Against the Kansas Jayhawks in the eighth game of the 2012 season, Art Briles finally replaced Jared Salubi in the "lightning" part of Baylor's "thunder and lightning" tailback combo and began to give more carries to Oregon transfer Lache Seastrunk.
Navigating the enormous holes afforded to Baylor running backs by their run package, Salubi had managed only four yards per carry on the year and 464 total rushing yards.
Seastrunk had demonstrated some dazzling speed and elusiveness over the course of the season, but he also a tendency to give up free yards in order to dance outside in hopes of hitting a home run. However, entrusted with a featured role he propelled Baylor to a strong finish and dropped 681 rush yards in five games, four of which were Baylor victories over such teams as Kansas, Oklahoma State, No. 1 (at the time) Kansas State, and Texas Tech.
Perhaps more worrisome, at the same time that Seastrunk was elevated over Salubi, the Baylor defense slowly improved into a mediocre-to-decent unit. There was precious little on film from the 2012 season that indicated how one might go about stopping the Baylor attack.
In fact, there is precious little on film from either of the last two seasons to indicate how a team could prepare for and stifle the Bears mauling offense. Many of the most talented units that opposed them were still gashed and exposed, including 2011 Top 10 S&P+ defenses at Texas and Oklahoma. However, in addressing each of the three main components of the Baylor attack (formations, holistic concepts, tactics) there are some defensive responses that just might be executed someday on a level comparable to how Baylor's offense performs on a weekly basis.
They'd better be, because the Bear offense isn't getting any less talented, nor is their defense getting any worse.
No. 1: The Formations
Nearly all of the Big 12 is utilizing either the 4-3 defense with nickel personnel, or the more permanently nickel-based 4-2-5 of Gary Patterson and the TCU Horned Frogs. The more successful efforts in 2012 were those initiated by Oklahoma, Iowa State, and TCU, who all fit that description.
The latter two teams played mostly 4-2 personnel, while Oklahoma followed Mike Stoops' overall gameplan for the 2012 season of using Dime personnel against four-WR formations in order to feature the necessary athleticism and cover skills to avoid being lit up by spread passing games.
TCU and Iowa State placed a lot more trust in their linebackers and were thus able to achieve the essential goal of stopping the Baylor running game. In the four games over the last two years in which Baylor was held below 30 points, they were held below four yards per carry in each contest. If you can avoid being gashed by the Bears' run game, their explosive play-action strikes become considerably less dangerous. It's also more difficult to complete accurate screen passes than it is to hand the ball to a back.
However, if you're going to leave your linebackers on the field to try and stop Baylor, you'll have to help them out a lot with your alignments.
Iowa State left their corners without deep help routinely on first and second down, either with single-high safety coverages like above or in two-deep coverage shells that still kept six or seven defenders within the hash marks looking to stop the run, as below.
Here, the boundary corner has next to no help against the single receiver to his side. With these coverages, Iowa State was able to keep players in the middle of the field to stop the run.
Only after safely arriving at third-and-long would ISU provide more deep help to its corners. The Cyclones would use a 3-4 formation paired with a Tampa-2 coverage; their nickel back would drop into the deep middle, and the safeties would sit outside the hashes and over the top of Baylor's wide receivers.
Iowa State gave up 426 passing yards at 8.4 yards per pass but was able to prevent drives from ending in scores by stopping the run and limiting big passing plays.
In order to play like this you need to be able to trust the corners to play on islands outside, but you also need linebackers who can credibly play the pass and still come up to make tackles in the run game. The nickel position, which often has to play the wide expanse of field to the field side, has to be a stud in these alignments.
TCU on the other hand, split its safeties and linebackers wide pre-snap.
But then the Horned Frogs attempted to disguise on every snap where their players would end up at the snap of the ball:
Here they bring free safety Elisha Olabode down late to cover the split out no. 3 receiver, likely because Baylor loves to show three receivers to the field and then use packaged concepts to place the middle linebacker in no-win situations. Olabode slips down from his normal deep alignment, and safety Chris Hackett slips to the middle of the field right before the snap.
