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What Will Defensive Coordinator Mike Tressel Bring to Wisconsin Football?



Wisconsin Badgers defensive coordinator Mike Tressel

I’m back with Part Eight of my Pre-Season Series: TOP 10 Wisconsin Football Stats you need to know for the 2023 Season!

Today, we will discuss what Mike Tressel will bring to the Wisconsin Football program!

For Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3  | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

First, it will not be a small task to follow up on Jim Leonhard’s Wisconsin Defenses. Only 2 times in his 6-Year stint as Defensive Coordinator did they fall outside the Top-10 in scoring defense. He also led the recruitment and development of over 14 Badgers onto current NFL rosters!

However, let’s not get it twisted in his short time as DC for Cincinnati Tressel in his two years at the helm, he finished 5th & 20th in Scoring Defense, respectively. So it’s not out of the question that Tressel can begin to cement himself in that ELITE Coordinator status with a continuation of the Wisconsin Badgers being in the Top-10 of scoring defenses.

It’ll be much more of a challenge, given the increased tempo of the offense Wisconsin will be running. But with the changes to the clock rules following 1st downs. Overall scoring should decrease this year. But that will be across the board, and all defenses should benefit from shortened games!

In this post, we’ll examine how Tressel and Leonhard diverge in Coverage Schemes, Pass Rushers, and Box Heaviness. You’ll see that there are many ways to get the job done at a really high level. Both of these Coaches have proven they can do so! But as you’ll see, they both do it in a slightly different way…

Let’s dive in!

What different Coverage Schemes does Mike Tressel Use?:

First, we’ll look at the different Coverage Schemes each coordinator uses and the rate at which they utilize them.

Graph Below:

We can see that Tressel has a MUCH HIGHER affinity for playing Cover 1 Zone than Jim Leonhard. While Tressel liked playing slightly less Cover 3 & 4 than Jim Leonhard.

Now, I’m not even close to an X’s & O’s guru, so I’ll leave you with this FANTASTIC video that explains in much more detail than I ever could as to how and why this is. It’s obvious to say there was an evolution to the defense Fickell/Freeman/Tressel liked to use, and that scheme to combat the Spread/RPO offense relies heavily on a single high safety (Cover 1)!

One thing I always feared for Jim Leonhard’s defenses were going up against Spread/RPO offenses, simply because that scheme he utilized put a lot of stress on underneath zone players. Those athletes, especially versus the Top B1G Teams (PSU/Mich/OSU) & Oregon/Notre Dame’s, who we couldn’t overwhelm and keep behind the sticks, always seemed to have issues. This led to those 3-Deep & 4 Deep Players getting increasingly aggressive coming down to help out that they would eventually give up a crushing big play over the top at exactly the wrong moment.

Again, this was always just a feeling, but given against those teams, we allowed 11.6 MORE PPG against those teams. So…it stands to reason something was missing that could help us compete with them at the same level we competed versus all other opponents. My contention is the scheme was very useful when we had the athletes’ advantages & could overpower their spread-run game and keep them behind the sticks! In that absence, we were an average defense, especially in the passing game and not in that ELITE category.

Will Wisconsin Football Maintain Pressure on the QB?:

One of the biggest strengths of Badgers football Defenses under Jim Leonhard was the amount of pressure they would get on opposing QBs. How does Mike Tressel and his defenses compare on that measure?

We’ll break this down into two categories, the first being how many Pass Rushers each Coordinator would like to bring. The second is who by position are those pass rushers. Then we’ll look at how those two factors influence Pressure Rates by Down.

Pass Rushers:

We can see here that both Tressel & Leonhard aren’t going to generate heavy pressure by sending more bodies. They like to send 5 or fewer, and disguise where the pressure is coming from to create those opportunities for the defenders!

How do they differ in terms of WHO they send to generate pressure?

Pass Rushers x Position:

Wisconsin football: Badgers DC Mike Tressel defensive chart

Something very interesting came from this. We can see that Wisconsin didn’t signal any Pass Rushes from the DE & CB Positions. This data source has Isaiah Mullens, Rodas Johnson, James Thompson Jr., and others as DTs. Wisconsin was in a 2-Down Lineman scheme for much of the 2022 Season, which may have confused how they get captured in this data.

So whatever position DE/DT what we should take from this graph is the combination of these two “positions” as the D-Line. What’s more interesting is where else do these coordinators go to get more pressure.

In that respect, where they really diverge is Tressel likes to send his CBs on blitzes.

The real question is, how do those Pass Rushers generate pressure on the QB? This speaks not only to their talent but also to the Blitz Scheme drawn up by the Coordinator!

Pressure Rate x Position 1st Down:

Wisconsin football: Badgers DC Mike Tressel defensive chart
  • There are no real differences in Pressure Rate by position
    • One thing I would be concerned with is the Low Pressure Rates from S’s & CBs from Tressel-led Defenses.
    • If you’re going to send them, you’d like for them to get outsized returns on those blitzes, and you give up a lot on the backend when sending those coverage guys in!!!
  • LBs seem to get a TON of pressure for Tressel when he brings the house, much more than Leonhard-led defenses (interesting)

Pressure Rate x Position 2nd Down:

Wisconsin football: Badgers DC Mike Tressel defensive chart
  • Again, no gigantic differences in Pressure Rates
  • Again, I’m a bit concerned with the depressed pressure rates from S’s & CB’s!!!

