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Advanced Stats Breakdown: ND Defense

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A few bright spots + way too many explosive plays given up = a very talented but very average defense.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

With the conclusion of the regular season, taking a look back at how the advanced stats view Notre Dame's offensive performance. Most stats come from the great work of Bill Connelly and the Football Study Hall team and Brian Freameau's Efficiency Index.

Defending the Run

Notre Dame Run Defense

Avg.

Rk

Nat'l Avg.

Rushing S&P+

105.1

51

100.0

Rushing Success Rate

40.5%

54

42.3%

Rushing IsoPPP

1.14

91

1.08

Adj. Line Yards

115.4

19

100.0

Opportunity Rate

34.8%

30

39.1%

Power Success Rate

66.7%

73

66.4%

Stuff Rate

23.1%

28

19.5%

The Irish improved from 70th to 51st this year in Rushing S&P+ defense, which is a small step in the right direction but far from adequate for a defense with high aspirations. Opponents rushed for 4.52 yards per carry despite the solid work by the defensive line with fairly high stuff rates and low opponent opportunity rates. The long runs were disastrous - when containing them, like against Stanford, opponents frequently were bottled up (3.56 yards per carry by the Cardinal is extremely impressive). In other games long runs (often by quarterbacks) ruined otherwise solid performance, like Boston College (5.94 YPC) and UMass (5.10). The power success rate is also disconcerting - for a team very talented up front, the Irish were beat too often in power and goal-line situations when both teams had a good idea a run was coming.

Individual Defensive Stats

Name

Pos

Ht, Wt

Year

Tackles

% of Team

TFL

Sacks

Int

PBU

FF

FR

Jaylon Smith

LB

6'2, 240

JR

90.5

14.4%

9.0

1.0

0

5

1

1

KeiVarae Russell

CB

5'11, 196

SR

54.0

8.6%

3.5

1.0

2

4

2

0

Max Redfield

S

6'1, 205

JR

51.5

8.2%

2.0

1.0

1

2

0

0

Elijah Shumate

S

6'0, 224

SR

50.0

8.0%

6.5

0.0

1

2

0

0

Joe Schmidt

LB

6'1, 235

SR

48.5

7.7%

3.0

1.0

0

3

0

0

Isaac Rochell

DL

6'3, 287

JR

43.0

6.8%

7.5

1.0

0

2

0

0

Romeo Okwara

DL

6'4, 270

SR

36.5

5.8%

13.5

9.0

0

0

1

0

Sheldon Day

DL

6'2, 285

SR

35.0

5.6%

14.5

4.0

0

2

1

0

Cole Luke

CB

5'11, 193

JR

29.0

4.6%

1.0

0.0

2

4

0

0

James Onwualu

LB

6'1, 232

JR

27.5

4.4%

5.0

2.0

0

2

1

0

Greer Martini

LB

6'2, 245

SO

27.0

4.3%

2.5

1.0

0

0

0

0

Matthias Farley

CB

5'11, 210

SR

26.5

4.2%

0.0

0.0

1

1

1

0

Nyles Morgan

LB

6'1, 240

SO

13.0

2.1%

0.0

0.0

0

0

1

0

Daniel Cage

DL

6'1, 315

SO

12.0

1.9%

3.0

0.0

0

0

0

0

Jarrett Grace

LB

6'2, 253

SR

12.0

1.9%

0.5

0.0

0

0

0

0

Jerry Tillery

DL

6'6, 305

FR

10.5

1.7%

2.0

1.0

0

0

0

0

Andrew Trumbetti

DL

6'3, 260

SO

9.5

1.5%

0.5

0.0

1

0

0

0

Te'von Coney

LB

6'1, 235

FR

8.5

1.4%

0.5

0.0

0

0

0

0

Devin Butler

CB

6'1, 200

JR

8.5

1.4%

0.0

0.0

0

2

0

0

Drue Tranquill

S

6'1, 225

SO

7.5

1.2%

2.5

0.0

0

2

0

0

Nicky Baratti

S

6'1, 210

SR

5.0

0.8%

0.0

0.0

0

0

0

0

Nick Watkins

CB

6'1, 200

SO

3.5

0.6%

0.0

0.0

0

0

0

0

Doug Randolph

DL

6'2, 255

JR

3.5

0.6%

0.0

0.0

0

0

0

0

Nick Coleman

DB

5'11, 185

FR

3.5

0.6%

0.0

0.0

0

2

0

0

Tyler Newsome

P

6'2, 205

SO

2.5

0.4%

0.0

0.0

0

0

0

0

Rush Defense

Looking at the performance over the course of the season, you can see strong early performance and consistency early in 2015 go out the window with wild fluctuations down the stretch, much in part due to quality of opponent rushing offense. While my chart-making skills are a work in progress (in keeping with the theme of this post), what's nice is that an average YPC (4.0) and success rate (40%) are very close to matching up. You can clearly see the impact of big runs driving up YPC in some performances where opponent efficiency was limited, especially against Boston College and Navy.

