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Scouting the Aggies: Arizona State Review

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The 2015 version of Aggie football looks a lot like the 2014 version, with a few subtle changes.

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Texas A&M faced a torrential downpour of blitzes and pressure from Arizona State Saturday night, and despite some ugly moments, managed to scrape out 400+ yards and 31 points on offense.

First things first, from a scouting perspective. Generally speaking, what does A&M's offense look like from a personnel, formation, and run/pass mix standpoint? Generally, A&M lines up with "10" personnel (one running back and four wide receivers), in either a spread (two receivers to either side, with the quarterback in the shotgun) or trips (one receiver to one side and three to the other) formation, and drops back to pass slightly more than half the time.

As promised, I'll start with an overview of things. A&M was successful (gain 50% of necessary yards on 1st and 2nd down and 100% on 3rd and 4th) 41% of the time overall. That number was much lower in the first three quarters, as A&M finished strong in the fourth quarter by having success on 12 of the last 13 plays. A good game for this offense should be more around 50%, with 60% being stellar.

This being the first week of the season, here's a quick visual review on formations. Since Kevin Sumlin brought his offense to College Station in 2012, the Aggies have not been a team that uses a lot of different formations. Saturday night was no different. 76/79 snaps were run out of these three formations:

Spread:

spread formation

Trips:

Trips formation

Sloth (a formation name I made up because it features one slot receiver and an H back):

Sloth formation

There were a couple small variations to those, like when they stacked their two slot receivers a few times in their trips formation (they never did this last year):

trips stack slot

The Aggies also ran a couple plays with "20" personnel, two running backs and three wide receivers, and when they did that, they ran what I call a "pro" formation, with backs on either side of the running back.

pro formation

But James White got hurt on the second play of that formation, and we never saw it again. The only other variation all night was when they moved the H back towards or away from the slot receiver in their sloth formation:

The last formation we saw was when Kyler Murray was in the game and A&M motioned Tra Carson out of the backfield to create an empty set.

empty formation

Interestingly enough, A&M never used five wide receivers and never attached a tight end to the line of scrimmage.

As for the receivers, there was some movement throughout the game, mostly between the X and Z positions, which are the two outside receivers. Speedy Noil, who is almost exclusively used at the X position (on the left), did run a play or two at Z (on the right). Likewise, Josh Reynolds spends most of his time at Z, but played a few snaps at X, even catching a couple passes from that spot. Ratley played both X and Z, and Jeremy Tabuyo played a few snaps at Z.

The inside receivers, Y and H, were manned almost exclusively by Christian Kirk and Ricky Seals-Jones. Don't quote me on this but I never noticed anyone else in there except for a few snaps at H for Boone Niederhofer. Depth at receiver appears to be an issue early on for the Aggies. Unless I missed it, we never saw Ed Pope, Frank Ineacho, Sabian Holmes, or anyone else.

So how did the Aggies line up on 1st down and on 3rd downs? And what types of plays were called?

Here is what A&M did on each down from a play calling perspective:

As the season goes on, I plan on separating out Kyle Allen's throws to compare with Kyler Murray's, but for now, they are lumped together. Here is how they did in a variety of different situations:

As you can see, Arizona State, as expected, blitzed. A lot. A&M dropped back to pass 44 times, and ASU blitzed on 35 of them. If there's one area of success that stood out for A&M in the passing game, it was on quick passes. I chart those to include all screen passes and any quick passes that are thrown on a three step drop rhythm (single read throws where the quarterback throws on timing, typically slants, quick outs, and stop or hitch routes). On these, A&M scored both passing touchdowns and had a passer rating of 222.

Other quick trends and notes:

  • On those last 13 plays that were so successful, every single play was run from either the middle of the field or the left hash. None from the right. And of those 13, seven were passes. Of those seven passes, six were thrown to the left, which was to the short side of the field.
  • Related to that note, during that stretch, Damion Ratley and Josh Reynolds both spent time in the X spot, the spot where Speedy Noil normally plays. I don't know if that's meaningful yet, but it's something to keep an eye on. Noil only had one catch all game, and in the fourth quarter, other people playing his position were targeted successfully.
  • From the left hash, A&M was successful 47% of the time. From the right hash? Only 30%. Possibly meaningless, but again I found it interesting.
  • 1st down effectiveness was just 24%. Runs were 19% successful, passes were 29%. The Aggies need to win 1st down more.
  • A&M used 10 personnel 81% of the time, and 11 personnel 14% of the time.

Now for some fun stuff. A number of things stood out either from a scheme standpoint or from an execution standpoint.


