Thursday, November 12, 2009

OSU Film Study - Offense


Who's ready to jump to some conclusions?

Some losses are attributable to being less talented at any number of positions. Some are attributable to being outcoached, both in game plan and game management (two very different things by the way). And some are attributable to players failing to execute and play at or near their peak level (which barring injuries, is almost always mental at its core - I'll get back to this).

And then there are those train wrecks where all three things happen. If a well played game is a Matisse, these games are Pollock with a bucket of paint after an all night bender. But beyond being ugly, they are unsettling, for the simple reason that they cannot easily be dismissed as aberrant, or as just a bad day, because so many things get exposed across the board. Saturday was one of those days.

You can bet there won't be much family time this week for the coaching staff. The air mattresses and rewind buttons in the film room are going to get a lot of mileage. And I'd venture to say there are going to be some uncomfortable coaches' meetings. Butts are going to get chewed this week, plain and simple.

And that is how it should be. This team looked poor in all phases, and they looked that way for most of the game. Oregon State either looked a step ahead of Cal, or they played fast enough to recover and control them on plays where they weren't a step ahead. At home. And Oregon State hasn't exactly been lighting teams on fire this season. When a mid/upper-mid level conference team, on whom there is plenty of film, does that to you on your own field, that is about as bad as it gets.

So what happened? And don't say, "We can't run the ball. Our pass defense is 117th nationally. We can't get any pressure." The results are obvious. It's the causes - scheme, execution by particular players, talent disparities at particular positions - and what those things say about the team and the coaches, that present the more interesting, and frankly productive, questions.

I'll start with the offense.

1. Lack of intensity on the offensive line. There is a lot to say about the offensive line. I'll start with the most disturbing thing first: this unit lacks fire. To begin with, they are getting off the line way too slow. There is a difference between unathletic slowness and lack of urgency. This group is showing the latter far too often, and that is unacceptable for the unit is supposed to be the guts of the team. You cannot set the tone for the offense, which is the offensive line's job, if you are not intending to drive your man into the turf until he quits, play after play after play.

Good offensive lines almost leap out of their cleats when they fire off the ball, man for man, like a walking wall, and stun the defenders. And if they head up field looking for a linebacker, or pull around the edge on a sweep or screen, they are headhunting. And never, under any circumstances, do they go the whole play without hitting someone.

The thing is, I see this stuff lacking from this group play after play, game after game. It is hard to pin down a single cause. A lot of this is innate intensity. Some guys are just never going to have that mentality no matter how much you try to instill it - like the old saying goes, "If they don't bite as a pup..." I don't know these guys personally, so I have no idea if they lack the right chromosomes. But they certainly don't look like they're playing with that mentality.

Some of this is youth too, and I definitely think that is a problem with the interior three. Younger players are more worried about making mistakes, especially if they are not 100% comfortable with the offense. This causes them to ratchet down the intensity at times. You could see this vs. OSU. They were constantly trying to anticipate OSU's slants and stunts, and it took the edge off their surge.

And some of it is coaching. While a coach cannot necessarily make a kid into a filthy mauler, he can build some of the hallmarks of relentless play into the techniques. I am not ready to assume Marshall is not trying to do this, since I am not at practice. But I am ready to conclude that he is not succeeding in this effort. There is a listless lumbering to the way this group plays that good coaching can shore up.

Too often, I see guys release to the second level to put a hat on a LB or DB, and they kind of trot up to him, lunge at him ham-handedly, whiff, and then kind of turn around and watch the RB get tackled. It's not the whiff that's the problem. It's the approach, and the finish. They should be going after guys with resolve, like they want to take their head off. And they should be finishing every play by trying to find someone to knock on their tail, even if they miss their initial block. A coach can instill this by making it part of the assignment. The frequency with which this is not happening suggests the coach is not pressing it hard enough.

2. Lack of power on the interior offensive line. Before the season started, I wrote that one of my chief concerns about this team was its ability (lack thereof) to run for short yardage and establish a powerful between the tackles run game, due to the loss of Mack and to a lesser degree Malele. While my concerns were valid, it is worse than I thought. The interior three (including Boskovich and Fisher) are just getting physically dominated.

Time after time Saturday, all three interior guys got stood up and pushed straight backwards, on both run and pass plays. This kills the play before it even starts. It stops the RB long enough to allow the safeties and LBs to arrive. And on pass plays, it flushes the QB out immediately, before he can even read his first receiver.

Watching it over and over, you can tell the chief cause of this is often simple lack of heft and strength. These guys look like they are getting out-muscled. This can happen with younger players, especially OL who are still burning off some of their baby fat from high school. Strength and conditioning programs can help this tremendously, especially for kids with bigger frames.

