The Aggies routed South Carolina State on Saturday night 70-14 but many fans left frustrated with the ground game, as Ben Malena and company barely moved the chains aside from one long touchdown run in the second quarter. So what is going on? I have some answers, and the future looks BRIGHT.
So just WTF is going on with the run game? I, personally, wanted to see the A&M offense come out against South Carolina State and establish a running game early and often to get both the offensive line and running backs comfortable. But that didn't happen as running plays (minus the Johnny Manziel scrambles) barely averaged over 3 yards a carry. Against a FCS school no less! So why are we struggling? Three reasons: 1) Design of play 2) Offensive line failing in the "hook" block and 3) Running back tendencies carrying over from the previous offense.
I didn't have to go far to find a play that had some problems to break down. This is the very first play of the game! Let's first look at the action in the backfield. This play is very unique in that the slot wide receiver, Thomas Johnson, is going to motion across the formation during the snap of the ball. There wasn't one other running play during the ball game that featured this kind of motion unless the motion was actually given the ball (Ryan Swope was given the ball on a similar motion the very next play). So the play that is drawn up here is a simple zone read by Johnny Manziel and Ben Malena but if Johnny decides to keep the ball, an option play to pitch the ball to the motioning Johnson. It's a play I run on NCAA 13 all the time. The key to this play, as in all zone read plays, is the backside defensive end who is highlighted here by the circle. In a majority of our running plays on Saturday night (about 80% -- just guessing) this defender was left unblocked. And we did the same thing against SMU the weekend before. This defender will either crash down hard inside to play Ben Malena or he will try to play the threat of the quarterback keeping the ball. So far this season, every time we have run a zone read play, Johnny has NEVER kept the ball. That tells me Johnny really isn't making a decision here based on the play of the defensive end -- he has been told to give the ball every single time. And South Carolina State, even though they may be an FCS school, are well coached and recognized this tendency from the SMU game and the defensive end crashed down every single time to play the running back. That's a bad mix already, no matter who you are playing. In that scenario, Johnny should be keeping this ball and running for a large gain down the field just like Ryan Tannehill has done in the past against Oklahoma two years ago and Oklahoma State last year. But for whatever reason, the coaches have decided to give to the running back every single time. I'm fairly confident that could be changing this weekend as we open a stretch of SEC conference play. If Arkansas follows the South Carolina State line of thinking and instructs their defensive end to crash down, this time Johnny might just keep the ball and be gone down the field before you can blink. And once he does that several times, the defensive end will stop crashing down and now you will be opening running lanes if he decides to give to Ben Malena. So what is one reason the run game is struggling? Johnny has been giving 100% of the time to Malena on the zone read play while the defensive end is crashing down hard.
The option if Johnny keeps with the motioning Thomas Johnson as a pitch man is also a new wrinkle we haven't seen but it is an exciting development we could see later in the season. A true video game offense!
With Thomas Johnson in motion, let's look at the play design. The offensive line will be zoning to the left. Something they should be used to from last year, right? Well, not quite. In Mike Sherman's offense, we would want the mass of bodies to move one way while the running back is either able to move between those bodies because of the drive block or cut back to an open side of the field. Not here. Our scheme is for the offensive line to zone but then also turn his man. As in, actually create a running lane with their backs turned to the running back running through it. Sounds good, right? But it is not easy, especially with the defense lined up like they are. Let's examine:
WR Ryan Swope -- Ryan is lined up in the slot and will be asked to block the nickel back who is moving with the Thomas Johnson motion and push him to the left leaving him out of the play
LT Luke Joeckel -- Turn the defensive end shaded to his right, left. He will do this by allowing the end to flow to the left and then stop, turning him away from the play
LG Jarvis Harrison -- First, help with the double team on the one technique (defensive tackle between the center and guard) and then move to the second level turning the linebacker. The critical factor here is making sure the one technique is effectively blocked by the double team as I consider him to be the most dangerous man on this play.
C Patrick Lewis -- Turn the one technique to the right. This is an EXTREMELY HARD block since the person you are trying to turn is already lined up to the left of you meaning you will have to get your head across his body right after the snap of the ball. Then, "hook" him to the right by getting your weight under him after you put your head across his body. Oh yeah, and the play will flow to the left meaning he will be moving that way anyway. As a former offensive lineman in *COUGH* high school *COUGH*, I can't express how difficult this block is and how much I hated it. I consider it to be the hardest block an offensive lineman can be asked to do.
RG Cedric Ogbuehi -- Similar to the left guard, first help double team the three technique (defensive tackle between the guard and tackle) to let the right tackle hook him and then move to the second level to take on the linebacker
RT Jake Matthews -- Has a very similar to Patrick Lewis: hook block the tackle that is shaded to your left.
Okay, do we got all of that? Good. Let's move on.
