I'm starting to think that our issues with generating offense are more of an issue with our lack of dependable bodies that execute effectively, than with Pep Hamilton's play-calling.
Think about it...
When a good amount of our personnel weren't on IR, we looked like one of the best teams in the league, and could score on anybody. Not to mention the fact that his power-run game led us to being ranked pretty high in the rushing rankings for the first half of the season. Man, I still dream about that San Fran game.
His job was to protect Luck, run the ball, and score. And he did that pretty successfully during the first half of the season.
Where we started to see a failure was when many of those key pieces started going down. More specifically, Wayne and Thomas. I took the liberty of going back and re-watching s a few, (okay pretty much all) of our past games, and while Pep has had a few WTF PEP!! calls, his gameplan, due to Reggie's absence, and the terrible line play, was forced considerably. He was calling the game to keep Luck alive.
Many called for Pep to start to "air-out" the ball more.
- The issue with this is that it puts Luck into way more danger that we realize. When your line is leaking as much as ours is, dropping back for Manning-like attempts is suicide.
- The other issue with throwing the ball more, is well....our receivers (or those eligible to receive) did not execute/weren't a threat. Prior to this week, we had Hilton, Fleener, DHB, Richardson, Brown, Whalen, Reed, Havili, Doyle, and Saunders. (I am probably leaving someone out)
In most of the plays I watched, when DHB, Hilton, Fleener, Richardson/Brown, Havili/Saunders/Doyle/Whalen are in the game, some significant things happen.
# 1 - The opposing defense brackets Hilton and plays him tight
#2 - They single up on DHB and bump him off the line (they almost dare him to catch the ball)
#3 - Fleener will usually draw a LB with a safety or CB nearby
#4 - Havili is usually not in the game...however, in the event he is, he's either in pass protect mode, or he will be in a dumpoff
#5 - Richardson/Brown are usually in to protect since our oline is porous and they usually send an LB/DL on a delay or stunt right across Satele's face.
#6 - Whalen/Brazil/Some other WR usually gets covered by a slot CB and cannot get separation since they play tight, and there's help overhead.
When all of this happens, Luck drops back to pass...he looks to Hilton (covered), Fleener (covered), DHB (covered), Other TE/WR/FB (Covered), Richardson/Brown (either blocking, get hung up trying to get out into a hole, which messes up timing). So he holds the ball waiting for someone to come open.
Usually DHB will eventually get some daylight...and will drop the ball, run the wrong route/not turn around, or Luck will get hit/throw the ball away.
In the times that Fleener gets open, he usually catches the ball, but mainly after coming back in off his route (which is why a lot of his completions are for 3 yrds or something). When he is able to get separation during a route, those are usually the times we have a decent gain.
Hilton will either burn someone badly for a huge gain, or will be mainly invisible (thats more to do with the coverages he draws/his size, than his execution...he gets held, ALOT)
Brown/Richardson will usually get out for a small gain with the dumpoff.
The other TE/WR/FB - If its Saunders, Doyle, or Whalen...they usually won't get open unless someone screws up a coverage. The only person in this instance that can reliably get open is Havili, but he's not always in the game.
So, out of all of the targets Luck has to throw to...many of them cannot reliably get separation, and the ones that do are in dumpoffs...so the field shrinks. In the event they do get open during a route - they drop the pass.
What Pep started to do as a way to combat that, was to run the ball and try and utilize the play-action as a way of generating separation for the receivers. (the 2min drill also works to this effect) If the line keeps Luck clean, this usually does the trick in getting us a nice completion, (that is, if they don't drop the pass).
It's crazy to go back and watch, because when Wayne was still in...he was the one who drew the double coverage. He was also the guy who understood defensive coverages, and could tell when he needed to break off a route to make things happen. Once he went down, Luck no longer had someone who could not only draw the double teams, but beat them while being the emergency outlet. Wayne was largely the reason why TY had a chance to burn so many people. He automagically spread the field and provided more areas in which other players could work. He also masked many of the problems with the line, since Luck knew he would get open and could put the ball out there for Wayne to get it.
