Monday, August 9, 2010

Stanford Football Preview: On The Defense

You almost want to be reassured by Ted Miller’s proclamation that the defense will be better this year. If Stanford is to be any good this year, it must improve: of all of the non-Wazzou defenses in the conference, only Washington was worse on a yards per play basis. The only reason Stanford’s defense wasn’t worse is that it only faced 759 plays, the second-fewest in the conference, undoubtedly a consequence of the Toby Gerhart Show. As you might expect for such a poor defense, it performed comprehensively poorly: it wasn’t good at rushing defense (8th in the conference), it wasn’t good at passing defense (T-7th in the conference), it didn’t produce sacks (8th in the conference), it didn’t produce tackles for loss (9th in the conference) and it didn’t get turnovers (9th in conference). The only oddity of Stanford’s defense was this: it performed well, relatively speaking, against bad offenses; against good offenses, it was annihilated. The truth of every Stanford game was this: its offense could keep it in any game…but its defense could keep its opponent in every game.

Given these facts, it might behoove you to ask how likely it is for Stanford’s defense to upgrade. We really have no idea; certainly the appropriate parties have been making all of the right noises. The problem is this: if you were a person who detested hype, and you (somehow) closely followed Stanford football but were not yourself a fan, you would probably hate the media covering Stanford football as much as everyone hates the media covering Notre Dame as every year the media (in an understated tone befitting Stanford’s status in the firmament) tries to sell its readers on the idea that this year is the year: Stanford’s defense will be good. Two years ago in his spring wrapup Ted Miller wrote that “the going will be tougher for Stanford’s opponents.” (He wrote another, more strongly-worded article in which he said Stanford’s front seven was a darkhorse for the finest in the conference; unfortunately, I cannot find it. Trust me on this one.) Stanford’s defense, while not as bad as this year’s, was still very permissive. Last year Jon Wilner claimed that he couldn’t “remember when Stanford had so much quality along the [defensive] line.” Again, last year’s defense was awful. To be fair to our media overlords, the other claim that they made every year was that this was the year for Stanford’s running game…a claim that was false every year until two years ago, when the Gerhart/Kimble combination transcended the burden known as Tavita Pritchard. So perhaps this year is the year.

There is good news: Stanford’s defense doesn’t have to be great to serve Stanford’s goals. People like to focus on the elite in any given endeavor, which is understandable—would you rather watch the Bad News Bears or the Chicago Bears?—but what this mentality ignores is that upgrading from “awful” to “mediocre” can produce a marginal improvement in results that’s biggest than the upgrade from “very good” to “elite.” Granted, you need to get to that latter plateau to win a national championship, but these are clearly not the expectations at this point in time. The Bowl That Shall Not Be Named is, and for that you don’t need an elite defense (see: Oregon’s very good defense, 2009-10 season.)

Now that the bar has been obligingly lowered, can Stanford stride over it with confidence? This remains unclear. The change on the top is on balance good: Ron Lynn seemed like a nice guy, the kind of guy that looks like everyone’s uncle. Unfortunately, Ron Lynn had never led an elite defense at any level of play—but he kept on being hired. He was a lifer. A sort of lifer’s mentality hung over the schemes for the team, and Fangio has certainly been involved with some great defenses. Besides, Fangio inspires his defensive players to write stuff like this:
I did not achieve this status alone. Not only must I thank my teammates, I owe a special debt of gratitude to Ravens Linebackers Coach Vic Fangio. Known in our locker room as "Vic Fangio, Football Specialist," he is the first linebacker coach in my 10-year NFL career to claim me as his own. Vic took me on like an old Mustang: he polished up my wheels, conditioned my leather, gave me a nice buff and wax, changed all of my fluids and topped me off with some 93 octane. All of a sudden you could see me coming from a mile away! I rumbled a lil' louder, I moved a lil' faster! All I needed was a lil' attention. He knew that he didn't need to go out and spend 100K on a new ride. He just needed to bring out the best in what he already had in me!

At any rate, I suspect Fangio will have more energy than Lynn, and the defensive assistants appear to have some nice qualifications also.

The problem is with the players, and there’s a specific dilemma. Fangio has decided to shift the defense into a 3-4 scheme, as a result of said dilemma, which was this: if the defense stayed in a 4-3, Fangio would be stuck with two defensive ends who gave a good effort (and could produce a modest total of sacks against the pass) but were ultimately too light; if the defense shifts to a 3-4, Fangio gets to move his defensive ends to a better position at outside linebackers, but then has to deal with depth issues along the defensive line…and the playing of Owen Marecic at middle linebacker. Marecic seems determined to prove that he is the true Iron Man, playing both positions and all, and it seems a disturbing sign that our best method to plug up our defense is to import the best blocking fullback in the league from the offense. One hopes this isn’t merely robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The other problem is the defensive backfield, which carried along a long Stanford tradition of being overmatched. It’s curious that the Stanford secondary has been overmatched for about six straight years by now, as you would think that dumb luck would produce a decent safety or corner by now. This is something that’s unique to the secondary—every other position on the field has managed, by the process of dumb luck if nothing else, to field an above-average player at one point in time during this duration, and yet not the defensive backfield. Nick Sanchez and T.J. Rushing were basically acceptable, but still… At any rate, this year we should see whether Richard Sherman and Delano Howell have upgraded their play. The cause for optimism here is that each of them were in their first year of starting at the defensive end since high school, and hence were not as well practiced at that position as they presumably are now. On the other hand, they didn’t get the job done last year. So who knows? They’ll be joined by two unfortunate souls who just might spend all year watching footballs fly over their shoulders in long lazy arcs and into the welcome arms of a receiver, who will sprint past said unfortunate soul and into the endzone.

The one redeeming feature to the defense is that it will feature Shayne Skov, who is the Pac-10’s finest young linebacker. Many observers tip Devon Kennard and Vontaze Burfict as the claimants for that title; these many observers are wrong. Kennard isn’t really a linebacker; Burfict, while athletic, mostly uses that athleticism to fling himself at a very high speed so he can very quickly commit personal fouls. Skov is the real deal, combining athleticism with predatory instincts. Perhaps my favorite play from Skov last season was on one of those dinking plays Oregon uses so frequently and spectacularly—why, Skov saw it immediately and simply buried Kenjon Barner and then made sure Barner knew that he, Skov, knew exactly what he, Barner, was up to and he, Skov, did not approve. It was justifiably flagged for taunting, and of course I loved it: not too many Stanford linebackers have the ability to go around taunting players. Not Shayne Skov! Taunt away, sir! If you do, it means good things are happening.

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