Brian Murphy: The end of great defense?

Defenses, including Boise State’s, are playing catchup in a new era of high-powered offense.

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comSeptember 20, 2013 

Washington running back Bishop Sankey evades Boise State linebacker Tyler Gray during the Broncos’ 38-6 loss Aug. 31 at Husky Stadium in Seattle.

Five seconds. That’s all the time Boise State defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski gets these days to think about — and then communicate — a play call to his coaches, who then must relay the information to the players on the field.

“The coordinators have got to process faster. You got to get a call to your kids so they can process and line up and play,” said Kwiatkowski, who is positioned in the coaching box. “Otherwise, you see it. Guys are getting the call late. They’re dispersing and the ball is snapped.”

With no-huddle offenses going faster and faster and faster, defensive coordinators have fewer options and less time than ever.

Five seconds.

It doesn’t leave a lot of time for exotic blitzes or complex alignments. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for substitutions or different personnel packages.

“That affects your game plan,” Kwiatkowski said. You can’t have a bunch of stuff, special blitzes and stuff like that.”

And offenses are taking advantage.

Boise State is allowing 413.7 yards and 24.0 points per game, both by far the worst marks of the Chris Petersen era with the Broncos. The hurry-up, spread offenses being employed all over the country, including at Boise State and Fresno State, are limiting defensive coordinators, confusing defenders and piling up plenty of yards and points.

In the Bulldogs, the Broncos face another hurry-up, spread offense capable of keeping the scoreboard operator plenty busy and wearing out the cheerleaders forced to do push-ups each time they score.

This is not just a Boise State phenomenon.

Alabama — yes that Alabama, Nick Saban’s Alabama — gave up 42 points to Texas A&M. And won.

The Crimson Tide are allowing 420.0 yards and 26.0 points per game. TCU, another historically terrific defense, is allowing 374.3 yards and 24.7 points per game.

“I believe we have seen the end of the great defense. When I say ‘great,’ I mean a dominant force that only gives up around 10 to 12 points a game,’’ said ESPN’s Danny Kanell, a former Florida State quarterback who is the color analyst for the Boise State-Fresno State game.

“These offenses nowadays are so explosive. They spread the field and get the ball to the outside, which really eliminates the interior linemen from the game. They go a pace where defenses have no choice but to play conservatively.

“I believe the saying, ‘Defense wins championships’ needs to be changed to, ‘Just enough defense wins championships.’ ”

Just enough defense, to the Boise State coaches, means did you win. In this high-octane era of offense, they’re willing to surrender points and yards as long as they have more of the former at the end of the fourth quarter.

“The points and the yards and all that (are) different. … You’re really starting to see that. So much of this is a team game. It’s really, ‘Do you have more points than them,’ ” Petersen said.

Said Kwiatkowski: “If we can keep them out of the end zone and they get field goals and they get 600 yards, I’m willing to live with that.”

Since the very first kickoff, offenses have been looking for ways to out-smart defenses — and vice versa. With spread formations and a super-fast tempo, offenses have found two ways to outfox their opponents, gaining the upper hand in a battle that is surely cyclical.

By spreading the field with wide receivers, offenses can neutralize blitzes and create space for their pass catchers to run.

Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, who gets the snap in the shotgun, can get the ball out of his hands in less than 2.5 seconds, Kwiatkowski said. And the Bulldogs have a bevy of talented receivers, allowing Carr to try to exploit the best matchup or weakest defender.

Defensive backs must try to tackle receivers one-on-one or, at least, hold them up until other defenders can get there to help make the tackle.

“(It comes back to) being physical on the point, using our hands, getting off blocks and attacking the ball,” Boise State cornerback Donte Deayon said.

The fast tempo complicates things further for defenses. If the offense does not substitute, then the defense is likely to have to keep its same personnel on the field, resulting in weary defenders. Even though offenses have tendencies — i.e., they tend to run certain plays out of certain formations or with certain personnel on the field — defenders don’t have much time to recognize the formation or personnel.

Without time to adjust, defenses have to play more basic defenses and coverage. That simplifies things for quarterbacks.

One reason Washington — which had 592 yards and 38 points in the opener against Boise State — changed its offense was to make things simpler for quarterback Keith Price. There are fewer pre-snap reads for quarterbacks, and fewer ways for defenses to disguise what they are doing when they are stuck in their base coverage.

Boise State exploited the Air Force defense with quick passes to the outside last week. Quarterback Joe Southwick was making the decision before the ball was snapped.

So offenses have put defenders in more one-on-one matchups, limited the time they have to diagnose the play based on formation and personnel, and forced them to play simpler schemes — by spreading them out and limiting the time to disguise coverages and blitzes.

What can a defense do?

“More execution,” Boise State defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said. “Executing your base plays and doing it better than they execute their base plays. They’re going to run what they run, and we’re going to run what we’re going to run.”

Offenses are having enough success. Defenses can’t help them out by lining up in the wrong place or blowing assignments or silly penalties. The Broncos had two personal foul penalties on defense against Air Force, penalties that allowed the Falcons to extend drives.

“No busts. No wrong plays. Just know the calls inside and out for every position and we should be fine,” sophomore safety Darian Thompson said.

While the offensive explosion has altered perceptions of good defense when it comes to yards and points, what hasn’t changed is the importance of third-down stops and creating turnovers — areas Boise State hasn’t been great at this season.

Boise State ranks 120th (of 123) in the nation in third-down percentage defense, allowing opponents to convert 57.1 percent (28-of-49) third-down tries through three games. The Broncos’ goal is to hold opponents to 30 percent, which would rank No. 26 in the country.

“You can still limit teams’ possessions by getting off on third down. There’s no telling that just because they’re going to go fast that they’re going to get first downs. They can go fast all they want, but if we stop them, they’re going to have to punt,” Lake said. “It’s up to the defense to get them off the field at that point. If you allow them to continue to convert third downs, then most likely they’re going to score on that drive.”

Boise State has forced eight turnovers through three games, a good number. But six of them came against FCS UT Martin. Against Washington and Air Force, the Broncos forced a single turnover in each game.

The defenses earn back some of the edge when offenses get close to the goal line. Instead of having to defend both horizontally (from sideline to sideline) and vertically (deep passes), space becomes compressed. It is easier to get more people around the ball carrier, and the passing window for quarterbacks becomes tighter. In today’s high-scoring environment, limiting teams to a field goal attempt can be considered a victory.

“As a defense, you know you’re going to get scored on,” Thompson said. “But a lot of times on those scoring drives, there was a time where you could have gotten off the field, maybe a missed opportunity on a turnover or a penalty on a third down. If we just capitalize on those types of situations, it’ll limit the points.”

After all, that’s what it’s all about.

Brian Murphy: 377-6444, Twitter: @MurphsTurph

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Fresno State players to watch

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Improved ground attack fuels Boise State's offense

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