Inside the Gameplan: Breaking down the Spring Game

Terrell Cuney (Will Gallagher/IT)

Terrell Cuney (Will Gallagher/IT)

The 2017 Orange and White game might have featured some vanilla schemes on offense and defense but they still put enough on tape to make some features of the Longhorn identity discernible and to put the fear of God into the rest of the Big 12.

They focused mostly on the passing game, both executing it and attacking (not defending) it, and they showed a lot of promise at both that portends good things for their chances of winning games in a passing league.

I’m here now to touch on features we can expect to see from this team in 2017 while breaking down some of the bigger plays in the spring game.

Attacking the passing game

You may be surprised to learn that Texas finished second in the league in sacks last year despite playing one fewer game than most of the rest of the league. What’s more, third place was almost 10 sacks behind the Longhorns (Baylor with 32 to Texas’ 41, TCU had 43).

Charlie doubled down on using pressure to overcome unsound play in the defensive backfield and regularly trotted out Breckyn Hager and Malcolm Roach on either edge in a misguided 3-4 defensive scheme that epitomized boom or bust defense. We all remember the busts but the booms were occurring fairly regularly as well.

The problem that Charlie couldn’t answer was how to make the most of Texas’ abundance of good edge rushers without sacrificing sound play in the defensive backfield. The most obvious answer was to use them in an even front while playing nickel personnel and Charlie’s fellow odd front guru Orlando seems to have recognized it.

Orlando’s answer is the 2-4-5 defensive alignment, which is essentially a 4-2-5 that uses DE/OLB hybrids who can drop back into coverage as stand-up DEs. Technically Diaz did this some way back in the day with Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor but not with the level of variety Texas is going to see in the coming season.

The 2-4-5 concept, backed by more single-high safety coverages with DeShon Elliott, Brandon Jones, or Jason Hall dropping down while the other drops deep is a chalkboard nightmare for opponents. Here’s a taste of what the most vanilla packaging has to offer in confronting opposing passing attacks, starting with the basic mac insert blitz:

He-man insert blitz

Anthony Wheeler didn’t really have the timing nailed down on this one (Freeman was the best ILB on the insert-blitz in the spring game) but this is exactly the kind of play that I think Breckyn Hager would be devastatingly effective on if he can do enough overall to win the mac LB job.

The nastiness of this style of blitzing comes from how it plays on the way OL are hardwired to prevent penetration by the DL. For instance, the RT here is going to be VERY concerned about the likelihood of a Malik Jefferson or Malcolm Roach blitz and won’t be as tuned in to the fact that Poona Ford is going to long stick into his lap after the snap.

The focal point of the blitz is on the other side where the LG is going to start the play by engaging Chris Nelson before trading him off inside to the center while the LT is going to be stretched wide to stop Naashon Hughes from taking the edge. Breckyn Hager then slams into the vacated B-gap and runs through anything that gets between him and the QB.

While I think Malcolm Roach is the best pass-rusher on the team, Breckyn Hager is certainly up there as well and a blitz like this really plays into his straight line, berserker style. Another thing to note here is that it puts Malik Jefferson in a clean-up role in the middle of the field, which is the one area where his athleticism has made him truly elite and reliable as a playmaker.

It’s going to be hard to top this version of the same blitz though:

Roach and Malik insert blitz

It’s the same basic scheme, you’re isolating the RG here against Malik AFTER dividing his attention by stunting his immediate assignment (Poona Ford) away. That’s a nice set-up for Malik to say nothing of the problems that RT will likely have trying to fend off a basic edge rush from the swamp thing.

As I hope you’re starting to realize, it’s not just about getting good edge rushers working from a stand-up technique to go hunting on the edge. The design of this scheme is such that it works to isolate the better pass-rushers on the Longhorns against potentially the worst pass protectors on the offense.

Here’s a glimpse of one of these blitzes from the spring game:

via GIPHY

Notice how Patrick Vahe isn’t even aware that Edwin Freeman is coming, the LT is totally tied up with the edge rush from the DE (Andrew Fitzgerald, incidentally), and the RB can’t help because he’s releasing to the flat.

If Texas can get the starting inside-backers timing the blitz this well then after a while you’ll start to see teams either leave the running back in to help (and even then, how’s that gonna work out against someone like Hager?) or have to make quick swing passes and become predictable.

Todd Orlando isn’t drawing up defenses for the spread, he’s drawing up ways to attack it with quick pressures featuring Texas’ best athletes isolated on opponents’ worst athletes while backed by sound coverages. That’s just the insert-blitz, we’ll talk about overloads later this offseason.

Whips, floods, and complementary route patterns

We got to see some fun features to the Herman-Beck-(Meyer) passing game when that was virtually all that the offense ran for the entire scrimmage. You could have described the passing game on display as “a million ways to use whip routes and flood concepts” because those were some of the foundational components to the scheme they ran.

We’ve talked about the y-sail/flood concept before, Texas got things going early by running a fun version of the concept with some misdirection included to the befuddlement of the second team defense:

via GIPHY

They ran this play a few times and it generally produced good results save for when Sam Ehlinger tried to execute it against the first team D playing man coverage and found nothing open.

