Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Source of Denard's Regression

Yesterday, I hammered Denard's passing game a little bit based on superficial box score stats, arguing he couldn't pass under shotgun or center. The criticism came from a bird's eye view, generalizing that Notre Dame was mostly under center and Eastern was mostly in the shot--neither of which produced a completion percentage above 50%. This led me to believe you might as well run shotgun zone read because at least he's comfortable running in that system, jump ball offense be damned. In Brian @ MGoBlog's Eastern post-game, he mentioned something that caught my eye mostly because I'm among the legions of people he describes:
I keep bringing this up in the UFRs but it's worth repeating: this is a regression. Why it's a regression is unknown, but the legions of people declaring Denard a "terrible" passer are reacting to the most recent data only. Before that he was not Chad Henne but he was not awful, either. I mean, sweet hotpants in a pickle bun, I have him for 15 good throws downfield, 2 meh ones, and 2 poor ones against Wisconsin(!) last year. These are throws past the LOS, not screens. Wisconsin! I take these numbers specifically to reduce the noise you get from drops and completion percentage and the numbers say he's not Chad Henne but when you put him in last year's offense he's not that far off....

....Borges's next step is trying out the snag, all-hitch, and curl/flat routes that Denard had gotten comfortable with last year to see if his persistent inaccuracy is purely mechanical or an artifact of nerves that come with unfamiliarity with the offense....

....There is a ridiculously good offense lurking somewhere in Michigan's personnel. It's up to Borges to find it.
I wholeheartedly agree with Brian's closing sentiment: there is brilliance hidden in this offense, even under center. The flashes of it we see appear to be Borges balancing a scale with boulders instead of grains of sand. In search of this perfect balance, Borges continues to experiment with his playcalling in an effort to maximize Denard's talents without A) killing him or B) losing games on his arm for the sake of not doing Option A. Everybody knows 26 carries is unsustainable but the alternative--8 carries against Western or 16 against Notre Dame combined with jump ball touchdowns that happen to be from under center--will likely equal losses come B1G season. The offense's regression, specifically Denard's regression in the passing game, is moving faster than the defense's progression so this is the hole you have to plug first.

I hastily charted every offensive play for Eastern (by the way, I have no idea how Brian does UFR; it's an insane amount of work) and will attempt to answer his first question--whether it's mechanics or nerves--as well as comment on some overall impressions I got from Borges' progression of playcalling. I specifically focused on the increased use of ZR, its effectiveness and how those plays affected Denard's pass attempts, even the designed passes that Denard ended up scrambling. Here goes:

Denard's 18 pass attempts + 3 passing plays that ended up being scrambles/improvisation* (in order):
  1. *1+10 | Center | playaction but Denard runs for a first down after pressure
  2. 3+5 | Shotgun | no pressure, bad pass a little behind V. Smith falls incomplete
  3. 4+5 | Shotgun | no pressure, stares at Junior the whole way and still darts it = INT
  4. 2+9 | Center | playaction, no pressure, batted ball incomplete
  5. *3+9 | Shotgun | pressure, barely makes it out of the endzone
  6. 2+11 | Center | no pressure, playaction intended for Koger, overthrown but chould have been PI
  7. 3+11 | Shotgun | pressure, sails a pass way over Roundtree, could have been easily picked
  8. 1+10 | ZR Shotgun | zone read playaction to Koger for a good gain
  9. 2+G | ZR Shotgun | zone read playaction to Koger for TD
  10. 3+7 | Shotgun | no pressure, rolls right and grossly overthrows Junior, terrible pass
  11. 1+10 | Shotgun | no pressure, fakes run, puts extra air under ball, catchable for Fitz but dropped
  12. 1+10 | Shotgun | some pressure, throws a high bullet to Koger that he can't handle
  13. 3+5 | Shotgun | no pressure, complete to Gallon, good pass
  14. 2+5 | Center | no pressure, complete to Gallon on screen, easy pass
  15. *3+4 | Shotgun | little pressure, intended to pass but took off running
  16. 2+4 | ZR Shotgun | under pressure, playaction roll incomplete but never sees a wide-open Junior
  17. 2+10 | Shotgun | no pressure, fake the run and pass to Dileo for TD, RR-style
  18. 2+7 | ZR Shotgun | no pressure, zone read playaction to Jackson, good throw
  19. 1+10 | Center | no pressure, underthrown into double coverage intended for Roundtree, Koger wide-open on 2nd read
  20. 3+5 | Shotgun | no pressure, complete to Gallon, excellent pass
  21. 3+1 | Center | no pressure, I-formation playaction, overthrown
Among the 21 passing plays called, Denard was under center 6 times. You'll notice the calls from under center came in the beginning and at the end of the game--more on this later. Of the 6 called plays, 5 of them ended up being pass attempts and 1 a scramble after a screen wasn't there and he took off. Here's where it gets dicey: of the 5 pass attempts from center, he went 1/5: batted ball, overthrown, completed screen, underthrown into double coverage, overthrown. That's a fairly bad stat line operating from under center.

