Solving defensive communication errors key in wake of 44-41 loss to Georgia
“I don’t doubt our defensive backs’ abilities one bit. We still have some of the best defensive backs in the country. All we have to do is get (the calls) communicated in to them.” Anthony johnson, LSU defensive tackle
Ronald Martin hopped on the balls of his feet, waved his chiseled arms and gloved palms in a bid to avert disaster and catch the glance of fellow safety Craig Loston.
On third-and-6, the LSU junior free safety begged for clarity bouncing up and down 10 yards off the line of scrimmage at the Georgia 24: What coverage, pray tell, were the Tigers running against a four wide receiver set while preparing to blitz its nickel and dime backs off the edges at Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray?
The 15-second window early in the second quarter is a microcosm of the short-circuited communication links that double as a high-stakes game of telephone tag in the secondary, which let No. 10 LSU (4-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) get strafed for 298 passing yards in a 44-41 loss Saturday.
Ahead of traveling to Mississippi State (2-2, 0-1), which is slated for a 6 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium, patching the shorted-out line is paramount, even if the Bulldogs’ passing attack is merely average and coach Dan Mullen has yet to name Dak Prescott or injured starter Tyler Russell as starting quarterback.
“I can just tell you there was a signaling issue and a player-to-player communication that there was difficulty in,” Miles said. “There was at least one player-sideline difficulty.”
The second-quarter sequence could make a convincing case as the lead contender for the “player-sideline” difficulty.
Matched up against Chris Conley, sophomore cornerback Jalen Mills’ duty was to swivel his head toward defensive backs coach Corey Raymond, get the coverage call and relay it to Craig Loston.
Loston was also playing in off coverage in the Mustang package — a 3-2-6 alignment where the secondary typically plays zone coverage while the front sends blitzes.
This is routine, though.
“It could be just the point where someone thinks they maybe echoed the call,” Mills said.
“But we were in a stadium where fans are screaming and yelling. You really can’t hear. You have to use your eyes (to see) the different hand signals and play calls we have.”
If you’re true freshman cornerback Tre’Davious White and it’s only your second start, nerves can still be a factor.
Saturday, White may have had lapses communicating with Raymond and the rest of the secondary, Martin said.
Necessity, though, demanded LSU press White, a four-star recruit out of Shreveport, into service along with two sophomores after junior Tharold Simon left early for the NFL.
“One of the things we’re going to want to do is get some fresh bodies out there with the veterans,” Miles said. “If we can get some young guys ready to take more snaps in games like that, the veterans get to play a little bit fresher, more ready to play.”
Then there’s the parallel concern when nickel back Micah Eugene and White were in coverage: busts.
On Murray’s second touchdown pass, a 25-yarder for a 14-7 lead in the first quarter, he simply read whether Martin picked up receiver Michael Bennett out of the slot and zeroed in on Conley. White allowed too much leverage inside, and Murray zipped a dart up the seam.
Eugene, meanwhile, fixed his gaze in the Bulldogs backfield. Unfortunately for him, Bennett bolted right past Eugene uncovered for a 21-yard touchdown catch late in the third quarter.
Even Mills got burned, letting Justin Scott-Wesley get behind him for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:47 remaining.
The issue was so glaring, defensive tackle Anthony Johnson could diagnose it.
“We’re not redirecting receivers, making them run their routes harder,” Johnson said. “We’re just giving them free releases.”
But the lack of communication precedes that and is highlighted by what happened next on the second-quarter series.
Mills formed an “O” with his hands as Eugene peered back to pick up the call and Loston echoed it to Martin. Next, Martin ran his left hand up and down his sleeved right arm to signal to cornerback Jalen Collins.
Part of the issue, Mills said, stemmed from Georgia subbing en masse and moving at a fast tempo. It not only taxes players physically but makes it harder for them to get the calls from defensive coordinator John Chavis in the press box, which are relayed to Raymond and defensive line coach Brick Haley on the field.
Last year, veterans like Eric Reid were coaches on the field “that knew almost every call if the coaches weren’t getting it in,” Martin said.
Now, Loston and Martin are trying to grow into that role. Mills denies that the secondary lacks familiarity or trust.
“I don’t think it’s a chemistry thing,” Mills said. “We’ve been working since the summertime where we’re going over the coverages, our different drops.”
Still, there’s the other issue of an anemic pass rush from the LSU front seven, which failed to tally a sack or quarterback hurry at Georgia.
Johnson said it’s a double-bind for Chavis.
If the secondary can’t cover, then the architect of the Mustang package will have to do what he did Saturday, which is drop Eugene into coverage.
“I honestly don’t believe that’s the thing,” Johnson said. “I don’t doubt our defensive backs’ abilities one bit.
“We still have some of the best defensive backs in the country. All we have to do is get (the calls) communicated in to them.”
Ultimately, Miles had no choice but to call a timeout after the mass confusion in the second quarter.
The move paid off when LSU got into the right coverage, applied pressure and forced Murray to ditch a throw at the feet of tight end Arthur Lynch.
Of course, the Tigers had other breakdowns.
Stop those, and LSU might restore some luster taken off its secondary last weekend.
“Once we do that, we’ll be back to one of the best secondaries in the country,” Martin said.