The Mizzou Defense (To Date): Beyond the Box Score

More of this against the run, please.


Yesterday, we looked at an offense that is probably being propped a bit by a misleading strength of schedule (i.e. the Illinois defense looks better statistically than it probably is ... though watching that game again this week, they really did do a wonderful job of tackling).  Today, let's see what we can learn about a defense that, two long Ronnie Hillman runs aside, has been stellar in every aspect of the game against less than stellar competition.


Overall Ranks

S&P+: 17th
Success Rate+: 32nd
PPP+: 8th

Standard Downs S&P+: 4th
Passing Downs S&P+: 75th

Redzone S&P+: 11th

Q1 S&P+: 64th
Q2 S&P+: 27th
Q3 S&P+: 1st
Q4 S&P+: 42nd

1st Down S&P+: 1st
2nd Down S&P+: 70th
3rd Down S&P+: 67th

Rushing Ranks

Rushing S&P+: 60th
Rushing SR+: 57th
Rushing PPP+: 67th

Standard Downs: 11th
Passing Downs: 113th

Redzone: 12th

Adj. Line Yards: 65th

Passing Ranks

Passing S&P+: 4th
Passing SR+: 23rd
Passing PPP+: 3rd

Standard Downs: 3rd
Passing Downs: 54th

Redzone: 34th

Adj. Sack Rate: 64th
SD Sack Rate: 87th
PD Sack Rate: 42nd

Illinois and San Diego State have both done sometimes convincing impressions of a solid team in the last month (especially SDSU), propping up what people perceive to be a horribly weak schedule.  Whether Mizzou truly has the 17th-best defense in the country or not (probably not), the splits here are very interesting, and they paint a very vivid picture.

Mizzou's Strengths to Date

Tamping down the big plays.  According to the explosiveness measure above (PPP+), only seven teams have been better than Missouri at preventing big plays.  It's an odd thing to say given the whole "Ronnie Hillman rushed for 168 yards in two plays three weeks ago" thing.  But beyond those two big plays, Mizzou has allowed next to nothing so far.  In the passing game, Mizzou really has allowed next to nothing, ranking third in PPP+ and fourth overall.  Yes, the Mizzou pass defense.  Third.  They probably won't finish third, but still ... improvement is both obvious and welcome.

Standard downs.  If standard downs are the "play-calling" downs, then opposing coaches have not yet figured out the gameplan for cracking the Mizzou defense.  They rank fourth in overall standard downs defense, 11th against the run, and third against the pass; they rank first in the country on first-down defense.  Again, they probably won't finish there, but these are still very good things.

Mizzou's a second-half team!  On both sides of the ball, the third quarter is the time to shine for Mizzou.  As I've mentioned time and again, I'm not a big fan of the concept of "second-half adjustments," but to the extent that they do exist, it is rather clear that the "Pinkel doesn't make adjustments!!!!!1!!" meme could not be further from the truth right now.  Of course, it will persist anyway; meme's never die, and they never care about facts.

Stiffening in the red zone.  Mizzou's defense ranks 17th overall right now, and they rank 11th in the red zone.  They have been able to turn up the physicality when the need arises, and they have been great at stopping the run close to their goal line.

Mizzou's Weaknesses to Date

Passing Downs breakdowns.  Mizzou has allowed 13 plays of 20 yards or more over the first four games of the season. Eleven of them have come on passing downs.  Ronnie Hillman's 75-yard touchdown: 3rd-and-6.  Hillman's 93-yard touchdown: 2nd-and-9.  Mikel Leshoure's 42-yarder in the second quarter against Illinois: 2nd-and-8.  San Diego State's three passes of 21 yards or more: 2nd-and-8, 2nd-and-9, 2nd-and-10.  The positive benefits of playing great first-down defense start to become negated if you give it all away on second down.  A defense that is good enough to rank fourth on standard downs has no excuse to rank 75th on passing downs. Now, Mizzou has yet to blitz very much, and that might change come conference play (in years past, they have stayed rather vanilla in the non-conference portion of the schedule), but barring a change, passing downs are once again looking like Mizzou's biggest bugaboo.

