Anyone familiar with SEC football has heard the narrative – Tennessee can’t close out games. As of now, they sit at 2-3, with all three losses coming after the Vols led by 14 or more. The latest meltdown came Saturday versus Arkansas, when the Vols blew a 14-0 lead and eventually fell 24-20. While the defense has issues of its own, the biggest issue has been the offense. Josh Dobbs and the passing game have not lived up to expectations and star running back Jalen Hurd has been left to try to win games on his own.
Many fans have been quick to criticize offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, but I actually believe that this was one of his best gameplans so far. Last week, we discussed how there were lots of holes in Florida’s zone defense and openings in the passing game were available. However, the Vols made no effort to stretch the field vertically, and Florida was able to devote all their resources to stopping the Vols’ dangerous rushing attack.
This week, DeBord noticed the same type of weaknesses in the Arkansas pass defense, and this time he was not shy about attacking. The playcalling was very balanced and DeBord did a good job of taking what the Razorbacks gave him. Dobbs had by far his best game of the year through the air, throwing for 232 yards.
If it looked like Florida’s defense was vulnerable to the pass, Arkansas was much more so. The Razorbacks played mostly soft zone coverage with two deep safeties, and the quick routes were open all night. The flat was especially weak, and this is where DeBord attacked the most.
Two of my favorite plays that DeBord used to attack the flat were never shown before by DeBord.
First up is the mesh concept. We have covered this in-depth before when looking at the Philadelphia Eagles. One of the reasons the mesh route works is because with multiple receivers running through the same area, it creates natural rubs on defenders. The Vols run this play a little differently than the Eagles do, but the general concept and reads are the same for the quarterback. Here, Jalen Hurd released out of the backfield into the flat and was wide open. There were three receivers to the playside here, and all of them moving inside made it impossible for a defender to cover Hurd.
The other new, well-designed play I saw was a rollout for Dobbs, designed to dump the ball in the flat to Alvin Kamara. This play came out of a split back shotgun formation. The playaction fake is designed to look like split zone, with the line moving one way and Kamara moving in the opposite direction to kick out the defensive end. Instead, Dobbs pulls the ball and rolls away from the run and Kamara bypasses the end and slips into the flat. With the linebackers held by the run fake, Kamara was wide open in the flat each time the Vols went to this play. While Tennessee has shown similar looks, they have never run this play this way from this formation, and the player slipping to the flat has always been a tight end or fullback. By using Kamara instead, the Vols get the ball to a much more dangerous playmaker.
Even when the short pass to the flat wasn’t the playcall, Dobbs was able to find open receivers there. Multiple times he checked down to his back in the flat, and the runner usually had lots of open space in front of him.
Many Tennessee fans have long been calling for the team to utilize the middle of the field more and try some slant passes. DeBord finally did this some, and Tennessee hit the open slant multiple times.
One of Dobbs’ best passes of the night came on the Vols first drive when Tennessee converted a 3rd and six on a pass that Dobbs placed perfectly between two defenders to Josh Smith.
Another really well-designed play utilized the slant route in the second half. One of Tennessee’s favorite screen passes has the running back go in motion to the sideline before the snap, then the quarterback will throw to him on a swing route. DeBord drew up a counter to this screen by having Dobbs pump fake to the back and have a slant route behind it. Two Arkansas defenders jumped the screen, and slot receiver Von Pearson was wide open on the slant.
But for all the good you have seen through these clips, there is one thing noticeably missing – the deep ball. Joshua Dobbs does a lot of things well, but throw deep downfield is something he is having a lot of trouble with. By my count, only 8 of 36 pass attempts were 12 yards or more downfield and only 2 of those 8 were completed. This is not good. Dobbs completed 20 of 28 when he was throwing 11 yards downfield or less, but his percentage fell off a cliff when he threw any deeper.
A good spread offense must be able to stretch a defense both horizontally and vertically. Tennessee did the job horizontally, running the ball well and completing passes to receivers from sideline to sideline. But Arkansas (or anyone else Tennessee has or will play this season) has no reason right now to respect downfield passes. This is limiting the offense as a whole because defenses can focus on taking away the short stuff.
Also, with no long passes, big plays are pretty much limited to Hurd breaking tackles and making plays on his own. Without big plays, the offense has to put together long, consistent drives, and they have struggled to do that.
When was the last time you remember Dobbs completing a deep go or fade pass down the sideline versus a decent opponent? I’m struggling to answer that question. Throwing long passes down the sideline has been all but a certain incomplete pass since Dobbs took over at quarterback. Saturday was no different, as Dobbs missed both shots he took deep downfield.
