What is Wrong with the Tennessee Passing Attack?

The Tennessee Volunteers came into last Saturday’s home matchup with the Oklahoma Sooners fresh off an explosive offensive showing over Bowling Green. They left Neyland Stadium defeated 31-24 in double overtime after jumping out to a 17-0 early in the second quarter. A sudden shift in Oklahoma’s defensive strategy left the Vols without any answers and unable to score until the first overtime period. The Sooners game plan shut the Vols offense down by sending multiple players into the box to stop the running game and daring Tennessee to win through the air. The Vols were unable to do that. This post aims to determine why.

There are two huge problems facing the Volunteers passing attack and they both are equally important. First, Dobbs is facing way too much pressure in the pocket. Second, receivers are not getting open downfield. This is a recipe for disaster for any quarterback.

Oklahoma came out and gave up 17 easy points by playing conservative defense. After that, they did not give up a single point in regulation, going to an aggressive Cover 1 scheme. The Sooners sent five pass rushers on a regular basis to keep the heat on Dobbs, and played aggressive press on all receivers. This type of alignment was the norm. The box loaded to stop the run, press coverage across the board, and one safety deep.

press man

This had a twofold effect. First, the Cover 1 blitz scheme allowed Oklahoma to move an extra defender into the box and get blitzers running into the backfield to stop the run. The Vols want to run the ball, and the blitzing completely took them out of their rhythm in the run game. Next, the Sooners were able to generate more pressure on Dobbs with the blitz.

Those are the two big benefits of Cover 1. However, as we have looked at before, Cover 1 only works if your corners can win on the outside. And boy did the Sooners win. All night long the Volunteers receivers struggled to beat the man coverage and Dobbs was often left with rushers in his face and no one open downfield. Let’s take a look at the film and see how Oklahoma attacked and why it worked.

One way the Sooners attacked was with a field blitz. Here, Oklahoma sends both the safety and outside linebacker to the field. Left tackle Kyler Kerbyson lets the safety by him, and Dobbs has to take off. None of the Volunteers receivers are able to get open. Oklahoma is running a simple pattern match coverage scheme behind the blitz.

Here, Oklahoma sends both the inside and outside linebacker to the field side. The Vols pick up the blitz, but this leaves right guard Dylan Wiesman in a bad spot. Running back Jalen Hurd has to pick up the inside backer and can’t help Wiesman with the end. Wiesman gets beat badly and Dobbs has to scramble. Once again, no Volunteer receivers are open versus the tight man coverage.

Oklahoma’s coaches did a good job of finding weaknesses in the Volunteer’s scheme and exploiting them. Here, they saw that when the Vols were in a two back set, they were sliding the line to the field and sending both backs into the boundary. This means Tennessee has four pass blockers to the boundary and three to the field. So what does Oklahoma do? Send field pressure. Both times the Vols showed this formation, Oklahoma sent a delayed nickel back blitz. The outside linebacker distracted the right tackle and the nickel back came free for the pressure. This is a simple case of Oklahoma’s coaches finding a tendency in the Tennessee offense and taking advantage of it. Oklahoma sent the very same pressure every time Tennessee lined up in this split backs formation and did not motion. Once again, the Sooners get a free rusher and no one is open.

While they sent more field pressure, the Sooners did not hesitate to blitz from the boundary as well, especially with the boundary cornerback. On this play, the corner times his blitz perfectly based on Tennessee’s motion. The outside linebacker comes as well and no one picks up the corner. It looks like Hurd never saw the corner blitz, and Dobbs is forced to get rid of the ball. Oklahoma is again playing tight man coverage and no one is open.

It was not just the blitz that beat the Vols, however. Oklahoma was able to get a push with just four rushers. Here, the Sooners play Cover 1 Robber. Kerbyson inexplicably doesn’t pick up the outside linebacker and lets him come free. Center Coleman Thomas gets beat badly by the nose tackle, and Dobbs has two defenders in his face before he can set to throw. Unfortunately for Dobbs, it wouldn’t have made much difference because the Sooners have blanketed the Volunteers’ receivers downfield.

These are just a few examples I wanted to highlight. The Volunteers struggled to give Dobbs a clean pocket all night, and the receivers failed to consistently beat the man coverage,

So how can Tennessee fix this? They must develop a passing attack that demands a defense’s respect. As of now, Oklahoma has laid a blueprint for how to attack Tennessee. Aggressively attack the running game and the quarterback with the blitz and dare the Volunteers to pass by playing Cover 1. For Tennessee to win games against good opponents, they have to show defenses that they can win through the air against any team who tries this aggressive defense.

