The oldest of football adages states “defense wins championships,” and for decades that was the case. But in this era of explosive offenses where 50-point outings have become commonplace, dominant defenses have given way to a bend but don't break philosophy.
At tradition-rich Brownwood, however, the Lions have embraced a throwback mindset and started their second season under head coach Sammy Burnett on a defensive run not seen in decades. With just 32 points allowed through seven outings, 14 takeaways, four defensive touchdowns, a mere 200 yards yielded per game and four shutouts — including a string of three in a row they will carry into Friday night's Battle of 377 against Stephenville — the defense has sparked the Lions to a flawless record, No. 5 state ranking and put them in contention for their first district championship since 2010.
The four shutouts in a single season is the most for a Brownwood squad since 1982 — one year after the last of the Lions' seven state championships. During that 1982 campaign, under the guidance of head coach Gordon Wood, the Lions surrendered 83 points all season and posted seven shutouts en route to a 9-3 record.
The 1982 Lions opened their campaign with a 2-1 record, allowing 50 points in that span. Brownwood then posted three straight shutouts — 49-0 over Granbury, 42-0 over Everman, and 51-0 over Joshua — before falling to Cleburne, 9-3, in district action. Brownwood responded with four more shutouts — 41-0 over Stephenville, 35-0 over Mansfield, 35-0 over Crowley, and 41-0 over Fort Worth Brewer (first round of the playoffs) — before bowing out to Gainesville, 14-12.
Over an eight-week stretch, which included all of district play, the Lions yielded a total of 9 points, yet still finished as the league runner-up to eventual state semifinalist Cleburne. Over the final nine games, Brownwood allowed just 23 points.
Brownwood graduate and assistant head coach David Jones was in junior high in 1982. In the second season of his second coaching stint at his alma mater — the first being 1995-2005 — Jones is among the architects on a defensive staff that is turning back the clock to the days of dominance.
In terms of the key to the Lions' defensive success this season, Jones said. “I don't that there's just one. I think the main thing is our kids have been in our system for over a year now. Any time you build a new staff there's a learning curve for coaches and kids. Our kids trust the coaching staff, the coaching staff trusts the kids now and the things that we're teaching them in practice are getting carried over to the field. They have some trust in us and that's a big thing.
“The kids have also been really disciplined. The name of the game defensively is discipline and what I mean by that is everybody on the defensive side of the ball has a job, everybody's job description is different, but everybody has a specific place to line up, a specific thing to look at as far as who they key and the reactions that go along with that. Our kids have bought into the fact that you can't do your own thing and play good defense. You have to be disciplined, detailed and expert in what you do. Our kids are getting to that point, what Coach Burnett calls being a master of your craft.”
The Lions' 3-4 front has wreaked havoc on opponents all season, led up front by Kris Hobbs (51 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 2 FRs), Ezequiel Ibarra (41 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3.5 TFL) and Theo Bryant (28 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT, 2 FRs).
“Everything we do defensively is based off stopping the run first and that's no secret,” Jones said. “If you ask most defensive coordinators they would tell you the same thing and we're no different. For us, it starts with those three guys. Our kids are so physical that an offense can't dedicate one lineman to taking care of each one of them individually. There's three of us and five offensive linemen, and most times one of them is getting double-teamed, sometimes two of them are getting double-teamed.”
With the battle in the trenches taking place, Brownwood's four linebackers — Rowdee Gregory (52 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT), Cooper Swanzy (51 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 FR), Landon Harris (41 tackles, 1 sack, 0.5 TFL, 1 FR), and Damion Jones (35 tackles, 1 sack, 1 TFL, 1 INT) — are free to fly to the football.
“Our four linebackers are extremely fast, all four of them can run,” Jones said. “When you're tying up offensive blockers with three down linemen then it frees up the linebackers to be able to run and make plays, so it all starts with the guys up front.”
On the back end, the Lions secondary — Khyren Deal (44 tackles), Royshad Henderson
(23 tackles, 1 TFL), Zach Strong (23 tackles, 3 INTs) and A.J. McCarty (18 tackles, 0.5 for loss) — have kept big gains to a minimum by keeping receivers in front of them.
“The thing that has maybe separated us from our team last year is we gave up a lot of big plays last year,” Jones said. “Not all were in the passing game, some were in the run game, too. Those four guys back there have bought into the fact, and we preach this all the time, don't get the ball thrown over your head. If the guy is catching the ball in front of you and you make the tackle, everybody's going to think you're the best secondary player in the state. But the moment you get it thrown over your head, you look silly. We preach that if they catch it, catch it in front of you and make the tackle and give us a chance to play again. I think that's a reason why we've had some shutouts this year is because people have moved the ball on us at times, but we haven't given up the big play. If you can make an offense keep snapping the ball, it gives you a chance to make something good happen defensively with a turnover or sack or something that puts them behind the chains.
“The other aspect of that is three of those guys ran in the state track meet last year and the other is Zach Strong, who's 6-5. So when something does get past our linebackers, they're there to really support us in the run game, too. They've been huge.”
Brownwood's average of two takeaways per game this season Jones attributes to the Lions' physical style of play.
“That's us being physical more than anything else,” Jones said. “Fumbles, things like that are caused by us swarming to the football, being physical. Those interceptions, a lot of times the ones we've gotten this year are because the quarterback is under duress whether it be from our front three or Rowdee Gregory, our inside backer. We've been able to bring him from all over the place, he's kind of our X-factor. We can line him up wherever we want and he brings good pressure on the quarterback so when they see him coming, and knowing how good our defensive line is, a lot of our interceptions are due to the pass rush. All those things go hand in hand.”
The most important — and perhaps toughest — stretch of the schedule begins Friday at Stephenville, followed the home finale against No. 1 La Vega and a trip to China Spring to close out the regular season. While some teams might wilt under the pressure of what's ahead, Jones said the Lions relish it.
“They have a lot of pride in where they play,” Jones said. “We've preached every since we got here that it's not OK for someone to catch a ball, it's not OK for someone to get 10 yards on a run play. We put pressure on our kids as a coaching staff and I think kids work best under pressure, and I think coaches do, too. So we put a little bit of a burden on them to perform and do it in a great way and they've responded.
“We have a huge amount of confidence, obviously, but talk is cheap. We've been good defensively, we're 7-0, but we know we're making our money starting now with this run that we're going to have to make in district and then hopefully a long playoff run. We're extremely pleased with where we're at but we have a lot of work to do. And if we're going to be considered a great defense, then we have to win these big ball games. Our kids have a lot of confidence, our coaches have a lot of confidence, but we have to go perform. When I talk to the kids before a game, I don't put a lot of things in their head except asking them if they're ready to perform. What does perform mean? A lot of people are coming to watch you play, so perform — which means do your job.”