Offensive identity from defense?
Last season, Texas would have struggled to win a brutal, low-scoring contest like Saturday's game -- the defense just wasn't consistently good enough to win that type of game. This season, however, the defense is clearly good enough to carry the Longhorns as far as they want to go. It's up to the offense to protect the ball better and, perhaps, control the clock -- this is something Mack Brown clearly realizes ($). This 2009 team does not need to score 45 points every game to win.
The logical question, then, is could the offensive identity be changing this week, in the middle of the season because of a desire to shorten the game knowing that the defense isn't likely to give up much more than two touchdowns against most opponents?
Consider the first half of the OU game. After a promising start to the game with a misdirection draw to Fozzy Whittaker, Greg Davis inexplicably abandoned the running game for almost the entire first half and the offense struggled mightily. Days later, Davis admitted the mistake. Way to do some soul searching, GD.
Oklahoma had the football for a little more than 15 minutes in the first half. Not including the last position at the end of the half, Texas had four drives of three plays and three drives of four plays -- that doesn't exactly give the defense much time to rest. Think Will Muschamp might have gone to Greg Davis at halftime and told him in no uncertain, Coach Boom-enhanced terminology that he needed to run the friggin' ball in the second half?
Since opposing defenses, surprise, surprise, have caught up with the four-wide look of the Longhorns, either blitzing like Oklahoma did in classic Brent Venables Reflexive Blitz action -- if Venables ever has his head cut off, he would probably run around in circles briefly and then call for a blitz -- or drop eight into zone coverage, the coaching staff seems to think a change is necessary. Brown said the four-wide flex offense isn't something that you can run "consistently."
Except the Longhorns did run it consistently for more than the last half of the season. All sarcasm aside, Brown is right, though, as Ohio State certainly demonstrated that defenses were starting to figure out ways to defend the Longhorns and as a terrible unit like Colorado more than amply demonstrated. The shelf life of that particular offense and that particularly set of plays has effectively expired as of this point.
Coaches want, need hot, extra Extra Blocking Surface action
It's a surface! On the edge of the line! Texas shall become the running team everyone has always wanted! Three hundred yards per game, guaranteed! Colt McCoy will be able to stand in the pocket for minutes on end! Hours! The Longhorns will hike the ball and, with their six men blocking, run out the clock in the first half on their first offensive play from scrimmage as McCoy relaxes in the gentle, cosseting pocket.
Who is this offensive savior, corrector-man of all offensive woes, soothing balm for GD rash? The second coming of Brandon Pettigrew, crossed with Jermaine Gresham? Not quite, but he was an offensive lineman, so he must be able to block. Right? At least be able to block?
Of course, I'm referring to the incomparable Greg Smith, everyone's favorite Extra Blocking Surface.
Real talk time -- the bottom line is that Smith has five career receptions for 26 yards, is mostly known in the passing game for the occasional volleyball set and can be covered by your five-year-old nephew when he runs a route in the flat. Stretching the seam? If you think that's possible I've got some prime oceanfront property in New Mexico you might be interested in.
So it's obvious that Smith doesn't help much in the passing game, despite the nice play for a first down against Oklahoma where he faked a block and then leaked out for the pass -- that will be about the only way Smith will help the passing game and probably one Davis needs to dial up every game for EBS to be even marginally effective catching the football.
The issue is that Smith hasn't been that great blocking. For from savior status, in fact. The extra protection against Oklahoma in the first half didn't really provide McCoy that much protection, as he got hit 14 times. Fourteen! In one half!
Furthermore, either Smith or Adam Ulatoski missed an assignment or the line protection call was incorrect, because McCoy's first fumble was a result of Auston English coming free off the edge. Completely free, between two players who decided that protecting their quarterback from Engilsh wasn't a big deal. That's not all, as Smith also missed a run block and a pass block and committed a false start penalty. The rest of the offensive line was demonstrably worse, but the point is that for the season he's been merely average both in short-yardage blocking and in normal blocking situations.
He provides quite the surface, though. His back is, after all, wider than any other tight end Texas can throw out there.
That whole "edge" thing
Brown believes that the extra edge (or surface!) provided by the tight end permits greater freedom in the running game, pointing out that Texas Tech only runs three running plays -- the screen, draw, and zone. The counter isn't possible because both the linemen on the backside pull.
So having that extra edge in the game allows the Longhorns to run the counter play, which has been effective at times this season, unless the defense sees it coming and slides an end inside a gap and EBS can't get to him. But that's really a problem of predictability and defenses playing tendencies.
