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Texas Longhorns Defense: Getting It Fixed

Texas v California Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Getcha popcorn, folks - this is a long one. But hopefully, not devoid of interest.

Yesterday we talked about what was wrong with the defense and some root causes, and today it’s time to do some prescribin’ and get the thing fixed.

My grand plan had been to support all this with some charts/field zone data etc from charting, but as I mentioned in yesterday’s piece that’s still a work in progress and I’ll hope to support these with some more data and examples once I’ve gotten that knocked out (and reserve the right to change my mind on some of it once I do.) For now, though, I’ll lay out these edicts for fixing the defense:

Edict 1: Outside of physical limitations from the guys who’ve handled the bulk of our safety snaps and the lack of one or two individual dominators at pass rush, we’re not getting beat on defense by superior athleticism. Our busts have mostly been mental (by the players and coaches,) not physical.

Edict 2: The coverage breakdowns have to stop, but refuse to accept the notion that our corners simply can’t or won’t learn a couple of key responsibilities in complementary coverages. There is no one coverage - or even one coverage out of every formation or look - that won’t get ripped by competent offenses without some ability to disguise and work to complementary things that punish the concepts that would rip the “base” defense.

Edict 3: Malik makes his living on the field side and from the offensive tackle’s outside shoulder and outward from now on. Standard interior blitzes and mugs have been wildly ineffective and are sacrificing our queen like a pawn. No mas.

There are plenty of other potential sub-edicts we could throw in, but that covers off on most of what we need to think about. Now let’s look at the prescriptions for settling on something that works:

Prescription 1: (Re)build around your strengths of long, fast corners on the outside and Malik as an eraser and outside blitzer while working your athletic safeties in as quickly and comprehensively as they can handle. Those pieces let you cheat with alignment against the interior run game, jam up the middle of the field for opposing QBs and bring disguised pressure to augment OK-not-great individual pass rush acumen from your big (and medium) uglies.

Prescription 2: Base out of two foundational formations/personnel groupings that keep jobs and responsibilities overlapped as much as possible with two or three core, complementary coverages and pressures out of each.

Prescription 3: Put the classroom learning onus on the players and the game day organization on the coaches. Whoever’s on the headset calling plays needs to know opponent tendency and strength front and back and get the call in fast. Make sure the players know the motion/alignment checks going in - even if you have to over-simplify for a few weeks to pull that off - so they line up without last-minute on-field coaching from the safeties that opens up the possbility of busted comms on the field and requires brains over brawn from your back two.

Prescription 4: Set your DL up for success by getting Poona singled as often as you can, give Omenihu chances to attack the tackle’s outside shoulder from a 4-3 SDE alignment or attack the tackle outside him so he’s free to rip past the guard, and leverage Boyette and Nelson’s ability to two-gap the center while mixing in enough one-gap shots from each to keep the O on its toes.

Prescription 5: Malik is an edge man/rover as we discussed, get Freeman and McCullough up to speed ASAP as your primary second-team linebackers, use Hughes as a jack of all trades to backfill 3-3 Will responsibility and get Roach and Hager attacking as much as possible (while leaning on Roach’s uniqueness to get some unpredictability in the mix). And if we can get Fowler to simply sic’em a half dozen times a game in passing downs, all the better.

Prescription 6: Building on #3, get Jones and Elliott in the mix and live with your lumps in exchange for playmaking. Just align by rules and then use post-snap movement for your disguise in the process of guys simply handling their responsibilities - layer the tricky shit in as they’re able to handle it.

Prescription 7: Screens are a unique problem for this bunch through three games, so our packages have to keep players with a green light to attack screens close to all twins/trips formations and you simply have to stress stay-at-home recognition and keys for box defenders to keep tunnels from outnumbering you.

Prescription 8: Live with some risk. We’re already risky as hell right now with guys blowing coverages left and right - we’re hopefully keeping things simple enough to mitigate that problem, but playing limited safeties 15 yards off the LOS and having them backpedal from there is going to get you cut up far too often. Move them up, rely on their speed and playmaking and realize that you’ve got an offense that can cover your back if you give up some cheapies on the way to becoming truly multifaceted and dangerous.*

Once you’ve got the basics down, install your weekly Belichick specials to force every team to beat you with someone besides their #1 guy. Chad Hansen 12/196/2? Not in this dojo, kohai.

