Coordinating defense in the Big 12 is hard, as Mack Brown has eagerly been telling every reporter within earshot. The high volume of dangerous athletes and skilled QB's in the league has to be the primary concern for defensive coordinators, yet surrendering a game in the trenches is rightly unthinkable.
In this article I'd like to introduce you to the challenges of coordinating a strategy with your back seven to handle spread offenses, and how different teams are designed to handle those tasks.
Bryan Harsin isn't the only Big 12 offensive coordinator who likes to put defenders in run/pass conflict, though his methods are not the norm for the conference. The rise of the spread offense and the introduction of packaged run-pass concepts have created a terrifying monster for Defensive coordinators trying to get their defenders to play fast.
Because defense is largely about reacting to what the offense does, it usually requires a higher volume of athletes in order to find success. Thinking and uncertainty are a defense's own worst enemies, as the Longhorn starting 11 has found out all too well this season.
Today's Big 12 spread offense presents two serious challenges to classic defensive tactics. The first, of course, is spacing. Even if he knew exactly where to be to stop OSU's 2011 bubble screen game, I'm not sure if Tommy Nobis would have been able to reach the ball carrier before he made a solid gain from within the tackle box.
Trips spread formations are a particularly difficult beast to tame as they really challenge a defense's ability to play a 2-deep coverage.
There are six run gaps to fill on this play and since that's Optimus Klein back there alone in the pocket, Oklahoma can't totally disregard the threat of a run into one of those six gaps. However, there are only four sooner defenders within at least two yards of the tackle box.
Teams generally prefer to play the C gaps (run gaps outside of the offensive tackles) with their defensive ends so that these players can rush the passer from the outside, but that leaves four interior gaps to be accounted for between the defensive tackles and the defensive backfield and the back five are trying to maintain leverage against the wide receivers.
In this play, Tom Wort (the white guy in the middle) will have one of three responsibilities depending on the offensive play call. Assuming they are in their base 2-read defense: against a pass, he needs to play inside out and protect the middle of the field against the #3 receiver (counting in from the sideline). Against a run to the boundary, he needs to fill the field side A-gap. Against a run to the field, he fills outside as an extra man while the backside is filled by safety support.
Oklahoma's way of accounting for their run gaps generally keeps their player relatively close to their assignments, but there is a lot of space to fill between a route by the #3 receiver and the A-gap and even more space between the Free Safety Jefferson and his backside run gap.
This leads us to the modern Big 12 offense's other great challenge to defenses. Run/pass packaged plays. It was bad enough when an aggressive pass rush would be punished by Duke Robinson and Trent Williams steamrolling your defensive backs with Ryan Broyles running behind them looking for daylight. Now teams use run-blocking on pass plays and the QB chooses whether to hit the defense with an inside zone or bubble screen based on how your linebackers respond.
Do you teach them to react to the low-hat read on the offensive line and allow the QB to play pitch and catch with wide open receivers? Or do you have them match the receiver routes and leave your run gaps undefended or left to safeties? Asking them to react to both introduces the uncertainty and slow play that defensive coordinators hate.
Oklahoma does a good job of utilizing their safeties to fill run gaps in a manner that doesn't, or at least hasn't yet, exposed them to deep bombs over the top. However, they still need premier athletes back there like Tony Jefferson who can cover a lot of ground very quickly and fill in the holes.
The other solution to all of these conflicts by spread offenses is your classic MOFC defense, and this was Diaz's strategy.
Now most teams use some Cover-3 now and again because it simplifies your run defense drastically:
Despite the offense being in a 4-wide trips formation, the defense can play six defenders in the box to account for the six run gaps and keep your linebackers from having having assignments on different ends of the field. So why doesn't everyone do this?
You need legitimate passing threats.
There are two ways to structure a MOFC coverage against the passing threats. You can drop everyone pretty deep before the snap and play bend-don't-break, but then you surrender a lot of space in the flats for the offense to make easy completions and you force your defense to tackle well.
Iowa State does this a good deal and they generally find a lot of success, but they depend on their linebackers Klein and Knott locking down the middle of the field and then pursuing the ball and making tackles everywhere else.
Your other option is to challenge the flats and shorter passes with tighter coverage and leave your Free Safety with the responsibility of making sure nothing gets past the defense. Against Big 12 QB's and receivers, this is virtually an impossible task for most collegiate free safeties. Muschamp played MOFC coverages with Gideon as that deep safety but he would keep either the corners or the Strong Safety/nickelbacks in deeper alignments to keep receivers in front of them and Aaron Williams and Earl Thomas would protect the seam so Gideon didn't have to cover multiple vertical threats.
