PowerMizzou - How has Mizzou's defense gotten so much better?
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How has Mizzou's defense gotten so much better?

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The question seems simple: Why is Missouri so much better on defense this year?

Anyone who has watched a game (well, except maybe the first one) knows the Tigers are a much better defensive team this season than they were last season, or any of Barry Odom’s first three for that matter. But we wanted to know, specifically, what is Missouri doing that has led to the improvement?

“I can’t really point to one specific thing,” sophomore linebacker Nick Bolton said.

And like most questions, there isn’t one specific answer.

Missouri is better up front. Jordan Elliott is the fifth-highest graded lineman in college football this season according to PFF College. Elliott and Kobie Whiteside, who leads the Tigers with four sacks, are among the 35 most productive linemen in the country among players with more than 100 pass rushes this season.

The Tigers have been better at linebacker. Cale Garrett had three defensive touchdowns and led the SEC in tackles before a season-ending injury suffered against Troy. Garrett was a first-team mid-season all-American according to PFF College and Bolton was a member of the site’s second team.

Nowhere has the improvement been more evident than in pass coverage. Last year, Mizzou started three linebackers. They were targeted 77 times in the passing game and surrendered 57 completions for 691 yards. This season, through six games, Bolton and Garrett had been targeted 23 times. While they’d given up 16 completions, they have gone for just 97 yards and the duo has combined for five interceptions and five pass-breakups. Garrett was the nation’s highest-graded linebacker in coverage when he went down.

Nick Bolton has been a breakout star for Mizzou as a sophomore
Nick Bolton has been a breakout star for Mizzou as a sophomore (Jordan Kodner)

The Tigers have been better in the secondary. In fact, maybe more so than in any other area.

Tyree (Gillespie) and Josh Bledsoe (are) playing well at the high safety spot and they allow us to do some things with their coverage ability and their ability to show up in the run game,” defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said.

The safety duo missed four tackles in the opener against Wyoming. They have missed just four total in the five games since. And the coverage skills have improved both at safety and cornerback. The result is a pass defense that finished 112th in the country last year and is fourth through the first half of 2019.

“Just the people that we have out there, and then the scheme that we do,” Bledsoe said. “We play a lot of man coverage and we have players that can play man, and then especially when we have help over the top, it just makes it easier for us to be comfortable playing on the short and the medium stuff when we know that we have help over the top.”

Walters agreed that Mizzou has played far more man coverage this season than in years past. The reason is simple: “We got guys that can play man coverage.” Along with the safeties (plus the fact Missouri changed its base defense and is using Khalil Oliver and Ronnell Perkins as a third safety that lines up in the box in most formations), the cornerback rotation of DeMarkus Acy, Christian Holmes and Jarvis Ware has allowed just 32 completions in 64 attempts and given up just two touchdown passes when targeted.

“We’re playing a lot more man than we have in the past,” Walters said. “That helps with all The RPO game that teams are doing and allows you to be a little more diverse and not having to sub when you get to third down. Just the structure of the defense and having the third safety in there. There’s definitely a comfort level on both sides: us as coaches calling and the defense comfortable with running the packages.”

Mizzou Defensive Improvement
Category 2018 2019 (through 6 games)

Points Per Game

25.8

15.5

Yards/Rush

3.70

3.15

Yards/Pass

7.65

5.04

Yards/Play

5.68

4.04

Takeaways

16

11

Touchdowns allowed

35

11

Completion %

55.9

48.7

Passer Rating

133.3

92.63

And more than anything on the field, that’s what it comes down to for Mizzou this season. Yes, they’re playing better. But they’re playing better in large part because everyone on the defense is more experienced than they were a year ago.

"I would say experience in the scheme," Odom said. "When you're able to just cut loose and go play normally, you're going to hear about some breakdowns here and there, but if you got 11, or 10 other guys, if a guy makes a mistake, ten other guys are playing with tremendous effort and usually we get the ball down and line up to play another snap."

They’re practicing better, which allows Walters to trust them more on Saturday, which leads to more aggressive schemes and more productive defense at every level.

"This is the smartest group I’ve been around,” Walters said. “It gives you some flexibility to show different fronts, to move and angle and stunt up front and then be diverse and hide coverages in the back end. I just think the communication, the experience and then guys stepping and making plays, that’s been the biggest reason why. And you see it every day in practice.”

“Our defense is way more experienced especially in the back end,” Bolton said. “They’re good at playing man coverage. Just building confidence from the spring, we added some wrinkles this year in the fall and kind of added to the season we’ve had so far just being able to execute at a high level.”

The defense took plenty of lumps over the last two seasons. But guys like Bolton, Gillespie, Bledsoe, Ware and others have taken all that and turned it into fuel for this season.

“Everybody’s doing their jobs,” Bolton said. ”Just love for each other, love for the program, love for the team and love for our side of the ball. We’re counting on one another and we love each other to the highest extent. We’re doing our job for somebody beside us and we’re just working for each other.”

Of course, as Odom said last week, “we’re three-and-a-half hours from being fools.” Every week is a new week and a defense is only as good as its last performance.

Odom pointed out a play in which Ole Miss caught the Tigers with freshman defensive end Isaiah McGuire attempting to cover running back Scottie Phillips. That mismatch, combined with the safety being late to help from the middle of the field, led to a touchdown pass for the Rebels.

“That’s an example of us having a breakdown,” Odom said. “Knock on wood, we haven’t had many of them.”

Missouri’s schedule has hardly been a murderer’s row so far. Only Troy (37) and Ole Miss (43) rank in the nation’s top 50 teams in total offense. But of the remaining six games, only Georgia (10) and Florida (48) crack that threshold. So while the immediate reaction might be that the defensive numbers are padded by playing inferior competition, four of the Tigers’ remaining six opponents are in the bottom half of the country in total offense. Outside of Georgia and Florida, Arkansas at 70th is the best statistical offense the Tigers will face. Half a season is enough to draw at least some conclusions and give indicators of future success. And all signs point to the Tigers, even if not being dominant, at least being able to continue playing defense at a level that should give them a chance to finish the season strong.