In the eight months or so Nebraska fans have had to get to know defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, one phrase should’ve been unavoidable –– negative plays. That term comes up often with Chinander for a good reason. They’re big plays for any defense, but particularly in this style of defense.
Turnovers are included in that definition. Those are defensive home runs, but let’s put those aside for now and focus on the plays that are literally negative –– tackles for loss (which includes sacks). It may seem obvious that when the offense is moving backward that’s a good thing for the defense. But “good” is understating just how important those tackles for loss were at Central Florida in 2016 and 2017, Chinander’s first two seasons as a coordinator. Those plays were vital.
The Knights defended 389 drives over those two seasons, 174 of the drives included a tackle for loss and 215 drives did not. The charts here show you the outcomes of those drives based on if they included a tackle for loss, and it’s easy to see the impact. Drives with a tackle for loss had a lower touchdown rate, higher field goal rate, higher turnover rate and higher stop rate (click the graph in the upper-right corner to enlarge).
In most seasons an average FBS defense will give up about 2.1 points per drive. That’s almost exactly what UCF averaged (2.12) over the past two seasons on drives that didn’t include a tackle for loss. But on those drives that did include a tackle made behind the line of scrimmage? The Knights’ points per drive dropped all the way to 0.99, which would rank among the best defenses in the country every year.
Nebraska in 2017 was a different story. With a focus on big-play prevention, Bob Diaco's defense was willing to give a little bit on the aggressiveness front and, well, it ended up giving a lot. The Huskers' numbers for drives with a tackle for loss were better than for drives without one, as you'd expect, but they still weren't what you'd consider good. The touchdown rate on drives with a TFL dropped, but only to 25 percent; the field goal rate rose, but only slightly; the turnover rate was essentially the same.
That's a sign of a defense that's struggling in a number of areas, but particularly at getting stops in scoring territory. The 2017 Huskers would've had to have had a lot of TFLs for it to make a huge impact on the how that unit was playing overall. That was never going to happen under Diaco. Wasn't his style. Nebraska ranked 129th in TFLs per game in 2017, the previous seven national rankings for Diaco-led defenses weren't drastically better: 115th, 106th, 99th, 108th, 81st, 75th and 84th.
UCF only ranked 64th in this category last season, perfectly average, but it was ninth in 2016. No matter which season it was, the Knights maximized those plays.
And that’s why you’re probably not going to hear Chinander stop mentioning negative plays any time soon. When his defense is creating those plays it can run with any defense in the country. Remember that this season when the crowd goes crazy and a Husker eagerly throws the bones after dropping a back in the backfield.
It’s not just an exciting play, it’s probably keeping points off the board and that, of course, is what defense is all about.