For the Texas Longhorns to improve a defense that ranked No. 66 nationally in S&P+, head coach Charlie Strong won’t just have to address inexperience issues at defensive tackle and a lack of proven game-changing pass rushers, he will also have to coax improvement on third down and in the red zone.
In 2015, Texas finished No. 105 nationally in allowing opponents to convert 44.2 percent of all third downs and No. 103 in opponent red zone touchdown rate at 68.6 percent.
On third down, the biggest issues came during the non-conference season, as the ‘Horns allowed a 55.3-percent conversion rate against Notre Dame, Rice, and Cal, but did improve each month throughout the season, culminating with the Baylor game that saw Texas stop Art Briles and his depleted offense on 12-of-16 chances.
From a single-game standpoint, the most disappointing performances came against Rice and Iowa State, two of the weakest opponents on the schedule.
The road shutout against the Cyclones was especially devastating, as Iowa State managed to convert 15 times in 24 tries (62.5 percent) despite ousting offensive coordinator Mark Mangino before the game.
As is usually the case, Texas paid for those conversions — Cyclones quarterback Joel Lanning ran for 10 yards on 3rd and 10 on his team’s first touchdown drive of the game and converted a 3rd and 6 that put Iowa State just outside the Texas red zone.
On the scramble by Lanning, the Longhorns were in man-to-man coverage and the linebackers had to drop deep in pass defense. When the defensive ends got too far upfield and flushed Lanning out of the pocket, an Iowa State player was able to get enough of the only cornerback involved in the play for his quarterback to pick up the necessary yardage.
The third conversion on the drive — following a 3rd and 1 -- featured the Cyclones hitting star wide receiver Quenton Bundrage on a simple crossing route for 17 yards when two Longhorns defenders carried the the other wide receiver to that side too far up the field and left Bundrage uncovered. A missed tackle by Texas cornerback Antwuan Davis exacerbated the mistake.
In the third quarter, Iowa State scored a 17-yard touchdown on 3rd and 7 when the pass rush was more conservative to deal with Lanning, but cornerback Holton Hill was playing a bail technique in zone coverage and underestimated the speed of Iowa State wide receiver Dondre Daley on a post corner route.
Hill has good speed, running a laser-timed 4.56 40-yard dash in high school, but it’s not quite elite enough to ensure recovery against speedy wide receivers. On this particular play, the Houston Lamar product didn’t display enough urgency to get the needed depth on his drop.
The final touchdown drive for the home team included three more conversions, including a 3rd and 12 that would have been devastating if the score wasn’t already 17-0. Instead, it was just more of the same in a disastrous performance.
By that point in the game, the ‘Horns were so concerned with Lanning’s scrambling ability that two defenders were tasked with the role of spying on him to contain him in the pocket. When the other three rushers couldn’t create any pressure, Lanning was able to let the play develop and survey the field, eventually scrambling to his left to find a wide-open Allen Lazard for a 22-yard gain.
The struggles against Iowa State illustrate the difficulties of going against a mobile quarterback and how hard it can be to balance an effective pass rush while limiting escape routes from the pocket.
The struggles also demonstrate the results of giving up third-down conversions — opponents tend to score touchdowns when the defense reduces its margin for error by failing to get off the field.
Against Rice, the issue was missing tackles — Strong estimated 20 or more after the game, as well as 10 missed sacks on elusive quarterback Driphus Jackson, who gave linebacker Malik Jefferson a tremendous amount of trouble on the day by giving him inside fakes and then going outside.
The mistakes gave Strong a teaching opportunity with his young star.
“Number one, he wasn't going to run back in the middle — he was going to try to beat you back outside,” Strong said. “I kept telling Malik, just get to the shoulder, he's going to come back out. He will freeze you, but he's going to still work back outside of you. We just got to did a better job of just corralling the quarterback, I mean, in that situation, whoever it is, just corral him and get him down.”
As a whole, the defense has to be more tied together in 2016 by avoiding coverage breakdowns, maintaining pass-rush integrity in long down-and-distance situations (especially when in man coverage), and being disciplined enough to keep opponents from getting outside in open-field situations.
Some of the issues were cleaned up through improved experience that will continue to benefit what was a pretty young defense in some key areas last season. Issues of dealing with mobile quarterbacks will likely remain.
Unfortunately, the red-zone defense didn’t improve throughout the season in concert with efforts on third down. November was a struggle, as the month saw opponents convert on all 11 opportunities, including seven touchdowns in 11 trips inside the Texas 20-yard line.
In losses to West Virginia and Texas Tech, the Mountaineers scored three touchdowns in four trips and the Red Raiders scored four times in five trips.
Dana Holgorsen’s physical offense was able to grind out rushing yards in the red zone against the Longhorns, scoring rushing touchdowns on two of the three trips and moving the football effectively with the run on the other.
It was much the same story on Thanksgiving, with a 3rd and 16 conversion by Texas Tech quarterback Pat Mahomes setting up a short touchdown run after a 14-yard run by DeAndre Washington on the first play inside the Texas red zone.
Washington later scored a 16-yard run during a 28-carry, 173-yard performance that highlighted the Texas issues against the run when facing a high-powered spread offense.
So Strong may have to make some different tactical choices in how he chooses to defend spread quarterbacks and find a way to stop the run in the red zone when his defense has the advantage of a compressed field. Being able to trust his cornerbacks more could help divert resources from the passing game to the running game could be a start in the red zone.
In 2016, the ‘Horns will have to score more often to improve an offense that ranked No. 83 nationally in putting up 26.4 points per game, but the defense will have to do its part to allow fewer points than the 30.3 allowed last season.
And that starts with getting off the field on third down and holding opponents to field goals more often in the red zone.