But some guys also just aren't powerful players at the point of attack, no matter now many years they've been in the program or how much weight they can throw around in the weight room. The ability to channel strength and apply it quickly and nimbly at your opponent's weak spot, while maintaining balance and leverage, is a feat of athleticism, not brute strength. That is what made Mack such a rare talent. He could create a ton of leverage by channeling his power to the defender's weakest point and then put his foot on the pedal and mow him down. And that is why you can throw out the recruiting star ratings when it comes to offensive linemen, because most recruiting services can't gauge this kind of ability from a 17-year old kid, hence Mack's lower rating out of HS.

I make this point for two reasons. First, I don't think this line is as ultra-talented as they were touted, or expected to be. Because it is such a matchup oriented position, with dozens of man-to-man repetitions each game, you really can't know this about offensive linemen until you watch them play for a season. Second, this group's youth and lack of experience means there is some upside in terms of building the strength and technique needed to generate power and leverage at the point of attack. But as of now, this deficiency is definitely a hindrance to the offense.

3. Not sticking with blocks. Another disturbing trend is the failure to block to the whistle. Guys are repeatedly holding their blocks for the initial punch and then letting their man go. And sometimes that defender ends up assisting on the tackle. I saw it with OL, TEs, and WRs. This killed a number of runs and screens during the game Saturday.

Again, this is a mentality. Finishing blocks is about want-to and desire. And whatever the coaches are doing to instill this mindset, it isn't strong enough, because this team is not finishing well at all.

4. Riley's inconsistency. I rewatched the game, and the more I watched, the more Riley's misses and decision making stood out. I have rarely seen a guy make such great throws downfield like the strikes he threw to Tucker, Jones, and Sparks, and then just botch a simple swing pass or screen time and again, or throw the same downfield ball totally away, in the same game. For his few great throws, his numerous misses were really damaging to the offense's momentum. And his INT was Longshore-esque, just heaving it into coverage without a prayer of it being caught. It's not all on him, but he killed some drives largely by himself, on plays that a decent QB should make.

I am not saying it is time to bench Riley, for a variety of reasons. But in terms of what we can expect until he graduates, it is hard to imagine him ever putting together a full season like the ones Luck, Canfield, Foles, or Barkley are having. Now in the winter of his 4th year in the system, having been the unchallenged starter for 9 games, and part time starter last season, it can no longer be said that he's young and getting comfortable. He is what he is - an inconsistent QB capable of great plays and startling inaccuracy on any given play. If Cal wants to win the conference, that ain't going to get it done.

I doubt Tedford will give Sweeney any reps this season unless the games are out of hand. But I think he needs to open up a legitimate competition in the offseason.

5. RB pass blocking. This unit has been awful in this regard, and it continued on Saturday. This rarely gets talked about, but it an important part of protection, and right now, it's a weak link.

6. Cal needs a power back. As much as the OL has struggled, there were plenty of times Saturday, and elsewhere this season, where a stronger back would have been the difference between 1st and 10 and 3rd and 2, or 2d and 1 and 2d and 6. Best and Vereen are supremely talented. But both guys pretty routinely only require one tackler once the tackler has his hands on them. Until the offensive line play elevates to the next level, this type of runner is going to be necessary if Cal wants to reestablish the run game.

7. More non-lateral quick passes. The quick slant, quick strike to the slot receiver or TE over the middle, and the quick out have proven to be successful (when Riley doesn't miss). They nullify the OL's inability to block pressure, and they slow down LBs and safeties who are cheating up on the run. This is what Dykes is doing at AZ, and some of what Ludwig did at Utah. When Ludwig called these on Saturday, they worked. But he didn't go to the well often enough.

The lack of plays like this, and the lack of success when Cal did try it, played right in to OSU's defensive game plan.

Thoughts on the defense to come later.

16 comments:

abraham said...

I have come to enjoy your analysis and breakdown much much more than watching the games themselves these days. Its like rather read the reviews about the dish instead of eating the food itself. I no longer have no idea what this team is all about or what to expect out of it now and in the near future. However, considering the programs inability to get over the hump, time and again has forced me to arrive at the dreadful conclusion that this is a fundamentally flawed program. I can't quite put my fingers on it but I feel like there is something missing from Tedford's program. Perhaps the most glaring thing is the lack of tenacity and competitiveness all around, just like the offensive line as you mentioned. I saw this in 2006, 2007, 2008 and pretty much all of 2009, except this year it has become a weekly affair. I read a lot of blogs but this has become my most respected one so I ask you one question: do you think I am right? I mean we can talk about the offensive line here, or lack of blocking there, and other technical bits but I feel like the last 4 season, its almost like one endless season. Different players yet its the same stuff every year. I guess what I am asking you is to take a look at this program, beyond the X's and O's, from a larger perspective and see if there is a connection between the failures of the program to achieve its obvious goal year after year, when it looked like it had the shot to do it. And perhaps give us your prognostications as to whether if the program is going in the right direction or needs some fundamental changes all over both in personnel and more importantly in philosophy, mentality of the coaches and the coaching...etc. I will greatly appreciate it. Thank you SD.