Pressure Rate x Position 3rd Down:

Wisconsin football: Badgers DC Mike Tressel defensive chart
  • Again, no big or surprising differences in Pressure Rates!
    • One good thing is that Tressel’s teams look to be getting strong pressure from each of the major Pass Rushing Positions (DE/DT/LB)
    • But what is continually concerning, and maybe a point for Leonhard, is why you would send your S’s or CB’s if they aren’t going to generate Pressure at as high of a rate as sending your LBs

So, there is nothing to cause any concern about where Mike Tressel diverges from Jim Leonhard in Pass Rushing. He brings “light” pressure and doesn’t load up 6+ Man Blitzes, like Leonhard. So no changes there. His defenses were also able to get pressure at the same rate as Jim Leonhard-led defenses.

So, although he runs a different scheme and seemingly (from the data) brings pressure from different positions. That divergence doesn’t have an impact on the ability to generate pressure on the QB which Tresse’s defenses have done so at a very similar level.

This should be music to many Wisconsin Football Fans’ ears!

How will Mike Tressel bringing the 3-3-5 to Wisconsin Football impact Box Heaviness?:

One thing that Wisconsin Football could hang its hat on with Jim Leonhard as defensive Coordinator from 2017-2022 was STOPPING THE RUN. In those seasons as Defensive Coordinator, Wisconsin was outside of the Top-10 in Rushing Yards/Game conceded only ONCE!!! Incredible.

In his two years at Cincinnati, Tressel’s defenses have finished 61st & 72nd, respectively, in Rushing Yards/Game given up. But again, their Total Defense was actually quite stellar! This was due to their Pass Defenses being ranked 2nd & 11th in each respective year of his tenure as Cincy’s Defensive Coordinator!!

Is it the scheme that drove such poor performance versus the run, or was it personnel upfront & at the LB Position? Well, let’s dive into the data to find out!!

Box Heaviness:

One thing we can see right off the bat is that, Tressel used a “Light Box” at a significantly higher rate in 2021! In that year, they were the 2nd Best Passing Defense by Yards/Game given up, 4th in Completion % given up, and 9th in Passing TDs/Game given up.

Where things got tricky for them was versus the run. In Yards/Game, they were 61st, but that is slightly skewed by how much teams ran on them due to those “Light Boxes” because when you adjust for Rush Yards/ATT, they were the 22nd Best Rush Defense.

Let’s take a peek at Stuff Rate, which we know is the best signal for RBs & Rushing Attacks. So intuitively, a High Stuff Rate for defenses would equate to really strong Rushing Defenses!

Stuff Rates x Box Heaviness:

Wisconsin football: Badgers DC Mike Tressel defensive chart

We can see here that Mike Tressel-led Cincinnati teams are right on par with Jim Leonhard-led Wisconsin defenses in stuffing the run. This makes sense, given their 22nd-ranked Rush Defense Per/ATT in 2021. However, in 2021 and in Light Box alignments, that Wisconsin team led by Leo Chenal, Jack Sanborn & Nick Herbig were insanely dominant against the run. Those three ALONE combined for 49 TFLs, and that is why, with those three on the field in Light Box Situations, they were able to notch a 40% Stuff Rate while keeping a ton of guys in better coverage positions!! Truly ELITE run defense!

One thing that Stuff Rate doesn’t account for is how many BIG Plays you give up as a defense. So let’s look at Stuff Rate & YPA and see if we can’t find any weird variances that suggest Tressel or Leonard defenses give up Gash Plays in the run game.

Stuff Rate & YPA:


There is nothing here that would suggest to me that we will be seeing anything different in terms of Run-Game prowess by bringing in the 3-3-5 versus what Jim Leonhard had the Wisconsin Football Team running from 2017-2022! This is fantastic news because I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical of such a change. Given that since we made the switch to the 3-4 under Dave Aranda 10 Years ago, we have had so much success defensively. You don’t want to “Fix” what isn’t broken in the first place.

I was also relieved to hear in pressers/interviews that he will be phasing in the 3-3-5, and the Dollar Package will be an easier transition to begin working in his philosophy! Or as he puts it “Mesh the Elite”! A slogan I absolutely LOVED!

Final Thoughts on Mike Tressel taking over the Wisconsin Football Defense:

The initial phases of change are always extremely hard. Change is especially hard in those phases when you’re changing from something that has been so immensely successful. And just like with Investments, past performance may not be indicative of future results. The same can be true for College Football Defensive Philosophy.

As I pointed out, Leonhard’s defenses versus the Top of the B1G & the likes of Oregon and Notre Dame were assuredly not ELITE. Now I don’t think any sane person would expect us to hold those teams to the same level as Rutgers or Indiana. But we also wouldn’t want to give up nearly two whole TDs more Per Game against them, either!

And that was the reality from 2017-2022. The offense and the defense just weren’t quite good enough to beat the teams this program is DESPERATE to beat. That decay in the ability to win the BIG GAME since the 2011 B1G Championship Game seeped deeply into the culture of this program. Culminating in the disappointments that were the 2020-2022 Seasons.

(Yes, I don’t consider the win in the 2012 B1G Championship or the 2017 Orange Bowl to be BIG GAMES. I’m sure many of you will disagree and I won’t debate that with you because I believe it’s valid to have that opinion; I just simply disagree.)

Which led to the firing of Paul Chryst & of the passing over of Jim Leonhard, and the subsequent hiring of Luke Fickell, Phil Longo, and Leonhard’s replacement, Mike Tressel. All of whom are bringing CHANGE to Wisconsin Football. And change is what we need to win those BIG GAMES, and under Mike Tressel. While it may look a bit different, you can have renewed confidence that the defense won’t be losing those games for us

On Wisconsin!

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Gard Your Fickell is a leading authority on Wisconsin Badgers analytics, specializing in dissecting the intricate data behind football and basketball. With a deep passion for the game and an analytical mindset, Gard Your Fickell offers readers a unique perspective on the Badgers performance.