"Are we in fact first account witnesses to the next great defensive mind?" - TXStampede, Burntorangenation.com - January 2, 2012.
Okay, okay. I admit that is a stretch quoting myself in the 3rd person (LeBron James, holla). But is it really too far of a reach? While possibly true there are no more original ideas (with all due respect to Zuckerman), this Manny Diaz defense is bordering on one. And as such might be in need of a name. Seriously. Not too many defensive derivatives get tagged anymore but this one sure deserves strong consideration from the committee.
In reading all the usual suspects glowing tributes to the 2011 Texas Longhorn defense after a season defining conclusion, it is challenging to identify an angle that has not been covered about Coach Diaz. All Longhorn fan has to do is watch in awe the performance in the Holiday Bowl to know just how special first year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz's scheme truly is. And without the over achievement of his players, it is not too far of a stretch to consider a repeat season of 2010 may have unfolded in 2011.
Mack Brown snuck in a post-bowl game press conference the other day providing his thoughts on what faced the Longhorn program going into the offseason and the general lay of the land. As GhostofBigRoy mentioned in the earlier press conference notes, a tidbit caught my eye when he announced, "Our coaches usually visit with pro teams before spring practice. Manny and the defensive guys will probably go back to the Jets, because the Jets and the Cowboys is what they have patterned themselves after." While I did not know we visited in the past, clearly Manny Diaz is not resting on his laurels.
Mack Brown described a conversation during Coach Diaz's introduction last year, "In talking to [Mississippi State head coach] Dan Mullen, when Mississippi State played Middle Tennessee State he was very, very impressed with the defense. He didn't know anything about Manny, but he hired him right after that because he felt like he put a defense together that it was so multiple that it made it tough to block."
Max Olson with hornsnation.com asked Middle Tennessee State coach Rick Stockstill to describe Diaz's approach. "It has the appearance of a very sophisticated, hard-to-learn defense. There's constant movement and constant people coming from different directions and disguises. The perception when you look at it might be, 'Man, how do they get everything taught?' But it's not like that. It's a very player-friendly defense."
Diaz has shown that empowering players to make plays heightens the effort. Sounds simple but the fact is most defensive coaches teach discipline, under pursuit, and gap control as priorities. These are certainly important but are not necessarily fundamental to a defenders charge. The combination of physicality and speed traits are limited if they are not exercised. Diaz's system prioritizes these skills and leverages them to thwart offensive attacks.
If there is a weakness to Diaz defense it can be found on the edge. In the spread happy Big 12, Diaz employed a significant amount of zone pass defense early in the season. The young Texas cornerbacks showed in many instances the difficulty in learning zone schemes. Diaz all but abandoned the zone in the latter part of the season in favor of cover-1 floater and nickel base packages. This took a lot of trusting his young corners and boy did they deliver. But they had help. As the season progressed the front 7 situational awareness strengthened and opposing offenses increasingly had difficulty rushing the ball. The early season quarterback hurries turned into sacks and the mounting pressure at the point of attack resulted in more turnovers highlighted by the +5 effort in the Holiday Bowl.
All-time great Longhorn and Dallas Cowboy's head coach Tom Landry devised a defensive system that dominated pro football for a decade. He called it the Flex. Native Oklahoman, and Oklahoma A&M alum, Buddy Ryan devised a defensive system that dominated football for well over a generation now. He called it the "46".
Both systems contributed to numerous Super Bowl appearances and championships.
Both systems basic principle is to confuse blocking schemes and over-match at the point of attack.
Both systems also offer the basic building blocks of Manny Diaz defense.
Diaz learned his defense not by playing but by apprenticing. His short three years at Florida State as an unpaid GA were spent breaking down film for Bobby Bowden's long time linebacker's coach and former North Carolina State head coach Chuck Amato and defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews. Amato is quoted as saying that Diaz was a "natural coaching talent".
What that unpaid experience taught Coach Diaz is the basics of over matching. And that is one of the tenets for the Flex and 46 systems which is to disguise and minimize blocking schemes, a tenet so simple in its premise and significantly powerful in its execution.
