The Texas run D, a Sisyphean struggle
Perhaps the most concerning element of the Texas defeat in Manhattan to Kansas State was how poorly the UT run defense was executed. This dimension of the Longhorn squad is totally lost heading into a stretch in which they’ll face Baylor (282.8 rushing yards per game) and West Virginia (206.5 rushing yards per game) at home in the next few weeks.
Playing run defense in the Big 12 is a real challenge due to the league’s combination of option concepts, spread formations, and up-tempo pace. This league’s offenses make it very difficult for defenders to find their assignment, get into position, and play with team pursuit. If a defense can consistently recognize and play their assignments, the battle is mostly won even if the talent isn’t at the level of the Texas Longhorns. The Horns’ defense does not consistently recognize and play their assignments, so their superior talent level seldom matters.
This is particularly evident in the hesitant, unaggressive play at linebacker and poor team execution of run defense concepts. As the K-State game made all too clear, Charlie Strong’s plan for stuffing Big 12 run games is suspect and the execution is even worse.
The Charlie Strong run defense
After two and a half years of watching Strong’s defenses, not to mention having seen his Florida and Louisville film, I think we can largely summarize his approach to run defense as “fire big, athletic guys into the backfield from varying angles and hope the second wave can clean things up if that doesn’t work.” This has been particularly true in 2016 as he’s doubled down on that strategy time and again.
My man Bill Connelly (inventor of the S&P+ adjusted stats system) invented and tracks some useful stats that can bring us a great deal of clarity to this point. In particular, he has a stat called “havoc rate” where he tracks the percentage of plays where a defense wreaks havoc on an opponent with tackles for loss or batted passes. Bill also tracks a stat called IsoPPP, which measures the explosive rate for successful plays by opponents. A good IsoPPP ranking means that when your defense gets beat, they minimize the damage. A bad ranking means that when offenses beat you they REALLY make you pay.
Thanks to Bill, we can look at the havoc rates and IsoPPP ratings for Charlie’s Texas defenses to give an idea of how well the “fire athletes into the backfield and then clean up the mess” strategy has gone these last few years.
In 2014, Charlie could make such a mess with a DL of Cedric Reed, Hassan Ridgeway, and Malcom Brown that he didn’t even have to bring the blitz to cause problems. When they did, the result tended to be unproductive runs or quick passes that were quickly cleaned up.
In 2015, the Texas defense generated less havoc, but still kept a lid on opponents finishing 24th in terms of limiting explosiveness from opponents.
Now in 2016, the havoc is up but the control on the back end is gone. Texas has made extensive use of 3-4 packages that get multiple Fox players on the field at the same time and this has had the impact you would want; tackles for loss inflicted by big athletes firing into the backfield, but has also left the back end out to dry.
It’s plain enough that Texas’ linebacker corps aren’t playing with great fundamentals but the solution has been to double down on causing a mess up front so that Malik Jefferson and Anthony Wheeler can give in to their “see ball, chase ball” instincts.
The problem is that this DL can’t cause enough havoc against everyone on the schedule to create the kind of chaos in which Malik and Wheeler can avoid blocks and chase down the ball. When the first wave fails, the second wave is totally unequipped to make up for it.
The run defense against K-State
Against Iowa State, Texas stayed in the 3-3-5 and kept things relatively simple. The superior play of the DL was more than enough to handle Iowa State’s OL, and Malik and Wheeler were often free to make the tackles without dealing with pesky blockers getting in the way.
Against K-State, who often put a TE or FB on the field, Charlie brought back the 3-4 with a minor tweak. Since Breckyn Hager was deemed to be a bit too slow to handle the space that the field outside linebacker has to play in, the staff decided to move someone else out there. Did they send the Predator out to his natural position? No, they put 6-foot-2, 263-pound Malcolm Roach out there.
The upside is that if K-State wanted to play a slot to the field then they could be confident on every snap that they were either going to see Roach blitz the edge or else drop back and try to cover a slot WR in space. The former event could be mitigated, the latter could be brutally exploited.
Here’s a glimpse into how that worked out for Texas.
Kansas State is backed up here thanks to a penalty, but they’ve taken note of the fact that Texas is utilizing the 3-4 despite the fact that they have only one TE on the field. So they worked the TE trips set with an RPO play-call over and over again.
