Howdy, y'all! Fellow Aggie here!
My name is Mark Travis and I am a student at Oklahoma State University and an editor over at fellow SBNation site CowboysRideForFree. While I am currently a Sports Media major at OSU, my favorite field of study is spread offenses (basketball and football included), and Kevin Sumlin's Air Raid attack (along with Chip Kelly/Mark Helfrich's offense at Oregon) is in a league of it's own. I'll be dropping by (likely on a weekly basis) to breakdown the film of A&M's offense, mostly because I don't want the FBI showing up at my dorm and asking "Why do you have thousands of videos and images of Johnny Manziel on your harddrive?" without having a good reason.
And, by the way, you will find no bigger fan of Manziel's personality than me (JFF is currently on my Mount Rushmore of cocky athletes alongside Kobe, Tom Brady and Yasiel Puig), so my analysis will not come with any caveats like "he's good, but he really should clean up his act!"
Without further ado, let's take a look at those last two drives against Ole Miss in which Manziel led the Aggies on seemingly effortless drives down the field with everything on the line, to the surprise of nobody.
The Game-Tying Drive
Play 1: Pass complete to Mike Evans for 3 yards.
The Aggies start off their game tying drive with one of the most common air raid concepts: the hitch route. Normally you'll see these routes from inside receivers in attempt to get the zone coverage to sink for the big play threats, but here Texas A&M goes to Mike Evans on a quick hitch. There are some other nice routes on this play, with a double in on the left side of the formation and a corner route from the inside slot.
But against man coverage, and with the corner playing an off technique on Evans, the decision on where the ball was going was likely made before the ball was snapped, and all Manziel has to do is plant his back foot and fire away. While it is only a modest gain, these are the types of plays that form the base of the air raid offense, allowing your playmakers to get the ball in space and forcing the defense to respect all kinds of seemingly harmless throws to the point that it compromises them elsewhere. Play 2: Pass complete to Malcome Kennedy for 24 yards. Here the Rebels show a cover one look with a safety creeping into the box, but drop into a two-man under look (two high safeties with half field responsibilities and man underneath). Manziel has Sabian Holmes in the slot open on the stick route against off coverage, but he patiently waits and understands that, against a two safety look, the middle of the field should be open, and if Malcome Kennedy wins the route on his slot post up the seam, the potential for a big gain exists.
Manziel makes the right read and throws a good ball to hit Kennedy right in stride as he created a little separation. Going through his progressions there, understand his route combinations and the defensive playcall and not taking the bail out route underneath is a great sign and will look good to scouts when they put the tape on.
Play 3: Pass incomplete to Sabian Holmes. The Aggies seem to go with a packaged play here. Running the read-option against a defense that's playing just three down lineman and a dime or nickel package can be difficult because diagnosing who the backside read isn't clear. Here it appears that Manziel has two reads. First he has to read the five technique to decide whether or not he should hand it off to Malena.
As the defensive end attacks the ball, Manziel pulls it back at the mesh point and rolls left. Normally he would take off here, but now nickel corner Tony Conner also crashes, leaving Sabian Holmes, the only receiver on the play that didn't fire off to block at the snap, open on a little zag/out route, but Manziel makes a poor throw off his front foot. Play 4: Ben Malena rushes for 5 yards.
Play 5: Trey Williams rushes for a 2 yard loss. This was a very interesting play for me. At first, I thought it was a straight run play and questioned why the ball was taken out of Manziel's hands on such a crucial play. But upon further review, it appears as if it was another packaged play with a pass option built into the run call. Once again, it's difficult to diagnose who the read man is here, but it appears to be the nickelback. If he commits to the run, Manziel can take the ball and run or throw it to Kennedy on a bubble screen (if the nickelback commits, it leaves A&M with two lead blockers on two DBs, a favorable situation). I can't be certain, but it would appear as if Manziel's got his eye on somebody at the second level. The nickelback is sitting still, which means the bubble screen is eliminated numbers wise and the QB keeper is technically the wrong read (although I'll never argue with Manziel trying to beat a defender one-on-one in space). The handoff would appear to be the correct read here, but if Manziel had turned his head just a little to the right, he'd see that the play was dead from the start, as the center gets annihilated off the ball. Play 6 (4th and 7): Johnny Manziel rushes for 13 yards. The Aggies don't complicate things with their fourth down call. With the exception of Holmes in the slot, every receiver is running down the field and past the sticks, and after Holmes sits in his stick route for a second, he takes off down the field as well. With man coverage on the outside, a pair of deep safeties and an additional coverage man acting as a rover (odd and interesting after that rover had been a QB spy throughout the game), the Rebels dropped eight into coverage, with all of these defenders pulled down the field, and rushed just three. After Manziel gave his receivers some time to try and break free, he took off at just the right time to pick up the first down with his legs. Play 7: Pass complete to Mike Evans for 26 yards. As we'll see a couple of more times in this post, the Aggies had a lot of success stretching the Rebel defense with vertical concepts and then complimenting it with a drag route to horizontally occupy the vacated space underneath. The Rebels are in zone coverage here (I'd call it cover 2 sink, with the hook zone defenders running with the trips alignment on their deep routes).
