Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Progress report: The 2011 offense

Since it's Michigan's bye week, it's a good time to take stock of where the team is currently in relation to where we expected them to be preseason. Previously: Where are they now: The team, the team, the team, The defense

Preseason expectation:
Matching the numbers from last year would be a near miracle and would make my season prediction the most off-base thing written all year. It's safe to say, however, that the offense, regardless of anything else, will revert back to the mean, if only slightly (best case scenario).

Despite my fear that this squad will look like the 2008 catastrophe, things are not really that dire. In reality, the offense will look more like the 2009 Forcier-led team: flashes of brilliance punctuating frustrating mistakes and crippling plays. If Denard can prove me wrong and become a consistent, accurate passer, this offense could really take off. Unfortunately, there's too much evidence to the contrary for me to buy into him as a quarterback that can lead a passing-oriented offense.
That is all depressingly, shockingly, [insert adverb here] correct. Michigan's offense this year has fluctuated between the Denard spread'n'shred that dominated opponents last year to a grab bag of unrelated plays that are neither surprising nor effective. A comparison between 2010 and 2011's numbers beckons:

Passing Rushing Scoring
2010 36th (250.15 YPG, 8.45 YPA) 13th (238.54 YPG,  5.58 YPC) 25th (32.77 PPG)
2011 81st (212.17 YPG, 8.90 YPA) 12th (239 YPG, 5.62 YPC) 28th (34.67 PPG)

It's not difficult to see what happened here. Despite the 2011 numbers being bolstered by a weak strength of schedule which will even out as the team heads deeper into Big Ten play, Michigan's passing game has fallen off a cliff. You don't need the numbers to tell you that though. This is largely due to Al Borges' pro-style passing attack that emphasizes deep, downfield throws rather than getting players into space (further evidence is the increase in YPA despite the drop in total passing yards). Borges has implemented the QB Oh Noes that accounted for a significant portion of Denard's passing last year, but this season, they've been more of the TE seam route variety than the hand-wavingly open slot receiver type we saw last season. Otherwise, Borges has called a lot of vertical routes that have ended in Denard throwing into double coverage or flat overthrowing receivers.

Those numbers are not quite as bad as I thought they'd be, however. Michigan's running game has remained mostly intact, while scoring is actually up slightly from last year. Again, as the team plays further into the Big Ten schedule, expect those numbers to drop, but they may not fall off too significantly. That's the hope, anyway. But on with the show...

Preseason expectations:
While it's risky to read too much into what is otherwise a glorified practice, the previous spring games have taught me a lesson: they have been far too predictive in the past for me to ignore what we saw from Denard this year. Denard's inaccuracies and his tendency to sail passes is going to cause a lot of problems for the offense throughout the year, especially when it's clear that much of the offense is going to rest on his ability to make quick reads and sharp, accurate throws. As such, I expect Denard's completion percentage, yards per attempt, and total yards to all drop noticeably this season, while his interceptions increase.
Unfortunately, all of my speculation about Denard's passing abilities ended up being correct. He makes poor decisions down the field, struggles with accuracy, and is prone to throwing the ball directly to the opposition with no receivers in sight. Denard's numbers have regressed but more importantly, his understanding of the offense is gone. In 2009, Denard ended what would've been a miraculous comeback against Iowa with a woefully thrown ball that ended up in the arms of the Iowa safety. He threw that because he wasn't sure of where his receivers would be. The same in the case in this offense, which asks Denard to progress through his reads and make timely throws. Instead, he tends to lock onto receivers and make up his mind before the ball is even snapped (the reason for many of those throws into double coverage).

Some of this is scheme-dependent. I mean, look at how open this bubble screen is:

Borges needs to recognize these defensive weaknesses and exploit them. He's done a good job setting up play action and opening up the playbook, but taking advantage of what the defense gives you is essential to successful football.

Hoke and Borges have also implemented an offensive package for Devin Gardner, he of a high recruiting profile and the ability to armpunt at a moment's notice. There have been rumblings about getting Gardner on the field more, and if Denard's passing woes don't improve, we could see a time where Gardner's snaps outnumber Denard's. That's unlikely to happen though. Despite Denard's struggles, he has too many skills (and Borges has too much in his playbook) to bench him in favor of an untested backup.