Past, Present, & Future:
  • Assuming Jaylon Smith and KeiVarae Russell enter the draft, Notre Dame's defense will lose 56% of its tackling output, 66% of TFL, and 73% of its sack production. Even with a lot of talent on the roster, that's a ton to replace and ask for improvement.
  • The loss of Jarron Jones left a gigantic hole in the Irish run defense, but will benefit futures defenses as a result. Jerry Tillery and Daniel Cage both showed flashes of brilliance and have multiple years of eligibility in front of them. Isaac Rochell has shown steady improvement year over year and should anchor a defensive line that shouldn't allow much push in the run game.
  • You can make an optimistic case that with Jones returning next year, the front seven won't drop off too much. A defensive line rotation of Rochell, Jones, Tillery, Cage, and Bonner/Trumbetti should be formidable. On paper, the linebacking corps could feature a junior, five-star MLB (Morgan) and returning OLBs with a nice mix of talent and experience (Onwualu, Martini, and Coney). But a jump from another average run defense into the top 30 would require a few players making a leap to fill the playmaking void left by Day and Smith.
  • The great Joe Schmidt debates will finally have some more evidence of just how valuable he was to this Notre Dame defense - without him directing players on the field, will Notre Dame's defense struggle early in 2016 like they did at the end of 2014?

Defending the Pass

Notre Dame Pass Defense

Avg.

Rk

Nat'l Avg.

Passing S&P+

109.1

36

100.0

Passing Success Rate

35.6%

26

40.3%

Passing IsoPPP

1.56

96

1.48

Adj. Sack Rate

90.7

83

100

Here's where the defensive scheme starts to become even harder to justify - frequent blitzing and aggression absolutely must translate into results. We've already covered that bringing a lot of heat hasn't resulted in a suffocating run defense, and while the pass numbers here are slightly better, there are still troubling issues. Notre Dame's adjusted sack rate was 78th in 2014, and 83rd this year despite the improvement of Romeo Okwara and the return of most starters along the defensive line. While you could argue there seem to be some good qualitative signs of development in Keith Gilmore's first year, and the Irish haven't had a true edge pass rushing threat, there's simply no way with the level of talent available (and an aggressive scheme) Notre Dame should be that bad at bringing down the quarterback.

The rest of the story here is a familiar one - the Irish overall were solid limiting opponents passing efficiency, terrible at giving up long bombs when they couldn't get the stop. The opponent passing success rate ranking (which is non-adjusted) may have been buoyed a little by facing several offenses that have serious issues throwing the ball like Texas, Georgia Tech, and Boston College.

Defensive Footprint

Team

Rk

Nat'l Average

Std. Downs Run Rate

65.3%

19

60.1%

Pass. Downs Run Rate

36.3%

40

33.8%

Overall Havoc Rate

16.1%

64

16.5%

DL Havoc Rate

6.1%

45

5.2%

LB Havoc Rate

4.3%

68

4.6%

DB Havoc Rate

5.8%

85

6.5%

PD to INC

26.5%

115

32.8%

If bringing pressure isn't producing sacks, the hope would be that Van Gorder's frequent pressures and attempts at confusion would then lead not just to pass inefficiency, but also forced throws into tight windows. Unfortunately that hasn't been the case - Notre Dame's havoc rate (which includes sacks, TFL, and deflections) from the secondary was extremely low. The defense just didn't get their hands on the ball often in pass coverage, which is disconcerting. The Irish tied for 95th nationally with just eight interceptions, and even some reasonable bounce-back in luck and regression to the mean places this defense around average at forcing turnovers.

Pass Defense

This chart is very much skewed by the Stanford game, where the Cardinal did whatever they wanted through the air (66.7% success rate, 12.8 yards per attempt). The Passing S&P+ ranks in parentheses bring to life how many bad passing offenses the Irish defense faced - USC, Clemson, and Stanford were formidable, but half of these opponents ranked 72nd or worse, including the worst passing offense in the land in Boston. Triple option teams also make this tougher to track week to week (0% passing success rate for Navy!), but show at offense that mostly limited bad opponents to inefficiency. Games with coverage issues (and trick plays!) like Virginia and USC also jump out.

