Our resident X’s and O’s guru, jmlittle, stops by again this week to break down the Aggie defense in between shots of Goldschlager and Johnny Walker Blue.
Beleaguered football fans will sometimes ask the question, “Why don’t we do the things we used to do when we were good?” One can usually answer that question one of two ways: (1) You are already doing those things, but you just don’t know it, or (2) There’s a difference in coaching philosophy that took you in another direction.
For five years and beyond, Texas A&M has had a very difficult time generating negative plays for the offense (sacks, incompletions, turnovers) on big passing downs. Under Coach Dennis Franchione’s staff, regardless of whether it was Carl Torbush or Gary Darnell leading the defense, A&M brought man blitzes and zone blitzes to the table. The real problem lay in the inability to identify a pass rusher who could win the majority of his one-on-one battles and/or a set of defensive backs that could consistently win theirs. While A&M could generate a pass rush in individual games, it had a very hard time producing pressure on opposing quarterbacks over the course of an entire season.
Under the previous regime, it’s fair criticism to say that A&M played a less aggressive form of defense, playing two high safeties most of the time and not crowding the line of scrimmage. Even in 2008, A&M played off the football quite a bit in an effort to keep the football game in front of them and give itself a chance to line up again instead of giving up an explosive play.
In reality, A&M did line up again … and again … and again. In 2008, A&M ranked 118th in the country (next to last) in getting off the field on 3rd down. Only Southern Methodist was worse. In fact, let’s take a look at how Texas A&M has been doing defensively on 3rd down over time:
2008 – 118th in the country
2007 – 106th in the country
2006 – 6th in the country
2005 – 113th in the country
One could very easily make the case based on those numbers that, as 3rd down goes, so goes Texas A&M. After all, 2006 brought a Holiday Bowl berth, a win over Texas, and some very close games against elite conference opponents. So, what makes a third down defense?
To most A&M fans, the answer is “aggressive football.” And to most A&M fans, “aggressive football” is translated as “sacks.” So let’s start with this premise:
“Teams that sack the quarterback will be better at defending 3rd down.”
Here are the teams from 2008 who had the best 3rd down defense by opponents’ conversion percentage:
1 Florida St. 25.75 (T-4th in sacks)
2 Southern California 27.57 (T-40th in sacks)
3 Alabama 28.14 (71st in sacks)
4 Auburn 28.65 (76th in sacks)
5 TCU 28.74 (2nd in sacks)
6 Oregon St. 29.71 (T-4th in sacks)
7 Utah 30.34 (T-40th in sacks)
8 Connecticut 30.39 (T-40th in sacks)
9 Virginia Tech 30.64 (T-26th in sacks)
10 California 30.96 (T-14th in sacks)
There appears to be a weak correlation between the number of sacks generated by a given defense and its ability to get itself off the football field. I mean, the numbers look pretty good until you get to the whole state of Alabama. Why are Alabama and Auburn so good on 3rd down if they’re so mediocre-to-poor at generating sacks? If a team is good at sacking the quarterback, it should be good at forcing punts on passing downs, and vice versa.
The inquiry has to go a little bit deeper:
1 Florida St. 25.75 (T-4th in sacks) (6th pass defense)
2 Southern California 27.57 (T-40th in sacks) (1st pass defense)
3 Alabama 28.14 (71st in sacks) (30th pass defense)
4 Auburn 28.65 (76th in sacks) (19th pass defense)
5 TCU 28.74 (2nd in sacks) (11th pass defense)
6 Oregon St. 29.71 (T-4th in sacks) (22nd pass defense)
7 Utah 30.34 (T-40th in sacks) (33rd pass defense)
8 Connecticut 30.39 (T-40th in sacks) (9th pass defense)
9 Virginia Tech 30.64 (T-26th in sacks) (16th pass defense)
10 California 30.96 (T-14th in sacks) (38th pass defense)
Pass defense is the only category in which none of the top 10 teams on third down ranked worse than 38th in the country.
The statistical correlation tells the story: If you want to be good on 3rd down, you had better be able to rush or cover, and, in fact, both would be preferable. A&M is rushing the passer well once again, and that’s a giant step toward getting out of 3rd down purgatory.
