Can Stanford Defense Remain Nation's Best?

Card must rebuild front seven sans Mauro and co.

If defense wins championships and the Cardinal had the nation's top defense in 2013, perhaps a fourth straight BCS berth wasn't such a shock after all. We break it all down in our second look inside the numbers of the 2013 season -- and project ahead to 2014.



Stanford opens camp July 3, so six-week season preview mission is in full force. Earlier this week, we examined the Cardinal's offensive efficiency numbers in a quest to highlight the team's goals on that side of the ball this year. Now, it's time to look at the defensive side of things with the help of Football Outsiders' Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI), which considers each of the nearly 20,000 possessions every season in major college football. All drives are filtered to eliminate first-half clock kills and end-of-game garbage drives and scores.

Football Outsiders Key (click here for full database)
  • DFEI: Defensive FEI, the opponent-adjusted efficiency of the given team's defense.
  • FD: First down rate, the percentage of opponent offensive drives that result in at least one first down or a touchdown.
  • AY: Available Yards, yards earned by the opponent's offense divided by the total number of yards available based on starting field position.
  • Ex: Explosive Drives, the percentage of each opponent offense's drives that average at least 10 yards per play.
  • Me: Methodical Drives, the percentage of each opponent offense's drives that run 10 or more plays.
  • Va: Value Drives, the percentage of each opponent offense's drives beginning on their own side of the field that reach at least the team's 30-yard line.
  • DSOS: Defensive Strength of Schedule, the likelihood that an elite defense (two standard deviations better than average) would have an above-average defensive efficiency rating against each of the offenses faced.

Stanford Defensive Efficiency: Through the Years
Year
DFEI
DFEI Rank
FD
FD Rank
AY
AY Rank
Ex
Ex Rk
Va
Va Rk
Me
Me Rk
DSOS DSOS Rk
2007
-.129
49
66.2%
60
48.1%
79
16.2%
97
41.8%
76
13.0%
53
9.5% 35
2008
+.163
80
70.5%
84
50.6%
86
11.6%
60
44.1%
88
17.1%
97
18% 65
2009
+.277
91
77.3%
105
51.4%
96
17.8%
103
42.5%
85
17.8%
105
6.2% 14
2010
-.508
6
66.7%
55
37.7%
14
5.4%
3
24.5%
4
9.0%
12
11.7% 53
2011
-.446
13
62.7%
31
42.3%
46
15.7%
84
34.7%
42
9.0%
8
5.7% 19
2012
-.670
3
57.1%
11
35.6%
14
7.1%
12
26.1%
9
14.3%
58
3.5%
10
2013
-.742
1
63.4%
34
40.1%
28
8.3%
22
34.1%
32
19.3%
110
0.5% 1

Analysis
- So literally, first things first: Stanford was ranked No. 1 nationally in defensive efficiency this past year. This may come as a surprise, since most would agree that the Cardinal performed at least slightly worse than they did during the magical 2012 Rose Bowl campaign. As one can see above, most of the numbers confirm that, too: The 2012 squad was simply better in every raw category, yet they finished ranked third nationally in defensive efficiency.

So how did the 2013 squad grab the top spot? Well, remember that the final DFEI ranking is adjusted to account for strength of schedule, and the formula suggests that Stanford played an insanely difficult slate last year. In fact, Football Outsiders says that an elite defense (two standard deviations better than the average unit) would have had only a 0.5 percent chance of posting an above-average defensive efficiency rating against each of the offenses on Stanford's schedule. The Cardinal truly ran the gauntlet in 2013, and it looks like 2014 may be equally or more challenging.

- Stanford has lost stalwarts Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Ben Gardner, Josh Mauro, and Ed Reynolds to the NFL. So how can the Cardinal's No. 1-rated defense possibly stay afloat in 2014? Well, a closer look at the advanced statistics suggests that Derek Mason's unit was far from perfect last year. Notice the red near the bottom right corner of the table: Stanford's defense was actually more vulnerable to methodical opponents' drives in 2013 than during any other season of the Harbaugh-Shaw era. In fact, 19.3 percent of opponents' drives lasted 10 plays or longer, meaning that Stanford ranked a measly 110th nationally when it came to avoiding long sets of consecutive snaps on the field.

Torturous sequences against Washington, Utah, and even USC immediately come to mind. In fact, both of the Cardinal's regular season losses featured first halves in which the defense couldn't seem to get off the field. A lack of defensive line depth was likely a factor: Consider the injuries that afflicted Henry Anderson, Ben Gardner, and David Parry throughout 2013 -- was likely a huge factor. Another factor was the death-by-swing pass manner in which opponents attacked Stanford's defense. By the second half of games, the Cardinal eventually adjusted to this onslaught of short, quick passes, but the length of opponents' drives proved damaging nonetheless. Lowering that Methodical Drive percentage, therefore, should be a top priority for 2014's new-look defense. In 2011, the Cardinal ranked eighth nationally (over 100 spots better than 2013) by surrendering 10+ play drives only nine percent of the time. A return close to that level would certainly do wonders for the club, but is it possible?

For one, Stanford has lost the aforementioned boatload of veteran leadership on the defensive end. Mason, the architect of it all, is also gone. In short, Lance Anderson has huge shoes to fill as the Cardinal's new defensive coordinator, and emerging linebackers like Blake Martinez, Kevin Anderson, and Peter Kalambayi must prove they can efficiently make adjustments on the fly. When it comes to preventing 2013's oil leaks, though, there may be an even more important variable: Stanford must maintain a healthy, deep defensive line. That's the base of the action, so the pressure is on Blake Lueders and a couple relative newcomers (Aziz Shittu, anyone?) to complement Anderson and Parry to provide a consistent backbone up front. If that happens, Stanford can better those red numbers near the bottom right corner.

- In the offensive advanced stat analysis piece, I noted that Stanford's 2009 offense, which also ended up ranked No. 1 nationally, had to deal with the statistically worst defense of the Harbaugh-Shaw era. Well, a quick look at the table demonstrates exactly why I made that claim. The Cardinal's 2009 defense ranks last (hence all the red) in the majority of categories. The fact that Andrew Luck and Toby Gerhart led Stanford back to a bowl game that year in spite of that leaky defense only underscores how good those two -- and that offense -- really were.

Still, they say that defense wins championships, and these statistics corroborate that. Once the Cardinal found a pulse on that side of the football (the improvement between 2009 and 2010 is drastic -- Stanford improved from No. 91 in DFEI to No. 6), they went 12-1 and hoisted the Orange Bowl trophy at season's end.

- That 2010 defense was the best the Harbaugh-Shaw era has seen when it comes to limiting explosive drives, as only 5.4 percent of marches against it averaged over 10 yards per play (a year after a staggering 17.8 percent of drives did just that). The 2011 season was another ugly campaign when it came to avoiding explosive drives, as that number rose back to 15.7 percent for the Shayne Skov-less Cardinal defense. The 2012 and 2013 seasons both saw that particular number lower back to a respectable level, but the 2014 figure remains a crucial question mark: Will Stanford be able to continue limiting explosive drives even though Skov is now gone for good?

An advanced statistical look at the Cardinal's special teams performance is next.




David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.

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