October 29, 2009
Xs and Os on Saturday's Cocktail Party from the proprietor of the essential Smart Football.
The good news: You're undefeated. And by all accounts, if you win out, you will play for the national championship. The bad news? Your once high-flying offense has been sputtering the last three weeks like it's out of fuel.
The team is Florida, and while mediocre victories due to offensive ineptitude against Arkansas, Mississippi State, Tennessee and LSU might be generally acceptable (a win is a win, and the mainstream pollsters are still breaking for the Gators as the No. 1 team in the country), this edition of the UF offense is a far cry from the attacks that dominated the SEC the last two years. Worse, the underlying assumption is that the Gators won't be able to beat Alabama playing the way they are now, when the offense's regression has become more apparent by the week. Against SEC opponents, Florida is barely scoring one touchdown in every four red zone trips, Tim Tebow has more interceptions than touchdown passes and the running game has become excessively reliant on No. 15 keeping the ball up the middle (Tebow already has three games with at least 20 carries, a mark he hit only once last year, against Oklahoma). The Gators have been held below 30 points in four of five SEC games, after scoring at least 30 in every conference game en route to the SEC and BCS championships in 2008.
There are a lot of possible culprits. Tebow is "pressing" too much and putting too much on his shoulders; the new offensive staff, including coordinator Steve Addazio and new quarterbacks coach Scott Loeffler, has not gelled; and the receiving corps has been a disappointment with the losses of Louis Murphy and Percy Harvin to the NFL. All these are clearly issues. In particular, the Gators red zone reliance on Tebow has gone far overboard, though the extra Tebow plays don't really explain by themselves how startlingly bad the red zone offense has been. Another factor has been turnovers, especially fumbles -- Florida's already lost nine loose balls, more than all of last year, and carries a negative turnover margin for the season for the first time in Urban Meyer's tenure.
What jumps out, though, is how bad the Gators have been in pass protection. Florida is in the bottom half of the SEC in sacks allowed for the first time under Meyer, and even that number doesn't capture how often Tebow has been hurried into making a bad decision, which he's done too often.
Every time Florida dropped back to pass against Tennessee, the Volunteers managed to spring a free rusher despite eschewing the blitz to play a lot of deep outside coverage and let their linebackers and safeties stuff the run. Tebow had a mere 115 yards with an interception and no touchdown passes for the first time as a starter, and every defense since has come after him in one way or another. Tennessee brought a myriad of stunts and twists with its front four; Arkansas sacked Tebow six times by bringing zone blitzes and rushing extra guys; Mississippi State, coached by former Tebow mentor Dan Mullen, went for the jugular with all-out, "Cover Zero" blitzes that put five guys in man-to-man coverage and sent everyone else after the quarterback.
The upside to cover zero is that the defense should always be able to blitz one more guy than the offense can block. The downside is that, if the offense hits a big play, it's probably a touchdown. But right now, Florida's offense is not well coordinated to handle these blitzes at the line, with the quarterback, or with the wide receivers, and the result against Miss. State was arguably the worst performance of Tebow's career.
To the tape. Late in the second quarter, with Tebow and the Gators driving (and the Bulldog offense unable to do much of anything on the other side), Florida aligned in a familiar five-wide alignment, with Tebow in the shotgun. Mississippi State quickly aligned with a man over each of Florida's receivers, and stacked the box inside. This is what Tebow saw.
The read can be fuzzier around the goal line, but the usual clue for the quarterback that the defense is in cover zero is if no defense back aligns more than seven or eight yards deep. State did not show that: The Bulldogs were not really disguising their intention to blitz, though maybe there was some confusion on who, specifically, might ultimately come across the line. At the snap, however, State's design was immediately evident:
The outside linebacker to Tebow's far left rushed upfield; the (defense's) right defense end stunted inside while the linebacker lined up in the "B" gap (between the left guard and tackle) would shoot inside and thus help hold the offensive linemen across from him; the left defensive tackle slanted to the other "B" gap, between the right guard and tackle; the (defense's) left defense end took an outside rush technique; and the safety who had dropped down looped inside to blitz over the "A" gap, between the center and right guard, a particularly clever part of the blitz.