OK, without further ado, let’s take a look at the Longhorns’ new base defense:

Looks kinda familiar, don’t it? We aren’t re-inventing the wheel here, as the 3-3-5 stack has been installed and works well as a base now that we’ve got DL capable of winning battles in the run game. Let’s consider 11 personnel from the offense (1 back, 1 TE/H-back, 3 WRs) as the typical base formation in the Big XII, so we’ll roll with a true Nickel 5-db look to combat most foes. Let’s get a refresher on who’s doing what and where you’ll find them in a standard alignment:

Nose Tackle (Nelson OR Boyette, Wilbon): Align directly over center or as a cocked nose depending on the call. This is your two-gapping A-gap messer-upper who gets to shoot the occasional gap but is usually getting down and dirty.

Strongside End (Omenihu, Cottrell, Elliott): Align in a 4i (inside shoulder of the strong/field-side OT) or 5 (head up over the same OT). Own the B gap in the run game, fight the good fight against the OT or wreck the guard when OT is occupied on pass rush.

Defensive Tackle (Ford, Nelson, Christmas): Align in a 4i (inside shoulder of the strong/field-side OT) or 5 (head up over the same OT). Own the B gap in the run game, work across guard’s face on some calls, get singled as often as possible on pass rush.

Fox (Roach OR Hughes OR Hager): Align to the weakside/boundary, stacked just outside the DT or on the line depending on call. Set the edge, C or B gap on the pass rush, and (depending on the dude) take on some simple coverage duties like dropping to the curl/flat or banjoing the back (taking him if he swings out to your side.)

Will (Wheeler, Hughes OR Freeman): Align stacked over the NT or offset depending on call. Control B gap to B gap in the run game by reading keys, play an aware middle or hook zone or man up the back in pass coverage, occasional blitzer depending on personnel.

Mike (Jefferson, Freeman, Cole OR McCulloch): Align stacked on the inside shoulder of the TE/H-back to the field/strongside, splitting the difference between him and the formation if he splits out. All-around havoc-creator, edge blitzer, quick-game eraser to the field and capable of carrying slots/split out TE’s up the seam or running 2 man coverage with safety help over the top. Key to the D.

Boundary Corner (D. Davis, Boyd OR Hill): Align 4-7 yards off the #1 receiver (closest to the sideline) to the boundary side, align with inside/outside leverage depending on receiver’s distance from sideline. The man in coverage, capable of holding up singled up with no safety help, protecting a deep third or disrupting/rerouting and playing 2 man coverage with safety help over the top. Key to the D.

Field Corner (Hill, Evans, A. Davis): Align 4-8 yards off the #1 receiver (closest to the sideline) to the field side, align with inside/outside leverage depending on receiver’s distance from the sideline. Similar job to boundary corner, the job’s just a little easier because of the throw distance for the QB.

Nickel Corner (Locke, A. Davis): Count from the boundary and align on the #2 detached receiver away from the boundary (don’t include the TE/H-back if he’s attached to the formation); align inside to deny the slant. Follow any motion from #2. Versatile dude capable of chasing a fast guy up the seam, fighting through a block to serve as a force in the run game and playing an aware zone coverage game.

Field/Strong Safety (Jones, Hall): Align 8-13 yards from the LOS depending on the call, shade slightly inside the #2 detached receiver to the field or split the difference between the #1 and #2 if there’s only one guy detached from the formation. An X factor for the D if physically capable (read: Jones) who can cover a deep quarter against a fast slot, drop down and man a slot, play a deep half over 1-2 receivers or roll back to center field. Can play it vanilla or single-handedly elevate the D when Jones is ready for disco.

Boundary/Free safety (Elliott, Haines OR Vaccaro): Align 8-13 yards from LOS depending on the call, shade slightly inside the #2 receiver to the boundary. Rangy hitter who isn’t asked to do much man coverage outside of less capable TE/H-back dudes but who can drop down as a free hitter on the boundary, play over the top in a deep half or range back to a deep third on occasion.

Why spend all that time talking about roles and rules? Roles to understand what you’re looking for and asking each position to be able to accomplish, rules to make sure guys know how to align in the face of motion or shifts without having to frantically look at the sideline (or each other) to know what to do. If the TE splits out, the Mike knows what to do:

As do the nickel and safeties if the offense goes twins to the boundary:

So now that the guys know how to align, let’s talk about how they cover. The majority of our straight coverage busts have come when outside corners have either peeked in the backfield or thought they had short zone responsibility and handed a guy steaming up the sideline off to nobody - or at least nobody who could get over in time. Let’s go back to our basic Twins look and see how we can roll out a few different coverages that meet the brief of A) let your corners know they’re going with the #1 to their side, 2) complement each other while looking the same pre-snap and as the QB is looking down to field a shotgun snap and C) ideally, offer a little bit of post-snap confusion as well (for them, not us). Simplest of all is just bringing some heat with Malik and Roach outside and rolling Cover One:

