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Predictable blitz packages hurt the Texas defense on third downs in 2018

During preseason preparations, head coach Tom Herman and his staff have apparently identified a reason for the team’s poor performance on the money down last season.

NCAA Football: Iowa State at Texas John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

Why did the third-down defense for the Texas Longhorns suffer so badly in 2018? During spring practice, head coach Tom Herman suggested that self-scouting found a possible answer.

Luck certainly played a role in the absence of defensive touchdowns for Texas in 2018 after leading the nation with seven in Herman’s first season, but third-down defense was the more significant and related issue for Todd Orlando’s second defense — the Horns dropped from No. 3 nationally in 2017 (27.1 percent) to No. 109 in 2018 (44.3 percent).

Orlando’s initial results on third down made that Texas defense rank as the Big 12’s best in the last decade in that regard, dating back to the 2009 group that played for a national championship.

The drop off caused considerable consternation for Orlando, as he continually mentioned the importance of turnovers and third-down defense to winning in the Big 12. Total yardage doesn’t matter — it’s all about getting off the field without giving up any points.

In assessing the issue, Herman cited the lack of elite pass rushers beyond Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year Charles Omenihu as a factor in the third-down struggles last season, but also shared the most-easily correctable cause.

“We talked about mixing some different coverages up with our blitzes,” Herman said. “Quarterbacks are so smart these days, they’re so well coached, so if you show a certain blitz — maybe it’s the Mike and the nickel — if 95 percent of the time it’s X coverage, he’s going to know where to go with the football.”

Clearly, Orlando was getting too predictable with the coverages behind his favored blitzes and the Horns got burned last season as a result — it would certainly explain why so many blitzes seemed to hit just a little bit late and without the right amount of confusion. By breaking tendency and showing more coverage mixes behind blitzes this season, Herman hopes that he can make the quarterback’s job more difficult.

Adopting the Lightning package into a talented, experienced defense helped Texas thrive as many Big 12 coaches faced Orlando for the first time. After losing three key pieces up the middle of his defense — Poona Ford, Malik Jefferson, and DeShon Elliott — Orlando faced the conference schedule for the second time without enough counters to keep offenses off balance.

The difference between Will Grier or Kyler Murray preparing all week to make a certain throw to beat a certain coverage they know they’re going to get behind a certain blitz and having some uncertainty introduced is significant. Especially on third down when the defense might have been on the field for six or seven plays in quick succession without a substitution. Fatigue and predictable coverages behind a blitz are a bad combination.

Injuries and suspensions certainly hurt the defense when it struggled against Oklahoma State, West Virginia, and Texas Tech, but don’t really explain a healthy group allowing Baylor to convert 8-of-17 attempts (47.1 percent). Of course, half the conference also ranked in the top 30 nationally in third-down conversion percentage.

As a result of those struggles, the staff realizes the need to find some answers in a conference with a reputation for chewing up defensive coordinators — Texas was quite a detour for the career path of Manny Diaz — and just added three football analysts with potentially relevant insight.

The lack of an elite pass rusher is a major concern, as Omenihu’s breakthrough wasn’t entirely shocking since he’d always had some highly projectable attributes, but there’s no one with a similar profile on this team. There aren’t any preseason Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year candidates here.

So as Orlando continues to immerse himself in arguably the most important offseason of his coaching career, he’ll face the challenge of designing a defense that can keep opposing offenses off balance to get off the field more often on third downs and create turnovers without an elite pass rusher. And will have to do so with eight new starters.

Texas pays Orlando $1.7 million to be one of the best in the country at solving those types of problems and he’s got enough challenges to make him earn every bit of that salary in what won’t be a defining season for him, but one that will provide answers about which defensive season at Texas was the greater aberration.