It has been a slow and painful journey to revisit the events of last Saturday. Before I could even contemplate trying to break the offensive game down, I had to go through the stages of football grief: 1) Drink an adult beverage (or several), 2) Recover from those adult beverages…it gets harder each year, thankfully, last year was light on having to visit this stage, 3) Watch my NFL team for redemption (which was thwarted by the frickin’ Saints), 4) Root on the fantasy football team, and finally 5) Actually revisit the game.
This multi-day process takes me late into Tuesday evening. I should have the full breakdown of the passing, rushing, and team stats by Wednesday evening, but for the time being, I wanted to touch on something which struck me during the re-watch.
Whatever gameplan Notre Dame may have had coming into the game, it was quickly derailed by falling behind 10 points early on. The defense lacked the consistency to let them get the ball back offensively with a tie or lead. Notre Dame had just 4 plays versus the skunk bears where the game was tied or they had the lead (one of those two scenarios didn’t happen at all, I’ll let you figure out which that is). Basically from the get go, Notre Dame trailed, and this led to an increased use of the no-back set.
Last week I referred to Notre Dame’s use of this set, but indicated that in the Temple game the team generally reverted to a 1-back set prior to snap. While both Carlisle and Atkinson saw time in this formation, the primary package belongs to Amir Carlisle playing the “Theo” role. Versus Michigan Carlisle remained in the slot and ran his route acting as the fourth wide receiver much more frequently. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the evidence suggests that ND is utilizing this package in an effective manner.
Let’s consider the use of the no back set by game:
Temple: Rees had 23 attempts in the game. 7 of the attempts occurred with Carlisle (or Atkinson on occasion) remaining in the slot position. Here’s his completion percentages:
No Back: 43% (3/7) for 71 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT. Yards per attempt: 10.14
All Others: 81% (13/16) for 275 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT. Yards per attempt: 17.18
Percentage of total passes thrown from no back: 30.4%
Michigan: Rees attempted a whopping 52 passes in this game. 22 of the attempts occurred in the no back. Carlisle was the running back in the game on 19 of those 22 plays. Rees’ numbers:
No Back: 55% (12/22) for 137 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT. Yards per attempt: 6.23
All Others: 59% (17/29) for 177 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT. Yards per attempt: 6.10
Percentage of total passes thrown from no back: 43.1%
No Back: 51.7% (15/29) for 208 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT. Yards per attempt: 7.17
All Others: 66.7% (30/45) for 452 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT. Yards per attempt: 10.04
Even a cursory look tells the entire story. Tommy Rees has been more effective with a back beside (or behind) him than he’s been with the empty backfield. Given Rees’ lack of mobility, I do not find this surprising. Without a back that can help in pass protection, Rees’ decisions generally seem more rushed, and the defense can exert pressure onto Tommy forcing him to throw on the run…something we’ve known for sometime is not a strength.
As the 2012 season progressed, we saw ND use the empty back field more and more with Everett Golson in the game. As opposed to Rees, Golson seemed more comfortable with the empty set than he did with a back beside him. It also helped that Golson could really run. Unfortunately, the 2013 iteration of the Irish may do well to limit the use of this package even after seeing some positive results last season.
There is a reason for the empty backfield with a player like Rees. What Brian Kelly seems to be banking on is the empty field set-up letting Rees take advantage of his pre-snap read skills. The idea is for the offense to come out in the empty set and see how the defense lines up. If Rees doesn’t like the set-up, he then motions the running back to a more traditional set-up and goes from there. Several times during the Michigan game we saw Rees do just this to great effect. Rees has a solid understanding of where pressure is going to come from and makes solid protection adjustments when necessary. The problem from my perspective is that Rees lacks the post-snap read skills to take advantage when his instincts tell him to keep the back in the slot position. For whatever reason, his internal clock accelerates causing him to be less accurate and less effective on a per pass basis than he is in the 2 and 3 receiver sets.
While I don’t think Notre should (or would) abandon the empty field set-up, it may take some time, if it happens at all, to get Rees comfortable constantly lining up in the set as they did in the Michigan game. Yes, game score and clock considerations both played into the hurry up no back set’s usage. However, running the hurry up doesn’t mean the team has to line up in the no back, and the offense may do well to keep its usage more in the 30% of pass plays range from Temple rather than the 40%+ that we saw versus Michigan.
Back tomorrow with a more comprehensive breakdown.