In Brown's estimation, it also allows for more sweeps, like the new series with DJ Monroe in motion shown for the first time against Oklahoma that includes two counter plays that would not be possible without the tight end on the field.
Whither Dan Buckner?
Talk of playing EBS virtually all the time makes it sound like Dan Buckner won't play much for stretches in the foreseeable future. After the Oklahoma game, Greg Davis tried to stress that it was a difficult decision to sit Buckner for most of the game -- the guy has been the second-best receiver for the Longhorns this season and Davis is smart enough to realize that. Perhaps the decision is understandable given the emphasis on the running game, but then Mack Brown mentioned that Buckner has a sore knee. Is that an excuse for not playing him?
Really, the elephant in the room here is Buckner's blocking ability. Remember the stupid shovel pass that Davis tried to run twice against Colorado that everyone hates? Perhaps instead of just making a foolish play call, Davis was testing Buckner to put him in a one-on-one situation where he would have to make the block for the play to work -- he was putting Buckner front and center. Buckner failed. Additionally, there was a bootleg for McCoy against Texas Tech where Buckner was McCoy's personal protector out on the edge and missed on his block, leading to McCoy being dropped near the line of scrimmage when he could have kicked up yardage and a first down had Buckner done his job. Why not bootleg on second and short, it gives the quarterback a good run/pass option. Not so successful when there's a major failed block involved.
Against OU, Buckner missed a run block in his limited action, raising the legitimate question of whether he can provide any help in the running game at this point. The coaches seem to think not. Is it simply a question of lack of effort by the admitted goofball or is he just not any good at it? Perhaps some of it is the scheme, as Buckner could provide some crack-back blocks given his proximity to the offensive line -- heck, James Rodgers of Oregon State does an excellent job of that and he's listed at 5-7, but that tactic is not something I can ever recall Texas using. How the coaches ask the flex tight end to block will have to be re-evaluated during the off-season to develop more ways for the flex tight end to help block in the running game.
For the short term, perhaps, then, this benching of Buckner is both a wake-up call about his blocking and a way to afford him fewer reps to keep his knee healthy, as he has certainly been hobbling around between plays almost the entire season.
The H-back option
Way back in the summer, while I was obsessing about the Florida running game as I worked on my Eyes of Texas article critiquing the running game, I was also obsessing about the possibilities of Barrett Matthews at H-back, particularly running the shovel option -- obviously, the two obsessions intersected. After seeing Matthews lined up on the line of scrimmage as a tight end and how much smaller he is than the other lineman, the more convinced I am that Matthews is indeed an H-back/fullback with the capability of lining up as a wide receiver, rather than a traditional tight end lined up in a three-point stance.
Many spread teams enamored with running four and five wide receivers out onto the field experienced similar problems to the Longhorns early in the decade -- it was difficult to run the football and teams were teeing off blitzing at times. As explained by the inimitable Chris Brown:
Whereas from 1999-2005 or so spread teams thought it to their advantage to be four and five wide most of the game to fix the defense's personnel, in the last four or five they have begun using these H-back types more because of their versatility in the run game: they can be lead blockers, they can kick out the EMLOS [End Man on Line Of Scrimmage] on power, they can pull and trap or lead to the opposite side, and they can be used in pass protection. In this way you've seen a bit of a synthesis with the spread teams in getting what they want and yet co-opting more traditional looks, which used extra bodies for a reason.
From Rich Rodriguez to Urban Meyer to Gus Malzahn, many of the spread gurus in the college game are using H-backs, as Brown points out in his post, which is really focusing on the power running play. For teams like the Longhorns, the versatility of an H-back would work with the (supposed) offensive philosophy of being multiple out of a base personnel package. Texas doesn't have any talented traditional tight ends right now, so the coaching staff needs to adjust to the available players, just like they did moving DJ Grant and Dan Buckner to the flex and, of course, Jordan Shipley last season.
Using Barrett Matthews at H-back is an easy solution to getting an extra blocker into the running game while still being able to flex him out as a receiver to take advantage of match ups against linebackers. Deploying him in a three-point stance just doesn't make sense given his skill set and after seeing the nasty streak that he has in the blocking game, I want to see it on the field.
Practically, though, it isn't likely to happen, at least not now. The coaches aren't just going to create a position on offense they haven't used since dabbling in Blaine Irby-as-H-back near the end of 2007 smack in the middle of this year.
They might completely change the focus, personnel packages, and some plays of the offense, but won't put in the power play using an H-back or the trap and leading plays Brown mentions. Tuck all that information away for the offseason, then.