Grand Statement of Optimism: Despite his awful numbers to date, Denard's 2010 performance is too positive to totally ignore. If Borges can adjust his offensive schemes to limit downfield throws and give Denard shorter completions, this could quickly become the behemoth offense it was last year.

Grand Statement of Pessimism: Have you watched Denard this year?

Wet Owl sez:

Running Backs
Preseason expectation:
In 2010, Michigan's running game was superb, primarily because of Denard's production. The running backs all hovered in the "unimpressive" range, and I expect that to continue. However, with the coaching staff limiting Denard's carries this year, the running backs will bear more of the load and likely have trouble succeeding as much as they had last year. A reversion to Lloyd Carr-like rushing numbers from the running backs seems probable. At the end of the year, Shaw will be the leading rusher (of the running backs), and Hopkins will have the second-most carries of any running back.
So this is maybe the most-wrong thing I wrote in the preseason. To date, Denard is averaging 17 carries per game, which is only two less carries per game than he averaged last season. The top three running backs averaged 19 carries per game last year and are down to 17 this season (in fact, Denard has carried the ball 120 times this season, as have the top three running backs). Mike Shaw has almost completely disappeared from the field. He was used sparingly against Northwestern as a speedier back used to get the edge, but otherwise, his snaps have gone almost entirely to Vincent Smith and Fitz Toussaint.

Smith and Toussaint are having quietly impressive years, though. Despite not getting the goal line carries that rack up touchdown numbers, both are well above 5 YPC (Smith is averaging 6.7 YPC and Toussaint is averaging 5.4 YPC). Neither has the take-it-to-the-house capability that you'd like to have from a running back, but both are running well between the tackles--Toussainst has more power than you'd expect and Smith creates holes where there aren't any--and have the ability to make tackles miss.

Then there's the unfortunate case of Stephen Hopkins who saw his playing time at running back vanish as he continued his trend of fumbling upon contact. Hopkins, who was expected to be the every-down, punishing running back Hoke is searching for, has been relegated to fullback duty. He will catch the occasional pass out of the backfield, but for the most part, Hopkins is a nonentity in this offense.

Grand Statement of Optimism: The RBs' YPC numbers are off the charts this season. Despite a seemingly mediocre running game, the numbers say Michigan's running backs are producing above the level they had been last year.

Grand Statement of Pessimism: Michigan still doesn't have an every-down back. Smith is a third-down guy who is a threat from the backfield, which makes him lethal in Rodriguez's offense but just another guy in this one. Toussaint appears to be Michigan's best back but on film, he doesn't do too much to stand out, aside from the occasional jumpstep. Michigan desperately needs a guy to carry the load.

Wet Owl sez:
Preseason expectation:
With the suspension of Darryl Stonum for the season, Michigan is left with very few deep-threat receivers. The only true outside receiver on the roster is Junior Hemingway, who I expect to have a big year if he's able to stay healthy. His leaping ability and size will make Hemingway the go-to receiver when Michigan takes a shot downfield. In the slot, Michigan has more than enough options. Roy Roundtree solidified himself as Denard's favorite target last year, and I expect that to continue. Martavious Odoms is now entering his senior season after bouncing to wide receiver last year. Odoms will be on the field a lot, but where he lines up is going to vary from play to play.
True to form, Hemingway is not only the team's only downfield threat, but he's also been Michigan's best non-Denard player (on either side of the ball). Though he hasn't come up with a ton of catches this season (18), his ridiculous yards per completion total (24) speak to how important he is to this offense. Hemingway has bailed out Denard on a number of poorly thrown deep balls and seems to always come up with a clutch catch.

Hemingway's gains are Roundtree's losses, though. Relative to last year, Roundtree is a non-factor in the passing game this season. He has hauled in a meager 12 catches for 193, though none bigger than the game winning jump ball against Notre Dame. Roundtree's issues are clear though: he doesn't understand the offense. Whether it's lining up on the wrong side of the formation presnap or running the wrong routes, it's obvious where his failings are this season. Given those struggles, it's clear why he hasn't been on the field. Roundtree's placeholder has been Drew Dileo who hasn't done much of anything, though that's largely because Denard seems to miss him standing wide open.

