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Tuesday Morning Quarterback: Film review of week 9 at Arizona

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It’s not the playcalling, it’s the offensive line

NCAA Football: Oregon at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

The central problem Oregon has is that the offensive line has gone from its greatest strength to its greatest weakness. It means that they can’t establish the run and make 2nd & 3rd downs manageable, and when they have to pass to make up for it, throws are constantly hurried by pressure.

Here’s how the run game currently looks (reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to slow them to ¼ or ½ speed):

On the first play, two backups -- #66 RT Aiello and #71 RG Capra -- trip over each other when sealing the edge. The second play (at :07) is a basic zone blocking failure from the entire left side of the line - they are supposed to be comboing and then getting off the end, then the first backer, then the second backer, but instead they’re hung up on each. The last play (at :14) is a stretch run, in which #54 LT Throckmorton (moved over from his accustomed RT spot to sub in for the injured #58 LT Sewell) is not properly taking the handoff from #68 LG Lemieux as the latter moves up into the second level as he should - this play would have been a stuff regardless, but to make matters worse the DT that Throckmorton lets through punches the ball out.

There were some run plays that worked, but they still show a pattern of poor o-line blocking:

The first play is supposed to go outside, but #75 RG Warmack whiffs on his guy and loops around him, forcing #34 RB Verdell to cut back inside, where Throckmorton hasn’t gotten to the backer fast enough … but this still picked up 4 yards on 1st down. The second play (at :08) is a fly sweep to the boundary by #30 WR Redd - Capra isn’t pulling fast enough but fortunately the Arizona end cuts the wrong way around him, and the rest of the play is handled with good blocks by the skill players. The last play (at :15) getting outside with the DBs in man coverage on the trips right means only #55 C Hanson and Aiello have to make their blocks for #26 RB Dye to speed through the hole, and it doesn’t matter that Warmack falls down almost immediately.

The thing I think is important to note is that all six of these plays are on 1st down. That’s representative - prior to garbage time, thirteen of Oregon’s 1st downs were runs, vs only six passes. The coaches are sticking to the offensive gameplan and identity of running early to set up big play options or at least manageable 3rd downs, as well as adapting by going outside and minimizing the necessity for the o-line to win. The failures we’re seeing in three of the last four halves of Oregon’s offense look to me to be almost entirely about bad o-line execution.

The same story is true in the passing game:

On the first play, seven blockers can’t handle a six-man blitz - Warmack lets through one guy and Verdell is there to pick him up, but that leaves no one to handle the guy that Hanson is letting through … the pass is hurried and it’s overthrown. On the second play (at :08), Arizona brings six and is playing man against four downfield receivers, with some more time one of them will break free (I think #9 WR Schooler might be already but the camera angle cuts him off), but even though Dye picks up the blitzer Warmack and Aiello let pressure in and #10 QB Herbert has to go with the only guy who had softer coverage -- #27 TE Breeland off the switch -- but he doesn’t have a WR’s skill at hitting the brakes and coming back for the ball to beat the DB. On the last play (at :14), Capra handles the T/E stunt poorly, Hanson decides to help the wrong side of the line, and even then Lemieux just plain whiffs on his man. Almost this exact same blocking failure happens later on the play in which Mitchell gets injured.

What’s making matters even worse is that Herbert was playing exceptionally poorly on 3rd downs, even when the protection held up fine - of the 18 failed downfield passing plays (out of only 28 called), fully half of them by my count were due to bad progression reads or unforced inaccurate throws, almost all on 3rd down or 2nd & long. Some examples:

On the first play, Throckmorton fails to deal with an E/T stunt, but even still Herbert has a nicely designed double shallow crosser and enough time to choose which to hit, but he picks wrong and takes the easily blown up #13 WR Mitchell instead of the open Schooler who had acres of grass in front of him. On the second play (at :12), Herbert has a nice clean pocket due to a great blitz pickup by Verdell, but he hastily picks Mitchell again despite this very tight coverage instead of waiting for another route to get open. On the third play (at :18), this protection is fine, Herbert probably doesn’t even need to scoot away from it, but even still that’s standard QB technique for his level and it should not be creating a throw this inaccurate.

The successful passing plays also left something to be desired:

The first play is the correct read -- Arizona is blitzing off the edge, the play-action fake has sucked in the MIKE, so Herbert throws to the void for a decent 1st down pickup when backed up against the endzone -- but Schooler just doesn’t have the speed to outrun the safety coming down from 8 yards deep. On the second play (at :08), pressure is getting through, but Herbert is able to spot Mitchell making his man fall down off his break and he hits him before the DB can recover. On the third play (at :23), this is a lot more like the Arizona I was watching in the previous two weeks, where a miscommunication in covering Redd on the flag route gets Mitchell comically wide open and he just has to juke one guy to trot into the endzone.

