In 1912, an unforeseen obstacle combined with structural weakness and a healthy dash of hubris could send you to the bottom of the ocean. In 2012? Little has changed.
In Scip's Defensive Post-Mortem, new BC poster JRPasadena asked for a global POV as to how the Longhorn defense ‘hit the iceberg'. His question stemmed from the disconnect of our defense falling SO far, SO fast, despite seemingly manageable personnel losses (at least as viewed by the fact that NFL teams weren't knocking each other over on the way to the podium to draft these guys). He specifically pondered how the loss of ‘two fourth-round linebackers' could absolutely shoot our wheels off.
Since we're nothing if not a full-service blog, I figured I'd take a shot at addressing this question with my hypothesis around the event chain that got us to where we are now - which is a smooooooth #69 in Opponent-Adjusted Yards Per Play.
A lot of this touches on ground that's been previously covered, so apologies to anyone who feels like some of this is a re-hash. I'll try to keep the old stuff brief and inject some new stuff, and I think there's an interesting conversation to be had around some cause/effect, chicken/egg things that are contributing to so many repeated defensive breakdowns.
Plus, who can resist a good Titanic metaphor?
"Iceberg, right ahead!" - A Massive Drop-Off in the Middle
On the night of April 14th, 1912, the ‘unskinable' S.S. Titanic ran into an unforeseen obstacle - an iceberg - that went unnoticed due to the limitations in detection technology (basically a dude with a lantern squinting into the darkness and yelling when he saw something big and alarming). When that obstacle struck, it revealed theretofore unrealized weaknesses (weak iron rivets, the fact that early 20th-century Man couldn't create indestructible shit) in the overall structure.
Predictions of its un-sinkability soon proved dramatically unfounded.
In the fall of 2012, the Texas Defense ran into an unforeseen problem - a massive deficit in functional linebacker play - that went unnoticed by prognosticators due to limitations in forecasting technology (no way to view meaningful practice/scrimmage action in the summer and fall, assumptions of a baseline level of competence from high school experience if NOTHING else). It also apparently went unnoticed - at least for far too long - by the coaching staff, for reasons which remain mysterious. When that problem struck, it revealed theretofore unrealized weaknesses (hard-coded schematic complexity, positional coaching/teaching deficits) in the overall structure.
Predictions of high-caliber defensive performance soon proved dramatically unfounded - thus demonstrating that even a full century later, assumption remains the mother of all fuck-ups where projection is concerned.
So, how did a drop-off of this magnitude sneak up on us?
To begin with, it's important to hold an accurate picture of what we lost. "Two fourth-round LBs" actually overstates the NFL's excitement about Robinson and Acho - they went in the fourth and sixth rounds, respectively - but it doesn't begin to reflect the high caliber their play or the difficulty of replacing them in a defense that demands extremely high-functioning linebackers. Their game speed, ability to blow things up in the flats, understanding (at least in the second half of the season) of how to read and fill in Diaz's scheme and quick processing of run/pass conflict were rare and tremendously valuable skills, and the defense Diaz was calling last season demanded every bit of what they brought to the table.
While those guys' loss was always going to be felt, we thought they were getting replaced with:
MLB Steve Edmond: An old-school, downhill dominator between the tackles who will be our ‘SEC-style' force in the run game and whose athleticism and savvy on drops should keep him from getting overly exploited against the pass.
SLB DeMarco Cobbs: A blazing-fast weapon who can blow up QBs on the blitz, fly out to the flats, carry slot receivers up the seam and chase down runs to the outside.
Some growing pains were to be expected, but they'd certainly be mitigated by the veteran presence of a do-everything defensive leader in WLB Jordan Hicks.
As it turns out, we were actually replacing Robinson and Acho with:
MLB Steve Edmond: An SEC-size MLB whose SEC speed may be lacking and whose game speed gets chopped down violently when asked to start reading keys and diagnosing plays. Can punish downhill, but unless he's sent by the playcall he gets downhill on his own about 2 plays out of 10 and spends the rest of the time waiting, waiting and accepting a blocker several yards past the LOS - frequently with poor technique relative to using his hands and keeping the proper shoulder free.
SLB DeMarco Cobbs: A blazing fast 210-pounder whose speed is totally negated by any run-pass conflict at the snap. Can cover one on one, but indecisiveness lets blockers get out on him with ease and he's totally lacking in the physicality required to overcome them.
With two thirds of our linebacking corps capable of performing at, say, 40% capacity for a true linebacker (let alone one in the demands of our scheme), we saw a truly massive burden dropped on Jordan Hicks' shoulders in terms of getting guys aligned, handling coverage responsibilities and cleaning up basically any run that broke the LOS.
