Man vs Zone defense, the eternal debate between defensive coordinators, emerged as a primary question for the Oklahoma defense as they approached the 2012 season.
The much-maligned 2011 unit had chose to live and die by pressure. Brent Venables loaded up the front seven with most of the teams' better players and tinkered with a 3-4 approach that placed Corey Nelson, Ronnel Lewis, and Frank Alexander on the edge against Big 12 pass protections.
Behind that the linebacker corp of Tony Jefferson, Tom Wort, and Travis Lewis alternated between bringing heavy pressure from all angles or playing their customary strong zone. The secondary was strong in theory, with corners Hurst and Fleming and Aaron Colvin moonlighting as one of the league's more promising young safeties.
They got into trouble quickly when injuries set in or teams were able to find Javon Harris in coverage. Playing as the free safety he was asked to cover tremendous ground and balance run/pass conflicts in "Palms" (2-read) coverages and Venables' assortment of man-blitzes. When Fleming was injured, his replacements at corner played so poorly that Tech was able to ride them to a stunning victory in Norman.
Enter Mike Stoops.
In principal, Mike employs much of the same Stoops family defense as does Venables. Fast flow run support, tendency focused gameplans, similar blitz packages...but then there are big differences.
Venables coaches linebackers, and consequently his approach is flavored by their usage. Better safety prospects like Tony Jefferson were played in the nickel in order to use them to dominate the field side. Aaron Colvin, a potentially fantastic corner, was used as a safety in order to protect linebackers from deep coverage responsibilities.
Mike Stoops immediately began to reorganize the squad with three objectives in mind:
1). Build a package of base defenses that would be sound against all comers
Whereas Venables sometimes looked to avoid difficult questions asked by the offense by simply assaulting them with athletes in blitz packages, Stoops isn't keen on giving up 50 yard touchdown passes when the QB can elude pressure.
2). Structure the defense around the abilities of the secondary (which he coaches)
The reason safeties Javon Harris and Tony Jefferson led the team in tackles is not that the linebackers sucked, the defense was structured to funnel runs to them. We'll address this soon.
3). Take away the potent passing game of spread offenses.
Mike Stoops is clearly not an advocate of using the 4-2 defense with a "do it all" nickel who ties everything together. He matches offensive personnel. You go 4-wide, he brings in dime.
Stoops moved Colvin back to corner, where he was probably the 2nd best in the league, shifted Tony Jefferson back to Free Safety, and slid Javon Harris over to Strong Safety. By doing so, Mike Stoops saddled OU with two old-school safeties that you would prefer not have to play a good deal of coverage. But he didn't approach defense like anyone else in the league.
Here's a standard 2-read alignment such as is employed by most of the teams in the conference:
The 3rd "linebacker", or nickel, is lined up to the field side on the #2 receiver. He'll carry him up to the field safety, then maintain the shallow zone. The two true linebackers are kept as close to the box as possible so the defense isn't outnumbered between the tackles against the run game. The boundary safety has deep responsibilities against the slot receiver on his side of the field, and potentially run force responsibilities as well.
To run this defense optimally, you need safeties like Elisha Olabode who can cover ground and run with receivers like a corner, which is why Venables played Colvin out there. You also need your nickel to be one of the best players. Speed everywhere is key, because much of the back seven lives in run/pass conflict by trying to split the difference between the two threats.
Mike Stoops chose to eschew that approach in favor of this:
However, today's spread with it's dual threat QBs and option run games presents man coverage with some difficult questions. You've only got five defenders in the box, and against Baylor your nickel and dime players are about 10 yards outside of the box and not in position to help between the tackles.
Hence, Cover Black. OU would mix in Cover-1 and Cover Black to bring their safeties into the picture as run defenders. With Cover Black: on run flow to the field side, Javon Harris would be responsible for being the extra run defender in the C-gap. Middle linebacker Frank Shannon would fill the playside C-gap and Tony Jefferson would fill the backside A gap against cutbacks.
While the defense would present Dime personnel and a 2-deep shell, technically they have seven run defenders with the safeties becoming de-facto outside linebackers. In Cover Black, their pass responsibilities would be to rob inside routes over the middle of the field, so they were safe from coming up to stop a run and then having to turn and run upfield with a Tevin Reese to stop a touchdown pass.
With 2-read, teams are using their safeties to protect their linebackers from coverage and allow them to make plays against the run. With Cover Black or OU's Cover-1, the nickel and dime defensive backs protect the safeties from pass coverage and allow THEM to help against the run.
