Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Tiger Beat - Defensive Edition | by Pat

We already did the offensive preview for LSU. And now the defensive preview and analysis. Trust me, this wasn't fun to write.

Defensive Line

Chase Pittman. 26 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks.
Glenn Dorsey. 59 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks.
Charles Alexander. 27 tackles, 3 TFL, 2.5 sacks.
Tyson Jackson. 35 tackles, 10 TFL, 8.0 sacks.

Glenn Dorsey (right) is the headliner on this very talented defensive line. A 1st Team All-American, Dorsey is one of the main reasons why LSU has the #3 total defense in the country. The 6-2, 300 pounder has fought through double teams most of the year and still was able to finish fourth on the team in tackles. Taking advantage of the attention paid to Dorsey is defensive end Chase Pittman. Pittman is a huge defensive end at 6-5, 273 pounds and is much more than just a speed rusher off the edge. The Texas transfer is also the most experienced player on the Tiger line. Charles Alexander played sparingly in his redshirt freshman year last year while battling injuries but worked his way into the starting lineup halfway through the season and hasn't left since. At 6-3, 300 pounds, he's another wide body that will eat up space and blockers in the middle. Tyson Jackson is the youngest player on the line but earned Freshman All-SEC honors last year in a backup role and 2nd Team All-SEC honors this year. At 6-5, 292 pounds, Jackson is a monster defensive end that is bigger than any defensive tackle on ND's roster. He's also one of the fastest lineman on the team and a very good pass rusher. Depth: Redshirt freshman Marlon Favorite started four games this year and is another 290 pound fireplug defensive tackle. Ricky Jean-Francois also started a handful of games and provides excellent depth for an already deep and talented line.

Matchup Analysis. Big? Check. Strong? Check. Fast? Check. Deep? Check.

Yikes. I don't think I need to rehash the issues the Irish OL had this year against big and physical defensive lines. Although the vaunted Tiger line only totaled a combined 19 sacks on the year (ND's line had 21), I think that is more a factor of LSU not facing many pass-happy teams than anything else. Make no mistake: this is the key matchup in the game. If LSU can get steady pressure on Quinn with only their front four, the game will be over by halftime.

Despite being a great representative for Notre Dame football, Bob Morton has struggled this year against strong and fast tackles and I wasn't looking forward to his matchup against 1st Team All-American Glenn Dorsey. But from the look of things, Dorsey will more often than not be lined up over Dan Santucci, not Morton. Still, I'd expect ND to double Dorsey a lot with Santucci and Sullivan, which would leave Morton one-on-one with LSU's other tackle, be it Charles Alexander, Marlon Favorite, or Ricky Jean-Francois. My guess is that LSU will try to tie up Morton with the tackle and blitz Quinn from that side of the line. It's also worth noting that LSU has very large defensive ends; that doesn't bode well for the Irish running game but does give me hope that Harris and Young -- both pretty quick on their feet -- will be able to protect Quinn from pressure off the edge.

But again, it comes back to keeping those interior linemen from collapsing the pocket. My guess is that ND will throw some draws and screens at LSU early to try and force the Tiger line to think a bit before pinning their ears back and locking in on Quinn. Unfortunately, ND's screen game has been inconsistent at best this year. Perhaps we might see some misdirection in the form of an end-around or reverse.

the OL can give Quinn some time and if they can open holes big enough to let the Irish running backs by, ND will give the Tigers a game. On the other hand, if the LSU defensive line spends the first half in the Irish backfield, much like the Michigan and Southern Cal lines did, and LSU doesn't need to use their linebackers and safeties very much to pressure Quinn, well, it will be a long night.


Buck - Ali Highsmith. 58 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3 sacks.
MLB - Darry Beckwith. 61 tackles, 4 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT.
WLB - Luke Sanders. 33 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack.

Ali Highsmith is the only returning starter in the LSU linebacking corp and plays their Buck position, which is their version of strongside/apache linebacker. At 6'1, 225 pounds he's more of a fast linebacker than a huge, punishing one and was named 2nd Team All-SEC. Darry Beckwith and Luke Sanders swapped starting at the middle and weak linebacker spots during the year, but it looks like Beckwith will man the middle in the Sugar Bowl. At 230 pounds, Beckwith is the one linebacker who stays in when LSU goes to a nickel and/or dime and according to reports, has tremendous closing speed. He's only a sophomore, but finished second on the team in tackles, despite missing nearly two games. Sanders hasn't been as productive as the other linebackers but the 6-5, 235 'backer is the biggest and is very capable against the run. Depth: Backups who might see some time are senior Jason Spadoni and freshman Jacob Cutrera. Both also are heavily involved in LSU's special teams.

