Earlier today, we looked at the numbers and concluded that Bob Shoop’s defense in 2016 was not as bad as Sal Sunseri’s 2012 defense. That’s not to say that it wasn’t bad, though. It was. Bad enough to put Butch Jones on the Screaming Pundits’ 2017 Hot Seat Watch List, and bad enough to spur Jones into shaking up his coaching staff in the offseason.
But what is a realistic expectation of improvement for a defense that . . . struggled . . . last season, bless its heart?
To answer that, we went to the spreadsheets to determine what happened, if anything, between Sunseri’s 2012 defense and the 2013 defense fielded by Jones’ first defensive coordinator, John Jancek.
John Jancek’s improvement in 2013 over Sal Sunseri’s 2012
What did we find when we compared 2012 to 2013? A bag full of mixed nuts, some of them tasty, honey-roasted and sea-salted almonds, and some of them lone and wrinkled peanuts retrieved from the men’s room floor.
You’ll recall from our earlier post that Sunseri’s 2012 defense was “not good” in three defensive categories (48-56), “bad” in four other categories (85-86), and “terrible” in five more (98-115). That’s what Jancek inherited. Welcome to Rocky Top, coach!
How did Jancek do in his first season? He somehow made a miracle turnaround in Red Zone Defense, improving to No. 11 from No. 115. He also dramatically improved the team’s pass defense. Under Sunseri, the team ranked No. 111 in Passing Yards Allowed and No. 86 in Passing Efficiency Defense, and Jancek improved those rankings to No. 27 and No. 58, respectively. The team was also much better in defending on first downs and better in Scoring and Total Defense.
Those are the almonds.
Unfortunately, Jancek’s 2013 defense was still “terrible” in five categories (90-117), “bad” in two more (78-83), and “not good” in three others (40-58). Jancek made little to no improvement with regard to sacks and rushing defense, and the defense actually got worse against the run, in TFLs, and on third and fourth downs.
What gets measured, gets managed
(Or, fixing things without breaking others)
The most interesting thing about all of this, though, is that Jancek fixed what was broken and broke what wasn’t. He improved in 2013 the worst things about 2012, some of them dramatically so. (See the Red Zone and Pass Defense discussed above.)
At the same time, though, other areas got worse. TFLs went from No. 48 to No. 90, and Third Down Conversion Pct Defense went from No. 50 to No. 91.
Overall, though, one could say that Jancek was able to make some degree of improvement over Sunseri’s historically bad defense. What he focused on got better, but those gains were somewhat diminished by other areas getting worse.
What to expect from Bob Shoop’s defense this fall
So what does all of this mean for Team 121 and Bob Shoop’s defense this season? It’s reasonable to expect Shoop to fix what was wrong last year. The real test is what happens to the rest of the defense while he’s focused on the warts.
The biggest areas of concern from last season are first downs, rushing defense, and the defense of long pass plays. Expect Shoop and his new position coaches to focus first on those areas, and expect the team to be better at those things.
But they need to make sure they don’t break something else in the process. They need to focus on first downs without losing their edge on third and fourth downs. They need to focus on improving their ability to stop the run without absolutely falling apart in pass defense. Basically, they need a tweaker who will shift the proper amount of focus to areas of need without completely diverting attention from things they already do well. And if, as many of us suspect, most of the problem last year was attributable to injuries, then just keeping everyone healthy could make a dramatic difference.
Bottom line, it’s reasonable to expect that Bob Shoop’s defense will improve in 2017. If he does it especially well, he could even improve it significantly by fixing last year’s problems without creating new ones this year.