Last week, Shane Beamer mentioned that the coaching staff would spend the bye week "self-scouting". The staff likely evaluated individual performances by personnel and used statistical analysis to identify play calling trends. Statistical analysis can help provide insight into what plays were effectively executed, which ones may be chafe, and what pages of the playbook are best to turn to in critical situations during the meat of the ACC schedule.
Aside from the kick and punt return teams, the running game has been the biggest concern of the Virginia Tech fan base. I used the downtime to do my own deep dive on the Virginia Tech running game, focused on Alabama, Georgia Tech, UNC, and Pitt to try to unravel anything that can be done from a personnel/playcalling/scheme perspective to make the running game more effective. Most of my observations aligned closely with Mason's breakdown of the Pitt film last week. Yards are being left on the field as result of the occasional offensive line, tight end, or wide receiver missed assignments, poor reads on option, or being outnumbered at the point of attack. In addition to those observations, a couple of other critical realities emerged, and the staff will need to adjust accordingly to defeat the remaining teams on the ACC schedule.
The Negative Impact of a Successful Passing Game
Virginia Tech jumped out to quick leads over all three ACC opponents so far this season, but in each of those wins the running game ground to a halt after some early success in the passing game. Logan Thomas has decimated defenses with passing off play-action on first and second down. As each game progressed, Coach Loeffler turned to the running attack to control the clock. Unfortunately, the running backs are not producing enough yardage to set up manageable third and short situations. Loeffler has made the decision not to grind up Logan Thomas against inferior competition, and the running backs can't seem to get space despite the success of the passing game. Why?
Anecdotally, any old offensive lineman will tell you that the more the offense leans on the passing game, the more difficult it is to aggressively block in the running game. As the Hokies have become more and more effective throwing the ball, I see the offensive line getting less and less aggressive on run blocking plays. Some of the muscle memory habits critical for excellent pass blocking (keeping balance back, not overextending, footwork, and shadowing the defender) are starting to show up in the running game. Against Alabama, I was most impressed by how the offensive line was aggressive while still being fundamentally sound. On running plays, the line was quick at the snap, had terrific pad level, and active feet.
As the season has progressed, I have noticed that, with the exception of the inverted veer, Hokie blockers are much more passive blocking in the running game. Their initial step is often more lateral than downhill (even on plays that are not being zone blocked.) Pad level is higher, and there seems to be more emphasis on shadowing the defender versus driving the defender. There has also been some breakdowns on key fundamentals, most notably getting the head on the correct side of the defender based on the direction of the running play.
Some of this likely stems from health concerns. Andrew Miller, David Wang, and Caleb Farris are noticeably not as quick as in week 1, and we know that all three are dealing with injuries. But, there is less and less difference between technique in the running game and the passing game as the Hokies passing game has improved.
Counter-Productive Influence Blocking
Another trend that I noticed is how the Hokies sometimes have been effective running the football early, but have struggled in the 3rd and 4th quarter while protecting a lead. The lack of aggression is one culprit, but the other is as result of the Hokies dependency on influence blocking and counter-action.
An influence block is one where a blocker uses a movement designed to key the defender that a run or pass is going somewhere other than when it is actually going. For example, linebackers often key on either a fullback or a guard. If the fullback plunges left, the linebacker reads isolation left. If the guard pulls, the linebacker will follow and cut off their block. Offenses will attempt to trick a defense by sending a potential blocker away from where the play is designed to go, which in theory will take a defender away from the ball carrier.
To take advantage of those defensive keys, Scot Loeffler has leaned heavily on using inverted veer, cross bucks, and bootlegs to freeze defenders based on reading their keys. As the Hokies have created leads, defenses have abandoned those keys and start blitzing. In most blitz schemes, each defender is assigned a space to defend, regardless of the flow of the play and blocking action. As result, the Hokies remove a potential blocker that could account for a blitzer in a futile attempt to influence block in the late stages of games.
Here is a terrific example. The Hokies have forced Pitt into failing on a fourth down conversion, and have the football deep in the Panther's territory with a chance to ice the game. On first down, Loeffler chooses to run a veer read option from the diamond formation.
On the play, both lead backs (Sam Rogers and Kalvin Cline) take a belly step right and then attack outside of the defensive end. This is an influence block, designed to threaten the end with the possibility of being sealed inside. If the end is reading the block, he would widen out to prevent Cline from sealing him inside. This step outside by the end would make the hole wider for Edmunds.
