Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Air Denard: Minnesota

Previously: Eastern, SDSU

Not sure how many consecutive weeks I'm going to continue tracking Denard's throws--it was originally until my eyes bleed--but this week is too fun not to. I need to be rewarded. Seriously though: watching every pass a few times and noticing trends within Borges' playcalling has been really fascinating; you get an idea of how he plans to nurture Denard's arm to fit a new passing philosophy. Denard has responded with mixed results and that's to be expected; the internal battle between the two, the push-and-pull embody this season-long experiment of merging Rodriguez's players with Borges' playbook. While there have been bumps along way--3 games with under 50% completion--progress is being made. And seemingly right in the nick of time.

Denard's passing line looks much cleaner this week: 15/19, 169 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs. And that's through 2.5 quarters. Insert caveats regarding Minnesota's secondary here but it still takes effort and skill to complete passes. Accurate throws are accurate throws. But perhaps more helpful, the type of throws that fell incomplete should say a lot about how comfortable Denard is with that play (not comfortable) and red flag Borges to NEVER CALL IT AGAIN. That's because those passes will likely end up being pick sixes against Big Ten secondaries who feature scholarship players recruited to play, you know, defense.

Quick side note: man, it's hard to diagnose some of these plays, whether they are designed runs, passes or read options. Check out this example: you would think it's a scramble (called passing play) when Denard sees the hole and takes off but the fake routes/blocking by the receivers reveal it's run the whole way. Borges just instructed Denard to stay put for a second and let the pass rushers open up lanes for him to run through:

1+10 | shot | takes 1 step back, sets feet, P0, quick fire to Gallon (complete)
1+10 | shot | PA, sets feet, P0 throws a beautiful touch ball (!) to Hopkins (complete)
1+10 | shot | PA, rolls right, sets feet, pumps, sets feet, P0, hits Hemingway (complete)
1+10 | center | PA, immediately turns and throws to Gallon tunnel screen, P1 (complete)
1+10 | shot | takes 1 step back, sets feet, P0, hits Gallon on the hitch (complete)
2+7 | diamond | Gardner hands it off to Denard, rolls right, P1, throws across back to Gardner (complete)
3+5 | shot | 3-step drop, sets feet, fires to Hemingway on curl, P0 (complete)
1+10 | shot | fake runs a little, sets feet, P1, throws screen to Hemingway (complete)

1+10 | shot | takes 1 step back, sets feet, P0, hits Hemingway on the hitch (complete)
2+6 | center | PA, rolls right, fakes looking, sets feet, P0, throws back screen to Smith (complete)

1+20 | shot | PA, rolls left, sets feet, pumps, bad feet, P3, throws up jump ball, PI called (incomplete)
2+5 | center | PA, rolls right, P2, throws off back foot, Koger on flat (complete)
1+10 | shot | PA, rolls right, moving feet, P2, overthrows Hemingway (incomplete)
1+10 | shot | 3-step drop, sets feet, P0, hits Dileo on crossing route (complete)
2+4 | shot | 3-step drop, sees the hitch covered, steps up in pocket, P2, scrambles for a run
1+10 | shot | takes 1 step back, sets feet, P0, throws to a tightly covered Koger out route (incomplete)
2+10 | shot | rolls right, doesn't set feet, P1, throws to Dileo who bobbles could have been caught (incomplete)
3+10 | shot | 3-step drop, sets feet, blitz coming, P1, quick throw to wide-open Koger (complete)
2+8 | shot | 3-step drop, sets feet, P1, dumps it to Fitz (complete)
3+10 | shot | rolls right, sets feet, P2, overthrows Hemingway (incomplete)
1+10 | center | PA, sets feet, P1, easy quick throw to Koger (complete)


By the numbers: 21 passing plays broken down into 19 pass attempts, 1 PI call and 1 scramble. The PI was a bail-out call; it was asking to be picked but we'll count it as incomplete. The scramble was a good decision by Denard--more on that later. Excluding the diamond formation, 16/20 plays were from the shot and 4 from under center. Sound familiar? That's because it's the exact same breakdown from SDSU. Furthermore, all 4 plays from under center were PAs, just like last week. I think it's safe to say Borges has a formula that he's sticking to.

So what's the difference? How do identical 20-attempt gameplans with matching 16-to-4, shot-to-center ratio be deployed with such polar results (8/17, 93 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs vs. 15/19, 169 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs)? There's no a single answer but several confounding variables: the opponent for one, the type of throws, the success of the run game that make certain throws more open, the length of the throws, etc. Kyle Meike's piece in showed 8 of Denard's first 11 passes were 5 yards or less. So keeping throws within shotputting distance is definitely helps.

Another part is the passing situations. Last week, I mentioned Denard was put in a difficult spot passing in unfavorable downs: "8/20 called passing plays were on downs over 11 yards, so taking out the 1st-and-10s. None of his 7 3rd down calls were under 5 yards." A second look revealed only 3 1st-and-10 passing attempts last week. This week? 11. That Denard was given a chance to chip away yards via arm instead of his legs for more favorable 2nd and 3rd down situations allowed him to build some confidence while keeping the chains moving. He's proving he can avoid 2nd-and-10. At least against Minnesota. Damn it, I can't help myself.