First, DeBord must do a better job of creating opportunities for Dobbs and the receivers. There was some good. Tennessee has a variety of passing concepts that attack zone coverage, but they must have a better plan to beat man.

One play the Vols had success with was Snag. This is a play we took an in-depth look at a few weeks ago in an article about Sam Bradford and the Philadelphia Eagles. Here is an excerpt from that article explaining the route concept.

“Snag is a really good play call against the man coverage that the Eagles see so often. It is a 3 man route combination where the outside receiver runs a spot route, the number two receiver runs a corner, and the number three receiver runs to the flat. The first read for the quarterback is the corner route. This is good versus man coverage, and the Eagles slot receivers and tight ends can often gain separation when running this route. The next best option versus man coverage is the flat route. Similar to mesh, there is often a natural pick formed by the corner and spot routes when the defense is in man. This often leaves the flat receiver open with room to run.”

Tennessee’s first touchdown of the game came on Snag. From the nine yard line, Dobbs rolled right and found Josh Malone on a corner route. The execution by the Vols was flawless.

In overtime, DeBord did a better job of calling plays to attack the Sooners’ coverage and went back to Snag. On third and two, he went back to Snag. The Sooners were playing tight man coverage, and Alvin Kamara, who motioned out from the backfield, was wide open in the flat.

Another concept Tennessee did well with was the curl/flat concept. Right before the touchdown, Malone had a nice catch on a curl route to extend the drive on third down. Often, corners are susceptible to curls or comeback routes because they are concerned about not giving up any deep routes. Here, Malone runs another great route and is open for Dobbs.

DeBord went to a similar play in the third quarter and this time Josh Smith comes down with the catch on the curl route.

These are both ways the Vols had success versus the tight man coverage. Snag is a fantastic play call versus man, and should be a bigger part of the game plan, rather than just a go-to play in the red zone. It would also be wise to look into more crossing routes, such as Mesh and Shallow Cross, as well as more slants in order to exploit man coverage. Right now, the Vols passing game is mostly focused on throwing outside and not utilizing the middle of the field. The middle of the field is a very vulnerable area if the defense is playing Cover 1 and blitzing. Shallow crossing routes would put a ton of stress on a defense that chooses to play this coverage.

The other big schematic thing the Vols must do versus Cover 1 is throw one-on-one on the perimeter. Tennessee tried doing this some, but not often, and usually did not find success.

Here, Tennessee opened a second half drive throwing deep. DeBord called for a formation that got receiver Marquez North, perhaps the most talented receiver on the roster, one-on-one versus a corner. However, North was unable to get any separation and Dobbs couldn’t hit him on the back shoulder fade.

This is the right idea. Attack anyone who tries to play press coverage with no safety help. Dobbs and North just have to execute better.

Now, it isn’t all on DeBord. I do feel that there are missed opportunities from a scheme perspective, but the players have to execute better. As we saw earlier, the line gave up way too much pressure on Dobbs and receivers are really struggling to get open. Some of this can be helped with better protection schemes and better pass concepts. But ultimately, if the pass rush gets through and no one is open, it’s gonna be a long day.

The Vols have talent at receiver. North and Josh Malone are big bodies outside, and Pig Howard may be Dobbs’ favorite target. Jauan Jennings has stood out in the slot, and Von Pearson is one of the most explosive players on the roster. Josh Smith and Jonathon Johnson are very solid possession receivers. However, Oklahoma was able to shut every one of these guys down with press coverage. Malone and Smith played the best, combining to catch 6 of Dobbs’ 13 completions and 60% of the Vols’ receiving yards, but as a whole, the Vols really struggled.

Zach Azzanni and his receivers should feel insulted that Oklahoma had no fear in playing tight man coverage and daring the Vols to beat them through the air.  The Sooners shut the Tennessee receivers down. If Tennessee is to have any success through the air, the receivers must be better.

With that being said, if the line does not improve it may not matter. Towards the end of the first half, the Vols tried to beat Oklahoma deep by having Pig Howard run a wheel route from a bunch alignment. This was a brilliant play call by DeBord, who was trying to exploit the tight man coverage. The defender in man coverage was picked and fell down; Howard was wide open down the sideline. The safety is in the middle of the field.  If Dobbs can get this ball to Howard, he may score. But tight end Ethan Wolf gets destroyed in pass protection, and Dobbs fumbles.

