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The Problem With Underperforming Linebackers

A lot of football fans tend to conceptualize defense like this: 

Defensive line = First line of defense

Linebackers = Second line of defense

Secondary = Last line of defense

In the strictest sense, it's true. The line gets first crack at making the play, then the linebackers, and so on. But it's really not as simple as thinking of each of these units as independent of the other. That might be true at lower levels of the sport (although high schools are becoming increasingly sophisticated), but it's most certainly not true at the college level, where the units are inextricably tied together through interdependent responsibilities. 

While I don't pretend to be some sort of football coach -- or even as familiar with the inner workings of schemes as Brian -- we can make some informed conclusions about where the defense is breaking down based on things the coaches have said publicly and closely observing the video of some of the bigger plays the defense gave up, specifically against USC.

The first thing to understand about run defense responsibilities is this: The defensive line's primary responsibility in virtually any defense you see at the college level is not to make tackles; it is to plug gaps and occupy blockers. When the ball is snapped, they're taught to move with the flow of the line, holding their position in their designated gaps.

If the tackles and ends do their jobs well, there's nowhere for the opposing running backs to go. They run into a wall of nothing, and are either A) Swallowed up by a lineman who finally breaks free or B) Tracked down by unblocked linebackers collapsing on the line of scrimmage after the back tries to cut back or bounce outside.

Of course, that sort of ideal scenario rarely works out, especially for a team like Washington State. More often than not, the Cougar tackles are not able to hold their gaps as well as they should, and are pushed too far with the flow of the run. The good news is that the hole generally isn't where it was supposed to be. The bad news is that the defense is repeatedly exposed to cutback lanes and misdirection.

Enter the linebackers.

Because lines rarely do their jobs to perfection, the linebackers have to work in concert with them to bottle up runners. In the most general terms (with the acknowledgement that this isn't always the case), If the run is to their side, they need to be able to neutralize a blocker (either by avoiding or shedding him) and get to the ball carrier. If the run is away from them, they have to both pursue the ball carrier while simultaneously staying in position to protect against cutbacks and misdirection. That's called backside contain.

Sounds simple, right? Stay in position, and be ready to make a tackle if the ball carrier comes your way. Unfortunately, it's not as easy as it sounds ... as our linebackers have demonstrated repeatedly this year. 

I hate to say this, but the WSU linebackers are perhaps the worst unit of anything on any team in the entire conference. On most plays, one or more of them is either out of position or unable to match up physically with opposing offenses -- or both. This means they're unable to contain ball carriers and limit them to minimal gains.

This might not be such a glaring issue if the defensive line was stronger, but the reality is that it's not. This defense needs players at linebacker who can, at the very least, get themselves in the right spot and then make a tackle from that spot. But more often that not, they have either overpursued and are left grasping at air or swinging at legs when the ball carrier comes their way (hello, Alex Hoffman-Ellis), or they are washed out by blockers (hi there, Mike Ledgerwood and Myron Beck). 

Check out the video, if you dare. Keep an eye on the linebackers.

There also seems to be a little bit of an attitude problem with these guys. I won't say they're not trying hard, because I don't think that's really ever a fair criticism of an athlete at the Division I level. Of course they're trying hard. But these guys really lack the nastiness you simply must have to be an effective linebacker. You've got to be willing to hurtle your body through guys 100 pounds heavier than you and running right at you and stop at nothing to get to that ball. These guys -- with maybe the exception of Beck, whose problems stem mostly from just being smaller -- just don't seem to have that killer instinct. Check out the run at 2:10 in the video. They're so scared of giving up a big play that they actually completely cease to attack the line of scrimmage.

Louis Bland has that attacking mentality. But he can't play.

So how to solve the linebacker dilemma?

The first thing is that there's just no scheme out there that's going to solve this. The 3-4 is WAAAAAAY out of the question for obvious reasons, as is the 30 stack for equally obvious reasons. If we were only getting gashed out of power formations, a 5-2 might be worth looking into -- especially with the debut of Toni Pole seeming imminent -- but we're getting run over in all sorts of formations, and you can't very well trot out a 5-2 against 3- and 4-wide sets. (I guess you could, but your DBs better be dang good. Ours aren't yet.)

What we're really left with is making personnel changes. And while earlier this week I compared such moves to "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," I've actually started to think that maybe there's something to be gained from changing personnel -- and I'm talking immediate gains, not just future gains brought on by the development from playing now.

First, Ledgerwood is an enormous problem in the middle. He gets washed out of the play by oncoming blockers with alarming frequency and has a terribly difficult time finding the ball in most instances. (Although, he did make a nice play in forcing the fumble against UCLA.) He does not take on blockers and direct the ball carrier to help.

