So, How Good is This Defense?

When it comes to analyzing the Texas offense, there is no disagreement that it is a horrific unit of epic proportions.  The only debate is about how bad it is and who should be held accountable for it.  A cursory look at the numbers only confirm what we knew from watching them on the field, and the offense has been so bad that it would have been virtually impossible for this Texas team to achieve the goals we have almost every year, no matter how good the defense and special teams were.  At least they put up yards and points against a really bad team last Saturday, for once.

The defense, however, is far trickier to understand.  While many fans were skeptical when Mack Brown said this could be his best defense ever, almost everyone expected a very good unit that would give us a chance to compete this year (of course, we were also expected a good special teams and something resembling an offense).  Instead, we have been given a mixed bag that has stirred some debate.  The defense has largely been solid and has shown flashes of great play, but has also committed a host of errors, such as awful penalties, big plays, and slow starts to games or the 2nd half.  There have been far worse units during Mack Brown's time (that 2007 defense was really bad), but it is safe to say that this unit is not Mack Brown's best.

Much of their struggles, as I noted in the link above, is because they are playing opposite an offense that is so bad that it will no doubt be a part of Texas legend for all the wrong reasons.  However, I also noted that however bad the offense has been, this does not get the defense off to hook for everything.  So I'll look at the defense, see how statistically they're doing, and try to figure out what the problems are and if we should be worried about the future.

The Numbers

I'm going to just spit out a bunch of stats right now with minimal analysis.  I'll try to make sense of it all later, so bear with me.

Texas' rankings have dropped since the last time I looked at the numbers, mostly because of that thumping the Pokes gave us (which I completely expected, but I'll get to that later).  In total defense, Texas now ranks #8, down from #5, and they are ranked #16 in Football Outsider's S&P ranking, down from #7.  These are still strong numbers, but it is hard to interpret initially.  On the one hand, I have no problem believing that we have a Top 10-20 defense just for this year, not because I think we're all that great but because I don't think there are a lot of strong defenses this year in general.  I feel that last year's Texas, Alabama, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Florida defenses were all better than what we're seeing right now around college football.  On the other hand, there is a little tension between the mostly good statistics from the defense and the mistakes we've seen on the field.  

Unfortunately, the S&P rankings on FO do not split the success rate and points per play, as it was the latter that I was really interested in because it measure explosiveness.  Since I am much too lazy to try to figure that out by myself, I resorted to looking at less advanced statistics that can be looked up on cfbstats.com.  The good thing is that situational stats are available, and this make the exercise a lot more fruitful than it otherwise would have been.  Hopefully we'll see a picture that jives more with what we're seeing.

The standard measure of explosiveness is often yards per play, and the Texas defense is only giving up a strong 4.5 YPP, good for 9th in the country.  However, this isn't very informative because it's too generic.  Splitting this up between passing and running plays helps a bit, and the lowness of our YPP can be partially chalked up to one simple observation:  We've faced way more running plays than passing plays.  We have been run on 442 times this year, good for 98th in the country, as opposed to being passed on only 275 times, which is 6th in the country. Naturally, yards per carry will normally be much lower than yards per attempt and helps skew our stats downward.  This is not to say that the defense doesn't deserve some credit, because their 3.22 yards per rush is good for 14th in the country, but it does imply that the general statistics may not look quite as good if we were facing more pass attempts (on the flip side, you can expect general defensive stats to often look artificially worse when facing a ton of passing attempts, such as Big 12 defenses in 2008).  Pass defense is ranked high at #10, but gets much lower when taking into account yards per attempt.  Our opponents are averaging 6.6 yards per pass, which isn't bad but not great (#41).  This still isn't matching the big plays that we are seeing this defense give up.

Cfbstats.com also keeps track of opponent long plays, which also can be split to opponent long rushes and long passes, and here Texas looks much worse although we are not in the bottom of any of these categories.  For the most part, we're in the top half or the middle of the rankings (Note:  These lists are a bit confusing since they list the worst teams first).  Nonetheless, if you really want to narrow it down, you will find that in our losses, we are 58th worst at giving up 30+ yard passes and 36th worse at giving up 20+ yard runs.  So, here are those explosive plays, I guess.

