Spring Game Review: Defense

USA TODAY Sports

Today, we take a look at how the defense performed in the spring game. Certainly, in an 18-15 game, the defense was better than the offense. With 14 sacks, 2 safeties and just 2.5 yards per carry for the offenses, the defense really stole the show. No turnovers and a few too many easy passes takes the shine off the overall performance though.

If you read our review of the offense, you know that we were disappointed in their performance. They struggled to maintain any rhythm and to develop an identity. By that reasoning, you would imagine that the defense was pretty good. Clearly, if the offense can't get things going, then the defense is at least a part of that.

There is some truth in that idea. The defense did a good job of not allowing the offense to get comfortable. One of the things that new Defensive Coordinator Jon Tenuta preaches is aggressive defenses. He wants the defense to control the tempo and to force the offense to react. Simply put, Tenuta's defense will constantly put pressure on the offense.

In that sense, the defense was good. They showed some different fronts, with stunts and various different blitzes. At times, it seemed the offense didn't know who was blitzing until after the sack had occurred. In some other ways, the defense wasn't good. Yes, they held the ground game in check to the tune of about 2.5 yards per carry. But they gave up some big passing numbers.

The format here will be the same as the offense one. Position by position, we'll look at how the players performed this week and project a depth chart for 2013.

Defensive End

As a unit, the DEs were solid. The first team DEs didn't put up quite the numbers that the second team did, but they did still their jobs. They were able to penetrate into the backfield and also largely able to hold the edge against the run.

Trent Corney was the star of the show, with 2 sacks and a number of other pressures. He basically just set up shop in the backfield. Keep in mind that he was going up against the second team offensive line.

The starting duo of Jake Snyder and Eli Harold didn't put up the numbers, but still looked ok. Harold seemed to have trouble getting off of Morgan Moses' blocks when he was engaged, especially on running plays. This may be since Moses is twice Harold's size. What can you do in that situation? Against the pass, Harold was able to get around Moses a couple of times without actually engaging. Harold's speed and athleticism will force teams to use a back or TE against him, which opens up lanes for blitzing LBs.

None of the other DEs really did much. Jake Snyder was basically a non-factor and Mike Moore wasn't a ton better. Depth is a bit of an issue at DE.

Projected Depth Chart - RE

Eli Harold
Trent Corney


Projected Depth Chart - LE

Jake Snyder
Mike Moore

I think that Eli will see time on both sides of the line, especially on passing downs. Snyder will likely be replaced by Corney, Moore, or somebody else in passing situations. I could also see Corney replacing Snyder in the starting lineup before the end of the season. Moore may see some time on the inside in passing situations.

Defensive Tackle

This is a position I was a bit unsure about coming into the spring. With the departure of Will Hill and the loss of Chris Brathwaite, I was scared we didn't have enough playmakers here. The performance of Brent Urban and David Dean went a long way towards alleviating my concerns. However, I have a feeling this was as much a case of poor OL play as it was good DL play.

Brent Urban had 3.5 sacks. To put that in perspective, he has 2 sacks in his career. Yes, I know the rules made "sacks" pretty easy. But still, he was in the backfield constantly. David Dean won the Rock Weir award on defense for most improved player in the spring. He also basically lived in the offensive backfield.

There isn't much behind the two of them, and I didn't see much out of Justin Renfrow, Andre Miles-Redmond or any other DT. If Urban's strong play continues into the season, it will be a big boost for a defense that sometimes had trouble with straight ahead running games last season, especially early last season. His size can be a big problem for opposing OLs. Dean looks to take over for Brathwaite as the more disruptive DT, but it remains to be seen if he has the same ability.

I liked what I saw from the DTs, but with so much confusion on the interior of the OL, it has to be taken with a grain of salt. We will see how this plays out in the fall.

Projected Depth Chart - LDT

Brent Urban
Justin Renfrow

Projected Depth Chart - RDT

David Dean
Andre Miles-Redmond

Left and right are somewhat meaningless here, it was just a way to differentiate. The Urban/Renfrow duo is the bigger, space-eating, run-stopping DT while the Dean/Miles-Redmond duo is the quicker, more athletic DT. We are likely to see mostly one of each type on early downs with Urban/Renfrow sitting on passing downs in lieu of more athletic pass rushers.

Outside Linebacker

There is going to be a running theme with a Jon Tenuta coached defense. That theme is LB blitzes, and especially OLBs. There was certainly plenty of that in this game. This is good news for a guy like DaQuan Romero, who was a DE in high school and really excels at playing downfield. He racked up 4 tackles and a sack in this game. He also looked solid against the run and even looked ok in pass coverage.

Opposite Romero was Demeitre Brim. Brim didn't spend as much time as a pass rusher, and was involved in coverage more often. This, again, probably suits him as he came in as a safety. He's got very good instincts in pass coverage and should be good there. The game plan in the spring game was to give a lot of cushion to the receivers. Brim was basically a non-factor.

One guy who was a factor was Mark Hall. Hall seemed to be in the backfield on every snap. He finished with 2 sacks and 3.5 tackles, but I was surprised that the numbers were so low. He was on the ball on every play it seemed. On the other side from Mark Hall was D.J. Hill, but I don't recall noticing him. He is similar to Brim in that he was a safety and could've ended up there. He looked good in limited action last season, so I'm not going to worry about his performance in the spring game. He might've played well, I just didn't notice.