Keeping things safe with a Cover Three look (which should look pretty similar to Man Free for a step or two if the corners were playing a looser man Roach bluffs a step before dropping into his zone - Locke’s sprint outside will be the only real immediate tell:

Or going maximum anti-pass with a Cover Five, allowing the underneath guys to play an aggressive brand of man and re-routing/funneling their guys toward the safety help before covering on their guy’s low shoulder and counting on speed and length to stay in phase (close enough to touch and defend) up the field to help their safety out:

There’s plenty more you could do out of this set, but those calls do a reasonable job of complementing each other while staying simple, giving you an easy pressure option and always giving your outside corners deep cover responsibility. Even if they blow a Cover Five call, they’re still playing their guy tight and up the field and have a shot to compete for the ball even if the safety help they’re expecting isn’t there. The calls also hold up to motion or adjustments by the O. If the O aligns or motions to that boundary Twins look, Man Free is still easy. Cover Three just requires a little intelligence on which zones belong to the underneath guys (or maybe switching the Mike/Sam blitz responsibility) while staying safe over the top:

And Cover 5 is similarly easy, with the free safety staying over the top of two boundary receivers while the strong safety probably focuses on helping Malik over the top (since Malik could be in run-pass conflict on any play action/RPO) and leaves the field corner to handle business on his own:

OK, so now that we’ve...well, hold on one sec. Quick timeout. Above I referenced two base sets, but looking at how this lil’ fella is growing I’m not going to be able to break down all the variables out of the other base set without breaking the Rivals servers. The basic idea is that the other set would base out of the 4-2-5 alignment that we primarily saw in the Spring Game, but the key thing here is that most of the changes are kinda subtle. Here’s the base 3-3-5 alignment against 11 Twins again:

And how we’d align in the 4-2-5 Base Nickel:

Same alignment rules for everyone in the back, except the Will linebacker is shifting slightly off-center - the Mike is still in his “inside shoulder of the TE/H-back” rule. Where it changes is up front, and the point of this D would be to get a more effective pass rush from four guys by giving the strongside end the chance to rush at the tackle’s outside shoulder from a 5 or 6 alignment and giving the DT more of a chance to torment the guard with quickness. Our weakside DE/Fox pool (which is basically comprised of the exact same dudes unless you want to give Cottrell a spin at 4-3 WDE, which I wouldn’t mind trying now that Elliott can spell Omenihu at SDE) is mainly built to rush on the outside shoulder from a 6 to a 9 (waaaaaay wide) alignment, and they can line up right in that spot in a 4-2-5 or stem into it from the 3-3-5 before or at the snap.

Point is, while there are some subtle differences in alignment here that can serve certain objectives, it’s essentially the same D with most guys filling the same roles and cutting down on confusion. So, a lot of the next stuff we’ll talk about here could work for either “Base.”

OK. So we looked at how our base D would work against the typical “base” Big XII formation. What about others? All the talk of the “3-4 as a base” that has rattled around in advance of the OSU game this week doesn’t, on its face, make a ton of sense for a foe that’s usually in 11 or 10 personnel. But if someone comes out in 12 (1 back, 2 TE’s, 2 WRs) or 21 (2 backs, 1 TE, 2 WRs) personnel, you could choose to match it by inserting an extra linebacker into the mix. But where? The natural thought would be what we saw a lot of against UTEP - the “Fox Force Two” look with two Fox guys (here, Roach and Hughes) playing traditional-ish 3-4 OLB roles:

...but I’d kinda rather play around with a look that gets Malik on one of the edges and thus gives you a lot more versatility:

We’re one truly versatile Fox or offset linebacker away from being able to do some really fun stuff with the front - that role that Freeman is filling above would be murderous for a guy like Baron Browning, or if Hughes was a master of one trade and a bit better jack at the others you’d be fine sticking him on the outside full time and putting Malik back inside. But at any rate, this kind of 3-4 personnel doesn’t feel like the best fit for a lot of our opponents.

So let’s talk how we match up against 10 personnel (1 back, 4 wides).

If our safeties can handle the responsibility, you can match up with four wides pretty easily from our good ol’ base nickel thanks to Malik’s versatility - the good ol’ Dirty Dime concept where he’s essentially a 240-pound dime back:

This is actually a pretty great look for the Big XII. Five “official” box defenders against five blockers looks scary out of the gate, but you’ve got a feisty nickel in Locke close at hand on the boundary with easy safety help over the top, and Malik’s got the field’side C gap locked down - the Nose 2-gaps, the DT and SDE have the freedom to squeeze the B gaps and Wheeler should frequently have a free run to the ball with Malik and DeShon Elliott on cleanup duty. You also align with a nice 3-2 advantage on the twin receivers to either side, letting you throw in plenty of coverage combinations and snuffing out the bubble screen game with numbers and space constraints.

