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Defense and the Dreaded Lack of Focus

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How a lack of intensity shows up in the numbers

Less talking. More hitting.
Less talking. More hitting.
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Going into the season, the plan for success for LSU was the same as it always has been: solid, ball-control offense paired with a great defense. LSU's fortunes have largely mirrored that of the defense over the course of the Miles era, relying on the defense to generate wins. That's been the plan, anyway.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to Tiger Stadium. The offense is moving the ball at a rate better than any other team in the SEC, while the defense is hanging out in the middle of the pack. LSU allows 4.81 yards/play, 6th in the SEC, and 315.9 yards/game, 5th in conference.

The question for LSU is: what is the root cause of this decline? Paul has argued that this is the inherent weakness of Steele as the defensive co-ordinator, and this is a confused defense that is prone to make mistakes due to poor coaching. My argument has been that this has been a defense that lacks focus, and it seems to relax when it has a big lead, which as far as problems go, is a good one to have. I mean, at least we have big leads to relax on.

The interesting thing about LSU's defensive statistical profile is how narrow the splits are between the levels of competition. The LSU defense performs nearly the same, regardless of the level of competition.

LSU allows 4.81 yards/play overall. In conference play, over what should be tougher competition, LSU allows 5.01 YPP (versus 4.57 YPP to non-conference foes). That's a fairly small margin. And it's the same with other splits:

YPP

YPP

Margin

Conference/Non-Conference

5.01

4.57

+0.44

Ranked/Unranked

4.92

4.75

+0.17

Winning Record/Non-Winning

4.92

4.63

+0.29

Power 5

4.79

4.84

-0.05

A defense's splits are supposed to improve when player weaker competition. LSU's stats do improve, but not significantly. Look at the splits for Florida, the defense which LSU is neck and neck with in the conference defensive rankings:

YPP

YPP

Margin

Conference/Non-Conference

5.01

4.07

+0.94

Ranked/Unranked

5.65

4.38

+1.27

Winning Record/Non-Winning

5.01

4.55

+0.46

Power 5

5.01

4.07

+0.94

See? That's what you would expect the splits to look like. Florida's defense improves by about a yard per play when playing easier competition. LSU's defense improves by about a quarter of a yard. Those Power 5 splits get to the heart of the matter: LSU has the 3rd best YPP in the SEC against Power 5 opponents (Bama ranks 4th, by the way), but 10th against non-Power 5 teams (Bama ranks 1st, by a huge margin).

LSU's biggest issue seems to be its inability to thoroughly dominate inferior competition. LSU's defense goes from pretty good against tougher competition to below average against weaker foes. However, this is just the end result, it doesn't get at what is driving these numbers.

The LSU defense lacks a killer instinct. The 2011 defense used to hold you down while it assaulted you with a sock full of pennies. When you fell down, they just hit you harder until you gave up or passed out. It was brutal, yet effective. The 2015 LSU defense, as soon as it gets a lead, starts thinking about which cheerleader it is going to drunk dial.

LSU's averages start to skyrocket, the bigger the lead gets:

Yards/Play

Run

Pass

Tied

2.09

4.83

+1-7 points

2.13

4.43

+8-14 points

3.54

6.83

+15 points

4.35

7.28

OVERALL

3.25

6.03

Now, you would expect a defense to allow bigger yardage when it is protecting a lead, if only because it is more likely that the team would trade yards for time. LSU's run defense jumps almost a yard and half in average yards/carry when it goes from a tie game to a two-score game. But a 3.54 rushing averaging is still a pretty good defense, if not elite.

However, the pass defense, once the scoring margin goes to two scores, decides to fold up and go home. The defense allows a full additional two yards per pass attempt once the lead gets to two scores. That's horrible. Let's contrast this performance with our next opponent, Alabama:

Yards/Play

Run

Pass

Tied

2.92

3.70

+1-7 points

2.04

6.76

+8-14 points

0.79

2.76

+15 points

3.54

4.80

OVERALL

2.60

5.48

When you fall down against Alabama, they do not let you get back up. OK, there's that weird blip in the pass defense when the Tide is nursing a one-score lead which I cannot explain, but otherwise, the Tide defense is excellent when it has a big lead to protect. Sure, there are some score effects once the lead is over 15 points, but not nearly to the extremes as LSU's defense.

The problem here is not schematic. It is not systemic. It is entirely one of focus and mental commitment. Les Miles is an emotional coach and his teams often feed off of that emotion. When the emotions run low in a game, this defense does not seem capable of staying present in the moment.

The LSU defense has not put forth a full effort for a full sixty minutes. That's mainly because they haven't had to. When this team gets up, it's clear from the numbers that the defense relaxes, and does not play with the same intensity as it does when the score is tight. The defense loses its effectiveness the bigger the lead gets.

This lack of focus should not be an issue against Alabama. If the defense plays all game like it has when the game has been close, then this is an elite defense. However, that is a huge if. This defense gets no benefit of the doubt, it has to show up for all four quarters, regardless of the score.