I spent as much time as anybody late Saturday night criticizing the playcalling in this game. But after breaking down the film, I didn’t actually find a whole lot of evidence of it. I was in fact seeing adjustments to deal with the poor o-line play, but execution and talent failures elsewhere limited their effectiveness. There’s no such thing as the “throw it to Mitchell” play that’s being overcalled, it’s always a series of progressions that’s either curtailed because of pressure or misread by the QB. To put it another way, I don’t know what playcall exists that can simultaneously make up for crappy offensive line performance, poor WR depth, and a QB who’s making bad reads and bad throws. Criticizing a playcaller for not summoning a unicorn seems silly to me.


Defense

Considering they had to deal with multiple injuries and suspensions, being on the field 66% of the gameclock prior to garbage time, six short fields due to offensive and special teams’ mistakes, and a suddenly healthy preseason Heisman candidate QB on whom they had no meaningful film, I thought that the defense played about as well as could be expected. I saw a lot of exhausted defensive players by the end of the game failing to make tackles that they were making earlier -- I think that’s unnecessarily embarrassing to highlight so you’ll have to trust me -- which accounted for the last two Arizona scores.

Overall the run defense was pretty decent: prior to garbage time I recorded 23 successes vs 14 failures, which comes out to a little better success rate than the last two teams Arizona faced. With only a few exceptions, the failures all came from the same thing (including two of the memorable big runs that I’m not going to highlight): breakdowns by the backup linebackers who were replacing #39 ILB Apelu, #41 ILB Slade-Matuatia, and #32 OLB Winston, who were all effectively out for the entire game. Some examples:

On the first play, #51 DE Baker is absorbing a double team, which should send #55 ILB Niu to the outside to get contain, but not only is he slow to do so, #29 OLB Jackson is getting creamed by the TE and shoved back into Niu. On the second play (at :08), Niu needs to be getting wide to help contain the edge since #16 S Pickett is blitzing, but instead he starts the play going the wrong direction and he’s way too slow to get over to the back. On the last play (at :14), Jackson and #35 ILB Dye have done their jobs by sealing the edge and forcing the run back inside, but Niu is the one who’s supposed to clean up and instead he’s hooked on the block from the center - look at his hand placement when they first make contact, it’s on the lineman’s chest, which allows him to get turned away from the play and completely pushed out of it; instead he should be cutting inside and getting clear of the blocker.

Pass defense was alright; 16 successes against 14 failures. A few of the failures were the type we’re now sadly accustomed to seeing from this secondary -- deep coverage breakdowns -- and a couple more were scrambles by a miraculously healed QB. But the rest were once again attacking the third-string linebackers:

On the first play, Jackson and Niu should be taking complementary roles, with the former crashing the QB and the latter staying on the back; instead, they both try to do both, and neither succeed. On the second play (at :08), both of them are completely frozen by the play fake - Jackson is again hesitating instead of doing what Winston excelled at last year which is crashing hard on the QB, and Niu is failing to get over into underneath coverage. On the last play (at :14), Niu and Jackson switch on the blitz vs coverage assignment, but Niu doesn’t properly get over to cover the slot receiver once he’s backed out, though to his credit he makes a solid immediate tackle.

Despite a few stunning breakdowns, I thought the secondary overall did a better job than I was expecting. Some examples:

The first play is just one of several excellent pass defenses by #15 CB Lenoir in this game, here he’s playing nice and tight down the sideline, maintaining downfield position the whole way, and avoids the flag after some handfighting by turning and playing the ball. The second play (at :08) shows good tight coverage on all three downfield targets by Pickett, #4 CB Graham, and #7 S Amadi. The third play (at :23) is one of several jailhouse blitzes I saw, most of which were pretty effective as this one was in forcing an early inaccurate throw and giving the single coverage an easier job.


Accountability Corner

This is the fourth time in eight games that the opponent has played a different QB than they were the previous week. I can’t begin to tell you how frustrating this is as a film reviewer; I feel like I’m wasting the reader’s time. It became clear to me when I was breaking down the film of this game that Arizona got a number of key offensive players back -- both at QB and on the o-line -- just as Oregon was losing a bunch of linebackers, and credit to the Wildcats for taking advantage of that situation … but that doesn’t make my preview on Friday any more helpful to read. I got pretty glowing reviews for it from Arizona fans whom I respect, so I don’t think I was seeing anything wrong, all it does is confirm that even a bad team is dangerous when you can’t observe them properly.

I don’t have any answers for why Oregon’s offensive line is playing this badly. I was sort of expecting in film study to see that the experienced, uninjured players were trying too hard to cover up deficiencies in the backups, maybe getting out of position trying to help out instead of just focusing on their own assignment. But I didn’t see that at all … instead I’m seeing three-year starters making freshman mistakes in technique and getting beat badly by defensive linemen that I’m still pretty sure aren’t that good.