If there’s a theme to the upcoming season for the Oklahoma Sooners’ defense in 2018, it’s pressure – both its presence and absence.
Unfortunately, the pressure weighing down on Mike Stoops will continue to dominate the conversation around the defense this fall. I say it’s “unfortunate” not because I believe OU’s defensive coordinator has been unfairly maligned. Play has slipped on his side of the ball since Stoops rejoined the program in 2012, and any legitimate grace period he might have deserved ended long ago.
I characterize the conversation that way because the subject could not be any more tired.
I doubt I was alone in my belief that Stoops was coaching for his job last season. Despite occasional signs of life, the D couldn’t even live up to the already poor standard set by the 2016 unit. According to Bill Connelly’s Defensive S&P+ efficiency metric, OU fielded one of the 30 worst defenses in the country in 2017 (101st overall). Brian Fremeau’s Defensive FEI system ranked the Sooners 53rd nationally, which still stinks.
Those defensive woes couldn’t keep the Sooners out of the College Football Playoff, but Georgia’s thundering ground game proved capable of removing them from it. Along with many others, I assumed Stoops would have a new home in 2018 following the meltdown in the Rose Bowl.
Yet, when the coaching carousel stopped spinning, Stoops was still in Norman. That didn’t sit well with the considerable – or perhaps just considerably loud – constituency of OU fans who were ready for a new pair of eyes overseeing the D. Prepare for another season of the same bitching about the D and reheated jabs at Stoops’ coaching acumen. At this point, it’s like living through the Westworld hosts’ infinitely repeating narrative loops:
- The cornerbacks play too far off of receivers.
- The linebackers get abused.
- Ruffin McNeill should have Stoops' job.
Lincoln Riley surely understands that he traded some of his goodwill with Sooner Nation to keep his coaching staff intact for another year. Not surprisingly, that doesn’t bode well for Stoops unless the defense improves drastically in ‘18.
You could argue that a big reason for Stoops’ shaky status is pressure on opposing offenses, or lack thereof.
OU’s defenders once prided themselves on turning up the heat. The Sooners occasionally got burned for playing a reckless brand of defense. The trade-off was a knack for creating negative plays by setting up shop in opponents’ backfields and constantly hunting for takeaways.
The numbers bear out that big defensive plays have tapered off since Stoops came back to the program. Oklahoma’s annual Havoc Rate numbers – one of Connelly’s metrics that reflects the combined number of sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, interceptions and passes defended as a percentage of total defensive plays – hovered around the 20 percent mark in the four years prior to 2012. OU’s Havoc Rate has been between 12.5 percent and 16.8 percent in every season since then. (N.B.: Connelly has only published Havoc Rate stats for the last four years, so I calculated them for OU going back to 2008.)
What has made the Sooners less disruptive in the last six years?
One obvious explanation could be talent. It’s no secret that OU has failed to reel in the Gerald McCoys and Curtis Loftons and Roy Williamses of late. They really haven’t landed as many players from the second tier of standout defensive recruits – Frank Alexander, Travis Lewis, Tony Jefferson – either. It stands to reason that the Sooners aren’t winning as many of the individual battles required to bust up plays.
Perhaps more importantly, Stoops also dialed back the aggressiveness of OU’s defensive scheme. The bend-but-don’t-break orientation included deploying more two-gap calls in which defensive linemen absorbed blocks, rather than trying to shoot gaps in the defensive line. Meanwhile, coverage schemes have focused on keeping receivers in front of defenders and rallying to the ball. “Mush rushes” have increasingly replaced precisely coordinated blitzes in passing situations. (How many times has OU dropped eight defenders into coverage on third down in recent years?)
The graduation of OU’s chief disruptor, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, raises its own set of questions about the Sooners’ ability to turn up the pressure on opponents. Given Stoops’ expressed desire to get more “multiple” on defense in recent years, he may use the transition period to incorporate more single-gap fronts to allow his linemen and linebackers to get better penetration.
Stoops has a notorious stubborn streak, but even he should be willing to admit at this point that OU's general passivity on defense can't continue. Turning up the pressure will be paramount to getting the D back to respectability.