So how'd that work out for them? As you might quickly guess, as well as they played, Jefferson and Harris often didn't make the run tackles behind or near the line of scrimmage due to their deep alignment. Against teams with strong spread run games like Baylor, OU gave up gobs of yards. When West Virginia moved Tavon Austin to runningback and asked Tony Jefferson to fill the backside cutback lanes on inside zone he was juked and exploited for over 300 rush yards by the Mountaineer speedster.
However, the OU pass defense was exceptional and Harris and Jefferson were able to make enough tackles to allow the defense to employ a bend don't break approach that asked teams to work their way down the field without the pass game. Basically the reversal of the usual strategy, instead of asking teams to complete enough short throws against 2-deep zone to score, the Stoops' determined that at this stage in the spread offense, teams were more likely to score by sustaining drives with the passing game than the run game.
The teams that were able to run the ball pushed OU to the edge of their limits and required stellar performances from Landry Jones to outscore people. Then there was the fact that OU had what was, for them, a below standard defensive line. The defensive tackles kept the
linebackers safeties clean but the defensive ends struggled to make plays behind the line of scrimmage or bring pressure.
In the future, glancing at OU's recruiting you can tell that they intend to more or less maintain this approach. Stoops is stockpiling lanky, physical nickel and dime backs, athletic man corners on the outside, and big, physical safeties in the middle. Their frantic recruiting of DE's and athletic DT's suggests they are hoping to become more explosive there as soon as possible.
In the meantime: Enter Texas A&M
Texas A&M absolutely devastated the weak SEC West, which was totally unprepared for the challenges of the modern spread that Sumlin presented them with. His was shock warfare, wherein the shock came in three waves:
1st Wave: Tempo
Even if you know how fast a team will line up and play, there's no way to prepare for it in practice with your prep team. SEC teams have been slow to the party in offensive innovation with coaches employing NFL-style groupthink that says "better to be mediocre doing what Alabama and everyone else does than take a risk and get fired."
Even Alabama had an adjustment period before they were used to the Aggy tempo and in that gap they gave up three touchdowns. Big 12 defenses live in this post-apocalyptic world, SEC defenses do not.
2nd Wave: Quality
Count me amongst those interested to see how Manziel does when his bookend NFL offensive tackles are gone. This A&M offense is loaded with great players. They have one of the better offensive lines in the country, the running backs are good, and the receiving corp featured senior Ryan Swope and rising star Mike Evans. Evans is a 6-5 stud outside receiver that will torment teams for at least two more seasons before he's gone.
It's hard enough to stop a lightning fast offensive line that doesn't line up and hit you with this level of quality.
3rd Wave: Johnny
Football Manziel *
Compounding the problems of the tempo and Aggy offensive quality is the speed of Manziel. He's basically Jordan Shipley fused together with Todd Reesing into one terrible, ghostly nightmare. Perhaps the most terrifying part of the Aggy arsenal is the Manziel scramble, and the QB draw.
Guess what OU's man coverages and safety-dependent run fits are particularly vulnerable to? Asking Harris and Jefferson to make tackles in space against Manziel as your basic run response is asking a great deal.
So how will the Stoops brothers adjust to this inherent weakness in their defense? What have they been cooking up in their Norman labs?
Given the lack of quality of the Oklahoma defensive line, I've been very impressed by what Mike Stoops has accomplished with this OU defense. He hasn't had anywhere near the level of talent that Venables had in 2011 and achieved what could be described as comparable results. However I have one major criticism: Corey Nelson.
Nelson went from being an edge-terror and one of the most promising young players in the league to a situational player. Rather than trying to fashion him into a classic OU weakside linebacker, Stoops often used him on the edge to force runs inside to the safeties. However, they'll need to employ him more heavily against Manziel as he is one of their greatest athletes.
The key for OU will be to mimic LSU's approach with a 3-4 front. While OU's defensive tackles weren't a weakness, the key to stopping Manziel is to take away the outside rush lanes and force him to make throws in the pocket or find running lanes inside. I would recommend utilizing a package with three DL, Frank Shannon as the mike backer, Corey Nelson as a stunting de-facto defensive tackle, and the defensive ends and backs following their normal rules and assignments.
The advantages here are that Nelson is athletic enough to stunt a gap and still get off blocks and recover to help corral Manziel with his pursuit. A defensive tackle has to fill his own gap and hope that if Manziel goes somewhere else that someone else will get him. This would also allow OU to rotate DT's at nose tackle and survive the tempo.
Should the Stoops' discern ways to try and employ man coverages against the spread without leaving themselves at the mercy of teams with explosive run games, they'll be back on the path to defensive dominance. If not, the Aggies will win and gloat over our league.
Happy New Years.
* ™ Texas A&M