Put. That coffee. Down. Coffee's for closers only. You think I'm fucking with you? I am not fucking with you. I'm here from The Rationals. And I’ve got good news. The good news is – you’re fired. The bad news is, you’ve got eight games – just eight games – to regain your job. Starting with this week. Starting with this week’s game.
Oh? Have I got your attention now? Good. ‘Cause we’re adding a little something to this season’s incentive. As you know, first prize is $5 million in 2017 and the chance to keep coaching at one of the elite destination jobs in all of college football. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is you’re fired. Third prize is also you’re fired. Get the picture?
Only one thing counts in this job – get them to play at the level they’re able. A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Coaching. A-I-D-A. Attention – Do I have your attention? Interest – Are you interested? I know you are, ‘cause it’s fuck or walk. You close or you hit the bricks. Decision – have you decided how this team can play to a standard in all three phases of the game? And action. Get out there – you brought the recruits in. You think they came to Texas because their other choice was Pittsburgh? Guys don’t walk on the 40* unless they can ball. They are sitting there, waiting to win games. Waiting to play to their potential. Are you gonna take them there? The players are there. The standard of play is there. You hit it, everything is yours. You don’t, I got no sympathy for you.
Those of you with a little appreciation for cinema history will recognize the above as a bit of an adaptation. You’ll also recognize that most of the really mean-spirited bits were elided, because this isn’t intended to be mean-spirited.
This is intended to be calm(ish), measured(esque), data-driven and above all, rational.
Because losing the Rationals is never a good thing.
The Rationals haven't broken ranks. The Rationals have, en masse, stepped across the line and demanded that Charlie spend the next eight games building an absolutely airtight, no-doubt, incontrovertible case that we can trust him to field a conference winning title contender for 2017 and beyond. The “right” kind of 8-4, the kind of 8-4 that demonstrated across the board progress along with good processes, good teaching and the foundation of a monster next season would have - and should have - been sufficient for Charlie to move into 2017 with a shit-ton of recruiting momentum and good feelings all around. But the simple act of stumble-bumming to 8-4 - or even 9-3 on the back of some 50-47 shootouts no longer cuts the mustard.
Saturday’s defensive fiasco wasn’t a rank-breaker so much as a trust-breaker. With what we’ve seen laid out thusfar this season, it’s impossible to say that Charlie and any sight-unseen titular DC can be trusted to field a Top 15 S&P defense next season with the pieces on hand. And if you’re not doing that with the pieces we’ll have to play with next season when you hang your hat on your defensive pedigree, that's...and believe me, I shudder to type this...Not Our Standard.
Ultimately winning isn’t everything - it’s the only thing. But right now, it’s also nothing if it doesn’t come hand in glove with the kind of defensive processes, teaching and results that we've seen neither hide nor hair of this season.
Oh, and that drunken goat-rope on special teams could stand for some attention as well, starting with flipping to Page Two of the Big Book O’ Kick Return Blocking Assignments and just rolling with those since Page One ain’t been working for some time now.
But we’re going to focus on what was basically the focal point of Charlie’s hire in the first place - fielding a conference-winning, Playoff-contending defense.
If we’re going to be Rational about this, let’s go ahead and take Rational up to
by allowing the data to be our guide. As of now, the work that Bill Connelly over at Football Study Hall represents the leading, bleeding edge of descriptive college football analytics. Ol’ Bill has come up with a number of handy, precise and opponent-adjusted metrics to encapsulate the performance of teams and their discrete units, and they’re as good a measure as any to help break down the nuts and bolts of exactly how screwed we’ve been to date in 2016.
And by any measure, Charlie’s defense has been found wanting.
Let’s dive in, see where we’re at and see if we can’t agree on the definition of a turnaround that could keep Charlie Strong in the Cadillac El Dorado of coaching gigs for at least one more season.
This is the overall, opponent-adjusted measure of defensive efficiency that’s built upon five key factors. In a defensive context, they are: how well you prevent offenses from being efficient (staying ahead of the chains and converting third downs,) how well you prevent them from being explosive, how much field position you surrender on drives, how you allow them to finish drives and your ability to force turnovers.
From reading those factors and watching the Texas defense thusfar this year, you’re probably thinking that we may not rate too highly on this particular metric.
And you would be correct.
Current Rank: A smooth 97th
Target Rank: Well, since is the aggregate of everything else that we’re going to be talking about, let’s save this target til’ the end.
There are plenty of S&P factors to go into, but since some of them overlap fairly nicely and there’s no point in repeating the same prescriptions three or four times, we’re gonna try clustering them into a couple of groups and eval’ing from there. First up we’ve got last year’s Achilles heel, the rushing and standard downs components:
This is your S&P+ rating specifically on running plays and QB scrambles (sacks are, rightly and smartly, considered as part of your passing performance).
