Decoding Coach Speak: “They Made a Lot of Mistakes”

Understanding Why Pelini Was Critical of Husker Linebackers

In his weekly press conference, Bo Pelini pulled few punches. He said his team, particularly his defense, needed to execute better. His comment about his linebacking corps - "they made some plays, they made a lot of mistakes" - raised some eyebrows considering how the NU linebackers filled the stat sheet with tackles. Why the criticism? With apologies to Tracy Morgan the incomparable Jay Mohr - LOOK AT THE GAME TAPE. In re-watching the Fresno State game, the linebackers' miscues were apparent. In fact, three common ones all appeared on the same Bulldog scoring drive.

Stats Don't Tell the Entire Story

Glancing at the stat sheet from Saturday, one might think the Husker linebackers had a stellar game. Middle linebacker Will Compton recorded 15 tackles. Weakside linebacker Lavonte David also tallied 15. Strongside linebacker Sean Fisher was in on five tackles. They also made their fair share of highlight-worthy hits. Pretty good, right? Well, it's not the whole story. The each also committed some serious linebacking "sins" during Saturday's game.

False Steps

Lavonte David photo

Sr LB 6-1 220 lbs
Lavonte's full bio

False steps are any movement by a linebacker that takes them away from the play. It's terrible because not only are they not closing on the ball, they are actually worse off than they were at the snap. They are farther away. Being that far out of position is usually caused by a mis-read of a key or anticipating something that was never there. It's not being assignment sound.

Lavonte David - the tried and true Husker tackling machine - did it more than a few times on Saturday. On one play, Nebraska was in their nickle defense (five defensive backs, two linebackers) so he is playing in the middle, heads up on the offensive center. He mis-read or didn't read his key at all, and took two quick steps to his left immediately at the snap of the ball. The play went away from him, behind the offense's left guard (his right). David was out of position, caught on the wrong side of not only the center but the right guard as well. His defensive lineman teammates didn't help him by controlling the point of attack very well. But the play was a big gain because he was walled off by the guard and the back ran to the space he had just left. False steps by linebackers cause big plays.


Will Compton photo

Sr LB 6-2 230 lbs
Will's full bio

Linebackers must also be physical at the point of attack and make the tackle in the hole, especially strongside linebackers. The Husker 'backers didn't always do a particularly good job of this either on Saturday. On one particular play, Fresno State lined up in a heavy formation - two tight ends, two backs. So, comparably, NU's defense was heavy - with three linebackers on the field. This time, it's a give to the right side. In this case, Fisher is the "scrape" linebacker. It's coming to his side. He needs to attack the line of scrimmage and hit the back in the hole. The other 'backer nearest the play side (in this case, Will Compton) is the "shuffle" backer, who comes in second to help clean it up. On this play, the Husker defensive line controls the point of attack. It's just the Bulldog back and Fisher in the hole. Fisher had him dead to rights. So, what happened?

Instead of shooting his gun and attacking the back, Fisher appears to almost wait in the hole. He doesn't "scrape". The pause costs him, as the guard is able to get a piece of him and the allusive Fresno back bounces the play to another hole and is able to gain a yard as Compton wraps him up. It's only a yard, but it could have been a three yard loss. This kind of play is not what a coach wants or expects from his strongside linebacker.

He Who Hesitates is Lost

Hesitation also leads to a linebacker getting caught in "no mans land" - the space where they are neither attacking a ball carrier or defending a potential reciever. It's a terrible thing to be a wasted defender this way. This exact thing happened to Will Compton on the play where Fresno quarterback Derek Carr went airborn to score.

On the play, Fresno went "big" again, this time out of a closed formation with a tight end and two backs lined up on the I formation behind Carr. Carr faked a running play to his running back, and then rolled to his left and created a run-pass option for himself. It's a one-receiver route. Nebraska safety Austin Cassidy is running stride for stride with that receiver (the Fresno fullback). At that point, Compton is at the edge of the play with Carr running at an angle toward him and the end zone. Re-watching the play, you can see Compton turn his head to check the fullback, hesitating momentarily on what he should do. If he trusts Cassidy to execute his assignment and goes to take away Carr's run opportunity, the play is dead in the water.

