"Bend but don't break" is a familiar term to college football fans. It often refers to playing more zone coverage, which is designed to take away the deep pass and force the opposition to sustain drives.
However, in the game today, it has gone from a term to describe some of the better, non-blitz-heavy defenses to one that characterizes bad defense, especially defenses that have a tough time getting off the field with any regularity.
Missed tackles, blown coverages, missed assignments and conceding yards because the "offense is really good" are not part of the bend-but-don't-break ideology.
Which is what led to the discussion on Big 12 defenses over at Blatant Homerism. Allen Kenney, spurred on by Kliff Kingsbury's recent remarks in the Associated Press, took a look at the ideal of stout red-zone defense. The issue is not necessarily the red-zone touchdown percentages; LSU, one of the nation's best defenses in 2012, gave up touchdowns on 60.11 percent of opponents' trips to the red zone.
However, LSU only let opponents get to the red zone 36 times during the season.
Meanwhile, in the Big 12, opponents reached the red zone more often and scored at a similar rate; the conference-wide average was just more than 59 percent.
More trips with the same rate of touchdowns allowed yields more points. Hence scoring is up, yardage is up and defense is down.
Defense is in a bad spot, and it is not merely about offenses being better and more explosive. Many teams are pushing their best athletes to offense, giving defense the also-rans. Players who have missed tackles and blown coverages remain on the field. The same sort of incompetence would not be tolerated from wide receivers, running backs or offensive linemen in similar circumstances.
"Bend but don't break" has gone from a winning defensive philosophy rooted in sound principles and accountability to a way of excusing poor defensive execution while conceding yardage and points.
Playing good defense is not impossible, it just takes a lot more work than it used to when rosters were separated more evenly and the rules were more forgiving. Teams have to make it work, and that means more disciplined play, more understanding of where each athlete fits into the scheme and minimal mistakes.
Every team in the nation cannot play ball like LSU, Alabama or even Notre Dame. They will not get the athletes on the defensive side of the ball. However, BYU, TCU, Virginia Tech, Wisconsin and Michigan State are teams that recruit at levels below the elite tier, yet still have managed to get it done on defense over the years.
It can be done. It simply requires a focus, philosophy and approach that make execution and accountability job one. Unfortunately, don't expect defensive improvement as long as "bend but don't break" means what it does on the current landscape.