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Iowa State Defense: No More Of This

The reads and reactions of just one player on defense can be the difference between a stop and a big play for the offense.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Iowa State Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The Iowa State defense was bad last year. Awful. They were blown out, beat up, and most frustratingly, taken advantage of in key games where one stop would have made a difference. The inability to stop big plays in key moments spelled doom in many of the 9 games they lost. I have discussed the statistical background for that in a previous article (Iowa State Football: The Impact of Explosive Plays).

Offense and defense are different. Yes, an idiotic statement, but the analysis is different.

On offense, you dictate the play and alignment and execute a designated assignment. You know where you are going and use technique to get there.

Defense is purely reactionary. Individual effort, discipline, recognition, and technique make all the difference. Every defense has certain holes that can be exploited, but the individual play matters most because one blown assignment can result in a big play and one great play from a defender can disrupt any play. Therefore, it is necessary to have defenders who maintain discipline in their reads, in their zones and gaps, in their technique and be able to win in one-on-one match-ups.

Below, I will be looking at several plays where ISU needs to improve in some of these areas. If the Cyclones can improve, they will be able to limit the explosive plays and perhaps protect a lead their offense has given them.

The first three plays show touchdowns given up at various points in two familiar games. The errors are glaring and can be fixed. The following three clips are from a sequence of downs played by Toledo in a big game against an offense that ISU will see this year. Their success is glaring as well. Finally, I throw in a bonus play to illustrate how a well-called, well-played defensive play can be cratered by one defender.

But, what the hell do I know? I watch the games from a chair custom worn to fit my ass and a makeshift cupholder burned into the arm from spilled whiskey!

Above, we see the scoring play on Oklahoma State’s first drive of the game. ISU had momentum from an early score, and a stop would have been nice. This play illustrates a crucial lapse in technique and assignment.

The cornerback has outside responsibility and should be receiving help over the top from the safety. As the snap occurs, the cornerback knows immediately that his receiver is running a fly route to the end zone. The safety sees pass and the eyes of the quarterback never leave the outside receiver. No one is threatening the middle of the field and he can see the fly route developing.

Play recognition.

The safety should be flying over to the outside receiver immediately while locating the ball to make an interception. The safety is slow to read the play, slow on his approach, and never gets into the play.

The corner makes a fatal error that we see on this play and saw all season long in coverage. His position at the goal line is solid, however, he hesitates and loses contact with the receiver. Then makes a failed attempt to play the ball.

The hesitation and separation are inexcusable. The proper technique would be to turn and locate the ball, then become the receiver on the route, forcing the receiver to defend you. At the very least, the corner should never stop his motion on the route and should run through the play while maintaining contact with the receiver.

Instead, we have poor technique on the part of the corner, poor play recognition by the safety, and not enough athleticism by either to make up for their error.


Both errors can be eliminated by coaching and preparation in the film room. Given, I could be wrong and the play is just a perfect pass and strong catch. I just hope we don’t see this again.

Okay, okay. This play drives me crazy. If I was a coach, the defense would not stop running Monday after practice. Good thing I am not, because I may not be able to coach myself out of a paper bag. Nonetheless, I spilled my whiskey watching this one.

Fourth quarter, ISU holds a 10 point lead. A field goal here would be momentous and a touchdown is disastrous. Teams don’t run a quarterback sweep into the boundary to score a touchdown, right? Yet, that is what happened. Not only that, the touchdown isn’t scored by RGIII, it is a below average runner who scores.

Geez....step away and let me collect myself. Let the whiskey soak into my brain and take me to that sweet Clone-induced malaise...

Play action and wide receiver screen action on the trips side. First, every player on the defensive line over-pursues into the boundary. The boundary is an extra defender and you have to play the cutback when the action goes that way. Pursue head up and resist the direction of the block.

Put that error aside and chalk it up to fighting across the blocker’s face to penetrate the play (which no one does). The linebacker runs away from the cut block after taking a pursuit angle instead of attacking the blocker and filling his gap.

I would do the same thing after a good shart, but good grief. Run action, fill the hole with your whole ass.

Watch the wide side secondary, if you can. The receivers DON’T RELEASE, they block. If your eyes are positioned properly, you see the offensive line fire off the ball and recognize it is a run immediately. Your responsibility is to pursue desperately to fill the cut lane and prevent a big play.

Instead, the ISU secondary freezes and lazily jogs over to the streaking runner. Pure effort, even with the misstep, puts the safety in position to make a tackle at the 5 yard line. Still an abomination, but at least they don’t score and you can reload at the 5. If they recognize the play and pursue with gusto, the play is stopped short of the first down and you have gotten a good hit on their quarterback.

Iowa State cannot afford lapses in effort and pursuit. It just can’t happen. No defense can be frozen, misstep, and fail to pursue. Especially in the fourth quarter. I hope Coach Campbell can change the culture to the extent that we see no more of this.

Here we have another technique and recognition flaw. Also, an alignment flaw that we saw regularly on Saturdays last year.

Fourth quarter, ISU has a 14 point lead and K State is driving. This is 4th down inside the 10 yard line. It is a 4 point play that is the difference in the game. How much did we lose by? 3 points. Don’t get me started on how the game ended, but suffice it to say that a change of possession here will effectively end the game.

