The Vanderbilt coaching staff knew its defense was in for quite a test in Saturday's trip to No.19 Arkansas and its safe to say that a 49-14 loss resulted in a failing grade for the Commodore defenders. The Razorbacks racked up 555 yards of offense and star quarterback Ryan Mallett threw for 409 yards and three touchdowns. It marked the third straight week in which the Commodore defense, once the pride of the Vanderbilt program, has surrendered at least 480 yards of offense and the second time in three weeks in which an opponent has generated at least 540 yards.
VandySports.com publisher's Jesse Johnson and Chris Lee answer three questions on the Commodores defensive performance against Arkansas.
1. Is the offense really the source of the defense's problems?
Jesse: Earlier this season, maybe, now, I think the answer is a definite no. The Commodore offense may not be able to keep itself on the field for 10 of it's 12 or so possessions a game right now, but we've seen too many breakdowns defensively, regardless of time of possession to go with the excuse that the offense is causing all of the programs on the other side of the ball.
In the last three weeks, we've seen maybe two quarters of truly competitive defense, where there were not numerous communication problems in the secondary, an effective pass rush or even a swarming attitude to the football. On Saturday, it appeared as only a handful of players brought enough intensity to the football field and there was too many times where a defensive back was looking at another defensive back after a blown coverage.
Now, it didn't help that some players like Tim Fugger appeared to get banged up during the course of the game, or Vanderbilt got caught in some rotation problems once again, but some players that seemed to step up their game a week ago against South Carolina, where almost a non-factor in Fayetteville. It's clear that there are talent deficiencies at defensive end and linebacker, so it shouldn't be expected that Vanderbilt shuts down an opponent like Arkansas. However, there were portions of the game where the defense had to be embarrassed, especially on third down once again.
Turnovers in this game and forcing favorable field position, were keys to the game for the defense and the unit failed to do both. It's alarming that this has happened in the last three weeks and four out of the last five weeks. The offense could help the unit not wear down in the fourth quarter, but we've seen the defense give up chunks of yards and touchdowns early in games as well, so time of possession is not the main source of why this unit is struggling so much right now.
Chris: No. While the offense isn't helping anything, the time of possession issue is no longer 90 percent of an offense issue, and 10 percent a defensive issue. In fact, I'd say the split is now about 60/40 or 55/45; as bad as the offense has been, the defense is almost equally bad.
In fact, the defense could actually help the defense by creating some turnovers and a short field every now and then. Not only is the defense giving up a ton of yards, but they've been a non-factor in making things happen in that department.
2. Why does Vanderbilt's three-man front seem to produce more pressure than it's 5 or 6-man fronts?
Jesse: The easy answer to me is that a three-man front typically makes an offensive line account for linebackers and anticipate pressure from the outside. Rarely will you see a double team on a nose tackle against a three-man front because the offensive guards seem to always anticipate the middle linebacker or another linebacker running through a gap. When a team presents a five or six-man front, it generally indicates to a offense that there will be pressure in the middle as well as the edge and there seems to be more natural blocking assignments. It also has an effect in the passing game with multiple defenders dropping back in coverage.
Another answer to me is the play of Vanderbilt's nose tackle in general. When sophomore Rob Lohr has manned the nose position, I've seen more fire and quickness off the line that makes it tough for a center to deal with. We saw Lohr get an early sack on Mallett and he commanded a double-team during the South Carolina game, when we saw the three-man front for the first time. When Fugger is also employed in the three-man front, it seems to create some pressure. If anything, it seems like the unit gets more push and the quarterbacks look a little more uncomfortable.
Why this doesn't translate in Vanderbilt's typical four-man front or the five-man look that we've seen at times on third down, remains a question. Maybe Vanderbilt does not do enough stunting or shifts on the line of scrimmage in those situations, but for whatever reason, the Commodores continue to fail at generating any real pressure when it tries its base approach. Unfortunately, Vanderbilt doesn't have enough at linebacker right now to consider any substantial base changes to it's front seven.
Chris: Great question. The common-sense answer is that with that many men in coverage, it's hard for a receiver to get open, and a line can't protect against even a three-man rush. But there were times that VU dropped eight into coverage, and someone was still wide open, so I'm not sure that's it.
It could be as simple as an offense knowing it can protect when the Commodores rush more people, figuring they if they can handle a four-man rush, then handling a three-man rush will be even easier. So, in the absence of a good explanation, maybe it's a lapse of concentration by the opponents.
3. Rotations have changed in the secondary. Are they helping the unit or causing more problems?
Jesse: I think it's been a mix bag as to whether it's helping or not. I liked what I saw out of true freshman Steven Clarke against South Carolina but against Arkansas, he was almost a non-factor. The safety position has been almost exclusively two players and I'm beginning to think there might need to be more of a rotation there. Eddie Foster has seemed to get lost in coverage more often than not this past month, but there has been little help in sight and Trey Wilson has virtually disappeared from any game plan. We saw more Javon Marshall in the secondary over the weekend than Wilson which suggests that there must be something up with him than just his play. Most players don't go from top three in the rotation to basically nowhere in the scheme of things.
The talent in the secondary is not the problem to me, it's the cohesiveness or overall communication. Too many times in the past couple of weeks have we seen two of the leaders in the secondary, Casey Hayward or Sean Richardson, look back at their teammates and point to where someone else was supposed to be. Maybe that's just the youth of the unit showing. Either way, the unit needs to generate more turnovers and create a little more resistance than it has the last three weeks.
Chris: Well, when VU is giving up scoring drives on virtually every possession on Saturday night, we're kind of splitting hairs when we talk about what's working, and what's not.
But if we're going to take a closer look, I did see Eric Samuels out there a little bit more than I have in the past few games, and it didn't seem like he'd been getting burned. I've lobbied for more playing time for Samuels for a while, so that was good to see.
I'm starting to wonder if the problems are more scheme-related than personnel-related. It seems as if everything opponents do through the air is working now. Now, to be fair, they've faced three pretty good quarterbacks in a row, and the last two will play in the NFL. Not having Jamie Graham on Saturday didn't help, either, but Arkansas was also beat-up at receiver and so that probably more than canceled that out.
But, everybody seems to have found something against their zone right now. It seems as if teams are really capitalizing between the soft spots in the zone just before the safeties pick up coverage, and VU is getting hit for a lot of 15-to-25-yard plays.
And, of course, when you don't have really athletic linebackers, underneath coverage is going to also be a big issue as it has been all year.
I really thought the secondary had a chance to be fair this year, given there are some good athletes on both the first and second teams. I'm not going to rip into Jamie Bryant and Bruce Fowler, because they have typically been very good defensive coaches, but even good coaches have years where nothing seems to work, and they're certainly having trouble finding answers there no matter who's on the field.
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