Std. Downs
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
S&P+ Rk
2010 (to date)

If these rankings hold somewhat, this will be the third time in the last five years that Mizzou's passing downs ranking has been drastically lower than their standard downs ranking, including both years of the Dave Steckel era.  This is only so much of a complaint -- if you are really good on standard downs, then you can afford the occasional passing downs breakdown, and Mizzou has been really good on standard downs thus far -- but he certainly does need to figure out how to dial up the results more on those downs.

Now a question for the field: what do you think Mizzou is doing wrong on passing downs so far?  It's hard to say blitzing more will solve everything, since the three biggest breakdowns Mizzou has suffered on those downs has come on the ground.  Thoughts?

Tighten up the efficiency a bit.  While they have prevented big plays as well as anybody, Mizzou still has the statistical profile of a team that plays a bit passive and relies on leverage and making good tackles.  In other words, their success rates are dragging down their overall S&P+ rankings.  They currently rank 32nd in overall Success Rate+, and it has been more of an issue on the ground than in the air -- they rank 57th in Rushing Success Rate+.  If Colorado is to defeat Mizzou this Saturday it is going to be because of their improving running game -- both Brian Lockridge and Rodney Stewart have looked better in recent weeks, and Tyler Hansen is a dangerous scrambler on passing downs (which has been a problem for this defense).

Slow starts.  Being the best team in the country in the third quarter (1st on defense, 4th on offense) is great, but doing a little better in the first quarter isn't a bad idea.

Mediocre line play.  For all the plaudits we have piled on the defensive line so far, and for how much we all enjoy the "Candy" formation (four defensive ends on passing downs), the results have been rather middling so far.  The ends are generating enough pressure on the pass that receivers aren't as able to work themselves open as last year--in that regard alone, I think the line is improved over 2009.  But statistically, the improvement has been rather minor, and against much better offensive lines, one has to be a bit concerned whether they will be able to generate the pressure necessary to keep the pass defense numbers strong.


Time to break out more charting data!

Up the
Mizzou Opponents
Without Ronnie Hillman's
Two Outlier Runs

For one reason or another, Mizzou has been weaker when opponents run to the right than the left.  I find this odd, simply because Mizzou doesn't tend to line players up on one specific side of the field -- it's mostly strongside/weakside.  All of Mikel Leshoure's good runs came to the right, and Ronnie Hillman's 75-yarder right before halftime was to the right as well.  Generally, that's the side where Aldon Smith (end), Andrew Gachkar (LB) and Kevin Rutland (CB) line up, but as I said, it is rather fluid.  So for now, we will chalk this up as a statistical oddity and move on.  If Colorado has success to the right, however, we'll have to begin exploring why.

So when somebody makes a good play against the run, who is it?

Tackles by Position (Runs of 2 yards or less)
Defensive End
Aldon Smith
Brad Madison
Jacquies Smith
Michael Sam
Brayden Burnett
Marcus Malbrough
Defensive Tackle
Dominique Hamilton
Terrell Resonno
Jimmy Burge
Zaviar Gooden
Andrew Gachkar
Will Ebner
Andrew Wilson
Jeff Gettys
Josh Tatum
Luke Lambert
Kip Edwards
Kenji Jackson
Jarrell Harrison
Jasper Simmons

I don't really have a compare group for this, so I don't know if the percentages from each position are favorable or not.  I will say, though, that I think Mizzou should be getting more production out of the defensive tackle position than they are getting.  Dominique Hamilton has been strong, but tackles not named Hamilton have made just three plays so far.  As we've discussed plenty of times, a tackle's job isn't necessarily to make plays -- instead, they're supposed to set up others to make plays (and by all means, it seems like the linebackers are doing well against the run here).  But it seems to me that with as much time as Resonno and Burge spend on the field, they should be stumbling across a couple more tackles here and there.  Just an opinion, however.

