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USC Football 2017: Tee Martin’s offensive play calling

There may be a bigger problem for the USC offense.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The USC Trojans offense has been a disappointment. They had a good day running the ball against Western Michigan, a balanced attack against Stanford and then a woeful three or four quality offensive drives in the last 3 games. The offense in other words, has been bad. It is hard to pin on just one thing that has caused such a dramatic reversal from a season ago but the dropoff has been staggering. Just take a look at the drive results from the last 3 games.

Drive results against Texas
Drive results against Cal
Drive results against Washington State

A combination of occasional explosive offensive plays and consistent takeaways in enemy territory from their defense has allowed them to score 84 points in those three games. The offense, however, just cannot seem to actually drive the ball down the field producing 24 points on actual drives in 3 games since Stanford. That is an average of 8 points per game the last 3 games. That is downright sad.

Darnold was the Heisman Frontrunner, Ronald Jones II was a complete back with explosive capabilities that allowed the Trojans to score from anywhere on the field and Deontay Burnett was next in a long line of elite Trojans wide receivers. Big things were on the horizon but now everyone seems to have their explanation as to why it is going all wrong and plenty of blame is spread around.

USC Wide Receivers are struggling to make an impact:

The 2017 group of USC pass catchers is certainly a far cry from the 2016 group. Certainly replacing guys like Juju Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, who accounted for over 40% of the receiving production, was not going to be easy or quick. This unit, however, is plagued with injuries, inconsistencies, a staggering amount of dropped passes, and an alarming number of younger players who still have not learned the playbook.

Sam Darnold has some serious but not insurmountable issues:

Maybe it is his new throwing motion, maybe it is his footwork, maybe it is the confidence issues, maybe it is something else but when Darnold throws the ball from the pocket more than 6 or 7 yards past the line of scrimmage he is almost always off target. He was hitting those throws when he was moving around and throwing on the run last season. This means all obvious passing situations for USC at this point are basically dead in the water. If USC doesn’t stay on schedule the drive is dead. If they can get to 3rd and manageable they can keep the chains moving in theory.

Even worse Darnold still has a tendency to stare receivers down the entire way without even an attempt to look off to the other side of the field to try and keep the defensive backs honest. This gives defenders plenty of time to adjust and get to the ball. It also almost guarantees that Darnold will be throwing an innaccurate ball into heavy traffic.

It is easy to see why the USC offense is struggling:

On shorter throws the performance of many of the wide receivers makes it difficult to move the ball and stay on schedule when they are out of position, dropping passes, or not shaking defenders and aggressively getting after the ball. The result is far too many obvious passing situations (3rd and anything more than 5 or 6). Once the Trojans are in an obvious passing situation and Darnold is in the pocket he will likely be throwing an inaccurate ball towards a very heavily covered wide receiver.

With the passing game stuck in neutral and not needing nearly as many defenders to stop it defenses are freed up to put 7 or more defenders in the box and aggressively bring as much pressure with as many different looks as they can think of. This of course neutralizes the running game and puts strain on the offensive linemen who have seven or more guys crashing the line of scrimmage on every play. The offensive line has predictably struggled and the potent running game has stalled.

The players need to improve but that is ultimately not the problem:

Some of this is the fault of the players to be sure. USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin however places much, if not most, of the blame on the players not executing. The coaches recruited these wide receivers and are responsible for their development along with Darnold’s development as well. Furthermore, college football players are young, unpolished, and mistake prone. Most players will never make it in the NFL and the few that do usually need quite a while to get prepared to compete in the pros. In other words, if you are going to be a college coach you need to be able to win with mistake prone youth that do not execute at an NFL level. If your game plan requires this from your college players then your game plan is bad. And here we have arrived at the real reason the USC offense has disappointed -- Tee Martin, Clay Helton, and the rest of the offensive coaching staff have failed miserably.

The USC offense is myopic, predictable, and easy to contain:

Tee Martin and the USC offense has yet to establish more than 3 consistently viable offensive threats in a game outside of the Stanford contest. Usually it is only two threats the defense has to worry about. That makes it very easy for defenses to blanket Burnett, provide bare minimum coverage to any other receivers and use the remaining 7 or 8 defenders to crash the box. For those of you wondering what happened to the running game or why the line started to struggle seemingly out of nowhere, this is why. The Trojans have 5 offensive linemen and on literally almost every play the defense is bringing intense, physical pressure from seven to nine players in the box. There is no way the offensive line, even when fully healthy, can consistently open up running lanes or keep Darnold upright when he stays in the pocket. Unless USC can establish a robust passing attack, this will keep happening.