First of all, A&M did some zone read stuff. It was evident early as Kyle Allen kept the ball on the second play of the game. The Aggies did a couple different versions that I noticed, and they also added a cool run/pass option to a few of them. When running the zone read, the offense will typically leave the defensive end unblocked, and the quarterback will simply watch him and decide whether to give or keep the ball. It puts the defensive end in a tough spot. So to make things easier on their defensive end and take away that play from the Aggies, Arizona State started blitzing a corner back on the front side. This brought two unblocked defenders into the play, so that one (the defensive end) could focus on crashing inside to the running back every time while the corner could have the quarterback. So how did A&M counter? By giving the quarterback a third option. Instead of handing off or running, the quarterback has the option to throw to the slot receiver if he is left uncovered by a blitz from his defender. (This was all covered yesterday as well in Ranger222's post on the game.)


This was used on the long touchdown pass to Kirk and also on another third down conversion to Kirk. The circled defender is the "extra' defender that ASU brings to account for the quarterback run.


rpo1


Once he shows his intention to blitz, this running play is dead.


rpo 2


Because there are two unblocked defenders, one (the defensive end) crashes aggressively to the running back, while the other is assigned to the quarterback. But Kyle Allen sees the blitz and knows that the slot receiver is now uncovered.


rpo 3


The defender responsible for the slot receiver has so much ground to cover, it's an easy victory for the offense. It's just a tough read to make and must be done quickly and with an accurate throw.


rpo 4


Here's the exact same look again. The key defender is circled. If he stays out in coverage, the zone read works as designed.


rpo 5


But again, he crashes in, assigned to stop the quarterback if it's a zone read or to just blitz if it's a pass.


rpo 6


Again Kyle Allen sees it and throws to a receiver who has plenty of room to operate.


rpo 7


So what about that 4th and 1 play that A&M failed to convert? Message board fans seem to think it was a terrible call. Well, it was the exact same play as the two above, but the quarterback, this time Kyler Murray, didn't make the read. Here you can see the exact same formation with the exact same defender being highlighted.


rpo 8


The Aggies are leaving the last defender on the line of scrimmage unblocked here and the plan is to run a zone read off of him. But meanwhile, once again, the slot defender shows his intention to blitz.


rpo 9


The unblocked defender on the edge doesn't even look at the quarterback, he just charges untouched towards the running back. The blitzing defender has the quarterback as his responsibility, so Murray, seeing that he can't keep the ball, gives it. But that doesn't work, obviously.


rpo 10


So what should he have done? The same thing as what was done above. Pulled the ball down and quickly thrown it to the uncovered slot receiver. Just like in the other examples, his defender was more than 10 yards away from him. It would have been an easy conversion.


rpo 11


That's just one example of how sometimes a run play isn't necessarily a bad call, it might just be a bad read. I'm not picking on Kyler Murray, it just happened to stand out. It's a tough read to make at full speed, I'm sure, but for packaged plays like this to work, getting the ball to the right place is crucial.


Other little things affect the execution of the offense in big ways. For example, in the play below, Speedy Noil's inability to defeat press coverage ruins both his route and Ricky Seals-Jones' route, causing Kyle Allen to abandon the first two reads he had and ultimately get sacked and fumble the ball. Here's the pre-snap look and the routes the receivers were supposed to run.


speedy1


ASU brings their safety down low, which indicates that a blitz is coming. So now Speedy Noil is being covered with press coverage by the corner and Seals-Jones is covered by the safety when his corner blitzes.


speedy2


The safety up top is really only worried about the top two receivers, so that leaves Speedy and Ricky in man to man battles. A&M runs something they ran several times, with play action to the running back who crosses his face and then roll to the left behind the pulling lineman who is supposed to block the unblocked edge rusher from the faked zone read.


speedy3


Unfortunately, Noil can't get off the line of scrimmage.


speedy4


All the other receivers are already five yards downfield. But the bigger problem is that not only is Speedy not a viable option, Seals-Jones is now out of the play because Noil failed to clear the space around him. With Allen rolling to the left, those are really his only two primary options. Once they are bottled up, he tries to go back right but gets sacked an fumbles.


speedy5


speedy6


speedy7


There were other plays I could show you that were there to be made but just didn't happen. Carson missed some big holes he could have run through. Kyler Murray missed the hole on the one quarterback draw he ran. The quarterback didn't see Jeremy Tabuyo running free down the right side for what would have been an easy touchdown in the 3rd quarter. Again my intention isn't to pick on those guys but just point out a few things that I noticed when watching the game with a more critical eye. There were plays to be made. Damion Ratley dropped a couple passes that would have extended drives. Blocks were missed. Throws were inaccurate (by both quarterbacks at times). If these little things get fixed, A&M will look much better.


It will be interesting to see how the play calling changes in the next two weeks. Having James White healthy should hopefully allow A&M to do a little more work in their two back sets, and playing easier opponents should hopefully allow A&M to open things up a little bit for the quarterbacks and let them sling the ball around a little more. The game plan against Arizona State was conservative by design, but the Ags will need to be more aggressive (and effective) to beat some of their SEC West foes.


Check back next week for more numbers and analysis of A&M's game against Ball State. As the season goes on and more data starts to take shape, I'll start including more numbers both for that week's game and for the season as a whole.