To Blitz Or Not To Blitz: The West Virginia Conundrum

Jared Wickerham - Getty Images

On the surface, given Maryland's success blitzing West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, it would seem that applying pressure early and often in the form of extra defenders crashing into the backfield is a good strategy for Texas. Unfortunately, the calculus isn't that simple.

If the Baylor game provided one overwhelming lesson about what not to do on defense against the high-octane West Virginia passing attack, it's that sitting back with eight players in coverage is a recipe for disaster. Like, a giving-up-70-points type of disaster.

In contrast, Maryland brought plenty of blitzes against quarterback Geno Smith and held the Mountaineers to only three touchdowns on the day.

So, bring the blitzes, right? Not so fast.

In going back and looking at the numbers pulled by Bill Connelly, the individual effectiveness of the blitzes is a little bit questionable.

Actually, Maryland employed a variety of strategies in the game. Smith went 25 of 28 for 410 yards against Baylor when the Bears used only three rushers. Against the Terrapins, the Heisman frontrunner was seven of nine for 123 yards. So yeah, that clearly doesn't work, according to the numbers.

But what about those blitzes? Facing five or more rushers, Smith completed 73% of his throws, at 7.9 yards per attempt. Numbers lower than his season averages, but still impressive. Even when Maryland brought the house (six or more defenders), Smith still completed three of four passes for 32 yards.

Connelly followed with this statement:

Facing a blitz, Smith is simply going to go into robot mode, identify where he's throwing the ball before the snap, and fire off a quick pass for a short gain, one that can become a long gain with a missed tackle. One almost thinks it is good to blitz, not because Smith will end up on his back, but because Smith will only have time to beat you for six to 10 yards at a time instead of destroying you deep.

As long as the defense can make tackles after those short completions, blitzes can be an effective tool in keeping the yards per completion numbers down. Of course, tackling will probably be a bigger problem for Texas than devising blitzes to force Smith to get the ball out quickly and underneath.

The other option, of course, is to rush four, which worked better for Maryland than either of the other plans of attack:

Against a four-man rush, Smith's quick passes were efficient but only marginally successful. Smith completed 11 of 17 passes for 60 yards and was sacked once, averaging just 2.7 yards per pass attempt.

The last number is quite extraordinary against a quarterback who averages more than 11 yards per attempt on the season

However, viewing those numbers in a vacuum doesn't provide the whole story. Part of what made the four-man rushes work for Maryland was the fact that they were able to disguise coverages much of the time -- show blitz and then drop into the short passing lanes to either disrupt Smith or quickly bring down receivers after the catch. As a result, it's difficult to divorce the two strategies.

Without blitzing some and disguising coverage -- simply giving Smith the same basic look all the time -- the star quarterback will essentially do what he did against Baylor, which is pick a defense apart, relying on a clear pre-snap read.

Besides the Maryland blueprint, LSU earned a victory over West Virginia last season with a plan elucidated by Nickel Rover:

LSU brought a lot of disguise, and moved their secondary around while executing an overall gameplan of keeping the ball in front of their athletes with deeply aligned Cover-2 and Cover-3 defenses and Fire Zones.

Sounds like something that Texas could have a decent change of executing.

For a team featuring a secondary that is the primary culprit in all the missed tackles this season, blitzing consistently exposes the back five or six (depending on whether Texas opts to play nickel or dime on Saturday) to situations where they have to make touchdown-saving tackles.

Maryland only missed three tackles on 17 short passes, averaging less than six yards after the catch, with the exception of a 44-yard catch-and-run by senior wide receiver Tavon Austin on a crossing route.

Can Texas manage something similar? It would sure be a sad day to tackle more poorly than Maryland did against the same team.

Additionally, West Virginia has some answers to blitzes in the form of the wide receiver screen game, where Austin can do tremendous damage. Throw in crossing routes like the one Austin took to the house over a possibly vacated middle of the field and the risks start adding up quickly in terms of bringing extra defenders on a high number of plays.

Back on the Texas side, disguising coverages isn't the easiest task either with a group of linebackers who played slowly and indecisively against Oklahoma State. The best gift Diaz can give them this week is to find a way to simplify the scheme enough to let them play quickly and with confidence.

The biggest legitimate criticism coming out of the narrow victory over the Pokes was Diaz asking his players to do too much, with too many shifts before the snap and too schemes that are hamstringing players instead of helping them.

Scipio Tex took it to Diaz in that regard in his defensive Post-Mortem:

Basically, we're breaking down at a fundamental level. And we have players behaving like automatons executing single assignments within a specific call against a specific offense instead of applying broad principles of football and good teaching that will help them recognize and win against 99% of the game situations they'll encounter. We're Carl Reesing our LBs with mindless run blitzes on one gap trying to outguess the opposing coordinator, our DTs aren't transcendent enough to cover two or three gaps at once, our DEs were were neutralized with simple containment threats, and the secondary continues to tackle like gridiron Washington Generals.

Against the West Virginia run game, the good news is that Diaz likely won't feel the need to be so aggressive with his linebackers attacking the line of scrimmage. However, if the Longhorns do start getting gashed by a run game that uses the exact same concepts as Oklahoma State, just with deficits in skill talent, offensive line talent, and coaching, Texas will be in for a long night and will have a hard time holding West Virginia under 50 points. A scary proposition.

Otherwise, Diaz will have to strike the delicate balance of changing up pre-snap looks enough to keep Geno Smith from identifying the defense before he has the football in his hands, while still giving his players something that they can execute. Something unlike the Oklahoma State gameplan, basically.

Nickel Rover provided a prescription in his work:

So Texas needs to have one major base coverage to use with all the players well versed in how it will work against the major concepts in the WV playbook. I suggest 2-Read.

Then they need a couple of change-ups so that they can bring some disguise and shift the strengths and weaknesses of the defense around. Cover-3 cloud has been a good look for us, particularly against Trips. We can also mix 2-Read with Cover-5, straight up press-man defense with 2 safeties deep.

Then of course, we should have a barrage of Fire Zones specifically designed for the WV protection schemes and to take away their major concepts. A Fire Zone to kill a stick route on 3rd and 6, a Fire Zone to blow up their Tavon Austin sweep plays, etc.

Sounds easier said than done, no?

With the shine starting to come off Diaz, he's under a significant amount of pressure to at least devise a more sound gameplan this week, because when Texas fans fully turn on someone, it's not a pretty sight. It may not be quite that dire yet, but the natives are getting restless.

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