October 17, 2010

Three questions: defense

The Georgia Bulldogs carved up the Commodore defense on its way to a 43-0 rout on Saturday. The Vanderbilt defenders gave up a season-high 547 total yards including 315 yards through the air. It was the worst defensive performance by the Commodores since the 56-31 loss against Georgia Tech last Halloween. It was the worst defensive performance against a SEC team since the Commodores 38-26 loss at Kentucky on November 11th, 2006.

VandySports.com publishers Chris Lee and Jesse Johnson answer three questions about the defense's performance and play overall.

1. How would you rate the defensive performance?

Jesse: It was an F-minus and if there was a grade below an F, I might give it that. There was little redeeming about the defenses performance on Saturday at all. I understand that the unit didn't always have the best of field position due to the offense's struggles or short punts, but I'm not even sure if field position would've mattered that much in this game.

Georgia's first offensive play was a 55-yard play action pass. The words "play action" and Georgia have gone together for over a decade, so it was hard for me to believe that a Vanderbilt defender would bite on a play fake like that right off the bat. It didn't stop those as every time Aaron Murray used play action or pump faked, VU defensive backs were biting and it just made things way too easy. In addition to that, Vanderbilt continued to get next to no pressure on the quarterback, giving Murray all day to complete passes. Georgia may have the league's most talented and experienced offensive line, but even they have had breakdowns during the course of the year and were playing with a true freshman at guard. Vanderbilt never made them pay for that and the pass rushers continue to played like they have sand bags tied around their ankles. Vanderbilt's nickel blitzes were also predictable and rarely timed properly.

Even with all of that though, the biggest problem to me was the endless missed tackles. On two of Georgia's biggest plays, there were fourth and fifth year players missing tackles that could've resulted in no gain or a loss, yet poor technique and bad angles led to huge gains and great situations for the young Murray. The last thing Vanderbilt needed to give a talented young QB like Murray or a fumble prone ball carrier like Washaun Ealey was blown assignments and poor tackling. That's just what Vanderbilt did however, and it was embarrassing to see.

The real concerning thing about this to me is that it's the second time in three weeks that I feel like I've seen one of Vanderbilt's worst defensive performances in years. A lot of elements that plagued Vanderbilt in the U-Conn game, showed up again on Saturday. That doesn't give me much confidence going forward that these two games are going to be rare performances, especially against offenses like South Carolina or Arkansas. There may be talent deficiencies in certain areas on the unit that are causing the problems, but failure to tackle should never be a problem with a SEC defense.

Chris: It was an unqualified "F." Even in poor performances by teams, you can usually find something, somewhere, to be happy about.

But in this case, I can't. On Saturday, they couldn't defend a cat in a hat, a fox in a box, and certainly, not a pack of Bulldogs hungry for a win.

Seriously, I'm straining to think of anything, and outside of the fact that Casey Hayward played respectably against A.J. Green, there was nothing to feel good about. It was probably the worst defensive performance by VU in a decade.

2. What, if anything, could VU do about it's linebacker play?

Jesse: I'm not sure really other than maybe rotating the linebackers more. The coaching staff seems to believe that some of the younger players aren't ready but the more I watch some of the experienced players, the more I think some need to get some reps out of the game. Other than that, I'm not sure what scheme or plays are going to make certain players do a better job at getting off blocks and making plays in space. There's been too many times this year where linebackers have failed to do both and it's killing Vanderbilt against the run.

Perhaps Vanderbilt should try to disguise things by having the linebackers fill inside gaps and move around a lot during pre-snap, maybe try to fool opposing offenses. However, even then, guards and tackles are going to put their hands on the linebackers and the unit has got to get free more often than they are. If not, I think some of the younger players should get into the game and try to get experience for next season since they are going to be the one's called upon since Vanderbilt has yet to land a significant, impact level recruit at that position during the 2011 recruiting period. Since none of the younger linebackers are getting significant snaps right now, it makes me wonder just how suspect the unit would be if Nate Campbell didn't come back to the program this summer.