Current Ranking: 47th
Standard Downs S&P+
This is your S&P+ rating on standard downs – i.e. first downs, second downs with 7 or less to go and 3rd/4th downs with 4 or less to go. This tends to be when runs and passes are equally on the table, and usually correlates more tightly with Rushing S&P+. Obviously teams can pass off-schedule (though you wouldn’t know it by watching the Longhorn O over the past couple of games,) but this tends to be driven by your run D first and foremost.
Current Ranking: 38th
This measures your defensive efficiency by determining whether every play of your opponent’s was successful or not – i.e. did it pick up at least 50 percent of the necessary conversion yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.
Current Ranking: 34th
All that paints a picture of a defense that, while far from dominating, is more or less holding its own against the run game and on standard downs. That’s borne largely – well, OK, entirely – from above-expectations play from the down DL as opposed to solid, fundamental linebacking, but it’s something to build on and certainly looked better before turning a squalid rushing team like Okie State loose for multiple long gainers.
So how do you hold steady and gain some ground here to tee up more second/third and longs (assuming that’s actually something we’ll be able to deal with?)
You keep things humming along on the DL, trying to keep Boyette and Nelson rotating at the nose and working in at least one or two other guys behind Omenihu and Poona so that they don’t wear down entirely over the course of the season. You get Roach operating close to or on the LOS as much as you can as a weakside end-type, and when you’re using Hager in a similar capacity...
...then try to hammer home SOME basic concept of contain angles and responsibilities rather than having him crash first motion like a bat out of hell...
...and end up getting bamboozled on a simple bootleg...
...to end up watching in frustration as the 8th-most athletic QB in the Big XII strolls in for a TD:
You’ve also got a bit of an uphill battle to fight in terms of basic linebacking instincts and fundamentals. They haven’t exactly shone all season, but OSU called some deficiencies into particularly sharp relief. You don’t have any choice but to build Wheeler on the fly, but if you’re running a 3-3 stack you need to try Hughes or Roach (he played Mike a bit in high school, hasn’t looked lost in space and just seems to sport some all-around baller instincts) or even Hager in the middle, work Freeman in the mix, see what Shark McCulloch has or anything else. It’s honestly time to consider going full blown:
Because Malik simply has to be on the tackle’s outside shoulder or wider 80+% of the snaps at this point. It is painful to watch him diagnose and deal with blockers, and keeping him inside negates him as a blitzer (he simply won’t fight through guards, as we’ve discussed ad nauseum) and keeps him from carrying anything up the seam or attacking the flats.
Of course, over the next couple of games there’s no way to keep him from having to play from B gap to B gap at least some of the time. But if Malik is backing the line, as he was here during OSU’s first drive...
...for God’s sake don’t create any more bubbles in front of him by having Hager take a wide-9 outside rush while the DT loops into the A gap as an extra blocker waits in the backfield...
...because then not only does Malik not take on the block with his left shoulder to squeeze the run back inside to his pursuit, but actually gets cut to the ground and creates extra traffic for said pursuit (which wasn’t giving anyone Mike Singletary flashbacks to begin with)...
...setting the runner loose outside where a safety has to fight through a block with a tough angle to try and make the play...
...before ultimately turning the runner loose outside for a 30-yard TD scamper lowlighted by a flailing Vaccaro attempt along the sideline that I don’t even have the stomach to depict.
And there’s still work to be done on zone reads specifically, though the below example covers various tracts of land - as did the back once he broke into open space. In some circumstances it may be OK to have all three of our linebackers aligned to one side of the formation (orange) if you’re willing to walk down your safety and invert him to handle a C gap:
...but on Read action the guy who’s unblocked (Poona, in orange) HAS to keep his shoulders square to the LOS and bounce inside to encourage the keep (particularly on an unathletic QB) rather than running upfield, especially when two of your DBs (blue) are busy crashing a screen fake that wasn’t even attempted and extra-super-double especially if your trio of linebackers (yellow) are about engage in a gagglefucked gallimaufry of God knows what**...
...as the running back encounters enough Green Acres to make
Zsa Zsa Eva Gabor miss city life:
initely cannot, on the VERY NEXT PLAY...
...commit an act of Diazian dipshittery by voluntarily opening a five yard-wide chasm in your D-line with silly rush lanes...
...releasing a pair of unengaged blockers into said chasm to tee off on your linebackers who, again, weren’t exactly wearing their Pepper Johnson and Carl Banks jerseys on the way to a Halloween party in this one:
But all things considered, run defense is a leaky faucet on the Titanic right now. Under ordinary circumstances you could honestly give a little ground here to help make some drastic improvements in the passing game, but the ground-givin’ time is done around these parts. You’ve got to raise your ground game to stay in the game - and considering you’d be at these marks or better without the Hughes tackle bust against ND, the Cole-ing against UTEP and a few gallimaufries against the Pokes these marks shouldn’t be out of reach.