Then we lost Hicks.
He essentially got replaced by true sophomore Kendall Thompson, who at the moment is kind of a physical and instincts mash-up of Edmond and Cobbs who can play downhill well and has some good instinct moments, but who is also faaaaaar too often catching a blocker 4 yards past the LOS after dithering on his reads.
There is no getting around it - this drop-off in the middle has created a massive, massive linebacking void that would pose a major challenge for the most savvy and accomplished DC. The DEGREE of the drop-off is where we're feeling the impact of sub-par coaching/teaching at the positional level which is certainly Diaz the LB coach's responsibility, but Diaz the DC is fighting a major uphill battle out of the gate.
Unfortunately, the middle of the defense wasn't through getting gutted.
We also lost Kheeston Randall - another guy the NFL didn't go bananas to draft (7th round to Miami) but who was playing at an All-Conference level for Texas. He had the versatility to play everything from a true two-gap nose guard over center to a gap-shooting 3-technique. He could hold two gaps, hit one gap while squeezing the opposite gap through pure physicality and also had the quickness to get upfield and disrupt. He was the ideal type of player to protect a young linebacking corps, and none of our current DTs has shown the ability to attack a gap and still provide some degree of credible resistance if the run doesn't go right into his teeth.
So that's where Diaz found himself - he was facing a major obstacle whose presence and magnitude may not have been realized until too late, while operating in a base schematic structure that was extremely vulnerable to that exact obstacle. But his hands were still on the wheel - could he minimize the damage and get the ship safe to harbor?
Crash, Rending Metal - Steering Into Disaster with Schizoid Scheming
Rather than slowing, turning and minimizing the collision, the defensive schemes we've continued to run have opened up the throttle and sent us steaming head-on into disaster.
The core Diaz defensive philosophy is that if you create a negative play for the offense on first or second down, you've got a great chance of getting them off the field. His preferred methods for inflicting these negative plays are:
- Stunts: Twisting a pair of defensive linemen into each other's gaps, with one going ‘over' and one going ‘under' in the hopes that they'll confuse the blocking scheme and get into a gap ahead of the responding block. These can be tackle-end (T-E) or tackle-tackle (T-T) stunts, and sometimes he'll have BOTH tackle-end pairs running stunts simultaneously. We've also sometimes stunted two linebackers across each other into opposite gaps, but this has been (thank God) much more rare.
- Fire Zones: In essence, a Fire Zone is a specific type of blitz where you send five rushers upfield and play a zone coverage behind them consisting of three players covering the three short zones (left, right and middle) with three more covering the three deep zones. Within that structure there's near-infinite variety as to who's rushing and who's covering which zones - in theory it allows you to confuse opposing blocking schemes and QBs while being ‘safe' with a solid coverage umbrella behind the blitz.
Sometimes we'll pair a stunt with a blitz - and this has actually worked out for us a good bit, as I'll mention in a bit. But general stunting has been our most common defensive change-up this season, and we do it almost 40% of the time.
Here's the problem with all this - we've got a linebacking corps that, by any estimation, is a ways away from competence in the mental (reading and diagnosing) and physical/technique (taking on blocks, using hands, using the proper shoulder, etc.) aspects of the game. While you keep teaching that stuff as the season goes on, you can hope for incremental improvement at best - a shaft of light from the heavens isn't going to suddenly shine down on Steve Edmond and turn him into Mike Singletary in a week. A logical schematic approach would be to simplify things for our LBs and, above all, protect them from having to fight off O-linemen by doing everything we can to tie up blockers with our defensive front.
We have more or less done the opposite.
Every time you stunt, you create two potential big problems for your LBs. Number one, you're potentially opening one, two or three big holes in your defensive front - the areas to either side of the stunt and right between the two stunting linemen. Whether any or all of these holes materialize depends on the blocking scheme and the caliber of the blockers (as well as how well your DL are executing), but the potential is always there and it's exacerbated if you face a smart, zone-based offensive attack. Number two, if your action takes one of your DL away from the hole/play, you've pretty much freed up an OL to get straight out onto your linebacker since you've voluntarily obviated the need for him to take on a defensive lineman.
There are times when our overall defensive call has been coordinated to mitigate some of these risks - we'll squeeze our other DT inside to keep that interior hole from opening up too wide, and we'll sometimes send the LB on a blitz to one side or the other to fill that gap before it can open too wide. In general, we've done OK when this sort of thing has happened, or when we've slanted our DL one way and then fired a LB right in behind them to address the hole in the line.
