Gameplan: Longhorns DC Chris Ash versus RPOs

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Chris Ash is entering a brutal world taking on Big 12 offenses. The conference is a graveyard for defensive coaches that has laid low many a rising star who’d shown so much promise in stopping the run at previous stops. Coach after coach has fallen into the trap of thinking that the crucial point of conflict with these offenses is at the line of scrimmage only to see their schemes undone when former 3-star quarterbacks have repeatedly chucked it over their heads and dropped 40 points on the scoreboard.

Fortunately for Ash, he has had some experience in defending dangerous spread passing attacks, receiving the Air Raid baptism against Johnny Manziel at Arkansas before rebounding while at Ohio State in 2014 and 2015. The Alabama and Oregon offenses the Buckeyes faced in 2014 both included heavy doses of RPOs (run/pass options).

Those experiences won’t prepare him for the vertical nature of Big 12 offenses but it’s certainly advantageous for him and his reworked defensive staff that they won’t be strangers to trying to stop some of the staple concepts that you see in this conference.

One of the main challenges they have to solve is one I’m dubbing “the 4-down, RPO math problem.” We know that Chris Ash is installing a 4-2-5 press-quarters scheme and can assume it will resemble some of his previous units, particularly given the talking points about how a primary emphasis will be on a philosophy similar to Herb Hand’s “technique over tactics.” In other words, winning with superior athletes executing strong fundamentals rather than trying to out-scheme opponents.

That makes a certain amount of sense for a school like Texas that theoretically recruits the best athletes of any team within the Big 12 conference. But the key is having a base defense that allows their players to have a chance to stop the stress-inducing tactics of Big 12 spread offenses while constantly committing four defenders to pass-rush in a league where the ball tends to get out pretty quickly.

The 4-down, RPO math problem

The goal with quarters coverage is to be able to get numbers where you need them after the snap. With press-quarters you’re asking your safeties to read the play after the snap and get where they need to be, so on a run play they can fill the alleys and on a pass play they are bracketing the slot receivers or robbing deeper, in-breaking routes by the outside receivers.

While you may start the play with 6-on-6 in the box (unless the quarterback is involved in the run game and then you’re 6-on-7), you can get quick help from your nickel (or “spur” in the new parlance) and your boundary safety so that you’re plus one or plus two before the offense knows what happened.

Unless the offenses uses RPOs…

Here’s a similar example to the one above, this time imagine that Iowa State is running their Y-iso play with a tight end leading inside for the running back while JUCO transfer Xavier Hutchinson is running a “glance” route from Z receiver and speedy Tarique Milton is running a bubble screen in the slot:

If the nickel tries to crash the edge then the quarterback is flipping the ball out to the bubble screen in space for an easy gain. If the boundary safety rushes down to help fill behind the lead block then the quarterback can flip the ball by him to the Z receiver.

So what do you do?

Some of you may not like the answer.

You start by denying easy space and angles in the passing game, then you rally to the run. That’s how Ohio State defended this exact sort of concept against Oregon back in the National Championship game.

The spur hangs back on the bubble screen so the quarterback can’t just turn and flip it out there for an easy gain. The boundary safety similarly sits on the glance route by the Z receiver before he worries about closing to help the run game. The defenders who are being counted on to help stop the run have to wait until the quarterback commits to the handoff before they start moving.

Meanwhile up front, Chris Ash regularly had his strongside end play a “heavy” technique where he’d basically try to two-gap the tackle and squeeze the B-gap closed. If the B-gap is closed then the middle linebacker could scrape over to where the tight end was lead blocking and the C-gap could be defended by a late rally from the spur.

It’s all about battling shortmanned up front as best you can and muddying any passing windows before relying on beating blocks up front or team speed on the back end to stop the ball before too much damage has been done. Oregon picked up 11 yards the first time they ran this play. The running back found a crease behind the tight end’s lead block and ran over a defensive back for some extra yardage. Later in the game they ran it again for -2 yards, this time the Buckeye defensive line whipped their offensive line and made the chalkboard irrelevant.

The Ducks’ struggles with the Buckeye defensive line and team speed were big issues over the course of the game. Oregon only made it to the red zone four times. They scored a touchdown on their opening script, got stopped on 4th-and-goal on another, and kicked a pair of field goals. This is very much a “make them fight their way down the field and earn it against our athletes” sort of defense.

Against the uber-spread stuff

It’s tough enough to stop plays like tight zone, iso, or power from spread teams that attach pass options on both sides of the field. The solution is to ask your defensive line and linebackers to hold up honestly up front without getting the normal sort of “plus one” help that 4-down defenses have traditionally been designed to offer.

It gets harder still though when offenses use schemes like trips formations that spread the linebackers out and force them out of the box. Here’s one that tortured Texas from Dana Holgorsen’s West Virginia that is still a big part of the Mountaineer playbook. The stick route from a tight end or slot combined with a running back draw (or inside zone…or quarterback draw):

It’s really simple, if the middle linebacker stays wide to cover the stick route then the offense runs between the tackles against a five-man box. If he crashes to stop the run, the offense flips it out to the stick route for an easy gain. Texas A&M used to run this all day as a lead-draw for Johnny Manziel combined with a stick route to Ryan Swope. It was formidable. Nick Saban knew it was coming and still couldn’t stop it.

The answers are still the same, the middle linebacker has to wait a beat to deny the high percentage pass to the stick route before closing to help against the run. The defensive end again is needed to squeeze that B-gap closed in hopes of bouncing the run outside to the linebacker. The priority isn’t setting the edge here, it’s limiting space between the quarterback’s options that defenders have to cover and bouncing the ball wide so that speed can run the play down.

Here’s a different sort of example with the kind of play that Oklahoma likes to run against teams:

Lincoln Riley is rarely content with making defenders stop option schemes, he prefers to make them do so after adjusting to quick motion before the snap that changes their alignments and assignments. Ideally motion by a guy like CeeDee Lamb that the defense has gameplanned to carefully track and adjust against.

In this example a slot receiver would move across the formation and be a target for a bubble screen while the offense runs GT counter trey to the opposite side of the field, all while giving the quarterback the option to pull the ball like on a zone-read if the unblocked defensive end chases the pulling guard and tackle.

There’s two ways to try and stop it as a defense. One is ask the middle linebacker to get some width initially to deny the quick throw but stay close enough to chase down the quarterback in the alley when the defensive end forces him to pull the ball. Basically to force the quarterback to his third option.

The appeal of that approach depends on the relative speed and agility of both the middle linebacker and the quarterback. If the field safety is a rangy, excellent open field tackler that’s helpful too here and on everything else in this defense.

The other way is to have the middle linebacker get wide to deny the bubble screen, have the defensive end stay square on the quarterback keeper rather than chasing the running back so there’s a hand-off, and try to stop the play where the pulling guards are headed despite being outnumbered.

This hinges on the jack linebacker spilling the first pulling offensive lineman really effectively so the ball can’t go downhill and forcing the second pulling lineman and the running back wide where the will linebacker and defensive backs can run him down. I think this is how Chris Ash will coach the team to play it.

Take away space, rely on beating blocks up front, and allow the secondary to keep the ball in front of them so they can live to fight another day.

When defenses today choose to play with four defenders on the line they are robbing themselves of options for getting numbers to the different areas of the field that spread offenses can attack. To justify the expense and solve the math problems that arise, the defensive line has to earn their keep by playing without the quick-arriving run help they counted on in years’ past. Good four-down defense means bend don’t break in 2020 and if Texas can learn to adopt that mindset, they’ll have a chance to stop points.

History major, football theorist.