Sorry, I really am trying to move on...
Running Game Moving Forward
So what will the Longhorns actually do to improve the often-ineffective running game?
Davis commented that the zone read play was a good response to blitzing players because it forces gap assignment football, just like virtually any option play. Why did it take Davis so long to realize what he needed to do to counter OU's blitzes? Who knows. Argh. Venturing back into the realm of the knowable, the zone read may return for the Longhorns until teams really start scraping linebackers and forcing McCoy to keep it every time. At the very least, the threat of the play should slow down some of the Venables Reflex-style blitzing.
The mantra from the coaching staff all season when discussing McCoy running the ball has been one of limiting his hits. In the Oklahoma game, that could most effectively have been accomplished by the offensive line doing its job in pass protection. Fourteen hits! In one half! The danger doesn't lie in McCoy running the football, as he is infinitely more aware of getting down this season and sliding instead of taking big hits -- the passing game is the biggest concern for him being injured.
Therefore, in a strange paradox, McCoy may actually be safer running the football, especially on quarterback draws, where the center and running back can block two linebackers, leaving fewer players in the immediate area of McCoy looking to take his head off than he generally faced in the dead and dying pocket against Oklahoma during the first half. Fourteen hits!
The misdirection draw play used on the first offensive play of the game that picked up good yardage with Fozzy Whittaker is a play that should be used once or twice a game going forward. In addition, the Longhorns have now unbelievably not only called two screen passes to running backs in the last two games, but actually done so successfully. It's a de-facto running play and it should usually help slow down the blitz.
WildHorn dead or dying
See above sub-title. Too much time was spent on this abortion several weeks ago, so I'll just say that the coaches completely half-assed this formation and set it up for failure, just like the Q package. Should have seen that one coming. The only way to save the formation is to insert Marquise Goodwin, who will replace Chiles on the field, ostensibly, into the trigger-man position and actually start running the Wildcat series. And that would make way too much sense.
The coaches aren't completely inured to the appeal of that series, however, as they actually started using a variation of it against Oklahoma. Brown apparently had to bite his tongue last week when being harangued by the media about the complete and utter inability to run the ball against Colorado, but he managed not to prematurely unveil the misdirection and other wrinkles saved just for Oklahoma. Congratulations, Mack, you are the master of deception.
As the WildHorn dies a slow death of suffocation and neglect, the spirit of the Wildcat series lives on with the Texas offense. Amazingly. Of all the (several) wrinkles in the running game on Saturday, the actual use of some series-based football with DJ Monroe, Fozzy Whittaker, and Colt McCoy was the most astounding, but maybe it's just because the shock the massive void of suck that was the Texas offense throughout much of the first half completely subsumed the shock that I felt at the use of an actual, honest-to-God misdirection play, proving that the coaching staff had in fact heard of the existence of such plays.
But back to the series-based football. The whole point of these changes is to stop teams from easily using tendencies to stop the offense. Oklahoma, or instance, is excellent at scheming for tendencies, but last year's game proved inconclusively that Venables is terrible at adjusting on the fly -- the anti-Muschamp, if you will. Or a Gene Chizik clone, if you prefer. Enter the rushing series -- each play works until the defense takes it away, then the counter works. Then the counter to the counter. In essence, the offensive coordinator should have to do nothing more than exploit whichever play the defense isn't covering. So simple a caveman coordinator can do it! Yes, even Greg Davis.
The downfall, the dreaded "c" word that derailed the Q and the QHorn -- commitment. Gasp. Yes, Davis must commit to the plays -- give Monroe the ball on the jet sweep (a version of the Wildcat stealer) with Fozzy as the lead blocker. Yes. Now again. See how easy that is, Greggy? Like taking five yards from a baby. At least. Just based on pure speed. Pure. speed.
Oh look, a linebacker's now outside the box. The Mike backer is pursuing hard -- DJ is fast, you know. Even a safety is taking several steps in that direction
Bam. Running back counter to the other side. Now the defense is being stretched in both directions, exposing a belly as soft as GD's? Quaterback counter up the middle it is. So simple, Greggy. Just take what the defense is giving you. As long as you make the correct call they can never be right.
Now, all the Longhorns have to do is execute, every lineman make their block.
Uh oh. Better fix that, MacWhorter.