But when we've left our LBs exposed and asked them to read, fight off a block and fill we have gotten torched time and time and time and time again.
Stunts - for us - are a play that carries the approximate risk of a six-man blitz. It's a play you can go to on occasion, but with the realization that you're taking the risk of big yardage and the hope for a big-time reward.
The hell of it is, the rewards for stunting have been so low relative to the risks that I have to think our continued reliance on them indicates nearly non-existant self-scouting.
In my post-OSU/WVU piece, I documented the difference between when we played it straight, opened up a hole in the DL but closed it with a blitz, and opened up a hole and relied on our LBs to read and fill. I took a bit of a different approach for my Baylor game chart (including passing plays as well this time) and charted our results for straight plays, stunts, slants, blitzes and ‘combos' (a blitz and stunt together). This is minus Baylor's last 94-yard drive and while my numbers may not be perfect, I came up with:
Straight Against the Run: 19 carries, 52 yards, 2.7 YPC, 2 TFL
Straight Against the Pass: 15 ATT, 76 YDS, 5.1 YPA, 1 sack, 1 INT
Stunt Against the Run: 13 carries, 102 yards, 7.8 YPC, 3 TFL (one on a dropped snap)
Stunt Against the Pass: 9 ATT, 160 YDS, 17.8 YPA, 1 sack
Slant Against the Run: 3 ATT, 43 YDS, 14.3 YPA (the killer here was a 24-yard zone read keep where Edmond chased the back on the fake and totally abandoned his gap)
Slant Against the Pass: 1 ATT, 9 YDS, 9.0 YPA
Blitz Against the Run: 1 carry, 11 yards, 11.0 YPC
Blitz Against the Pass: 5 ATT, 30 yards, 6.0 YPA
Combo Against the Pass: 2 ATT, 0 yards, 1 pass interference penalty
We are absolutely not generating enough negative plays through stunting to justify the risk it poses to us based on the current run-support capabilities of our linebackers and safeties. I feel like the net negative impact of stunting on our run defense has been proven beyond much debate at this point. While you can't BLAME a stunt for Terrance Williams' 81-yard embarrassment of Diggs (and probably Phillips as well, since he likely had deep responsibility and bit up on a nonexistent threat), the stunt sure didn't PREVENT it. And let's face it - a double-move route down the sideline takes a while to develop. While a coverage bust that bad might have doomed us in any call, if I knew the offense was calling a deep pass I'd far rather have our DL trying to penetrate straight up if I wanted to disrupt it.
This constant self-inflicted rending of our defensive front is actually RETARDING our LB's progress in learning to play the position - our ‘play it straight' run game stats were much improved over OSU and WVU, and there were instances of all our LBs making good reads and fills when they were getting proper DL support. This kind of approach all season could have us much closer to average or (dare we dream) above-average defensive play as a unit, but as it is we've hit the iceberg and we're taking on water.
Bulkheads Giving Way - Lack of Secondary Support
Even with a nasty hole below the waterline, the Titanic could have survived flooding in a few compartments, but once a few more bulkheads gave way that was all she wrote. With a strong pass defense and excellent run support from the safeties, even our multitude of self-inflicted run-game wounds would be non-fatal.
But DBU hasn't lived up to its name in 2012.
Here's a quick quiz on roles in our secondary:
Who's our nickel back? The guy you line up on the slot receiver and ask to deal with a two-way go by the WR while also hoping for some reasonable support on runs coming his way?
Who's our strong safety? The guy in the secondary you want coming down into the box to outnumber (or at least present even numbers against) the run if we're getting beat up and our LBs aren't responding?
Who's our true center-field safety? If you want to run ANYTHING with a man-free, single high safety look, who's the guy you could put back there and trust to read the QB's eyes and have the speed and savvy to provide sideline to sideline support?
Is there a reasonable answer to any of those three questions other than Kenny Vaccaro?
He can't be in two places at a time, and almost every scheme we run demands two - if not three - of him to be successful with our linebacking limitations. He has had a few high-profile bonks this season, but his overall level of play has been terrific given how much we've put on his plate.
Quandre Diggs had an absolute game to forget against Terrance Williams, but he's not going to come in for much criticism from me based on his overall level of play.
That's about where the good news ends in the secondary.
Josh Turner had a revelatory Baylor game and may he build on it and prosper, but it came absolutely out of nowhere as he'd been a light-tackling ghost up to that point in the season.
Mykkele Thompson hasn't been QUITE as bad as his post-OU and Baylor pillorying suggests - he's been a willing tackler on a number of occasions and seems to be in the right place fairly often - but he's at best average in all aspects at this stage.
