 20-plus yards all year), according to ESPN Stats & Info. And then in 2014, things fell apart.

Last season, FSU's defense was a sieve on play-action. It allowed nearly 60 percent completions, 7.7 yards-per-attempt and 18 plays of 20-plus yards -- more than the previous two seasons combined. That's a precipitous decline for a defense that featured so much talent, and opposing coaches noticed. FSU faced play-action 54 percent more often in 2014 than it did in 2013.

So why did this all happen?

It's probably a little of everything. FSU did play closer games, which made it tougher for the defense to predict what was coming. Opposing quarterbacks were better, and FSU had the misfortune of getting a healthy Watson, J.W. Walsh, Will Gardner, et al. The run defense took an obvious step back, and that filtered down into the secondary with how Kelly was forced to call a game.

But really, the biggest issue was probably that last item mentioned: An injured and inexperienced linebacking corps and a group of safeties that got exposed far too often. That fits with what many opposing coaches noted on FSU's defense last season, too: A talented unit often undisciplined and out of position. And the problem for Florida State is, as spring winds down in Tallahassee, those linebackers are more beat-up than ever, and the names on the depth chart at safety haven't changed. Meanwhile Edwards and Goldman and Williams and Darby are all gone.

A softer schedule likely means FSU's defensive numbers won't nose dive for a second straight year, but the personnel on the field this spring probably isn't inspiring much hope for a massive improvement either.