SD said...

Abraham,

First off, thanks for your interest and for your input. You raise a very valid question - is there a common thread among every season that is holding this team back from a conference title?

I think the answer is no, it is a combination of things each year, and it is not the same combination every year. I know that is not what you want to hear, but that is what I see.

However, there are a few things that seem to pervade each season. First and foremost, frankly by a wide margin, is elite QB play. Tedford has not had an elite QB since Rodgers. They haven't even had an first or second team all conference QB. This is the elephant in the room, and anyone who expects Cal to be #1 or #2 in conference without elite QB play is fooling themselves. We all hoped Riley might turn into that this year, but now it is clear that he is what he is.

Is this flaw a permanent thing? No. All it takes is a good QB. I have no idea if Sweeney is that guy, but from what I know, he has Longshore's command of the offense (not Riley's strongsuit) and the physical abilities and creativity that Riley has (which Longshore lacked). What we don't is if he can parlay that into 12 weeks of good football on the field.

Second, and people are going to squawk about this - Cal is an overachieving, and thus over-ranked team relative to talent, and this sets them up for a fall every year. People keep talking about squandered talent and I just shake my head. Show me where the elite, NFL-type talent is on this team. Outside of Alualu, Best and Thompson, right now there isn't much there. There are some younger guys who might be there eventually, but right now, they're not. And ignore the star ratings - they are irrelevant for anything other than obvious, blue chip talent.

The fact is, for all the criticism of Tedford, it is the credibility (maybe too much so) that the media and fans seem to want to attribute to him every year that drives much of the pre-season hype. I say that because even this year, when questions abounded at almost every position, people were still saying 10-2. The only explanation is they thought Tedford would make a silk purse out of a sow's ear (ot they just thought guys were going to morph into great players overnight).

The point is, the expectations are what set everyone up for frustration. And that includes the players themselves. When expectations are not met, it is deflating to the fans and the team. And I keep seeing that every year with this program.

The third recurring theme, with the exception of 2008 and certain times in 2006, is that Cal lacks the proper mindset defensively. They go into games expecting to shut down the run, and they do it, because they believe in it. But they go into games ready to concede certain pass plays, and it shows. Gregory's mantra is stop the run and the big play and give up the dink and dunk. That is telling your players something remarkable: "Let certain plays succeed." As a defense, that should be anathema.

This puts tremendous pressure on the offense (which as I said annually lacks the QB to deal with that pressure). Defensive thinking has to be religion, not talk. It has to be a core belief that everything will be contested. Stopping the pass has to be given equal dignity to stopping the run.

And if it is, two things will happen. (1) You will force yourself to recruit better athletes on defense who can execute that objective. (2) Your game plan, practice, and play will reflect it.

I could go on, but these three things seem to pop up every year. I don't think this is a "flawed program," but I think it is a good QB, and either a defensive talent upgrade or a more urgent scheme away from winning the conference.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Very well said. Couldn't agree more and really enjoy your insights.

Scott

abraham said...

I guess I should narrow down my belief that this team suffers from a defective philosophy to just the defensive side of the ball. The lack of intensity, tenacity, overall timidness on that side is glaringly obvious to even the most untrained eye. Nonetheless I respect your opinion on Cal football more than just about anyone at this point so I will fully accept your point that this is usually and over hyped program and curb my expectations accordingly in the future. I do have one burning question though: I hear a lot that Tedford is a QB guru and yet in 8 years he has had only two QBs that can attest to that, Boller and Rogers. We have had poor QB play in '05, '07, '08 and '09. So is this another over hyped aspect of this program, the so called guruness of Tedford as a QB coach? Once again I cant say how much I appreciate your service. I have finally found someone whose opinions appear to be strictly based on intense film study instead of watching highlights and reading articles written by other hype machines. Thank you very much.

Anonymous said...