Sticking with the nostalgia theme, I’m going to take a few minutes to examine Von Miller’s three sacks from the New Mexico game and the schemes that brought them to life.
New Mexico shows up on 3rd and 17 in the clip above in Gun Trips Right, and A&M is going to bring a man pressure. Texas A&M is in the even, 4-2-5 alignment it showed for much of the game. The SAM linebacker, Garrick Williams, is in the box with Kyle Mangan, and A&M has substituted in a defensive back for its WILL linebacker.
Terrence Frederick is covering down on the #2 receiver, and Jordan Pugh is stacked high over the #3 receiver. A&M shows zone defense to start, but is disguising man coverage. A&M is going to switch its alignment an instant before the snap, and you’ll see the cornerback on the high side go head up with his receiver as the free safety backs off to play the deep middle in Cover 1 (also known as Man/Free), with the other defensive backs playing man-to-man under one deep safety.
Underneath man coverage, A&M is going to come with #18 Kyle Mangan on a B-gap blitz. This 5-man pressure is going to put New Mexico in a one-on-one situation with its five blockers and, as a coach would say, “Someone’s gotta win.”
The SAM, #8 Garrick Williams, has the back out of the backfield in man coverage. When his man stays in to block, Williams will rush the passer late and ineffectively, but the damage has already been done here by Von Miller.
Either by design or by freelancing, Miller is going to take a two-way go here rather than working outside to contain the quarterback. Miller creates a hard outside rush and then puts a nice swim move on Byron Bell inside for the sack.
New Mexico’s negative play was created by A&M’s staff’s having enough confidence in its pass rush to make an aggressive play call, get up in the receivers’ faces, and get after the quarterback. A&M could have rushed four and backed off in coverage on 3rd and 17, but they chose to get after it and try to go make a play.
Why don’t we dial up that exact same defense again, shall we? New Mexico finds itself in 3rd and 10 here in the second quarter, going Gun Split Twins Left.
A&M plays man-to-man, and Jordan Pugh and Sean Porter will have two-way coverage out of the backfield: Porter will have back out to the left, and Pugh will have back out to the right.
Kyle Mangan brings the blitz to the B-gap, leaving Von Miller one-on-one, and he’s going to use perfect technique after getting run by the quarterback to retrace his steps to Porterie for the sack.
The only material difference here is that the freshman Sean Porter is going to see his running back stay in to block too late and not come with the pass rush. Same result, though: We sack you, you punt. I think we’ll probably see this scheme again.
2nd and 19, let’s mix it up a bit. New Mexico comes out in Gun Split Twins Right and will motion to the left. The motion will tell Porterie that A&M is in zone coverage, as no one travels with the receiver in motion. It’s not going to matter.
A&M is going to dial up a zone pressure from the backside with Miller and Mangan. In a called stunt, Miller is going to shoot the B gap and put pressure on Byron Bell’s inside gap. Mangan is going to take the C gap in that exchange and comes off the edge, but not as tightly as he needs to come, taking a big, looping route to the quarterback.
New Mexico is going to run play action off of a little zone play here, but it’s not going to work very well with Von Miller screaming through their B-gap. Von has him right after the play fake, and it doesn’t matter much anymore that the run fake held the safety in place, because Porterie is on his back.
So what observations do we take away from the statistics and these three plays that resulted in sacks by Von Miller?
1. Even more so than run defense, the gorilla on A&M’s back has been its defensive performance on third downs for three of the last four years. A&M simply hasn’t been able to get off the field. In two of the three plays above, the sacks resulted in punts. In the third, Miller’s sack set up 3rd and 28, which resulted in a punt.
2. While we can’t say that sacks equal punts for every team in America, they certainly did here, and as A&M’s very young secondary matures into an effective pass defense (the other component of 3rd down defense), a strong pass rush will make a very good substitute and should translate into a better ranking in 3rd down defense and more punts.
3. What should not be lost here is why A&M had a good pass rush. Von Miller wasn’t simply going berserk in a four-man rush; A&M blitzed on all three plays, got Miller in one-on-one situations, and Miller did his job. The coaching staff believed in its personnel, wasn’t afraid to roll the dice, and at least one player executed. We’re doing the same things we’ve always done, but, for at least one game, the coaching philosophy helped us do them at the right times and with the right people.