End Of Season Sales Targets:
Rushing S&P+: From 47th to 32nd
Standard Downs S&P+: From 38th to 25th
Success Rate+: From 34th to 25th
A generalized Top 25-ish run D felt like a lot to ask for going into the season, but with the athletes we’ve got on hand - and the ground you have to make up in the passing game - here’s your high bar to clear.
And hoo, boy, the passing game.
This is your S&P+ rating specifically on passing plays, with sacks helping your defensive performance. Considering that we’ve actually bagged a solid number of sacks, that makes our overall ranking even tougher to stomach.
Current Ranking: 87th
Passing Downs S&P+
This is your S&P+ rating on passing downs – i.e. first downs, second downs with 8 or more to go and 3rd/4th downs with 5 or more to go. This is where third-down woes come home to roost.
Current Ranking: 86th
This one doesn’t have an intuitive name, but it’s a measure of explosiveness that determines how many expected points an offense is gaining on it successful plays. Each down and distance on a football field has an expected points value based on historical data and mathy things, and by tracking the expected points gained on a particular play you get a good analogue for the offense’s ability to gain yards in chunks or a defense’s ability to prevent same. It gets extra bonus nifty-metric gold stars since expected points are impacted by the down and distance as well as yard line, so if you (just as an example) give up a 54-yard TD pass on 3rd and nine you won’t exactly have put a shine on your IsoPPP+ mark.
Current Ranking: 72nd
So how do we fix this?
Where to begin?
First off, get your boys tackling. That aspect of the defense hadn’t been great coming in, but it fell off the damn table against Oklahoma State. On the rewatch there was a little more out-of-position-ness and fewer acts of outright no-fucks-given-itude, but Sheroid Evans and Kevin Vaccaro in particular need some serious pine time after this one.
As far as coverage schemes to get guys playing fast and keep everyone on the same page? I don’t have a ton of additional recommendations besides the ~4K words expended here, but it must be noted that even a Cover Five/2-Man look isn’t a panacea when you turn it into Cover Four and a Half, as they did on 3rd and nine in the first quarter:
...if the other team catches you in it with a switch at the line of scrimmage and your middle backer is floating close to the LOS containing an imagined Russell Wilson. Even when the QB gets hit as he throws (orange), if the LB is there (blue)...
And the apex safety on that side has failed to recognize the more dangerous route and close down, even reasonable man coverage is going to lose a step after the opponent’s best receiver drags all the way across the middle...
...and if that’s compounded by a Sheroid Evans Yackety Sax Tackle then you’ve got your single worst play of the day:
We could walk through more of Saturday’s coverage busts (a few) and tackling fiascoes (a plethora,) but let’s just skip that and sum up the entire first half’s defensive effort with the appropriate quote from the great Tony Cox in Bad Santa:
Enough of that.
Get Evans and Vaccaro out. Roll with Davis, Boyd and Hill (should he extricate himself from the doghouse) at corners with Locke and Hill combo’ing the nickel spot. Get Jones on the field at strong safety in the (rare) instances where you’re running four DBs and need a guy who can drop down and take a slot, and when you’re in nickel give some run to Hall (who has really played well this year) as a box safety and either play thing safe with Haines (who tackled his ass off in the open field last week) or keep allowing Jones and Elliott to learn on the job. Send Malik around the corner or let him fly to the flat or carry guys up the seam but keep him the hell out of the middle, keep finding opportunities for Omenihu and Roach to come off the edge and let your athletes be athletes.
And then hit these numbers. These numbers aren’t easy - hell, they’re going to be downright difficult to hit - but they aren’t impossible despite the statistical anchor that you’ll be carrying from the first third of this chaotic season.
Passing S&P+: From 87th to 40th
Passing Downs S&P+: From 86th to 40th
IsoPPP+: From 72nd to 35th
And last but far from least,
Overall Defensive S&P+: From 96th to 39th
Yes folks, we are rolling with the Casey Kasem Rule - if you ain’t in the Top 40, you’re out. Those are marks that, while inverting the preseason expectations for where the run and pass D would be at this stage of the game, should have represented the minimum step forward for a D that ranked 66th in 2015 and that could reasonably be expected to launch itself into Top 15 territory for 2017. Getting there should have been bumpy at times, ugly at times but more or less straightforward - now, with the wounds that have already been inflicted, it will be incredibly hard.
You won’t get there without fixing tackling. You won’t get there without getting assignment problems put to bed for good and all. You won’t get there without consistently sound alignments that give guys a chance to compete every down against draws and screens and other secondary bugaboos. And you won’t get there without every aspect of this defense getting out of its own damn way, out of their own heads and into opponents’ heads each and every week.
If you do that, you build the case that maybe, possibly, you can oversee championship-caliber defense with all the pieces in place next season.
Would I, personally, love to see you build that case? Absolutely. It is going to be a high damned bar to clear, and right now it feels like the faintest of hopes.
But coffee is for closers. Close, or we close up shop.
*2012 and 2013 recruiting classes notwithstanding.