It is a pretty simple defensive formula that everyone is going to pattern in some way as long as it keeps working and that should be an advantage for the Trojans. Imagine knowing almost exactly what the defense is going to do, or at least the broad strokes, before you even begin to watch film and create your offensive game plan. That would seem like a massive gift to an offensive coordinator and yet for the last three games Tee Martin, armed with this knowledge, continues to serve up an offense destined to fail. The offense continues to do the same things over and over, never break tendencies, and fail to put the players in a position to succeed.

Here is the bulk of the USC playbook at this point: most of the time run out of a 3 receiver set with the TE close on the line and one running back with the QB either in shotgun or pistol formation.

  1. Run between the tackles usually to the same spot and into a loaded box
  2. Quick pass underneath 6 yards or closer to the line of scrimmage to 2 players
  3. Deep pass thrown inaccurately and into traffic
  4. Begrudgingly throw to someone else only on occasion and abandon it afterwards

Seriously, this is pretty much it. Occasionally they will mix up the formation in a failed attempt to disguise the plays but this is pretty much the entire offense at this point. No disrespect to any defensive coordinators out there but you do not need to be a defensive mastermind to figure this offense out. In addition to this hopeless simplicity there are five major detriments that plague Martin’s offense and none of them have to do with a failure to execute:

  1. Painfully predictable tendencies
  2. Poor formations that make things easier on the defense
  3. Failing to use players’ strengths and sometimes failing to use players at all
  4. Poor play design and a failure to properly set up plays
  5. Near total inability to disguise plays or trick the defense

Rarely or never breaking predictable tendencies:

Opposing defenses have a pretty good idea what the USC offense is going to do with disturbing frequency, this is largely the result of having such a tiny playbook at this point. Tee Martin can blame execution all he wants but even when the players do execute it does not help much when everyone on defense knows what you are doing presnap.

Counterproductive formations that minimize offensive players and aid the defense:

Frequently Martin will line up the only two receivers Darnold is throwing to that game next to each other stacked up tight on the short side of the field greatly minimizing the amount of room they have to work with and easing the difficulty of covering both of them. Darnold’s inability to throw accurately down field makes this situation even worse as now your only two viable passing targets are contained to a roughly 6 yard by 10 yard area on one side of the field. On the other side is a receiver everyone knows will not see the ball and Tyler Petite who probably will not even run a route much less see the ball. In other words the defense only has to cover maybe a quarter of the field at most. This is just one example but there are far more.

After the interception the Trojans were at the two yard line against WSU and they failed to convert. The first play of that series is a perfect example of what I am talking about. They tucked away two of the only 3 guys the defense worried about into a small corner of the field, allowed the defense to no have to worry about covering 23 of the field, and telegraphed an inside run up the middle. Two plays later on third down they did pretty much the exact same thing just in a different set.

Failing to utilize players’ strengths and/or failure to use them at all:

One of Sam Darnold’s greatest strengths was his ability to move the pocket buy time and improvise. Defenders were forced to cover their assignments for longer periods of time because of the extended plays and receivers had more opportunities to get open and exploit a breakdown in coverage. Darnold frequently had more zip on his passes and better downfield accuracy as well when throwing on the move. Lately, however, Darnold has spent more time in the pocket against loaded defensive fronts bringing heavy pressure. The result is that Darnold’s strengths are taken out of the play and passes are getting disrupted. Couple this with Darnold’s issues and it is a recipe for a mediocre or downright bad passing offense.

Tight End Tyler Petite is another fine example. Petite is a reliable receiver when Darnold actually gets the ball near him but the Trojans hardly throw to him. Darnold has thrown the ball to Petite only 20 times this season despite Petite being one of only three receiving targets to have been healthy enough to play in every game this season (Burnett is one who is dealing with a shoulder injury and Carr was the other despite leaving the WSU game early and likely missing the Oregon State game). Of those 20 passes approximately 15 or 16 were actually catchable balls and Petite has come down with 12 of them.

Yet, with the exception of the Cal game (when half of the entire wr 3-deep was out with injury) Petite has been been non-existent in the passing game. Frequently they will line him up at tight end but then not even send him out on a passing route instead using him as a blocker. Using a tight end as a blocker is perfectly fine, expected in fact. One of the advantages of using tight ends is that you can use them as a blocker or a receiving threat and force the defense to react once the play has started and increase the possibility of a blown assignment by the defense. The problem is USC does not use him in the passing game and the defense hardly even worries about him much less bothers to react. The other problem is that Petite is not the strongest blocker either. In other words, unless they establish Petite as a passing threat that the defense has to account for, Petite is a bit of dead weight and there is not much reason to have him on the field. Martin either needs to get Petite far more involved in the passing game or just put in a reserve lineman as a blocking tight end.

