On offense, simplicity is the name of the game in Waco. Art Briles' system is designed to maximize every inch of space on the field with complimentary offensive personnel that allow the Bears to space out opponents out with speed in order to isolate and hammer them with size.
It's a feat of engineering that seems to guarantee explosive offenses every season. However, the Bears weren't able to start winning Big 12 titles until they also started engineering some worthy defenses. They've finished in the top 20 in defensive S&P for the last two years, but in 2014 they clearly padded their stats against lesser competition like SMU, Buffalo, Northwestern State, and Texas while struggling against some of the better opponents.
With TCU emerging as another conference contender thanks to their annually strong defense and the weaponization of Trevone Boykin that occurred as a result of their adoption of the Air Raid offense, it's now crucial that Baylor continue to beef up their defense or else risk losing their grip on the Big 12 crown.
With almost their entire secondary back, a loaded defensive line, and some promising talent at linebacker emerging it's possible that Baylor will be able to do exactly that and claim their third consecutive Big 12 championship.
The Baylor defensive philosophy
Bennett's Bears are ever so simple in regards to their defensive scheme with quarters serving as the base defense and a particular style of quarters comprising the vast majority of their calls:
They play a nominally 4-2-5 defense but in reality it's more of a true 4-3 scheme with a space-backer playing in the sam/nickel position. The Bears have generally played box safeties in that position who thrive more in run support roles than in playing coverage and so the design of their coverages is such that this player doesn't have to run with receivers on vertical routes but instead hangs out in the flats.
The strong, or "cover," safety lines up over the slot receiver, usually to the field side, and if there are two slot receivers he will stay in the field. Baylor's been using Terrell Burt in this coverage safety role and he's basically a nickel corner playing deep coverage. Opposite the cover safety Baylor uses what they call a "deep safety" but would be more accurately termed a "rover." The rover lines up opposite the opponent's passing strength and he reads most plays flat-footed waiting to either come downhill and be an extra man to stop the run or else to drop back and look for work robbing routes to his own side or ranging out to the strong side to help protect the middle of the field.
The corners in this scheme have to play without safety help much of the time and they'll often use Michigan State's press coverage technique.
The basis of the scheme is essentially to set up the rover to provide extra help wherever it's needed, stuff the run, and encourage quick possessions by the offense that get the ball back to Briles' offense. It's a style our own Bill Connelly has called "break don't bend."
In 2013 the Bears had Ahmad Dixon in this rover position and he had 81 tackles, two tackles for loss, an interception, and six pass break-ups. In 2014 they slid Orion Stewart into the role and got 82 tackles, four interceptions, and three pass break-ups. Stewart brought considerably less physicality and run support to the position but he upgraded the coverage and took advantage of the position's free flowing nature to ball hawk passes and run to the football.
The make-up of the Baylor personnel in 2015 may mean that Stewart's coverage abilities help bring a truly dominant dimension to the Bear defense.
Engineering the 2015 defense
Having two safeties that can be trusted to play man coverage brought tremendous value to the Bear pass-rush in 2014, much of which became evident when redshirt freshman Taylor Young took over at weakside linebacker.
Baylor was already getting a pretty strong pass-rush by virtue of playing Shawn "I AM GROOT" Oakman at defensive end. This monstrous person stands at 6'9" 280 pounds and has impossible quickness for a player of that size. He finished 2014 with 51 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, three pass break-ups, and three forced fumbles while owning the right edge.
As difficult as it was for opponents to handle Groot and keep him from mucking up their offenses with timely sacks, things became more difficult when the Bears started playing explosive and feisty Taylor "Rocket" Young at weakside linebacker. Standing at only 5'10" and 225 pounds, Young used his own fantastic speed and the protection of the Baylor DL to produce 92 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and four sacks despite only starting half the year.
What was especially difficult for opponents was when "Rocket" would blitz off "Groot's" shoulder and overwhelm protection sets. With Stewart and Burt both providing solid coverage behind the Bears front, it was all too easy to involve Young in the pass-rush.
One style of blitz the Bears would unleash would be a man/zone combination coverage with Young coming off Oakman's shoulder while the giant DE would stunt inside:
To the strongside Baylor is playing their base quarters coverage with Stewart as the deep safety while they lock down the weakside man coverage with the corner and Burt. For the offense to throw into the blitz carries significant risk with two good coverage defenders in such tight proximity to the receivers. Attempting to throw opposite the blitz faces the prospect of beating deep zone coverage while an overload pressure is bearing down on the QB from the blindside.
Another useful Rocket-Groot combination Baylor showed in 2014 was to play man coverage on both slot receivers with the safeties and stunting Young inside off Oakman's other shoulder:
The middle and nickel linebackers would key the running back and pick him up in man coverage if he ran their way or else join the blitz as a sixth pass-rusher.
As simple as Baylor's coverage schemes have been in the Phil Bennett era, when they aggressively deploy their rover and mix in man blitzes like this, they can force similar simplicity from the offense.
There were just a few problems for the Bears in 2014 that need to be shored up to allow these aggressive schemes to dominate the league in 2015. First, they need improved play from their cornerbacks who were often picked on while attempting to play on islands on the outside.
Secondly, relying on a space-backer who couldn't be trusted on vertical routes made it difficult to keep their rover as a run-support player to the weakside and to protect the cover safety from challenging assignments.
Opposing slot receivers were able to run vertical routes on Terrell Burt in space all day long, which are hard to cover, and the Bears were limited in how they could scheme help to the strongside against three receiver trips formations. They had to rely on Burt and the field corner playing effective deep zone or else bring the rover over to help.
For all that it cost them in terms of flexibility and effectiveness, the Bears didn't get that much out of playing former walk-on Collin Brence at the nickel position. Brence was very reliable in matching up underneath in coverage but he didn't offer much play-making given how often the Bears would blitz him off the edge, nor did he have the range and tackling ability to serve as an eraser while roaming the strongside perimeter.
Likely replacement starter Travon Blanchard offers more explosiveness at the position and potentially more coverage versatility to the defense as a whole. If he allows the Bears to bring better strongside blitz combinations or mix up their coverages then opposing offenses will be in a whole heap of trouble.
Like the Baylor offense, the Bear defense is engineered to be simple and to make the most of complimentary skill sets. With Oakman, Young, and Stewart the Bears have a collection of athletes that can compliment each other on the weakside while they are hoping that a 2nd corner and new nickel will emerge to make the strongside similarly flexible and talented. Were that to happen and the Baylor defense were able to present the same kind of catch-22 problems all over the field as their offense does, then it'd be goodnight Big 12.
Should make for a fun storyline in 2015.