His shotgun numbers, though improved, aren't significantly better: 15 times from the gun, 2 scrambles and 6/13, 2 TDs, INT. Among his 13 pass attempts in shot, 4 came from ZR plays. He went 3/4 in ZR: Koger for 12 yards, Koger for 9 yards (TD), under pressure incomplete pass (play #16) with a wide-open Junior, Jackson for 12 yards. However, his lone pick, like plays #16 and #19 above, was a result of staring down 1 receiver for over 3 seconds and never going through his reads. Even in ZR, he'll make the first read not to hand off the ball but doesn't cycle through his pass reads. So while Denard's inaccuracy from the shot rarely came from the ZR, he's shown inconsistency in the Pro-Form gun too, inside or outside of the pocket.

So the regression is definitely there, regardless of scheme. Asking Denard to go through passing reads was a challenge for Rodriguez and a nightmare for Hoke/Borges. He simply does not read defenses, he reacts to them, which is why he takes off so willingly under pressure. This is not such a bad thing since him improvising freaks out the defense and often ends up being a first down. But in terms of actually learning Borges' offense, Denard is almost rebelling. His numbers clearly show high comfort in shot and even higher comfort in ZR. When he's asked to go under center for a playaction rollout, his first read is a passing read and when it's not there, which is more often than his ZR passes, he either forces it in or bugs out.

  • Michigan had 9 meaningful possessions: INT, punt, punt, TD, punt, TD, TD, TD, FG
  • Michigan ran 65 plays with Denard
    • 16 started from under center (25%), 49 from shotgun (75%)
      • Among shotgun snaps, zone read was called 20 times (40.8%)
In the first 3 possessions--where Michigan went INT, 3-and-out, 3-and-out--the zone read was used once; 1 in 13 plays (7.7%). The last 6 possessions, 5 of which ended up in scoring drives including 4 TDs, the ZR was used 19 times; 19 in 52 plays (36.5%)

In 20/65 ZR plays (30.8%), its production accounted for 209 of 471 yards of total offense (44.4%). Interestingly, in 6 of Fitz's 11 carries (54.5%), it accounted for 38 of his 48 rushing yards (79.1%); he seems to be the back of choice in zone reads. Shaw got 1 carry and V. Smith got 4 of 9 (44.4%) that produced 50 of his 118 rushing yards (42.3%)--pretty comparable. Fitz was more effective in the ZR in this small sample size.

Then there's Denard. Most would agree Denard can run without passing well but he cannot pass without running well. And he most definitely runs better under ZR. On the ground, 5 of his 26 carries (19.2%) from the ZR gained 85 of his 198 rushing yards (42.9%). As mentioned before, in the air, he went 3/4 off of the ZR playaction for 33 yards and a TD to Koger (this is excluding his fake run TD pass to Dileo which is a designed pass the whole way, though very RR-esque). His lone incompletion was to a double-covered Roundtree in the endzone when Junior was wide-open so that's lack of cycling through 2nd and 3rd options.


Denard was under center 6 times within the first 13 plays of the 3 opening drives that went INT, punt, punt. Borges then called 7 consecutive plays from shotgun to lead Michigan to their 1st TD drive, including 2 key ZR passes to Koger--the last one being a TD.

After Michigan stalled on their 5th possession, a 3-and-out punt, that ended with Denard badly overthrowing a wide-open Hemingway, Michigan was only up 7-3 towards the end of the 2nd quarter. Even with time winding down, Borges still called 6 consecutive running plays to secure the 2nd TD, including 5 from shotgun.

If I were to graph the frequency of Denard under center, it would look like a U--meaning high usage towards the beginning and end of the game. In other words, experimenting to start and when the game was already won. The real work was Denard in the shotgun. This is a big reason why Denard was never pulled on the final possession: after only 38 offensive plays in Western and ND not resembling a real football game, Denard is still VERY limited in game experience under center. He needs the work.

FWIW, I counted 16 designed runs for Denard: QB isos, QB draws, power QB leads with HB blockers. That means 10 other carries came from ZR or improvisation. Borges called Denard's number 4 times on a 7 play drive for Michigan's 1st TD and 3 times in a 6-play drive for Michigan's 2nd. At the end of the day, Denard running is still Borges' safety blanket and he has no trouble riding his legs for TDs, if need be. Borges even called his number a few times in Michigan's final 2 drives, when the game was well in hand, so spare me the safety argument for now. He went all RichRod after he saw how fun and easy it is to just use Denard. 

