Stanford fans are pinning their hopes on the 2012 defense on what promises to be a fantastic, aggressive front seven that disrupts opposing defenses before they even have a chance to cross the line of scrimmage.
They have good reason to. After all, the 2010 defense sacked the quarterback 36 times and tackled for loss 71 times; the 2011 defense went for 39 and 89, respectively. When you consider the loss (and return) of Shayne Skov, plus the continued maturation of the six of seven returning starters from the front seven, there’s every reason to project more disruption for opposing offenses. Or, as some of the Stanford defenders have put it, #partyinthebackfield.
There is one challenge remaining for the defense, though. They are well-equipped to wreck the plans of 10 of the 12 teams they’re scheduled to face this year. They may not be so well-equipped for the other two. I’m sure the identity of the other two is pretty obvious: USC and Oregon.
However, there’s a problem for the front seven when it confronts an elite offense. In 2010, the team averaged 2.77 sacks a game and around 5.46 tackles for loss per game. Against USC and Oregon, the team accumulated one sack and four tackles for loss. Total. The numbers were slightly better in 2011. In 2011, the team averaged three sacks a game and 6.85 tackles for loss a game. Against USC, Oregon, and Oklahoma State, the team sacked the QB three times and tackled for loss 15. Better, but still at least a fair bit below previous standards.
Surely, some of the effect is simply playing better teams. It’s reasonable to expect a decline against good teams. Those teams are, after all, good, which means being good at stopping opponents from doing what they want to do. Is the effect as pronounced for other teams with aggressive front sevens?
Stanford ranked 28th in the country in tackles for loss per game and 11th in sacks per game in 2011. Let’s compare the team to any team that simultaneously is within the top 15 for sacks per game and top 30 in tackles for loss per game in 2011, in terms of how much less disruption they cause against elite offenses (which we’ll define as averaging more than 6 yards per play.) (Minus non-BCS conference schools, and the Big East teams too.)
I’ve linked to the data here. As you can see, the median decline in 2011 was: negative 14.2 percent in tackles for loss, negative 45.56 percent for sacks against elite offenses. Whether you compare 2011 or 2010 statistics against that, Stanford’s disruption declined by more. What’s more, the team was well off the pace—2010 was the worst team in our sample; 2011 was a little better—third from last. The team that declined least—after we throw out the outlier—was Michigan State, a pretty fearsome defense.
You can take the statistics two ways, I think. First, the more negative interpretation: if Stanford wants a chance of beating USC and Oregon—and it’s not planning on bringing Toby Gerhart and Andrew Luck back for a final year of eligibility (come to think of it, that sounds like an excellent plan)—it’ll have to do better at what its defense’s calling card.
The more positive interpretation: granting that the benchmarks here are a bit arbitrarily defined, it’s fairly difficult to be bad with such a disruptive front seven. All the teams in our sample were bowl teams, and the average number of wins was 9.7.