As it stands now, in 2016, the Texas Longhorns defense has allowed a receiver to score multiple times in four of the five games they’ve played in this season:
Notre Dame’s Equanimeous St. Brown — 5 rec, 75 yards, 2 TD
Cal’s Chad Hansen — 12 rec, 196 yards, 2 TD
Oklahoma State’s Jalen McClesky — 4 rec, 109 yards, 2 TD
Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook — 10 rec, 232 yards, 3 TD
The only game this didn’t occur was against UTEP in Week Two when the Miners started a reserve quarterback who had previously seen time at running back.
In total, the Longhorns defense, which is now under complete control of head coach Charlie Strong after defensive coordinator Vance Bedford was demoted following the loss to Oklahoma State, has surrendered a total of 1,489 yards and 15 touchdowns through the first five games of the season.
Surrendering an average of 297.8 passing yards per game and a total of 15 passing touchdowns on the season ranks Texas 120th out of 128 in each category, respectfully.
Eliminating the 73 total passing yards from the UTEP jumps the average passing yards allowed by Texas to 354, dropping the ‘Horns to 126th of 128 teams. Only Rice (355) and Arizona State (404.3) rank worse.
In other words, the Longhorns pass defense stinks worse than one of Bevo’s cow patties baking on a sidewalk in 100-degree Texas heat.
I’ve seen many clamor that youth is the main issue and that Charlie Strong just needs more time.
Youth may be a part of the issue. According to the Longhorns’ most recent depth chart, seven sophomores and one true freshman are starting.
But writing off all of the Longhorns’ issues on defense as youth issues is off base. This is not solely an issue of youth. And really, I’d argue youth isn’t even the main issue.
The main issue continues to be a combination of poor decisions by the defensive backs, along with questionable coverage schemes Texas is choosing to run against three-plus wide receiver sets.
In the most recent game, Texas ran a ton of single-high safety looks where it only had one safety deep.
When running that type of coverage, more often than not the corners made mistakes and got beat, and the safety was too far away from the ball to make a play.
It’s no secret Strong has to win a lot of the games in the final seven that remain this season. But If he wants to give his team and himself a better chance at getting that done, he has to avoid resorting back to using too many coverages that place just one safety in the deep middle of the field.
To get a better sense of what I’m getting at, let’s take a look at a few examples from the Longhorns’ game this past Saturday against Oklahoma.
Example #1 — Baker Mayfield to Dede Westbrook for a 71-yard touchdown
The Sooners’ first touchdown pass of the game came on a deep strike from Baker Mayfield to Dede Westbrook. The Mayfield-to-Westbrook connection was a theme this entire game.
As we see pre-snap, Oklahoma lines up with three wide receivers.
And given that they run a version of the Air Raid offense, the Sooners ran a lot of three-wide and four-wide receiver sets against Texas.
Possibly in an attempt to defend the run, you’ll often either see Texas have two safeties start deep before one creeps up or you’ll see a Texas safety just start out in the box or close to it and cover that zone or a receiver in the slot.
Either way, having one of the two safeties move up closer or into the box pre-snap has been a look this Texas defensive staff has turned to throughout the season, and that was especially true against Oklahoma.
As you’ll soon see below, Dede Westbrook is lined up at the bottom of the frame with Texas corner Davante Davis covering him. As the play develops, Westbrook eventually just has to beat Davis to get open and haul in the touchdown pass.
Credit Oklahoma for the well-designed play. The slot receiver on the left of OU’s formation ends up staying in as if he is going to block before releasing on a short route.
On the right side, wide receiver Mark Andrews (No. 81) lines up as a tight end before running a route up and across the field to the same direction as Mayfield’s roll-out left.
The single-high safety, DeShon Elliott, gets caught sliding to his right (OU’s left) to mirror Mayfield’s roll-out as the tight end runs a route up and to the same direction of the roll-out.
With Elliott shadowing Mayfield as he rolls out left instead of dropping back in coverage, no one is there to help deep when Davis gets beat by Westbrook over the top.
