Thursday, August 30, 2007

2007 Position Preview - The Book on Coach Brown

Leaving offense behind us, now we move into the area of our team that is truly a "riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" - the defense.

Normally I'd launch directly into an analysis of the players, but with the addition of Corwin Brown, I thought I'd spend a posting entirely on him and his new 3-4 scheme that the Irish are implementing this year.

If you want to read a well-written and well-researched piece on Brown's upbringing on the south side of Chicago, check out ths article in the South Bend Tribune. He is truly an amazing person who has overcome so much and (despite his Michigan roots) become a good person and a great role model.

However, I'd like to focus more on the X's and O's background of Coach Brown. He started as a defensive back for the hated Michigan Wolverines, and then went on to a successful pro career mostly on Parcells/Belichek/Weis teams with New England, the New York Jets, and the Detroit Lions.

His first coaching position was as defensive backs coach under Al Groh at Virginia from 2001-2003, where he helped the team win back-to-back Continental Tire Bowl games. Brown's impact was felt relatively quickly, as he took the nation's 93rd best pass defense, and improved there effectiveness immediately, raising their ranking first to 70th, then 59th, before slipping back slightly to 63rd. His impact on the Cavaliers in coaching and recruiting continued to be felt the year after he left, when the Cavs jumped to 27th in the nation in pass defense.

When he started with the Jets in 2003, they already had what appeared to be on paper a solid pass defense, which ranked 11th in passing yards allowed, and in the top 10 in most other categories. However, a closer look revealed that there were too few interceptions and too many yards per attempt - nobody really passed on the Jets because they didn't have to - they could run the ball at will.

Corwin's work with the Jets secondary saw a sharp improvement in yards per attempt and interceptions his first year, ranking in the top 20 in both categories. And this was despite a better run defense - teams couldn't pass against Brown's secondary, even though they wanted to. That year, the Jets defense finished 7th in total defense in the NFL.

The following year, the Jet's run defense fell off again, but Brown's secondary remained effective, improving at interceptions and yards per attempt, forcing opposing offenses to go back to running the ball against the Jets. The Jet's pass defense finished 2nd in the NFL. Under Brown, Ty Law was voted to the Pro Bowl.

In his last year with the Jets, Brown was toiling in the turmoil of a new head coach, and the secondary's production fell of in terms of interception and yards (still in the top half of the NFL, though). Despite this, Brown's schemes still resulted in the 6th best yards per attempt in the NFL, and also in Justin Miller being voted to the Pro Bowl in just his second year in the league - a player entirely developed by Corwin.

After crunching all of the numbers, the one consistent thing I've seen from Coach Brown is steady improvement over time, in particular when it comes to containing opposing offenses. His yards per attempt stats are the best at showing this - he took a team near the bottom of the NFL in YPA, and made them a perennial top 10 team. This means that his defense limited the big play. Also, his defenses became more opportunistic as far as interceptions were concerned.

By contrast, Notre Dame ranked 100th in the nation in yards per attempt last year, and in the bottom half of the league in both interceptions and interception %.

Corwin Brown's 3-4 scheme is a far simpler scheme than what Minter ran last year, but can also bring pressure from multiple places within the same formation. Lots of zone blitzing, where a D-lineman or down linebacker might show blitz and then drop nto coverage, is a key to this defense. Defensive ends and outside linebackers are practically interchangeable as pass rushers and pass defenders. The only player almost guaranteed not to drop into coverage is the nose tackle. Everyone else is fair game.

The secondary plays more zone and less man from what I understand, taking away the long passes and using disguised coverages to confuse the quarterback, creating more interception opportunities. The better the players get at playing their zones, the fewer long plays will be given up. This scheme to a certain extent, when played to perfection, neutralizes differentials in speed and talent between the receivers and secondary.

This defense is frustrating from the opposing offense's perspective, as they have to be patient all game to move the ball. For those of you that like basketball, consider that this defense kind of forces the opposing offense into a Princeton-style offense, chipping away and chipping away and waiting for an opening to develop. In the college game, this will mean teams trying to force the action more, creating opportunities for the defense to get game changing turnovers.

Where I actually see this scheme struggling this year is against teams like Navy, where they could care less about pressure and dsguised coverages. However, I expect us to outathlete them like we do every year.

The other team I see being successful against this defense is Michigan. Carr can run his usual ball control, slow playing offense, and have success. However, if Michigan tries to open it up against us like they did last year, they may open the door for us to be in a game late that we have no business winning this year otherwise.

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