Texas A&M starts spring ball on February 28, and for the Aggies' defense, the main focus should be on getting off blocks in order to maintain gap integrity. There certainly needs to be work on executing the scheme and understanding coverages, but for Kevin Sumlin's team, it has to start with shedding blocks and making proper fits.
The 2013 Texas A&M defense, according to CFBStats, finished No. 97 in pass defense, No. 111 in rushing defense, No. 96 in scoring defense and No. 111 in total defense. Numbers that, with the exception of the No. 12 pass defense, put the Aggies at the very bottom of the SEC defensively.
Those numbers also created a mountain that the Aggies' offense, and Johnny Manziel, were forced to climb on a game-by-game basis in order to get to its 9-4 record for the year. Against the likes of Duke and Ole Miss, Johnny Football and the high powered offense got Sumlin's team over the hump. Against Alabama and Auburn, the Aggies could have used a little defensive help to pull out a win.
Now, in 2014, there is no Johnny Manziel. There is no Mike Evans. And although A&M has some highly touted pieces looking to make big impacts, at both the quarterback and receiver position, the defense will need to step up its game to buy time for the youth to transition into bigger roles with more consistent play.
Folks remember the big plays, such as that Jamison Crowder touchdown in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Duke. Or the flea flicker that Alabama ran to score a big touchdown in College Station.
However, the truly telling signs for the issues plaguing A&M's defense came on the short runs that became seven-yard carries that put teams into favorable second and short situations. Opponents converted 40.98 percent of third downs against Texas A&M's defense good for No. 77 nationally. What's worse, was the Aggies surrendering 23.4 first downs a game, putting the unit at No. 107 in the country.
Extended drives wear down defenses. Extended drives turn into points. Extended drives turn into touchdowns. Extended drives are why Texas A&M was at the bottom of the SEC, and the country, in defense.
This spring, for the Aggies, it has to be about making run fits, and to make those fits A&M defenders have to fight through, and get off, blockers in order to do that. Defeating a block and making a play is the essence of defensive football, and A&M has to improve in that facet to be a more reliable unit in 2014.
Against LSU, the Aggies defenders turn this simple run by Terrence Magee, one which should have been stopped for a minimal gain, into a long gainer that sets up a short touchdown. There are clear bodies around the football, yet none of them get close enough to touch, let alone tackle, Magee as he strides through the hole.
A look from the end zone angle shows the Aggies lined up to defend the play, sitting in good position pre-snap.
However, as the play progresses, linebackers over flow, the defensive tackles get washed down and the backside safety, linebacker and defensive end are walled off by two blockers and unable to squeeze the gap down. A tight end and a tackle control the defensive end, a linebacker and the safety who is should be filling the alley.
It is not just the length of this run that is problematic, rather it is how this run that should be stopped in routine fashion, turns into a long gain. This is problem that, for the Aggies, showed itself through out the season. Runs that should go for limited to no gain became six, seven and eight yard carries that extend drives.
Players who should have been in specific gaps were nowhere to be found, leaving space for ball-carriers to pickup easy yardage. Defenders arrived at gaps too late to be a factor, or as A&M exhibited time and again, defenders stayed blocked and incapable of making a play on the football until it was too late.
Another example is here against Duke as the linebackers step left before flowing right, taking themselves out of the play. The defensive end crashes inside eliminating the edge and allowing himself to be pushed down inside. Meanwhile the cornerback stays locked on to the wide receiver, never shedding the block to make himself a factor in the play.
This is where the Aggies have to improve as a defense for the 2014-15 season, starting with spring ball. The defense needs to not only understand the value of making run fits but also the techniques required to shake free of blockers and insert themselves into plays. That means defenders using rips, swims, slaps and bevy of other moves to disengage from blockers in order to maintain gap integrity.
After a year of struggling in the SEC to make plays, this spring should be dedicated to insuring the same mistakes are not made in 2014. That means understanding how to fit against Alabama's zone runs for TJ Yeldon. That means linebackers knowing how to take on the lead blocker in Auburn's run game, including being sure with which shoulder to contact the blocker. That means not getting washed down by LSU's power and run game but rather fighting over the top to make stops.
That should be spring for the Aggies defense. At the end of the spring session, there should not be a trap, counter or lead that A&M is not ready to stop. The same goes for the cut and stalk blocks that opponents will employ on the edge and at the second level.
If Texas A&M can get better at defeating blocks during spring ball, this defense should improve for next season. Football is all about beating a blocker and making a play; the better A&M can get in that area, the more likely this defense becomes a reliable unit.