All Westbrook has to do is run by Davis, and all Mayfield has to do is lay the pass out there for Westbrook to run under. Both happens, and Oklahoma scores on a bomb.
Let’s take a look at some more examples...
Example #2 — Mayfield to Dahu Green for a 51-yard pass to the Texas 9-yard line
Down 27-21 with just over nine minutes in the third, Oklahoma has the ball at just about their own 40. The Sooners are in a 3-wide receiver set and the Longhorns are in their typical single-high safety coverage with Haines back deep and Hall up in the box.
As we’ll see, for some bad reason, Kris Boyd stops briefly in his coverage, which allows Green to get behind him. While Haines does stay back, he’s too far away to make the play and can’t close the gap quickly enough.
I have no clue what was going through Boyd’s head. Regardless, he got beat and there was no help behind him near the sideline to prevent the completion.
Oklahoma would eventually score a touchdown to cap this drive.
Example #3 — Mayfield to Westbrook for a 42-yard touchdown
As we see again, Oklahoma is in a three-wide receiver set and Texas counters with its coverage of one single-high safety deep while the other safety is up on the slot receiver.
Westbrook is at the bottom of the screen with Texas corner Holton Hill on him for this play.
Again, Haines is deep and stays back in the middle of the field yet the results are the same.
This time, Hill bites on a sluggo route (slant and go) where Westbrook fakes a slant inside then runs upfield towards the sideline.
The issue here again is even with Haines back, coming from center field, he’s not able to make up the ground to make a difference on the play. Westbrook essentially just has to beat Hill and then hope Mayfield drops it in to him as he’s streaking toward the right corner of the end zone.
So what’s the flipside if Texas runs two-deep safeties? Well, when the safeties aren’t making mistakes of their own, here’s one example of what that looks like.
Example #4 — Mayfield to AD Miller for nine yards. PJ Locke makes the tackle.
This play starts out with Locke up on the slot receiver. Then pre-snap, Malik Jefferson slides out in coverage and Locke moves back (he’s the safety on the top of the screen).
On the play, Boyd makes another mistake and begins to stick with the slot receiver who is running a short out to his sideline.
Oklahoma wide receiver AD Miller gets behind Boyd for the completion.
Miller may not have been able to score here given where he caught the ball, but he probably could have picked up additional yards after Boyd blew the coverage had Locke not been back playing that half of the field.
Against Oklahoma, one could try to argue that a safety was brought up closer and into the box because Strong was more worried about the two-headed monster the Sooners have at running back in Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon.
But those two ran for a total of 262 yards and two touchdowns anyways while Texas played the majority of the day with just one safety deep.
Playing one safety deep in coverage also wasn’t the first time the Texas defensive staff decided to do that this season.
The first touchdown Cal scored on Texas (when Bedford was still coordinating the defense) was against a coverage that started out with both safeties back until Haines crept up and Hall slid into a deep middle zone.
Davis is lined up on Cal wide receiver Jordan Veasy at the bottom of the screen.
Davis blows the coverage, Hall isn’t close to making the play from center field, and Webb hits Veasy over the top (Locke is there too but I’m not sure why since he originally lines up over the slot receiver).
Against Oklahoma State, we see another touchdown given up while one of the safeties (at the bottom of the screen) is lined up covering a receiver. The other safety is on the opposite near the top left corner of this frame.
Bonney gets burned this time (after giving up a huge gain the play before in a single-high safety look) and there’s no safety back to help.
Using more coverage looks with two safeties playing deep may not turn this defense into one of the elite units in the conference. But it could help eliminate the big pass plays over the top, or at least decrease the frequency of them.
And yes, there certainly have been a few occasions this season when teams have scored on Texas even there were two safeties back. Some of the mistakes on those plays, though, were bad decisions by the safeties or missed tackles.
But there’s no denying the Texas’ corners are struggling and failing to play well in coverage. And if that’s the case, Coach Strong should avoid calling single-high safety coverage looks more often than not.
Otherwise, we’ll probably see more of the same against the future spread teams in the conference unless at least the corners start playing much better.