Last Saturday...was not fun.
Maryland did a number on the Longhorn defense, but more than anything else the Longhorn D did a number on themselves. Things were a mess from the coordinator’s headset on down, but there were four crucial areas that demand major cleanup:
- Getting consistently out-leveraged on the edge of the box to create immediate jeopardy
- Poor force/contain play and understanding of assignments by the secondary
- Linebackers chasing ghosts rather than reading keys
- Tricky calls getting the safeties out of position for cleanup
That’s a shit-ton to get fixed in short order...but what if most of the fixes are already on hand?
Let’s harken back to the heady days of...the Spring Game, where the Longhorn D took it to the (admittedly over-matched) second-team offense while spending more than half its snaps in a look that could be ideal for getting this ship to rights.
With an assist from the outstanding Match Quarters website, let’s talk about...
If at first glance this diagram looks kinda indistinguishable from a 4-2-5...well, it kinda is. The main difference is that your “ends” are both standing up and flexed a little bit back and a tad bit wider than they would be with their hands on the ground to facilitate both edge-setting as well as dropping into coverage or looping inside on stunts.
Not that we’re gonna talk too much about either of those options on this go-round - this is a very back-to-basics approach we’re talking, here.
The Poonatrator is set into the A-gap, but slightly wider in a 2i (inside shoulder of the guard) alignment to better allow his quickness to bedevil centers while Chris Nelson is in a standard three-technique.
Run defense is at the forefront of the collective Longhorn medulla, but before you can figure out how you’ll attack the run you need to decide on your coverage.
Continuing in our Keep It Simple, Stupid theme, how about pairing a couple of concepts that Texas has worked on since the Spring - running 2-Read Quarters coverage to the field side with Cover 4 Sky on the boundary:
The nickel to the field side (P.J. Locke,) free of deep cover responsibility, can set a hard edge against the slot receiver to create an alley. On the boundary side, DeShon Elliott is free to fill against the run and can still rob underneath curls and such from the boundary X receiver. Locke and Elliott are the two guys best equipped to deal with run/pass conflict, and their presence on the edges makes everyone else’s run defense jobs much more straightforward.
After a tortuous week of dissecting ugly-assed run D frame by frame, I find I prefer the term “jobs” over “fits” when it comes to sorting out who goes where against opposing ground games. “Fits” carries a robotic connotation of firing into a gap irrespective of what’s actually taking place on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage, and that’s not the hallmark of great - or even average - linebacking. “Jobs” sounds a little more flexible. When you understand your job within the context of your overall defensive concept, you realize that there’s a place where only you can get to in time if the play is going to be made. That may be in a particular gap before the snap, but understanding both the flow of the play and your teammate’s own jobs will allow you to fly where you’re needed as the play unfolds.
Here, the defense is set up in an Over front - that places the three-technique to the strong running side of the formation, in this case to the field side where the H-back is aligned. The run game jobs here are pretty straightforward, with one little twist:
We’re a one-gapping, upfield-attacking defense by nature when it comes to the deployment of our big uglies, and we aren’t big and ugly enough to play any other way. So the D-linemen (both tackles and stand-up DE’s) are each attacking a single gap with purpose at the start of a play. The nickel and boundary safety can take care of things out wide, giving the linebackers some simple inside-out jobs to flow into. The Rover (Malik) is reading the C-G-T “triangle” to the boundary aligned over the open B-gap that won’t have anyone else in it. The Mac (Wheeler, or Gary Johnson if Wheeler can’t get this shit) is aligned over the open field-side A-gap and reading the G-C-G triangle with a special eye to how the center plays Poona Ford. If the center blocks toward Poona and there’s no pulling action by the guards, he’ll flow straight to the field A gap. If the center blocks away from Ford, though, the Poonatrator will be working to cut behind the center’s ass and close down the field-side A gap that way. That leaves Wheeler free to confound blocking angles by flowing to the boundary A gap and scraping as needed from there.
Here’s a look at how this Play It Straight concept could look against your garden-variety Power run:
With his tackle blocking down inside and the H-back moving to kick him out, Omenihu closes down strong to take on the kick-out and squeeze the gap as tightly as possible. Chris Nelson takes on the double team and should look to split and disrupt, forcing both OL to stay on him as long as possible. If the tackle leaves him to climb and cut off a linebacker, he should still fight to scrape over towards the playside and make a mess. Feeling a down block from the center and his guard leaving him, Poona takes on the block and uses his athleticism to work across the center’s face and into the field-side A gap.
