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Notre Dame Defense Must Make Adjustments Against Second Half Schedule

Notre Dame has done good things on defense in 2021, but the defense must clean up a few things to take that next step

Notre Dame has done some very good things on defense during the 2021 season, and there have also been a few too many bouts of inconsistency. The numbers are always sexy, but when this unit is playing good on all three levels it has been very, very good.

With the way the second half of the season sets up the reality is Notre Dame needs its defense to be even better than it has been. Three of Notre Dame's next four opponents are averaging at least 32.2 points per game, and all three (USC, Virginia, North Carolina) rank No. 31 nationally or higher in total offense. 

Virginia ranks sixth nationally in yards per play and North Carolina ranks 12th.

If Notre Dame is going to play to its potential on defense, and be the unit it has to be against the part of the schedule filled with more quality offenses, there are five areas where the unit must improve, or where changes must be made.

1. Limit the big plays — It has gotten a bit better in recent weeks but there is still plenty of room for improvement. Simply put, Notre Dame gives up way too many chunk plays. 

Those plays are always going to be part of a defense that is as aggressive as the one Marcus Freeman employs, and I am fine with it because it's a tradeoff for forcing more turnovers and big mistakes by the offense, but Notre Dame has given up a few too many big plays this season.

The reasons have been numerous, so there isn't one area that I can point to and say, "Be more assignment correct," or "Make a personnel change here." A number of factors have played a role in this, and Coach Freeman needs to figure out some answers.

If Notre Dame can get rid of a lot of the chunk plays this defense is going to be very hard to move the ball on.

2. Get back to being disruptive — Here's the thing though, if you're going to be as aggressive as Coach Freeman is and wants to be your defense needs to make a lot more big plays. Notre Dame was very good at that in the first two games and against Virginia Tech, but not quite as good in the three games prior.

Being disruptive means getting tackles for loss, sacks, interceptions, breaking up passes and overall throwing the offense out of sync.

Some examples. In the first three games Notre Dame had 23 tackles for loss, 14 pass break ups, 13 sacks and had five interceptions.

In the last three games the defense had just 15 tackles for loss, seven pass break ups, five interceptions and just three sacks.

Against the potent offenses the Irish are going to face those numbers need to look a lot more like the first three games while also limiting the chunk plays.

3. Have a better Foskey plan — Junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey ranks fifth nationally with six sacks and eighth nationally in sacks per game (1.0). That's a really impressive number when you consider how often Notre Dame's coaches ask him to do things other than rush the quarterback.

In the final six games the staff needs to have a different Foskey plan, and that plan better involve him attacking ALL. THE. TIME.

I'm all for getting Foskey in different spots and don't have a problem with him lining up off the ball, but then asking him to play more like a linebacker in those instances is something I don't think works for him or the defense as a whole.

There is value to moving Foskey around, but in doing so the staff needs to be using him to attack the opposition. Foskey is very, very disruptive and he's the kind of talent that forces offenses to game plan to block him. When Foskey is being asked to basically play a 3-3 linebacker position (meaning he's reading or dropping in coverage) you are making life easier on the offense.

I am all for Foskey lining up at Vyper, lining up off the ball (inside and outside), playing over guards at times and even moving him to the strongside beside Myron Tagovailoa-Amsoa, which would put Jayson Ademilola backside in a 5-technique alignment.

From each of those positions Notre Dame can use Foskey to attack the offense, and it would force the offense to be very mindful of him, which makes the pressure packages more effective and also ensures that players like Ademilola and Tagovailoa-Amosa are getting less attention.

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If used correctly Foskey will not only be an impact player from his own production, how he is used will make those around him even better.

4. Consider some changes at cornerback — I'm not necessarily talking about benching players, although I wouldn't mind seeing guys like Ryan Barnes or Philip Riley get a shot to play.

What I'm referring to here is where guys line up and how they are being used. The move of Cam Hart to the field cornerback position has been great for him, but it hasn't been great for Clarence Lewis, who has been getting picked on in recent games.

Lewis isn't a boundary corner in the traditional sense and he's not really an ideal man-cover guy. Lewis is smart and tough, and allowing him to play more off the ball would be a more ideal use for him. This would allow Lewis to keep things in front of him and give him a bit more cushion to protect against deep throws.

Option one is to consider moving him back to the field and putting Hart back into the boundary, which would give Lewis more protection from the rover and field safety. Option two would be to leave him in the boundary but more effectively use the Will linebacker, the safety and occasionally the Vyper to protect him.

The teams Notre Dame is about to face are better passing teams, and in some instances have more pass catching talent, than what the Irish faced in recent weeks. The Irish will need to rethink how the cornerbacks are being used, and where, during the bye week.

5. Tackle better, especially in space — This is simple, Notre Dame misses too many tackles, especially in space. This must improve in a hurry.

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