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Bringing the storm clouds: Defense against the run

I'd like to zoom in on our defense's execution of Diaz's mantra of "Stop the run, hit the quarterback" in game 1. At first glance, it would appear that we failed miserably but given that we allowed only 9 points, we need to evaluate the performance more carefully than "they ran the ball and we didn't sack the quarterback!".

Against smaller squads like Rice I think it's particularly valuable to take note of how they handle the talent disparity in the trenches, where it is generally most stark. Rice cannot recruit the best 300 pound kids in Texas and they definitely cannot find the athletic ones you would find playing defensive tackle at Texas. Nor do they play against such athletes on a regular basis.

So while Longhorn Scott is going to talk about our offensive line's handling of their fronts, I'm going to discuss our defensive line and assist your psychological treatments for the trauma of seeing our defense gashed for 4.3 yards per carry and 130 total yards.

Let's begin with some bad news. We should really add several yards to that total because the bubble screen is part of their run game. In the early drives Hicks tended to stayed close to the tackle box and there were free 7 yard gains to be had by flipping it out to their "slot" receiver and blocking our corners with the WR.

Beyond that, their veer option and speed option plays were indeed gashing us for easy 5-10 yard gains in the early going. The QB read was generally to avoid running at our ends (and they never even attempted to read Okafor) and instead they would bounce inside and allow their massive WR to block our pursuing linebackers at favorable angles.

rice speed option

Vaccaro's play was enough to prevent any of those right hooks from landing on the button and then Diaz instructed Hicks to either line up on the slot or bail out at the snap to cover the screen. While he was unable to run over a 6'5" TE in the open field to make plays in the screen game on a regular basis, Hicks did some impressive things. While I expected great range in pursuit, his ability to read in pursuit and his coverage in zone were both better that I might have expected at this point. Consider that we're going to use him in many of the same ways that OU uses Tony Jefferson or Green Bay used Woodson last year and ponder the level of athleticism (and awareness) he possesses at 228 pounds to handle those assignments...

In all of this our defensive line was fairly quiet. It's exceedingly difficult for them to affect the play if the ball is being sprinted past the tackles from the pistol/shotgun and the ends are being read. You can tell from Rice's game plan that they had no interest in facing our DL's pass rush and having McHargue throw into a pass defense with 7 zone defenders, or read a Fire-Zone.

After Diaz adjusted with Hicks to take away the perimeter game it became a matter of whether Rice could do enough damage with inside-zone and sporadic completions to keep up in the game. Their passing attack was futile but it's worth examining what they were able to do with the running game for academic purposes.

Rice had zero negative plays with inside zone and even managed a few 10+ yard runs which you all probably remember and of which 1 or 2 was within a white safety-tackle from being a touchdown. They tended to target the interior A gaps on the cutback and that's where they found most of their success.

Given Gideon's proclivity for missing open field tackles (he nearly missed a key one on saturday), the success Rice found with their zone running game is rightfully disconcerting to the fan base of a team that will face Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael before all is said and done.

Consider that Rice, a team built to run, expertly ran inside-zone with solid running backs against Desmond Jackson playing heavy snaps (including at nose tackle), an OLB playing Mike, and a deep safety known for missing open field tackles...and managed 4.3 yards per carry and 130 yards overall en route to a 3 field goal effort.

More palatable? It gets better...

Jackson played quite well throughout the game, but there were various miscues in filling creases at all levels. The major issue was a failure by the linebackers to "run to daylight" against inside zone that allowed some cutback creases.

For instance:

gap discipline1

Rice has found some success with the inside zone and were running it ad nauseam because McHargue is entirely incapable of finding targets against our coverage within the 2 second window that he was apparently instructed to throw within. On this play we are stunting Robinson at the center and playing a "double eagle" front with Randall (bottom) and Jackson (top) playing as 3-techs.

Things start to go wrong when DJ stunts up into the B gap across the left guards face and Acho heads for the same place.

gap discipline2

Unless it was Diaz's intention for Robinson to 2-gap (guard the A-gap on either side of the center) someone has made a mistake and left open the playside A gap.

gap discipline3

It's the duty of the linebackers in Diaz's defense to "make the DL right" after they stunt into creases, so it's curious that Acho is headed to the exact same gap which DJ has filled while being doubled by the guard and the tackle.

I'm sure that the purpose of stunting Robinson at the center was to take away the quick hitting holes up the middle Rice was exploiting and force them to find creases outside against our pursuit and ends. If Acho can get inside to that gap there is not a single lead block to cut him off, instead he plays it like he would in the Muschamp defense and stays in his base C gap.

Now they are playing inside zone outside-in (in other words, exactly wrong) by filling the gap between the halfback's trap block and the tackle while we have no one in position to reach the A-gap.

gap discipline4

Jordan Hicks' impressive pursuit of the ball isn't enough here and there is grass for 15 yards with no one in position until Brewster finally cleans up.

gap discipline5

Someone taking the wrong gap is a very fixable mistake. What might concern you would be if we couldn't handle the physicality of the Owl OL or if our linebackers were incapable of reaching the creases, but Acho was totally clean to make the play.

On the next play, DJ draws another double team as a 3-tech that allows Randall to fly into the backfield and frees Acho and Robinson to demolish the play.

gap discipline6

It was curious of Rice to double Jackson and leave Randall alone but Jackson stands his ground and the play goes for maybe a yard and a half with the RB met at the line of scrimmage immediately.

Greg Daniels, Jackson, Howell, and Chris Whaley all saw heavy snaps in this game and they saw them early and often. From what I saw, Jackson and Whaley both have the burst and the body types that will be ideal for this scheme and I didn't watch Howell or Daniels closely.

Much like how Stoops used Tommie Harris or Gerald McCoy as 1-techs, it's not important that we have space-eaters in this scheme because when our tackles draw double teams it will be by virtue of quickness and no one is going to be asked to stand them up all day.

We have the right personnel to bring storm clouds where the running back is trying to "run to daylight" and despite Robinson's lack of tenacity inside what really matters is having linebackers who can reach run gaps that they aren't aligned into as Acho failed to do above. Hicks, Robinson and Acho are all very capable of handling that assignment and the defensive tackles were more than capable, at least against Rice, of filling their assignments.

I hate to target Acho because he had a great game (10 tackles, 1 TFL) so let's end on a play that highlights the exceptional ability he is finally able to bring this season as a weakside linebacker.

acho pursuite 1

He's blitzing outside in a firezone on the bottom of the screen but Rice will run inside zone in the opposite direction.

Acho pursuit2

Robinson and Hicks bounce off each other and minimize the impact of either attempted tackle on the running back who continues to get upfield. But Acho is in pursuit, having bailed out of his blitz once he diagnosed the play.

acho pursuit

Our linebackers are going to swarm in this scheme as they eventually overcome their previous programming. Muschamp wanted to align his fronts to have perfect leverage against the run or pass, whereas Diaz is going to take advantage of speed everywhere to fill the same gaps from unforeseen angles.

As a result, our DL are going to get free into the backfield because of their stunts but our linebackers will be clean to fill in the gaps they vacated by virtue of their speed, deep alignment, and the fact that the opposing team doesn't know where they will be in order to block them.

Metaphorical rain is coming to Austin from our linebackers, let's pray for some of the actual wet stuff to come as well.