Which brings me to Coach Brown announcing the defensive staff visiting the New York Jets and the Dallas Cowboys this upcoming offseason.
Enter the Ryan's.
In Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden's book Blood, Sweat and Chalk, a biography of Buddy Ryan, Layden describes the fuel behind the "46". The following excerpt is instructive as it emphasizes the underpinnings of Diaz's defensive philosophy and offers a hint of things to come.
For starters Rex (Buddy's son) installed the Ryan family attitude (upon being named defensive coordinator for the New England Patriots in 2005), which, at its core, meant the intimidation of opponents, achieved primarily by hitting and hitting hard, right up to the edge of what the rules allow (and sometimes beyond). "It starts with a common mind-set," says Plank (former Chicago Bear safety Doug Plank whose jersey number was the inspiration for Buddy Ryan's named defense). "And without that mind-set, the playbook the Ryan family has used for 30 years is irrelevant."
Then Rex went to work on his schemes.
Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers had changed the pressure paradigm with the zone blitz (Chapter 18). Rex used many of their ideas, mixed with two cornerstone principles. One: Stop the run. "Say what you want about me," says Ryan, "but if I want to, I'll stop your run." Two: Knock the quarterback on his back, for the simple reason best expressed by Rob Ryan (who in 2009 was Eric Mangini's defensive coordinator with the Browns). "The more you hit the quarterback," Rob says, "the better you're going to do."
LeBeau's zone scheme is characterized by unpredictability within a fairly static 3-4 formation. Rex took the next step, dramatically altering the placement of players on the field. It became common to see the Ravens line up with only one player in a three-point stance and five or six other linemen and linebackers strolling around in the tackle box, waiting for the offense to call an audible before deciding where to attack from, or whether to attack at all. While his base alignment is a 3-4, Ryan's willingness to move players around to anywhere on the field freed him to conceive almost limitless schemes.
"Rex has an immense defensive package," says former Oakland and Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden. "I've seen him do almost everything imaginable. He was one of the first guys to major in what I call 'designer blitzes,' which are blitzes that are dialed up just for a particular game or a particular situation."
Ryan's defenses clearly dovetailed neatly with the changing profile of the modern athlete. No longer is a professional defense made up of cookie-cutter positional players. Defensive ends are faster than some running backs. Linebackers are stronger than some offensive tackles.
Safeties are capable of rushing the passer from 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, bringing speed and power to the blitz from the deep third of the field. "Look at the collection of athletes we had in Baltimore," says Adalius Thomas, who played under Ryan with the Ravens. "There were a bunch of versatile guys out there, and some of them are going to the Hall of Fame."
Since all 11 of Ryan's defenders were capable of blitzing, he disguised his pressures by making it seem as if they might all blitz. Thomas was among the most versatile. At 6' 2", 270 pounds, he played every position on the defense except cornerback. There were other transcendent athletes: safety Ed Reed, linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs and interior space-eaters Tony Siragusa and Haloti Ngata.
The 2006 Ravens led the NFL by allowing an average of just 12.1 points per game and held Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts to just five field goals in a 15-6 playoff loss.
Rex Ryan's defense has no name to put alongside his father's 46, but it is invoked in every NFL game on every weekend. Scrambling, amorphous defensive looks have become common. Hybrid players have become standard.
The blitzing of quarterbacks has never been more at a premium. That is the influence of Rex Ryan's unnamed defense, a link in the chain between his father and the future.
Manny Diaz would be the first to say his work is not complete so long as offenses are still scoring points. As prodigy and student, he still has much to do to stay in front of offensive evolution. "He's a deep thinker and very analytical," Manny Diaz Sr. said. "He's always in his mind, always looking for that new angle, that new defense, that new twist. Intellectually, that excites him a lot."
But as Olson described, "Coach Diaz's scheme is simpler than what his former boss Rick Stockstill alluded."
"You want to have a mentality as a team that they do not want to play you," Manny Diaz said. "I hope now when teams get done playing us, regardless of what is on the scoreboard, that they feel they do not want to play us again for 365 days."
Fortunately Longhorn fans don't have to wait near as long to see the next-level Longhorn defense.
A defense waiting for a name.