Instead, Pitt has safeties coming up to take away the threat of the quarterback keeper to the outside, so the end abandons reading the blocks and attacks his assigned gap. Edmunds may have had a hole earlier in the game as Pitt played a conservative defense, now the end is freed up and takes him down in the exact location where the hole should be. If you rewind the clip, every offensive lineman completes their assignment, but there still not is a hole.
This happens time and again on film over the course of the last three ACC games. I would suggest that instead of having an influence block in that spot, and leaving an unblocked defender to read, it may make sense in end of game situations to have the offensive line hat on hat with defensive linemen and use Cline and Rogers to lead on smaller linebackers and defensive backs. Using zone or power instead of influencing blocking eliminates the possibility of unblocked defenders ignoring keys and making plays to put the offense behind the sticks.
Personnel and the Absence of the Zone Stretch
Perhaps most troubling to me is the complete absence of the zone stretch and inside zone play that were such a focus of preseason preparation and the Western Carolina game. Against the Panthers, the Hokies did not run a single inside zone or zone stretch play from under center. To most, this would not be problematic if the Hokies were having success running from the spread and pistol. However, a key element to Virginia Tech's success has been play-action off of zone stretch fakes, especially on first and second down.
Without the threat of the run from the one back set, Pitt started to ignore the run fakes and sit hard on bootleg and seam routes. Let's take a look at an example on a running down and distance from the second quarter.
On 3rd-and-2, Loeffler decides to run play-action. Virginia Tech aligns in an unbalanced set, with Jonathan McLaughlin lined up as a tight end right, Darius Redman as the left tackle, Cline as the H-Back flexed right, and Jerome Wright as the fullback aligned offset to the right. This is a clear power running formation unbalanced with the tackle over and two potential lead blockers in Cline and Wright. Most defenses would identify this as run and would attack aggressively to stop a running play.
At the snap, Pitt's two linebackers take one step up in run support, but their defensive backs stay deep. They are sitting on play-action.
The Hokies run a smash route, with Wright going to the flat and Cline curling out deeper, and Thomas is reading the strong safety. The linebackers and corners all drop into zones, and Thomas is faced with Wright being doubled and Cline bracketed with two defenders over the top. Thomas has a small window only because the strong safety (aligned on the right hash) bites up just a step on Wright's route to the flat, and Thomas makes a terrific throw to Cline for a first down.
The Hokies managed to execute, but the odds were against them. It is incomprehensible to consider a defense facing a three tight end and fullback unbalanced alignment on a 3rd-and-2 would only have five defenders actively defending the run while the other six defenders drop into pass coverage. Pitt's defensive coordinator recognized that the Hokies have run less and less from the pro formation as the season progressed, and that odds are greater that Loeffler would call play-action.
Against Pitt, the Hokies ran two running plays from one-back set in the first three quarters: a fullback dive with counter pitch action (ala Chris Mangus run versus Western Carolina), and an inside power play with two pulling linemen. Yet, the Hokies ran bootleg off inside zone and outside zone action, including the nifty completion to Cline before his touchdown catch on the opening drive. As the game progressed though, Pitt continued to ignore the run threat, and instead jumped all over play-action.
Here, the Hokies run a bootleg off the zone stretch. Cline runs a corner route, and Sam Rogers bends back underneath on the same route that Cline made his first catch on. Freezing the play at the fake, it is clear that Pitt is ignoring the play fake.
The Pitt outside linebacker (on the right hash) is not scraping across to pursue Edmunds, leaving him in position to cover the right flat where Rogers would be heading if he didn't collide with Benedict and Donald. Pitt's boundary corner is in position to bracket Cline. The middle linebacker takes one step play side, but drops back into the middle to cover Byrn on the drag from the back side. Pitt again has 5 defenders on the line of scrimmage taking care of the run and 6 in pass coverage against run action. If you closely examine the right defensive end matched up with Jonathan McLaughlin, if Edmunds gets the ball there is a nice seem on the zone play.
This happened time and again. Loeffler loves to call bootlegs and drop back off play-action from the one-back off the inside zone and outside zone, but he isn't calling those running plays to set it up and defenses are adjusting. Why not?