The most glaring stat, however, is something that Brian @ MGoBlog has been complaining about for some time now: rolling Denard and moving him out of the pocket. Is he right? This game certainly says so. There are so few incompletions that it's worth laying all 5 of them (4 + 1 PI call) out again:

1+20 | shot | PA, rolls left, sets feet, pumps, bad feet, P3, throws up jump ball, PI called (incomplete)

1+10 | shot | PA, rolls right, moving feet, P2, overthrows Hemingway (incomplete)
1+10 | shot | takes 1 step back, sets feet, P0, throws to a tightly covered Koger out route (incomplete)
2+10 | shot | rolls right, doesn't set feet, P1, throws to Dileo who bobbles could have been caught (incomplete)3+10 | shot | rolls right, sets feet, P2, overthrows Hemingway (incomplete)

Notice a trend? 4 of his 5 incomplete passes were on roll-outs. On my count, Denard rolled 6 times all game, giving us a completion rate of 2/6 out of the pocket. While it's become clear that Denard is more comfortable from the gun, rolling the pocket seems to be the bad within the good, unnecessarily complicating his footwork and taking him out of his comfort zone. Denard has surprisingly great pocket presence, why move him? DEs struggle to maintain gap discipline when he's in the pocket for fear of him taking off; rolling him allows them to give chase without that threat. Borges is effectively cornering Denard. Then asking him to keep his eyes downfield, make reads, re-set his feet and deliver an accurate throw. That's asking a lot from anybody, let alone somebody who is still pretty green in a new offense. And rolling left? Even worse. Borges has taken notice:
"But his fundamentals were so much better other than two throws, okay -- there were two throws and both of them were pocket movements to the left where I think he didn’t get turned very well, and part of that was protection."
From the horse's mouth. I understand Borges is calling these plays with big leads and therefore low-risk situations, and Denard needs to learn at some point, but I will be pissed if the roll-outs are called during critical moments. Denard has so many strengths, most notably his legs. Designing plays, much less passing plays, that do not directly work off that threat seems counterproductive. It's handicapping him at the snap, making him 1-dimensional and not the right dimension. The more we play to his strengths instead of trying to correct his weaknesses, the better off we'll be this year.


For the third week in a row, Borges has kept the passing plays to a minimum during the first few drives or until Michigan builds a considerable lead. In the grand scheme of things, even as I dissect center vs. shotgun or in-the-pocket vs. out-of-the-pocket, the passing game takes a back seat to Michigan's ground game, as it should. Know that when, not if, shit hits the fan, Borges will revert back to the bread-and-butter which is RUN DENARD RUN.

Pressure was nonexistent. And that's by design because most of the plays called were either 3-step drops or 1 step back and fire; quick throws = not enough time for pressure to arrive. Soft coverage from Minnesota's secondary allowed those quick routes to be open all day too, so Denard didn't really have to do much beyond staring at his first read and making the basic throw. Still, the called plays and routes speak to the direction in which Denard feels most comfortable building a rhythm. Achieving it that early and with such success won't be as easy to replicate with better competition, but it's better than asking him to go playaction deep from the start.

The other thing I wanted to point out was Denard's scramble. He stared down the quick out route and caught the OLB sneaking underneath--what would have been a very dangerous throw and likely a pick--before pulling it down and running himself. Last week, it was Denard locking onto receivers that got him into a lot of trouble. He may not be polished enough to go through 2nd or 3rd reads, but I would almost prefer he just run if his primary read is covered. This is tangible progress and it's really nice to see Denard improve on his decision-making.

It looks like the mini-evolution from under center to shotgun has stabilized. Borges started the season heavier under center but transitioned to (reluctantly accepted?) a predominately shotgun (4:1 ratio) offense. It seems unlikely Borges will eradicate the under center playaction and that's fine; it's not like it doesn't work. In fact, Denard went 4/4 from under center against Minnesota. But that speaks to Borges' creativity, like throwback screens to V. Smith with a convoy waiting for him on the opposite hash. The other throws--the tunnel screen to Gallon or roll-out TE flat--I could live without but as long as they help set up other plays or keep a defense honest, I'm OK deploying them on a minimal basis.

That the defense keeps raising it's ceiling reaffirms my belief there are other assets this team can rely on other than Denard's arm. It's not so much marginalizing the passing game as it is making sure Michigan plays towards its strengths of a potent ground attack, improved defense and field position. Denard doesn't need to be a miracle passer for this team to win. He needs to be a decent enough passer not to lose. That means safe routes, easy reads and whatever else it takes for Michigan to not turn the ball over in the air. With Hagerup as a powerful weapon, Michigan can force strong opponents to execute consistently for 60 minutes in order to beat them. Anything remotely resembling Denard's passing performance against Minnesota and he'll have automatically put his team in a very good position to win.

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