“I heard you did a pilot?”
“That was my fifteen minutes.”
“What was it?”
“It was a show about a team of hybrid edge rushers called Fox Force Two.”
“Fox Force Two. Fox because we’re foxy, sexy men, Force as in we’re a force to be reckoned with, and Two because there are one, two, two of us on the field at once. We all had code names. Number 40, the junior, he was the leader. Number 32 was the talented rookie who ran around like a guy thirty pounds lighter. Number 46 only joined the team sometimes, but he was like a master of disguise who could anything on the edge of a formation.”
“What was your specialty?”
“My character, Number 44, his background was that he was raised in a family of crazed, mulleted linebackers. According to the show he was the deadliest man in the world when sprinting wildly in a straight line. But since he was raised by linebackers he had actual instincts…sometimes. If we woulda got picked up, they woulda worked in a gimmick where each week I’d charge in like mad and something either awesome or terrible would happen in the backfield.”
From the start of Saturday’s contest with UTEP, it was apparent that Charlie Strong and Vance Bedford had gotten up to something interesting to counter the run-and-Read-Option threat presented by the Miner backfield of Aaron Jones and Kavika Johnson. Nominal Fox ends Naashon Hughes and Breckyn Hager (both in orange) were on the field at the same time, flanking a trio of down DL with Malik and Anthony Wheeler behind them in a look very reminiscent of the classic Pittsburgh Steeler 3-4:
But while calling this look “3-4 Base” or “Steeler” or something would be kind of boring, Fox Force Two has a nifty ring to it.
So let’s go with that.
The Foxes attacked the edges, the 4i guys (The Omen and The Poonatrator) hit the B gaps while Paul Boyette played a stack-and-shed two gap approach on the center to make himself available in either A gap. Malik and Wheeler each had a portion of the LOS to watch and attack based on their blocking keys, with Wheeler getting to cheat inside thanks to Wheeler’s presence in the C gap and Sheroid Evans behind him as a totally free hitter on the edge:
The Miners first sought to attack this set with some simple Inside Zone blocking, with the tight end and left guard climbing to the next level to get after the linebackers:
That plan meant single-blocking Paul Boyette at the nose, though, and as he’s shown in the first two games of the season he’s gotten far more adept at stacking a guy with his arms...
And shedding to make the play to either side of him:
However the Longhorn D aligns this season, it will break against the run if the down DL are getting wired to single blocks or blown out by double teams. The strides that guys like Boyette, Nelson, Ford and Omenihu (who’s battling heroically when forced into a 4i role despite being best suited for edge work in a 4-2-5 look) have made from last season are going to key major run-D improvement this season if they keep moving along that curve.
Against a three-wide look, Texas adjusted to something that was almost a 4-3 with Poona as a strongside end, Hager as a weakside end, and Hughes (orange) as a sort-of Sam linebacker floating between a dropback and edge rush position:
The other key here was a willingness to use Jason Hall in coverage against the inside receiver with Vaccaro up top. It’s the sort of thing you can do with impunity against Kavika Johnson at QB, but you’d want somebody like Brandon Jones filling that role against more potent passing attacks.
The Miners tried to single block the whole front while running the tight end up the field to pull Malik away from the action. Since we were content to play single coverage on the receivers with The Fuckleaper as a single high safety, they didn’t have the blocking numbers to account for seven box defenders, leaving Wheeler free...
...to the ball where he stuck Jones for a three-yard gain:
No single player on the defense might benefit more from this package than Number 44 himself, Breckyn Hager. While he may lack the pass drop capability and run diagnostic instincts require to rock out as a 3-3 stack Mike, he can be a terror when he gets to pin his ears back and attack in a straight line. In the first quarter we saw him line up on the edge:
...get around the edge by dipping and giving the OT a small surface to hit - a trick that also worked on Connor Williams in the Spring Game, by the way - to flush the QB...
...and clean him up when disciplined rushes from the down DL gave him no escape route.
Of course, not even a simple edge role is complete carte blanche to attack with your eyes shut.
“There were three tomatoes in the backfield. Papa tomato, mama tomato and baby tomato.”
“Papa tomato and baby tomato meshed in the backfield...”
“...and Number 44 got really angry and SQUISHED baby tomato and said...Ketchup.”
“And then papa tomato ran for sixteen yards because we blew contain.”
When UTEP went with an empty set by splitting Jones all the way out wide to the field, Texas responded by letting Malik fill his Dirty Dime role by splitting out to split the difference between the inside receiver and the formation.
Texas brought five and manned everything, and the heat forced a quick throw on a boundary hitch that was easily defended by Sheroid Evans.
This look works well for a lot of things but could get scary against a team dedicated to running the QB draw, either with the H-back as a lead blocker or with the H flaring out to pull Wheeler away and then taking off up the gut. You need disciplined rush lanes from your front five, as well as confidence that Malik can fly in from the field side on cleanup duty as he did against Kizer last week.
Malcolm Roach’s sack came when Strong and Bedford decided to combine the Fox Force Two look with the Dirty Dime approach to Malik deployment. With the Miners showing trips to the field, Roach (blue) aligned outside the tight end as a Fox to the boundary (despite his old-school four point stance) with Malik (orange) filling the other Fox role and offering a pre-snap threat to either bring heat off the edge or drop back in coverage.
The Hager/Hughes Fox spot was essentially replaced by P.J. Locke working as a nickel over the #2 wideout, as Davante Davis got the cake assignment of covering a slow-footed TE on his side. That assignment got even easier when the TE stayed in to block and utterly failed to corral Roach:
while Malik’s drop into coverage screwed up Kavika Johnson’s read long enough that #32 got to close from behind and bag his first QB as a Longhorn.
While the pure 3-4 version of Fox Force Two may have limited utility in the spread-happy Big XII, we may see some of it against the likes of Kansas State and West Virginia (and possibly Iowa State and Kansas as well, since we should be able to do more or less whatever we want in those contests.) The Dirty Foxy Dime variant has even greater applicability due to the multitude of ways in which you can bone a quarterback’s pre-snap read.
You can easily drop into every secondary coach’s dream, Cover Five, with man coverage underneath protected by two safeties over the top…
…roll into a Cover Three with a guy like Roach dropping back to protect the boundary curl/flat zone and Malik coming off an overloaded edge…
…any variety of Fire Zone…
...and even more fun stuff that I’d draw up right now if I didn’t just land in Durango for vacation!
Variety is the spice of life, and predictability is the death of defense. The mix of older, smarter players and a ton of versatile and athletic talent should let Strong and Bedford keep spicing things up with looks like these as the season rolls on.