October 5th 2019 at the Bill Snyder Family Stadium, Kansas University, the high-flying Kansas Wildcats came up against the unbeaten Baylor Bears. With 5:37 left on the clock in the 4th Quarter, running back John Lovett ran in a 47-yard Touchdown run to seal a 31-12 victory, taking the Baylor Bears to a 5-0 start to the 2019 season. Although the Baylor offense has had some big moments this season, as was the case in Kansas, this unbeaten Bears side is currently home to the best defense in the Big 12.
From 2011-2015 the Baylor football programme, led by Art Briles and his ground-breaking offense, were the darlings of College Football. They broke a number of long-held offensive records and they brought life to a Baylor team that hadn’t had a 10-win season since 1980. However, when Briles left in scandal before the 2016 season the Baylor programme appeared to be broken. After a easily forgotten lost 2016 season, Matt Rhule stepped into the Head Coach role for the 2017 season and had an incredibly difficult job to bring in confidence and change the perception of a tainted culture. In his first season, the Bears went 1-11, which on the surface seemed to be a disaster for a team that had 11 wins only three seasons previous. But Rhule and his coaching staff were not new to this challenge. When Rhule took over the Temple Head Coaching job in 2013 that side went 2-10. But in his 3rd and 4th seasons with Temple, they were a back-to-back 10-win team. Matt Rhule is a programme saver, which is why, despite an 8-17 record in his first two years at Baylor he was interviewing in the NFL for the Head Coach role at the New York Jets. Although the Jets eventually hired Adam Gase, the rumour was that Rhule was their leading candidate. However, after the Jets confirmed that Rhule would not be given the freedom to hire his own staff, he pulled out of the process and claimed that he didn’t want “an arranged marriage”. Rhule is committed to his staff that he trusts and believes in.
One member of the famed Baylor staff, who was with Rhule throughout the Temple run, is veteran Defensive Coordinator (DC) Phil Snow, who has been a Division 1 DC since his time with Boise back in the 1980s. However, longevity should not be looked down upon. Snow is an innovative and effective coordinator. Despite having faced tough opposition already this season, the Bears defense is giving up only 15.3 points per game (ppg). By looking at the combined schedules of the teams they have defeated, these same teams have averaged 30.2ppg against other defenses.
Maybe more impressively is this performance in the context of the Big 12. In the past 5 seasons from 2014-2018, there have only been two instances where a Big 12 side recorded less than 20ppg for an entire season. These campaigns were both TCU teams (2014 and 2017), where they conceded only 19ppg. Baylor have still got a really tough schedule ahead of them, but the foundations of their defense are promising, and may carry them to some big victories later in the 2019 season.
As with many defenses in the Big 12 they use a version of the 3-3-5 formation. It allows them to be extremely flexible, particularly considering one of the linebackers is an apex defender who sits outside of the box against Spread formations. Therefore, against a standard 2×2 spread formation, they only have 5 defenders in a traditional run defending alignment. Their base formation looks like this:
One of the perennial problems faced by any defense is the issues faced with overloading and leverage. Schemes are required to be flexible, as they allow for defenses to quickly adapt to the many things that an offense can do on any one play. Therefore, particularly in the passing league of the Big 12, the goal of any defense is to generate pressure whilst keeping enough defenders in coverage.
This is where my analysis begins, the Baylor pass rush.
The Pass Rush
Despite primarily only rushing 3 defenders, Baylor’s front 3 have a remarkable ability to put pressure on the quarterback. This is largely due to the immense talent they have developed in the front six defenders. For example Bravvion Roy, the Senior Defensive Tackle has a quick first step for a man who is 333lbs. James Lynch, defensive end who currently has 6 sacks on the year, the second most in the Big 12.
Fundamentally, the scheme works because the front three defenders are able to generate a significant pass rush without any extra support. In fact, Baylor currently have 18 sacks on the year, 4 more than any other team in the Big 12.
Watch this clip below, it highlights how Baylor have had great success with only 3 or 4 rushers:
The Zone Coverage
In terms of scheme, primarily Baylor run two types of play:
1.) 3 or 4 rushers with “spot drop” zone coverage behind it
2.) 5 rushers with a version of Cover 1 man-free coverage behind it
I will save a discussion of Cover 1 man-free for another day, but you can read a glossary description here on Inside the Pylon. However, the focus of my discussion will be around the Baylor zone coverage.
By “spot drop” zone, I mean that it is a version of zone coverage where defenders simply drop back, watch the QB and look to break when the QB attempts to throw the ball. This is opposed to “pattern matching” zone coverage. Pattern matching was popularised by Nick Saban and it is characterised by defenders who attempt to match the routes (or patterns) that are run by the receivers.
Once again, to discuss the pass rush, they are only able to have all of these players in zone coverage because they are achieving success with their front 3 defensive linemen. However, the back 8 defenders are very well drilled, and they are making a habit on pouncing on underthrown passes or Quarterbacks who stare at receivers.
See some examples below of the success they have had in zone coverage:
The Run Stopping
On the surface, with a scheme that has only 5 traditional run defenders, this defense looks like it would be naturally weak against any kind if inside run. However, due to the nature of the zone coverage, the Linebackers are Defensive Backs are aligned on every play with their forward watching the backfield. This gives them the perfect opportunity to attack when they read that the offense are running the ball.
Moreover, they have an aggressive one-gap defense. “One-gap” means that each defensive player is responsible for the space between two offensive players. The defensive linemen are actively looking to penetrate the gap rather than defend the linemen in front of them. This allows the linebackers and defensive backs to freely flow and aggressively attack space.
Here are some examples of the Baylor defense stopping opponent run plays with an aggressive fast-flowing defense that all stems from the one-gap principles:
Undoubtedly, Baylor’s biggest tests are still to come, as they still have Texas and Oklahoma on the schedule for later in the year. However, this team is growing in skill and confidence and the defense is playing with authority. It’s going to be exciting to see if this defense can continue to shut down the likes of Sam Ehlinger or Jalen Hurts. I think the key component really is the defensive line. Can they still generate a pass rush vs the big teams in the Big 12?
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