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How Texas A&M’s passing game continued to evolve against Tennessee

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Breaking down what happened at Kyle Field against the Vols

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Texas A&M Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

As Texas A&M heads into Tuscaloosa on Saturday for another top 10 showdown with Alabama, I wanted to take a quick look back at some things from the thrilling victory over Tennessee two weeks ago. The Aggies showed a few new things that are worth pointing out.

Growing the 90 series passing game

First of all, as A&M continues to expand its use of the Noel Mazzone offensive system, the game against Tennessee featured what appeared to be the first use of what Mazzone calls his “91” play.

In many older (like, pre-Air Raid) systems, teams had a 50, a 70, and a 90 series in their passing game. The 50’s would be five step drop passing (intermediate depth), the 70s were the seven step drop (the deep, longer developing passes), and the 90s were the quick, three step drop plays. Then there would be play action, bootlegs, etc. that would be called differently.

Mazzone still uses that system. When you see A&M run a go route with the outside receiver with an out route by the slot, that is the “93” concept. A&M loves it on third down and the Aggies have used it a lot, including on this Christian Kirk touchdown.

There are more, like double slants (94) (the first completion of the game against Arkansas), outside slants with inside bubble or wheel route (92), and the 90 concept, which is a hitch by the outside receiver and a go route by the inside receiver.

What A&M started using, or at least throwing, against Tennessee a couple times was the 91 concept: a fade to the slot receiver. I cant say for sure whether or not A&M has run the routes before the UT game, but I’m fairly certain that game was the first time the ball has actually gone to that receiver.

The outside receiver runs a hitch, while the inside receiver runs a fade.

On this first example, Trevor Knight does a good job of seeing that the safety, who rotates away from the slot receiver prior to the snap, is now not in position to defend the route and makes a nice back shoulder throw.

The Aggies used it again later in the second quarter, and this time missed a big play opportunity. The first thing to notice is the way A&M uses motion to create a mismatch. Initially, A&M lines up with trips to the left and one receiver to the right.

But then A&M sends Trayveon Williams in motion out of the backfield, and he goes out wide past Josh Reynolds.

This type of motion presents issues. Does the outside defender move outside and now cover someone new? If they are in man coverage, does a linebacker chase the running back all the way out there? What if that defender was supposed to blitz? It causes confusion in this particular case, because as it turns out, the linebacker was blitzing.

So after some quick confusion, Tennessee does the only thing they can do, which is to have their defensive end walk out and cover A&M’s #1 receiver. That’s a matchup the Aggies will take all day long. The Ags again run the 91 concept, with Reynolds now being the #2 receiver and getting to run the fade against someone who has no business covering him. Unfortunately Knight underthrows it and A&M comes up empty.

One more example of the 91 concept, this time from a trips formation. There is a slight variation here, as the outside receiver runs a slant, but again, the #2 receiver runs a fade, and A&M does throw it to him, albeit unsuccessfully.

The ball doesn’t have to go to the receiver running the fade though. When running 91 from a trips formation, the #3 receiver (Christian Kirk) can run a slant or a pivot and often be open too. Any time the Aggies have run this 91 concept this year, that’s where the ball has gone prior to the Tennessee game. It still went to Kirk a couple times against the Volunteers.

Throwing deep when the opportunity is there

The examples above fall in line with what I felt was a concerted effort A&M showed to throw deep when given the opportunity. With the amount of success A&M has had running the ball, and this held true against Tennessee, it forces defenses to consider bringing a safety down into the box to stop the zone read.

A&M did a good job of attacking down the field when Tennessee only had one deep safety, and it’s something I think is a key to A&M’s success this weekend at Alabama. The Aggies have to give Josh Reynolds and Speedy Noil chances to win one-on-one battles when given the chance.

Here are a couple more instances where A&M took their shots:

Early in the game, A&M used motion again to show something they haven’t shown much, if at all, this year. Prior to the snap, A&M is in a 2x2 formation, and Tennessee has one deep safety.

But When Noil goes in motion (it’s usually Kirk who would be doing that, but this time it’s Noil), Tennessee’s coverage switches and now Noil’s defender is the safety, the circled defender above is now covering Noil. And with three receivers to the field, the safety has to respect that, leaving Kirk with a one-on-one matchup.

Again Knight misses the opportunity.

But later in the game, as A&M keeps attacking the deep edges, Knight made some beautiful throws. On this play, I must credit the CBS crew for talking about attacking the freshman cornerback and then it coming true on that play. Most readers probably saw and heard this live, but this was great.

The play above was a play where Tennessee showed two deep safeties but really only had one deep safety once the play was in motion and again, A&M attacked it.

Third quarter now, again, one deep safety, A&M attacks the deep sideline.

And one more to look at. This one is interesting, because A&M has this long catch nullified by an ineligible man downfield penalty. First, here’s the play, where once again, A&M takes advantage of the single safety’s inability to cover the entire field.

Now, here’s why A&M got penalized, working backwards in time. Here’s the still image of what A&M got flagged for. The offensive linemen can not be more than three yards past the line of scrimmage when the quarterback throws the ball, and calling this penalty correctly is a point of emphasis this year.

So how did he get that far downfield, even on a pass that was thrown so quickly? Going backwards towards the beginning of the play, you can see that he is already moving downfield as Reynolds hasn’t even gotten off the line yet.

Here’s what happened. Typically, Tennessee (and every team A&M has played) will have four linemen. If a defender isn’t right across from him, either a defensive tackle will be shaded towards the right guard (off of his left shoulder) or a defensive end will be just off of his right shoulder. But in this case, Tennessee just has three down linemen, and their nose tackle is head up on the center while the ends are both outside of the tackles.

Normally in A&M’s blocking scheme they will all engage someone at the line of scrimmage and then peel off to the linebackers. But in this case, with no one in front of him and no one to even help with, the right guard for A&M just goes ahead and moves up to the second level since there is no one to block or engage with.

And that’s what ends up being the penalty. Kind of a random stroke of bad luck for the Aggies there. I haven’t gone back and counted how many times Tennessee used three linemen instead of four but it was very rare.

One last example of A&M throwing deep to the sideline when Tennessee had just one safety who couldn’t help. This one drew a pass interference call, so it was a success.

We’ll see how Mazzone and the offense build on these new looks and adapt for Alabama on Saturday.