I was at Manny's Tap Room after the game and everytime I saw an OSU fan walk by I wanted to stop them and ask them what their objective and outsider perspective is of what the heck is wrong with Cal's football team and program. But thanks to you I don't need to look like the pathetic jilted fan. Thanks for the honest perspective. I do believe that this team lacks an edge, a tenacity that comes with the mindset that we are going to beat you down in every aspect of the game and regardless of the score believes that they can win.

Ken Crawford said...

Good stuff as always SD. I'm totally on the same page. I'm a little more harsh on Marshall than you are, mostly because I'm seeing guys who had intensity last year (Schwartz) who seem to be struggling this year. Maybe it's because the guy to his left is struggling and that's dragging him down.

SD said...

Ken,

Funny you mention Schwartz, because to me, he has been the biggest enigma this year. He looks almost ambivalent out there at times and it is downright weird to watch. You do have to start wondering about the coach when a freshman all american has a sophomore season like that.

fred said...

Your two points....one, that without at least a consistent QB, the team will struggle (and worse...lose heart) and, two that our DC seems to allow the short passing game... seem to me so obvious that I'm dumbfounded Coach Tedford doesn't do SOMEthing about them. When an up & down kid like Riley is having trouble...you park his butt and smile and say..."we'll get em NEXT week, kid!" And you TELL your Defensive Coord.....I want EVERYthing contested.
Yes, it will give up a big play once in awhile, but it just MIGHT put some pressure on another middlin' quarteback and get some turnovers. Remember those??? V/fine analysis and a fun read. Keep it up. Scottski

Anonymous said...

I think the thread running through all the commentary is the overall spirit and mental attitude of this team. If we don't have the 5 star recruits and the NFL quality players, then we have to score with an attitude that says we are going to go out there and take it to our opponents. We are going to contest everything on defense. We are going to knock somebody down on our blocking assignments, even if we miss the initial block. We haven't been doing these things, which only accentuates the lack of strentgh in other areas. This gets down to coaching. We can't trot onto the field and expect if we do a journeyman's job, we are going to win. We need to go into the game with the attitude that we are going to make something happen. We don't have that attitude.

Richard Hourula said...

Love the blog and always look forward to your analysis....
Two trends in the football program disturb me. One is that we never used to give up. Tedford teams did not get blown out. Even when soundly beaten as at Tennessee and against Texas Tech, we fought back to make the score respectable. This year we've just up and died in all our losses, only once managing a late TD.
The second trend is even more troubling. In the past four years we are 7-10 in regular season games played after October 31. The opposite of what U$C does or other successful programs do.
Giving up in games and fading at the end of seasons is a poor reflection on a coach and I say that as someone who has long admired Tedford.
Please tell me these trends will be reversed.

SamoBear said...

Talent on defense is more critical to success than coaching -- we dont have much here. Good coaching on offense can make average talent perform at a highly competitive level (see Boise State, etc.) -- we are not seeing that this year consistently from the offense. Combine this with the coaching staff turnover year over year in critical positions (e.g. Offensive Coordinator, O-Line, etc.) and the baffling lack of coaching staff turnover at other positions (e.g. Special Teams) and you have a recipe for yearly mediocrity. Yes, this one is on management (e.g Tedford).

Anonymous said...

SD, since you're not posting an AZ preview, can you at least tell us a short synopsis of what you expect? Do we have a chance without Best?

abraham said...

Anonymous I agree with your comment about having the wrong attitude or not having the right attitude. IMHO that has been the one constant that has pervaded Cal football for the past few years, which is probably why I get the feeling that its all been just one giant season that never seems to end. Since we have gone through different personnel during this time the only logical conclusion that I can arrive at is may be something is missing in the coaching process. Speculation? sure but with each and every uninspired and uncompetitive loss it is becoming more and more legitimate.

Anonymous said...

Who's better? Sweeney or Mansion?
It's time to make the change. Either one will do, but we can't have another season with Riley. He's a good kid, but just doesn't have the ability to make good decisions. He makes good passes every once in a while but so do lots of other QBs. He will always be just average.

Anonymous said...

What about the other QB's coming into the program? Bridgford and Hinder? Are these guys legit competition for the starting job next year or in the future? If Sweeney and Mansion can't beat out Riley, what do we have in the pipeline?

SD said...

Anonymous,

Sweeney is only a RS Freshman, so even if he doesn't play next year, he'll have 2 years of eligibility left after that once Riley graduates.

I doubt that Hinder or Bridgford will compete seriously with Riley, Sweeney, and Mansion next season. As it is, I think Mansion probably graduates without playing a meaningful down of football, because barring injury, Sweeney is likely locked at #2 this year and next year (Mansion only has 1 more year).

In 2011, I am sure Tedford will open up the competition like he always does. Anything is possible at that point.

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