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The Texas defense is more complicated and aggressive than it was in 2011. Manny Diaz is hoping that won't backfire on them on Saturday.
You may have thought that Mack Brown's R.I.S.E. slogan for this season was a cheesy motivational tactic to encourage buy-in from the players, or a subtle mind trick to make you associate the super resourceful Longhorn program with everyone's beloved Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne.
Well you're probably right, but the slogan hints to a deeper reality. Last year's Texas team had an identity that flowed from what they were trying to accomplish on the football field. This year Texas is looking to rise out of the pit and rediscover the indomitable identity that once struck fear in the hearts of
Gotham's criminals the Big 12.
Offensively, coaches Harsin and Applewhite spent last year trying to build the foundation for an offense that would eventually be able to master execution of a few basic run and pass concepts that could grow into complementary and endless play calls that would stress every part of a defense. Because the offensive roster was dominated by underclassmen, achieving the levels of competency to run even just a few basic plays well was as far as they could get in one year. This year they already have a few concepts under their belt with more to come.
Defensively, Manny Diaz had a lot more to work with and installed a defense that effectively combined safe 2-deep coverages with Fire Zone blitzes that marry aggression and big play prevention. It was surprising to realize that Diaz was looking to adjust the defensive strategy for this season, but evidently this year, Texas is looking to climb to the top rung of the Big 12 defensive ladder which goes like this:
Level 0: Doesn't matter
Defenses that are so poor that the nature of their schemes and strategies don't matter because the personnel cannot stop anything.
Level 1: Prevent
Defenses that rarely ever blitz, use their defensive backs to keep the ball in front of them, and focus on making you beat them all the way down the field. These teams usually don't try to dictate too much to offense but merely stay in sound position to prevent big plays and scores, usually focusing on what an offense does best.
Kansas State, Iowa State, and now apparently Oklahoma tend to employ this strategy.
The key to success is in having no glaring holes in the defense that can be exploited, experienced players that don't make mistakes, and a defensive line that can generate a pass-rush with 4 rushers. These defenses also usually need someone who can handle a lot of responsibilities to keep things simple for everyone else.
Some coordinators of Level 1 defenses excel at using disguise or inventive formations to create advantages for their players without compromising soundness, others rely on simplicity and execution.
With a cast of well coached players and a few standouts, such a team can actually be very strong defensively despite the unambitious and passive nature of the schemes.
Level 2: Cover-2 base with aggressive supplements
Level 2 defenses will take advantage of an offense's weaknesses by attacking their tendencies or strengths with blitzes or other aggressive schemes.
These squads often find a happy union between aggression and security by mixing in plays like 3-deep Fire Zones to prevent big plays while generating pressure on the offense. The Fire Zone blitz has become the tool of choice for the bend'don't'break coordinator when he needs extra pressure.
Oklahoma State uses this strategy under DC Bill Young and Manny Diaz did the same with the young Longhorn defense last year and combined 2-deep base defenses with heavy blitzing.
The key is to have a secondary that can survive being on an island from time to time, game-planning savvy to know how and when to attack, and weaponized personnel that can be isolated in favorable match-ups. Examples would include a safety that could multi-task, a lock-down corner, and mostly a dominant pass-rusher who could be fired from different angles.
Under Mike Stoops and Brent Venables, Oklahoma could be described this way, but they were so aggressive that despite the bend'don't'break nature of their base defense, they were essentially attacking the offense every play. They often crossed into:
Level 3: Challenge everything
These teams are playing press man coverage on receivers, always outnumbering the run, and challenging the offense all over the field. Muschamp slowly morphed Texas' defense from Level-1 in 2008 all the way to Level 3 in 2009 with a defense that didn't simply rely on spread offenses making mistakes but was defending every pass on the route tree while also sending numbers against the run to shut that down as well.
Nick Saban teaches defense this way and now Diaz is looking to employ a similar approach. Texas is disguising different coverages, dropping safeties down to play man on slot receivers, and leaving their linebackers in the box to overwhelm the running game.
The problem for Texas has been the inexperience of their linebackers and the growing pains that come with trusting your secondary to prevent big plays with only 1 deep safety. As a team, they haven't fully grasped the coverages well enough to run them as a cohesive unit and the linebackers are not consistently playing decisively or with proper leverage. Currently all the different stunts and duties have the young linebackers thinking too much, when they understand where they fit into all the different schemes they'll find that they have been positioned to make plays.
Consequently, we haven't yet seen a Texas defense this season that successfully challenges and dominates everything that an offense tries to throw at it.
Oklahoma State will severely test the attempted jump to Level 3 with a spread offense that features 4 receivers and 3 running backs with 100 yards for the year already. They've lost 1st round draft choices Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon but the program has grown strong and consistently puts out explosive and balanced offenses around extremely cohesive and skilled offensive lines.
If Diaz has taken a bigger bite than Texas is ready to chew than this OSU squad can and will shred them with big plays in both the passing game and with their zone rushing attack.
On offense, this will be the first time that Ash and the offense faces a defense that can hit back. This OSU squad is only giving up 4.5 yards per play and blitzed Oklahoma into oblivion last year in their glorious conference-clinching win in Bedlam last year. If there are big weaknesses in the Texas offense, this is a defense that will actively look to expose them.
But keep an eye on the Longhorns special teams as well. The new kickoff rules designed for player safety have resulted in a Texas strategy to sky their kicks up like punts that land at about the 5 yard line. That, in turn, gives the coverage team ample time to fly down the field with murderous thoughts.
Texas is getting to a point where they are attacking their opponents in all 3 phases of the game with aggression afforded by superior athletes that are growing more and more comfortable with their schemes and techniques. As Wayne discovered, if you can become a symbol that strikes fear into the hearts of your enemies, half the battle is already won.
Playing on the road against the defending conference champions in Stillwater before contests against West Virginia and Oklahoma will help determine whether opponents see the 2012 Texas Longhorns as a terrifying symbol of aggressive football or just a bunch of young men trying to do too much.