I was disappointed with the offensive showing in the second preseason scrimmage. Tech is opening its season against two-time defending national champion, and preseason number one, Alabama. I desperately want Tech to win that game, I'm sure I'm not the only one, but I know exactly how good the offense will have to be to accomplish that tall task. I'm not as concerned with how the defense will hold up. Foster is the best in the business, and Bama has a rebuilt offensive line. I'm confident the defense will hold it's own, and I trust Foster will find a way to gameplan around the loss of Whip Ronny Vandyke. However, I was quite concerned with what the offense would be able to contribute to the cause, but after I watched this post-scrimmage interview with Shane Beamer, I slept a lot better.
00:04:00–00:04:24 H/T mike4vt
The very thing which worried me (the lack of variety in the rushing attack, the lack of short yardage completions, the lack of Logan-centric rushing concepts) also gave me hope. The offense didn't look good, but I knew there was no way that the playbook was that simple. If it was, the offensive staff would have been flirting with incompetence. Now that I've had confirmation that the actual game plan for Alabama is more complex, it is easier to swallow the poor showing on the 17th. Had the offense been working with a full deck of cards, I suspect they would have had far more success moving the ball. I may disagree with the decision to withhold so much of the playbook (I doubt Saban will be surprised, let alone shocked, by anything Tech does on game day), but the men on the coaching staff are professionals who know their craft very well. I'll have to trust their judgment on practicing with 2% of the playbook at the last public scrimmage.
The Offensive Gameplan Against Bama?
So what things do the Hokies have to improve on offense to win? We've spent a lot of time this summer talking about tactics (how Loeffler wants to get guys open for passes, what techniques Grimes teaches for the zone block, etc...), but we haven't discussed much about the overall strategy they will be taking into the game. What will Virginia Tech's overall philosophy be when trying to attack Saban's 3-4 defense? What is the correct mixture of short pass, long pass, and run? How did other teams have success against Alabama in the past, and will the Hokies attempt to emulate them?
Obviously if Loeffler and Grimes are going to have success on August 31st, the first thing that they will have to do is establish a running game. Nick Saban has too many talented pass rushers and he's too good at drawing up exotic blitzes for the Hokies to have much hope of dropping back and throwing the ball all over the field. If Logan Thomas finds himself having to throw the ball on 3rd-and-long time and again, the odds will be stacked against him. Only by staying in front of the chains and putting themselves in 3rd-and-manageable will the Hokies be able to keep most drives alive. Alabama has a reputation for being a super aggressive and attacking defense, but don't be surprised if you see them keep two safeties deep for most of the game. Logan Thomas has a huge arm, why risk him bombing one over your head? Saban's best bet is to keep everything in front of his athletes and trust them to rally to the football. He'll pick and choose when to blitz, but for the most part I bet that he'll rely on his front-seven to make plays without the benefit of an extra defender in the box. Loeffler must punish Saban for doing this by picking up the relatively easier yards on the ground when Bama is outnumbered.
So how will the Hokies find success rushing the ball? Well there's no one way to do it. Grimes isn't going to be able to rely on just the outside zone or the inside zone. Bama's athletes are too good to block when they can pin their ears back and attack the ball. Counter plays, designed to take advantage of defenders being too aggressive and losing their leverage, featuring man blocking will be key to continued rushing success. Most importantly though, will be Thomas's role in the ground game. Having a QB who can get short yardage when necessary is a very powerful tool. When Thomas is in shotgun, and the defense has to worry about him throwing it for short yardage, and bull rushing up the middle, they'll have much less chance of stopping either. If Alabama does keep two deep safeties, they will struggle to stop the QB run. Thomas's rushing package was completely absent from the scrimmages (and rightfully so, why risk an injury), but it better be a potent group of plays when Virginia Tech rolls into Atlanta.
Rushing the ball isn't the only way that Tech can stay in front of the chains though. A vibrant short passing game is vital as well. Short throws can keep the WR's and QB in rhythm so that when the time does come to take a shot down the field they can better execute. Also, having success completing passes in front of a defender time and time again will greatly increase your chances at getting him to bite on a double move. If Thomas never completes a pass to Knowles running a curl route, why would the cornerback ever bite on a stop-and-go move? I have been somewhat distraught over the lack of advanced concepts in the short passing game during the summer, but feel more confident now that Shane has divulged just how much more they've installed, little they've shown. If Logan can have the same success throwing short versus Alabama that he did against Miami his sophomore year, Tech will be in a very good position to win that matchup.