But, the hesitation allows Carr to get to the outside and eventually score (albeit in spectacular leaping fashion). To add a bit of pain to the matter, the aforementioned Fresno fullback peeled back on his route and clocked Compton with a wicked block, just as Carr lept for the goal line. Ouch.

Each of these three examples came from the same first-quarter Fresno State drive, when the Bulldogs scored to go up 14-7 on Nebraska. As Pelini also said during the press conference, it truly was as if the defensive squad was "taking turns making mistakes." When you add the sum of those mistakes together, it can create a sloppy defensive performance.

The point of this is not to criticize the play of three student athletes. In fact, each of these three players made crucial plays and tackles in what would eventually be a Husker win. The point is to illustrate what Bo Pelini means when he says the Husker linebackers made some mistakes. Each of these issues is very correctable with practice and discipline. In fact, there are examples of each of these players improving in each of these aspects of linebacker play in the second half of the same Fresno State game. It's very correctable.

For Nebraska to have a better outcome against Washington, the Husker linebackers must be more precise, physical and decisive in their play on a consistent basis. 

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Comments 22 comments so far

Great article… actually has substance! We need more of this type of journalism.

These are all good football players. I don’t consider your comments to be overly critical. As Joe friday says, just the facts”. One does wonder why two linebackers are making 30 tackles (combined in a game). The good news is that they made 30 tackles, the bad news is that our line was getting pushed out of the way requiring the linebackers to make the tackle. Not one sack for the “Blackshirts” They figured out our blitz every time. they were sacked by Cal 5 times the week before. Yes, Bo, there are some things to “fix” by Saturday and beyond.

Wow. This may be the best analysis of a (portion of) a Husker I’ve read in a long, long time. I want more of this type of article!

I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t enjoy the “Player X is the devil” or “Player X is the messiah” junk you see on message board. The Sipple/Shatel type columns are interesting, but not analytical. I’d love more analysis by this author. I want to understand what’s going on on the field at a level higher than “boy Ameer Abdullah is fast” or “how come nobody tackled that guy?”.

As a coach of forty years, most defenses are designed for the line to keep the offensive linemen off the linebackers, who are chosen because they are the best defensive players. They are given keys to lead them to ball. If they ignore these keys, then the defense is ineffective because there are gaps. If linemen are slanting to specific gaps, the linebackers are supposed to fill the unmanned gaps according to their keys. Since there are are usually six or seven gaps and four defensive linemen, out of place or hesitating LB’s leave gaps for good running backs to “run to daylight”.  “Scraping” is where a lineman shoots an inside gap and the linebacker is supposed to slide into the outside hole while scraping the lineman trying to block him off on the lineman shooting to the inside leaving him free to “run downhill” to make the tackle behind the line of scrimmage. It has to be done in a coordinated manner. “Team” defense, not players flying around in an undiscilined manner, comes from well coached players working together to cover their responsibilities. If played well, it is a beauty to behold. If not…well, we saw that on Saturday.

Love the analysis..Y r u not on the side line with the coaches!

Excellent break down! Would love to see more of these articles following future games.

Good analysis.  Thank you.

This is a very good article.  You took the time to look at WHO and WHY things were happening on the field and shared the knowledge and your opinion very well.

I agree with Patrick’s comments that finding a relevant, rational, outcomes based article about football, especially HUSKER Football,  is very tough to do.  Thanks for filling that void.

“They made a lot of mistakes”, C’mon coach, step up into the pocket and take some responsibility….this team is underperforming and it’s coaching problems that manage to turn the best atheletes in the country into something we have to constantly forgive or make excused for.