Why would a team take this liberty when convention says take the points because there is plenty of time to get two more possessions? Well, we see why on this play.

KSU has a loaded backfield and doubles on the right side. Iowa State is playing man coverage on the outside. Look at where the nickel back is lined up on the slot receiver... He is lined up on the goal line with a 7 yard cushion. His first two steps are back in to the end zone and to the inside. Do you see the problem with that?

Look at the corner. He is in press coverage and it will take a tight throw to beat him. Why do you allow a free release to the inside receiver and force him outside when all of your help is inside? The nickel should have been playing up three yards and collided with the receiver as he came even to knock him off his route. He should have been playing with outside leverage to force him to the three players helping to the inside. The goal line is a hard wall and he could have played hard and made it a fight to get past him into the end zone.

This play should have failed.

Instead, it was an easy score because of the alignment and poor play of the nickel. Again, this can be fixed with coaching and preparation. Late in the season, the film study should have prepared the defense for most plays that KSU ran inside the 10. A dummy fade with an out underneath is offense 101 and should be easily recognized.

Like I said before, what the hell do I know, but this play was what got us beat that day.

Now to the good. Toledo.

They are playing Bowling Green who was very successful last year and finished in the top 10 in the country in explosive drives (Oex). Bowling Green runs the Baylor offense. They have a good quarterback on par with most Big 12 quarterbacks and talented receivers.

Toledo is up quickly by 14 points only 5 minutes into the game. This is a big spot because you do not want to give Bowling Green/Baylor an opportunity to get back in the game this early. 14 points down is a deficit to a team like that, but 7 points down is like being ahead. No pressure.

Toledo is playing man under coverage with safeties high, three down lineman and the defensive end is spying on the QB in the middle. I love this. The man under, assuming it is played with discipline, is tight and cuts off the quick throw to routes running under the deep coverage (the hitch, cross, slant, in, and out routes). The safeties over the top can run with the vertical routes, leaving superior numbers on the continuation of the under routes. The spy has to play with great recognition and effort to prevent the QB scramble after everything has cleared (Beat Hard in the Iowa game).

This play was designed to be a quick throw to a wideout, but the coverage stymied the look and the QB ran for it. The spy stalks him and kills the gazelle on the corner for no gain. 2nd and 10.

Love this play so much. Same coverage, 4 down lineman, middle backer is the spy, same defense different alignment. Bowling Green runs vertical routes hoping to get the secondary in man coverage with their backs turned to the delayed hand off.

My fingers are tingling as I type this.

The high safety. Watch this cat. He correctly reads “run block” right now. He takes a read step forward, trusts his preparation and read, and fires to the line. He covers 12 yards and trips up the back at the line and he falls forward for a gain of only 2. Now Bowling Green is in 3rd and long.

What a great example of play recognition, preparation, and effort. That is making a play and how the defense has to work. Notice also the aggressive pursuit of the defensive line to clean up the play.

3rd and long. Toledo uses the same defensive look except the weakside corner is in press coverage. Again, man under with a spy.

Bowling Green has to run longer routes to account for the yardage needed for first down, so the read will be delayed while the route develops. Toledo gets a great push up front and from the wide side edge. The QB wants to hit the out route being run by the middle receiver. The route is being run right at the marker and requires a very long throw across the entire field. The defensive back is in good position, however, the penetration to the wide side results in a batted ball because the defensive end has maintained discipline in his lane.

Toledo has achieved a vital three and out, thus disrupting the rhythm of the offense and putting themselves in position to extend the lead. In fact, Toledo puts together a drive that results in a field goal. Bowling Green mounted a comeback, but could not overcome the advantage Toledo had.

This is what I want to see this year. Sequences and plays like this made in a big game at a big moment.

I had to put this last play in here. It is an example of a good defensive call and one player creating a big play.

Alabama needs a field goal to go ahead, they are on the ropes but in scoring position. If Tennessee can get a stop, then they have a chance, but a touchdown seals it for Alabama. Alabama has a tight running formation and Tennessee has 11, yes, 11 players in the box. Everyone holds the line, all the middle linebacker has to do is clean up the play.

Watch the near side middle linebacker. He follows play action instead of reading his key, he retreats instead of filling his gap, and Derrick Henry runs right where he is supposed to be and scores. 11 in the box and one guy makes the wrong read and it is a touchdown that costs your program a chance at a huge win.

I think the Toledo footage and Toledo’s defensive statistics reveal that there is a possibility that Iowa State can overcome some of its lapses, hold its opponents to less big plays, and hold onto leads they have worked hard to get.

Can the coaching staff shore up the technique and preparation lapses? If Toledo is an example, then yes.

Are our players, and newcomers, talented enough to execute in the talent laden Big 12? We will see. I just don’t want to see any more of the monkey business we see in the ISU clips above.

Bad plays and mistakes happen every series. As an armchair fan with hot sports opinions, I just want to feel safe when ISU is on defense, like we won’t beat ourselves. I have downed close to a keg of purple drank...I mean red Kool-Aid...but I think Coach Campbell and his new staff can put our team in a position to bring me that feeling of comfort and serenity that comes from a well-schemed and well-coached defense.