See that picture at the top of this post? He's run into a hole where the runner isn't, taking himself and whichever tackle is engaged by the offensive lineman right out of the play. You can watch that play at the 2:22 mark in the video. Basically, he guesses that the ball carrier is heading for a certain spot, rather than trusting the tackle in front of him, and the running back cuts into the hole he just vacated. Pause it at 2:27, and you'll see exactly what the problem is. If he had done his job, he would have had a chance to stand the runner up at the line of scrimmage. This isn't a rare occurrence. 

After half a season of starting, there's simply little evidence that Ledgerwood is a Pac-10 level starter. Yes, he had a nice Apple Cup in 2009. But that's about the extent of his resume. And as a junior, that doesn't exactly offer a lot of confidence that things are going to dramatically improve with more time.

The coaches seem to agree. True freshman C.J. Mizell has seen all the reps with the ones this week, with Ledgerwood not even seeing practice time in the middle on Monday. (He did see backup time behind Hoffman-Ellis.) While Mizell has certainly had his ups and downs, the fact of the matter is that he's got both the physical attributes and the nasty attitude to be an elite middle linebacker. He professes to now "get it," so it's time to turn him loose. He'll make mistakes. (You can see a big one at the 2:00 mark in the video. He also gets juked pretty bad at 4:15.)

But even with that, he truly ought to be an immediate upgrade over Ledgerwood. A great example of what he's capable of is at 3:42 in the video. See the way he takes on the blocker? If there had been any kind of outside contain there, he would have dropped the runner for a loss. That's what he's capable of. (And, by the way, that nasty attitude I'm talking about? Getting through blockers to make a play because of desire? Check out how Deone Bucannon finishes that play. And then wonder why our current linebackers aren't playing like that.) Even on the play where he's juked, he's there ... AND recovers to make the tackle.

Second, Alex Hoffman-Ellis also needs to be replaced. Another junior, I've lost confidence that he's ever going to live up to his considerable physical potential. The guy is a freak athlete -- he's reputed to be the fastest guy on the defense, DBs included -- but all the speed in the world can't make up for a lack of football instincts, and can sometimes even be detrimental. Hoffman-Ellis often runs himself out of plays with his failure to recognize what's going on in front of him, which is an unbelievably scary thought with Oregon and all their misdirection coming to town.

Now, Hoffman-Ellis has only been playing football for a few years, so that's certainly an explanation for where he's at. But with a full season and a half of Pac-10 football under his belt, I just don't think he's ever going to truly figure it out. I will grant you that he generally is solid in zone pass coverage, where his speed allows him to get his hands on balls or even pick up an interception. But if you want someone to blame for the big pass to Stanley Havili ... look no further than Hoffman-Ellis, who overcommitted and then couldn't recover. Again, all the speed in the world won't make up for a lack of football instincts.

I think the coaches are still enamored with his tools, but there's good news for those of us who want to see a change: He sat out yesterday's practice with an injury. Of course, you never want to see anyone hurt. But if it opens up time for a guy I want to see the field more, I'm not going to complain. That guy? Redshirt freshman Sekope Kaufusi.

Kaufusi came to WSU as a linebacker recruit, but he was moved to a stand-up end position in an effort to allow him to rush the quarterback. That hasn't worked out well, so he's now been moved back to linebacker -- specifically, weakside linebacker. One thing I know about Kaufusi is the guy loves to hit. And the responsibilities of the WILL linebacker are similar to that of a defensive end, so while he's going to be out in space, at least some things should be familiar to him. I'm excited to see what he can do. 

Lastly, I'd like to see Beck stay. He's got the attitude. He likes to lay the wood. But his size has been a liability, due in no small part to the play of the two guys next to him. The hope here is that with elevated play from the guys next to (as well as in front of) him, he'll be able to be a more disruptive force. I think he's still our best option there.

Look, none of these represent miracle fixes. Mizell and Kaufusi (along with Eric Oertel, who also has been working at WILL) are still freshmen. If the coaches were confident in their ability to be that much better, they'd have already been on the field. But there's really nowhere to go but up with the linebackers, and the reality is that their "up" is potentially a lot higher than the "up" of the guys they're going to be replacing. 

This team simply must get better play from its linebackers. Imagine what this team might have done against both USC and UCLA if that unit alone had played up to a Pac-10 average level? We might be talking about a team that's 2-0 -- or at least, 1-1 -- in conference play and generating some genuine excitement amongst the fans.

If the Cougs can get just moderate improvement out of these guys, I fully believe that there's a chance to pick up another win this season.