After overseeing one of the country’s worst run defenses in 2017, Ole Miss defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff came into this season with a plan: load the box against the run and leave his athletic defensive backs to fend for themselves against receivers downfield.
“One thing for certain is we’re definitely going to get in the box and stop the run,” McGriff told The Oxford Eagle a few days before the season opened. “We’re going to have creative ways to get in the box, but we definitely have a commitment to get in the box and stop the run.”
The Rebels ranked 117th out of 129 FBS teams in opponent yards per carry last year and, thanks to an incredibly thin and inexperienced linebacking corps, were particularly susceptible to big plays on the ground. If a running back found his way past the Ole Miss D-line, there usually wasn’t anyone there to stop him—the Rebels defense ranked 100th in rushing isoPPP, which measures explosive plays.
In theory, bringing players from the secondary down to assist the beleaguered linebackers made sense.
“If they’re going to beat us,” McGriff said in August, “They’re going to beat us throwing the ball.”
That’s exactly what offenses are doing.
Ole Miss’ secondary is getting torched.
McGriff’s strategy has indeed resulted in fewer big runs: the Rebels have jumped from 100th to 65th in opponent rushing explosiveness. But it’s also let quarterbacks have their way downfield.
Last season, the Rebels allowed 40 pass plays of 20 or more yards, ranking 61st in the nation. They’re just five plays shy of that mark with four games left in 2018—only three teams in the country have given up more. Even taking into account passing rates and opponent difficulty, Ole Miss ranks 120th in marginal passing explosiveness.
Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham came into last week’s game in Oxford averaging 10.6 yards per completion and less than three passes of 20 or more yards per game. With Ole Miss stacking the box and bringing frequent blitzes, he put over 16 yards per completion and gained 20 or more yards on five separate occasions.
On a first-and-10 midway through the first quarter, McGriff loaded the box with seven defenders, playing straight man coverage with a single high safety. Alone in coverage on the outside, corner Ken Webster was burned off the line—only a dropped pass kept this from being six.
We’ve seen this all season long. On this first-and-10 against LSU, Ole Miss blitzed nickel back Vernon Dasher (No. 3) and brought a safety down to cover his man. That left cornerback Jalen Julius all alone outside. This time there was no drop.
Instead of giving up big plays on the ground, the defense is giving them up through the air. In fact, the Rebels’ overall defensive isoPPP (which measures explosiveness) rank has dropped from 88th last season to 96th in 2018.
In fairness to McGriff, injuries have decimated his secondary.
When McGriff originally dreamed up this plan, he envisioned former freshman All-American Jaylon Jones clamping down on the opponent’s top wideout. Jones played all of two and a half quarters before tearing his ACL. McGriff envisioned cornerback Montrell Custis and safety C.J. Moore providing depth and experience. Both were lost to season-ending injuries by Week 5.
Things got so bad that the Rebels were forced to move a pair of running backs over to the defensive secondary. Armani Linton in particular has performed valiantly, but starting a guy at safety three weeks after he was playing offense leads to bad things.
A lack of pass rush has made matters even worse. After losing defensive linemen Breeland Speaks and Marquis Haynes to the NFL Draft, the Rebels have plummeted from ninth to 106th in adjusted sack rate, giving QBs more time to work downfield and forcing McGriff to blitz corners and safeties.
Still, this might have been a doomed plan from the start.
Ole Miss’ run defense was bad last year, but the pass defense wasn’t much better—the Rebels’ D ranked 76th in rushing S&P+ and 70th in passing S&P+. Reallocating resources away from a secondary that wasn’t that great to begin with was a massive risk. By attempting to solve one problem, the staff exasperated another.
And here’s the kicker: while Ole Miss has given up fewer explosive plays on the ground, the run defense as a whole has gotten significantly worse. The Rebels have plummeted to 117th in rushing S&P+ this season. Moving defensive backs into the box has helped prevent big plays but has done nothing to stop offenses from methodically running the ball down the field. Ole Miss has allowed opposing runners to gain at least five yards on nearly 52 percent of their carries, which, after adjusting for opponent, ranks 120th in the country.
It feels safe to say that the staff’s experiment in shoring up the run game has proven to be a futile effort.