Last weekend was Cincinnati’s second and final bye of the season. For the football team, it gave them a chance to take a few days off from the constant practices, film studies, and games. I however was allowed to take a step back from the madness and reflect upon what we’ve been through the two months of the season. The Bearcats are 6 – 1 and sitting pretty atop the Big East conference thanks in large part to the dominance of their defensive line. In 2010 this unit was ground down to the bone from overuse. The starters took something like 90% of the snaps. That’s just unreal in modern sports and bordered on child abuse (kidding).
This isn’t the case in 2011, however. If you are a frequent reader of Bearcats Nation (which I know you are), you know how bullish I am on the Bearcats’ defensive line led by NFL prospect Derek Wolfe. In 2010, Wolfe was one of the guys taking his body to the limits because he couldn’t get a rest. Not surprisingly he had a down year with only 48 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, and not a single forced fumble. This season with more talent around him along with guys like Camaron Beard and Jordan Stepp giving him a breather every couple of downs, Wolfe is putting up stellar numbers. Projecting to a 13 game season (because UC is bowl eligible), he is on pace for 60 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles. That’s an astonishing improvement from 2010 and will lodge him securely on most NFL teams’ draft boards.
Overall, the 2011 defense is having a phenomenal year. Like I said, the numbers don’t lie:
Ok, making the claim that this year’s defense is the best ever was a bit presumptuous. I definitely don’t have the data to back up that claim but I can confidently draw from the numbers above that Cincinnati is boasting the best defense since 2007. When comparing them line-by-line, it’s pretty much a wash across the board. The 2007 defense had more picks and allowed less yards through the air but the 2011 squad is forcing more fumbles, tackles for loss, and holding opposing teams to less yards on the ground. Both squads gave up just two and a half touchdowns per game. At first glance I’m actually a little surprised that outside of one area (passing defense), the current unit is actually better than the 2008 squad filled with players like Connor Barwin, Ryan Manalac, and Mike Mickens among others that led the Bearcats to their first BCS bowl game.
The key for Cincinnati’s defense in 2011 is that they are holding opposing defenses to just 73 yards rushing per game. That should be the most telling stat from this year when compared to years past. Twice already the Bearcats have prevent teams from posting positive yardage on the ground and have been relentless in getting after the quarterback. The reason for these video game like numbers? More. Depth. I know it’s been played over and over again like a broken record but it bears repeating. Players like Derek Wolfe, Dan Giordano, and J.K. Schaffer aren’t machines and need a break every now and then. Even more important than then simply catching their breathe and staying close to 100% is that the guys filling in for them don’t miss a beat. Brandon Mills was a starter in 2010, Monte Taylor and Jordan Stepp played very frequently in 2010, and newbies like Nick Temple and Dwight Jackson have crashed onto the scene with surprising results. The fact that Coach Jones and his staff can look at these backups for extra playing time is huge for a defense.
There are other factors at play here like the fact that the players were being coached by the same staff for the second year in a row, which is something that hasn’t occurred the three years prior. Every team has a base scheme (4-3, 3-4, 3-3-5, etc.) but every coach has a different way of teaching them, a different tendency on blitzes, and different audibles and play sets he wants his players to focus on. It wears on a player to have to relearn and master a new scheme and those details each year. This past offseason, with Coaches Jancek and Banks returning, the players knew the scheme and what their coaches wanted to do by heart. They spent most of their time simply working on the little things to make sure they ran each play as perfect as possible, and it’s paid off on gameday.
So what does this mean? Well, I expect a big day from this defense this Saturday. There’s a reason I strategically placed this piece during Pitt week. As I mentioned yesterday, the Panthers have given up the most sacks of any team in the FBS (36). Oh, and the Big East’s leading rusher and hands down Pitt’s best player Ray Graham will be watching from the sidelines. To add salt to the wound, the Panthers will also likely start some offensive linemen who have never taken a college snap in their life. If I’m a player on Cincinnati’s defense, I’m chomping at the bit to finally get this game started. Sure the Bearcats might get burned by Pitt’s talented wide receivers (UC’s defense against the pass has been suspect at best) but if UC’s defensive lineman and linebackers can continue to dominate at the point of attack, the Panther’s offense will sputter and fail.