Since I've been laid-up sick for the weekend and sleeping odd hours, I decided to kill the time by re-watching the game with an eye on the offense. I wanted to really watch closely and try identifying recurring issues that might explain why our offense has underperformed with such regularity since last season's opener. I was expecting to see a completely different product on the field this season, considering the huge roster turnover, and I was hoping to see a lot more creativity and attacking mentality from the coaching staff as well. Instead, I was shocked and dismayed at how similar, overall, this year's offense feels to last. (Anyone else want to go in on an apology care package for Cyler Miles?...)
In the aftermath of what ended up being a thoroughly entertaining and gritty comeback loss, there's been a lot of blame thrown around the Pound when it comes to the offensive... offensiveness. Depending on who you ask, Jonathan Smith (and sometimes, by extension, Coach Pete himself) couldn't pass Vernon Adams' math final, Dwayne Washington couldn't break through a wet paper bag if he didn't run into his lineman's ass first and miss it completely, the offensive line are better at cultivating mullets than run-blocking, and the receivers just "can't get open" (whatever that means).
I was firmly in one of the above camps until re-watching the game and paying a little bit better attention, but, in this game at least, it would appear the failures can't be blamed on a single cause. What's clear from Friday night's performance is that the offense CAN do some things well, but it struggles to generate explosive plays or get into any kind of rhythm. Isolated plays for positive yardage do not net points; you have to be able to string plays together or be explosive to hit pay dirt.
So why no rhythm? Why no explosive plays? What I'm seeing is that the failure of the offense is distributed, and it can best be placed into three broad categories:
- Failure of assignment. This is when one or more players do not make the play expected of them, which results in the failure of an otherwise smart play. In short: Blame the players.
- Failure of system. This is when the players execute their assignments, but the play call or the design of the play itself dooms it to failure. In short: Blame the coaches.
- Failure of tendencies. This is when the play is well designed and not necessarily a bad call, the players all execute, but the play fails due to the defense being perfectly aligned to stop it. I'll let General Patton summarize this mode of failure:
For the rest of this post, I've cherry-picked a few plays that fall into each category to illustrate the point. I'll also include a few positive plays for contrast. Starting with...
1.) Opening offensive play from scrimmage. Dive to the left for Dwayne Washington. Immediately off the snap, Eldrenkamp doubles the DT, leaving the linebacker completely unblocked to smack DWash in the backfield. To his credit, our embattled running back (around these parts), breaks the tackle and avoids a three yard loss to get back to the LOS.
2.) 14:00 in the 3rd quarter, 1st and 10. This is an example of a play that was designed entirely right but got blown up anyway. It's easy to blame the OL, but this one’s all on two young tight ends. After Hall motions across the formation, BSU reacts properly and brings another defender into the box on their left side. Still, numbers advantage to the offense:
Right off the snap, Ajamu whiffs his block and Sample gets blasted back. Brostek gets caught in the wash trying to pull, and the whole thing gets blown up in the backfield. Can’t fault DWash for this one. Runs from the pistol are so slow to get to the point of attack that he’d have to be Usain Bolt to have had a prayer at making the corner.
3.) 12:25 in the 4th quarter. 2nd and 6. The call is a rollout pass to the right, and it looks like the aim was to go downfield. Browning has a great pocket in front of him, but there is no time for the play to develop due to a miscommunication between the LT and TE. The DE comes free and gets to Browning quickly enough that he doesn't have time to set his feet. Browning does the smart thing and throws it away. This play needed just one more block (and there were two guys there to make it...) in order to see if it had a chance at producing something.
4.) 0:41 in the 4th quarter. The infamous Tufunga whiff. He otherwise played an excellent game, but this sack from a three man rush came at a really bad time.
Believe it or not, this is not just a small sample of individual failures in this game, but rather a pretty good chunk of them. For the most part, the players were assignment sound, the running backs were taking what was there (sometimes and then some), the linemen were putting a hat on somebody, etc.
5.) I'll lead off this segment with an example of a well-designed play working as intended. 2:55 remaining in the 1st quarter. 2nd and 3. Really nice quick-hitter to Perkins for a first down. Using the tight ends could have been taking candy from a baby the whole first half, as the BSU linebackers were really playing downhill to stop the run. This play had to be included because it’s a good illustration that not all was futile. There were good, promising plays scattered in there, and the offense looked capable of moving the ball all the way to the end of the first quarter. These plays were all wasted, though, due to a complete lack of rhythm and inability to string positive plays together and build off of them. In short: Why not a bit more of this to open up the run game?
