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Texas found a way to win against the Baylor Bears on Saturday. Not just against the Bears, mind you, although elements of the gameplan were Baylor-specific, Texas has now firmly established their identity on offense and found some possible solutions on defense as well.
It was encouraging to see the Longhorns play with so much fire, to see Malik and Wheeler respond to their benching by playing with aggression even if they still don’t always know what they’re doing. One of the big challenges of this season is going to be getting consistently aggressive play from the inside-backers on this team despite the lack of a good plan or fundamentals for stopping the run. So far, so good.
The Texas offense drew a dozen criticisms for their play in this game, despite going for over 500 yards again and manhandling a very strong defensive backfield. The issue here is that a team with sophomores and freshman at most every position on offense, including key spots like center, quarterback, and left tackle, cannot be expected to reliably play good situational football.
Mastering the little things that make a difference in those moments requires focus and experience that young players generally don’t have. This Texas offense is designed to blow people away by executing their base concepts, these kids aren’t ready to grind out wins with precise play in clutch moments. Sadly, the Texas defense consistently allows opponents to keep things close and create these moments on a weekly basis.
The macro view
The Longhorns main strategy to win this game was a mirror image of what the Oklahoma State Cowboys attempted. They lined up in a Pro-I type pistol set with a TE (Caleb Bluiett) and an H-back (Andrew Beck) and they ran “zone slice” more than a dozen times.
The Bears showed respect for Texas’ superior size and strength up front by playing a 4-2-5 set with boundary safety Orion Stewart hanging out near the box rather than the 3-2-6 scheme they employed against Oklahoma State in the same circumstances. It didn’t matter though, because Texas’ LT/LG combo and RB were too good for the Bears to handle and “zone slice” was virtually indefensible for them.
The brilliance of the “zone slice” play is that it combines the angles and new gap creation of schemes like “power-O” with zone blocking and the creation of multiple creases for the RB to attack. The design of the play is simple, the OL blocks inside zone in one direction and leaves the backside DE unblocked like on “zone read” but then the H-back cuts back across the flow and kicks that DE out like he would on “counter.” Where that trap block occurs, the offense is basically running a “power” type scheme with angled blocking, but to the other side of the play it’s still zone.
Thanks to the dominant play of Connor Williams and Jake McMillon on the left side, the “zone slice” concept could be run to either side of the line and totally wreck the Baylor fronts. Here’s an example where Gilbert called the run to the right side with the H-back opening up the cutback lane on the left:
McMillon caves in the Baylor DT, Williams effortlessly climbs up to the LB, and Beck manages to easily maintain the massive lane that results. Now here’s an example where they ran the play to the left side with the H-back opening up the cutback lane on the right:
Notice how D’Onta Foreman is still able to just run off the blocks of the LT/LG tandem? If those guys are winning their battles, then there’s an option for the RB to take advantage and run behind them no matter the direction of the call. This is a really nasty play for opponents to game plan for and it doesn’t depend on the double TE personnel grouping, that was just a feature meant to expose Baylor’s lack of dependable DL. The H-back doesn’t necessarily guide the defense to the ball, they defenders instead have to key on beating Williams and Mcmillan.
Texas can also run this play from the Spread-I sets with Bluiett in at H-back, Beck on the bench, and a slot WR out wide if they feel that creates the best match-ups. Perhaps against Tech they’ll continue to roll Beck out there since the Red Raiders aren’t very big up front. Texas isn’t exactly facing a gauntlet of big, fearsome fronts right now. The only reason to doubt Texas’ ability to go impose their will against the Red Raiders is the Horns’ performance in every road game they’ve played in the Charlie Strong era.
Anyways, this play was there for Texas all day long. There’s not much you can do to adjust as a defense if you don’t have a DT that can hold the point of attack against angles or a LB that can blow up Connor Williams. Baylor’s hope was that their star, run-stopping safety Orion Stewart would be able to clean things up but when the OL is blowing open holes this big in your front for D’Onta Foreman you’d better be Troy Polamalu to make the best of that situation.
The Texas defense had a tougher day out there, but the defensive staff came up with a solution to their horrendous run defense that allowed the Longhorns to shut down the Bears on multiple red zone trips and force field goals.
The pass defense was not even close to being a problem on Saturday. Kris Boyd stuck to the Baylor outside receivers on vertical routes and was an active participant in run defense as well. Folks, this kid is probably the foundation of the 2017 Texas defense. P.J. Locke demonstrated an ability to completely lock down slot receivers when he could play man coverage, and John Bonney had back to back pass break-ups playing outside without help.
The excellent play of the secondary allowed the Texas defense to meet the Bears inside the 20 yard line with a cover-zero run defense that totally stuffed the Baylor run game.