You can bring a nice overload blitz from the boundary corner, with the FS stemming late to man up the boundary slot and the Mike and Will essentially banjoing the back (taking him if he comes toward their side in pass coverage, giving inside/underneath help to their side of the field if the back goes away):

But my favorite thing about this alignment is your ability to throw in a coverage change-up that can help solve our persistent switch route problems while taking advantage of newly rangy safeties. It’s good old Two Read, basically a Quarters coverage that matches the patterns of the receivers to give the D an advantage on everything from switches to outs to bubble screens while giving outside linebackers the ability to help in coverage and still serve as effective force guys in the run game.

Here the boundary side is playing regular old 2-Man/Cover Five, with the Fox serving as a force guy in the C gap so the nickel can turn his back on the play while re-routing his guy inside so the free safety has less ground to cover at the top of the two receivers to that side. The field side runs 2-Read rules, reading the #2 (the H, here) receiver’s route to determine who has who. If #2 breaks inside or heads straight up the field (past eight yards or so,) the strong safety has him while the field corner has the #1. If #2 breaks out on anything from a bubble screen behind the line to a quick out to a switch, the corner picks him up while the safety rolls over the top of the #1 receiver.

The Mike linebacker helps out here by backpedaling up the seam at the snap to stay in the throwing lane and help deliver the #2 receiver to the strong safety. Slants can be tough on any kind of Quarters-type coverage, but a slant to either guy is basically getting thrown into #46’s wheelhouse. Malik has to honor his responsibility as the C gap/force guy in the run game here so he can’t backpedal too deep on run action, but cheating to a little deeper alignment right before the snap can keep him in the throwing lane and still give him plenty of time to fly down on an outside run.

It’s a snap to flip this coverage and run these looks on opposite sides - you probably just try and match that with a late line shift so your SDE can avoid getting sealed away from the field-side C gap since Malik will be in man coverage:

Feels like Malik could easily get out-leveraged by a quick out there, but if the QB missed his read and they were actually running 2-Read to the field then he just threw a Pick Six to Holton Hill. That’s the nifty thing about complementary coverages - they look the same pre-snap, ideally for a step or two afterwards and cause indecision because of how they can punish a bad guess.

That’s also another reason why I believe Charlie hasn’t been much of a pure Press Man guy. While there are times when pure heat and route disruption are a great combination, it’s hard as hell to disguise a coverage or throw many change-ups when the corners are pressed up, engaging at the line and immediately relating to a receiver in man. You can pull it off in the pros when you’ve got years of experience and 50+ hours a week to teach, but in college you’re probably locking yourself into telling the O what you’re running pre-snap and that’s not Charlie’s M.O. He would throw in press as the occasional change-up at Florida and would have a stud boundary corner press his guy when there was no way to sell the notion that he was running anything BUT single man coverage on the play, but he’s tended to favor slightly off man and winning with technique, a good re-route a few yards past the LOS and the speed to squeeze in-breaking routes.

Finally, let’s take a quick look at this package against a Trips look - I won’t belabor all the alignment rules again, but they more or less work out the same to get you here:

This is prime Dirty Dime time where Malik is operating even closer to the box with more potential as a blitzer and severe Zone Read Keep deterrent. You can run all your standard Man Free or Cover Five looks either way, and you can also throw in a a change-up with 2-Read rules for the #2 and #3 receivers to the field while manning up the #1, and (just for fun) use the free safety to bracket and rob underneath the boundary receiver (if someone like Okie State wants to run Trips to single up James Washington on the back side):

Or if the danger man is to the field and you can trust Davante to earn his Silencer nickname in the boundary matchup, you can run a 75/”Three Quarters” look by rolling the free safety over and playing three guys over the top of Trips with the nickel and Mike covering underneath:

There you go, folks - an absurdly exhaustive look at a few variations out of one base that can hopefully keep our outside corners winning games for us with length and speed rather than losing them when they lose their minds while taking advantage of safety speed and Malik’s all-around freakiness to handle stuff on the inside. Believe it or not there was a lot more, but my laptop took a one-hour break to update itself so I’m just gonna talk about screen defense and check out how these concepts might have fared against the plays that thrashed us to this point in the season in the comments.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve a medal. Hook ‘em!

*The second part of this sentence added after relentless nagging from The PeoplesHorn. Some people just can’t deal with a spot of mystery in their lives.