The Bend but Don't Break philosophy might be the most Jekyll and Hyde defense in the whole world of football. The fans in the stands cringe as the opponent methodically moves the ball down the field, and they cheer rabidly when a stop forces a turnover on downs or a field goal. Is this love-hate relationship justified? Does this defense do more harm than good? Let's try to find out by looking at the Mississippi State Bulldogs in 2011.
Mississippi State finished last season at 7-6, sealing a winning season by knocking off Wake Forest in the Music City Bowl. In the seven wins, the Bulldogs started at their own 30-yard line, but in the losses, the Bulldogs started at their own 27-yard line. From a first glance, this does not seem like a huge difference, but looking at the games, there may be a few important factors to consider.
In the Mississippi State victory over Memphis, the Bulldogs averaged starting at their own 36-yard line. A few Memphis miscues deep in their own territory helped the Bulldogs in this department, including twice taking over the ball inside of the Memphis 30. Only in the game against Alabama did Mississippi State average better starting field position.
In what was the worst starting possession performance for Mississippi State, the Bulldogs averaged starting at the Auburn 20-yard line in their loss to the Tigers. In a game that came down to a few inches, one has to wonder if better position throughout the game would have made a difference.
So, the question is, would Mississippi State have won more games if they abandoned the Bend but Don't Break philosophy. Following the bump are some common arguments for or against the strategy.
I'd Rather Trade Field Goals for Touchdowns: This is a flawed philosophy because it assumes that these are the only two alternatives for the opponents. What happens to the idea that if the Bulldogs are a bit more aggressive, they may get off the field quicker and end opponents drives without scoring points?
To this point, Mississippi State opponents converted on 36.5% of their third down opportunities. The real problem in this is that when the opponents had six or less yards to go, they converted 55.3% of the time.
If the Bulldogs were a bit more aggressive, would they have gotten the ball back faster and in better field position?
Bend But Don't Break Hurts in Time of Possession: The Bulldogs only held on to the ball for 26:10 per game last year. Looking back at the LSU game, the Bulldog defense had been completely worn out by the time the fourth quarter struck.
In that game, the Tigers held the ball for 37:50.
On the flip side, against Auburn, the Bulldog offense stalled, and Mississippi State quickly fell behind 14-0. After the team dug out of the hole, the defense was unable to stop the Tiger attack, and Mississippi State eventually fell in the contest.
However, the Tigers only held the ball for 23:53 in their win, but their dominated the battle of field possession, starting at their own 31, which was eleven yards better than Mississippi State.
In 2010, the Bulldogs won the time of possession battle, and they had two more wins to show for it.
Bend but Don't Break Hurts Field Position: This may be the biggest knock against the philosophy. The Bulldogs, by playing soft, allowed other teams to convert at a 55.3% clip on third downs for six yards of less. With this type of success on third down, the opponents are able to push the Bulldogs back down the field.
If Mississippi State had a better rate of getting off of the field, which they should be able to do on third and more than four, the Bulldogs would put their offense in better position throughout the game. This position cannot be underrated because it is still to be determined if this offense has high scoring potential.
So, what would you have Dan Mullen do? Take chances and maybe give up more points, or take chances and get off the field more? How do you balance it out? What would make you change your mind?