If we've gotten a snap out of a nickel corner this season I've missed it - it's been Vaccaro, Phillips or Cobbs on slot guys this season. Typically Vaccaro, which robs us of his ability to play in the box OR serve as an eraser in the middle of the field.
Carrington Byndom has been victimized time and again on in-breaking routes and deep balls while showing almost zero willingness to tackle on runs or WR screens - he had the chance to generate some first-round hype this season and hasn't even approached that caliber of play.
And I'm not going to go overboard bashing Adrian Phillips any further, but he hasn't approached acceptable play in any facet.
Speaking of going overboard, this ship is sinking fast and that's where we're headed. Can good, solid, fundamental tackling at least help us keep our heads above water?
Um, Where Are the REST of the Lifeboats? - Tackling Deserts Us
The Titanic lacked the basic, fundamental safety precaution of a sufficient number of lifeboats to float its entire passenger manifest, leaving many with nowhere to go but into the drink. The Longhorn defense has spent much of the season lacking the basic, fundamental building block of sound tackling - 4 yard runs are going 40, screen passes are free candy on the sidelines and if a back hits a hole with a head of steam or a quick wideout gets one in space, he's a good bet to go the distance.
Our tackling woes owe to a mix of the issues discussed above - struggling LBs getting placed in bad positions and generally sub-par secondary play - along with some namby-pamby approaches to contact in practice and a couple of guys who have apparently decided to leave pride, fundamentals and basically everything they learned since Pop Warner by the wayside at the moment of truth.
The tackling was generally better against Baylor, and hopefully our better-late-than-never approach to full contact in practice will continue to bear fruit, but a WHOLE lot of damage has been done.
Wow, This Water's Cold - Opponent Quality
If we played at this baseline level against just about any schedule, we were likely going to break the keel and end up in the water. But the casualty list for the Titanic would have been a hell of a lot shorter in seventy-degree water (let's just say they hit a coral reef instead of an iceberg), and our defensive massacre has been exacerbated by the offenses we've faced. Our past four games have come against:
Oklahoma State - #3 in the country in Adjusted Yards per Offensive Play
West Virginia - #15 (and that's following two beatdowns to Tech and KSU)
Oklahoma - #13
Baylor - #1
While it would be asinine to try and explain away our poor play solely by pointing to our schedule, simply ignoring the extremely high quality of offenses we've faced is just as asinine. The Big XII is an absolute crucible for defenses like no other league in the nation. While some defenses like Tech, KSU, OU and to an extent TCU are holding up extremely well at the midpoint, if anyone besides KSU is in the Adjusted Top Ten at season's end I'll be tremendously impressed.
Surveying the Wreckage
While the Titanic's story has been written, the 2012 Longhorn Defense is still just past the midpoint of its journey. And while our season may already be wrecked relative to conference title aspirations, there's a great deal of pride and program momentum at stake in the last five games that can have a major impact on 2013 and beyond. (With respect to who'll be leading the program in 2013 and beyond, I can find no fault with Scipio's conclusions as to what SHOULD happen but realize that there are far too many variables to tell whether a 5-7 or 10-2 finish would make Mack's exit more or less likely, so I'm just taking the last five games at face value and hoping we win every one).
As silly as it sounds in the midst of a truly historic defensive disaster, there are good signs for the future - and, possibly, the present. In every game (save OU, which defies analysis due to its emotional/existential issues) our linebackers are showing more and more signs of executing within particular spheres of competence. If Turner can emerge, Mykkele can tackle and Diggs can shake off a tough evening we've got more pieces to work with in the secondary than we've had at any point this season. And even without Jeffcoat, we've got a hell of DL if we deploy them in a sane fashion.
My biggest worry is that this season's travails have made it impossible for Manny Diaz to lead men - at least this group of men - going forward. If guys have tuned out or shrugged their shoulders, we're almost certain to keep floundering. I also worry whether Diaz has the security and introspection to put his finger on the schematic problems that are exacerbating our collapse and mitigate them. You can't draw up an entirely new defensive philosophy and implement it in a week, but simply emphasizing the aspects that are working and toning the stunts down to 5-8 a game could really, truly bear fruit and hopefully re-engage some lagging members of the defense.
Hopefully this has at least shined some light on the wreckage and given a good perspective on how we ended up on the bottom of the ocean - I'm really interested to hear how this jibes with others' perspectives.
And while it would be a hell of a thing to lift this wreck off the bottom and get it floating again, I'm eager to watch us try.