In his short tenure as Kentucky head man, Mark Stoops has done nothing but exceed fans’ wildest expectations. Not only did he pull in a stellar recruiting class on incredibly short notice, but he also gave fans the incentive to pack Commonwealth Stadium for a meaningless springtime scrimmage. You may not be one to believe in miracles, but if we were diagnosing such occurrences in the football world, Stoops and his staff’s work would certainly be close to qualifying in the miraculous category. While his performance in the Bluegrass State has been superb thus far, his work at Florida State was arguably as spectacular. When Stoops arrived in Tallahassee in 2010, he inherited the nation’s 94th ranked scoring defense which allowed 30 points per contest. Fast forward three seasons and Stoops transformed the Seminoles into one of the country’s best defensive units, allowing 14.7 points per game (6th overall). By now we know the stats which caused Mark Stoops’ defense to be so successful, but we don’t know very much about his in game strategies. Because of my ever-growing quest for knowledge, I took it upon myself to watch seven Florida State games from last season to see what makes his defense click.
One of the first things that pops out when you glance at Florida State’s 2012 stat sheet is the immense number of sacks the Seminoles accumulated. In 14 games, Stoops’ defense sacked opponents 36 times, placing them 14th nationally. By looking at the numbers, one would expect to see a blitz-happy scheme with players attacking from all portions of the field, but this wasn’t the case. In the below table, I’ve charted just how many players rushed the backfield on the 557 plays I observed.
About 82% of the time Stoops only brought four men to rush the backfield, meaning seven were back in coverage. The next most common amount for Stoops to rush was five, meaning 6 were back in coverage. Naturally, this means around 95% of observed plays saw Stoops either rushing four or five men. So how did they accumulate so many sacks with so few men rushing? Besides the obvious answer of talent, they also ran a high percentage of stunts and twists near the line of scrimmage. Fret not if you’re unfamiliar with the terminology as it’s pretty basic to understand. A stunt or twist in the most basic terms means that two or more defensive linemen (or linebackers) are going to cross paths when rushing the backfield. This is confusing to the blockers as it becomes more difficult to pick up a man to defend. This strategy worked brilliantly in bringing increased pressure to the quarterback with minimal men rushing. By only rushing four players, you leave yourself with seven players in coverage, shutting off all outlets for a quarterback. Knowing this, it’s pretty easy to see why the Seminoles had the nation’s most efficient pass defense. If you want to learn some of the finer points on stunts and twists, Ben Muth of Football Outsiders wrote a piece detailing just that.
Now that we know the strategy behind Stoops’ defense, let’s get a visualization of where it was most effective and most ineffective in terms of passing. If you remember back to last week, I introduced a new way to scout the passing game similar to a basketball shot chart. The football field is divided into eight zones and teams were charted on yards per attempt, completion percentage, and number of times a particular zone was targeted. This is infinitely better than the old way of scouting (looking at basic numbers) as it gives insight on where teams actually like to throw. In case you missed last week’s post, the below image shows the eight zones when the line of scrimmage is located on the 30-yard line (moving left-to-right). Keep in mind zones one and two are behind the line of scrimmage.
Now that you have a visualization on how the field is divided up, you can use this to interpret how effective the Seminoles were at stopping opponents when these zones were targeted. The below chart contains data for the seven games viewed.
As you can see, the data from nearly every zone is hugely impressive as the Noles only allowed five yards per passing attempt in two of the eight zones. Though Florida State surrendered 8.1 yards per attempt in zone eight, their completion percentage in that zone was only 26%. This implies that coverage was stellar outside of a few big gains. Another thing to notice is the absolute domination in zone 7. Not only did opponents attempt 17 passes into that zone, but when it was targeted, only 35% of passes were completed for an average of 4.5 yards. It’s often difficult to tell if Cover 3, Cover 2, or Cover 1 was being run due to shoddy camera angles, but such coverage in the deep middle implies Cover 3 or Cover 1. This is somewhat similar to what Nick Saban and Bo Pelini run with their respective teams. Back in 2010 when Stoops was first hired at Florida State, Tomahawk Nation wrote an excellent piece on the intricate ins-and-outs of Stoops’ philosophy.
Now we turn our attention to rushing defense. Opponents tried a handful of different rushing attacks on Stoops’ defense; the triple option, the zone read, and the jet sweep to name a few. While these attacks are tricky for many, the Seminoles conquered those with little issue. Since rushing defense is currently evaluated like passing defense, I created a new way to scout by dividing rushes into three separate categories; left, middle, and right. By doing this we can see where the Seminoles’ strengths and weaknesses were. The below chart contains the data.
After reviewing all of the data, it’s pretty safe in assuming that Mark Stoops will eventually be successful here at Kentucky. His elite level defenses have faced just about every type of offense imaginable, and in most games, they passed those tests with flying colors. Stoops also has success in turning around bad defenses as evidenced by Florida State’s rankings before and after his tenure in Tallahassee. More specifically, we can expect to see a base 4-3 defense which varies its looks in the secondary from straight man all the way to Cover 3. Very rarely will we see 6+ rushers on defense, but we will see intelligent/efficient 4-5 man rushes which utilize stunts and twists to confuse the offensive line. Building a defense from scratch takes time, but if anyone can do it, it’s Mark Stoops.