Thursday, July 19, 2012

Preseason Colleg Previewkakke: SEC West Division and Championship


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Onto the SEC West, home to the winners of four of the last five National Championships. Remember when Mike Shula coached Alabama? Ah, the good days. Alas, all good things are destined to end, and Nick Saban ended up turning not one, but TWO SEC West universities into juggernauts. First a national title with LSU, then a short dalliance with the Miami Dolphins, then a quick and humorously lie-filled exit (Alabama? What’s that?) which saw him retreat back to the same freaking division as the college team he had left merely two years prior. Now? A damned dynasty wherein the man whose name is eerily similar to a certain fiery demon wins a title every couple years.

Add to this the LSU Tigers, who hired Les Miles after Saban left, which has led to some of the most fantastic endings/games in college football history (And another national title for LSU). Add to that Arkansas, who just fired its bike-riding, daughter’s-age-girl-banging, Atlanta Falcons-leaving head coach… and replaced him with John L. Smith. John L. Smith inspired THIS. That is all.

Outside of those three incredible stories we also have three other coaches in transition. Gene Chizik at Auburn needs to prove he can win without Cam Newton. Dan Mullen needs to take the next step with Mississippi State. And Texas A&M needs to prove they can compete in the SEC when they struggled so mightily to do just that in the Big 12-2.

So what happens in the most storyline-laden division in the NCAA? Glad you asked! Because I happen to have a fresh batch of 100% truthful predictions right after the jump:

Predicting the Playbook

The Bears are rarely a team with an over-arching offensive philosophy. While Green Bay had Mike Holmgren, a West Coast purist if ever there was one, and followed him up with two more West Coast adherents in Mike Sherman and Mike McCarthy (although McCarthy's obviously branched out and adapted many spread concepts thanks to Aaron Rodgers' incredible ability and his plethora of talented receivers), the Bears offensive coordinators throughout the years have mostly paid mere lip service to some over-arching scheme and have been pragmatic at best and clueless at worst.

Ron Turner claimed to be in the Don Coryell camp, but frequent injuries and talent deficiencies at quarterback often limited him to a more controlled short-passing scheme. Even when it worked, Turner's offense was hardly the deep-throw at all costs attack of Coryell disciples like Mike Martz. Ask any Bears fan or Bears opponent what Ron Turner wanted to do and the answer is quite simple: run the ball and throw off of play-action. It really was that simple.

Before Ron, Terry Shea spent one year trying to install Kansas City's version of the Martz offense, a more balanced and tight-end friendly alternative to Mike's original attack. It's really hard to describe Shea's offense as anything like Kansas City's at the time, since the offensive line was, recent history included, the worst in Bears history (66 sacks allowed) the receivers were, and stop me if you've heard this before, terrible, with David Terrell leading the pack, and the quarterbacks (Jonathan Quinn, Craig Krenzel, Chad Hutchinson) that came in after Rex Grossman went down in week 3 were incapable of completing even a rudimentary quick slant.

I'll not spend much time describing John Shoop's offense, since his philosophy simply revolved around avoiding turnovers and praying the defense would win the game, which leads us to Gary Crowton, the last Bears offensive coordinator before Mike Martz to have a reputation as a unique offensive mind. Crowton of course brought the spread to the NFL (well before the Patriots) and somehow got over 4,000 yds passing out of Shane Matthews, Cade McNown, and Jim Miller before the league caught on in 2000 and ran Crowton off to a disappointing head coaching career at BYU.

Considering this history, it's no surprise that the Mike Martz experiment was quite a radical departure from normal Bears procedure. Martz is nothing if not a man with his a strong commitment to his offensive philosophy, and it's one that undoubtedly produces when he has the talent to do so. In Chicago he did not, and we all know how that ended.

This long-winded digression into the history of recent Bears offensive schemes leads me up to my question today, which is: what the hell are the 2012 Bears going to run on Sundays now that they, once again, appear to be without one clear philosophy?

The only answers the media provides are somewhat contradictory. Mike Wright of ESPN claimed the Bears, thanks to Jeremy Bates, were going to use the 2008 Broncos playbook verbatim, which of course would mean that the Bears were running Mike Shanahan's version of the West Coast offense, which he developed by altering the original West Coast scheme to fit the running talents of Steve Young and later John Elway (which is also why he drafted the mobile Jay Cutler).

The offensive coordinator, however, is Mike Tice, not Jeremy Bates, and Tice has his own history on offense from when he and Scott Linehan (now the OC for the Lions) had a very productive operation going in Minnesota in the first half of the decade. So one would have to assume the Bears offense would resemble the Vikings playbook from that time period, no?

