Many things can be said about the Red Raider's defense in 2014, and most of them have already been said. The words that were used run the full length of the alphabet, all the way from "Atrocious" to "Ghastly" and all the way to "Yucky". However, none of the words used to describe the Texas Tech defense as a whole can be used to describe the defensive line. This may seem strange, as the Red Raiders were repeatedly gashed on the ground by the likes of TCU, Baylor, and Iowa State.
I want to explain the issue that I have when our struggles against defending the run are placed on poor defensive line play. It's simply not true. There are so many facets to football that I don't think we can pin issues on one certain thing, much less an entire position group. From the viewpoint I had, the defensive line wasn't half bad, and looks like it will be one of our team's strengths heading into 2015.
The differences in assignments in a 4-3 and a 3-4 defense are drastic, and absolutely affect individual statistics.
Having a 3-4 defense will naturally decrease the statistics of a defensive line. Let's first take into account the nature of the formations themselves.
A 4-3 naturally places more defensive linemen on the field, giving the defensive line of a 4-3 more ability to gain statistics than a 3-4. Not only that, but in the 4-3 defense, the defensive ends are the "edge players".
What this means is while the defensive tackles are tasked with clogging the middle, the defensive ends are usually free to make plays that are for the outside linebackers in a 3-4 defensive. They simply have a lot more agency to pin their ears back and get after the ballcarrier or quarterback. The statistical importance of having defensive ends be edge players cannot be understated. Not only are they the edge players, they are more "unchained" than their counterparts in the 3-4.
The 3-4 generally requires something a little different from their defensive linemen: to eat up space and free up room for the linebackers to make plays. It relies on the defensive ends being able to play in the interior of the line as well as the outside, and the nose guard being able to take on a double team style block from the offensive line on nearly every play. By definition, the 3-4 players will gain less statistics.
Let's compare the defensive line statistics from two of the most dominant defenses of all time, 2011 LSU and 2011 Alabama, who ran a 4-3 and a 3-4 respectively.
Starting in Alabama's 3-4 at the beginning of the season were Damion Square, Josh Chapman, and Ed Stinson. Starting in LSU's 4-3 were Sam Montgomery, Michael Brockers, Anthony Johnson, and Kendrick Adams. The individual statistics speak for themselves. This isn't controlled for injuries or quickness of rotation, but from these stats we can see that 4-3 defensive linemen seem to gain more statistics (tackles, TFL, sacks) than their counterparts in the 3-4. This is not saying that 3-4 players are worse, just that the defense they are running is functionally different.
One of the knocks I've heard on the Texas Tech defensive line is that they tend to disappear in big games. Not taking the specific function of the defense that we run into account, that makes perfect sense. The stats just aren't there. But when we take the stats of the 2011 Alabama defense into account, which was arguably the number one defense in 2011, we can see that having low statistics doesn't mean the end of the world for how they actually preformed. Actually, a player like Branden Jackson had one heck of a year. Saying that "poor" statistics made this defensive line awful is wrong.
Running a 3-4 instead of a 4-3 hurt our defensive line in terms of statistics. Using statistics to say that our defensive line wasn't good is dishonest, as it doesn't take the very nature of the defense into account. I've never been a fan of defensive statistics save Interceptions and Sacks, and this is one of the big reasons why. They're very easily misinterpreted.
In a 3-4 defense, the defensive line is only as good as the linebackers behind them
Most 3-4 defenses run a "read" system, which requires the defensive line to take up as many blockers as possible while making the running back's holes as small as possible. This is a very difficult task that can make them look very bad as well if the linebackers do not do their jobs as well.
Plays like this will make any defense look bad. But there's also a pretty blatant facet of this that's ignored: there's a lot of black jerseys with lower numbers going backwards. There's a whole lot of those higher jersey numbers in the backfield or taking up multiple blockers.
Can't really pin this one on the defensive line.
It's pretty simple: there were many times this year where the linebackers blatantly missed assignments or missed tackles, and their failures were pinned on the defensive line. It's not a fair assessment to pin the failures of an entire defense on a unit that was doing it's job fairly well. I'm not here to throw the linebackers under the bus, but from looking at film pretty extensively this spring, it seems as if there were many assignments missed.
More often than not, the Texas Tech defensive line was not "blown off the ball" as per the common narrative.