The Wildcats call a gap run scheme to the TE side, typically pin and pull, and then a WR perimeter screen to the field. One of either Roach or Tim Cole is going to be tasked with defending the screen while the other needs to help against the run. Their goal is to give Texas’ defenders conflicting assignments and make them prove they are sound as a team defense. On this occasion, Roach’s assignment is to get wide and defend the pass, which is a quick screen to Byron Pringle. Easiest 14 yards K-State ever saw.
If Roach had been aligned anywhere near his actual post-snap assignment, maybe this play could have been stopped. We saw similar tomfoolery a few snaps later:
That’s a wide path for the freshman to take and obviously he’s not able to affect the play despite coming unblocked.
K-State isn’t stupid, they ran a play into the Roach edge just once on an earlier drive and were aware from then on out. Hager’s play against gap schemes was not good in this example or throughout the game, although he still made the tackle here by sheer effort. He’ll benefit from practicing solely at the Fox position, just as Roach will benefit whenever the coaches give up on the pipe dream of trying to play a 3-4 with two traditional outside linebackers on the field against Big 12 spread offenses.
We could go on about the ways in which Texas put its own defenders in horrible positions either by alignment/assignment or lack of awareness (QB draw? Inconceivable!). However, the bigger problem against K-State was the ability of the Wildcat OL to avoid being overwhelmed by the Texas DL, which meant the Texas LBs had to actually read plays, beat blocks, and make tackles in the traditional fashion.
Now let’s talk about that ultimate spread-option concept, the zone read play. K-State ran the play on consecutive snaps in the third quarter for 37 yards. In both instances they were running the play against Texas’ 3-4 package and, indeed, Charlie’s “send athletes flying into the backfield and then clean up the mess” strategy.
On the first play, Texas kept Roach out wide on the slot receiver while bringing Dylan Haines and Hager off the opposite edge:
Some would call playing Roach in space while blitzing Haines being too cute by half, when there’s two backs in the backfield to help pick up a blitz like that I’m inclined to agree.
Watch the linebackers though, because this is where things have been truly problematic for Texas this year. On the zone read play, the main challenge is that the offense is creating an extra gap by including the QB as a runner. To maintain gap control the defense either needs an extra man to account for the extra gap, or else to have someone two-gap.
Whether they’re blitzing or not, Charlie’s defenses will have the unblocked DE stay home so the QB gets a “give” read. The positioning of the DE is essential though, if he stays wide then the offense still creates a new gap in between him and the left tackle.
The Texas LBs routinely play the zone read as though they were two-gapping with responsibility for their normal gaps against inside zone as well as the potential new gaps created by the insertion of a lead blocker and the QB keeper.
On this example, they were done in by the fact that K-State caught them blitzing away from the zone blocking which made it all too easy for the Wildcat OL to reach block their assignments:
It might have worked out okay if blitzing Haines off the edge had created some havoc at the point of attack, but the K-State fullback cleared him out. However, you still see the Texas LBs looking as though they were waiting for a clear “give or keep” from the QB before committing to their gaps.
On the next snap, Texas instead blitzed Roach off the opposite edge while K-State ran the exact same play:
Some positives on this play include the fact that Texas blitzed Roach off the edge, a role he’s liable to actually thrive in rather than playing man coverage over a slot, and the fact that the blitz went to the right side, which is where K-State clearly prefers to run.
This time it’s all on the linebackers.
Despite the fact that the DE is playing to give the QB a clear “hand-off” read, Wheeler is still peeking back as though it were his duty to chase down the QB rather than to meet the lead block of the fullback. Winston Dimel (the K-State FB) seems almost confused when he leads through the hole and has to look around in order to find the playside linebacker he’s supposed to block.
Malik plays this aggressively at least, but he tries to run through a crease and stop the play from behind. He nearly does so, but the blocking on the right is too good and Wheeler has failed to even make an attempt to cause hesitation for the RB. Neither LB is working to execute a team concept for playing the zone read, they’re either paralyzed by unclear assignments or else free-wheeling and hoping for the best.
You get the sense from watching Texas handle option plays that they spend most of their practice times working out different ways to align and bring pressure from their various 3-4, 3-3, 4-3, and 4-2 formations. In terms of actually teaching the base defense and how to play various forms of zone read or other concepts, there’s very little evidence of clear instruction. We saw that play out against Notre Dame, against UTEP, and then spectacularly against Kansas State.
Texas’ run defense seems to just be a hope that the blitzes will cause enough of a mess that Wheeler and Malik’s natural athleticism will allow them to clean up the play. Against a sound team like K-State that won’t fly, but against a sound team with great athletes? It’s a recipe for calamity.
You can expect to see more calamity as this season plays out.