Long-term vs. short-term: Can Minnesota fix its ailing defense?
MINNEAPOLIS — P.J. Fleck can show you practice film from his first days as Minnesota’s head coach, when Kamal Martin would go entire tackling drills without making a stop.
“Kamal couldn’t [even] play tag,” Fleck said.
Martin started at linebacker for the Green Bay Packers against the Vikings on Sunday.
The point Fleck’s trying to sell after two dismal games for his defense is that what is isn’t necessarily what will be. Even the coach seems to understand there are going to be good years and bad years at a place like Minnesota that doesn’t have some of the built-in recruiting advantages of a Michigan or even a Wisconsin.
And that’s before factoring in the impact of COVID-19, which nullified spring practice, abbreviated fall camp and has seen defenses around the country struggle mightily.
“You’ve got to allow them to fail [in order] to grow,” Fleck said. “I know it’s hard, but this is a developmental program.”
Fans and boosters might not be so patient, though. So what about the rest of 2020, taxing as it might be?
The Golden Gophers’ ranking of 102nd out of 103 active FBS teams in both scoring defense and total defense is skewed by the fact they’ve only played two games. But after falling 49-24 against Michigan and 45-44 at Maryland, Minnesota is allowing a whopping 9.48 yards per play.
That’s the worst in FBS, and the next team on the list — Massachusetts — is giving up 7.65 yards per play.
Fleck acknowledges the challenges of replacing seven defensive starters, including four NFL draft picks, during a pandemic, but stops short of labeling them outright justification for such an atrocious showing.
“There’s all these things that are happening that change the landscape of your football team every single week,” Fleck said. “No excuses, and we’ve got to be able to find a way to be better for it.”
A refresher on the basic fundamentals of breaking down and tackling would help. Too often, Minnesota’s linebackers have been in the right gaps but failed to make a stop.
Fleck also mentioned swarming to the ball as a point of emphasis during practice leading up to Saturday’s game at Illinois (2:30 Central, BTN). He and defensive coordinator Joe Rossi plan to mix up personnel, too.
“We’re going to be playing a lot more people. That’s the investment we’re going to continue to make.”
Three of the Gophers’ top four tacklers are defensive backs. That’s never a good sign.
Neither is giving up 10 plays of 20 or more yards like Minnesota did against the Terrapins on Friday.
That’s akin to the struggles of Robb Smith, the defensive coordinator whom Fleck let go midway through the 2018 season.
Rossi was promoted and became instrumental in the Gophers’ relatively magical 2019 run. Last year, they ranked No. 10 in total defense and 26th per ESPN’s SP+ analytics.
Does Fleck think Rossi’s the problem? Absolutely not.
“I think Joe is a tremendous coordinator,” Fleck said. “I think he’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever been around. It’s one of those unique years. We’re all going to learn from this.”
One thing Minnesota might want to learn is how to force more turnovers. DeAngelo Carter’s interception against the Terps provided a glimpse of a formula that could work: make some big plays then give the rock to a controlled, zone-blocking offense with steady doses of Mohamed Ibrahim and play-action passes from Tanner Morgan to a talented receiving corps.
Boye Mafe had another such timely burst when he sacked Taulia Tagovailoa late in Friday’s game.
That’s how defenses win in 2020. Balance the advantages offenses have with a momentum-turning takeaway, sack or three-and-out.
It doesn’t have to be every drive. Timing has become everything in an era of RPOs and pass-happy attacks.
Wisconsin’s prospects to win the West took a big hit when it announced Tuesday it won’t be playing for the second week in a row. A rash of COVID-19 positive tests could impact any program at any time, and it’s against that backdrop that all this is happening to the Gophers.
But in strict football terms, they still have an opportunity. But Fleck seems content to focus more on the big picture than what happens the rest of an unpredictable 2020.
He already alluded Tuesday during his weekly radio show the team has “already been thrown some certain challenges this week.”
With a kicking group already depleted by COVID-19, it’s not hard to guess what Fleck might be referring to.
“This is a very unique year,” Fleck said Monday. “There’s no excuses. Period. We want to win every single game. There’s very unique circumstances, as we’ve talked about from Day 1, as our world has talked about from Day 1. You see it every day in college football. There are no ‘upsets’ because you just never know who’s gonna have certain players, what’s gonna show up, who’s gonna be out. … It changes a lot of the things you do. But the simple thing is we just have to keep getting better.”