The real revelation this season has been the emergence of oft-maligned Jeremy Gallon as the team's leading receiver (in receptions). Gallon has pulled in 20 passes and more impressively, has become a reliable, if unimpressive, punt returner. Where once Gallon was simply a kid with stone hands that looked like a character from The Wire now stands a kid with good hands that looks like a character from The Wire. The greatest condemnation of the Rodriguez era (besides, ya know, all those losses) is the fact that Gallon was wholly incapable of fielding a punt during their tenure. This season he has been as sure handed as they come. *Knuckles meet wood*

Grand Statement of Optimism: The meager numbers the wide receivers are putting up this season are more a function of poor QB play than anything else. Individually, they've performed as well as can be expected, and with the emergence of Hemingway as one of the better jump-ball receivers around the country, the receivers have proven themselves Michigan's best unit.

Grand Statement of Pessimism: The meager numbers the wide receivers are putting up this season are more a function of poor QB play than anything else.

Wet Owl sez:
Offensive Line
Preseason expectations:
The offensive line is where the hope lies for this offense. Returning everyone except Steve Schilling, the offensive line was one of the best in the Big Ten (country?) last year and should have a productive season. Unfortunately, they've had trouble blocking the power-running game that Hoke prefers. If Borges doesn't abandon the zone running game, and if the offensive line is able to gel and effectively block the smash mouth running game Hoke wants, this will be Michigan's best unit.
Once again, not so much. Michigan's offensive line was expected to be its most consistent unit. Instead, the offensive line has struggled both in the power running game (expected) and pass protection (not as expected). Mark Huyge announced the opening of his new charity Spartans in the Backfield (SitB) against Michigan State, and right guard Patrick Omameh has been periodically benched for his complete inability to pull on power running schemes.

Some of this is scheme/coach induced. The Spartans timed Michigan's snap count and were overwhelming specific gaps in order to get free rushers at Denard. There are also instances of linemen pulling toward the playside, stretching the play to the boundary and allowing defenders to cage in Denard. These are schematic and planning issues, some of the few that can be levied against the coaching staff thus far. With few backups to speak of, though, this is Michigan's unit for the rest of the season, flaws and all.

Grand Statement of Optimism: Michigan's rushing attack is actually better in YPG on the ground and YPC this season than it was last year when the team's offensive metrics were off the charts.

Grand Statement of Pessimism: SitB. Zero depth. Wholesale replacements by true freshmen in 2012 argh.

Wet Owl sez:
Tight Ends
Preseason expectations:
While rumor is that the tight ends will play a big role in the offense this year, given Michigan's lack of depth at fullback and the desire to run helmet-on-helmet power football, I don't see the tight ends becoming an integral part of the receiving game. Last year, the tight ends combined for 19 catches and 266 yards. Expect those numbers to remain about where they are.
A little over halfway through the season and Michigan's tight ends have combined for 13 catches and 143 yards. One of the misconceptions about this team that commentators cite is how happy the tight ends must be as a bigger part of the offense. The truth is, they're not. Though Koger has been used for the QB Oh Noes in place of Roundtree, very little has changed in terms of their involvement with the offense. Instead of lining up at H-back, the tight ends are lining up on the line of scrimmage. Otherwise, it's par for the course.

Grand Statement of Optimism: Koger is as athletic as true tight ends come and has made some nice plays this season.

Grand Statement of Pessimism: Zero depth. Zero.

Wet Owl sez:
Mid-season report
To date, Al Borges has been impressive in his ability to tweak his system and adjust to Denard's unique capabilities. He's not without his flaws though, namely the entirety of the Michigan State game and the infamous fourth and inches call late. Regardless of the scheme, this offense is going no where if denard can't get his game in check. His awful passing numbers are about on pace with what I expected to see this season, which was never a positive projection. Elsewhere, the offense is having an underrated season. The running backs are quietly supplying impressive run support and the wide receivers have caught just about everything thrown their way (which hasn't been much, unfortunately).

Given that the offensive line struggles with power run blocking and Denard is having difficulty adjusting to this pro-style offense, the onus for success this season will fall on the shoulders of Borges. Is he smart and flexible enough to cater to the team's strengths or will the coaching staff continue to implement their offensive schemes in contrast to the team's obvious strengths? If I had to guess, the rest of the season will look a lot like the first half: a grab bag of plays that the coaching staff has faith in but that Denard fails to execute properly.

Grand Statement of Optimism: Denard 2010

Grand Statement of Pessimism: Denard 2011

Wet Owl concludes:


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