What's far more straightforward than the above would be redzone defense, which was brought up by learned_hand earlier.  Our score percentage is mediocre (#57), and our touchdown % is much worse (#88).  As far as third down defense is concerned, we're ranked #42, roughly in the top third of college football.  Not horrible, but we would probably want to be better than that.

In any case, I'll end with Football Outsider's FEI rankings, which I think will be the most useful.  I'll just quote the definitions of the numbers I want to look at:

 

  • FD: First Down rate, the percentage of opponent offensive drives that result in at least one first down or touchdown.
  • AY: Available Yards, yards earned by the opponent's offense divided by the total number of yards available based on starting field position.
  • Ex: Explosive Drives, the percentage of each opponent offense's drives that average at least 10 yards per play.
  • Me: Methodical Drives, the percentage of each opponent offense's drives that run 10 or more plays.

 

The differences between some of these numbers are interesting.  When it comes to First Down rate, our defense is ranked #4, forcing nearly half of our opponents' drives to three and outs.  Not surprisingly, this causes the defense to be ranked highly in AY at #7, with our opponents only gaining about 35% of the yards available to them.  However, our rankings quickly plummet on the last two categories.  We are ranked #57 in explosive drives, allowing almost 12% of our opponents' drives to average 10 yards per play, and we are ranked #57 in methodical drives, with 13% of the drives we've faced going 10+ plays.

This Means...?

I'll take a feeble stab at trying to make sense of all this.

Going into the season, we knew there were two significant roster holes in this defense:  Defensive tackle and safety.  We knew Randall was good but didn't know who would step up next to him, and we knew that we would suffer a drop in safety play without the sideline to sideline ball-hawking greatness of Earl Thomas.  This is primarily why I rejected the idea that this defense could be as good as 2009's.  A lot of us felt going into the season that our defense would be very good but be susceptible to two things:  Consistent rushing attacks and explosive plays that took advantage of our safeties (and the occasional Chykie Brown mishap).  Unfortunately, the season has largely bore that out, to a worse degree than we would have hoped.

First, explosive plays.  Yes, we are giving them up, as confirmed by the numbers, but they are also probably a bit exaggerated by some of the fans.  That doesn't mean they aren't bad, because some of them have been back breakers, but they aren't quite as common as we might have made them out to be.  That said, it is an obvious problem.  The whole defense shares blame for this, but it does not help that our safety play has often been less than stellar this year.  Look, I like Blake Gideon and I have often defended the guy, but he's had a lot of rough moments this season, and Scott and Vaccaro have made their errors too.  Like I said, we expected a drop off from Earl, but we were hoping it wouldn't be quite as significant as it turned out to be. The explosive plays tend to be frustrating not because they're overly common but because these are cheap plays.  As our AY and FD rankings show, most drives against this defense go nowhere, which makes it kind of annoying that we can shut down an offense and then *poof, we give up a huge chunk of yards all of a sudden. 

The same argument goes for the methodical drives.  When we shut down an offensive drive, we often do so in a hurry.  But when the offense gains steam, our defense seems to get knocked on their heels easily and struggles to stem the tide.  This, again, can be exasperating because these drives sometimes feel like they come out of nowhere.  Great examples of this would be FAU's and UCLA's first drives in the second half where they inexplicably marched right down the field and scored with ease.  The fact that we are thin at defensive tackle makes it difficult for us to deal with sustained drives, particularly those of the running variety.

