Stanford defense is sneaky fast, sneaky good

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Stanford's defense? Smart and slow. Just look at film from the second half at Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons started racing -- and beating -- the Cardinal to the perimeter and then gashed them with deep throws downfield, whipping one-on-one coverage.

Wake Forest piled up 311 of its 458 yards in the second half as it rumbled back from a 14-point halftime deficit to win 24-17.

What went wrong?

"Everything," Stanford's co-defensive coordinator Ron Lynn said. "We just didn't play well in the second half. We probably didn't coach as well in the second half as the first half."

Considering Washington State piled up 351 yards in the season-opener, early on it looked like the Cardinal defense would only aspire to mediocrity in 2009.

Smart. Slow. Average. Typical Stanford defense.

But a funny thing happened on the path to "just OK." Stanford took a detour.

None of the Cardinal's last three opponents -- San Jose State, Washington and UCLA -- gained more than 299 yards. And, after five games, only Wake Forest scored more than 17 points.

Stanford is on the cusp of earning a national ranking in large part because of a highly efficient, physical offense led by Heisman Trophy candidate Toby Gerhart, who ranks fourth in the nation with 130 yards rushing per game, and poised redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck.

But the defense's improvement is nearly as notable. It is giving up 16.8 points and 324 yards per game, which is 10.6 points and 56 yards better than last year.

Of course, that improvement likely will be tested Saturday at Oregon State by the Rodgers brothers, James and Jacquizz, who rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the Pac-10 in all-purpose yards.

"It's Rodgers right and Rodgers left," Lynn said. "Those two are dynamic playmakers. If you were just a fan, it would be fun to watch them. But as an opposing coach, it's not a lot of fun to watch them."

Both are quick and fast. They dart between gaps looking for stress points. They tempt defenders to forget responsibilities. The makes plays on the perimeter and downfield in the passing game.

So slow Stanford better play smart. And with relentlessness.

By the way, asking about the defense's reputed lack of speed didn't go over that well.

"I didn't know that was the M.O. on us at this point," linebacker Clinton Snyder said. "I think we've showed we've got some speed out there."

Said Linn, "We have a little bit of sneaky speed. I'm not sure if on the clock we might be [fast]. I do know our guys care and fight their butt off to run to the ball and they are resilient. That relentlessness of staying after it covers up a lot of sins. I don't think we're slow by any stretch of the imagination but we may not be the fastest team in the nation."

Lynn, co-coordinator Andy Buh and head coach Jim Harbaugh actually made a number of moves between the 2008 season and fall camp in order to shore up a defense that was particularly weak against the pass.

While three of four 2008 starters returned in the secondary, only safety Bo McNally remains a starter. Delano Howell was moved from running back to strong safety. Richard Sherman switched from receiver to cornerback (his call). Corey Gatewood, who was injured in 2008, is the other corner.

It's a far more athletic, if less experienced, crew. The Cardinal surrendered 18 touchdown passes a year ago. Through five games in 2009, they've given up four.

"They're getting better every week," Snyder said. "In the first couple of games, there was some stuff we needed to get fixed -- some big-time plays were made on us."

Harbaugh said he's happy with the play of Snyder and the linebackers. Linn said defensive tackles Ukom Udofia and Sione Fua have played well, which is critical because starter Matt Masifilo and key backup Brian Bulcke are both out with injuries.

End Thomas Keiser is proving an impressive freshman season wasn't a fluke with 4.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for a loss.

Oregon State coach Mike Riley sees a defense that will challenge his young offensive line with a variety of looks and zone blitzes.

"They are playing very sound," Riley said. "Their front -- they play hard, they get good edge pressure, they get good push in the middle."

It's a smart, relentless unit that's starting to play together.

And, maybe, they aren't really that slow.