Woody Allen once said that 80% of life is showing up and perhaps nowhere is this more true than when attempting to stop the run against Big 12 offenses. If you’ve ever wondered how it was that Texas could be so poor in run D over the years despite regularly fielding blue chip talent across the defensive line and in the linebacker corps a simple charting exercise of how they defend the as a unit in a given year usually reveals the answer. They didn’t show up in the right gaps at the right times and thus none of their physical attributes made a lick of difference.
There are many misconceptions about today’s Big 12 offenses and their approach to the run game. One attitude says that no one in this league cares about running the ball, but this is pretty misleading. My colleague over at Football Study Hall, Bill Connelly, measures the rate at which teams across the nation run the ball on standard downs vs passing downs. The national average for running plays on standard downs in 2016 was 60.2% and here were the numbers across the Big 12:
The best teams in 2016, save for Oklahoma State, ran the ball at the national rate or higher. The weaker teams did not, but Baylor and TCU will both likely run the ball considerably more often under their new offensive coordinators and Texas’ goal is obviously to be in good shape to beat the best teams around the league in a given year regardless. That means stopping the run.
The other common misconception swings in the opposite direction, the belief that the good running teams in the Big 12 are physical and brutish, imposing their will on the rest of the league. In reality, while the better running teams aren’t soft, they do their damage by stretching defenses out with balanced schemes and then hammering weak spots and vacated gaps. Even Kansas State has a lot of tricks up their sleeve to help them not have to physically overpower opponents. There aren’t any North Dakota States in this league, smashing people in the face and bowling over them as a matter of course.
If a defense can play the wide varieties of run game schemes across the league with sound fundamentals, the battle is at least 80% won. In most of the seasons we’ve witnessed this decade, the Longhorns weren’t up for it.
Stopping the good B12 run games is as much about mental talent as anything else, the ability to quickly recognize plays and get into position to stop them. This isn’t something that comes ready-made in the high school linebackers that Texas is recruiting. Take a look at the 2016 Texas LB production as opposed to the much better West Virginia group:
West Virginia’s linebacker corps fit into a specific scheme and were groomed over multiple seasons, hence their ability to punch above their weight as measured by recruiting rankings or eye test talent. Arndt was a former walk-on, Benton was an athletically limited scrapper (think Demarco Boyd), and Long is a promising youngster but is also somewhere in the realm of 5-10, 215 pounds. They didn’t surpass Texas’ production with physical talent, it was all mental. They knew where to be and they worked hard to get there and consequently they had performances like holding K-State to 2.9 yards per carry and 286 total yards.
Texas’ defenders were both bigger and more athletic, but they didn’t have near as many reps or years of good coaching on stopping these types of offenses. They gave up 234 rushing yards to K-State on 4.6 yards per carry and 405 yards overall.
Big 12 running schemes
For many years, most defenses have been designed to get a “plus one” advantage to anything the offense wants to do by virtue of adjustable, sound defensive structures. Meanwhile, modern spread offenses are designed to stop teams from being able to successfully achieve that outcome, specifically through RPOs (run/pass options) where the QB determines where the ball goes after the snap and directs it where the defense has chosen to play things without advantage.
The really well designed offenses will do this while adding other complicating factors like motion, tempo, or pulling blockers to ensure that the defense has to process as many things as possible in order to bring their numbers to the right spots.
Here’s an example of the kind of nasty combination Oklahoma was throwing at teams last year while pacing the nation in offense:
That may look like a relatively straight forward swing pass to Samaje Perine, but there’s a few different things going on here that make this a really difficult play to defend for Houston. The most important detail to note off the bat is that Oklahoma is running an RPO, Mayfield’s two main choices are to throw the bubble or to keep it himself on a GT counter run to the boundary.
For the LBs and nickel they are reading the flow of the back and the blocks of the OL, which is a lot to process very quickly, and those two keys are telling them two very different things. They end up biting on the pulling OL, which tells them to get over to the boundary in a hurry to avoid getting outflanked, before realizing that the RB isn’t going to be there. Now they have to fight their way through the blocks of OU H-back Dmitri Flowers and flex TE Mark Andrews, both of which are working with very favorable angles, to avoid letting Samaje Perine blow by them on the perimeter. Had they chased Perine then Mayfield would have kept the ball on the counter run and the mac linebacker would have had to really book it to arrive in time to stop him.