In the photos above you can see that the protection was "set" to the left -- the center, guard, and tackle are all looking in that direction. And that makes sense: the defense had three defenders on the ball, so they needed three linemen to deal with them. Unfortunately the defense also blitzes three guys to the other side, where Florida only had two linemen. You can see in particular the dilemma of the right tackle, Marcus Gilbert, who has possibly three different guys to deal with -- the defensive end who rushed upfield, the safety who blitzes inside, and even the defensive tackle who is looping into his area. The right guard must also "sift" this trash and decide whether to block the nose guard crossing his face to the outside or pick up the safety blitzing to the inside.
The general principle with pass protection is to block "outside to in," meaning you want to block the guys with the most direct route to the quarterback. As we'll see below, the right side of the line does a pretty good job blocking the two inside rushers. Unfortunately, since Miss. St. is in cover zero, that leaves a free rusher to the outside. This man, the extra blocker the line can't pick up, is Tebow's responsibility to identify and avoid or exploit; most teams will say "that is the QB's man."
Before going to the next still, look again at the one above, specifically the offense's left tackle, No. 57, Carl Johnson. He's already been beaten. His right foot is still on the line of scrimage, while his left is way inside, and he's already turned his shoulders towards the sideline. Linemen want to keep their shoulders square to the line as long as possible, and they want to keep themselves between the rusher and the quarterback. Instead, he has taken a slow drop off the line and looks like he just wants to try to sort of push the rusher past him. It's not going to work.
Now you can see that the right side of the line has done an excellent job picking up the safety coming to the inside -- when State dialed up the blitz, they probably thought that was the man that would break free. Tebow knows he has some pressure from there but he is in bad shape: Johnson, the left tackle, instead of really trying to pass protect and his body and his hands, instead just lunges at the defender. His arms are locked out and his feet are out of position. Compare what he's doing to what the three linemen on Florida's right side have done.
Now Tebow has pressure from both ends and has to get rid of it, and fast. But look at the wide receivers. Everyone on offense should have known it was a blitz, but no one is looking for the quick release. The inside receiver to Tebow's right, David Nelson, is wasting time trying to juke the guy over him. (The defender has good position too: He is likely about to reroute Nelson at the top of his route, and rather than run by or through the defender, Nelson is trying his wasteful jukes.) Tebow's only options are to either throw the ball away or eat the sack.
Instead, with no decent throw and two rushers bearing down, he gives it a big heave towards the corner -- his receiver did break sort of open, but this was hardly an easy throw with all that pressure -- where the ball is intercepted and run back for a 100-yard touchdown.
Tebow never had a chance, no matter how open his receiver was. Although it's true that the defense can always bring one more than the offense can block -- that whole 11 on 11 and the ballcarrier's counterpart and arithmetic and all that jazz -- more blockers usually forces the defense to come from further away. Instead, as the stills show, Florida's line had a lot of tough calls to make in a short period of time. My bet is that one reason Johnson failed to block his guy was some confusion caused by State's blitzing -- it only takes a moment.
This is only one of the things Florida must improve upon. But pass protection is a rather large area of concern -- six sacks to Arkansas and getting blitzed into subsmission by Mississippi State does not bode well for the future results against a Nick Saban defense -- or, for that matter, this Saturday against Georgia.
Why does Florida keep going to an empty-backfield look when teams can so easily outnumber the offense with the blitz? For one thing, Tebow is a real run threat, so on most downs it puts the defense in a serious numbers bind attempting to cover all of Florida's speedy guys while keeping enough in the box. In Tebow's Heisman season, empty was more or less the base offense. Also complicating matters is that Florida's running backs -- the speedy Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey, among others -- don't appear particularly well equipped for pass blocking, so the thought is to split them out wide or just go with extra receivers.
The other reason that this has been so disappointing though is that Steve Addazio, Florida's new offensive coordinator, has been the Gators line coach for years. In other words, this is happening on his watch. Maybe he has too much on his plate, or maybe he previously did a good job coaching the line while Mullen coordinated the formations with the protection schemes and blitz reads into a coherent whole, and the staff lacks that now. Regardless of who the blame falls on, the line play must improve, and Tebow must begin getting rid of the ball more quickly -- something he said he was going to improve upon from past years, and really hasn't.
This doom and gloom aside, however, it must be remembered that this team is still one of the best in the country. And if they start dropping 50 on people again -- which, really, could be any week now -- we'll forget we even had this discussion.
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Chris Brown writes the strategy and philosophy site Smart Football and also contributes to the New York Times' Fifth Down blog. You can reach him at chris at smartfootball.com, or follow him on Twitter.