First off, what you are about to read is going to be controversial. After all, I'm about to blame last year's Heisman trophy winner (and this year's leading candidate up until Saturday) for the recent funk our offense has been in for the past several weeks. Some would call that stupid. Idiotic. That's fine, and these are just my opinions. This is how I see the game right now. I'm by no means an expert at this, although GBH asks that I pretend to be each week. There are some posters who know more than I that might disagree with this, and that is okay. These breakdowns are meant to give a perspective and spark discussion. I'm sure this will. But you need to hear it, because I doubt anyone else is going to speak up and say it.
Johnny Manziel is what is wrong with this offense.
Now just hear me out. I believe there are 3 key areas in which Johnny's game has deteriorated, and it has cost us. Those manifestations were clear on Saturday against LSU, and I will take you through each one.
1. Not Executing The Short Passing Game
This is the biggest problem I see right now with our offense: the lack of a short passing game. After Saturday night, a lot of people brought up the fact our running backs only received 6 carriers for the entire contest. We'll get to that later, but you have to remember that in this offensive system, our coaches view the short passing game as an extension of our rushing attack. It works just as well to them. However when you combine limited rushing attempts with few short passes and are only looking to hit deep plays to Mike Evans down the field, now this offense has major problems.
First, let's focus on how it's supposed to look.
On this first and ten play, A&M will line up in their 2x2 formation with two receivers to each side of the offensive line. LSU is going to stay in a nickel package with 5 defensive backs (like they did for most of the game) and bring 5 defenders to pressure Johnny Manziel (again, something they did all game long). The four down linemen will rush along with the linebacker to the top of the image. This is the type of pressure the A&M offense saw all game long.
With a blitzing linebacker, receiver Travis Labhart will be matched up with a safety on this play in man coverage as shown.
Labhart is going to run a 7 yard dig route back towards the middle of the field. Johnny Manziel will quickly recognize the mismatch in coverage right as Labhart is going into his break back towards the middle.
The ball is quickly out of Johnny's hands and he guides Labhart back to the middle of the field with his throw, giving the receiver plenty of room to make the catch on the run and pick up a first down.
This is the type of pitch and catch release our offense is designed around. Find the void or mismatch in the coverage, get the ball out quickly and short to the receiver, and let him work in space to pick up extra yardage. All while working quickly and methodically down the field.
But on Saturday, those types of plays were hard to find.
Let's look at this third down play from the first quarter. A&M is once again in their 2x2 formation with LSU in a nickel look and Cover 2 shell. LSU will bring 5 defenders again, leaving the linebacker and nickel to retreat in coverage as shown. The two route combinations I have highlighted is a shallow drag by Malcome Kennedy across the field and an outside hitch or comeback by Mike Evans.
After the snap Kennedy is free in the middle of the field, yet Johnny doesn't appear to be even looking at him. Instead, he appears to be focused on what Mike Evans is doing on this play. Now Mike Evans was covered all day by true freshman Rashard Robinson. It's expected that A&M would want to test a true freshman against arguably the best receiver in college football. However, I felt that Johnny and the offense focused on that coverage too much instead of focusing on what LSU was willing to give A&M, especially in the voids created by a 5 man pressure. Manziel, especially in the first quarter, repeatedly went to Evans when there wasn't much there. These failed pass attempts put A&M behind the chains early leading to long 3rd down conversion attempts (the shortest one in the first quarter I saw was a 3rd and 6) of 8+ yards. It also affected our tempo. The A&M tempo gets going after a 1st down short run or catch. That is why last year you would see Kliff Kingsbury call the same run or pass on almost every first down: to keep the tempo of the A&M offense going. Against LSU and for a lot of the time this season, we have failed to either run the ball on 1st down or complete short passes. Instead, we elect to go deep down the field with a pass. These plays have a low probability of completion, and you really can't hurry to the line to call the next play because Mike Evans is jogging back after running 30 or 40 yards down the field. This is where our execution is lacking from the play calling last season and it is having a dramatic effect on the flow of our offense.
Now on this play, it's arguable what was the better option. I think the higher percentage play would have been to throw to Kennedy on the drag and get him in space to pick up yards after the catch and a first down in the middle of the field between the linebacker and nickel corner.
Instead Johnny elects to go with the comeback to Evans that is thrown out of bounds. Mike Evans didn't run this route deep enough either; it wouldn't have picked up the first down if it was caught. (Unless Mike Evans goes boss on the play, which could have happened)
These next two plays are from the fourth quarter. A&M is in a 3x1 formation with trips receivers to the bottom of the image. LSU is going to run a type of zone blitz on this play, with 5 defenders rushing and the top linebacker dropping back towards the middle of the field. On this play, I've highlighted LaQuvionte Gonzalez's route which is going to work back towards the middle of the field into the void left by the blitzers.
This is a view of the play from the endzone, giving you a better idea of what Johnny is going to see.
As the play develops, Johnny has his eyes in the middle of the field, right where the void in the defense is. LSU has a free rusher on this play, as highlighted. Johnny is going to sense this free rusher, and go to his signature spin move and roll to his left. However, Johnny has plenty of room here to step up into the pocket and deliver the ball to where a receiver is going to come free in just moments. This is one area NFL talent evaluators will be critical of Johnny's game on the next level. He never steps up into his clean pocket with his eyes up to deliver the ball. He either rolls to his left or right, or tucks the ball with his eyes down and scrambles to the middle of the field like he did several times on Saturday night. More on his lack of pocket awareness in a moment.