One of the nation’s best offensive weapons has been neutralized:

Ronald Jones II is an elite football player and gives USC the ability to score from anywhere on the field (he has an 86-yard TD run and a 56-yard TD reception) and can take a game over with his legs. Now that opposing defenses can stack the box without much of a threat of getting beat in the passing game, RoJo, for all of him immense talent, no longer has much of an opportunity to impact the game. He had 47 yards on 18 runs against Texas, he was out against Cal, and outside of his explosive 86-yard touchdown run Rojo gained 42 yards on 13 carries against Washington State. In his first two games Rojo combined for 304 offensive yards (rushing and receiving) and 5 touchdowns on 43 touches. That averages to 7 yards gained every time Rojo touched the ball. Compare to his last two games where he has had two amazing explosive plays resulting from lapses in the defense and 89 yards outside of those plays. Rojo for the most part is no longer an offensive threat so long as the defense plays assignment sound football.

Find new ways to get Ronald Jones involved:

If it is true that Jones is a more complete back this season and an excellent option as a receiver as Clay Helton led us to believe back in the summer then why has Tee Martin not thrown him the ball more? Martin continues to slam Jones and Carr into a loaded defensive front for minimal effectiveness. The Trojans found success working freshman tailback Stephen Carr into the passing game but they have not done the same with Jones. In fact they have only thrown to him four times this season and that does not seem likely to change.

Much like Petite Jones is not the greatest blocker, and if you are not going to establish him as a receiving threat then there really is no need to even have him in the game during obvious passing situations. Once again on third down and anything longer than six they may as well take Jones out and put a reserve lineman in his spot, and until USC can clear out the box his impact in the running game is minimal. In other words, Tee Martin has managed to take one of the most talented offensive players in the nation and stripped him of his ability to impact a game.

Poor play design, a failure to properly set up plays, and an inability to disguise plays, confuse defenses or force defensive adjustments:

In the last couple of games in particular as you watch and rewatch the offense you really start to get a sense the the play calling really is not part of a broader scheme or plan. It almost seems as though the plays that are called are just sort of randomly thrown out there without much long term thought. Against WSU it really felt like the offensive scheme was little more than random guesses and hope.

Sadly even those random guesses were not so much random as they were fairly routine and predictable. On the rare occasion that USC does break tendencies it is quickly abandoned regardless of their success. For the most part the offense is a smothered Deontay Burnett, a neutralized running back, and a second passing threat all contained to a very small part of the field and led by a struggling QB stripped of his greatest strengths. The formation is usually 3 wide receivers, only two of whom matter, a tight end that will be used as an ineffective blocker a running back that will likely get stuffed on an inside run against a stacked box, and two wide receivers that usually cannot go more than 7 yards past the line of scrimmage in order to be effective. Any deviation of this is merely a plainly transparent disguise that the defense sees right through.

Let’s take a look at the 4th down play with under 7 minutes remaining in the game against Washington State as an excellent example:

6:22 left in the fourth quarter the Trojans trail by seven with the ball at the Cougars’ 42 yard line on 4th and 13.

Darnold is out of the shotgun with Rojo in the backfield Joseph Lewis IV is lined up wide to the left with Burnett just behind him. Wide to the right is Petite with Tyler Vaughns right behind him. At first glance this sounds promising even though the Trojans have been anemic all night in obvious passing situations but there was a chance here to break tendencies, catch the defense out of position and get a big play. Upon closer review though and it is pretty clear that we are looking at little more than drab window dressing on another business as usual play with plenty of dead weight on the field.

First, the offense established that they were only going to throw to one of two players on 4th and 13 with the game on the line the same two they had been throwing to all night, Vaughns and Burnett. In a do or die situation on an obvious passing down it is clear where the ball is going. The previous 53+ minutes of the game made it pointless to try and disguise those two.

Even if it were not obvious the other three weapons on the field, Rojo, Lewis, and Petite gave little concern to the Cougars defense. Petite had not been even remotely established as a passing threat in this game. Darnold had only thrown the ball his way once all night and frequently he lined up tight on the line not out wide and ended up blocking most plays not even running routes. Now, after having almost zero relevancy in the passing game the defense is supposed to believe Petite might be getting a serious look on 4th and 13? The Cougars did not take the bait and their gamble paid off when an open Petite did not even get a glance from Darnold on the play. Petite in theory at least prevented the defense from being able to double team both Burnett and Vaughns on the play.