Sean fisher is to tall to play linebacker to much arms and legs for o-lineman to block

Great analysis. So, did these guys suddenly get dumb over the summer? Players are coached to read - and correct those reads during games, certainly by the start of the third quarter. Frankly, I agree with the few comments about the D not looking so completely confused and under effort since Cosgrove. Bo’s early years at least had them trying. The UW game is now alot bigger than it ought to be. And the wannabe Pac-12 contenders aren’t afraid of anything purple, for sure.

Exactly what I needed. Nice job. Bo has to understand that there are a few people in the stands that do understand football. Do not alway’s blame it on the kids. Where were the adjustments that needed to be be made as the game progressed? Fresno said…  we will run it till you stop it. And they did…all night long. The O is starting to warm a little (not yet baking). Maybe Bo needs to go back and spend some quality time with the D, and get back into his brothers head where he belongs.

As a fan who never played football this was an excellent read!  I’ve always wondered what was wrong with Pelini when he is critical of what appears to be a superb effort.  Thanks for the insight and I’m sure my future football watching experience will be more enriched and informed.

This was awesome. Need more Articles like this!

That may be one of the best articles I have read in a long time.  Not having the opportunity to play football growing up, I don’t understand a lot of the finer aspects of the game.  So I love reading real analytical articles that explain some of the intricacies of the game.  It helps me learn some of the things to watch for in the future.  Please keep writing articles like this in the future.

Sorry to be a creep here, but seriously people…that’s not the ‘finer aspects of the game.’  It’s basic fundamentals. 

Everyone can improve fundamentals, and I’m sure they contributed….While I’m impressed at your recollection of midget football terms, the defense’s problems run a bit deeper than a wrong step here and Fisher not ‘scraping’ or ‘shooting his gun’.

This is like a college basketball post about the defense not having their hands up enough on defense.

Ted I agree with your comment. We need talent. Fisher misses nearly 90% of anything coming his way. Just telling you what I see on film. You can check the game film from this week or the first week.

Darren, great article.  Enjoyed it, and will be looking at defensive play with a better perspective then I had before your comments.  Thanks.

@Ted, when you watch a D1 basketball game that actually has defenders that don’t put their hands up, it’s worth pointing out.  In this week’s case, fundamentals listed above were missing against the Bulldogs, hence Pelini’s comment that they made mistakes, hence the analysis of what the statement meant.

While we appreciate that many of our readers like you have a solid understanding of football fundamentals, we have some who do not have such a background.  One of our mission statements has always been to try and raise the football IQ of the Nebraska fan.

I do not think that this defense has problems that run deeper than a lack of focus from a team that started to believe it’s own hype.  What do you think the true depth of the problem is?

Great article! I enjoyed the analysis of the LBs.

I also noticed that the LBs kept on getting blocked by O-linemen.  Seems like our LBs took too long to diagnose the play and by that time the O-linemen got a block on them.

LBs were constantly overrunning the play.  I think this is what you’re talking about as far as ‘false steps’ goes. Compton and David were frequently overrunning a sweep play only to have the opposing RB cut back and pick up good yards.

Good thing is… I don’t expect our LBs to make such significant mistakes again. And I expect our D-line to be in the backfield more often.  Looked like a bad game for our entire front 7.  I would bet that doesn’t happen too much more…

Very good article, BRN.  Keep up the good work!

Wow, just came back a few days after reading the article to see what other comments had been posted and see if Darren had written any more articles.

Ted, I appreciate you pointing at the fact that I am a moron.  Do you have any other constructive criticism for me?  Despite being a die hard husker fan for all 30+ years of my life, maybe I should just quit watching football altogether since I obviously do not have the same understanding of the game that people like you do.  Thanks for clearing up my Saturdays for the rest of the year.  By the way, what’s a linebacker?

I loved reading this article because it actually provided real analysis compared to your typical OWH or LJS articles.  Darren, keep up the good work, and the uninformed football idiots like myself will continue to come back and read your articles in the future.  However, you may lose intelligent football fans like Ted.

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