Whither the linebackers? On the front side, a pull from the backside guard tells Wheeler that he needs to get on his horse. He’ll look to get downhill outside of Nelson and attack the puller’s playside shoulder to turn the play back in. He’ll be turning it in to Malik, whose own read of the same guard tells him where to flow. He’ll pursue inside-out, watching the mesh point to ensure that it’s not a keep by the QB but able to cheat a bit with Elliott coming down to play a keep or cutback. It’s critical that he get over the left tackle’s attempt to cut him off, but if a combo of Cheetah speed and Nelson’s dirty work do their jobs then he should find himself aiming at the pulling guard’s inside shoulder and violently greeting the runner.
How about a variant of the QB Counter look that Piggy used to roast Texas on a spit?
On the back side of the play, Omenihu goes aggressively up the field as he feels his tackle fire out while Nelson fires into the gap left by the pulling guard - if it’s a give to the tailback, they’ve got a shot to snuff it in the backfield or at least deepen/widen the runner so that Brandon Jones (playing off of P.J. Locke’s work off the slot receiver) has an easy clean-up.
On the play side, Poona works into the A gap while Roach, feeling his tackle leave him and seeing the counter action in the backfield, closes down hard inside to take on the pulling guard. He’s got to spill the play outside and force the H-back wide rather than giving him a straight shot up the gut - this is a time when it’s OK to “wrong shoulder” the block in order to ensure that there’s no space inside for a cut-up or cutback.
With the front doing their jobs, again the linebackers have it easier. Wheeler is free to ignore the back’s field-side flow and follow his pulling guard key, knowing that his boys outside have things handled. That lets him get going quick to work over that seal block from the right tackle. As “his” B-gap collapses and Roach crosses his face, Malik scrapes to the boundary and gets ready to engage the arc block from the H-back. Whether he’s able to make it outside the block and turn things back in or just engage it from inside, Elliott can play off him to make Malik “right” either way and clean up the QB.
If it’s a team who tends to like attacking the field side with wider stretch runs, one simple change-up is to align with an Under front instead:
By switching up the DL alignments and gaps, you have the effect of shifting the linebackers (and their primary “jobs” a little closer to the field side to make it easier to run down stretch plays. Orlando seems to always like to keep his Rover to the boundary/weak side, so here we have Malik taking on the boundary A gap (and playing the center’s engage of the nose) while Wheeler has the field B gap as Job One.
Here’s how things could unfold against the popular Arc Read zone that looks to freeze the playside DE and get blockers up to both ‘backers fast:
With his tackle leaving him and feeling the H-back arc around, Roach crashes hard to the mesh point to force a keep by the QB. With the Center immediately climbing, Poona works off his ass across to the boundary A gap while Malik flows to the field-side A to get over the center’s block and take on the left tackle’s inside shoulder - he knows that Poona, Nelson, Omenihu and Elliott have the back side of the play shut down. With Roach crossing his face, Wheeler scrapes outside and attacks the arc block - since it’s an arc and he’s got help outside, he’ll take it on in the C gap to force the play wide.
Here the slot receiver is floating out for a potential RPO throw or pop pass - in the base coverage Locke would release him to the flat and fly down to re-enact Quandre Diggs’ knockout on Patrick Mahomes, but whether he flows with receiver or into the alley the safety can make him right and ensure that all the bases are covered.
There you go - a look at a couple of alignments, assignments and concepts that could go a long way towards getting our boys on D playing both faster and smarter. Sorry that this isn’t very SJSU-specific, but at the risk of doubling down on last week’s arrogance - we don’t give a shit about SJSU. We give a shit about Texas sorting out their fundamentals and playing to their strengths, and some of these adaptations feel like a good way to start down that road. Also sorry that I didn’t get to the likely advent of the Most of Sam Package with a dose of Ya Heard? that’s coming down the pike for the Longhorn O on Saturday, but it’s been a “life happens” week and this was what I could roll out - I’ll try to put up something quick on Saturday morning in advance of showtime.