The final deep pass was the last chance Tennessee had, as DeBord inexplicably called for all vertical routes on the Vols final offensive snap. I do understand that it was 4th and 13, but you have to call a route that your quarterback is comfortable with, not one that he only completes once in a blue moon. The deep pass to Josh Malone was inaccurate and actually landed out of bounds, ending the Vols hopes of a comeback.
Even on passes that aren’t too deep downfield, Dobbs is struggling. He missed Malone badly on two 12 yard curl routes. The second one especially came at a critical time, as a completion would’ve given the Vols a first down inside the 15 yard line. The defender actually fell down, so an accurate pass could’ve ended up as a game-tying touchdown. Instead, they faced a third and long and eventually had to settle for a field goal.
Right now, Dobbs just isn’t doing anything to inspire DeBord or Jones with confidence in the passing game. Almost all vertical passes are incomplete. Of course, all can’t be blamed on Dobbs. Preston Williams dropped a catchable (though slightly inaccurate) deep pass, and as a whole, the Vols receivers struggle on deep routes.
Marquez North and Pig Howard were the Vols best and most experienced receivers coming into the year, but neither has produced much at all. North has missed games with injury issues, and has been underutilized when he has played. Howard missed multiple games and was today dismissed from the team for a violation of team rules. It’s easy to blame Dobbs for the problems, but it’s fair to say the receivers have underperformed as well.
However, Dobbs’ performance has to be concerning for Tennessee fans. He looks very tight and robotic this season. Last year he ran all over the place and looked loose. The result was a very effective player. Now he looks like everything has been overcomplicated for him. Dobbs is very smart, but I wonder if the coaches have overwhelmed him with the offense and may have actually hurt him by overcomplicating things. Unfortunately, the Vols are not getting good quarterback play right now, and that is the biggest thing holding the offense back.
So what can DeBord do to help? Dobbs isn’t going to turn into a deep ball maestro overnight, but there are some steps the Vols can take to help him out. A coach has the responsibility to put his players in the best possible position to succeed. After watching Dobbs, it is very clear that he is at his best when things are simple and he can make plays with his legs. He ran the ball very well in 2014, and tore up Florida on the ground last week. One of the biggest conclusions I came to after watching the Florida game is that the offense is at its best when Dobbs is running. He plays loose and that is what the Vols want: A comfortable quarterback playing his game.
However, for whatever reason DeBord has been very reluctant to let Dobbs carry the ball much. Maybe it is the fear of injury. I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter. Dobbs as an individual and the team as a whole is better when Dobbs is putting stress on a defense as a runner.
Against Arkansas, someone viewing the game would’ve never even known that Dobbs is a dynamic athlete. Only twice all game did Dobbs even keep the ball on designed quarterback keepers (not including a quarterback sneak).
There are a few reasons that letting Dobbs run is a good idea. First, it seems to help him get in rhythm and play loose. When Dobbs is running around and playing loose, he is better as a passer as well. Second, as mentioned, his athleticism is his biggest strength. Very few quarterbacks can run like Dobbs. Not letting him use his talent is wasting a valuable asset. Finally, it will open up the offense for others. A running quarterback changes everything a defense does. It shifts the numbers in the offense’s favor. Linebackers won’t be so quick to attack Hurd when they fear that Dobbs might still have the ball. Hurd had a fantastic game once again, but he was rendered ineffective in the second half when Arkansas knew Dobbs wasn’t going to keep the ball and began running stunts up front designed to attack Hurd. Tennessee basically run no handoff/keep option plays on Saturday. The coaches either called for a handoff or a keep. The option game puts even more stress on a defense and, again, shifts the numbers in the offense’s favor.
Overall, it is becoming increasingly frustrating to watch the Vols because it feels as if they are so close to success but just can’t find it. There are some real issues with the offense right now and I don’t believe they are just going to go away overnight. DeBord has done some good things, but his gameplans must be improved. Of course the players have to at some point make plays, and besides Hurd and Ethan Wolf, not many guys have lived up to expectations. But eventually, you have to look at the coaches and wonder why so many highly touted players aren’t living up to their potential. Are players being put in the best possible positions to succeed? Has the scheme been overcomplicated to the point that players are playing tight? As in most situations, the blame can’t all be placed on one guy. The solution isn’t simple either. DeBord, Dobbs, and the offense as a whole must all get on the same page and start playing better before it’s too late.