Thursday, August 4, 2011

Denard on obvious passing downs

While the hype and early success of the Brady Hoke era roll on, questions still linger around Denard Robinson's ability to succeed in Al Borges' pro-style/West Coast offense. Given Denard's foreboding interception rate and the switch from an offensive scheme that emphasizes his legs to one that emphasizes his arm, I'm leery that this will be a smooth transition. What Denard accomplished last year was unprecedented, but if the offensive shift is as drastic as some believe, his 2010 performance may have little bearing on his 2011 output. But because Hoke and Borges are brand new to this Michigan team and personnel, it's difficult to determine what exactly the playbook will look like and how players will respond to it.

A few things are for sure: Denard will be taking more snaps under center, will be running less, and will be asked to read defenses and make more traditional throws than he's used to. In an effort to project how Denard will fare in a system like this, I tried to isolate situations from the 2010 season that would give a better approximation of Denard's traditional passing skills, as opposed to his raw numbers. Put another way, I parsed out Obvious Passing Downs (OPD) in which defenses likely didn't have to compensate for his running ability, and Denard was under pressure to gain a decent amount of yardage through the air.

The first step was to establish the criteria for OPD. The basic parameters:
  • 2nd down and 10+ yards to go
  • 3rd down and 7+ yards to go
  • 4th down and 7+ yards to go
  • All situations where over 20 yards were required for a first down were omitted
  • All first downs were omitted
First downs were removed because regardless of the yardage needed for a first down, a run is still a likely option, making play action passes (and zone read play action) viable and effective. Second down plays necessitated that the yardage needed for a first down be between 10 and 20 yards. Any yardage equal to or less than 10 yards was removed. Michigan averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season, making 2nd and 10 still a likely run option. All plays of 20 yards or more to go were omitted to avoid variance in the numbers with regards to incompletions and interceptions. Quarterbacks are more likely to force the ball down the field in such a situation, which would logically increase incompletions and, probably, interceptions. Finally, 3rd and 4th down plays required at least 7 yards to go for a first down, to once again remove a defense's need to compensate for Denard's legs.

With these parameters, I charted Denard's performance (and the team's playcalling tendencies) through the year with the help of MGoBlog's Upon Further Review series*.

Uconn ND UMass BG IU MSU Iowa
Runs 7 2 1 - 1 - 1
QB runs (yards) 5 (53) 2 (10) 1 (7) - 1 (8) - 1 (4)
Comp/Att (screens) 8/10 (2) 3/8 (3) 1/2 - 0/2 (1) 2/5 4/7
Yards 76 23 43 - - 28 25
Scrambles (yards) 1 (11) - - - - 1 (1) 1 (4)
Sacks 0 0 1 0 0 0 0
TD/INT - - - - - 0/1 0/1

PSU Ill Pur Wisc OSU Miss State
Runs 1 1 4 1 2 2
QB runs (yards) 1 (18) 1 (-7) 2 (27) 1 (14) 2 (12) 2 (4)
Comp/Att (screens) 3/7 (2) 1/3 3/9 (1) 2/3 (1) 1/10 3/5
Yards 44 33 59 30 30 18
Scrambles (yards) - 1 (9) - 1 (6) - -
Sacks 0 0 3 0 0 -
TD/INT - 0/1 0/1 - - 0/1

The raw data are dense, so I've compiled the totals and compared them to his numbers over the course of the season:

Passing Downs Season totals
Runs 23
QB runs (yards per carry) 19 (7.9) 256 (6.6)
Comp/Att 31/71 182/291
Yards per attempt 5.7 8.8
Scrambles (yards) 5 (31)
Sacks 4
TD/INT 0/5 18/11

*Except for the final two games of the season, against Ohio State and Mississippi State, neither of which have UFRs. For those games, because I don't have torrents of them, I used ESPN's play-by-play breakdown of the games. This musses up the sack, scramble, and screen numbers, but otherwise, the raw data are functional.

There are a few things of note here, many of which are obvious. During the season, Denard averaged 6.6 yards per carry on the ground. On OPD, Denard averaged 7.9 yards per carry on designed runs (scrambles excluded), something you'd expect given that teams are anticipating a pass. The other side of that coin is his diminished passing numbers. On the season, he completed 62.5% of his passes for 8.8 yards per attempt. On OPD, he completed only 44% of his passes for 5.7 yards per attempt. In addition, Denard threw nearly half of his interceptions in these scenarios. While you might expect that (trying to force the ball to a receiver to pick up a first down), it implies that he's either not particularly careful with the ball in OPD (he had a 7.1% interception ratio) or he has difficulty reading defenses and executing the throws.

Given the amount of noise in the numbers, can we draw any conclusions about his performance in a pro-style/West Coast offense? Using strictly the numbers at hand, I tried to draw a comparison between the uptick in his rushing and his passing performances. The presumption is that in a pro-style/West Coast offense, Denard's rushes will be fewer and more surprising, raising their effectiveness. His yards per carry on OPD yielded 120% of his season average. However, his passes will likely begin under center, reducing a defense's necessity to compensate for his legs. His yards per attempt yielded only 65% of his season average (to say nothing of his interception ratio). To apply those numbers directly to his 2010 production doesn't return a reasonable result, but natural player progression, an uptick in his running effectiveness, and a team's inability to anticipate a pass on every down (like is logically the case here) will likely mitigate, though not entirely negate, Denard's struggles in the passing game.

While unfortunately no hard-and-fast conclusions can be drawn from these numbers, I think they illuminate the improvement Denard needs to make to truly excel in a more traditional offense. While Borges is working to optimize Denard's talents, and there's a chance Denard will spend much of the game in the shotgun, the chances are that his production will noticeably fall off from last year. My prediction for Denard's 2011 production, compared to that of 2010:

Denard Robinson Completion % YPA Passing Yards TD/INT YPC Rushing Yards
2010 62.50% 8.8 2,570 18/11 6.6 1,702
Projected 2011 59% 7.5 1,950 15/15 7.0 900

While his total yardage may seem exceptionally low in comparison, you also have to take into account that Hoke and Borges' offense won't move at nearly the same speed that Rodriguez's did, greatly diminishing Denard's ability to rack up numbers. Because of that, I anticipate a few less touchdowns, significantly less rushing yards (also due to an emphasis on running back carries), and more interceptions, based on Denard's performance to date. The offense won't be nearly as bad as it was in 2008, but I'm anticipating a significant step back.


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