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Shoring up the defense

Greetings tote baggers, I'm back from Maui and settled in to Dallas where the Nickel Rover office has relocated and added some permanent staffing. Today I'd like to talk about the defense beyond what I wrote in Peter Bean's "Longhorn Kickoff 2011" which is the best Texas Longhorn football preseason magazine money can buy.

Last year our defense had 2 distinctive weaknesses that teams hammered en route to handing us more home game losses than we had seen in the previous 4 years combined. Truly the soft spots of the defense were magnified by horrendous time of possession, turnovers that occurred frequently all over the field, and weak special teams play but there were some clear concerns many of us had after seeing Iowa St. drop 440 yards on us.

Our 2nd defensive tackle position is viewed as a big question mark and weakness, as it was last season, and UCLA and KSU seemed to expose the defense as a soft unit against the run. Our actual performance against the run last year was to allow 135 yards per game at 3.5 yards per carry. Not exemplary numbers and 1.3 yards more per carry than we allowed in 2009, but not horrifyingly bad either.

Texas A&M gave up nearly identical yardage and was hardly blasted as being a poor unit against the run, when you lose 7 games at Texas whatever you don't do with excellence is hammered with ferocity by those who are eager to ensure that all possible blame is distributed.

Our problems against the run had a little to do with our play at the 2nd tackle spot, a little more to do with the fact that we usually had 2 outside linebackers and 5 defensive backs on the field, and a lot more to do with the fact that neither safety and only one corner offered much in the way of run support (Aaron Williams, Vaccaro was obviously good as well when he was on the field but he then took Aaron's place inside).

Against the pass the 2010 Texas defense was barely tested at first, and then gradually teams learned that they could pick spots to attack our safeties in coverage. Now that we have subtracted 3 NFL corners from the roster that situation doesn't look much better. The latter at least will be improved by the zone defenses and Vaccaro replacing Scott.

But a young secondary that will have to deal with Ryan Broyles, Justin Blackmon, Kendall Wright, TJ Moe, Kenny Stills, and possibly worst of all, Jeff Fuller, stands out as our biggest potential weakness. Phillips is a willing tackler and I think a potential zone defense star but not a guy you can trust on an island outside against Fuller or Blackmon. Byndom or Diggs may someday become that but it won't happen this year, if ever, given their disadvantages in the height department. That means Gideon is going to have to play over the top on these guys and leave Vaccaro and the linebackers to keep an eye on the solid collection of tight ends, slot receivers, and running backs that the Big 12 is fielding this year.

Bolstering the secondary's efforts is the fact that we have easily the most athletic linebacker corp I've ever seen at Texas. Acho plays well in space and is an absolute terror on the edge. If his move to weakside linebacker means that he'll have the opportunity to play more outside the tackles and rush from that position I think it's possible that you will see an Acho lead the team in sacks for the 3rd consecutive season.

Robinson is quite good in coverage as well and Hicks offers a similar skill set to Robinson/Acho plus better tackling ability. The trick, as Scipio well detailed in his linebacker preview , is improving against the run with a corp of anti-spread linebackers who are disinclined to blowing up lead blockers and setting someone else up for the kill shot. Muckelroy had a little more of that in him and incoming Edmond and Chet Moss will probably fill that role for us in the future.

However, Diaz likes to force the running game to the sideline and have a fast middle linebacker, like Chris White at Miss St. or Keenan Robinson at Texas, be there to make a tackle for little or no gain. Either Keenan is going to have to adopt a more physical mindset, Texas' defensive tackles are going to have to command attention, or we'll have to sit through another season of fairly solid run defense.

On the back end, I think the presence of Phillips, Vaccaro, and Diggs in the nickel provides a better safety net for missed tackles or blocked linebackers and will transform some of the inside-zone cutback runs we endured last year from touchdowns to first downs.

Because Diaz's Cover-3 defense lends itself to 8-man fronts that will move Vaccaro closer to the line of scrimmage, and because at least 3 of our best eleven defenders are linebackers, I think Diaz will play 2-back and Tight End formations with his 4-3 defense and try to out-scheme opponents with fire zones rather than introduce much in the way of new formations to improve the run defense.

Against the pass there are some solutions to a problem like Jeff Fuller I expect to see this season.

Zone defense is the first of these, the Cover-3 positions 3 defensive backs over the top and should prevent receivers from beating us down the sideline deep even if does set us up for watching Landry Jones or Ryan Tannehill complete 6 yard hitch routes with impunity.

Another solution we'll all been talking about is the blitz. I believe Jeffcoat, Acho, Robinson, Wilson, and Okafor are all well above average as pass-rushers for their respective positions and Diaz's blitzes tend to set everyone up for free runs at the QB at one point or another.

Formational alignment is the last solution and think Texas fans can expect to see a different formation this season employed in obvious passing situations, the 30 dime front. You need a defensive tackle, 2 five techs, 2 linebackers, and 5 or 6 defensive backs (depending on if you want to keep a 3rd linebacker).

It's much like the 3-3-5 which we've sort of employed before with the difference being that Muschamp maintained an Over Front and one of the "linebackers" was just a defensive end who stayed standing up. In the 30 dime front there are only 3 true DL and they can all fly upfield to the quarterback. We could leave Randall in there if we like or replace him with Desmond Jackson or a better pass rusher, allow Okafor to loop inside where he has gained plenty of experience, and Jeffcoat can attack the outside shoulder of the tackle like he normally would on a pass read.

On the edge we can blitz Hicks, Acho, Robinson, a corner, whomever we want. The advantage, as the article details, is that you rush the passer with your best rushers in the best possible alignments. Because our linebackers are particularly athletic and adept at blitzing, I can see us leaving them all on the field and just removing a defensive tackle.

Formations and blitzes such as these will allow Diaz to field 8 solid-to-very good pass defenders while being able to get intense pressure on the quarterback. You can only complete so many 6 yard hitches to a Fuller or Broyles before either your quarterback or your receiver gets lit up and loses their edge or the ball.

And thus Diaz will cover for the extraordinary loss of AJ and the postal service while still maintaining a functional run defense. Or, if we just develop our young DL quickly things could get really interesting.