Huskers’ Midterm Report Card: Defense
On Wednesday we took a look at the offense through six games, today it’s the defense. Just as a reminder for these grades, here’s a quick methodology:
By definition, traditional letter grades signify specific levels of achievement, or lack thereof, on a 100-point scale but for the purposes of this report card, we’ll be grading the Huskers on progress as much as anything else. The baseline expectation coming in was to win the division title — a realistic expectation based on the experience Nebraska returned — so everything that follows is based on the following question: Is this specific unit bringing the team closer to that expectation or pushing them further away?
DEFENSIVE LINE — Somebody beyond Eric Martin needs to step up here. While Martin has a great motor and plays with a ton of effort, there are also plays where his relentless pursuit of the quarterback puts pressure on the defense elsewhere. Most Nebraska fans are willing to overlook this because at least he’s doing something, but, like the defensive line as a whole, it’s far from ideal. The Huskers lead the Big Ten in both sacks and tackles for loss — and are in the top 15 nationally in both categories — but that is obscured by failures elsewhere. Nebraska’s run defense ranks 11th in the conference and 93rd nationally, allowing 189.17 yards per game. The Huskers will have a hard time reaching Indianapolis if they can’t be closer to average against the run over the next six. FINAL GRADE: C-
LINEBACKERS — Much like the defensive line, linebacker has been a one man show for Nebraska. Will Compton is essential, spending nearly every second up until the snap playing traffic cop and getting the Huskers aligned. There was some hope coming in that, with three seniors leading the way, Nebraska might not feel the loss of Lavonte David too badly. They have. The Will linebacker spot is still holding auditions depending on the formation and Sean Fisher isn’t even a factor against spread sets. The lone bright spot is Compton who ranks in the top five in the Big Ten in both tackles and sacks. FINAL GRADE: C
CORNERBACKS — Normally, you would grade the secondary as a whole but the play between the corners and safeties has been so divergent that they have to be looked at individually. Nebraska had a lot of options and a lot of unknowns at cornerback coming into the season, but this is easily the most solid position on the defensive side. Ciante Evans has been a revelation at nickel back. Josh Mitchell is incredibly athletic and tenacious. His size means he’ll occasionally miss out on plays against bigger receivers, but he’s always in the neighborhood. Andrew Green has held down the other side for the most part and remained unnoticeable which isn’t a bad thing for a corner. Stanley Jean-Baptiste looked good in his one game as a starter last week and Mohammed Seisay, if he could avoid little nagging injuries, might be the guy the coaches like the best. All in all, corner play is the one area of confidence week-to-week defensively. FINAL GRADE: B
SAFETIES — Nebraska currently ranks second in the Big Ten in pass defense and it would undoubtedly be first if the Huskers were getting better safety play. With a pair of seniors back there in P.J. Smith and Daimion Stafford, this has to be the biggest disappointment of the season so far. Smith does well in run support but struggles in the passing game. Stafford was always a hitter first but there was some hope that he’d grow after playing most of last year. He hasn’t. He still displays a nose for the big hit but that carries an extraordinary cost at times. There have been too many times this season where the corners were left wondering where their safeties were. That can’t happen with two seniors patrolling the back end. And the most alarming thing, going forward, is that Nebraska apparently doesn’t have better options. Only Harvey Jackson has seen significant time outside of Smith and Stafford. FINAL GRADE: D-
COACHING — The question everyone seems to be asking is if this defense is too complicated? Nebraska has eight seniors on defense yet the pre-snap shifts and alignments almost always look chaotic. Young players don’t see the field because they’re “swimming in it,” but it frequently looks that way for the veterans too. Bo Pelini has his system and his belief in it is resolute but the first six games this season have been alarming. Perhaps it was foolish to believe that the Huskers’ defense could be better than last year without its big stars but that was the consensus, both locally and nationally, coming in. It hasn’t happened yet. Nebraska currently ranks 51st nationally in total defense after finishing last season 37th. FINAL GRADE: C-
Tally everything up and you have a defense that grades out at about a C-. That might be too generous for some, but remember that right now, halfway through the season, Nebraska is still in the mix for a division title. Maybe even the favorite because the Huskers get Michigan at home, but Nebraska’s likely going to need some sort of improvement somewhere to make that a reality.