Those go routes occupy the coverage and leave the short left side of the field wide open, and the Aggies are able to scheme Mike Evans open for one of his easiest catches of the season.
Play 8: Johnny Manziel rushes for a 6-yard touchdown. The Aggies go with a rollout from the shotgun here on first and goal with Mike Evans running at the front corner pylon and the right slot receiver (Kennedy) running an out towards the back corner pylon. Both wideouts on the left side of the formation will find their way across the field to the right as well, but as Manziel realizes that Ole Miss's zone coverage has shut down his throwing lanes, he cuts back at just the right time, jukes the backside defensive end and wins the footrace to the left pylon for a touchdown. His sense for when pressure is about to get to him is unparalleled at the college level, and when a play starts going south, I've never seen anybody better at freelancing than Manziel. The Game-Winning Drive
Play 1: Pass complete to Derel Walker for 14 yards
Here we are with the drag again against zone coverage. Everybody takes off down the field except for Derel Walker, who comes across the field from the outside of the formation. With Ole Miss deciding to commit a potential cover guy as a spy on Manziel (even though it never seemed to work), Walker is free to roam for the first down.
Play 2: Johnny Manziel rushes for 12 yards. What do you know, another drag route mixed with some vertical concepts results in a big play for the Aggies. This time Ole Miss switches things up and dials up man coverage, which effectively shuts down Mike Evans as an option here on the drag (at least momentarily).
But here's the scheme giving the Aggies another option on this play. With Evans dragging and the right slot receiver running vertically past the first down marker, the entire right side of the field is vacated, allowing Manziel to scramble for a first down in the open space. No matter what kind of coverage Ole Miss went to, when the Aggies mixed drag routes with fly patterns, some section of the field was left open to be exploited. Play 3: Johnny Manziel rushes for 13 yards. This is a designed run for Texas A&M. With Ole Miss in dime personnel (it may even be quarters, or seven DBs) and with nobody in the middle of the field for them, they've invited the Aggies to pullout the QB Blast Right to get Manziel right into the teeth of the defense. The backside defensive end and a late-blitzing defensive back will go unblocked as the Aggies will focus on the three down lineman and getting an extra blocker downfield. It's a very well designed play and perfectly called against man coverage with the middle of the field wide open. Play 4: Ben Malena rushes for 7 yards.
Play 5: Ben Malena rushes for 2 yards. This packaged play seemingly has four options, and though the Aggies were content to just hand it off here regardless of how the defense played it as they tried to wind down the clock, I love how they can exploit defenses that get used to the first three options on tape.
In addition to the standard read-option where Manziel eyes Denzel Nkemdiche, who charges towards him at the snap, Manziel can also pull the ball back and hit Mike Evans on a smoke screen on the right boundary with Kennedy as a lead blocker. My favorite option on this play is once that defensive back starts biting on Evans' screen. If Kennedy only sees two defenders in front of him when he fires off to block Evans' man, he can run a wheel route up the sidelines for a big play (called a fake screen wheel).
Play 6: Tra Carson rushes for 6 yards, setting up Josh Lambo's game winning field goal.
Manziel's interception Manziel's second quarter interception was a factor of his gunslinger mentality and perhaps a misread on the coverage. His first read on the play is Mike Evans on a quick hitch on the outside to the right (this could very well be an option route for Evans where he stops for a hitch against off coverage and goes for the fade if he's contacted). Evans is open for a beat here, but Manziel instead progresses through his reads and looks towards the middle of the field.
Now, if I was him, I would have exploited Malena in the flat here since it's man coverage and he's got some space and a blocker in Evans to make a play, but it's not disastrous that he missed his checkdown. What hurts is that Manziel either doesn't recognize or believes he'll be able to fit the ball into Kennedy against bracket coverage on his in-route at the goalline. The slot corner is playing a trail technique and covering the inside cut while the safety is looking to pcik him up if he runs a corner/out route.
Once he saw that, Manziel should have shifted over towards the two other in cuts he has on the left side of the field, where he ended up having some space to make a throw.
Manziel's first touchdown On this play it looks like the Rebels are going with man coverage with zone help, or a very liberally switching zone coverage. Either way, a lot of Manziel's options on this play are going to be covered. So what does he do, despite the fact that three Ole Miss defenders break away from coverage to attack him once he leaves the backfield, he scores.
It's hard for Manziel's legend to grow any larger at this point, but a fourth quarter comeback against a conference opponent with the best season in school history on the line just an hour or so after I thought he had blown out his knee is a worthy tale to be canonized in Texas A&M lore.