Let's first get the formation misconception out of the way: Borges' West Coast-style Pro-Form offense does not equal I-formations under center every down; shotgun is very much a part of his regular playbook. With Denard as the signal caller and clearly more comfortable operating last year's zone read, which runs exclusively from the gun, you are still going to see him heavily in the shot. This makes sense as Borges  mixes in both schemes. Here's the stat to prove this: Denard was in the gun 64% and 75%--relatively close, both well above 50%--against ND and Eastern. But Borges ran ZR 3 times as opposed to 20 times respectively. Lots of shotgun in both games, 2 very different gameplans.

In response to Brian's mechanics vs. nerves question, I think it's both because the nerves amplify his lack of mechanics. While Denard proved last year he can throw some dimes and put up near Hennebot numbers, his passing game, unlike his ability to run, has a ceiling. That ceiling is limited by his mechanics--the way he still struggles with footwork, the way he overthrows single coverage, the way he underthrows double coverage. Yes, Denard improved vastly from Year 1 to Year 2 but his Year 1 baseline was completing half his passes to the other team. This feels like Year 1.5--a small step backwards. In terms of the deep ball, I still believe that's been inconsistent from Day 1, even in decent passing performances of the past.

The goal then should be to figure out how to establish a comfortable rhythm to make the necessary 15+ yard throw when the opportunity presents itself. As Brian noted before, last year's designed rhythm routes were a mix of hitches, snags, flats and bubble screens. This year, Borges wants to do the same but via playaction screens to V. Smith or TE routes. This is where I think the nerves come into play. The grossly overthrown screen to V. Smith against ND that was picked, the fake run pass to Fitz that also had a lot of air under it, the high bullet he threw at Koger--these are all easy throws that we've seen Denard make in the past which suggest they are product of an unfamiliar set and system.

3 games in and SDSU looming (they are no blowover) before the start of the B1G season, Borges finds himself in a tough spot. Time has run out. At some point he has to pick a direction. Does he continue nurturing Denard with easier playcalls under center and try to get him acclimated or does he go with what works right now (ZR) and ride it as long as he can? The most recent evidence from Eastern suggests he is ready to say eff it. The higher frequency of calls under center in the 1st and 4th quarter matches the way Michigan struggled at the start and recorded their first non-TD red zone drive at the end (Michigan is currently 10/10 in red zone efficiency with 9 TDs and 1 FG). With the defense still adjusting, we likely can't afford a bad offensive quarter against much better competition in the name of experimentation and at the expense of reducing our chances to win.

The answer to how Borges should handle Denard moving forward is a matter of preference. For me, I rather have Denard NOT become a jack of all trades and a master of none. Borges has already lived up to his words on being flexible with his playbook, open to new ideas but how far can/will he take it? He has added a few wrinkles from Rodriguez's playbook but what if it requires the full playbook--the hitches, the snags, the bubble screens--to get Denard fully involved with a competent passing game? To operate from the ZR as the base offense may be radical for this coaching staff, but it's right up the players' alley. Perhaps Borges' added wrinkles to this offense should come from his playbook instead of Rodriguez's.

1 comment:

  1. While Al is lucky to have a talent like Denard at his disposal, I don't envy his position right now...run too much and Denard gets hurt and everybody is angry, run too little and everybody is angry. The imaginary line that divides "too much" and "too little" is impossible to find because it leaves out the specific context of each game. The simple fact is, maybe this offense isn't good enough to do anything but run Denard until he--God forbid--gets hurt? I hope that's not the case, and I don't think that it is if Borges is smart, which I think that he is.

    With that said, this week will be interesting. I think the tailbacks will find some holes in the 3-3-5 that might not otherwise be there throughout the Big Ten slate, so if they don't produce this week then I might start to worry for real. Denard's inaccuracy--even on the passes that aren't bombs--is worrisome, but I think that's a product of nerves stemming from having to learn something new that is making him uncomfortable to a certain extent. There's really no quick fix to that. Jason Campbell's problem at Auburn was that he had a new OC almost ever year he was at Auburn, but Borges was able to make him into a high NFL draft pick (having Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown didn't hurt). I have confidence that Borges will figure it out, it just might not be right away. He said he was out of his "comfort zone," and I absolutely believe it.

    On a more technical level, Denard will continue to make some bad reads and throw some picks, but the only way for him to get better as a passer is to keep, you know, passing. I really hope we come out this week and beyond with some "easy throws," like you said, just to get teams to back up just a tiny bit, because with his legs that's really all you need. There is definitely brilliance to be found in this offense, but like the defense, it's a work in progress. Luckily, we have the schedule to absorb some of those growing pains (I hope?).