Iowa Football: Is It Time to Scrap the Bend-Don't-Break Defense?
With all the talk of Iowa's offensive problems, the defense has gone under the radar.
It is true that statistically, the defense, which was the No. 7 scoring D in the Big Ten, did better than expected (which, in itself, is sad). However, those that watched the Big Ten season know that when Mother Nature wasn't helping out, the Hawkeye defense fell apart down the conference stretch.
The question is, how much of that was due to youth and how much of it was due to scheme?
The Kirk Ferentz defense is simplicity at its finest.
It operates with the mentality that at the college level, most offenses and specifically most quarterbacks cannot consistently put together 10-plus play drives and methodically move down the field.
In effect, the goal of the Hawkeye defense is to take away the run, force the pass, not allow the receiver to go anywhere after the catch and absolutely, under all circumstances, never allow the big play.
The thinking is that sooner or later, the offense will get impatient or shoot itself in the foot, and when they do, the Iowa defense will be there to pounce.
This is called the bend-don't-break philosophy, and in its best years, it has had great success. Consider 2003-04 and 2008-2009, the unquestioned high point of the Ferentz-era defenses. Also, not coincidentally, those were four of Ferentz's best five years as a Hawkeye; Ferentz is a decidedly defense-dominant coach.
The question, therefore, is what of those years when it doesn't work so well. What is the issue in those situations?
One first has to consider the personnel that Ferentz's defense needs to to run the bend-don't-break effectively.
It starts up front with the defensive line. The front four have to be able to control the line of scrimmage and take blockers out of the play, so that the linebackers can stay clean and make plays. It also has to create a pass rush without the help of blitzing. Finally, it needs to contain and mobilize dual-threat quarterbacks without the help of a spying linebacker or safety.
In other words, a good Iowa defense needs a really good, experienced, technically proficient defensive line.
The linebackers do not have to be dangerous blitzers. They do need to be effective tacklers and have a nose for the ball. This is especially true of the middle linebacker, or MIKE in the Hawkeyes' lexicon.
The outside linebackers don't have to be as adept at finding the ball, but they do have to be exceptional—for a linebacker—in coverage. The reason is that Ferentz doesn't like to sub in extra defensive backs, and outside linebackers can expect to cover not only tight ends and running backs but even slot receivers.
In effect, the majority of the pressure is put on the front seven, but the secondary is not without key responsibilities.
As with linebackers being exceptional in coverage, the defensive backs need to be exceptional—for defensive backs—in run support. They need to be solid, fundamental wrap-up tacklers. The Iowa D does not break when it allows a reception. It does break when it allows yards after the catch.
It is no surprise that half of the Iowa cornerbacks that have gone on to the NFL have become safeties as pros. As often as not, Hawkeye cornerbacks are glorified safeties with a safeties' responsibilities.
The big rule for Iowa defensive backs is that absolutely nobody can get behind the secondary.
In years when the defense has not flourished, one of two things have broken down: either Ferentz didn't have the necessary personnel to run his scheme, or the opposing offenses were custom-made to beat the bend-don't-break.
Beginning with the first possibility, consider the successful years.
In 2003, six of the 11 starters were drafted with one going in the first round and two in the second. One went on to become 2008's NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Most of those six draftees have had careers lasting three years or more. One other starter was too short to be successful in the NFL, but is the Canadian Football League's reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
Of the 2004 defense, five were drafted. Two went the free-agent route and have enjoyed enduring NFL careers. Finally, the aforementioned CFL Defensive Player of the Year was also on the 2004 D.
The 2008 defense had seven starting draftees with one going in the first round. Two signed as free agents, and have enjoyed a sustained career in the NFL (though one of those free agents did move to the offensive line as a pro).
Eight starters and one key reserve from the 2009 defense were drafted. That is a total of nine. If Hawkeye fans want to know what it was like to be an Ohio State fan under Jim Tressel or a Bama fan under Nick Saban, remember the talent on that 2009 defense. It is like that for Crimson Tide fans every year.
Compare those seasons with a relative down-year like 2011.
Four players from the 2011 defense were (or will be) drafted, with none going above the fourth round (though Micah Hyde, who was a cornerback on the 2011 squad, is projected to go in the third). When all is said and done, that total may rise to six, but the two potential draftees—both linebackers—that are set to graduate next year were young in 2011 and have not yet played at a level where they can expect to get drafted.
In short, it is unfair to expect the 2011 squad to have been able to do what the 2009 squad regularly did.
Then consider the second part of the equation: facing opposing offenses that are custom-made to beat the bend-don't-break.
This was most evident in 2010. That squad had plenty of talent. Seven players were drafted with one going in the first round. Also, one linebacker, who missed most of the season with injuries, went the free-agent route, and has remained on the New England Patriots' active roster for two seasons.
The problem was the teams that it played featured patient, experienced, accurate quarterbacks that played on offenses with the ability to sustain drives.
Four of Iowa's losses came against teams that averaged a 68.2 completion percentage. They were custom-made to beat the Hawks.
Now consider the bigger picture, and specifically the Big Ten during the glory years: 2001-2004. Those four years comprised the best four-year run for Ferentz.
Only one Big Ten team completed more than 62 percent of its passes during those years: 2001 Iowa. Moreover, only six teams completed over 60 percent of their passes.
This is in comparison to 2008-2011, which, all things considered, was a decent run for Ferentz. During those years, 13 Big Ten teams completed over 62 percent of their passes, 18 conference teams completed over 60 percent of their passes and three completed over 70 percent.
And this was the Big Ten.
Over half of the offense-dominant Big 12 has completed over 60 percent of its passes for the past three seasons. The same can be said for the Pac-12 (formerly Pac-10).
Modern (i.e. post-2008) offenses are geared to complete more passes and move the ball faster. In other words, they are built to beat bend-don't-break defenses, because they do exactly what Kirk Ferentz bets they can't do—consistently, methodically and quickly move the ball down the field.
In a way, it turns the tables on the bend-don't-break defense, because it makes it so that the D has to play mistake-free in order to contain the opposing offense.
Some of the seasons used as examples are outliers. The 2010 Big Ten was a strong conference dominated by experienced, accurate quarterbacks. That strong a conference was a once-in-a-decade scenario.
Furthermore, the 2012 Iowa defense was particularly bad. In effect, whatever defensive scheme Ferentz employs, it is unlikely his defense will be that bad for a long while.
In closing, numbers often don't tell the whole story, but numbers never lie.
Kirk Ferentz likes to win with his defense, but if his defense is to be as successful as it has been in the past, he will have to make some adjustments.
His base defense can still employ a bend-don't-break philosophy, and in seasons where he has personnel similar to 2009 or 2004—and where he doesn't face a slate of offenses like 2010—he can sit back and allow his conservative D to take care of business.
On the other hand, when he finds himself with an undersized, inexperienced, lightly recruited defensive line to go along with a pair of walk-on safeties, and he expects them to go up against an offense that regularly completes over 65 percent of its passes, he had better make some adjustments.
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