When taking a long look at the advanced statistics from the 2015 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders football season, a few things immediately stand out.
First, the offense was absolutely ridiculous despite a rushing attack that was well below averages. The second thing was the inability of the defense to stop explosive plays versus the passing game. MTSU was in the top ten nationally last fall in limiting the explosive rush, but fell to #94 nationally in defensive Passing IsoPPP.
At the same time, the Blue Raiders defense picked off an impressive 17 passes on the season. Is it simply a case of Middle Tennessee playing way too aggressively, or is there more to it than that simple answer?
As with anything else, the answer is a bit complicated.
The basic answer is that MTSU felt like it could afford to take more chances in the secondary by sending extra defenders because of Kevin Byard at safety. Byard, along with Quay Watt, was a senior safety that saw significant playing time throughout his career. Byard in particular was among the nation's best and ended up with invites to the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine.
This is some of what the Blue Raiders will be losing with Byard graduating.
With the two able to handle more responsibility than normal safeties, Blue Raiders defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix could experiment more with edge blitzes. Cornerbacks for MTSU combined for 15 tackles for loss on the season. Think about that. 15 tackles for loss from cornerbacks is absolutely ridiculous. Michael Minter had an impressive six tackles for loss alone, ranking him tied for fourth on the team in that category.
If you do not believe me, take a look at this chart. MTSU does not rank that highly in DB Havoc Rate without a ridiculous pass break ups unless blitzes are fairly constant.
The ability to blitz also forced quarterbacks to get rid of the ball too quickly. Byard was the biggest beneficiary with a team-high four interceptions on the year. The defense as a whole was incredibly aggressive with 25 forced turnovers on the season. That would have been even more impressive if MTSU did not lead the nation in lost fumbles and actually hold a -4 turnover margin. Alas, that is another story for another day.
So, now you know how the aggressive scheme in the defensive backfield worked well. Now it is time to talk about all of the drawbacks from such an aggressive scheme.
The Blue Raiders faced five teams that made bowls in 2015, including Western Michigan in the Bahamas Bowl. In those five games, the Blue Raiders gave up 26 passing plays of 20 or more yards. Of the 26, eleven went for 40 or more yards.
While not blitzing on this play, this was indicative of the disappointing secondary play versus quality opponents.
It became rather apparent that playing super aggressive in the secondary was working versus the lesser teams on the schedule. When facing a strong offense like Western Kentucky, Louisiana Tech or WMU, the Blue Raiders defense was repeatedly gouged.
Now for the good news.
With Byard and Watt gone from the secondary, as well as the entire starting linebacker corps, the scheme must change a bit in 2015. The defense cannot afford to send corners and safeties on as many passing downs and expect the senior leaders to pick up the slack. There will be young and inexperienced players taking their places.
You must be thinking that young and inexperienced does not work out very well. Normally, I would agree with you, but MTSU needs a reason to reel in the aggressive play on defense.
It may not work out and the MTSU may end up worse on defense as a whole in 2016. Then again, getting a group of young players to play their roles and their roles alone could make a more cohesive defense and allow Middle Tennessee to compete with Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky this fall.