Sometimes I think the hardest games to write something interesting about are the blowouts. I was actually way ahead of schedule this week -- by Saturday night the entire game was recorded, cut, broken down by play type and watched a couple of times to look for trends -- and we're still not seeing this till Friday. It's true I've been genuinely busy, but the truth is, it's hard to find something really interesting to break down for this game that we haven't covered before.
After rushing for over 300 yards, I could take some time to highlight the offensive line. After holding Tennessee to three points, it's certainly worth showing some defensive highlights. But ultimately it's just not that interesting watching a running back plow into a pile 20 times. And of course, a young quarterback poses many possibilities. (By the way, Maty Mauk was 9-for-14 on execution throws and only killed one drive with a bad throw this week. Much improved.)
But I think it might be time to focus on Dave Steckel and Josh Henson for the first time this season.
Some of you may remember Matt Eberflus' final year as defensive coordinator in 2008. Eberflus actually had some pretty good defenses, but he was notorious for soft bend but don't break coverage. Ironically, in his last year he tried to be more aggressive and creative, and it may have cost him his job (he's now a linebackers coach for Dallas if you were wondering). At the beginning of the season, he talked a lot about how the experience of the defensive players allowed him to be creative and unpredictable with the players in order to confuse the offense (think Oklahoma's always shifting defense). The experiment failed fantastically as Mizzou gave up one after another long passing play from miscommunication and players out of position.
It is against that backdrop that I present the 2013 Mizzou Tigers defense. I've never heard Steckel talk about what they're doing differently this year, but you hear opposing coaches talk about how they're shifting and active and unpredictable.
I don't think I've ever seen the Mizzou defense this active. There's often movement in the defensive backfield at the snap and line stunts are almost more common than playing straight up. Look at the presnap activity in this video.
This movement makes it hard for offenses to know who to block, what kind of pass coverage they will see at the snap, and where the weak point will be to attack. It doesn't look like much, but the players have to all be on the same page, be able to apply the call to the formation they see, and get into position quickly once the ball is snapped. Yet it's been very rare to see Mizzou players not on the same page with each other or out of position. That's step 1. When you have a defense full of seniors like Andrew Wilson, E.J. Gaines, Randy Ponder and Matt White, then you can get to the next level and make offenses guess what they're facing.
On the line, Mizzou has been surprisingly stout. And while they're plenty physical, the advantage Mizzou's line has is speed. Our defensive tackles run like many of the defensive ends in this league. And the Michael Sam/Shane Ray bookends have a wicked first step. Steckel has used that to his advantage this year, with lots of stunting on the line. Normally stunting exposes you to the running game when you guess wrong, and that's certainly happened many times. But the linebacker and safety play has been stellar in getting into the right gap and sniffing out plays early to beat blockers to the point of attack. Wilson in particular is as good a run stopper as you'll find in the SEC this year, which gives Stec the luxury of stunting away. That's one big reason why Mizzou is in the top 5 in tackles for loss.
In some ways, this is kind of an extension of the bend-don't-break philosophy. Bend-don't-break doesn't care about yards, but about drives. The defense needs two successful plays in a row to force third-and-long. Creating one of those two with a stunt gets you 50% of the way there, and if you don't succeed, it's not a problem as long as the damage isn't too great. If Wilson and the safeties weren't cleaning up what the line doesn't get, then Steckel couldn't do this so much.
On the other side of the ball, Henson has brought a little bit of power to the spread.
I was skeptical at first that we could master both the spread passing game and the power running game, but the results speak for themselves, at least this year. Five-wide, pistol, spread, power formation, shotgun, under center, zone blocking, power blocking, student body right. And Missouri does multiple things out of each. You name it, we've seen it this year.
Well, that's not entirely true. There are fewer of the screwy formations that you have to clear with the refs before the game so you don't get flagged for illegal formation. But diversity is more of an advantage than a lack of familiarity is a disadvantage. It's fairly remarkable that we not only do all of these things, but seem to do them all fairly well.
I think part of his ability to cram so much offense into so little practice time has to do with simplifying some of the other things David Yost was doing. By dumbing the little things down, I think he's made it harder to gameplan for our formations. Below is a sampling of some formations and various plays run out of them.
Ultimately, what Yost was known for -- creating numbers at the point of attack via the spread -- has continued under Henson. Only, he also creates numbers at the point of attack by bringing in tight ends, blocking running backs and traditional blocking for a more quick-hitting running game that can still stress the defense side-to-side and vertically. It's hard to imagine Henson's debut being much more of a success so far.