Three weeks into the 2009 season and Notre Dame Nation has lots of concerns. None more apparent then a defense that ranks 96th in the country for total defense. An injury to Michael Floyd, and even playing every game with a Big-10 officiating crew will not keep the Irish from playing in January. The defense is the only true roadblock between the Fighting Irish and a January bowl.
At his latest press conference, Charlie Weis was asked by reporters about his defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta being too aggressive, and possibly being more conservative. These reporters might as well head to Texas Tech and ask Mike Leach if he should run more Power-I.
The philosophy of Jon Tenuta is to bring pressure, and dictate to the offense. That is not going to change. Sorry to dissapoint the always rational fans on the message boards hoping he changes his blitz happy scheme. There are other changes you might see, which should get the ultimate change the defense needs.
The corners for Notre Dame need to play more press coverage. If Tenuta's pressure package is going to dictate quick passing but not produce sacks, then the corners can't give 6-10 yard cushions. Kirk Cousins easily completed short routes to his receivers, and most likely knew where he would throw the ball before even taking the snap because of those soft cushions.
Darrin Walls, Robert Blanton, Raeshon McNeil, and Gary Gray have great cover skills. That is why before the season the secondary was considered the strength of the '09 defense.
All of them seem uncomfortable playing man coverage when giving the receivers that much space to work with. These corners are fast and athletic, and need to be given the opportunity to be athletes.
The common response to the current secondary technique is that with a heavy blitz scheme, playing off coverage reduces the chance of getting beat deep. Reasonable argument.
Is giving up 300 yards passing acceptable then because it was dink and dunk rather then the long ball? With the current production and scheme of Notre Dame, risking a low percentage pass deep seems more logical then the high percentage pass being conceded.
Many are quick to point out that it is the inexperienced defensive line that is the problem. The defensive line is not getting consistent pressure and freeing up blitzers. The defensive line is part of the problem, but not the problem.
If all the blitzing of Tenuta didn't produce a single sack against Michigan State you have to ask yourself a question. Would rushing just the front four have done any better? How many pass yards would Cousins have had if he actually had more then 3 seconds to throw the ball?
The recent decision to rotate numerous players on the defensive line rather then try and stick with a top line group will pay major dividends at the end of the year. Rotating these playes should provide maximum effort up front for all four quarters. This should also accelerate the development of the younger players. It was a necessary change evident after the first two weeks.
The next change for the defensive line has to occur in the nickel package. Stopping the run was a point of emphasis for the defense and the defense did improve against Michigan State. The improvement would have been better if not for the Spartans success running against the nickel defense.
Kapron Lewis-Moore is a good young defensive end, but not capable of stopping the run as a three technique in the nickel package. Darius Fleming is outstanding at rushing the passer as a defensive end, but was pushed around in that same spot against the run. This has to change, or more opponents will run against the nickel with success.
If there is one area that has been the weakest link for the defense this year, it isn't the scheme, blitzing, corners, defensive line, or safeties. The fore mentioned facets of defense seem to get all the criticism from the followers of Notre Dame. No group deserves more questioning then the linebacker unit.
Tenuta is getting criticism as a defensive coordinator, but no criticism for his role as the linebackers coach. The lack of production from his position group is disheartening. There is no more necessary change on the defense then at linebacker.
There are currently 113 players listed on the national leaderboard for tackles in the FBS. Of those 113 players, 80 of them play linebacker. Of the 80 linebackers, not one of them plays at Notre Dame. Both Harrison Smith and Kyle McCarthy made the list, but considering they play safety that is another indicator of the lack of production from the linebackers.
To make the list of tackle leaders currently you have to average eight total tackles per game. Starting weakside linebacker Brian Smith is tied for 439th with five tackles per game, and starting middle linebacker Toryan Smith checks in at tied for 855th with 3.3 tackles per game.
Jon Tenuta has to know the most vital key to improving his defense is going to be getting production from this unit.
The most necessary change has to be at the middle linebacker position. Toryan Smith has value as a short yardage run stuffer, but lacks the speed to be an everydown, sideline to sideline linebacker. The next option the first few weeks has been moving Brian Smith to the middle and bring in super recruit Manti Teo to play the weakside linebacker.
The problem with putting Brian Smith at "Mike" is that his skill set does not match the requirements of a middle linebacker. Smith is a prototypical outside linebacker. When playing in the middle he struggles to shed blocks from lineman, takes poor angles, and is not nearly as effective as a blitzer.
So who plays middle linebacker. The first candidate has to be Manti Teo. He has the physical skills to play the position.
If Notre Dame can get Jimmy Clausen, Kyle Rudolph, Michael Floyd, Robert Blanton, Duval Kamara, Armando Allen, and Robert Hughes prepared to start games when they were freshmen than there is no excuse not to get Manti ready. This has got to be a responsibility of Jon Tenuta right now more then any scheme change.
In his limited playing time Teo has already shown great speed, pursuit, hit power, blitz pressure, and motor. His few mistakes have been a missed coverage. None worse then the receiver Toryan Smith let past him against Michigan State which lead to a gain of over 50 yards.
If Manti is not an option then consider moving Darius Fleming from the strongside "Sam" position over to the "Mike." Fleming's role as the defensive end in the nickel and dime packages has hurt his stats, but is not indicative of his abilities. When breaking down film, it is clear that Fleming has great speed, power, motor, and can take on a block better then either of the Smith's.
If Fleming moves to the middle, this could allow his friend from Chicago, Steve Filer, to get on the field at "Sam". Filer came to Notre Dame with great promise, and his appearance on the field has been highly anticipated since he signed. Filer has great athleticism, but to date it has only been seen on special teams.
Jon Tenuta can get the job done at Notre Dame. His career has been a perpetual success story, and a stop in South Bend is not going to change that. Tenuta can do it, but it will take changes with the x's, o's, Jimmy's, and Joe's. These changes do not require a change in philosophy.