First they fake an outside zone run with a backside hitch option, the QB gives a “soft” play-action hand-off, pump fakes to the hitch, then works back to the field on the move where they are running a deep “y-sail” pattern. Buechele showed great effectiveness at clearing room for the corner route by looking at the check down before throwing down the field.

Texas spring game flood

At the start of the play, the defense has three over two to the twin receiver side with the middle linebacker able to help make it four over three if the TE or RB join in the pass pattern. Then the play-action and pump fake hold that help from coming, encourage the defenders to get out into space and begin their assignments, and then Buechele can attack them in isolation.

This kind of targeted play-calling and use of speed in space is going to be fun to watch unfold against Big 12 competition this coming year. This is more akin to Bryan Harsin’s approach than last year’s veer and shoot, which relied on execution of the basic system to win the day from game to game.

Texas ran this same three-level flood pattern a few different ways in the scrimmage, which complicates things for the defense while still putting Buechele in position to make the same reads and throws. They also mixed in routes that looked exactly the same in their stems but then broke to form totally different patterns with different stresses on the coverage. For instance, the dreaded dig-post combo:

via GIPHY

Flood to dig post

Buechele doesn’t complete this throw but his placement is great and his footwork in the pocket is also good. He has a real knack for hitting the corner route, which is a useful throw for attacking the two-deep safety defenses common in the Big 12.

Sometimes Texas mixed in that same corner/flat “smash” combo that is part of the flood concept but used a whip route from the outside receiver to attack the flat while the slot still ran the corner. It was on that play that Buechele was picked because Chris Brown got under the corner route playing as a nickel:

Smash with a seam

This concept is a glimpse into the very real damage Texas can do next year from four WR sets. Since they had Buechele working the boundary against Brown it’s essentially as though he were facing dime personnel. He got caught by Brown getting under the route…

via GIPHY

…but then they dialed the play back up again and Buechele took the easy candy of Jerrod Heard running up the seam on the mac (Fowler) who didn’t get safety help because both safeties were helping on the slot receivers.

via GIPHY

I’m sure we’ll also see the whip route combined with the dig route and as a part of the snag combo. The staff is going to teach different routes on the tree and then utilize them in different combinations to prevent opposing DBs from being able to sit on them like they did against Texas’ more predictable routes last season.

Shane Buechele was really sharp throwing in the seams in this game and we all know he’s nails throwing fade routes to Collin Johnson. Get this kid enough protection and perhaps nail down chemistry with one slot WR in particular that he trusts to throw to in traffic in the middle of the field and Texas could have the foundation for a brilliant passing game to help keep pace in an explosive passing league.

The offense and defense both showed a lot that will have the full attention of teams around the Big 12.

Sound run defense?

There’s still a question of whether or not this defense is ready to execute sound plans against spread-option run plays and we didn’t get to see a ton to suggest one way or the other but what we did see was pretty encouraging.

The best example was this power-read play by the second team offense:

via GIPHY

The funny thing here is that the offense motions the H-back over so that they are running at the nose rather than the 3-technique, which creates better angles, but then the defense shifts the tackles over late and the OL is clearly thrown off.

1st team D blows up Power-read

The pulling guard Pat Hudson gets a decent block on mac LB Anthony Wheeler but the double team on power needs to be able to reach the backside linebacker and fails to do so. The late shift by Nelson to a 3-technique confuses the OL and LG Alex Anderson is left trying to reach Malik in space, which doesn’t happen. Malik pulls up but he had a kill shot on Ehlinger in the hole.

The best thing here is that the D clearly understands the plan for stopping power-read. The playside DE/OLB is taking away the sweep, the mac is turning the ball back to the rover and the rover is free to flow fast to the ball because the backside DL are playing to take away the cutback lanes. I’d be curious to see how they played a counter run back to Malik, or how things might have gone if the LT-LG combo had managed to release the LT to Malik rather than the LG but this at least was textbook.

The D also showed well against a zone read RPO play:

via GIPHY

The offense ran this play a few times and they liked using WR motion to set up the bubble route and simplify the read for the QB. For the QBs the progression goes:

“Does the D adjust to take away the quick bubble?”

If they don’t, he throws it, if they do then…

“Can the unblocked DE tackle the RB on the zone play?”

If the DE crashes hard to stop the RB, the QB pulls the ball and takes the edge, otherwise he hands off.

Texas motion-bubble-IZR

The defense rotated the safeties to take away the quick bubble while Roach plays to contain the edge on the zone-read and funnel the ball to the DTs and LBs. If the defense drops a safety a down and has the DE sit in the cutback lane it puts a great deal of pressure on the offense to win elsewhere, but they do have double teams on both DTs.

The truly encouraging thing here, besides the defense executing their plan as a unit, is that the double team on Poona Ford is absolutely stonewalled. They don’t get any movement on Chris Nelson either but we already knew that Nelson was capable of playing double teams well, if Pat Hudson can’t push Poona Ford off the ball that portends well for the coming season. Malik and Wheeler are flowing free to the ball here, it doesn’t matter that it’s a walk-on RB, Samaje Perine or D’Onta Foreman get stuffed here just the same.

You never want to make too much of a first team dominating a second team but the achievement of that level of dominance is an important and necessary step on the path to dominance over the teams on the schedule. So far so good for the Herman era Longhorns.