When Mark Stoops arrived to take over the Florida State defense in 2010, he took over a unit in total disarray, as somehow the Seminoles managed to have one of the nation's worst defenses in 2009. Between a dearth of experienced talent, poor fundamentals, and a secondary that had never really played zone, Stoops had his work cut out for him, and the turnaround he orchestrated is a testament to his quality as a coach. Nevertheless, by the time Stoops left to take the Kentucky head coaching job, it was becoming clear that a change on defense would be a good thing for the 'Noles.
When Stoops took over, he was forced to use some smoke and mirrors to mask the numerous deficiencies in talent and experience he had inherited. But by 2012, the cupboard was no longer empty, as evidenced by the 'Noles 2013 NFL draft class, and Stoops increasingly relied upon vanilla schemes to keep things simple and let his superior personnel win their individual matchups. Most of the year was spent in a Cover 2 man-under look, allowing for tight underneath coverage supported by two deep safeties and relying on the front seven to stop the run. This approach mimicked the championship formula of the 2001 Miami defense that also relied on outstanding defensive tackles and great safety play.
This approach was highly successful most of the year, as the 'Noles led the nation in pass efficiency defense and finished fifth in defensive F/+. The FSU defensive tackles and linebackers were not quite as dominant as they needed to be, however (a problem exacerbated by a lack of depth at defensive end), and both NC State and Florida were ultimately able to take enough advantage of the weaknesses in Stoops' approach to hand the 'Noles two losses. The Wolfpack were able to protect quarterback Mike Glennon against FSU's consistent four man rush in the second half and relied on "rub" routes and shallow crossing routes to run away from the tight man coverage throughout the second half. Florida took a different approach, using "jumbo" packages with extra offensive linemen and unbalanced lines to gash the 'Noles' seven-man fronts.
Both losses also highlighted a consistent problem with Florida State's 2011 and 2012 defenses—despite their dominance otherwise. Those defenses simply did not force many turnovers, causing a total of 18 versus FBS competition in 2012 (80th nationally; Oregon led with 38) and 23 in 2011 (41st; Oklahoma State had 44). Football is a team game, and even if a defense allows very few points, it can be more difficult on the offense if a lack of turnovers consistently forces the offense to drive the length of the field to score.
Enter Jeremy Pruitt's Pressure Defense
Although he has suggested his defense will not be a dramatic departure from what Stoops did, Pruitt is—as is often the case with coaches—not exactly being forthcoming. Having spent some time studying a good bit of what Pruitt will be doing in 2013, I think there's good reason to expect an overall improvement over FSU's fifth-ranked defense in 2013, although the defense will likely give up a few more yards per game.
Rather than taking Stoops' approach of talent inversely corresponding with complexity, Pruitt's defense is in many respects a defensive version of Jimbo Fisher's offense, philosophically. "Multiple" and "flexible" are the governing principles, as the aim is never to be put into a situation where the offense can ask questions the defense can't answer. Just like Fisher tries to do with his offense, Pruitt's aim is to make sure the defensive players always have an answer for everything the opposing team shows. One way Florida State will do this in 2013 is through the use of a lot of hybrid players on the field, giving the defense enough flexibility to match what the offense shows. Fortunately, Pruitt inherits a roster full of hybrid types, guys like Karlos Williams, Lamarcus Joyner, Tyler Hunter, Christian Jones, Mario Edwards, Jr., Terrance Brooks, and Terrance Smith.
This is especially important—and difficult—against modern spread offenses, which regularly use formations and motion as ways to create advantageous matchups for the offense and hesitation and confusion for the defense. A good example of how one simple formation change can lead to a defensive breakdown is this big play from South Carolina against Michigan last year:
By going to an empty (no backs in the backfield) set in that situation, South Carolina was able to create a matchup between one of their fastest receivers against a Michigan linebacker in coverage, leading to a shockingly easy 70 yard gain on a simple four verticals call. This is precisely the sort of thing Pruitt's approach tries to prevent. In the next installment, we'll talk about how Florida State's new verbiage illustrates its approach to preventing this sort of matchup problem.