Past/Present/Future:
  • There are likely more questions than answers for the passing defense - other than Cole Luke, what should Irish fans feel good about? The replacement options for Elijah Shumate are either recovering from injury (Tranquill) or relatively unknown (Sebastian/Mykelti Williams/freshman?). Russell could return but Brian Kelly indicated NCAA clearance would be needed - does anyone finally step into that final corner position? It seems like 2015 was a constant rotation in public praise between Watkins, Coleman, and Butler, without any clear winner at the end of the year. Betting on at least one of that trio to solidify the 2nd CB spot seems like a decent (but somewhat frightening) solution.
  • While Redfield and to a greater extent Shumate were good against the run, blown coverages and lack of discipline were an extreme issue for the secondary. Communication was consistently stressed last spring - maybe new personnel will actually help? There has to be some potential for a rebound year even with less experienced bodies if they can elevate the communication and mental ability of the defense to make smart adjustments.

Big Picture:

As with Notre Dame's offense, FEI and S&P+ agree on the overall state of Notre Dame's defense- it was just ok. A high rate of three and outs (20th nationally by FEI) and relative strength limiting opponents efficiency were offset by the fatal flaw of explosive plays allowed that usually translated into points. Notre Dame's defense allowed 1.87 points per drive, ranking 45th nationally. When opponents were able to get momentum, they were rarely stopped - on opponent drives starting in their own territory but crossing Notre Dame's 30-yard line, opponent's scored 5.45 points per "value drive" (104th), but these drives thankfully didn't happen often (or the defense would have been well below average).

Top 8 Teams According to Playoff Committee and Offensive Ranks:

Team

CFP Rank

Defense S&P+

Def. Success Rate+

Def. IsoPPP+

Defensive FEI Rank

Clemson

1

6

3

9

7

Alabama

2

1

1

1

2

Michigan State

3

13

21

11

15

Oklahoma

4

12

8

3

3

Iowa

5

26

46

26

24

Stanford

6

54

51

89

60

Ohio State

7

8

5

4

10

Notre Dame

8

33

25

55

52

"Defense wins championships" - not untrue this season, as all four playoff teams feature top-15 defenses according to both S&P+ and FEI. The outliers here are the Irish and the Cardinal, who made it into this top group by virtue of extremely efficient and balanced offenses. Even if a few plays go the other way and Notre Dame had made the playoff, looking at this table shows you why Notre Dame probably would have had the lowest chance of winning it all according to advanced stats (and Vegas). The Irish defense would have been by the worst single unit in the playoff, and that would have placed such an extremely high bar for the offense to hit (against excellent defenses) to have a chance to win consecutive games.

Overall both FEI and S&P+ paint a picture of a defense that's not all that far away from being a top 15-25 defense. Notre Dame's opponent-adjusted success rate (25th) is awfully close to some of the country's top defenses - Florida State (27th), Michigan State (21st), and Washington (23rd, and yes the Huskies defense flew under the radar but was extremely good this year). The difference between the Irish and those teams is the explosive plays given up when they did allow success - those teams rank 5th, 11th, and 14th respectively in limiting explosive plays, while the Irish rank 52nd.

That really shapes the critical question for Brian Van Gorder's defense going forward - can Notre Dame maintain the same ability to limit opponents' efficiency while getting better at stopping big plays? Is it a problem of scheme or execution, or simply not adjusting scheme if you don't have the players to execute what you want to do?

Past, Present & Future:

  • Notre Dame overall improved from 43rd to 33rd in Defensive S&P+ from last year, but that still feels like a loss given the injury woes that were a viable explanation for 2014's struggles and the amount of talent on this defense. Opponent adjustments play a big role here, but explosive plays allowed actually improved as well from 80th nationally to 55th.
  • With the most talented player at each level of the defense likely headed to the NFL Draft, where do the Irish go in 2016? If we're realistic I don't think a dramatic change in Van Gorder's philosophy is coming, so there are really two options.
    • First, you can stay the course - hope that things start to click in Year 3 of this scheme, that even with the anticipated losses, talented players fill in and Notre Dame continues to force a lot of 3-and-outs and has enough improvement on the back end to limit explosive plays. This places a huge burden on player development to make that happen, in particular for the linebackers and secondary. Even if explosive plays only improve slightly, there's a chance the defense can improve as a whole by forcing more sacks, TFL, and turnovers.
    • Alternatively, you could see a shift not towards a full bend but don't break defense, but a measured move in that direction. This requires a lot of trust in Kelly as well as Van Gorder to self-identify issues defensively, potentially reducing the complexity not necessarily in scheme but in keeping players focused on doing what they do best and slightly less aggressiveness with blitzes. The result is like a uptick in opponents' efficiency but better limitations of explosiveness, and it's a calculated risk that you can limit the big play enough that the likely tradeoff in success rate is a net positive.