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Texas Longhorns football 2013: defending the option

With the exception of Nebraska's offenses, Mack's defenses have always seemed to struggle with option attacks. What does that look like today against modern spread-option attacks?

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Option football has seen a re-birth today in modern offensive designs. Urban Meyer and Rich Rodriguez's zone-read systems had tremendous success in the 00's while our own Vince Young revealed some of the amazing possibilities that can occur when the QB is both one of the game's best athletes and has the ball in his hands on most plays.

It was, of course, Bill Synder who quietly set the pace with his option attacks at Kansas St. that often geared around featuring the QB as a play maker rather than simply a distributor. He brought this approach back to Mack Brown's dismay in 2010 by switching from pocket QB Carson Coffman to a young man named Collin Klein who ran for 127 yards in that game while only throwing four passes.

The rise of packaging passing plays with zone read or other run concepts has allowed teams who have QB's without dominant physical skills to become even more dangerous distributors. Consider Bo Wallace for Hugh Freeze's Rebels. He threw for 172 yards and two TD's against Texas while adding another 57 rushing yards and another TD on the ground.

Wallace is not a great runner, nor a QB that NFL teams will be knocking down the door to draft. However, his ability to make the reads and basic plays of the Rebel passing and running game makes the real play makers on the team far more dangerous.

Because of the way that spread-option tactics allow teams to transform solid, well rounded QB's into scoring machines and major athletes into featured weapons, it's essential that every defense today has a schematic system that allows them to account for the way teams are reading their defense.

So what does Texas need to be able to stop?

Horizontal stresses

Count the stresses along the line of scrimmage for Buffalo's defense. You have a bubble screen to the top of the clip, Buffalo has accounted for this with three defensive backs. In the middle you have an Inside Zone with six blockers and Lache Seastrunk running the play, Buffalo has a six man box with the corner coming off the edge as well. Finally on bottom you have Tevin Reese who is matched up against a safety who began the play from a 2-deep alignment.

Everyone has an assignment and Buffalo either needs to be sound against every potential threat or else encourage Petty to send the ball where they have an advantage. Fire Zones can be an effective way to force a particular read...or they can blow up in your face if your back end can't handle tackling in space and the offense finds your soft spot.

Vertical stresses

The combination of a draw run with a quick route by the third receiver was one of the earliest run/pass packaged plays. It's become even more deadly when used as a QB draw with the RB as a lead blocker.

In Philadelphia, Chip Kelly has expanded the possible options on a play and we saw some of these same kinds of concepts against Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss. The additional stress on a linebacker from the possibility of a TE either releasing downfield to block for a run play OR receive a pass is particularly nasty.

Klein ran a nasty concept against Texas last year that began as a QB draw and ended as a pass down the seam to their TE:

So how is Texas trying to stop this stuff?

Manny Diaz's plan was to continue to evolve Texas' base defense towards a Cover-3 approach.

The defensive end crashes inside to take away the dive, Diggs is the force player who wants to make sure his receiver isn't left open while also staying outside of the runner and "forcing" him back to pursuit. Edmond scrapes outside on recognition of the QB keep and follows in pursuit while the front's 8th man "riskie" Mykkele Thompson is an extra defender. There are more than enough defenders to pursue the ball, but Thompson misses his tackle and Diggs gets caught inside by his blocker which allows the runner to stay away from Edmond's pursuit.

Another example:

Again, Jeffcoat crashes inside to force the ball out to pursuit. This time, the Cover-3 scheme's 8th man is aligned to the boundary to guard the 2nd slot receiver. They run to the nickel side and Diggs is wide here to defend the bubble screen, linebacker Peter Jinkens doesn't scrape around Jeffcoat to reach the QB and Phillips has to clean it all up after an easy gain by BYU.

These approaches gave Texas a defender to account for every assignment, they just simply failed to execute. However, the fact that Texas only has one safety right now (Adrian Phillips) who can be remotely counted on to offer consistent competence in run-support really complicates the approach. Who do you trust as the single deep defender? Okay, now your 2nd best safety still has to play near the box...

Whether it was because of a desire by Mack Brown to keep the margin of defeat down, a fear of the Ole Miss passing game, or an acknowledgment that Texas doesn't have a reliable Free Safety, Greg Robinson almost exclusively used our Cover-2 "Palms" defense against the Rebels.

This is the play that absolutely demolished Texas the entire game. This form of "Power-Read" is basically two running plays in one. If the unblocked DE chases the RB, who is basically hitting the outside like in outside zone, then the QB pulls the ball and runs into the vacated gap on a traditional Power-O run.

If the DE stays inside to force the ball out to pursuit, then the QB hands off to the RB. When Diaz ran Palms, we usually had the DE stay wide and encourage the ball back inside to the linebackers. Here, the DE steps inside and spills ball outside. The problem is that this asks Steve Edmond and our deep safety to make the play in pursuit. Edmond is generally going to struggle to run with a player like Jeff Scott, if he has to do so while fighting a cut block from a TE then you can pretty much count on him not getting there.