Projected Depth Chart - SLB

DaQuan Romero
Mark Hall

Projected Depth Chart - WLB

Demeitre Brim
D.J. Hill

Middle Linebacker

We've been a bit spoiled by Steve Greer over the past 4 years. He's been a solid MLB for us pretty much day and day out for that entire time. He was never flashy, he was never going to be mistaken for Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher, but when a RB ran up the middle, Greer was going to be there and the guy was going down.

With Greer out of the picture, there are 2 candidates to replace him. In this game, Henry Coley got the nod as the #1 and performed admirably. He was around the ball a lot, but frankly was overshadowed by the DTs playing in front of him. Coley just didn't have much to do on most plays because Urban and Dean were taking care of it.

For the 2nd team defense, Kwontie Moore was much more noticeable. Perhaps this was because the big guys in front of him were neutralized a bit more. Or perhaps it was because Moore played better. It is hard to tell. Moore led the team with 7.5 tackles and was in on a lot more plays than that.

Projected Depth Chart

Henry Coley
Kwontie Moore

Coley is a good MLB. He's got good instincts and adequate speed. But Moore is a better athlete and much more likely to run down a ball carrier outside the hashes. Coley is likely to start, but Moore will get some playing time, and it may be just a matter of time before Moore is the #1 MLB. Coley could also see some time at WLB.

Cornerback

If you're going to blitz a lot, even zone blitzes, you need CBs who can cover their man. You need guys who can stay with their man deep, and you need guys who can come up on a short pass and make a sure tackle.

As I've said a few times, the plan in this game was to give a lot of cushion to the receivers, particularly on the outside. This meant that the 10 yard out was almost too easy. But, it also meant that deep passes shouldn't be there. This was true, for the most part. There were some deep shots taken, but most fell harmlessly to the ground. Adrian Gamble did catch one, but it was an underthrown ball and it took a tremendous effort on his part.

The #1 CBs were Maurice Canady and Drequan Hoskey. We also got a glimpse of C.J. Moore with the first team defense. The #2 CBs were Kelvin Rainey and Divante Walker. None of these guys did a ton to get noticed. Hoskey dropped a sure INT. I don't recall any blatant missed tackles, and all the guys looked solid coming up to help out with the run. There weren't any breakdowns in coverage, and when a guy did go deep, there was always a CB with him.

So, basically, through no fault of their own, I was disappointed in all the CBs. Hopefully, Tenuta lets them off their leash a bit once the games count. If a defense is going to be as aggressive as Tenuta wants to be, we need to force some TOs.

Projected Depth Chart

Demetrious Nicholson
Maurice Canady
DreQuan Hoskey
C.J. Moore
Kelvin Rainey
Divante Walker

I know that the depth chart lists Hoskey ahead of Canady, but Canady is simply more talented. He's also bigger, which helps since Nicholson is so small. Hoskey would be very good in the slot as a nickel CB.

Safety

Even considering the struggles of the OL, I thought the safeties were the worst position on the team last year. They were continually out of position against the pass and the rush. As a group, they contributed 1 turnover and one sack in 12 games. We simply need better production from the group.

I didn't see much improvement this week. Brandon Phelps and Anthony Harris still looked out of position more often than not. If you've ever read my articles before, you'll know I've been calling for Rijo Walker to get some playing time at safety. Because Walker doesn't get much time on defense, it is hard to know if he'd be any better, but I think it'd be worth a try. Walker has more experience playing safety. Well, he was playing for the 2nd team defense this week and he finished with 5.5 tackles and a sack. This was much better than what Phelps and Harris contributed. It is time for Walker to be introduced into the starting lineup. Alas, I feel it will not happen, for reasons beyond my understanding.

I liked what I saw from Anthony Cooper as well, although he wasn't around the ball as much as Walker was. And Mason Thomas saw some run on the 2nd team as well, but I don't recall noticing him much.

Projected Depth Chart - SS

Anthony Harris
Rijo Walker

Projected Depth Chart - FS

Brandon Phelps
Anthony Cooper

In a Jon Tenuta defense, the SS ends up in the box a lot, to cover the space vacated by a blitzing LB. The FS is often alone in centerfield. We need a guy who can make the correct reads in the middle of the field and make plays once he sees what is transpiring. I don't see that in Brandon Phelps. In fact, I think Phelps might be better served moving back to CB. If it were up to me, I'd have Walker at SS and Harris at FS. I would at least want to see how that worked out. Cooper has the capability of being that centerfielder, but I'm not sure he's ready.

Final Thoughts

The defensive tackles, especially the first teamers, were better than I expected. But the interior of the OL was worse than I expected. So which group was playing at their true level? Hard to say. If we can get production from Dean and Urban (and maybe a guy like Tyrell Chavis), this defense could be pretty good. Losing Greer and Reynolds hurts, but there is plenty of talent waiting in the wings to take their place.

We have enough depth and talent at CB to play some press coverage and bring pressure with the OLBs, but we need to find some safeties who can play in that scheme. Right now we don't have anybody who has proven that, and sadly Quin Blanding won't be around until 2014. Malcolm Cook will be around this year, but he's more of a SS than a free safety. Tim Harris comes in as well, and while he could play CB, he has the size and ability to be that FS we need.

It should be an interesting season from a defensive standpoint. Tenuta's defense can be fun to watch when it is clicking, but can be frustrating when it isn't. They'll get some sacks, force some turnovers and look great, but then they'll give up some big plays.

Last year the defense gave up its fair share of big plays, only without the sacks and turnovers. Of course, that defense still ended up being pretty solid overall. This year, they could be even better.

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