Luke Beveridge is backing his under-siege Western Bulldogs defence to rebound after a torrid start to the season, but the alarm bells will be ringing should they not get the job done against Sydney – if they aren’t already.
The Bulldogs premiership coach knows better than most that flags are won on defence. The club’s charge to last year’s grand final was built on the dominance of their midfield, but the knock-on effect was felt by their defence.
Luke Beveridge’s Western Bulldogs defence has had trouble against opposition spearheads.Credit:Getty Images
They ranked fourth for points conceded during the home-and-away season, though the Demons ultimately broke them open in the grand final. In the preceding two seasons, of the eight finalists they had been the worst-performed in this area. When they broke their 62-year drought in 2016, they sat third.
The numbers this season do not make for light reading. Only three teams have conceded more than the Dogs’ average of 99.5 points a game. They are leaking goals from 28.3 per cent of entries inside their defensive 50, placing them 14th.
Worryingly, opposition spearheads are getting hold of their backs, though the lack of support from the midfield has left them with a difficult job. No team has given up more than their 12 goals to key forwards, and they rank 15th for most marks taken by a forward in their defensive 50.
Two rounds is not the greatest of sample sizes but given clubs glean trends over a few weeks it is not as small as one thinks.
They have conceded 12 goals to key forwards, the equal most of any team. In round one it was Ben Brown with three, though he missed several others. Last week, Harry McKay and Charlie Curnow banked nine between them. On Thursday night, the dual threat of Lance Franklin and Isaac Heeney looms.
At his best Alex Keath, though not in the top bracket of backmen, has proven to be a highly competent tall defender but he struggled against Brown and was given the run around by McKay, who booted four goals in the first half when Carlton set up their match-winning lead.
Coming off a pre-season interrupted by injury, Keath should improve with match practice, but the clock is ticking.
The Dogs are far from settled for their second tall back, with Ryan Gardner and Zaine Cordy filling the role at stages. Cordy has also spent time in the ruck while Gardner, dropped for last year’s grand final, is yet to show he is a long-term defender in his 23 games.
Beveridge is protective of his defenders, apportioning fault elsewhere. He is of the view his backs were opened up by contests lost higher up the ground.
“If you have a look at how those goals were kicked, all the ones last week, they weren’t contested marks,” Beveridge said. “They were all in space leads, McKay may have taken one contested mark.”
McKay clunked five, though Beveridge’s broader point still applies.
“It’s sort of a bit of a moot point when it comes to that one v one,” Beveridge said. “Ultimately what happened last week was we let ball through some contests that they kicked to easily, got through and they just saw an open forward line.
“It’s very, very difficult to defend those circumstances. We’re going to minimise that.
“I’m not overly concerned. I back our boys in there, they’ll do a better job if they get pressure on the ball.”
The key then rests with their vaunted midfield, which is stacked with blue ribbon rather than blue collar and can leave their backs open when they do not win possession.
“There was some centre-bounce stuff that we didn’t get right that they had some really good looks,” Beveridge said.
“In open field, it’s very, very hard to stop those again. So we tidy up the centre bounce a bit. We halve or win some more of those defensive longer balls and it will help our key defenders out enormously, and we’ll aim to achieve that this week.”
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