Through four games this season, the Texas Tech defense has minimized damage in the passing game by reducing space.
In other words, Tech defensive backs aren’t affording opposing receivers much of it.
Just ask Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads, who told reporters after his team’s 24-13 loss to the Red Raiders on Saturday that its lack of productivity in the passing game — the Cyclones threw for only 73 yards — was a direct result of the inability of receivers to break free from Tech’s tight man-to-man coverage.
“They were pressing us all over the field,” Rhoads said. “When guys are rolling up on your widest receivers, then on your inside receivers, (quick passing) isn’t a part of the package. It’s just not there. Why it’s successful a lot is because folks play loose; they play off, and you can throw and catch and get blocks made to start plays. You can’t do that against that type of press coverage.”
The new aggressiveness in the passing game for Tech (4-0, 1-0 in Big 12 Conference) quickly stood out to Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, whose No. 17 Sooners (2-1, 0-1) will visit Jones AT&T Stadium at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, while he digested Tech game film.
“They’re playing you aggressive,” Stoops told reporters at his weekly press conference Monday. “They’re playing you tight.”
Added Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones: “They are playing the ball a lot better when it is in the air than they have been since I played them, for sure.”
Tech defensive coordinator Art Kaufman said he and the defensive staff worked from the first day of pad workouts during spring practice on helping the team’s defensive backs become confident they could succeed one-on-one in close quarters against an opposing receiver.
As he puts it, “we feel like our defensive backs can stand close to guys.”
The secondary, led by four senior starters, has bought in. Senior safety D.J. Johnson said the trust the staff places in players’ hands to make the right reads and call the correct coverages has allowed the unit to play more freely.
“We’re a different team,” Johnson said. “You can see that from the first four games. Our coaching staff, they let us do what got us here in the first place. ... We’re a lot looser out there when we play, and we’re allowed to make up as we go and confuse receivers and quarterbacks.”
There are several inherent advantages to the up-close-and-personal press coverage Tech has employed, evidenced by its No. 1 overall rating in pass efficiency defense.
For starters, effectively jamming wide receivers at the line can throw off timing between the receivers and their quarterback, a key when so many offenses in the Big 12 rely on a multitude of timing routes. The tight coverage also limits opportunities for opposing playmakers to make moves in space — another staple of the spread offense.
The coverage style also gives defensive backs more chances to make plays on the ball. Tech has taken advantage by matching its interception total from the entire 2011 season (five) through four games.
So why wasn’t Tech able to use the strategy more often last season?
“Last year we played looser zone because our pass rush wasn’t quite there,” Tech coach Tommy Tuberville said. “We weren’t able to get in the quarterback’s face. That changes during the game. If you see that you can rush with four instead of having to bring in five or six, and you can play tighter zone, you can jump routes.”
That was the case against Iowa State. The Red Raiders rarely brought more than four pass rushers, yet they were still able to force Cyclone quarterback Steele Jantz into four turnovers. And Tech’s nine sacks through four games are only seven shy of its total from a season ago.
Whether Tech can create similar pressure with similar personnel against an Oklahoma team that averages 37 pass attempts per game will be key to the Red Raiders chances on Saturday against Jones and the nation’s No. 35 passing attack.
“The biggest key to us having success in this game is what we do, our technique” Kaufman said. “Not losing focus on what our job is, that’s key at every position, but especially in the secondary.”
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