Few things are more back-breaking for a defense than to give up long third down conversions on quarterback scrambles, but that was exactly what happened to the Texas Longhorns defense numerous times last Thursday against the Iowa State Cyclones.
It helped allow quarterback Sam Richardson to convert 7-of-11 third downs throughout the first half. Richardson finished the game with 83 rushing yards, but after taking out the five sacks that resulted in 21 lost yards, he ran 12 times for 104 yards on the day.
So what happened to the Texas defense that allowed Richardson to break contain so many times? Let's break it down.
The first successful scramble from Richardson came in the first quarter.
Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat tries a stab move, but doesn't have arm length or strength to execute it as Alex Okafor was able to do so successfully last season, defensive tackle Malcom Brown makes an inside move and can't quite keep the guard's hands off of himself enough to make a play, but does pressure Richardson into the B gap vacated by the two Texas defenders.
Richardson scrambles and slides for a first down as Tim Cole gets caught between trying to pick up the running back out of the backfield and stopping Richardson, lacking the lateral quickness to accomplish the latter.
It wasn't until the second quarter that Richardson started doing consistently serious damage to the Texas defense with his feet on scrambles.
The first such scramble was the most painful -- Texas had backed up Iowa State to their own end zone and looked poised to quickly get off the field with a three-and-out stop by the defense.
After trying the stab move earlier, Jeffcoat hits the Iowa State left tackle with an inside move this time. Unfortunately, defensive tackle Desmond Jackson tries an outside pass-rushing move and vacates the interior gap, through which Richardson runs for the first down. And though the Instagram post terms Jeffcoat's pursuit as a half jog, upon further review it looks like he might deserve credit for a full jog.
So good for him.
Five plays later, the Texas defense had forced another third and long -- after giving one up when Quenton Bundrage punked Carrington Byndom despite being interfered with.
The new twist on the same story is that defensive coordinator Greg Robinson dials up pressure with his linebackers and twists the defensive tackles. The only thing those four players accomplish is managing to all end up in the same spot, as Jeffcoat goes back to an outside pass rush and fails to put any pressure on the quarterback, but does leave a gaping running lane through which he can escape.
Richardson obliges, picking up 21 yards because, well, the linebackers are both caught up in that mass of players at the line of scrimmage and don't have the recovery speed to quickly chase down the athletic Richardson.
The first and most glaring problems relates to the coordination of pass rushes from the Texas defensive linemen. Jeffcoat can't afford to try outside pass-rushing moves against a mobile quarterback, especially since his quickness isn't elite enough to win with a pure speed rush and though he is good technically, he doesn't have the physical tools of Alex Okafor in terms of length and strength.
In fact, while a bullrush would probably be preferable in this type of situation, Jeffcoat doesn't have the lower body strength or the upper body strength to execute that move effectively, but he should at least try in the future because failing to get much displacement of the offensive tackle is still better than getting so far upfield.
And the defensive tackles have to be aware of where the defensive end is going to be, so that both don't end up in the same rushing lane. It was a problem against BYU on some scrambles by Cougar quarterback Taysom Hill and the Texas defense clearly hasn't fixed them yet.
Head coach Mack Brown took responsibility for giving up those runs in his Monday media availability, saying that the Longhorns had worked on maintaining their rushing lanes during practice last week.
"Yeah, that's on us as coaches," Brown said. "We've got to get the guys in the right gaps, and we were getting pressure. We were running by them. So you've got to have more controlled pass rush and you've got to make sure you get in the right lanes, and that's something that we were disappointed in because we had talked about it last week, we worked on it last week, it didn't get done, and we've got to do a better job this weekend or Bell will be like Sam Richardson, and any time they've got a 3rd down or covering well, they're going to just run for the 1st down, so we can't do that."
On a wider scale, a related problem is the continued inability of Duane Akina-taught secondaries to defend in zone coverage, a critical ability to have against running quarterbacks -- as much as the defensive line was responsible for Richardson escaping the pocket, playing zone defense, where the defenders keep their eyes on the quarterback, offers a much better opportunity to identify the quarterback leaving the pocket and rally to the football.
Even if the defensive line fixes their gap integrity on pass rushes, quarterbacks with scrambling ability will continue to pose dangerous problems for the Texas defense because the Longhorns play almost exclusively man coverage.
The immediate task for Robinson and the two defensive line coaches at Texas is to make sure that the linemen understand that they have to operate as a coordinated unit on pass rushes or risk continuing to give up gut-punch third-down conversions.