Diggs has to stay wide to honor the bubble read. Phillips arrives to make the tackle but only after an "explosive" gain by the Rebels.

Given Texas' considerable struggles in pursuit, run support, and handling blocks in the open field, there has to be a philosophical change by Robinson and the staff in how they handle these plays. Even Jordan Hicks and Dalton Santos struggled to hang with Scott on these outside runs.

They can either have the Nickel play the run aggressively and leave the bubble screen to the safety, or they can have the DE stay wide and keep the ball between the tackles. Or alternate between these two strategies.

In the 4th quarter, Robinson experimented more with Diaz's Cover-3 and was able to achieve some results such as this:

Jeffcoat forces the ball wide by staying home against the Power run by the QB, he even gets off the cut block and later helps in pursuit. The 8th man, Mykkele Thompson, is positioned on the field where the TE cannot reach him in the open field and Texas is consequently actually able to force the ball back inside to pursuit! Even though Thompson whiffs again!

Notice also that Santos responds too quickly for an advancing OL to reach him at the 2nd level and is thus free to run to the sideline with the play.

That leaves Greg with multiple options for defending the option. Play Palms and force the ball inside to the linebackers either with a wide DE or an aggressive nickel, or sneak a safety down late and play Cover-3 with traditional spill rules for the DE. Texas has to introduce some doubt and confusion into the offense's reads so they can't tee off on Texas' responses but this has to be done with assignments our players can actually be expected to execute.

What we're talking about here is simply having a coherent and sound plan for defending our opponent's plays and concepts. One more example if you haven't thrown up yet:

That's a defense that is so caught up in stopping the run that they allowed a TE to run wide open down the middle of the defense. This is somewhat tricky for Texas in that Edmond has to defend the middle of the field against that kind of route while also responding to the run game but we should have a defense that can account for play-action...

This is a zone read play, if we followed Nickel Rover's rules for defending the option from Cover-2 then Jeffcoat would stay wide and force the hand-off, which he actually did, and Edmond would be responsible for flowing to the ball. But that trickster Hugh Freeze has attached a vertical TE route to the play that Edmond and the safeties have to be aware of as well. Edmond should be thinking, "if that TE isn't blocking me, I should probably make sure he isn't running free into my end zone."

If I'm right about our call here, Phillips also needed to be aware of the TE and arrive in time to stop an easy pitch and catch as well. He's probably late out of fear of not stopping the run.

Assignment errors. The TE didn't have to run a great route to beat anyone and Wallace didn't have to beat coverage with his throw. This is the kind of stuff we have to clean up before we even start worrying about out-executing our opponents.

Assuming we clean up our act, can we out-execute Kansas St on this stuff?

Meet Daniel Sams:

In addition to Juco wonder Jake Waters, Kansas St. has a QB named Daniel Sams who has seen increasing action since the North Dakota St. debacle because Snyder's offense thrives when it has at least one dangerous runner and he's the only who has emerged on this roster.

In that clip you see him read a backside cut on a QB draw in a way that reminds me of Fozzy Whittaker's ability to do so on our Power-O Wildcat play of 2011. A well executed draw play in which the runner knows how to manipulate defenders and find different lanes is an extremely dangerous thing.

Expect to see a great deal of Mr. Sams on Saturday. Another thing you might note on the play is that the RB next to Sams is white. That's their versatile fullback, Glenn Gronkowski. Yes, that Gronkowski, this is the fourth or fifth brother from that family.

He isn't the bruising blocker yet that Braden Wilson was but he isn't terrible either. He can also catch and run. They also have a 6-8 TE named Andre McDonald you can expect to see a lot of and returning starters all along the OL.

KSU's only hesitation from featuring Sams even more, from what I can make out, is that they have a pair of very solid receivers in Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson whom they like to throw to with Waters. That won't be much of a concern this weekend as I expect Snyder to ask "Do we really need to throw the ball to beat this team?" As he did in 2010.

For his part, Jake Waters actually isn't a terrible option QB either so I would expect to see him, Sams, and their diminutive RB Hubert each collect at least 10 carries. If you hadn't remembered, the option is heavily incorporated into the Kansas State offense as well as many other runs that involve the QB or lead blockers.

From where I sit, the odds of Greg Robinson shaping a sound gameplan to account for KSU's run game variety and then Texas' players then executing that plan at a higher level than Snyder's boys are highly unlikely. Given our woes at safety, and the need for such players to be actively involved in stopping the option in any defensive scheme I'd say that Mack Brown has found yet another way to lose to the Wildcats.

Hopefully, Robinson will at least be able to force KSU to out-execute us rather than handing them free yardage, and hopefully we build some foundations that will serve our players under the next regime.