The Search for Passing Balance

Where have you gone, young Luke Stocker? A lonely Vol nation turns its eyes to you.

Woo, woo, woo.

Pardon completely cribbing off Brad's intro. While we're concerned about how much damage Tauren Poole can wreak on opposing defenses (short answer: there's hope, but it's largely unproven hope - stop me if you've heard that one at all in the last three years), I'm not sure it'll matter much. I'm not sure the running game's going to do much. Incidentally, Hoop pretty much nailed it:

As much as I love Chaney, he's much better at building a passing game. That’s simply his strength, and it’s been that way everywhere he’s gone.

That isn't the end of the world. I'm not sure that Tennessee needs Poole to be a bruising, between-the-tackles kind of guy, who's capable of providing a strong 20-25-Marcus Lattimore number of carries per game. Wanting Poole (or Marlin Lane) to be a consistent backfield threat is totally justifiable, but that's answering a question without really stating what the question is. I can't have that. So what's the question, then?

Start with what we know: we know that this team can chuck the ball deep. But what do you do when you're not chucking the ball deep? How do you keep defenses from keying entirely on the deep pass? Framed in that context, the issue isn't developing a running game; it's developing a natural complement to the deep passing game that Tyler Bray fell in love with last year.

If there's going to be a natural complement to the deep passing game, why can't we have an answer that plays to our team strengths?

The problems with having an offense so predicated on deep passing games are twofold:

  • The secondary will play deep in coverage and ignore the threat of short play, resulting in nobody being open and Bray picking himself up off the ground after getting faceplanted by a guy twice his weight.

  • The defensive front seven will force Bray to make decisions much quicker than he likes (think under 2 seconds) and Bray will get to pick himself up off the ground after getting faceplanted by a guy twice his weight.

So how does Tennessee avoid giving Bray plenty of Les Miles-ian experience? A zone running game presents a nice, convenient answer to both these problems;  the third level - those guys playing in Cover 1, 2, or 3 - aren't as close to the line as they'd be otherwise, and greedy DEs and DTs can easily take themselves out of the play. (This is a subset of the problem Oregon creates, although it's a much simpler idea.) However, this can also be solved with a little bread, a little butter, and some constraints.

Jim Chaney's a passing kind of guy. You like passing? He likes passing. Short passing routes - think the short side of smash, mesh, levels, and so on - aren't particularly deep routes (unless the targeted CB cheats up, in which case we've already won); they're short-drop, 5-yards-and-less type of routes designed to take what the defense gives you. Typically, the defense will always offer those routes; in the case of smash and levels, the underneath route is the best option available to the defender - a 5-yard gain is much better than a 12-yard one. Mesh is similar, but the constraints are different (and, for what it's worth, I haven't seen Chaney really use mesh). These type of routes are nuanced but not difficult for a QB to read; Bray should be able to master the read (CB leverage, coverage scheme, high-to-low) and respond accordingly. Heck, he should be incredibly used to these routes and be able to hit them, even in the face of pressure.

As far as occupying the front seven: screens, delays, and the like will punish the overaggressive front seven. All Bray needs is a blitzer delaying for an instant. If Poole releases, that blitzing LB just needs to panic for a quarter-second - "is this a screen?" - and we've won the play. As a general rule, you don't need a lot of constraints - that's not why they're there. You have constraints to keep defense from overplaying your bread-and-butter - route packages and combinations in all shapes and forms.

That's why I look at the scrimmage stats from Tuesday and I'm happy. Yeah, sure, it's a scrimmage, but Poole being the second-leading receiver? Zach Rogers snagging other short gains? Perfect. Again, it's a scrimmage, but the pieces are there, and my hope is that Bray's going to be patient enough to respect the power of the short game, too.

Looking at the running game from that perspective, is there any reason that the running game can't be viewed as a constraint? That is, it needs to do just enough to be dangerous and force the defense to respect it. Heck, there's a built-in psychological edge; it's a running back in the SEC. Of course he's going to get the ball. That's what they do here, right?

With this approach, Poole still can get 20-25 touches a game - and he's good enough to warrant that - but that's also counting 4-6 receptions a game. It doesn't need to be a lot - and it, quite frankly, probably won't be a lot given the WR talent Tennessee has right now - but there's no reason to necessarily require a hefty running game. We just need enough. That's not too much to ask for, is it?

The short-to-intermediate passing game is much closer to the bread and butter of the classic spread attack; sure, running four verticals 18 times a game is a blast - watch Houston sometime, or the chaos West Virginia is about to unleash on the Big East - but that's not really the Tennessee offense. My suspicion is that Bray fell in love with the deep ball last year; my hope is that he's gotten smarter about checking down instead of trying to pull a Drew Weatherford into triple coverage. If he hasn't, well, I hope Poole can handle 25 carries a game.

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