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Can Oklahoma's new defense finally subdue Big 12 offenses?

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The Stoops brothers have built a frontline on defense so loaded that it might very well dominate the Big 12 and put the Sooners into the first college football playoff.

Kevin C. Cox

Mike Stoops was brought back to Oklahoma in 2012 after an underrated and effective season by Brent Venables and his Sooner defense. They had finished 7th in defensive S&P thanks to a stout defensive front that included DE Frank Alexander, DE/LB Ronnell Lewis, DE/LB Corey Nelson, LB Travis Lewis, and LB Tony Jefferson.

Their strong performance was clouded by the difference between a realistic view of what playing good, modern defense looks like and what fans, media, and even coaches still expected. The Sooners gave up gobs of yards in 2011 and saw their defense have unforgivable performances that resulted in their first home loss in years (to Tech), a loss to normally subdued rival Oklahoma State, and an unthinkable loss to Baylor that helped RG3 win the Heisman.

So analytics were ignored and Mike Stoops was brought back while Venables took the opportunity to head to Clemson and build a strong unit for which he could claim sole credit. While Venables was adjusting to the changing realities in the Big 12 by playing strong coverage players like Aaron Colvin at safety and utilizing more 3-4 odd front defenses, Mike Stoops went back to basics with a gap controlling 4-3 defense backed mostly by man coverage.

Between Stoops' over reliance on matching spread teams with dime packages that left Oklahoma vulnerable to the run game and the depletion of talent from Oklahoma's roster from lackluster recruiting, the 2012 unit slipped. They finished 15th overall in defense and 2nd in pass defense but were 58th in rushing defense and were not the dominant unit Oklahoma was hoping for.

So the Stoops brothers did some soul searching, found their souls, and sold them to the devil to help them install a 3-4 defense that would allow them to keep linebackers on the field to stop the run without losing their good pass defense.

This yielded a defense that only ranked 33rd overall and still struggled against the run, but one that began to find it's footing while raising up a new generation of Sooner defenders that may at last be ready to play the kind of football that has keyed Oklahoman dominance over the Big 12 in the past. The Sooners now have a firm identity they are ready to pit against a league known for lethal offense and where every team is returning a quarterback who has logged significant snaps as a starter.

While Mike Stoops is known for building around the abilities of his defensive backs and developing great safeties, the defensive front Oklahoma has assembled to run their 3-4 might very well be the best in the nation.

Oklahoma's 3-4

While Saban had some input on the development of this defense, the Sooner base front actually reminds a bit of Stanford or Oregon's defensive fronts.

Ou_3-4_base_medium

The defensive ends play a 4i technique, lined up across the inside eye of the offensive tackles, while the nose tackle is in a classic 0-technique, simply matched against the center.

In 2013, Oklahoma would play Eric Striker as their "Jack" linebacker, who would align to the boundary while they played a nickelback at the "Sam" outside linebacker spot. The inside linebackers would usually play across the guards depending on the coverage call.

As a general rule, the defensive ends are looking to fill the B gaps between the guards and tackles although they will take the C gap outside of the tackle depending on situation. The nose is 2-gapping the center and filling the playside gap either with his own body or that of the center if he can't work his way there.

While the DL have flexible rules for responding to blocks, as a general rule they are looking to spill the ball outside, the outside linebackers are containing it between them, and the inside linebackers are keying the backs and flowing to the ball hopefully unencumbered.

The problem for Oklahoma playing this front in 2013 was that they were too small and inexperienced up front to properly execute it.

Corey Nelson was supposed to serve as inside linebacker who could also play as the "Sam" if the offense brought out bigger personnel that negated the need for a nickelback but he went down for the season in game five against TCU and left freshman Dominique Alexander to fill his role inside. The Sooners had also just lost their "war daddy" nose tackle Jordan Phillips in game four, a 6'6" 334 monster who was emerging as a potential superstar. They replaced him with redshirt freshman Jordan Wade.

The following week, these two youngsters were totally unprepared for the bowl of wrath that Texas' upperclassmen-rich OL had been preparing as vengeance for consecutive humiliations at the Sooners' hands. Texas' two main running backs each ran for 120 yards and OU had to take it, having no answers but to allow their young players to tough it out.

In that game, the 2013 Oklahoma front seven looked like this:

DE: Charles Tapper: 6'4" 275

NT: Jordan Wade: 6'4" 312

DE: Geneo Grissom: 6'4" 247

Sam: Julian Wilson: 6'2" 202

Mike: Frank Shannon: 6'1" 234

Will: Dominique Alexander: 6'0" 215

Jack: Eric Striker: 6'0" 217

Heading into 2014, that front has been changed to the following group:

DE: Charles Tapper: 6'4" 281

NT: Jordan Phillips: 6'6" 334

DE: Chuka Ndulue: 6'3" 289

Sam: Eric Striker: 6'0" 221

Mike: Jordan Evans: 6'3" 223

Will: Dominique Alexander: 6'0" 227

Jack: Geneo Grissom: 6'4" 252

That's a net gain of 125 pounds across the front and an average of almost 18 pounds per position. The two most notable gains are at DE and outside linebacker where Grissom was moved into Striker's "Jack" linebacker spot while Striker took Wilson's role of playing in space as the nickel/sam player.

With Grissom playing the strongside edge, Ndulue and Phillips adding weight and power inside, and the removal of a DB from the front, you can assume that Oklahoma's resistance to opposing run games will greatly increase.

The key to all of this is the versatility of Eric Striker to be able to play an outside linebacker position that puts him out in space as often as it asks him to blitz the edge. He's essentially a nickel/DE/LB hybrid wearing a variety of hats for the Sooner defense. Because Striker has the quickness and awareness to play out in space, Oklahoma can now play two versions of every base coverage and front.