It turns out to be a Y stick/draw packaged concept. The linebacker to the field in a two-deep defense such as TCU's would normally be in the impossible situation of trying to cover the quick throw to the receiver, then come back and stop the run play. However, by having Olabode drop down on the receiver, TCU forces the draw, which is forced outside by good DL play and the uncompromised linebacker. It spills outside, where Olabode makes a nice tackle for loss.
Since Baylor's offense is option-oriented in nearly all of its concepts, there is the potential for a crafty defense to ruin the Bears by clouding their reads as TCU did on that play. However, in order to effectively move players around in disguise, it requires exceptional athletes who can do things like this:
They ask strong safety (that's the nickel position in most defenses) Sam Carter to come on an outside blitz all the way from the wide no. 2 receiver and trust Olabode to cover that slot receiver in a lot of space. It's successful, both because TCU has tremendous athletes in their secondary and because the boundary coverage was good enough to force Nick Florence to hold the ball and buy time for Carter to reach him.
Carter made seven tackles, two sacks, and an interception in that game. It's hard to stop a multi-faceted and elite offense without having multi-faceted and elite defensive players.
A simpler approach could be the 3-4 defense that only defensively-challenged West Virginia is currently employing in the league. Utilizing different 3-4 fronts allowed Stanford to bring disguise and confusion to Oregon's similarly read-heavy spread in 2012.
By using a "46" or potentially ironically titled "bear" defensive front in which the defensive ends were aligned into the B-gaps between the tackles and the centers, Stanford's alignment helped clog the interior rush lanes and allowed their linebackers to safely align wider against the spread out formations.
Just a thought for Big 12 defensive coordinators desperately looking for ways to handle Baylor's spacing without asking their backers to cover unreasonable amounts of space.
No. 2: Holistic concepts
Situational football is key for stopping a diverse attack like Baylor's. As Paul Rhoads noted:
"You have to take away the run. We got [beat] last year by trying to stop both. You just need to stop one thing. That involves people doing their jobs and then we'll rally and try to control the others. With that in mind, that's how you're going to give up some yards. With a field as wide as they make it and as vertical as they make it, you're going to give up yards and obviously you're going to give up points against it."
The humbled approach is often the best tactic for taking on most of life's greatest challenges. It's possible that the wide linebacker splits TCU employed against Baylor and Salubi would have been exploited by Seastrunk.
However, on third-and-long, Baylor is as vulnerable as any other team in the country. On third-and-short they've at times been more vulnerable than other elite offenses, as their big personnel groupings aren't as dominant as their spread packages. In 2011, Kansas State achieved its narrow 36-35 victory in part because it held Baylor to just 3-for-11 on third down attempts.
That said, Baylor's concepts and play calls on first and second down still show a terrifying willingness to attack every part of the field, which is impossible even for NFL-laden defenses to defend.
Stopping the traditional run game has to be the first focus of the defense. And it has to be done in such a way that the non-traditional run game (WR screens) doesn't burn you alive and the defensive backs aren't exposed to the play-action game.
Much like Baylor, Oregon's spread out attack is largely aiming to accomplish the traditional tactic of running right up the middle. Stanford's Bear front made this very difficult for the Ducks:
Stanford's big three linemen fill the inside gaps, and their physicality ties up Oregon's offensive line. The Duck guards end up trying to handle the Stanford DE's while the Duck tackles have the unenviable task of trying to track down the Stanford linebackers in space who have been freed up to attack the play from outside alignments.
TCU was able to mimic this accomplishment against Baylor with defensive line stunts.
TCU made heavy use of a stunt, usually from an alignment with both defensive tackles lined up as 3-techs. Both defensive tackles would stunt into the A-gaps, leaving the outer B-gaps for the linebackers. In the play above, this stunt ties up the Baylor guards while preventing the center from being able to reach the linebackers as they fill the vacated B gaps. Middle linebacker Joel Hasley is then able to run through the B-gap and make a tackle for loss against a zone read.