6.) 0:50 remaining in the 1st. 3rd and 4, you bring Browning back in after coming to the sideline for a single play. Is it just coincidence that he throws his most inaccurate throw of the night right after being pulled for a play? I’m beating a dead horse here, but I still just do NOT get that line of thinking.
7.) 8:25 2nd quarter, 1st-and-10. Gaskin motions into the backfield next to Browning. Browning moves him to the right side, which is sad, considering the play might have worked to the wide side of the field, with the shifty guy in space and a tight end in the slot. The play is a swing pass to the short side of the field from the hashes, and I’m not sure how bad a defense would have to be for this to actually work. To Chris’s point, there’s definitely not a numbers advantage over there:
The thing about this play that just bugs me isn’t necessarily what it was but rather what it could have been! For starters, when does a swing pass from the hashes to the short side of the field ever work? Secondly, take a look at the personnel on the field in that picture. There are THREE tight ends on the field! That’s 490 pounds of tight end to the right side of the formation—both 6’4". That guy standing there at corner? Buck-sixty-five, 5’6". I mean, forget this play in general, I’d have liked to see Browning take the snap and immediately pop it out to Daniels with velocity. What’s that corner going to do about it before Daniels is eight yards down the field? Or, if you insist on running the swing pass, bring Daniels down on the outside backer and send Sample crossing out to pick up the corner. There’s still a middle backer and safety, but at least it would have picked up a couple of yards. Instead, Sample runs a clearout through so much traffic that nobody was fooled, Daniels runs a curl, and absolutely zero defenders are blocked. What a total waste of beef on the outside, and I have no idea what they were going for with this.
8.) 12:45 3rd quarter. 3rd and 3. Had to watch this play about ten times to wrap my head around the good and bad of it. In this play, they tried to create a numbers advantage with misdirection, which was actually kind of clever and worked. Eldrenkamp pulls to the right and takes the middle backer with him, completely out of the play: Everything other than that, though, is a head-scratcher. This play relies on the left tackle making a lunging cut block and getting the end all the way to the ground. Which didn't happen. It also relies on the safety staying home, which he didn't. And why should he, when you just brought a "running quarterback" into the game for a single play? There's no claiming KJCS had options here; this was a toss sweep the whole way. With two lead blockers to take on a linebacker, corner, and safety, and the left tackle required to make a miracle cut block. There are ten BSU defenders within six yards of the LOS here, and the eleventh is already crashing down this early into the play (he never took a single backward step). The defense had ZERO fear that this play was anything but a run. If, at this exact frozen frame, KJCS would have faked the pitch, spun around, and lobbed it to Lenius, he would have--at worst--had to beat a corner seven inches shorter than him one-on-one, and, from the looks of how hard everyone is crashing on the run, more likely would have had nothing but green between himself and the end zone. ESPN color analyst after the play: "The problem is, when you bring [KJCS] into the game, everyone knows it's a rushing play." HA!
9.) 7:40 4th quarter. 3rd and 4. Just look at this picture and tell me what stands out like a sore thumb: See that giant at the top of the formation? That's 6'5" Brayden Lenius isolated on a 5'6" corner. On Boise's 12 yard line. Smith calls a sprint-out to the right, Lenius runs a post right at the safety, Browning has to throw the ball away and settle for the field goal. Do we not have a fade route in the playbook?
There is often overlap with this failure mode. Some of the plays above had an element of BSU defenders knowing exactly where they needed to be and showing no respect for whole chunks of the play book. But a few good examples where this is the primary failure are:
9.) 2:17 remaining in the 1st. 1st and 10. I had to take a screencap of this one, as it is excellent fodder for the debate over whether the offensive line can’t block or the running backs can’t run:
Every single offensive lineman has a hat on somebody, and nobody’s giving ground. The line is completely doing its job here. But you can see that safety streaking to the LOS at full speed through the Bronco logo, putting eight into the box. Simple man advantage to the defense. That safety gets to DWash with a full head of steam in the backfield, Dwash breaks the tackle (then a couple more) and gets back to the LOS. Line does their job, running back does an excellent job, play goes nowhere. What can’t be seen in that screencap is the 55 yards of open
green blue that Marvin Hall has between himself and the end zone.
10.) 10:30 2nd quarter. 1st and 10. Pettis wide right, Mickens in the slot. Browning, correctly, reads blitz from the nickel covering Mickens. Free safety on that side ignores Mickens completely, heads straight for the short route, and makes the interception. Three good things happened here: The pocket was super clean. DWash reads the blitz quickly, comes up and makes an awesome block on the blitzing nickel. Browning also made the right pre-snap read on the blitz, figuring he’d have Pettis one-on-one for the comeback. This one’s not on Smith, unless the quarterbacks are specifically coached not to look downfield (which I find hard to believe). Mickens was open on the skinny post, probably for a TD. It is, though, yet another example of what a defense can do to you when you’re unwilling to take the top off of it. I don’t think anybody necessarily made a bad play or call here, and it was entirely a gamble by the safety that paid off. When you have tendencies, though, it makes those sort of gambles a lot easier to make.