One more opinion: Kip Edwards and Kenji Jackson have been outstanding near the line of scrimmage.  Very happy with what I've seen out of them in the run (and quick pass) game.

Okay, one more: Michael Sam has been all-or-nothing.  He either makes a big play or nothing at all.  He has just 4.5 tackles on the year, but he has 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack, an interception (returned for 62 yards), a QB hurry, a forced fumble, and a safety.  This is a dangerous comparison to make, but he's seemingly having the defensive end version of the freshman campaign William Moore had in 2005 at the safety position.  Needless to say, I think we'd all enjoy seeing what the Willy Mo of Defensive Ends might do in a couple of years when he gets more accustomed to making the little plays too.


Below is a table that looks at what kind of success opponents have found (or not found) in passes of a given length.  We will also look at which defenders have been targeted (i.e. in this case, the defender closest to the targeted receiver) on such passes.  We don't have "defender targeted" data for all passes, however, so this piece is as much anecdotal as it is statistically relevant.

0 Yds
or Less
1 to 5
6 to 10
21+ Yds
Yards After Catch
Defender Targeted
Gooden (2)
Gettis (2)
J. Smith
Gachkar (4)
Rutland (4)
Gooden (3)
Harrison (2)
A. Smith
Gettis (4)
Gooden (2)
K. Jackson
Ebner (2)
Edwards (2)
Gettis (2)
Rutland (2)
K. Jackson
Harrison (3)
M. White (3)
K. Jackson (2)

* Opponents have also drawn two pass interference penalties on passes of this length -- one against Kip Edwards, one against Matt White -- which is something to watch in the future.

As a means of comparison, opponents are completing 80.4% of passes thrown within five yards of the line of scrimmage; Mizzou is completing 90.1%.  Opponents are averaging 5.1 yards per pass on these throws, Mizzou 6.8.  Opponents are averaging 5.5 YAC per completion on these throws, Mizzou 7.9.  Opponents have completed 25% of passes longer than 10 yards; Mizzou 51%.  In other words, Mizzou is passing much better than their opponents so far ... which, given the opponents, is what you would expect to see.

The 25% completion rate of intermediate-to-long passes is, I think, quite outstanding, by the way.  That could be the best number of any kind that Mizzou's defense has produced this season.  And the one completion Mizzou has allowed on a 20+ yard pass was the play-action ball San Diego State threw to Walter Kazee when Mizzou was selling out against the run in the fourth quarter.  In normal circumstances, on standard downs, Mizzou's pass defense has been impenetrable so far.

Some interesting observations regarding the admittedly-incomplete target data: close to the line of scrimmage, opponents seem more likely to target Rutland than Gettis. Meanwhile, they're more likely to go after Gettis away from the line of scrimmage.

Safeties are usually the closest defender on the longer passes, suggesting a) Mizzou is still playing a lot of zone, and b) Mizzou safeties have raised their games this year (since only one of ten long passes have been completed).  Kenji Jackson and Jarrell Harrison really do deserve major props for their play.  Heading out of spring ball, Jasper Simmons and Matt White appeared to be the starters.  Simmons got hurt against Illinois (and is now suspended), while White has struggled in somewhat limited time (he has been the 'target' on two deep balls; one ball was overthrown, and White committed pass interference on the other), but Harrison and Jackson have been outstanding so far.  Neither has top-end speed, but they have done what has been asked of them so far.


In the 2010 Mizzou Football Preview, we talked about Mizzou having a strong run defense, improved pass rush, and probably iffy pass defense.  So far, Mizzou has been shaky against the run, mediocre in the pass rush, and absolutely outstanding in pass defense.

Actually, why did I just point that out?

You're still buying the 2011 Mizzou Football Preview in nine months ... right?  Ri ... right?

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