This leads right into a so-so 3rd down defense and, most notably, a very bad redzone defense.  While our defense struggles with explosive plays and the like, you can't really say that they're horribly prone to it.  However, if there's one area where you can flat say that our defense stinks at, it's in the redzone.  On the one hand, our opponents don't get in there often, but when they do, they most likely exit with touchdowns.  I think this can be partially be explained by the defense having trouble with long drives, but a lot of the time the opposing offense starts with great field position and did not march down the field.  So what's wrong?  I'm not exactly sure.  Maybe the offense targets our soft underbelly more forcefully or our safeties.  Or maybe the defense simply isn't that great at handling adversity; I called them "frontrunners" in this post to explain their often widely divergent performances, but that gets pretty speculative.  In any case, it's not a good problem to have, because we can't score touchdowns in response.

In a nutshell, an offense should simply be patient when attacking this defense unless they're as good as Oklahoma State's, which I think is by far the best offense we will face this season.  Run, run, run, punting is okay, because not only is our special teams erratic, our offense shouldn't scare anyone.  Eventually, our defense will crack and allow a big run or get caught sleeping for a big play in the passing game.  Also, this defense seems to press when it feels like it needs to make a play, resulting in over-aggressiveness and missed tackles, leading to more big plays.

So who's at fault, if anyone?  Honestly, it's hard to pass out too much blame.  We can be upset with Muschamp for putting Gideon in some situations to fail, but I don't know how much we can fault him for these personnel deficiencies when he's only been here two years.  Besides, it's just unrealistic to expect a college team to be loaded at each position year in and year out, even at a place like Texas.  Thus, I'm not disappointed that our defense has flaws; it happens.  It's functional unit even though it has issues.

I am disappointed in our inability to hold stiff in the redzone and the many mental gaffes that have given up big plays (or huge penalties).  If we face an offense well-built to take this defense down, like Oklahoma State's, that's fine; sometimes the other team gets you, and I did not expect OSU to score less than 30 that game and fully expected them to whip us.  However, while we have faced some pretty good offenses, many of the breakdowns against the likes of UCLA and Iowa State were annoying, and the defense absolutely deserves criticism for that.  We could use some more discipline and resolve, and maybe if we showed more of that we would have one or two less losses right now.  Still, when I look at the numbers, I don't see a bad defense.  I see a good one that has weaknesses that can be exploited, which I can honestly accept.  I get the feeling that much of the frustration against the defense is because of the unrealistic expectations put on them, partially because of Mack's comment about their potential to be the best he's ever had.

To end

The stats were a bit all over the place and hard to make sense out of, at least compared to the offense which plainly show that they're awful.  Still, I think it is helpful for both extremes of the debate:  For those who think the defense is almost as culpable as the offense, the stats should show you that the defense is largely a good unit that has performed pretty solidly over the year and is still one of the better defenses in the country.  For those who think this defense is simply awesome and 100% of the blame goes to our pitiful offense, this should show that the defense has real weaknesses and has messed up several times in our losses.  This defense is not good enough to bail our offense out, and while we hoped for a defense that could do that before the season, I'm not going to be angry at them for failing at such a difficult task.  As I have said before, this defense coupled with a decent offense would give a team a chance to compete for a conference title in this relatively weak year. 

What does this mean for Texas A&M?  Honestly, probably not good things.  The defense is a good unit, but I think A&M has the skill players to put up yards and points against us (at least, enough to outscore our offense), despite the fact they needed some iffy officiating to put up a measly nine points against Nebraska.  As GoBR talked about, we need a good start.  If we give up an early lead like we're prone to, I can see this defense really struggling.  If we get a double digit lead, I think we can largely hold, although I wouldn't expect a total shutdown of the Aggies.  I don't think it's an accident that our two best defensive performances, against Tech and Nebraska, came in games where we got to an early two score lead.  Hopefully the offense will come out with some sort of sensible gameplan.

Whatever happens against A&M, though, will not change my view of the defense and their coaches.  They've largely done a decent job, and I wouldn't want any of them to leave, certainly not Muschamp.  This is not because I think he's the great savior of everything but simply because I think he's good at his job.  Maybe he won't be a great head coach, but I've seen enough to know that he's a darn good defensive coordinator.

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