Let's begin the film breakdown portion of this argument with a game where we were mauled on the ground, giving up 438 yards of rushing against Arkansas.
In The Game Currently: #51 Demetrius Alston, #99 Rika Levi, #90 Keland McElrath
This play is a draw, one of the plays Arkansas used on us to great effect. This was played nearly mistake free by the defensive line. The goal of the offensive line in a draw play is to fake pass protection, "draw" the defensive line upfield, and then sneak the running back out with the ball for a modest gain. In this play, none of the Texas Tech defensive linemen are fooled at all by the draw play. Rika Levi nearly makes the play at the line of scrimmage. Alston holds the outside edge, able to come off his block if the running back bounces the ball outside, but also able to press back into the offensive linemen to "squeeze" the hole down if needed. McElrath loses a little bit of ground, but ultimately he's not being entirely blown off the ball. The problem with this play, as is usual, is what happens when our players get to the ball.
In The Game Currently: #90 Keland McElrath, #99 Rika Levi, #9 Branden Jackson
This is another play where the defensive line played near perfectly, and ended up making the play at the line of scrimmage. The only mistake by the trio was that the linemen tasked with blocking the linebackers got a nearly clean release into the second level of our defense. That cannot happen. We have to get at least a piece of the guard or tackle headed to block our linebackers. This was negated by Branden Jackson and Keland McElrath squeezing the hole down and Rika Levi holding his ground and then coming off his block and making a play.
In The Game: #90 Keland McElrath, #98 Anthony Smith, #9 Branden Jackson
Anthony Smith and Keland McElrath make this play happen. Keland draws a double team, freeing the backside linebacker VJ Fehoko to make a play on the ball. It's textbook on how to play the offensive lineman who is tasked with blocking the linebacker, find which one he is, and attack him. If the linebacker reacts quickly enough, he'll hit the hole without a blocker bothering him at all. Anthony Smith provides the same kind of support, showing just enough of his jersey in a gap that the lead blocker thinks that he's a threat. With the lead blocker sucked up into the middle of that massive pile of bodies in the middle of the field, the linebackers have a straight shot at making the play for a neutral or modest gain, which they do.
Let's go back to the UTEP game for a quick second
In The Game: #90 Keland McElrath, #99 Rika Levi, #9 Branden Jackson
Obviously this running play is bad for us. The weak side trap play plagued us all night, But once again, this is not a fault of the defensive line. Every single one of them was caught up in the misdirection, as per usual for players who play on the line of scrimmage. They weren't completely washed out of the play either, every single defensive lineman fights back into the flow of the offensive line. The issue with this play is linebacker flow and tackling in general.
In The Game: #94 Donte Phillips, #90 Keland McElrath, #50 Brandon Thorpe
Once again, the defensive line makes a play when the play could have gone for a lot more. The mistake in this play does come from a member of the defensive line: Donte Phillips goes too far upfield and is not only blocked out of the play, he makes the hole wider. Keland McElrath plays this perfectly. He gives a little ground to gain a little ground, getting over the top of the offensive linemen trying to keep him from getting to the ballcarrier. McElrath presses the offensive lineman out of the way while sliding down the line of scrimmage. That's not easy to do for anyone. Also, if he doesn't make this tackle, the running back might be still running.
Let's head to the TCU game (cue "Careless Whisper") to look at what happens when everything is clicking.
In The Game: #99 Rika Levi, #50 Brandon Thorpe, #9 Branden Jackson
First off, daaaaaang Micah. More of that please. A lot more. Second, this is what happens when the defensive line and linebackers mesh together and do their respective jobs. I'm not sure what TCU's right guard was doing on this play, but regardless this was played perfectly. Not a single offensive lineman made it more than one yard up the field, and we had a linebacker free in a relatively small hole. While this looks like a victory for Awe only, this is a victory for the entire defensive front. If they're taking up space in the middle of the field, they're doing their jobs. If the linebackers do theirs, we make plays.
I'm not here trying to tell you that the Red Raiders had the defensive line of the 2011 Crimson Tide playing for them. They didn't. I'm not here trying to tell you that the defensive line never did anything wrong. They did. I'm trying to get the point across that pinning an entire season on one unit is not only a massive stretch, in this case it's just flat out wrong. I don't know much, but I do now that the Texas Tech defensive line was not half as bad as they were made out to be in 2014.