LSU’s secondary looks a mess just before the offense snaps the ball.
Defensive backs are flailing their arms and pointing fingers at teammates. They are hopping up and down and jogging from one side of the field to the other. They’re patting their helmets and shaking their outstretched hands.
All of it looks like a dysfunctional dance routine. And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to look.
This is their form of communication. It assures that, after the snap, things aren’t so messy and dysfunctional.
Lately, things have been messy and dysfunctional before, during and after.
“We have given up a lot of give-away touchdown,” said defensive back Dwayne Thomas. “We’re correcting that because we know this November stretch is going to be huge for us.”
According to some, the No. 4 Tigers (7-0, 4-0 SEC) are the best team in the nation as they head into a Nov. 7 clash with No. 7 Alabama (7-1, 4-1). They have the Heisman Trophy frontrunner at running back, a passing game that’s progressing and a defensive front that’s rolled up 18 sacks in seven games.
Things are going quite smoothly for everyone – except the defensive backs. Of all of positions, right? A place known for talented secondary players, a program that refers to itself as “DBU,” has allowed a host of big passing plays over the last month.
The coverage busts are stunning: six of them in the last five games. They have resulted in five touchdowns and a first down that set up a score. They’ve gone for a combined 173 yards.
The frustration is obvious.
“It’s a new month, man,” safety Jamal Adams said Wednesday. “October is in the past. It’s going to be a new month after the bye. It’s going to be our month. The secondary, we’re going to get right.”
Nearly every defensive back has been involved in one of the busts: Dwayne Thomas, Rickey Jefferson, Tre’Davious White, Adams and Kevin Toliver. Defensive end Arden Key, even, was involved in one.
What’s behind the post-snap mess? Communication, defensive backs say.
“It’s not looking at the player next to you,” Adams said. “That’s key. You have to look at him to make sure he gets the call or, if you’re trying to (make) the call, make sure he knows.”
What are these calls? Many of them are what coverage a certain defender should be playing – man-to-man or zone. Some are what defensive back should be assigned to what offensive player – slot guy, wide receiver, tight end, running back.
All of this has to happen in a matter of 3 to 5 seconds.
“That’s the biggest thing,” Thomas said, “get lined up, communicate with each other and see the formation and process the defense in your head. Got to be able to think on the run.”
A tight end or slot receiver has caught passes on five of LSU’s six coverage busts. The sixth: a running back.
What’s this tell you? The miscues aren’t often coming from cornerbacks on outside receivers. Linebackers, safeties and the nickelback (Thomas, Donte Jackson, Jalen Mills) and dimeback (Adams) are taking much of the heat, it appears.
Knowing who messed up on specific plays isn’t easy. Only players and coaches know the coverage calls and assignments.
Players are hesitant to the point the finger at one person, and they don’t often discuss specific plays in detail. Assistant coaches are not made available to reporters, and coach Les Miles shies away from criticizing his players.
Assumption can be made on personnel moves. For instance, Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty found a wide open Antwane Grant for a 39-yard score in the first quarter. Jefferson, Paris and safety John Battle were all near the play.
Jefferson did not play any more defensive snaps in the game.
That play is a perfect example of a communication issue before the snap. Jefferson and Paris both covered one receiver. It left two men for Battle to cover, an impossible task.
“We’ve just got to communicate before the play,” Thomas said about no play in particular. “Like coach always tells us, we have time before the play to talk. Don’t think it’s fast, snap the ball. We have time to communicate. That’s what some guys have to understand. We’re working on that throughout this entire week.”
Coaches tinkered with personnel in the second half of the game against the Hilltoppers. Injuries and, possibly, poor play are behind that.
Safety Corey Thompson replaced Jefferson. He played about 40 snaps – the most playing time he’s received in two years. Thompson recovered from a 2013 knee injury this summer, and he suffered a strained quadriceps in the game at Syracuse, an injury that forced him to miss the last three games.
“Just a little tune-up game for me. I needed that,” said Thompson, a starter in 2013.
Ed Paris played nearly 50 snaps against Western Kentucky at cornerback instead of Thomas, who had replaced the injured White. Paris saw less than 20 defensive snaps in the first six games. Jackson, not Thomas, played nickelback for much of the second half after Jalen Mills suffered a “soft tissue issue” in the second quarter.
Mills, a senior, returned to practice this week, Miles said. That’s important news about a guy referred to by many as the veteran, communication leader on the squad.
“He’s just helping us more to get the call out. He’ll make it faster,” Thomas said of Mills, no made available to reporters this week. “He knows when something’s coming. When he sees a different formation, he makes the right check. He’s not going to be hesitant or slow about it.”
Since his return from a fractured ankle against Florida, Mills was on the field for one of LSU’s four coverage busts the last two weeks. That bust didn’t come on his side of the field.
Communication and cohesiveness is made tougher by all of these injuries. Mills missed that second half against WKU and the first five games of the year. Thomas, who missed more than half of last season with injury, only recovered in full during preseason camp.
“I had to learn a new defense,” he said. “I kind of picked it up when they picked it up (in spring) because I was in the film room. Not being out here on the field made it a little slow.”
The latest injury is a big one: White missed the game against Western Kentucky after suffering a knee injury in practice last Monday. He was seen Wednesday limping with a brace on his left knee. His status for the game against Alabama is very much uncertain.
What’s certain: LSU has lost four straight to the Crimson Tide and two of those came after Bama mounted pass-heavy, two-minute drill drives in the final minute of the game.
“We talk about it a lot,” Thomas said. “We let them slip away with a couple of wins.”
BUSTED: LSU’s secondary has had six coverage busts in the last five games and five have gone for scores.
How Open Was He At The Catch?
WR’s Position At Snap
Behind The Bust
Rickey Jefferson did not see another defensive snap after this play so that oughta tell you something.
Kevin Toliver was the only man anywhere near him.
DE Arden Key seemed to drop back in coverage against Florida’s tight end but he didn’t stay on him
First down (set up touchdown)
Tre White and Jamal Adams took one receiver while UF’s tight end ran a wheel route wide open
Dwayne Thomas and Tre White took one player, leaving SC’s TE, aligned in the slot, open.
Dwayne Thomas’ man scores but Thomas had no help over the top when S Jamal Adams left his post to cover the flats.
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.