I think personnel is a major reason. While you cannot single out a particular blocker for performing poorly, I am not sure that Loeffler trusts certain players in a zone blocking scheme. As Mason pointed out last week, Cline and Redman have had some poor moments to go with their mostly solid blocking, and I pointed out in the offseason how critical tight end play is in an effective zone blocking scheme. Both the tackles and the tight end must effectively seal the edge or be quick enough to threaten the end with sealing the edge in order to widen out the defensive end or outside linebacker who has contain responsibility against the stretch play.
That brings me to Brent Benedict. I don't think that Benedict has played poorly. In fact, his down blocking on the inverted veer was critical to the Hokies success in overtime against Marshall and against Georgia Tech. However, I don't think he has the quickness to threaten the outside leverage of defensive ends, and Loeffler's playcalling reflects that fact.
Virginia Tech's best run of the fourth quarter came on a wham play, where the Hokies blocked down their right guard, center and left guard, and then pulled the tight end to lead through the hole.
Here Loeffler used Benedict's lack of speed as a weapon. The end is allowed to get upfield as Benedict influences him with an attempted reach block, and then shields him to the outside. The lane opens up for Cline as the lead blocker and Edmunds bursts through for his best play of the day.
However, Benedict's lack of quickness also allows defensive ends to squeeze zone plays and read options because they do not have to worry about the edge. The Hokies often ran veer dives against Pitt, and the end crashed inside without regard to the possibility of being reached. The zone stretch was non-existent, even though when the Hokies have used it in games, it has been very effective. And, Benedict has and will continue to struggle with good pass rushers. Donald gave him a lot of trouble (Donald also generated terrific pass rush against the interior of the Hokie line when aligned as a defensive tackle, so Benedict wasn't alone there, but he will continue to be faced with top pass rushers at the tackle spot.)
Enter Laurence Gibson. When Gibson was the starter over the first couple of games, the Hokies running attack was consistently more effective than it has been over the last three games, and with all due respect to the Yellow Jackets, Heels, and Panthers, Alabama has much more talent on defense than all three teams. On film, it is clear that Gibson is quicker and more of a threat to the contain of defensive ends than Benedict. And, Gibson was excellent when matched up with Donald on both of his series against Pitt.
Here is a terrific example of what Gibson can bring to the table that Benedict can't consistently. On second and nine, the Hokies run a bootleg. Gibson is at right tackle.
On the play, Gibson effectively reaches the defensive end and carries him to the boundary without losing his balance. It is an athletic block the emulates the technique used on an effective zone stretch play.
Later, Loeffler uses Gibson to reach the outside linebacker on a read option.
Gibson locks up on the linebacker in space and keeps him locked up. Thomas should have gained more but was indecisive in reading Gibson's block.
Just to tie things up, here is Gibson one on one with Aaron Donald in pass protection on 3rd-and-long.
Again, great extension and footwork. The All-American is stymied (which didn't happen very often regardless of the matchup in the Pitt game.)
Benedict has a role to play. He has been excellent down blocking.
He has been solid from an assignment standpoint, and he has the flexibility to play several positions. But, if the coaching staff evaluates the film properly and Gibson straightens out whatever issues caused him to lose the starting job, I expect that he will be reinserted. I still think that Benedict should be given an opportunity at guard, as I feel he is very well suited to the right guard spot, and I would prefer to see Miller moved to left guard with Benedict at right guard when Farris moves inside to center. I certainly prefer Miller and Benedict as opposed to Miller and Shuman at guard, as Shuman did not look like he has recovered his lateral movement or aggressiveness against Pitt. McLaughlin-Farris-Wang-Miller-Gibson is the best personnel group to successfully run the full breadth of the Hokie playbook.
Regardless of any personnel changes, Loeffler must reestablish the zone stretch plays in order to keep the play-action passing game effective, and I think that Gibson would make those stretch plays more effective.
I am convinced after watching the film that several of the offensive linemen are battling a variety of injuries right now. There are some ginger first steps, less leg drive, and tentative head position on more plays against Pitt than there were against the elite talent at Alabama. With only two practices this week, hopefully the leaders on the line made sure that every dinged up player spent the down time getting the proper rehab or treatment to get ready for a better than advertised Duke team.
I still think that the Hokies can be an effective running team this season, not measured by yardage per game, but in terms of moving the chains and setting up makeable first downs. Situational running will be critical as defenses get more and more familiar with Loeffler's passing scheme. With some minor adjustments, more focused playcalling, and some personnel changes, a healthier Virginia Tech front should be able to supplement the passing game with an effective rushing attack.