Here is the snap of the ball. What I wanted to mention here is the lineman's feet that are highlighted. Yes, they actually took a step back on the snap of the ball. Many (internet posters) have criticized this technique. Instead of firing off the ball and into the defensive line, you are actually inviting the defensive line up field to make initial contact. That's by design to take advantage of the defensive player's momentum, making them easier to turn. Of course, if you are Patrick Lewis here and trying to hook block someone that is shaded to your left, you better be planting your foot more to the left than back to reach your man and put your head across his chest. These little factors and cheats make a huge difference.
Let's check the development of the play at the hand off. Two things here -- notice the highlighted defensive tackles. Both are being double teamed right now by either the LG-C or RG-RT combo. Before the guards leave to take on the second level, they better make sure that Lewis and Matthews can turn their man. We'll see if that happens. Also, notice the backside defensive end unblocked and crashing inside. Keep it Johnny! Maybe this week. Maybe.
Right after the hand off, we have some maturity in this play. Swope at the top of the frame is about to block is man and push him to the left. Good job there. Luke Joeckel has successfully turned his defensive end to the left early in the play, just like a future NFL first rounder should. No problem there. That is going to open a nice running lane for Malena. Jarvis Harrison has left his double team and will attempt to seal his man to the left. However, Patrick Lewis is struggling mightily with the defensive tackle he was supposed to hook (highlighted). The defensive tackle is flowing to the left and Lewis isn't in control. Now, it appears that he has his head across his chest but is unable to get his weight under him to stop the lineman's flow. Perhaps Harrison staying with the double team half a second longer would have helped Lewis stabilize his block. Jake Matthews is having a similar problem but notice Cedric Ogbuhei is still on the double team to help him out.
We've mentioned problems with the defensive end crashing down and problems with the offensive lineman executing the "hook" block. Now let's talk a little about the running back. In the previous offense, the running backs were coached to look for the cut back. With this play, a mass of bodies is flowing left and the running back has the instinct to do what they have been coached to do previously -- cut back. That isn't in option for Malena here as the defensive end is crashing down and the South Carolina State linebackers haven't really flowed in that direction. Malena has cut in this frame and will now try to find the hole between the LT and C like the play is designed. That's not really a problem here as this play was slow developing and the cut by Malena after trying to cut back actually allowed the play time to develop. But later in the game Malena will basically say "SCREW IT" and stick his nose behind the backside tackle and free, crashing defensive end and gain some positive but minimal yardage. If the defensive end wasn't crashing down, Malena probably could have picked up a nice 5-7 yard gain with that strategy.
So, after his first cut, Malena is going to try to run between Luke Joeckel who has turned his man to the left and Patrick Lewis who should have turned his man to the right by now. But, that hasn't happened. There is absolutely no hole to run though. So, Malena must make a second cut now and try to break this play to the outside and let his speed do the work. But notice that pesky nickel back who Swope should have blocked. Swope is in position as if Malena is going to run through the tackle and center. But when he doesn't, that leaves the nickel to try and tackle Malena on the perimeter where this play shouldn't have gone. And Harrison is in position to block his backside linebacker that is flowing to the left. Also note Jake Matthews hasn't really turned his man either and is flowing into the play. But, had a hole been there, his man probably wouldn't have had a chance to make a play. That just shows you how hard this block is even for the most talented of offensive lineman.
So Malena has no hole to run through, he will bounce it outside and try to gain yardage there. The nickel corner has met him at the line of scrimmage so Malena plants his left foot and just tries to get up field for whatever yardage he can get.
Malena will make that nickel miss a tackle, but he is met two yards down field by Patrick Lewis' man he couldn't hook block.
Malena keeps driving his feet and he goes for about a 4-5 yard gain on the play. That's decent for a play that was completely busted.
So let's quickly review: This running game so far has constantly asked our offensive lineman to "hook block" their defender in the direction the play is flowing. That's an incredibly hard block for any offensive lineman but should only get better over time. But really, this play was doomed when the defensive end crashed hard and Johnny didn't keep the ball on the option. I truly believe that has been by design to this point as to try and fool opponents later in the season. Starting this week in SEC play against Arkansas, i believe Manziel will start keeping that ball for a large gain. And when he does? That will open up blocks and running lanes that were difficult in this play because South Carolina State already expected Johnny to not keep the ball. And Thomas Johnson motioning as a pitch man? Makes me excited for things down the road we haven't even seen yet.
Sumlin and Kingsbury have been vanilla as they can be these last two games and that has hurt our production. Expect improvement as the playbook opens up and these plays are run as they are supposed to. Is there some offensive line technique to be worked on? Yes, but that also comes in time.
Later this week, I will have two simple and quick looks at how we can improve the passing game. One is on Johnny, the other on the offensive line.