If you are going to challenge the shorter throws you need great man-coverage backs and/or an elite Free Safety and you'd sure better handle the run game well with your front 6.
The successful Big 12 defenses this season are defined by overall competency with no glaring weaknesses and base concepts that are built around the unit's strongest features.
Kansas State combines the soft Cover-3 approach of Iowa State with the fast-flow Palms coverage of OU and they get by based on Arthur Brown's ability to cover ground, play coverage in the middle, and fill inside against the run. Without him, the solid but unspectacular play of their other backers would breakdown and give up chunks of yardage far more often than we've seen this year.
Oklahoma plays aggressive, fast flowing defense that revolves around the instinctive and speedy play of Tony Jefferson. Mike Stoops adjusted their secondary to position him this role and as DB coach is in position to make sure that they are recruiting and developing athletes to fill the more challenging roles in the scheme.
Texas...we've been over how Diaz attempted to switch from a 2-read base to challenge offenses with his MOFC coverages. To execute the MOFC coverages that press the receivers at the line Texas needs to be able to play personnel that can hang with the receivers deep, and a free safety that can handle the role of erasing any run or pass that gets out of hand.
When Texas is in dime they are about halfway there. Phillips and Vaccaro lined up on the inside receivers with Diggs and Byndom outside presents a tough coverage for a QB to punish, but without Ed Reed on the back end any mistakes made by the team can be too much for the free safety to erase and it's difficult for the defenders in man coverage to adjust and provide support. You've probably noticed that our run defense tends to make mistakes at the 2nd level, necessitating a lot of erasing.
When Texas plays the softer MOFC coverages that keep three DB's deep and looks to keep the ball in front, you're relying on the linebackers to lock down the middle of the field and then flow to the ball. Obviously that's not happening either.
The right answer to the spread for a defense needs to be based on what they can achieve that season, and consistently over multiple years. Iowa St. knows how to recruit and develop a defensive backfield that can stay in position to deny back breaking throws and runs and then make tackles in pursuit. When Klein and Knott move on next year, you'll still see Paul Rhoads' teams forcing the ball outside and playing good fundamentals.
Texas' overall strengths for building a back seven include a DB coach who can develop physical defensive backs who play man coverage and access to the best players in Texas. The greatest asset to the Texas defensive backfield is of course Kenny Vaccaro.
Surviving the stresses of Big 12 spread offenses means that the best player on your defense has to take on the heaviest responsibilities. In the MOFC press-coverages those responsibilities fall to the free safety, so naturally we play our 4th and 5th best defensive backs in that position. Then we have failed to take advantage of the fact that the linebackers are aligned in the tackle box to stop the run by playing the worst run defense in the conference.
In Texas' reapplied 2-read schemes that require fast flow and linebackers who can cover ground underneath, the defense is hamstrung by the physical and diagnostic limitations of the linebacker corp.
The result is a defense without an identity. What's Kenny Vaccaro's role on this defense? The shortcomings of our linebacker corp require him to erase mistakes in the middle of the field but the role of a nickel in the 2-read is to dominate the wider field-side of the defense and constrict the offense into the linebackers.
Meanwhile our attempt to parlay our abundance of talented coverage guys in the secondary has been totally spoiled by our inability to handle coverage breakdowns and bad run defense. So what's the answer?
I don't believe there is one that will result in a good Texas defense, but I think there may be solutions that improve the product to a level that can help Texas win some games.
Kenny Vaccaro needs a position change to centerfield in the MOFC coverages and one of the two deep safeties in the 2-read schemes. Diaz and Akina might consider it criminal to waste his man-coverage abilities but that's where we are at this point. They can continue to play Cobbs in the slot or mix in Phillips or one of the younger DB's, it will reduce the effectiveness of the second level but using the team's best player there is simply throwing good money after bad.
If Vaccaro can attack the ball and clean up in the run game from a deep safety position I think you'll see Texas continue to get some badly needed turnovers while also seeing fewer huge run plays. If he can handle the assignment load of playing centerfielder behind press coverage I think Texas could play some Cover-1 and Cover-2 schemes that really challenge teams like Texas Tech and present opportunities for the linebackers to shine if any lights ever come on.
But the goal here is to apply Vaccaro as a tourniquet that keeps the defense from bleeding out every game.
In the long-term, Texas needs to install an identity that can be sustained and effectively taught by whatever coaching staff is in place next season. There are plenty of options of what could be done with Texas' resources, they just need to make sure the strategy and vision are coherent and achievable by the guys who will actually have to make it happen.
Teaching is fundamental ... as the saying goes.