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Texas Tech and the eternal struggle to play defense: Part II

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Iowa State  v Texas Tech Photo by John Weast/Getty Images

The struggle continues in Lubbock as the Red Raiders are looking to reverse their trend of squandering excellent offense with poor defense. Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury is now in his fourth year at the helm and though his initial hires on defense did not work out very well, his variety of Air Raid led to instant success. Despite that positive trend, the Red Raiders have still struggled mightily to field defenses that are even competent enough to leverage that into a winning record in Big 12 play.

Last year Kingsbury installed David Gibbs, who’d had great success at Houston building a turnover-inducing defense and is the son of legendary OL coach Alex Gibbs, to try and finally lead the Raider defense out of the wilderness.

Here’s a glimpse of how Gibbs’ first Tech defense performed within the context of the Kingsbury-era Raiders:

Kingsbury has consistently fielded strong offenses, and most impressively, the first year that the Raiders had a single QB running the show for a full season they proceeded to finish third in the country in offensive S&P. Gibbs’ charges weren’t really any better than the previous defenses by normal measures but they did successfully force many more turnovers than the previous Raider defenses.

It seems a reasonable bet that with Pat Mahomes back in 2016 and Kingsbury still running the show, the Raiders will be good again on offense. The more interesting question is whether Gibbs’ unorthodox strategies will pay off and allow Tech to play good enough defense to perhaps compete for the Big 12 crown.

More of the same problems against the run

The Red Raiders haven’t played good run defense in a very long time and that remained true in 2015. Because Gibbs’ schemes revolve around shifts, stunts, and disguises in order to confuse quarterbacks that means that each player ends up serving in multiple roles up front. The more variety of assignments that a defensive player has, the less well he’s likely to do any of them and this was observably true of the 2015 Raider defense. They were not always sound up front and it was not uncommon to find linebackers filling without aggression or contain players losing contain.

Here’s an example of nickel Tevin Madison committing the cardinal sin of allowing the running back to cross his face when he’s supposed to force/contain the ball:

The Raiders are playing an aggressive brand of quarters coverage to the field with the free safety and field corner basically in man coverage. The nickel (#20 Tevin Madison) has to keep the ball contained because the two DBs behind him are turning their backs to the play and all of his help is inside from the linebackers and boundary safety. Nevertheless, Madison gets caught with his shoulders turned inside and Samaje Perine gets outside of him and into open grass with all the pursuit trailing him.

When you have several different players wearing multiple hats, containment problems are a frequent consequence.

Another issue in Gibbs’ scheme was the aggressive play of their DL, who aimed to get penetration into the backfield and sometimes exposed the linebackers as a result:

On this example the Raiders are playing cover 3 with free safety Jah’Shawn Johnson and weakside linebacker Micah Awe now responsible for force/contain on the edges.

Freshman nose tackle Breiden Fehoko gets some push upfield but the senior Oklahoma center Ty Darlington uses his momentum against him and keeps him out of the playside A-gap. Additionally, Fehoko did not force a double team so the right guard gets a free run at the middle linebacker and cuts him down as well. That leaves it to freshman Jah’Shawn Johnson to arrive all the way over to the play side in order to close the rapidly expanding crease. Johnson had a very solid freshman season for Tech but that wasn’t going to happen here, especially against the likes of Joe Mixon.

So overall you had a defense that was relying on some young players and asking a lot of everyone to make the scheme work while going up against some of the best offenses in the country. Naturally, they often failed.

Some mixed results against the pass

The Raider pass defense didn’t rank very highly but they did pick off a lot of passes and showed some promise, despite regularly playing very aggressive schemes designed to stop the run like in the examples above.

The prospective starting secondary for the 2016 Red Raiders is as follows:

All five of these players saw regular time in 2015 so the Raider secondary will have considerably more experience in Gibbs’ schemes and with Big 12 tactics than any previous unit that Kingsbury has put on the field. What’s more, they were actually fairly disruptive and made some plays on the ball that led to Tech finally enjoying a positive turnover margin in 2016.

They spent most of their time either playing cover 3 with tight coverage underneath and then softer zones deep or playing aggressive quarters defenses that would also often leave deep defenders in lots of space. Eventually they hope to mix in much more Tampa-2 so their defensive backs can sit on routes more easily but this will depend on forcing more passing downs.

When that happens, Gibbs is a happy camper.

The big key is whether they can start to play run defense in a way that sets up the team for success.

As I’ve outlined, a lot of this will simply have to do with gaining experience in the scheme. Tech was also fairly thin up front in 2015 and often saw their defenders wear down over the course of games as they were regularly defending 80 plays or so per game due to a combination of their own offense’s pace and their inability to get off the field. Containment issues and gap control get much worse when players get tired.

Freshmen Breiden Fehoko (DT), Jah’Shawn Johnson (FS), Thierry Nguema (CB), and D’Vonta Hinton (LB) all got a lot of experience after being forced into action a year ago and now bring a much higher degree of know how within these schemes. Each also showed some nice potential and there’s a real chance that Tech’s run defense improves considerably as a result of Fehoko, Johnson, and Hinton becoming bigger parts of the formula as each showed real promise in 2015.

Fehoko has the physical strength to become a force in the middle while Hinton and Johnson both have a nose for the ball and are fearless making tackles given their diminutive size.

As they continue to restock the roster, this style of defense benefits most from having versatile “attack-backers” that can blitz and fit into different parts of the front. Hinton is only 5’9” 225 but had two sacks in limited snaps a year ago. Dakota Allen showed great promise but got kicked out of the program during the offseason. Their 2016 class included some raw athletes that might fit well within this paradigm in years to come.

Overall year one for the David Gibbs Tech defense was a mixed bag but with improvements in his key area (turnovers) and understandable growing pains in the problem area of run defense. If they can make a leap in stopping Big 12 run games there’s a chance that all of the returning experience in the secondary could lead to more turnovers and more possessions for Pat Mahomes and the offense. If that happens, all bets are off.