Right as Johnny goes into his spin, here comes Gonzalez streaking into the frame. Check out all of the room he could have had to work with after the catch.
Instead, the rollout will result in an inaccurate pass towards the sideline.
Here is another play from that same drive. Again, this is a carbon copy of the previous situation. Johnny has a free receiver in the middle of the field who will have room to work after the catch. He also has plenty of room in the pocket to step up and make this easy throw.
Instead of stepping into the pocket with his eyes up, he feels the pressure and put his eyes down to find the easiest running lane. Except he is not going to get away from the sack on this play.
2. Poor Pocket Awareness
Now some of you are wondering to yourself, why would Johnny want to limit his legs? Improvisation is what makes Johnny unique. Well, as we have seen against LSU the past two seasons, Manziel's magic doesn't always work against a well-schemed defense full of athletes at every position. He has to become a better passer from the pocket and beat teams with his arm. This is what Johnny set out to become better at in the offseason. People, and maybe NFL scouts, doubted he could do this. So this season, he has stayed in the pocket more to prove he can win from that position. But he still needs to learn how to manage the pocket better.
Talent evaluators will not like this play one bit. Here is a 1st and 10 pass from the 26 yard line. This is a big spot in the game as A&M has put together its first real drive of the game and needs to answer LSU's 14 point lead.
After the snap, the offensive line has handled LSU's four rushers well and formed a near perfect pocket with Manziel dropping back.
The only problem? Manziel stays there. He doesn't move. I timed this play to last 4.7 seconds long. Manziel held the ball in a perfect pocket for 4.7 seconds. In the NFL, a quarterback is routinely going to be asked to deliver the ball in 2.5 seconds or less. Johnny gets almost twice as long on this play.
And here is where the pocket awareness comes into play. Because Johnny has held onto the ball for so long, Danielle Hunter has finally come free off the edge. Johnny has plenty of room to step up into the pocket and deliver the ball, 3 or 4 yards in fact, but he stands in the same spot the entire time and doesn't move his feet.
Hunter will make the sack on the play and Manziel will cost the Outland Trophy finalist Jake Matthews a sack given up in the stat sheet.
3. Forcing the Ball in the Redzone
Last week, some of the GBH gang floated around the idea of working on an article breaking down each one of Manziel's interceptions hoping to show he really wasn't to blame for them and help his Heisman campaign. I immediately thought that was a bad idea because the truth is a majority of Johnny's interceptions this year have been his fault: forced balls in the redzone. He had another on Saturday night.
On this play LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis is going to get greedy and send 6 rushers. This is going to leave the four wide receivers in one-on-one man coverage and a single safety, Craig Loston, to play free in the middle of the field. Both Mike Evans (top) and Travis Labhart (bottom) will be running routes back toward the middle of the field. Before the snap, Johnny is going to think Loston is shading towards Mike Evans to double cover him leaving Labhart in the middle of the field. But Loston is a senior and a great safety. He baits Manziel on this play like a freshman.
After the snap, Johnny is going to look immediately toward Labhart. Loston is reading Manziel's eyes the entire time and anticipates the throw in the middle of the field.
Craig Loston is going to collect an easy interception. Johnny's poor eye movement is to blame. He should have recognized the coverage, looked to Evans to lead Loston in that direction and thrown back to Labhart if that is where he intended to go with the football. Instead, he locks on immediately and the safety makes him pay. What's especially bad about this play is it's almost a mirror image of a play against Sam Houston State in the second game of the season. It's the same forcing of the ball in the redzone like we saw against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. This is the same mistake repeated week after week and Johnny is better than that. He has to be. He knows this. Yet, here it is once again.
A&M has been able to overcome all three of these deficiencies against weaker opponents. However they couldn't against a quality opponent in LSU. A&M travels to Columbia, Missouri this weekend to face a Tiger squad that has just as much speed on defense as LSU did, and probably a better defensive line. It is a defense that is just as capable of containing Manziel from the pocket and making him win the game as a passer. It is going to be on Johnny once again. Will he execute the offense as intended or try to deviate from it once again? I've seen his play described on message boards as a hitter trying to swing for the home run instead of a single. I've also seen it described as hero ball. I think both are good descriptions and something Manziel has to answer for.
What about the running game?
Yes, those 6 carries. I watched each one and I was actually pleased with he way the offensive line performed on each. It wasn't great, but it is not going to be against the LSU front. Plays and running lanes were developing. I'm really flabbergasted after watching why A&M didn't run the ball more. It could have been effective if they let the offensive line and running backs get in rhythm.
But here is a great development:
A two tight end set with both tight ends at the end of the line! We ran off of this formation once (3 yard gain) and also threw a play-action pass out of it on a later drive. We were trying to set up a big play with this formation, but you can't run once out of it and then expect LSU to bite on the play action a series later.
We also used Cam Clear at the end of the line several times on Saturday night. Here is the first offensive snap of the 3rd quarter, a 10 yard gain on the ground by Trey Williams. Cam Clear is going to drive Danielle Hunter off the line and out of the frame on this play. Why it took until game 11 for us to see this will remain the biggest question mark of the season in my opinion.
Here is the result. Running lanes were developing. We just had to keep calling it. Why we didn't, you and I will probably never know.