Kirk Bohls wants a sack. Bobby Burton wants sacks ($). Fans concerned about Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor underachieving only want sacks from the defensive ends.
After all, the Texas Longhorns are three games into the season and only have two so far, 112th in the country. And sacks equal success, right? Right?
Not so fast.
It isn't coach-speak when three members of the defensive staff -- Diaz, defensive ends coach Oscar Giles, and defensive tackles coach Bo Davis -- mention within a week that playing strong, effective defense isn't just about sacks. It isn't. Focusing simply on sacks fails to take into account two factors: 1) the opposing scheme, and 2) the effect that pressure can have on the quarterback.
When Rice came to Austin, offensive coordinator John Reagan seemed terrified to let Tyler McHargue hold the ball long enough for the Texas defensive ends to get there had they gotten a great jump and beaten the offensive tackle cleanly. Reagan schemed specifically to avoid sacks.
To a lesser extent, BYU did the same thing, throwing the ball on short or intermediate routes and mostly trying to make sure that quarterback Jake Heaps could get the ball out quickly. Again, there were few opportunities provided for the Texas defense.
Against UCLA, linebacker stunts into the interior gaps allowed Emmanuel Acho to consistently pressure both UCLA quarterbacks, resulting in one sack for Acho and another that should have been counted, but instead ended up as a tackle for loss on the quarterback, while a Keenan Robinson pressure forced an interception -- better than a sack.
Davis further emphasized those points about offenses scheming to avoid sacks:
It's hard to get sacks because of the way the offense is designed. They put the quarterback back deeper and get the ball out faster. So it's hard for guys to get off the ball to get to them. And like I always tell guys all the time, it's like going out and blocking a field goal. Every time you go out to block a field goal, do you go out to block it or go out to affect the kicker?
So when you're rushing the quarterback you may not always get a sack, but the main goal is to affect him and make him move his feet. And once you affect the quarterback, guess what? His throwing rhythm is off. So that's what we try to do up front. We want to affect him by making him throw the ball, and that's why you look at the interceptions and the things that we've had. That's from making the quarterback get out of rhythm.
Have to love that comparison by Davis, which illustrates exactly why the lack of sacks isn't a major concern at this point. Giles also helped put the lack of sacks in perspective last week in a bit more succinct manner:
It's not [about the] glamour where it's all about sacks - it's all about disrupting the quarterback and [defensive coordinator] Manny Diaz's defense gives us a chance to do that.
...The sacks will come. You can see it [where] we are getting close, but again it goes back to the quarterback hits and the quarterback pressures.
Playing Iowa State will present similar containment challenges as UCLA, in that Diaz believes Cyclones quarterback Steele Jantz has the capability of hurting Texas on broken plays:
You have to defend two plays – the play they call and the play he makes. It's tough to defend.
Diaz asked the Texas defensive ends to play smart, containment football against the Bruins and will likely ask Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor to do the same against Jantz, endeavoring to keep him from escaping the pocket and making plays on the run either in the passing game or scrambling for the type of yardage that can put an offense ahead of the chains and kill defensive momentum.
If asked specifically, Diaz might well say that he would trade a sack or two for the knowledge that Jantz won't be able to break contain and make those momentum and possibly game-changing plays off schedule. His reputation may be as a defensive coordinator fond of wild blitzes and exotic defensive fronts, but at his philosophical core, Diaz is about limiting big plays and to do so, the defensive ends will likely once again play a contain game.
When Diaz does dial up pressure, he might again opt to send linebackers through the A and/or B gaps, the most effective stunt he used against the Bruins and one that limits the possibility of the quarterback making plays scrambling. And in completely related news, It's also the type of blitz that provides the shortest distance to the quarterback, so even if the Longhorns do get a sack or two against the Cyclones, one of the linebackers may be the most likely candidate.
Spending most of the game containing the quarterback is not a glamorous role for Jeffcoat and Okafor, but this is about smart, team football, and both seem willing to provide the necessary yeoman's work to achieve team success even without the individual accomplishments in the form of sacks:
It’s not frustrating because we’re still getting pressure on the quarterbacks, we’re still making plays and getting after it. So as long as we’re still making plays as a team, we’re happy.
And Diaz thinks even talented defensive ends don't have the final say in getting sacks, as hard as that may be to believe:
I've always felt like it's the quarterback's choice whether he gets sacked or not. It's not something that keeps me up at night.
So if Steele Jantz decides that he doesn't want to give Kirk Bohls his sack on Saturday evening, who cares? Manny Diaz won't lose sleep worrying about it.
After all, it's all about pressure and limiting big plays. Not the sacks.