Don't look now, but the Texas defense appears back on the track towards respectability.
Several weeks ago, head coachreferred to the progress on that side of the ball as "baby steps" and it appears that a defense still made up of many youthful players is getting a little bit better every week.
Against Baylor, it was about the two turnovers that turned into touchdown. Against Kansas, a second-half performance that Brown called the best of the season, aided by a reduction in defensive line twists. Against Texas Tech, it was about avoiding big plays and keeping the Red Raiders out of the end zone by forcing field goal attempts on four out of six redzone trips.
Brown spoke about what the defense did well:
Defensively, things that we did well - our run defense was much better. Fifty-five [percent] of the 25 runs were two yards or less, and that's an area that we've been inept throughout the year. Last week we showed improvement, and Saturday we showed improvement. We knew that would be a big part of this game, and it should be a big part of every game plan. They only had one explosive run. We've given up only one [play], in the last two ballgames, of more than 25 yards. They had no passes over 25 yards, which is an amazing feat against them.
The big change was that Diaz stopped twisting and stunting on early downs, the type of calls that had led to big creases against multiple opponents in the last several weeks.
Playing almost entirely out of base defenses against the run, Texas was able to get penetration from the defensive line on a variety of plays. Of course, it helped that the Red Raiders were stubborn running the ball out of four-wide formations that forced the offensive line to leave the backside defensive end unblocked, which allowed sophomore Cedric Reed to make a handful of plays crashing down.
It was the same problem that the Longhorns had years ago when attempting to run out of similar formations with a flex tight end -- the numbers in the box dictate that a defender must be unblocked, taking away any and all cutbacks and forcing the running back playside every time.
The Tech gameplan was clearly to pound the ball with the running game in hopes of finding the creases that recent opponents have found, likely expecting the defensive line to twist themselves out of position a number of times. It didn't happen, and in hindsight Neal Brown would have been better off throwing the ball more often.
As the Red Raiders move forward, if they want to get serious about the running game, they will have to find some way to acquire a fullback, tight end, or H-back who can help out, as those players have been the key in Airraid offenses transitioning to a greater focus on the running game. Of course, it didn't help that breakout star Jace Amaro was not available, though he seems to do more work as a flex tight end rather than playing in-line.
But back to the Texas defense.
Instead of coming on twists, the long runs by Tech came when the linebackers took themselves out of position, which was almost heartening because the problem wasn't the defensive playcall, as it has been many times this season, but rather the continued growing pains of the two young linebackers who play the majority of the snaps in sophomores Kendall Thompson and Steve Edmond.
Diaz believes that experience has been a major factor in the two getting better, as well as the defense as a whole:
I do think that we're getting better because we're playing more. But we have guys that are getting more at-bats and haven't mentioned they've been making more and more positive plays, week-in and week-out. Over of the course of the year, I don't know if we can be more simple than we've been since the Ole Miss game. But it's just a matter of part of it, the simple thing. The offenses we go against are not simple to go against. They present so many problems and so many questions. So part of it is getting an idea of what they're doing. Okay, yes, I've seen that before. Three weeks ago I had not seen this play or this motion. Now we're starting to come around the curb again and see things same as, and I think that helps our learning.
Though Thompson and Edmond did run themselves out of the aforementioned plays, on the whole they looked like they knew what they were doing, which wasn't the case several weeks ago. On one play, Thompson sidestepped an offensive lineman heading to the second level and stuffed the ballcarrier in the whole. On another, Edmond sliced in from outside the box to make a play near the line of scrimmage.
Linebacker things. The two are now doing linebacker-like things.
Diaz had some praise for Edmond and spoke about how important he is as the middle linebacker:
He's making better plays week-in and week-out. The impact is you're going to feel it because it helps solidify you and the middle of your defense. If you can be strong up the middle, that is kind of where, in any sport, that's where it all begins. Steve is playing better. He's making more and more exciting plays week-in and week-out which is helping his confidence. He still has it ton to improve, but it's been fun to see his growth.
And growth is all that coaches and fans can ask for out of young players, as it is hardly guaranteed. Consider that Edmond and Thompson didn't seem to improve much from Ole Miss to Oklahoma and the small improvements start looking even more significant. And are significant in allowing fewer big plays on the ground.
Against the pass, the coverages were rather soft by the Texas defense, with the defensive backs allowing a host of completions in front of them for gains of 10-15 yards, but did a strong job tackling and keeping the yards after the catch to a minimum.
It didn't help that the blitzes dialed up by Diaz were mostly ineffective, which Brown pointedly noted in his press conference. Texas doesn't play zone particularly well, but it might make sense at times to flood some of the underneath routes with defenders and rely on the solid defensive line to get pressure on the quarterback simply by forcing the ball to come out a tick or two more slowly.
The only thing worse than ineffective line games are ineffective blitzes. Texas ditched the former and may now need to ditch the latter in favor of less aggressive strategies. In that way, the extent to which Diaz is married to his favored schemes will continue to be tested. The good news is that the verdict there is more positive than it was merely a week ago.
Diaz had this to say about the subject:
We've always talked about this defense being as attack-minded as possible while being as risk-averse as possible in terms of allowing explosive plays. That's what really let us down through the major course of the season. Whatever the method of moving the football is, we still have to be in the mindset of not allowing people to get big chunk plays. We managed to do a decent job of it the last two weeks, and we have to find a way to keep impressing that upon our players.
At the risk of ragging on Diaz, the problem wasn't the players as much as it was the schemes -- that's not news for readers around here. There still seems to be a little bit of a disconnect between the cause and effect there, as Brown said on Monday that he didn't know why Texas has improved, which is a bit concerning because it is obvious from the film. Perhaps he just didn't want to throw his defensive coordinator under the bus, which is understandable and commendable.
Equally concerning is the fact that Diaz keeps saying his defense is as simple as it can be, even though he keeps blitzing. Perhaps he views simple as limiting pre-snap movement and disguising coverages, but simple would seem to equate to using a base defense on the majority of the plays, and Texas isn't quite there yet.
On Monday, however, Diaz at least acknowledged that there is still work to be done:
The improvement is still there, but there's still a lot of things in our meeting room we're unhappy about. We had a good, fiery chat that the standard we've set is not being met. But we're getting closer.
The biggest problem against Texas Tech came on fourth down, as Neal Brown's offense converted two of three opportunities, continuing a season-long trend. One of them came on a 4th and 8 when Diaz opted to blitz and it didn't get home.
Moving forward, Increased at-bats, as Diaz likes to call them, will continue to benefit the linebackers. At that point, the question will become whether or not Diaz can continue to put his defense in positions to succeed by making calls that show an appropriate level of situational awareness, especially of the risk-reward consequences for dialing up five- and six-man pressure schemes.
Based on the last six quarters of football, though, if the Texas defense can continue to improve at that same pace, Diaz will in all likelihood have a job next season and that job will be in Austin as the defensive coordinator.