The Run Blitz Problem: Struggling With Causation

Cooper Neill - Getty Images

As Texas fans have begun to turn on Manny Diaz, one of the central elements of the debate revolves around why Diaz has adopted such high-risk tactics on early downs.

By way of introduction to this post, apologies for beating this topic to death, but no issue is more central to the current state of the Texas team right now than the defensive struggles, many of which boil down to the interplay between the efforts of the linebackers and how those problems have led to bigger defensive meltdowns.

Who really wants to talk about how well David Ash is playing when there are catastrophes about?

At the center of the discussion are the run blitzes employed by defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. Now, to call a blitz a run blitz is something of a misnomer -- after all, if Diaz was smart enough to know if the play is going to be a run or a pass prior to the play, it would be an awful lot easier to stop.

Assuming that the defense can execute the call, which they weren't able to do late against West Virginia when the calls were made to stop the run, but the defense couldn't make plays.

And therein lies one of the problems.

Back to the point though -- a blitz is a blitz is a blitz. Calling it a run blitz is an after-the-fact call. When a defensive coordinator calls a blitz and the offense runs the ball, it ends up being called a run blitz instead of just a blitz.

To back up a little bit, as things start to ramble and wander here, it's important to understand some things about the Texas defense, since there's still a lack of perspective on this issue.

First of all, there's a new paradigm in college football, and particularly the Big 12. It's not entirely new, as spread offenses have been around for some time. What is new is how coordinators like Todd Monken at Oklahoma State and Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia are using the run game to make their passing offenses that much more prolific.

Secondly, the stats tell a significant tale. A significantly different tale from the popular narrative. And now raw stats either, the opponent-adjusted ones like S&P+, the best easy measurement of the quality of an offense or defense out there.

If you're looking at total yards or even scoring defense, you're living in the past, brother (or sister).

According to S&P+, Texas has faced three of the top six offenses in the country already. In the last three weeks, actually, with Oklahoma State ranking second in rushing offense, West Virginia sixth, and Ole Miss 14th.

As a result, the raw defensive numbers look terrible -- Texas is 95th in the country in the S&P measurement, which isn't adjusted for opponents. After the adjustments? Well, the case for tarring and feathering Diaz and dragging him through the streets of Austin starts to lose some credibility, as the Longhorns are 12th in the country overall, and 10th against the run.

That's going over some redundant ground, but clearly the point hasn't quite set in yet. The point being that the Longhorns aren't terrible on defense, they just haven't been as effective stopping the run as would be ideal, with the key being that elite defenses wouldn't be expected to do much better.

Now, there are real issues facing the Texas defense, even with the number of missed tackles dropping from 12 to seven over the last week, a significant improvement that would be a long way towards limiting long touchdown plays if it continues moving forward.

The biggest issue right now is the interplay between how the linebackers are performing and those blitzes, as briefly elucidated earlier before the detour.

There's plenty of visual evidence from the last several weeks of Texas linebackers showing an inability to beat blocks, leaving them blocked at the second level. In fact, the Longhorns are actually pretty awful.

From KC Joyner of ESPN ($):

To understand just how bad this D is at stopping ground attacks, first look at its current good blocking rate (GBR), which gauges how often a defense allows an offense to give its ballcarriers good blocking. Texas' opponents have racked up a ridiculously high 61.1 percent GBR, which is far above the 45-48 percent level that serves as the rough median mark.

In other words, Texas is significantly worse than average at beating blocks.

The results have been ugly:

Then look at the Longhorns' 11.2-yard showing in the good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) metric that measures how productive opposing ballcarriers are when they are given good blocking. Even the most explosive collegiate running backs rarely make it to the double-digit level in GBYPA, and Texas has allowed a composite collection of three foes to average that.

What Joyner is saying is that the problem may not be in scheme as much as it is in players not making plays, citing gap control, an inability to beat blocks, and poor run support from the safeties as the primary culprits.

In fact, Joyner continued his article with an anecdote from "The Education of a Coach" that expounds on that theme of scheme versus personnel:

Halberstam describes a scene from a preseason scrimmage in which Bill Belichick has intentionally placed the Giants in the wrong defense to stop the run. Pepper Johnson, New York's young signal caller, frequently looked to the sideline for a defensive adjustment and Belichick would not give him one even though the defense was getting gashed by the Browns' rushing attack.

Once the Giants finally made a defensive stand, they came out of the game expecting Belichick to praise them for stopping the Browns, but he instead started berating them by saying, "You're with the New York Giants now! I don't care what you did in college. I don't care whether you were an All-American! Here you stop the run! I do not care what defense you're caught in! You stop the run! They don't run against us! They never run against the Giants! And they never, never run against us up the middle! If we can't stop them any other way, we stop them with pure physical ability."

Note those last three words -- pure physical ability. Belichick had learned the same lesson that Walsh did, which is that defense is more about talent than it is about scheme. If a team has it, it should be able to stop the run no matter what.

Want to argue about whether scheme or personnel is more important on defense? You would be arguing with Belichick and Bill Walsh, two guys that know a little bit about football.

Consider as well that Texas is giving up less than a yard per carry when they beat blocks. If the scheme of Diaz was so unsound, wouldn't the Longhorns still be giving up yardage, even without the offense executing better than the defense?

Now, all that isn't necessarily to defend the practice of blitzing on early downs, especially the use of twists from the defensive line, which should be capable of standing up at the point of attack without having to resort to games like that.

Should be, but may not be. And if it isn't, that's on Oscar Giles and Bo Davis, because they're the coaches directly responsible for teaching the techniques that allow their players to separate from opponents.

Something else to consider, though -- if the linebackers aren't beating blocks, perhaps Diaz is blitzing so much because he knows that he can't sit back and be passive, because the result would end up being even worse than it is right now by reducing his ability to inflict any type of negative plays.

When Texas does get offenses behind the chains, the defense is excellent -- second in the country on passing downs, in fact.

Instead of seeing Diaz as some mad gambler who doesn't understand the fundamentals of defense, it may make more sense (and be more accurate) to see him as a defensive coordinator looking for answers to cover up deficiencies in how his talent is producing

In the end, the assessment of how poorly Diaz is coaching right now comes down to causation -- is he blitzing so much on early downs because he's basically an idiot or because the linebackers can't beat blocks?

It may be that Diaz doesn't really have a choice here.

The Longhorns went through this last season. The problems against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma in 2011 weren't because Diaz was or is a bad coach. It was because the talent hadn't yet caught up with the scheme. When it did, Texas was lights out.

The learning curve may not be as steep this season with younger players who are adjusting to the speed of the game and trying to learn the scheme. Diaz does see progress in that respect and getting Jordan Hicks back could go a long ways towards covering up some of those deficiencies.

And then maybe Diaz will have a few more options in how he can defend opposing running games.

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