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As Oklahoma's Defense Has Slid, Production on the Defensive Line Has Plummeted

Alex Grinch, Lincoln Riley and others say the Sooners' performance needs to be self-sustaining and not dependent on the opponent.

The correlation of good play in the secondary and good play up front has never been more apparent than it has been at Oklahoma this season.

Over the first three games, when the Sooners made consistent plays in the opposing backfield, the OU secondary looked competent.

But over the last four games, as impact plays have diminished across the defensive line, the secondary has been more and more exposed.

Injuries have been the downfall for both.

Safety Delarrin Turner-Yell, cornerback Woodi Washington, and nickel back Jeremiah Criddell have missed broad stretches of game time in recent weeks. So has defensive tackle Jalen Redmond.

“The big thing for us defensively,” head coach Lincoln Riley said, “is we've got to play with all three units. We did that pretty well early, but we haven't done that as well as of late consistently. We've certainly had our moments.”

Said defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, “You can’t pat yourself on the back and say ‘Look at the success rate that we had in terms of getting in the backfield and getting TFLs and getting sacks, and all of a sudden it doesn’t work.”

As OU’s tackles-for-loss numbers have dropped, enemy offenses have spent more time in the Sooner secondary.

Tulane, Western Carolina, Nebraska and West Virginia combined to average just 4.45 yards per play.

In the three games since, Kansas State, Texas and TCU have combined to average 7.47 yards per play.

None of the first four averaged more than 6.1 yards per play. None of the last three have averaged less than 6.2.

In the first three games, OU got 9, 8 and 10 tackles for loss. In the last four games, those numbers dipped to 6, 7, 6 and 3.

After three weeks of the season, the Sooners ranked 12th in the nation in tackles for loss. Currently, they rank 26th.

Against TCU, Oklahoma had just three tackles for loss and zero quarterback sacks.

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“I don’t know the last time in my career that I’ve been part of zero sacks,” Grinch said. “Someone can probably find the stat and enlighten me.”

“I would blame it on us,” said noseguard Perrion Winfrey. “If we’re not getting to the quarterback, it’s 100 percent on us. Our job is to get to the quarterback and create pressure and create havoc. If we’re not doing that, it doesn’t look right.”

Riley was asked about how a secondary wracked with injuries can level up, and his response was blunt.

“The biggest issue the other night,” Riley said, “is a lack of impact by the defensive front and tackling. Those are issues one and two, and any other issues are way, way down the line.”

Grinch was asked if the defense taking a step back might be a product of the offense playing better in recent weeks. When the OU offense managed just 23 and 16 points against Nebraska and West Virginia, the defense gave up 384 yards and 226 yards and yielded only 16 and 13 points.

But in the last three games, as the offense scored 37, 55 and 52, the defense surrendered 420 yards, 516 yards and 529 yards and the Wildcats, Longhorns and Horned Frogs lit up the scoreboard for 31, 48 and 31 points.

“You know,” Grinch said, “we certainly have been guilty of that at times around here.”

That harkens back to recent years pre-Grinch, when the offense carried the team through defensive performances that ranged from sluggish to abysmal.

That’s been happening again this season.

“It's been a major focus point, frustration point,” Grinch said. “And one of the things we say is, our performance always matters. It always matters, regardless of what the scoreboard reads, whether we're up by 10, up by 20, whether the offense is having success or not having success. That's something we have to be very conscious of. … I do think that's part of it.”

Attrition has been heavy as the team’s only open date isn’t for another two weeks. They’ve played seven consecutive Saturdays, and still have two more to go. This week, there’s a cushion with 1-5 Kansas. The Sooners are a 38-point favorite. OU will win this game comfortably.

But that’s not the point, Grinch said. Performance matters. Tackles for loss matter. How the secondary covers matters. Much, much harder games lie ahead, and papering over their flaws with an easy win over Kansas doesn’t fix anything.

“We’ve got to make sure, again, our performance can't be attached to the scoreboard,” Grinch said. “Our performance can't be attached to the particular opponent that we play.”

Said Winfrey, “We can feel it and know that it doesn’t look right. We’re just gonna go back to the drawing board like we have this week and practice better. Our practice habits create game habits. If we’re not practicing, it shows up on the game film. We realize that. We’ve had player meetings about that. We realize we need to come together and work our asses off to produce and keep producing and producing and producing and producing. That’s what we’re gonna do.”