The problem the Longhorns have with a two-back run game or QB option is that these plays require that the linebackers diagnose what’s happening and work in conjunction with the DL and the secondary to leverage the ball where tackles can be made near the line of scrimmage. Texas has a lot of different defenses they play, with ever-shifting fronts and a few different coverages, and I’m not sure the LBs truly understand how to handle base run concepts in any of them.
In the cover-zero defense that didn’t matter, Wheeler and Malik were free to blitz the open gaps that weren’t occupied by DL while Jason Hall and Dylan Haines dropped down on either side to clean up the mess
Essentially this was the “fire linebackers into the backfield and then clean up the mess” strategy taken to its logical extreme. It worked, because Baylor couldn’t beat the corners or nickel in man coverage consistently. That’s not going to hold up against the remaining opponents on the schedule, but it should remain as a useful tool to help shore up Texas’ red zone defense.
Back in 2013, Greg Robinson used a similar approach in the red zone while also trying to teach his linebackers how to play the position in their base defense. Texas is still missing the latter step and we haven’t seen the last of this as an issue for the 2016 Longhorns.
Overall Texas was successful in leveraging their advantages well enough to win the game, although an unlucky break or two here and there (like the bizarre overturn on the Travon Blanchard INT at the Texas 20 yard line) could very easily have led to a less desirable outcome.
Moving forward with an identity
Here’s the story on the Texas offense: they can run the ball on just about anyone in the conference because they have adequate run blockers at center, right guard, right tackle, and back-up TE and then they have truly superior blockers at left guard, left tackle, and TE.
Perhaps most importantly, they have a player that is probably the league’s best pure running back (at least this season, a healthy Samaje Perine has a case) in D’Onta Foreman. As I extensively detailed in the preseason, the favored way across the league to deal with a really difficult run game is to bring the boundary safety in as shallow as needed while leaving the boundary corner to play the boundary receiver without help over the top. If the boundary safety is good enough to play at depth to help on a post or curl and then still arrive against the run, it makes for a tough shell to crack.
Against Texas this is a problem, first because it’s hard to play at 10 yards of depth and arrive in time to make a stop against Foreman, and second because the Longhorns have multiple receivers that can beat you deep and Shane Buechele throws the prettiest boundary fade I’ve ever seen in this league. Playing your corner off on the boundary receiver against Texas is a much riskier venture than against most other teams.
Future opponents are going to need to be able to stop the run while playing cover 2 on the boundary, or else have a boundary corner that can hold up down the sideline without help over the top. The latter types of players just aren’t terribly common.
Or else opponents can just hope to outscore Texas. This is sadly a plausible outcome in every game remaining on the schedule save perhaps for the road trip to Lawrence, Kansas. The Jayhawks are going to have to hope for defensive solutions and typical Texas road malaise to pull that one off.
Texas has a lot of pieces on the defensive side of the ball that could theoretically fit together into a dominant unit, but the coordination is not there. Locke’s play on the slot in cover 4 with DeShon Elliott over the top was textbook, that’s a combination that should be a foundational part of the Texas defense in the future. Breckyn Hager made a play on the zone read that reminded me of Clay Matthews when the Green Bay star linebacker had to learn how to play the concept at the pro level. He advanced to the mesh point, erased angles for either potential ball carrier, and kept his shoulders square without committing too soon. The result was a big tackle for loss on Seth Russell on one of the Baylor drives that ended on a FG rather than a TD.
Malik Jefferson and Anthony Wheeler played hard and when Wheeler was in position to pursue the ball laterally with a clear assignment, he thrived. When Malik was playing in space on the edge, he was a real problem for the Bears. These guys need to expand their skill sets but the scheme isn’t really doing them any favors.
Jason Hall and Dylan Haines both had very typical days in which they flashed all the same strengths and weaknesses they’ve shown over the last several years. This DL is very good and is carrying a lot of water for the rest of squad.
Yet despite all of those attributes, there’s not really any good, cohesive identity that’s likely to gel for this unit in 2016 save perhaps for being a team that plays hard, creates disruption, and can be difficult to over power on the goal line. Their lack of discipline and chemistry is going to burn them again, probably next Saturday against the uber-stresser that is Pat Mahomes and the Kliff Kingsbury Air Raid.
Hopefully Charlie and his defensive staff can continue to find small, easy tweaks here and there like the zero blitz to give this defense a chance to make enough stops to win some shootouts. It’s a remarkable shame that this defense can’t aim higher with that given the collection of athletes and the fantastic play of punter, Michael Dickson.
The 2016 Longhorns have a great punter, a bruising run game, and a defense that is still a major liability every week. The 2017 Longhorns need to do better. It’ll be interesting to see if this identity is strong and consistent enough to get Texas to bowl eligibility or to make things interesting for Mike Perrin and Greg Fenves.
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