If Tech can have moderate success doing those two things (rushing the ball, completing passes underneath) then the stage will be set for Logan Thomas to do what he does best, throw the ball deep. Thomas's big arm lets him challenge any defense down the field, and with the explosiveness at the WR position, the Hokies will be able to threaten Alabama deep. Running the ball well in early downs will give Logan the necessary time to allow his receivers to get open deep, and completing short passes will increase the odds that the receivers deep routes get them open. It doesn't matter how Tech does these three things (rush, short pass, long pass), it only matters that Tech finds a way to do them. They are all interconnected and all build off the other's success.
Anatomy Of A Successful Drive
So what would a drive look like where Tech is able to do these things well? I decided to take a look at the Alabama games from last year to see if I could find a team which will look similar to the Hokies on offense. In my mind, LSU's offense last year is actually very similar to Tech's. They had a strong-armed but inconsistent quarterback, a talented but young tailback in Jordan Hill, and they had athletic wideouts, but no one guy who was uncoverable. Tech can learn a lot about how to attack Alabama from looking at the approach that LSU took.
First things first, Tech is going to need to get some turnovers. Beating Alabama without winning (not tying) the turnover battle is virtually impossible. Foster has gained a national reputation as a man who puts aggressive ball-hawking defenses on the field, but last season the defense failed to get its hand on the ball enough (T-66th with 21 turnovers gained). Whether by forcing fumbles or grabbing interceptions, the defense will need to do it's part in putting the offense in a position to succeed. The momentum that Tech can steal by taking the ball away from Bama will be invaluable. Once Tech does get the ball though, what next?
Saban has two deep safeties here, even to defend the heavy I-formation that LSU brings out. He does this to prevent the deep pass, forcing the offense to complete a ton of passes underneath against man coverage, or run the ball against his amazing front-seven. He's gambling that eventually his superior athletes will make a play despite being outnumbered. What do I mean by outnumbered? For every defender that's in the box, there is at least one blocker, no free hitters. He's banking this strategy will put the offense "behind the sticks", further increasing the odds of a big defensive play, as the offense has to reach for the first down. As I said before, I expect Saban to do the same against Tech and Logan's big arm. Why risk the deep pass, when you can force Tech's outmatched offensive line to push you off the ball all the way down the field?
LSU plays the number's game, and hands the ball off. They use a zone blocking scheme, similar to what Tech will be running under Loeffler/Grimes. The o-line wins or fights their blocks to a draw, allowing the running back to make the smart move and dolphin dive forward. Keep moving, or start dying. Edmunds will have to be willing to get those important 3 yard carries and not mess around with trying to bounce it outside if it's not there.
Players have to make plays! Biggest play of the drive. LSU is backed up, Bama is playing a two-deep shell... LSU can't risk throwing it deep, but they can't just keep pounding the ball or eventually someone is going to defeat their block and then it's a wrap. If Saban is going to allow the offense to pick up "easy" yardage, he's risking that a playmaker can make something happen. Saban fields NFL talent all over the place, but even those athletes get beat allowing LSU to get their players the ball in space underneath.
Just like Saban is playing the odds that eventually his athletic seven-man front will be able to beat the numbers and stop the run at some point on the drive, Tech will need to gamble on it's playmakers. Theoretically, this pass should never have gone this far. Bama had it played moderately well and rallied well to the football. The fullback does a great job at breaking a few tackles and makes a great play. SOMEONE will have to make a play for the Hokies, whether its Logan Thomas or Edmunds or Knowles... doesn't matter who. All that matters is that a special athlete changes the football math by breaking some tackles and makes Saban pay for not being aggressive enough.
On the other side of the fifty Saban keeps the defense in a 2-deep safety shell. He's not convinced that LSU is able to consistently pick up first downs even with the numbers advantage.
LSU has the momentum after the big play, and you can't fault them for wanting to take another shot at a play-action pass. However, if your WR can't beat his man or your QB can't make the throw... you're going to have problems.
