The best defenses create turnovers. They shed blocks. They disguise their schemes to make it harder for offenses to read what they're doing. They recognize screens. They run creative stunts to confuse linemen. A team doesn't have to do all these things to be successful if they can make up for their mistakes in other areas. There's one core skill, though, that you can't make up for if you don't do it well: tackling.
You'd think the Sooners would be experts at this area of defense given the level of talent they often recruit. Plus, the most common tackling drill in America was developed by Bud Wilkinson and aptly named the Oklahoma Drill. For all of the criticism of defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, it appears that his biggest failure so far has been that he seemingly neglects to teach his players about this "tackling" thing before he heads up into the press box each weekend.
Before we dive into this, we should acknowledge that sometimes players miss tackles; that's football. I don't know a fan of any team who's never complained about the defense missing tackles. In fact, the OU offense excels in part because it forces missed tackles. No one's perfect in this department.
Oklahoma doesn't ever argue that they should be considered an average team, though. They put themselves on big stages by scheduling non-conference opponents like Ohio State, and they compete for Big 12 championships on a regular basis. When you're a good team trying to make the jump to a great team, there's no room to shrug off tackling issues. And tackling issues is exactly what Oklahoma has.
Last weekend, Justin Crawford got the bulk of the carries for West Virginia against Oklahoma. It was his third game getting more than fifteen carries in his time at West Virginia (he was a Juco transfer), and in those other two games he never averaged more than 5.8 yards per carry. Against Oklahoma, he managed 331 yards (nearly tripling his previous high) on 13.8 yards-per-carry. Here's a sample of his highlights against the Sooners:
Some of the plays featured good blocking, but all the plays in that video also feature missed tackles by Oklahoma. West Virginia managed to get themselves into a first-and-25 midway through the second quarter, which would normally be an excellent opportunity for the defense to force a punt. Instead, two Sooners got themselves out of position and whiffed completely at the line of scrimmage. Kahlil Haughton managed to finally get ahold of Crawford near midfield, setting up second down and still giving the defense a chance at a stop. Or at least, that's what should have happened. Instead, Haughton slipped right off Crawford, and the safety who dove at Crawford to give Haughton some backup completely missed. More than 40 yards later, Oklahoma finally managed to bring Crawford down, but first-and-25 quickly turned into first-and-goal for West Virginia. In the third quarter, Haughton again had another chance to bring Crawford down at midfield, but instead badly missed the tackle. Crawford picked up another 30 yards from there before anyone could bring him down. That's the kind of night the Sooners had, and it's also the kind of season they've had.
The week before visiting Morgantown, Oklahoma hosted Baylor. The Sooners controlled most of the game, but lost their chance at a dominant showing because they just couldn't make tackles. On Baylor's first touchdown, Jordan Thomas completely failed to take down KD Cannon in the open field, then three other Sooners failed to get him down near the goal line.
Thomas went low, which is a common method for defensive backs to make tackles in the open field. The strategy might have worked (had Thomas not missed), but he would have been better off wrapping the receiver up just below the waist and trying to drive him down instead of hopelessly attempting to cut his legs out.
In the fourth quarter, Oklahoma again allowed Cannon to find the end zone after Jordan Thomas and Steven Parker both badly miss tackles.
That time it actually looked like Thomas might have been trying to wrap up Cannon, but Steven Parker came over and went for the "big hit," making no real effort to form-tackle the wide receiver. If anything, Parker just helped clear off Thomas to give Cannon an easy stroll into the end zone from there.
This has been a problem for the Sooners all season, and it's cost them. Against Houston the Sooners owned a 10-3 lead, and Houston had the ball on their own six yard line. Bad tackling got Houston out of that tough spot, though:
Most people probably remember that play for Dakota Austin's confusion, but equally as bad is the fact that Will Johnson had the runner stopped at the line of scrimmage and utterly failed to make the tackle. Eleven yards later, Houston had a first down, and Sooner fans had a sign of what was to come from the defense. Johnson made two big mistakes: he never wrapped his arms around the defender, and he stopped moving his feet the moment there was contact. It's hard to make a tackle when you don't do those things.
It's not just wide receivers or running backs, either. Against Texas Tech, for example, Oklahoma missed plenty of tackles against quarterback Patrick Mahomes. No team converts 20/25 third downs without some help like this from the defense.
If you keep watching the rest of the video (I don't necessarily recommend it if you root for Oklahoma), there are plenty of other instances of the Sooners missing tackles that extended plays and drives. Against good offenses, that's how you get burned and allow 800+ yards of offense.
Oklahoma has one of the best offenses in the country, if not the best. It's saved Oklahoma for most of the season. However, they've had to do more than their fair share of the work because the defense keeps giving up big plays and the points that come with them. The OU defense isn't great at doing the little things that make a defense elite, but with the offense it has, it doesn't need to be great at all of those things. If the defense could just tackle better, the offense is probably good enough to carry them against almost any team in the nation. But when the tackling is this bad, the Sooners are at risk to lose nearly any game if the offense has a slow night.
Luckily, Oklahoma has this weekend off to get healthy. Hopefully they also go back to their roots with some solid Oklahoma drills, because if this team can fix its tackling problem, Oklahoma State faces a tall task when they come to Norman to decide the Big 12 champion.