“Some teams will play 55 snaps today. I think we defended 17 possessions, 110 (snaps), so we just played two ball games… That’s why the yardage thing is so irrelevant.”
– Glenn Spencer/DC, Oklahoma St. | via Kyle Fredrickson, NewsOK.com.
It’s time for defensive coaches everywhere to start changing the way they view modern defensive football. The “spread movement” is real, and it is not going away. The spread scheme, though vast in its styles has one basic principle, create one-on-one matchups by using the entire width of the field. Adding tempo to spread schemes creates more possessions and opportunities to score points. It is not uncommon for college teams to run 90+ offensive plays in a game or a high school offense to reach 75-80+ plays. As the amount of snaps being played in a game increase, it puts more pressure on the defense to line up correctly and play every snap. Most teams in the Big 12 will play a half game or more each week compared to its SEC counterparts. As Glenn Spencer stated in the quote above, the yardage stat is becoming less relevant than ever before. To gauge how great a defense is in the modern football era defensive coaches and pundits everywhere need to readjust the standards for what makes a great defense.
Five Points of Emphasis
Points Per Possession
Conditioning against tempo teams is a premium for the defensive side of the ball. More possessions create more opportunities for points, thus more opportunity for mistakes. Spread teams operate by creating one-on-one matchups and “spreading” the field to create space. As more spread teams implement tempo and gain more possessions, the old stats of yards per game and points per game become irrelevant. If a team gives up 28 points and defends 8 possessions (3.5 PPP), are they better than a defense that gives up 35 points but defends 15 possessions (2.3 PPP)? Defensive coaches need to be less infatuated with yards and points. The only points that matter are the ones needed to win a game. The PPP stat evens out teams that play spread versus teams that play traditional huddle-up offenses. If looking at the PPP stat, one can better determine the strength of the defense because it focuses on how many drives turn into scoring drives. A drive is a drive, the difference is how many did a team defend, and did it give up some points? A good number for a defense is anything under 2 points, elite is under 1.5.
3rd Down Efficiency
Third down is where defenses win games. This is the most crucial down in any sequence. Defensive coaches talk all the time about how games were won or lost by being able to get off the field. In a game that is moving towards more possessions, it is even more crucial for defenses to get off the field, steal a possession for their offense, and get a rest. In order to beat spread teams, the defense has to make the offense earn their points. Winning on third down forces the offense to risk the possession and field possession on fourth, or give the ball back to the defenses’ offense. Plus, most teams won’t tempo on third, so the defense needs to take advantage and be prepared. The goal for third down efficiency should be around 33%, or 1 out of 3 third downs. Win third, win the game.
Red Zone Efficiency
One of the best ways to beat spread teams is to force field goals. In high school, a FG is never a given, and in college, holding a good spread team to 3 points is almost like a small victory for the defense. Tough teams bow up in the Red Zone, and this stat shows which teams hold their ground the most. Limiting teams to 3 points instead of 7 and flip the game, and stopping a team in the Red Zone all together can create momentum for the defense and demoralize the offense. Plus, this stat goes back to PPP. It sounds simple, but it is true if a team limits points and possessions most generally they will win the game. Anything under 75% is good, elite teams can keep the percentage under 70.
There is a trend building in these stats. In order to combat tempo and spread teams, the defense has to steal possessions. The best way to do this is through turnovers. Not only does the defense get the ball back in their own offense’s hands, but they now have the opportunity to score. Scoring on defense is as powerful as scoring on special teams. It is like bonus points and a huge momentum creator. Turnover margin is one of the single greatest factors in whether a team will be successful or not. PJ Fleck has even gone as far as claiming the entire program at Western Michigan is reliant on the ball, the offense keeping it, and the defense taking it away. Most successful defenses have a tendency to create turnovers and make it part of their culture. If a team can create one or more turnovers in a game, the likelihood of that team winning goes up exponentially.
Limit the Fatals and Explosive Plays
Big plays are what offenses thrive on. Spread teams try and create them with tempo and space. A fatal is any big gain that results in a touchdown. An explosive play is any pass over 15 yards and a run over 10 yards. These plays are demoralizing to the defense and can flip the field. The point of modern defense is to make the offense earn their points. Eliminating or suppressing fatals and explosives comes down to structure and discipline. Great defenses survive and limit the explosives and eliminate fatals.
We didn’t have a defensive goal board at Baylor, we just watched the explosive tape. Generally, you could tell whether we won or lost by watching that tape. The first thing we looked at in the offseason was the explosive tape, it highlights your deficiencies. I truly believe it is one of the single most important points of emphasis, survive the play, live to play another, make the offense earn it. Yardage means less and less as more teams shift to tempo and spread offenses. The possession of the football matters, whether keeping it or taking it away. As Glenn Spencer eloquently stated at the top of this article, when you play 90-100 plays in a game, yards are meaningless. The defense is literally playing two games! It’s time for modern defensive coaches to look at analytics and stats different. The one true stat is the win/loss column, but in order to really assess a great defense, it comes down to its efficiency to get teams off the field and eliminate points.