Now it's 2nd-and-10 and LSU is behind the sticks. The coordinator has a very tough decision here. Pass the ball and risk another incompletion (or worse), which could make 3rd down less manageable, or rush the ball vs the 2-deep shell and hope that you can pick up enough yardage to give the offense a shot. There is no right answer, it's just a matter of what you trust your athletes to do.
Saban smells blood. He comes with a nice zone blitz here. Their is man coverage on the WR's, with a deep safety and a d-lineman drops underneath to pick up short routes. Saban hopes to end the drive right here. An incompletion would be near fatal, as 3rd-and-10 is pretty much a death sentence to be carried out Bama's defense. LSU's line does a brilliant job handling the extra rusher, something that Grimes' new o-line will have to do regularly. The corner does a very good job in coverage. He gets a good jam, and even does a good job at reading the WR's break. However, the WR and the QB both make great plays too. The WR comes back for the ball, makes the catch, and the QB for makes the correct read, then a perfect throw. They still only gain about three yards on the play... such is life against Bama.
3rd-and-7... Against Bama, no matter how hard you try to stay in front of the sticks, eventually you're going to get caught in a 3rd-and-long situation. It's a pretty unfavorable position to be in because Saban has so many options to attack, and the offense has little options with which to get the first down. LSU basically hasto pass the ball here, and everyone in the stadium knows it. Saban can choose to play it safe and go with two deep safeties again, or he can choose to really put the pressure on LSU by bringing another blitz.
Saban decides to blitz for the second straight play, but this time he doesn't hedge his bets by dropping a d-lineman into coverage. Alabama brings six rushers (one safety and one linebacker). The blitz actually works for Saban, he ends up getting a free rusher right at the QB despite LSU having enough blockers to pick them ... but Mettenberg ends up standing tall in the pocket and finding his WR underneath. Against single deep coverage with time running out, the deep routes are going to be hard to complete. In similar situations, if Logan Thomas wants to pick up a first down he'll too have to be willing to take the hit, be able to anticipate which WR will find his way open, and then get the ball to his man in a hurry. Moorehead's group will also need to get yards after the catch when the offense doesn't have the luxury of throwing past the first down marker.
Remember when LSU missed the pass on 1st-and-10, and it put them behind the sticks? They had to make two great plays in a row just to move the chains, and their coordinator isn't about to risk that again. Saban once again drops two safeties back, and powerful Jordan Hill once again dolphin dives for extra yardage. That move is unique and hilarious, but effective. Trust me, that extra yard he picks up by finishing his runs like that make all the difference and his coach loves him for it. It looks like LSU is in an unbalanced line here with an extra o-linemen on the right side.
The nice gain puts LSU in a good position. Being in 2nd-and-6 allows them to take a shot if the opportunity arises without having to worry about being in a terrible situation if an incompletion occurs. 3rd-and-6 isn't great of course, but being down in the 4th quarter, Les Miles is probably thinking of this as two-down territory. If LSU runs the ball on 3rd-and-6 vs Bama's 3rd down pass defense, they are likely to pick up decent yardage, giving them a 4th-and-short.
Knowing when to take your chances is key for a head coach, and few have been better at taking calculated risks then Les Miles.
LSU lines up in the unbalanced formation again, and Saban has finally had enough of allowing LSU carry the ball for 3-4 yard gain after 3-4 yard gain. He drops a safety into the box and rotates a safety into single high coverage.
This is where an offensive coordinator earns his paycheck. It's the 7th play of the drive, and for the first time LSU sees single coverage on a WR. The CB has safety coverage to the deep middle, but anything down the field, on his half of the field, he's flying solo. Saban knows the risk, but he also knows he can't just allow LSU's Hill to dive forward for first down after first down en route to a score. LSU has to take a shot here, and because of the good yardage they gained on first down, if they don't complete the fade it's not back breaking.
Logan Thomas and his wide receivers will have their chances against single coverage. A thing that Loeffler does very well is find ways to isolate his playmakers against CB's one-on-one. Thomas HAS to find those matchups and then make those throws. His targets will have to run crisp routes and attack the football. DJ Coles, Demitri Knowles, and Joshua Stanford will all have to have big moments if Tech is going to beat Alabama. Those moments will only come through if Tech can find some way to rush the ball consistently.