11.) 6:28 2nd quarter. 2nd and 5. Inside trap to Gaskin called. Both linebackers fill A-gaps pre-snap, showing all-out run blitz. Looks to me like Browning tries to change the play, but the ball is snapped anyway and Gaskin gets eaten alive by an untouched linebacker. Looks like Browning was trying to do the correct thing by checking out of the play, but it still raises an interesting point. They were not showing run blitz to back off at the snap: They knew a run was coming, and they were absolutely correct. Would have been interesting to see what Browning would have checked to.
12.) 13:00 4th quarter. 1st and 10. This is as good of a place to put this as any, as it's a positive play that happened even though the BSU defense seemed to see it coming. It's a straight dive left side for Duane Washington. Line gets okay drive, everybody puts a hat on somebody, and a scrum ensues. DWash is hit at the LOS and drives his legs for four yards after contact, pushing several defenders the whole way. I like ending with a positive example of our embattled OL and running back physically dominating BSU's defensive front for a fine gain on first down, but there was definitely no extra leverage on the play, and BSU had it well covered.
So what's the conclusion? I don't know, really. It's difficult enough to sustain a drive, but it's near impossible when negative plays are thrown into the mix, which most of the above plays represent. This wasn't a game in which the offense simply couldn't move, otherwise we'd have seen more three-and-outs. It was the one step forward, two step back routine that killed it, though, and the blame can really be spread around. There were a couple of player mistakes that could be chocked up to inexperience, there were a couple of boneheaded play calls, and, perhaps most importantly, it seemed like BSU's defensive coordinator was in our damned huddle all night long. Individual failed plays aside, I came away with a few general impressions, some of which are surprising:
- Boise State's defense is legit. Not necessarily physically, as I think it'll take a larger sample size to judge that. But they were ridiculously assignment-sound all night long. It was VERY difficult when re-watching the game to find obvious holes in the defense that could have been exploited.
- The offensive line looked way better than I expected them to. There were maybe three or four plays in the whole game where you could blame the offensive line for the failure. (Unfortunately, a few were of the spectacular and costly variety.) This goes for run blocking, too. You simply can't blame them for failing to block more than five guys on a given play...
- Dwayne Washington broke a TON of tackles in this game. Watch it again. He does not go down at first contact, as some believe. And I didn't see many instances of him running into his blockers unless there was nowhere else to go. If I had to find a fault in his game, I'd say it's his inability to "get skinny." He's not going to squeeze through a small crease for that three yard gain after contact. Most defenders get a square shot on him, and he either drags them for a while or goes down. Boise's running back seemed to excel at getting skinny, though.
- I was very disappointed that we never challenged those small corners with Lenius or one of the tight ends. I saw both Daniels and Lenius split wide and isolated, with the corner giving a decent cushion. We never shot it out there and let them bulldoze, though. In fact, the only two receivers who were given that route were Mickens and McClatcher! We also never challenged them with a simple fade route. That's a physical mismatch that was never exploited.
- Know how many bubble screens we threw? Two. Yup, that's it. First one didn't come until mid-4th quarter, too.
- There was quite a lack of play action in this game. We only ran play action three times in the entire game, the first coming midway through the 3rd quarter after the wind had died down a bit and Boise started dropping back into coverage more. Never ran a single draw play, either.
This last bullet exemplifies my biggest issue with this offense: It very rarely challenges the defense's pre-snap read. We use a lot of motion and shifts both to help the quarterback read the defense and to perhaps throw the defense off their read, but after the snap the plays are all mostly straightforward. Either it's going to be a direct run or a direct pass with rare play fakes and no delays that I saw. Boise State ran a couple of plays that were very effective and picked up first downs for them, one to the tight end and one to the running back. In both cases, receivers cleared out while the target stayed in and blocked, released, and was wide open for the catch underneath. Our tight ends, for comparison, never had delayed releases. All night, the Boise State defense was very comfortable in its initial read, which allowed them to close gaps to ball-carriers and receivers in a big hurry and blow plays up before they could get started. This is something I hope gets corrected when that missing "25%" gets added to the installment...
Anyway, this got incredibly long. Sorry. I hope some of you have time to read it, or else I hope the mods chop it down to digestible size. I also hope these next two games provide enough of a challenge to our offense that we can iron a few things out before PAC-12 play!