Pep no longer had someone that could be that outlet for Luck. That could read what the defense is giving him, and make adjustments on the fly. None of the current crop of receivers can do that, which is why many of our drives would stall out. I dont think we fully appreciate how much "optioning" Pep gave Luck/Wayne. It was truly a centerpiece of the offense, and when Wayne went...so did our advantage. No other player has that in-game intelligence yet, which is why we've had the problems we had. As a way of trying to keep Luck alive,Pep would set up those jumbo formations and try to run the ball. The line has just sucked, so we couldn't really depend on that as an option for moving the offense down the field.
Where I do find fault with Pep is in how long he stuck with those jumbo formations before finally trying to pass out of them / run out of a few other formations (shotgun, single-back). However, once most of the opposing defenses figured out how to shut down the Colts passing game (credit the Rams for providing the blueprint), it didn't really matter. Most of the time, they'd be able to stand up our O-Line with their front D-line, and utilize their LBs and additional DBs to provide pursuit/penetration. We wouldn't stand a chance.
So, what changed?
We actually had someone who could not only catch the ball. But once they were able to provide a long gain, they stretched the field as well. The Bengals could no longer just lock down Da'Rick in man coverage because he's big enough to fight through tight coverage, and fast enough to speed past a DB. There was no greater example of this, than when the CB, who was used to covering DHB, drew Rogers. Usually, when covering DHB, they'd be a little physical and it would slow him down enough to mess up the route. With Rogers, that same DB tried playing tight and got burned. In fact, as soon as he realized he couldn't play Rogers the same way he panicked and drew the PI call.
Once the Bengals realized this something interesting happened. They started pulling their safeties back to provide additional coverage. What this helped to do was to pull three potential disruptive defenders out of the play.
So, why is that important.
Matchups. With those additional bodies gone, Pep now had room to work his other players in underneath. Fleener now only had to beat an LB to gain separation. Brazill only had to beat his guy to gain separation without the worry of a safety coming in for support. The only person that seemed not to be affected by this was TY...(however, I suspect this has more to do with a nagging injury than anything else). When you have someone like Rogers who can actually stretch the field it gives your offense a great matchups to work with. Also of note, once Da'Rick established himself as a threat (and was actually in the game), the field opened up and we started to score. Its crazy to see how one person changes the entire dynamic of an offense, but the All-22 tape showed it, plain as day.
- Rogers and Hilton big play threat freeze a safety and take CBs in coverage. (One of them will get single coverage unless they pull the other safety)
- Brazil now only has a slot DB or LB to beat. (If the DB is back in coverage preventing the big play he's got an LB)
- Fleener now only has a LB to beat
- Brown/TR draw a LB
- This leaves 4 DLs and 1 LB, or 3 DLs and 2 LBs (MUCH easier to block, previously we were always short a man because opposing defenses had safeties come down into the box.) There was no threat of the big play once TY was bracketed. This was also compounded by the fact that opposing defenses could generate pressure which wouldn't leave enough time for the routes to develop.
SO....the moral of all this?
#1 - Sometimes Pep makes WTF calls, but they aren't as abundant as it may seem...our receivers couldn't get separation, and the only one who could reliably...couldn't catch a cold in a Kindergarten germ factory. Kids are sticky.
#2 - Da'Rick elevates the offense. People, all of a sudden, can get open. The field stretches a lot.
#3 - Luck DID NOT trust his receivers until Rogers opened up the field. You could tell he was always trying to get it right on the money - in the chest. I would suspect this has more to do with the dropping problem than anything else.
#4 - Our problem was always more of an execution problem than gameplan problem. Pep's offense works...and is pretty deadly when people are executing effectively.
#5 - Blame everything on Jeff Fisher. Seriously. Everyone started to mimic what he did to us during that Rams game in week 10. I hate that guy.