Second, they have only thrown the ball to Rojo 4 times on the year. It is 4th and 13 and once again the running game has stalled out save for one big play. In order to perhaps force the defense to adjust or at least allow for the theoretical possibility of Rojo impacting the game on a passing down Darnold motioned Rojo out to his right with freshman linebacker Justus Rogers a half step behind in pursuit. This motion in did take an additional pass rusher out of the box which is good, but Rogers had one tackle in the game and did not make much of an impact for the WSU defense. Rojo could have forced an actual pass defender to cover him freeing up more space for Burnett and Vaughns, but Martin’s game plan has failed to establish Jones as a receiving threat. Rojo was open as well and could have scored a touchdown on this play if they had broken tendencies and actual thrown to him. They did not though. Like Petite, Jones did not even get a look from Darnold.

Lewis on the left side could have been very interesting. On second down in the exact same series Lewis beat a double team on a deep route that could have been a touchdown with a better pass from Darnold and the offense got him worked into the game a little bit throughout the evening. The defense, actually had to account for him. Lewis could have made a huge difference on this play. That was of course until he ran a slant route two yards past the line of scrimmage and turned to look for the ball on 4th and 13. If this route was by design then that is completely inexcusable from an offensive coordinator. If it was not by design and Lewis ran the wrong route then it is still excusable but at least somewhat understandable from the freshman.

No one was fooled by the offensive alignment. The disguise attempt failed, 3 of the 5 pass catchers were irellevant to the play. Vaughns and Burnett ran crossing routes that were jammed up and the breakdown in pass protection forced an early throw from Darnold when they were right on top of each other. The throw was high and off target but Vaughns was able to make the grab. Great receiver play bailed out the coaching staff’s failures and Darnold’s off target pass.

Had Petite or Rojo been established as viable targets and Vaughns had a better route the Trojans could have done so much more with this play. Conversely since they had not established Petite or Rojo as viable passing targets they could have broken tendencies and probably scored a touchdown. Instead they did what they always do, and Tyler Vaughns, with his supposed poor execution bailed them out with the game on the line.

Use the Oregon State game to mix it up:

I don’t want to say there is zero chance that USC could lose to Oregon State, but it is highly unlikely. Tee Martin should use this home game against an inferior and injured opponent much like a scrimmage for his offense to get comfortable and in rhythm with new adjustments to the game plan. Here are a few things that Helton, Martin, and the rest of the offensive staff should focus on ahead of tough games against Utah and Notre Dame.

  1. Do not over rely on Burnett - In fact, use him as a decoy while you establish other receivers. The more certain opposing defenses are that the ball is going to Burnett the easier it is to stop. Burnett is also dealing with a shoulder injury so it might be a good idea to avoid throwing to him 15 to 20 times while he fights through double teams if you do not need to. Let him take 2 or 3 defenders out of the play and open up space for other guys.
  2. Establish Vaughns as clear WR2 and Lewis as a clear WR3 - Yes, Mitchell will almost certainly return to the WR2 spot when he is back from injury but Vaughns had a solid game against Cal and looked even better against WSU. Lewis is beginning to emerge as a solid receiver as well. Lewis and Vaughns are still young and learning but if the staff uses this opportunity to build these two into more elite players then they will pair incredibly well with Deontay Burnett and a healthy Mitchell. To do this they have to keep throwing to Vaughns and Lewis though and Martin has shown a tendency to just abandon new things even when they are working.
  3. Establish Petite and Rojo as consistent viable passing threats - These guys could provide a huge boost to the offense. If you never throw to them and the defense knows it, however, then they are just sub par blockers out there on passing downs. Imagine a USC offense that has Burnett, Mitchell and Vaughns lined up wide, a tight end that can either block or catch a pass, and a running back that can either run or be a wide receiver all led by a QB that can either run or throw. In this hypothetical dream scenario USC would have an offense with 5 receiving options and two running options with a tight end to lead blocks down field. With this many options and weapons it would be a dream come true if the defense put 7 or 8 guys in the box. Instead the defense would put 5 maybe six in the box reviving the running game. This scenario is not only a total 180 from what Martin has cooked up so far but it is also entirely possible if they get Petite and Rojo in the passing game.
  4. Get reps and targets for the younger receivers - yes its is true that Michael Pittman Jr., Velus Jones Jr., and Josh Imatorbhebhe are young players that have not exactly impressed in their limited opportunities thus far. Meanwhile guys like Trevon Sidney, Josh Falo, and Erik Krommenhoek have hardly even seen the field. The OSU game is an excellent opportunity to get these guys worked into the game and get some synergy going with Darnold. These six players have been targeted a combined 14 times all season long and it would be nice if one or two out of this group could provide some solid depth when injuries occur or to provide a different look.