Chris and others have suggested that Sean Richardson possibly be moved from safety to linebacker but I'm not even sure if that would work since Richardson's tackling and ability to shed blocks has also looked suspect to me in recent games, especially in these poor performances against U-Conn and Georgia. If he's going to play linebacker, he needs to learn to wrap people up and not get caught in the wash rather than just try to throw his body at people.

The defensive ends could help the backers cause a little more, by creating some pressure, commanding some type of double-teams, but that's a different issue altogether.

Chris: Other than change personnel, I don't know. Most of your two-deep players have been on campus for a while, and you know what you're dealing with.

I'd like to think that with Marve/Campbell/Stokes, they could at least be solid there, and maybe they can be. If you're looking for something positive, Campbell probably isn't on the field unless Marve gets hurt, and I think that having him in there over Archibald Barnes probably upgrades the unit. Saturday was the first time the three started together, so maybe game two will yield better things.

With that in mind, I might think about moving Sean Richardson from safety to linebacker next year. I don't know if the staff feels it's a good fit for his ability or not, but Richardson has really, really struggled in coverage this year, but has always supported the run well in his career. It would kind of be hard to pull that off at this point in time, but with things looking pretty bleak there for next season, it might be worth a look.

3. Is it time to start playing younger players?

Jesse: I'm starting to believe it might be. My opinion is there is talent on the defense, most of it's playing right now but some of it really isn't. When older players, third, fourth or fifth-year guys, can't tackle or can't get off blocks, what's to be lost in playing some younger players.

It's especially puzzling to me when some of the players not playing right now were the one's that were playing just a few weeks ago. I don't think people like Trey Wilson or Eric Samuels were making that many mistakes, and even if they were, what is the problem with them getting a few snaps in the game, especially when Jamie Graham misses a tackle that results in a 58-yard run or his attempts to put pressure on the quarterback result in next to nothing. Why not rotate someone like Wilson or Samuels in some of those situations and give Graham a breather?

I've already pointed out that I feel some of the young linebackers should play more for anything but trying to give them some experience going forward. Even in the rout of Eastern Michigan, most of the younger linebackers didn't play until the second half. I understand that the coaches will go with the best players that they feel are going to help them win the game, but missed tackles are just inexcusable to me, especially when it continues to happen.

I also believe there should be more rotations at defensive line, particularly at defensive end. I do believe Vanderbilt's trying to do some of that, I've seen it in previous weeks, but I would get Walker May on the field as much as I can if older players continue to struggle with peeling off blockers.

I'm not calling for a youth movement, and a good defensive performance by the starters could lead to a big win in the future and perhaps another shot at a positive season, but I constantly hear about needing to build depth at Vanderbilt and feel that is built by actually playing players. Seeing the same veterans miss tackles or continue to fail to get free gives me little faith that they will improve with time. Playing some younger guys, especially ones that have made plays on the field when they've received snaps, might be the change of pace that could energize the unit.

Chris: I don't know if you bench anybody permanently, but the struggles at safety have me wondering if either Andre Simmons or Eric Samuels needs a look at safety. Samuels, in particular, just has too much upside to sit with the unit struggling right now, and he could either play safety or nickel, where Jamie Graham has struggled.

We haven't seen a ton of Trey Wilson lately, either, and with Eddie Foster really struggling on Saturday, perhaps it's time to split reps there.

At end, I don't see how you can keep Walker May off the field. Theron Kadri has had flashes of looking better, but you need a playmaker there, and he's a guy that can do it on a team that doesn't have many guys who can.

I never bought in that this was going to be a dominant defense, and we're definitely seeing cracks in the unit now. This season is not going to end with a bowl game, but it's not out of the question for 2011. But if that's going to happen, you need to find out if some people who aren't playing now have the ability to contribute next year.

Now's a good time to take a closer look, except in the case of the redshirts like Vince Taylor or Kyle Woestmann. While you'd like to know what they can do, it's better to keep the redshirt since we're halfway done.

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