Matchup Analysis: If the LSU Tigers have a weak spot on defense, this is it. Beckwith is considered a future all-american type at linebacker, but the sophomore is still learning. He also dinged his knee a few games ago and will be at a self-reported 90% for the ND game. It's possible that ND will test Beckwith's knee early by running right at him. With that in mind, I'd like to see Travis Thomas and James Aldridge get some carries in this game and add a more physical nature to the Irish run game. LSU's 'backers aren't the same type of 245 pound beasts found on Michigan and Southern Cal's roster and it might be good to counter their team speed with a hard-nosed run game.

Ali Hightower appears to be the man who will try to slow down John Carlson and this just might be ND's best matchup. Carlson has the height and speed to run with any linebacker down the middle of the field and, while Hightower sounds very fast, Carlson has done great things against plenty of talented linebackers so far this year. ND is going to need to convert a healthy percentage of 3rd down conversions and I'd bet that Carlson is going to be the target on many of those. If he can continually get open and make the catch, he'll help ND prolong drives and keep the LSU offense on the sidelines.

When the LSU linebackers do blitz, the Irish OL as well as Walker and McConnell in the backfield are going to need to avoid giving up too many free shots on Quinn. The tackles for loss numbers for the Tiger 'backers aren't really that great -- 11 total TFL, compared with 17 for ND's linebackers -- but that doesn't mean they aren't going to be disruptive during the game. The Tigers do like to blitz, so if you notice that LSU's linebackers are sitting back in the passing lanes consistently, that's not a great sign for the Irish as it likely means that LSU is content with the pressure they are getting from their D-line.

If ND is able to tie up the blitzing Tiger linebackers at the line of scrimmage as well as keep them worried about underneath passes to Walker and Carlson, hopefully LSU will have to blitz their defensive backs more and open up more room in the passing game. If the LSU linebackers are able to fill any and all holes and put an early stop to the Irish running game, it will make it that much easier to pressure Quinn on the 3rd and long type situations.

Defensive Backs

CB - Jonathan Zenon. 25 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 3 INTs, 10 PBU.
CB - Chevis Jackson. 40 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 2 INTs, 13 PBU.
SS - Jessie Daniels. 46 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 2 PBU.
FS - LaRon Landry. 68 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 sack, 2 INTs, 4 PBU.

Free safety LaRon Landry (left) is LSU's other 1st Team All-American on defense and embodies just about everything you want in a safety. A force against the run and a ballhawk when the ball is in the air, the 6-2, 200 pound Landry led the Tigers in tackles and he is the best safety that Brady Quinn and the Irish will face all season. LSU's other safety is Jesse Daniels, a veteran with 34 starts under his belt and a solid run stopper from his safety spot. He also makes most of the defensive calls for the secondary. At corner, Chevis Jackson and Jonathan Zenon aren't as experienced as their safety counterparts, but the junior duo are tall (both are listed at 6-0) corners with the speed to keep up with just about anyone. It should be noted that of Zenon's three interceptions in 2006, he returned two for touchdowns. Depth: The nickel corner for LSU is Daniel Francis, a 5-11 senior who actually finished third on the team in sacks with 3.5. Craig Steltz comes in as the 6th DB when LSU goes to the dime, even though he's listed as a safety and not a corner, and was the team leader in interceptions with four. He's also a very hard hitter always looking to knock the ball loose. Freshman safety Danny McCray has also seen time in the LSU backfield, usually when the Tigers are in the dime.

Matchup Analysis: The Irish have faced some talented secondaries this season, but the LSU group just might be the best. The presence of Landry is a huge factor in that and I'd expect him to make at least one big play for the Tigers in the game. He has a rep for the big hit so I hope the Irish receivers are able to hold on to the ball when they catch it and he slams into them milliseconds later. I mentioned earlier that Carlson can get by the linebackers, but I'm sure that Landry will be flying around trying to help out his 'backer teammates. Daniels appears to be the experienced veteran that doesn't make too many mistakes and won't be too fooled by pre-snap shifts or play-action fakes.

The LSU Tiger corners don't appear to be world-beaters on their own, but more than dependable enough to hold their own when Landry is elsewhere. The book on how to slow down/ stop the Irish receivers was written by the Wolverines and Trojans this year and it starts with jamming them at the line of scrimmage and being very physical. Samardzija specifically is going to have to be able to fight through the jams I expect to see and work to get open. The Tiger corners are tall for cornerbacks, but Samardzija has proven he can catch over even tall corners on deep throws. Whether or not Quinn has the time for the deep throw to develop, -- i.e. Samardzija's success fighting through the jam and getting downfield before the pass rush gets to Quinn-- is the big question.

It should be noted that both of LSU's corners have extremely high numbers of passes broken up (PBU). My guess without having watched too many LSU games is that it comes from a combination of solid technique and position by the LSU corners and rushed passers throwing in the face of the LSU pass rush. There really aren't too many interceptions, but again, LSU hasn't faced very many passing offenses. Again, the ND receivers are going to have to be physical as I'm sure the LSU secondary is going to try and knock around the Irish as much as possible.