The danger of dealing with the Baylor run game with stunts or a single formation like Stanford's Bear front, or in attempting to use a single coverage, is that you end up simplifying their reads once they get wise to your scheme.
Again, it's a read-heavy offense. In addition to setting up your players for success in defending the entire field, you also need to attack their ability to make the quick and easy reads that lead to a day with 600 yards of total offense. That means attacking what Baylor is trying to do. If you can successfully muddy the reads for the quarterback and take them out of their quick-strike comfort zone, which they very rarely leave, there exists the possibility for turnovers.
TCU forced six turnovers in their contest, which proved to be their most effective means of stopping Bear drives.
In this sequence, TCU shows an intention to bring Carter off the edge again on a blitz while dropping the linebacker into his place. This gives Florence the easy decision on a power-read/bubble screen option play to throw the screen and make that linebacker running to his spot too late to tackle the receiver. Anticipating this read, TCU cornerback Kevin White gets a tremendous jump and nearly intercepts the pass.
With all the simplicity and quick reads of the Baylor offense comes the possibility of tendency and predictability. A defensive football team that has a clear understanding of both their own gameplan and Baylor's tendencies can potentially make hay and generate the back-breaking turnovers that make things like tackling and run fits strictly an academic exercise.
No. 3 Tactics
For the last two seasons, the simplest way to stop Baylor has been with your own offense. Briles' has regrettably paired up-tempo, explosive offenses with horrendous run defense. Consequently, teams have been able to limit Baylor's offensive output by controlling time of possession and minimizing the total number of plays for the Bear offense.
No, stopping Baylor in 2013 and beyond is going to have to involve tactics that address their offense. As mentioned above, the tactics a team carries into a game have to keep their players leveraged so that they are not gashed in the run game, or they'll be made into sitting ducks for the vertical elements of the Bear attack.
The tactics will also need to include aggression and disguise in the hopes of turning Baylor's reads against them in the form of mistakes and turnovers.
Finally, players have to be coached and excellent at playing with leverage and beating blocks. At some point, a safety is going to have to make an open field tackle, a linebacker is going to have to fly in, beat blocks, and reach the ball carrier, and a corner is going to have to handle a double move.
The safest and most straightforward way to set up the defense for success is with the play of the defensive line. An underrated element of isolating the defense with spread out, four-receiver sets is it doesn't offer much assistance to the OL in dealing with the DL.
Now, the nature of Baylor's offense (quick throws, runs, screens, play-action) makes it very difficult to get to the QB before he's already made his decision. However, it also doesn't lend the OL very much help in handling an athletic DL from disrupting the offense's rhythm and closing run lanes.
Stanford's 3-4 defense utilizes three guys up front with a defensive tackle's size and skill set. That created a physical front for the Ducks' finesse offense to try and handle in the box. TCU had at least three NFL caliber DL on their 2012 team with Stansly Maponga, Devonte Fields, and Chuck Hunter.
But Iowa State didn't have many NFL bodies up front or at linebacker; they just had physical and sturdy players committed to fundamentals and squeezing running lanes. Since there's little chance of your defensive line reaching the QB in situations other than third-and-long, there's no excuse for not deploying them in physical alignments and techniques to turn the middle of the field into a pile-up, spill runs outside where the backers can pursue with leverage, and tying up the offensive linemen at the line of scrimmage so they can't block linebackers.
From there the key is to have a simple plan that can be implemented at a no-huddle pace and keep the ball in front of the defense. If the defense has players who can make calls on the field, it would be a good idea to carry a few Fire Zone blitzes designed to stop specific Baylor concepts so that if the players notice a formation or situation in which Baylor has strong tendencies they can attack it with the blitz call and make that audible on the field.
There's no proven method for stopping these modern spread offenses that can run, pass, play up-tempo, and have explosive playmakers all over the field. Even teams laden with future NFL players struggle.
However, with an emphasis on stopping the Baylor run game and turning the quarterback's unconscious execution of the offense's reads against them with effective disguise, you just might slow them down and set your own offense up for success, even without NFL athletes.