Houston was still successful in preventing an explosive play because nickel Brandon Wilson responds so quickly and beats Andrews’ block, forcing the ball back inside to outstanding team pursuit. This is the kind of play that Big 12 linebackers have to be able to process and beat in order to stop the run in this league. Lateral speed is immensely valuable, but eye discipline and team leverage is even more essential. Without all three of those factors this play goes for much more and even here OU gained four yards which is solid work on first down.
Beating these types of plays is about having a team that knows how to work in concert to get defenders to the ball at the point of attack and having disruptive players up front, particularly on the DL. Here’s an example of textbook run D against a difficult RPO that Baylor made hay with back when they had Spencer Drango at tackle:
That’s the North Dakota State Bison here defending that play from the James Madison Dukes, who would go on to win this game and then the FCS title thanks to their use of smashmouth spread tactics. On this play, the Bison had them whipped up front. On a few other similar plays they made a few minor mistakes that cost them the game.
The James Madison QB has two guys he can read and punish for their decisions. First, he can throw the bubble for easy yardage on the perimeter if the middle linebacker tries to help against the run (as middle linebackers tend to do) and then he can also pull the ball and cut up the field if the unblocked DE crashes too hard to stop the run.
Meanwhile the D has to get numbers to the point of attack against the run where the Dukes are pulling a tackle to lead for their RB without conceding an easy bubble screen or QB keeper. They pull that off by covering up their remaining inside-backer with good DL play and dropping the strong safety down into the run fit. Then they end up stopping this play by default when the James Madison right tackle can’t block the DE across from him. Sound familiar?
Without a plan that involves every defender playing on the same page, you can’t hold up against these running plays designed to pull you apart before running down your throat. Even when you do have a very sound defense, you’re going to get beat at times and you need to have occasions where you win up front to balance out the equation.
So the 2017 Texas defense…
I’m not going to torture anyone here with cut ups from the 2016 Texas defense trying to fit the run. Those days are over, let’s all just acknowledge that it was terrible and move on.
The more hopeful question is what the new plan is for stopping the run this season and how effective Texas’ LBs look in executing that plan. The essence of team defense in general is knowing first where you need to be and next where your help is coming from. That can change based on coverage, formation, and offensive concept which is where things can get difficult in a hurry for the athletic OLB or safety who’s never had to process inside linebacker keys before.
The results from the spring game were pretty limited but there were a few positive indicators that the first team defense knows the plan and how to execute it in concert. Here’s an example where they executed the plan perfectly against Ehlinger and the second teamers running some standard Big 12 tricks:
The offense lines up in an odd set with the tight end split wide to the field and then the slot receiver on the boundary, which the defense matches by dropping the strong safety over the TE and moving the nickel over to the boundary over the slot. Then the offense motions the slot across the formation and Ehlinger can throw him a bubble if the defense fails to adjust in time.
The defense has P.J. Locke rotate deep and the deep safety Brandon Jones rotate down to cover the slot and take away the easy yardage on the bubble, now it’s a question of whether the defense can fit the zone read properly.
The crucial detail here for the defensive front is whether the unblocked DE has a 3-tech DT inside of him or a nose tackle. If he has a 3-tech inside of him then that B-gap is filled and he needs to stay wide to contain the QB and make him hand off to the LBs firing downhill. If there’d been a nose tackle inside of him he’d want to step inside to cancel out that B-gap and give the QB a “keep” read while the linebacker behind him would then scrape outside to take the QB. You can see the second team defense in that situation here:
The diagram shows how that was supposed to look, but you’ll notice that Breckyn Hager was slow to realize he needed to scrape back and Jeff McCulloch didn’t step inside deeply enough to cancel out the B-gap and encourage the QB keeper. You can also see on the opposite end how slowly the safety is to trigger down into that B-gap (a re-occuring theme against this formation throughout the spring game) leaving it potentially vulnerable to a quick cut by the back had the OL not given up so much penetration to Jordan Elliott (sigh).
Those are just some examples against particular option concepts from particular formations. Imagine the wide breadth of varying run concepts and perimeter options an offense could throw at a defense with different motions and formations and you can see why it’s valuable to have experienced linebackers and consistent plans on defense to make sure you show up more often than not.
Most of these examples also reveal how a dominant DL can solve all of these problems for a defense by simply blowing things up before they get dire and allowing the linebackers to get back into high schoolish “see ball, hit ball” mode. Texas probably won’t be able to count on dominant DL play all of the time in 2017 thanks to lack of depth, but if they can finally get everyone on the same page, we’ll finally start to see some of those athletic advantages show up.