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December 2, 2013

Aggie offense finally faltered under heavy load

A portion of Texas A&M's offensive plans for 2013 were seemingly unveiled at the conclusion of the 2012 season in the Cotton Bowl during the their victory over Oklahoma. The Aggies used a much more diversified running game in that contest relative to any other they had throughout the year. Although quarterback Johnny Manziel still carried the ball more than the Aggies' running backs, it was a promise that a running game that featured inside zone for the most part in 2012 would be able to attack defenses both inside and outside the following season.

The diversification of the running game continued forward into the 2013 spring practices. The Aggies had a wealth of backs and used far more two backs sets that they had the year before. They also had brought junior college tight end Cameron Clear who offered a skill set that A&M lacked the season before. He could line up in the slot and catch passes but more importantly he could be an in line tight end or even lined up in the backfield as a lead blocker.

There were more interesting twists in the passing game. The Aggies moved big outside receiver Mike Evans inside to play the slot in anticipation of freshman Ricky Seals Jones' arrival on campus and also gave playing time to two inexperienced outside receivers in Derel Walker and Edward Pope. Most of all, they decided that Johnny Manziel needed to be a passer rather than a quarterback who could run. They would not let him cross the line of scrimmage when he moved around and focused on getting him to stay in the pocket and throw the ball more.

With the exception of Evans moving back outside, they repeated all of the preceding in fall practices and into the games once the season started. The Aggies ran the ball between 39 and 45 times a game through the Auburn game which was the eighth game of the season with the exception of the Alabama game in which A&M trailed. In addition, until the Auburn game, the Aggies were typically rushing for at least 200 yards a game (with Alabama again being an exception).

In fact, the biggest differences in the offense early on were unveiled in the passing game. Manziel was holding the ball longer and going downfield more with it to Evans who had great games against man coverage versus Alabama and Auburn and very good games versus everyone else. Manziel's improved patience in the pocket and good protection enabled him to look downfield more frequently as his average per attempt soared to over ten yards per pass. Not only that, he was even more accurate in 2013 than he was in 2012 and was hitting in excess of 70% of his passes. Evans wound up the season averaging over 20 yards a catch, Walker averaged 16 yards per reception, and even slots Malcome Kennedy and Travis Labhart averaged 11 plus yards a reception.

Through ten games, the Aggies had not scored fewer than 41 points in a game and even had a couple of games where they turned the ball over excessively (five versus Vanderbilt and three versus Mississippi State). It seemed like at that point that they couldn't even stop themselves via mistakes. However, beginning with the Ole Miss game, A&M began to increasingly reliant on Manziel both in the passing game as well as the running game.

One of the oft stated goals in the pre season was to reduce the burden on Manziel and keep him healthy by having him share the load in the running game and have him run less. Against the Rebels, he ran the ball 19 times after just having nine carries versus Arkansas two weeks before and followed that up with an 18 carry game against Auburn. In contrast, he ran no more than 14 times in any other game and was usually at 12 carries or less. Also, he threw the ball 77 times in those two games and very few of them were play action passes where the defense has to respect a run fake and the pass rush is slowed. In fact, on most of them he dropped back, held the ball, and waited for someone to come open, thus opening himself up for even more hits. Thus, he became more of a target in those two games and for the first time in his career, he was banged up…a knee injury in the Ole Miss game and then a shoulder injury in the Auburn game.

He carried the ball less against a couple of overmatched teams in Vanderbilt and UTEP but even coming off of the injury against Auburn, A&M came in five receivers sets versus the Commodores and threw the ball on 10 of their opening 12 play drive. He then had 14 carries against Mississippi State to go with 39 passes and got injured again…this time the thumb on his throwing hand.

So in the three games that he was injured on various plays, Manziel handled the ball 167 times….about 53 plays a game. Now, that may not seem like a lot when you remember that he had 51 touches versus Oklahoma in the 2013 Cotton Bowl or 56 touches versus Missouri in the 2012 regular season finale. However, the quality of the hits that he was taking changed exponentially for various reasons.

First, as we said earlier, he was holding the ball longer. Since defenses tended to play more zone coverage in 2013 to defend the long ball, more eyes were on him when he took off. With multiple high safeties able to close on him, his forays up the middle became ten yard runs with hits rather than untouched 50 yarders. He had a long run of 49 yards but more importantly averaged just 5.5 yards per carry. Second, he was bigger this season but didn't appear to be as elusive. In theory, additional weight should have enabled him to take hits but Manziel is an avoid runner at his size, not a 230 pounder in the mold of Tra Carson.

In addition, as the offense became more Manziel centric with scrambles comprising a greater proportion of the running game, the supporting cast provided less support. The offensive line didn't come off of the ball as much and beginning with the Auburn game didn't have the opportunity to push people around. They became more passive and less physical and also started picking up more penalties possibly due to having to pass pro so much. Tight end Cameron Clear played less and less as A&M's passing game focused moreso on the downfield routes and carries disappeared from the running game. The backs carried the ball an insufficient amount of times to develop a groove. In the Aggies' last three games, they averaged right at 100 yards a game running the ball.

But as Manziel's injuries began to mount up, the passing game became less effective as well. Manziel hit less than 50% of his throws versus LSU and Evans had just eight yards on four receptions against Missouri. In those two games, A&M scored 31 points which was less than their worst outing of their first ten games.

In summary, the question has to be asked: why did everything change, especially after an Arkansas game in which A&M beat up a good front four to the tune of 262 yards rushing? Somewhere along the way, the Aggies decided to take more and more of Manziel and the downfield passing game to the detriment of the offense as a whole. Although it's hard to question the results based on the first ten games of the season, the seeds of the issues that blossomed versus LSU and Missouri were planted far earlier in the season. Also, they continued to do this even after he started feeling the effects of his injuries. It wasn't until the Missouri game that A&M threw the shorter routes in the offense and depended more on the running backs to carry the load in the running game. In fact, if you'll go back with me to the spring for a minute, A&M threw the shorter routes quite a bit, particularly to Evans. In the Rice game, slots Malcome Kennedy, Seals Jones, and Sabian Holmes had more catches than the outside receivers.

The bottom line is that offense engorged itself on the downfield passing game more and more as the season went on due to increasing success and didn't realize when that approach plateaued. But ultimately, it's hard to blame the approach given the fact that the defense ranked 81st or worse nationally in all four major categories. The Aggies had to take the approach that they had to outscore people and the most productive part of the team was built around the downfield passing game.

Tomorrow, we'll take a look at how things will be different in this unit for 2014.

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