Inside the Gameplan: Building around the Predator

Malik Jefferson. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Malik Jefferson. (Will Gallagher/IT)

After a mostly full season from everyone’s favorite recruit in the class of 2015, we now have a pretty good idea of what Malik Jefferson offers as a football player. After winning the starting middle linebacker job in fall camp before the season (if not sooner), Malik dropped the following stat line in 2015: 61 tackles, seven tackles for loss, three sacks, three pass break-ups, one forced fumble, and one TD.

Malik was the 2nd leading tackler on the team behind Peter Jinkens and was all over the defensive stats columns in addition to being all over the field.

Malik has a very unique skill set who’s best recent comp might be what OU had in Eric Striker only Jefferson is much more well-rounded. Whereas Striker was a fantastic blitzer who was capable of playing in space, Malik is at least as capable in space, an equally fantastic blitzer, and also capable of playing in the box.

In 2016 the defensive staff is going to need to explore more of the possibilities that his skill set creates for the defense as they try to build a dominant unit despite some shortcomings up the middle.

A weapon in pass defense like no otha

There’s no doubt that Malik is growing into a serious weapon against opposing passing games but as I noted this time last year and as Nobis60 recently opined on, his abilities in coverage are actually rather unique. He’s not just a great pass-rusher that could be a missile for getting after the QB.

For instance, Malik was very good at defending the middle of the field against Big 12 staples like “snag” which are designed to get an outside receiver open in space thanks to the inability of the average middle linebacker to move laterally.

Malik vs OU snag

It’s hard to tell from that diagram but getting wide enough and possessing the quickness to defend that “spot” route by the Z receiver, who’s just looking to settle in open space, is a tough job for an inside-backer. The fact that Malik’s skill set is basically Kam Chancellor meets Von Miller means the Longhorns are much less vulnerable to the myriad of modern passing concepts meant to attack inside-backers in coverage. With Jefferson in that spot Texas was able to get a result similar to what Gary Patterson has seen over the years from spinning safeties down to become inside linebackers.

But then there’s also his pass-rushing ability, which is best captured by this sack against Oklahoma:

This is a really straightforward blitz from Texas with the ends pinching inside, the nose taking a gap, and “the fox and the hound” each blitzing their respective edges while the rest of the defense plays man-free coverage.

F&H edge blitz

The commentator tried to pin the blame for this sack on Samaje Perine but I’m not convinced that his job there was to help 6-foot-8, 357-pound Orlando Brown protect the edge. Perhaps it should have been though, because you see here from Malik the ability to win the edge and then more crucially the ability to turn the corner and finish the play. That’s the kind of suddenness and flexibility that makes for a dominant edge rusher.

Every time Texas sends five pass-rushers, they get the benefit of either generating 1-on-1 matchups for all its pass-rushers or else forcing the offense to leave the a running back in pass protection and allow the defense to play six over four in coverage. With these corners and Malik in the backfield that’s a winning formula.

Texas fans can be hopeful that in the 4-2 scheme Vance Bedford will send Malik around the edge more often and not loop him inside as much on stunts. I must have watched at least 50 blitzes last year where Malik looped inside of a DE stunting to the edge only to find a guard or center set and waiting for him.

When Malik encounters a blocker his reaction is basically the opposite of Breckyn Hager’s, who will try to blast through them. Malik will pull up and look to keep himself free from the blocker so he can re-evaluate where things are and try to make a tackle in pursuit. He simply doesn’t have the mentality of an inside-backer, though he’s not bad there, and the Predator is always on the hunt for opportunities to run plays down.

In order to keep Malik in position to get after the edge and drop into space, Texas should either continue playing him as the mike linebacker in the 4-2 (always between the nickel/sam and the will) or instructing him to play as whichever inside-backer is more likely to get put into space (this is how TCU does it).

If he’s always aligned to be able to play the edge or in space, then Malik can create major headaches for opposing centers, QBs, and OCs who are trying to figure out where to set protections without knowing if he’ll be dropping into space or coming off the edge.

Here’s an example of a blitz TCU loves to use against Oklahoma State that depends on having at least one inside-backer that can move in space:

Malik TCU blitz

That’s basically the same blitz Texas sacked Baker Mayfield on in that crucial 4th quarter drive clipped above, only now you have PJ Locke coming off the edge unblocked for while Malik drops back to cover the slot. It’s the perfect trap both for the tackle, who is probably not worrying himself about the threat of a nickel blitz, and for the QB who is likely to try and beat Malik in coverage perhaps without even realizing he’s there.

There are tons of options that are created for building pass defenses from the fact that Malik can get out in space laterally and be a terror off the edge. The more ways Vance finds to threaten offenses with both skills, the worse it’ll be for opposing offenses.

What about the run D?

Malik Jefferson. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Malik Jefferson. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Malik’s biggest impact on run defense is probably going to be in erasing mistakes (or occasions where Texas is just beat) up front thanks to his speed in pursuit. As noted above, Malik isn’t aggressive about blowing up blocks and he’s not really a true inside guy. He’s Chancellor, physical enough to play in the box but at his best as a free-hitter who has some freedom to roam and make plays.

Texas needs guys who know how to plug and aggressively take on blocks, which is yet another reason why the move to the 4-2 makes a lot of sense for this season as it reduces the linebackers’ workload here and seeks to control the line of scrimmage with the four down linemen.

Other than his ability to help minimize the damage caused by others’ failures though, Malik can have an impact by inflicting negative plays when he comes off the edge or by helping Texas to destroy the option.

Oklahoma had a fair amount of success running the ball against Texas with a few different zone read schemes because the DEs were overmatched trying to deny cutback lanes to the OU backs while also keeping speedy, little Baker Mayfield contained.

The best practice these days for stopping read plays is for the unblocked DE to keep his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage and step inside to deny a cutback but then spill the QB if he tries to keep the ball and win the edge. Here’s an example courtesy of the always fundamentally sound Kansas State DL vs Jerrod Heard last year:

The DE Tanner Wood stays inside and on the hip of the double team so there isn’t a chance for D’Onta Foreman to run behind them but he keeps his shoulders square so that he can force Heard to run laterally to the line of scrimmage rather than getting a soft edge. Wood also managed to obstruct Heard’s lead blocker to free up the linebackers to scrape over as well.

Now observe how Jefferson performed in that role against Mayfield:

Malik turns his shoulders inside hoping to make the brutal tackle-for-loss on the back but then peels back and tries to get the QB when he pulls the ball. Now most edge defenders would have been made to look really stupid trying to pull that off but Malik nearly succeeds before Mayfield breaks free and picks up a solid gain.

Charlie Strong isn’t going to want to totally reign in Malik’s free-wheeling nature but with different fundamentals in instances like this, Malik could probably single-handedly shut down any option plays to his edge. He has enough burst to play it square like the K-State defensive end did above and still have a chance to make the play on the back or on the QB.

If Bedford wants to keep Malik freed up to just chase plays down from behind, he’ll just need better play from the free safety and other LBs. Jason Hall had the QB in the clip above and got lost on the exchange somehow, if his eyes had been right Mayfield would still have been dropped for a loss thanks to Malik’s delaying effort.

Texas can play effective run defense in 2016 without dominating the point of attack if Malik can minimize the damage from good plays and inflict a few negatives coming off the edge.

Effective run defense + good pass defense = great defense in the Big 12.