Well, that doesn't seem to be the case either. Many Bears players have noted that the playbook, with the notable exception of the recently eliminated seven step drops, still contains anywhere from 50-75% of last year's playbook. So I'm forced to wonder how all three of these influences (the Ghost of Martz, Tice/Linehan, and Bates/Shanahan) are going to gel into one coherent offensive scheme this year. I've decided to take a guess and explore a couple of run and pass concepts from all three offenses that I think the team will make extensive use of: Mike Martz's Mesh concept, Mike Shanahan's Near/Solo Left QB Keep Pass Right (in English: play-action bootleg to the right), and the Inside Zone running play from the Tice/Linehan offense.

1) MESH
Mesh is an outstanding concept that Martz had great success with all the way back in his earliest days of coaching. It's a play that's also been popularized in college by the Air Raid offenses of my beloved Mike Leach and his disciples. The great thing about Mesh is that, while it's a Martz staple, it's a shallow cross concept and doesn't require one of the dreaded deep drops. Here is Mesh as drawn up in Martz's offense:
Source: www.smartfootball.com
The image is a little small, but basically the key to Mesh is that the X receiver (Brandon Marshall) and the Y receiver (Earl Bennett) cross paths in the middle of the field on what's known as a rub (in practice coaches will sometimes make these two receives touch hands so they understand just how close they need to get together on the play) in order to confuse the defense and get one of them open. The Z receiver (either Alshon Jeffery or Devin Hester) runs a deep curl to the middle of the field in order to draw one of the linebackers away from the X and Y as the CB goes deep to cover the RB on the wheel route. The QB then reads (as the illustration shows) right to left, from X to Z to Y. 

This play is primarily designed to beat man coverage, but it can also be used against zone since the deep curl by the Z receiver will draw the MLB and the RB threatens both the flat and the sideline with the wheel route, keeping both the corner and safety in place on Cover 2. Martz's QBs have racked up hundreds of yards over the years on this play. The addition of a big, strong receiver in Marshall means that Jay should have no trouble turning this relatively short, easy throw into a big play.

2)Near/Solo Left Fake 15/35 QB Keep Pass Right
These two plays are basically identical, with the difference being that one has a fullback in the backfield who released into the flat and another has two tight ends, with the second tight end releasing into the flat. This is a concept that Shanahan/Bates have used to great effect with Steve Young, John Elway, Jake Plummer, and Jay Cutler (One of these things is not like the other...) and I would expect, given the repeated cries over the last three years for the Bears to take advantage of Cutler's ability to throw on the run, we will see it plenty this year:
Source: www.theburgundywarpath.com
This play is pretty self explanatory, really. Cutler fakes it to Forte and rolls right, while Marshall (X) runs a deep comeback to the play side (taking advantage of the gap between corner and safety, as the corner should stay to cover the second tight end (T) or the FB in the flats and the LB should be preoccupied with the first TE (Y) running the shallow cross) and the Z (Hester or Jeffery) runs either a deep post against Cover 2  in order to draw the safety deep or a deep dig against Cover 1 in order to get the safety to "sink" on the route. 

3)Inside Zone
This is a play that nearly every NFL team runs, and one that the Bears have already had a great deal of success with under Tice the last two years, but it's also a staple of the one-back offense that Tice/Linehan run and you'll see it plenty this year as well. 

Source: www.smartfootball.com
When you hear people talk about "zone runs" vs. man or power runs, the difference is what an "uncovered" lineman does. If a guard lines up and there's a defensive tackle right in front of him obviously his assignment is to block that guy. If there's not a defensive player directly in front of him, however, the offensive lineman's job is to shift towards the playside and double team the nearest defensive lineman. Once that defensive player is blocked, one of the two offensive lineman then shifts off to the nearest defender in the "zone" of the play. It's not really rocket science.

In the above version of inside zone, for example, the TE, RT, RG, and C all block the person covering them. The zone blockers are the LT and LG, who shift to block the WLB and the Nose Tackle, respectively. The runningback aims for the outside hip of the RG and shoot between the RG and the RT. If there's no opening there, he makes one cut and shoots back between the RG and the C. It's a running play that's both simple and effective, and Matt Forte and 30 other runningbacks will hear it called every Sunday. Tice has admitted in the past that it is his favorite running play, as he coaxed a 1300 yd season out of Michael Bennett and several great seasons from the two-headed monster of Fred Taylor and MJD largely off of this play during his time in Minnesota and Jacksonville, respectively. 

So there you have it. I'm guessing the Bears offense will be very similar to the one they ran the last couple of years after the annual "Run the Damn Ball, Martz" intervention, with the biggest difference being a considerable increase in the amount of play-action passes and bootlegs, and fewer screens in response to pressure. These three plays, however, will almost certainly be locks for the gameplan every week. I apologize for the length of this post, but, shit, I really don't. If you're here, I assume you came to read.