Actually, I lied about tucking that information about the power play away when discussing the possibility of using an h-back -- the power play would be a welcome addition to the Longhorn running game. Davis used it once with the WildHorn and Vondrell McGee as the lead blocker, the play might work better with Cody Johnson as the lead blocker late in games, as he has some experience at fullback and blocked well on the quarterback draw last season. Use it with McCoy and simply tell him to be smart about avoiding hits. It could work as a part of the Monroe series, as many spread teams run the power with some type of motion involved to misdirect defenders.
Using the power game would be one way to help the offensive line become more physical, perhaps a critical, and welcome, change for players like Kyle Hix and Michael Huey who are known as maulers in the running game. In fact, the offense may turns to some more attempts at downhill running as the offense morphs. Hint: Pistol formation. Dammit, no that won't happen, but more physical play from the offensive line could be a major part of any positive change.
Downfield, play-action passing
Ostensibly, a major reason for focusing on running the ball is to get teams out of the two-deep look they've been playing and/or keep them from selling out on the blitz, aka the Brent Venables Reflex. The Texas response will be to look downfield more often, particularly on play-action, as indicated by Malcolm Williams being named the starter the split end position.
We've generally beat the need for this to death around here and Brown may have provided an insight into the reason for Williams not playing as much, citing a concern for Williams being stretched too thin with his duties on special teams. For someone who appears to be in excellent shape, that excuse rings a little bit hollow, but don't just summarily dismiss Brown's point about the impact Williams makes on special teams. Maybe just ask the UTEP punter.
The major point here is that it's time to know. Time to know whether Williams will be the long-lost downfield threat not seen since Limas Sweed's wrist injury early in 2007. Time to know if Williams can create separation and consistently catch the football, supposedly a major reason for him not being on the field -- not exactly a secret at this point. Time. to. know. Beyond time to know. Now!
Chicken or eggin' it
Even though the coaches seem inclined towards playing EBS more often and running the football more often, the other changes in the receiving corps should also make a positive difference in the offense. Need to make a positive difference in the offense.
The question is one of causation -- have the Longhorns struggled throwing the football because of defensive adjustments or because the receivers can't gain any separation, particularly the now-benched John Chiles and James Kirkendoll? Most likely a little bit of both and Goodwin will surely help in that respect.
The bigger question is how the change of Jordan Shipley from one side of the field to the other will affect the offense. He may play in the slot position, as Scipio Tex suspects, but the depth chart does list Shipley as the flanker, a position that receives most of the screens in the offense. Perhaps his greater ability to accelerate than Chiles will help the screen game become more consistent after struggling at times trying to pick up yards with the former quarterback. Perhaps returning to familiar routes will help him get the separation he achieved last season. And let's not forget, while Shipley did have a bad game against Oklahoma, it wasn't like he was struggling at the split end position -- recall that merely a week ago the national punditry was discussing him a dark-horse Heisman contender.
But for how long?
The change in philosophy isn't necessarily permanent -- Darius Terrell probably doesn't have to worry about not having a flex tight end position to play, or DJ Grant for that matter. The four-wide flex offense still has a place in the Longhorn playbook. Part of the idea, according to Brown, is to force opponents to spend time scheming to stop the running game, taking away an emphasis on a Longhorn-specific plan to defend the flex sets that won't be used again that season. In other words, forcing teams to choose a focus -- defending the flex sets or stopping the run, then exploiting the weakness.
Another benefit is that early-down running, as well as getting into third-down situations where the run/pass decision isn't dictated by the down and distance, will help eliminate some of the twists and stunts that Colorado used without regard for the running game and Oklahoma mixed in as well -- the Texas offensive linemen have struggled at times communicating in those situations, but this change in offensive philosophy could help mostly eliminate that tactic or at least render it much less effective.
Balance to write legacy
In the end, if this experiment works out, the Longhorns could emerge as a much more balanced and better football team -- part of the optimism that Brown feels when he talks about how the problems offensively speak to the room for improvement in the unit, all from a team that has outscored its opponents by more than anyone except for Florida and only trail the Gators by two lousy points.
It's a measured risk and one that smacks of Brown's conservatism, well placed in this case, this decision to make such endemic changes during the middle of the season without a bye week to further scheme and one that may well come to define the legacies of both Brown and his long-time assistant, the much-maligned Davis -- this is a season where anything less than playing in the national championship game and having a chance to bring the crystal football back to Austin will be met with despair rivaling that of an Aggie trying to come to terms with suffering a beatdown at the hands of a mediocre Kansas State team. In other words, the utter depths of despair.
But enough about the sad-shit Aggies -- this about a national championship, the type of glory that ages but never fades, like Vince Young in confetti.