TwistNHook: At the start of the season, there was some concern regarding the DBs. We were working in a new coach, Ashley Ambrose. The DL and LBs seemed to be the most solid parts of the Defense. Reading through that post, you can see that the general thought is "Talented, but can it be a consistent level of talent?" Was the play of the DBs consistent enough for you guys in 2011?
Avinash: I've always thought that a good secondary is dependent on having a good front seven. When the pass rush forces the quarterback out of the pocket and scramble around, when the run defense plugs the gap on the inside and forces the runner to bounce outside into waiting cornerbacks, then your secondary will look better, regardless of how good or bad these players are.
Remember our good our front seven in 2008? Made it easier for our cornerbacks to feel more confident to play the ball and our safeties to step up and make plays on the ball. The past couple of years, our front seven has been inconsistent. In 2009 we had a great defensive line and spotty linebacker play, so we were pretty good at stopping the run but absolutely horrid at generating pass rush, which in turn made it hard to stop accurate quarterbacks who could hit holes in our zone coverage. And that was a secondary with Squid locking down one sideline!
In 2010, we had a solid defensive line, but no capable rush linebackers, so we saw more of the same problems. More importantly, we had to totally revamp our cornerbacks, and we had growing pains at that position. However, Chris Conte had a career year, so for the most part I'd say secondary play didn't really look all too bad.
In 2011, the defensive line and linebackers both had flaws, but I'd say they were better at generating pass rush in addition to stuffing the run as the year went on. So the pass defense went from looking flat-out bad in the first month of the season to forcing Matt Barkley and Andrew Luck into pretty average performances and shutting down almost everyone else (Except Kevin Prince. Barf.).
Marc Anthony really never gets enough credit for what he does, but I'd say he's turned himself into a quality cover corner who can play both man and zone. Steve Williams has height issues but is really good at smothering his man. Stefan McClure looks like a star in the making, although it looks like we won't see him for a year or two depending on how that injury heals. I've generally been pleased with cornerback play, and with Anthony/Williams doing it one more time with Josh Hill likely mixing it up as well, they should look even better if front seven play improves. If.
Safeties ... I don't pay much attention to safety play, but there was a bit of a dropoff from last year. What else can you expect when you lose Conte? Not to say Sean Cattouse and D.J. Campbell aren't capable or athletic, but their tackling and coverage instincts are probably a step below. It really wasn't a huge issue against anyone except Oregon or UCLA though. I'll be interesting to see what happens at this position with young blood ready to take over, with guys like Coley and Sebastian chomping at the bit to get their turn. Maybe even a certain recruit can help out there.
Kodiak: I think Avi nailed it when he pointed out that how well our secondary performed strongly correlated to our pass rush.
Nine of the conference's teams were among the 20 most penalized teams (in terms of yardage) in the nation. A painfully stringent group of conference referees made watching our pass defense a chore. I do not have a tally of how many PI calls we received, but I guarantee it was among the three most common penalties this season (along with holding and late hit/personal foul). We would often be flagged for minimal contact or in one particularly egregious case, during the OSU game, no contact (I believe it was Williams who was flagged: he had his forearm up and in front of him anticipating as he anticipated contact with the WR when he caught the ball. Despite no contact, the ref flagged Williams anyway). Certainly we are not the only victims here (we had our fair share of bad calls on the other end), but it substantially reduced my enjoyment of watching certain aspects of the game.
I'm not sure what the players can do about this next year (or if the Pac-12 will change its refereeing procedures--unlikely), but it's tough to play defense when you get flagged for anything more than sneezing on an opponent.
I am fairly satisfied with our CB play. Anthony did a decent job and so did Williams. Sure, each had his suspect moments, but I thought both were improved, on the whole, over last year. I was very sorry to see McClure injured at the end of the season because I was very impressed with him. For him to make his first start in the USC game and play as well as he did, for a freshman, was great to see. I hope he heals well: his football future is bright.