When a team routinely leads the nation in total offense, passing and scoring, they're obviously going to get a reputation as an offensive team.
Just look what Houston has done under Kevin Sumlin:
National Total Offense / Scoring Offense Ranks (out of 120 FBS teams):
2008: 2nd / 8th
2009: 1st / 1st
2010: 11th / 14th*
2011: 1st / 1st
I place the asterisk on the 2010 ranks to point out that the Cougars still put up those excellent rankings despite having his top two quarterbacks out for the year. Clearly, to have a top 15 offense with such injuries is a sign of a pretty good offensive system.
So clearly, Houston is an offensive school that is awful at defense. Even a prominent local sports radio host took many chances this week to criticize Sumlin and his "terrible" defenses. He must be right.
Let's take a look at Houston's rank in scoring defense, the single most important category:
Whoa. One of those numbers is not like the other. What happened?
After two years of mediocrity, Sumlin knew change was needed, and to his credit, took action. He brought in Brian Stewart as his defensive coordinator. That name may sound familiar, as Stewart was the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys in 2007 and 2008. In both of those seasons, his attacking 3-4 scheme finished in the top 10 in total defense both years, led the league in sacks in 2007 and finished third in 2008.
In a 4-3 (which indicates four defensive linemen and three linebackers), the primary pass rushing pressure comes from the defensive ends, while in the 3-4 (three linemen and four linebackers), it is the outside linebackers who serve that role. The role of the defensive linemen in a 3-4 is to engage blockers, allowing the quartet of linebackers to make the plays.
The perfect example of a great 3-4 scheme is the Pittsburgh Steelers defense under Dick LeBeau. That's a similar approach that Stewart implements.
Playing a 3-4 scheme takes particular types of players and abilities than the more traditional 4-3 scheme, and the transition both in learning the scheme and having the proper personnel is not always easy. Hence, the 95th ranking of Houston's defense in 2010.
However, with a year under their belts and some better players brought in, the Cougars improved dramatically. A look up and down the stat sheet displays several impressive numbers that paint a clear picture of an attacking defense in that Steeler mold.
Pass Efficiency Defense: 16th
Turnover Margin: 7th
Tackles for Loss: 3rd
Those, dear skeptics, are not the signs of a "terrible" defense. Rather, that shows a very good defense that is overshadowed by the best offense in the nation.
When you have the top offense in the country, you don't need a great defense to win. But when you put a good defense with that offense? You often get what the Cougars have: a 12-0 record and likely berth in a BCS bowl.
Credit must be given to Sumlim for recognizing a deficiency and addressing it, something for which Dennis Erickson's regime received much criticism.
In a recent Speak of the Devils podcast, DevilsDigest.com's Hod Rabino said the chances were very good that Stewart would make the move to ASU with Sumlin should he be hired. The Sun Devil personnel currently on the roster doesn't fit well for the 3-4, but the results of Sumlin and Stewart are evident. Given time, ASU can be a force on both sides of the ball.
That would be the perfect way to dispel another myth: ASU can't be a perennial contender.
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