For instance, check out their base Cover 3 pattern-matching defense with either the Jack coming as the fourth rusher:

Ou_j-4_c3_medium

Or just as easily, the same coverage with a Sam linebacker blitz from Striker:

Ou_s-4_c3_medium

All of Oklahoma's base coverages can be run with the flexibility to bring either outside linebacker off the edge. As for the players, Striker had 6.5 sacks in 2013 while Grissom added 4.5 of his own playing with his hands in the dirt as a DE. Then there's DE Charles Tapper who is a freak athlete and a great pass-rusher in his own right who had 5.5 sacks in 2013. Don't forget Ndulue who had five sacks as a DE in 2012 and 2.5 playing spot duty in 2013.

This is the versatility of a 3-4 defense and the reason it's often been a preferred defense for bringing pressure, the problem for the 3-4 in modern football is that teams typically have to bring their 2nd great pass-rusher off the field against offensive formations like this or risk being torched by the slot (H here) in the quick passing game.

With quick little Striker playing the outside linebacker spot that's left in space, this isn't a concern for the Sooners.

This is to say nothing of the blitz packages that Oklahoma has at their disposal, which include some man-1 fire zones and some cover 0 blitzes. If the base pass-rush from having these players on the field wasn't enough for an offense, Oklahoma can also blitz Grissom and Striker at the same time, or blitz them in combination with inside linebackers or safeties.

Because they're returning almost every key player in their front from 2013, Oklahoma has now found a formula that allows them to put a considerable amount of talent on the field. Their problems with lack of size in 2013 are behind them while their ability to bring lots of pressure from different angles has stunningly been expanded at the same time.

Imagine being an OT lined up across from Charles Tapper and wondering whether he's going to come right at you or dart just inside of you while Striker comes screaming past you around the edge. Big 12 teams with slow or inexperienced linemen may be forced to play conservatively simply due to the pass-rushing threat.

OU's nickel package

But what happens if the offense floods the field with four or even five good receivers, as Big 12 teams are prone to do? While Striker may be quicker than an average 3-4 outside linebacker, can Oklahoma really hold up against the spread passing teams on the schedule with great slot receivers?

When Oklahoma wants to drop two deep safeties can these guys really hold up underneath? Perhaps not, but that's why Oklahoma has a 2-4-5 nickel package to throw into the mix:

Ou_2-4-5_medium

To the field side the Sooners have Striker in a stand-up technique where he can either drop into coverage, stunt inside, or attack the edge. Just inside of him is Geneo Grissom in a 3-technique.

To the other side the Sooners have Ndulue at another 3-technique position and Tapper as another outside end. They replace Striker with a more traditional nickelback (probably strong safety Quentin Hayes) and can play man coverage without any horrendous mismatches. They can also adjust this to a dime defense by removing one of their inside linebackers or one of their DE's.

Essentially, this just puts even more speed on the field and allows Oklahoma to throw pass-rushers at the backfield from a variety of angles and spots. Here's what this package can look like in terms of bringing the blitz:

Ou_dime_blitz_medium

In this blitz they had Striker lined up as an inside linebacker before moving back outside to attack the edge. The dimeback and strong safety (D and S respectively) locked up the slot receivers in man coverage, the remaining inside linebacker (M) played man coverage on the running back, and the corners played the outside receivers. It's a typical man-1 blitz but the amount of pass-rushing and coverage ability Oklahoma can put on the field with blitzes like this in their new 2-4-5 package is intense.

But perhaps the most dangerous ingredient to this defense is the adoption of a Tampa-2 coverage for 3rd and long:

Ou_tampa_2.jpg_medium

There are a few elements of the Tampa-2 that make it an ideal change of pace for Oklahoma on obvious passing downs. The needs of the scheme are for an athletic middle linebacker who can make deep drops to the middle of the field and play the passing lanes and for a pass rush that gets home quickly.

While potentially losing middle linebacker Frank Shannon for the year hurts OU's depth, new starter Jordan Evans is a more athletic player who at 6'3" is excellent at getting his hands in passing windows both as a blitzer and as a deep dropper. We've already covered how much pass-rushing excellence OU can get on the field.

The great benefit of Tampa-2 is that it makes it much easier for the safeties to handle spread passing attacks. The hardest part of playing quarters for a safety is the potential run/pass conflicts a safety can find himself in as well as the quickness and awareness needed to handle vertical routes over the middle of the field.

Oklahoma has been stockpiling some young hitters like Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas in recent years who excel more at open field tackling and big hits than in matching routes by slot receivers. In Tampa-2, they can sit on deep routes with help inside from the mike linebacker and then break on the ball and deliver big hits.

Many spread teams have QBs who are chosen more for their accuracy, decision making, and athleticism than for having big arms. They aren't used to beating deep safeties who are sitting on deep routes and often struggle to do anything more against this coverage than hit someone underneath on the run and hope they can make people miss in the open field.

After years of relying on a multiple and aggressive 4-3 defense, the Stoops brothers have patiently been tinkering with their schematic approach while raising up young players to fill a void left by a few down years in defensive recruiting. Now, thanks to unique young talents like Eric Striker, they've assembled one of the most ideal 3-4 personnel groupings college football has seen and had an entire offseason with a mostly intact roster to work out the best ways to deploy it.

The Big 12 probably won't be able to handle Stoops' patented aggressive defense playing in these schemes and it's likely that this defensive front will dominate the league to such an extent that they put the Sooners in the playoffs.

In a league dominated by offensive innovation and success, 2014 might finally see the empire strike back.