This is a massive change of events that illustrates just how this really is a game of inches. The line blocks a little better, and Howard may score a touchdown to put the Vols up 21. Instead, Oklahoma gets the sack and Tennessee loses all momentum.

At the end of the day, the line must be better or the Vols are in trouble. After dominating Bowling Green, the Vols’ line played a horrible game against Oklahoma. Dobbs, the receivers, and DeBord all must be better, but all their improvement will be in vain if the line can’t keep Dobbs clean. The Vols have a favorable matchup coming up versus Western Carolina, and the offense will likely look just fine. But when the Vols walk into Gainesville to open the SEC schedule on September 26, the passing attack needs to be clicking on all cylinders, or Tennessee is in trouble.

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8 thoughts on “What is Wrong with the Tennessee Passing Attack?

  1. I hate our hockey line change with our WRs. What is the point of going up-tempo? To not allow the defense to sub. The problem is, when you sub yourself every play, especially with our WRs, we lose that advantage.
    None of our WRs can get into a rhythm either with all this shuffling.

    As an off-note, I really like Justin Fuente at Memphis. He will be coaching somewhere big soon. I’m looking forward to watching them play Thursday night to see what type of offense he runs.

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    1. The WR problem is interesting. On one hand, they have 8 healthy guys who all have a very valid case for playing time (North, Howard, Pearson, Smith, Malone, Jennings, Williams, Johnson). The problem is, as you said, as much as they are rotating in and out it is hard for any one guy to get in much of a rhythm. I think the coaches really don’t know how to handle this surplus. They desperately need to narrow down the rotation, and at the least, let the same three guys play through an entire series. This will help the tempo as well as establishing rhythm if the subs come with each new change of possession, not each play. Then figure out who has the hot hand and roll with them later in the game.

      I would probably go with this as the two deep from here forward…

      X: North/Williams
      Z: Howard/Malone
      W: Jennings/Pearson

      Josh Smith is the tough cut as the 7th guy. He’s a very good possession receiver, but I don’t think there’s a spot for him in the top 6. Malone is much improved over last year (though I’d still like to see more from him – the potential is there) and Williams has too much talent to not play.

      I think a lot of the problem has been created because no one has stepped up and established themselves as “the guy.” North was that in 2013 to some degree. He just made plays on the outside. Pig kinda was the go to guy late in 2014. So far, those two guys only have 5 catches between them. That’s not good. Right now, no one has established themselves as the number one guy, so the coaches keep rotating through because the “number one” receiver isn’t playing any better than the “number eight” guy.

      To some degree that does fall on the coaches though. The Vols attitude towards receivers under Jones has struck me as “plug and play.” As in, Jones believes he can plug any receiver into any spot and it can work because of the scheme. There really is not much design to get any one player the ball, but a trust that the system will get someone open.

      To me, that is flawed thinking. There needs to be more design to create favorable matchups for guys like North, Howard, and Pearson who have proven that they can make plays. In this scheme, North is treated the same by the coaches as Johnathon Johnson. Don’t get me wrong, Johnson is a very respectable player, but he’s not nearly the game breaker that North is. Why won’t they get creative and scheme around North (or Howard, or Pearson) to get him the ball? Build the scheme around the players, don’t just plug the players into your predetermined scheme. The best coaches always find a way to best utilize their best players unique skill set.

      Good call on Fuente. He’s the best thing that happened to Memphis football in a long time. He’s doing good things there. Very well respected.

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    1. I think he’s done some good things. He’s a good offensive line coach and I think his addition has and will continue to help up front more than Bajakian did.

      I question some of the decisions that have been made regarding Dobbs. He doesn’t seem to be playing like himself. He looks very tight to me. Scared to run, scared to force anything. I also question why there are much fewer designed runs for Dobbs. This was something that opened up the offense a year ago and they’ve almost gone away from all designed QB keepers. I don’t know if that is DeBord or Jones deciding that, but they are being very cautious in protecting Dobbs and I think it’s holding the offense back.

      At the end of the day, I think both DeBord and Bajakian are yes-men who are tasked with managing Butch’s offense. The scheme is almost exactly the same. Bajakian is probably the better quarterback coach and DeBord the better line coach. I don’t think the change really effects us much at all to be honest.

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