Aside from the first two games and opening 17 minutes in Berkeley, you may have noticed that Ole Miss’ offensive performance report card is littered with F-minuses and “Are you still enrolled in school?” with a request for a parent-teacher conference as soon as possible. After scoring 16 points and rolling up 250 yards in those initial 17 minutes against Cal, the offense has scored 3 points and scrapped together 422 yards in the last 103 minutes.
There have been a few spurts of non-misery, but those are always undone by a streak of mistakes. For instance, at Cal, the offense collected 11 penalties, with 842 of those being false starts, which led to longer second and third downs. At Alabama, [MEMORY DELETED].
Obviously, the competition jumped up many notches, but what exactly did the more highly skilled competitors do to make life more difficult for the Ole Miss offense? To try to find an answer that isn’t just WE HIRED A DAGGUM FCS COORDINATOR I SAW THE JAMES MADISON GAME HE SUCKS, I watched all of Ole Miss’ offensive plays against Cal and the first-half plays against Alabama (I would’ve been committed to an asylum if I watched the second half).
What I saw was an offense that gets very little out of the running game, can’t pass protect, has receivers who either aren’t winning matchups or are still figuring out their reads, and is experiencing a quarterback who is struggling to make good decisions consistently. Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?
We begin with Shea Patterson’s first interception against Cal. Because of a pass for a loss of eight (EIGHT) and a false start, the Rebels are staring at the first of many third-and-long situations.
A.J. Brown is in the slot and will work his way down the seam and middle of the field. Van Jefferson is the middle receiver and will essentially run a deep hitch route, and D.K. Metcalf is either running a fly route or another hitch. Cal is playing man coverage underneath.
Patterson appears to never look anywhere other than Brown’s direction. As you can see, that is not a good direction.
While Jefferson probably doesn’t pick up the first down, it’s a much more desirable option than giving Cal the ball on Ole Miss’ 21-yard line. I’ve watched that play 15 times and I have no idea what he saw. Nothing was ever there, but that’s the only place he looked.
For most of the game, Cal only rushed four people. Partly because they knew Ole Miss couldn’t run effectively enough, and mostly because it was working. However, they always made a point to never rush from the same areas.
Ole Miss’ offensive line, tight ends, and running backs, shall we say gently, struggled to identify rushers and block them, particularly after Sean Rawlings was injured. Here, on the final drive before halftime, we see Cal sending a fourth rusher from an odd angle and fairly deep.
From what I can tell, the idea is to hit D.K. Metcalf on a quick hitch on the far side of the field. Jordan Wilkins also releases from the backfield as a safety valve.
I don’t know what Wilkins’ instructions are on this play (release if no pressure or stay if he sees a rusher), but his release means the right tackle now has two players to block.
To make things worse, Patterson hesitates in getting D.K. Metcalf the ball. Maybe he was worried about the defensive back underneath, but that player is moving towards the middle of the field and away from Metcalf.
Instead, because of that hesitation and blown protection:
Now let’s see the fruits of Cal’s labor from being able to rush four and bother Ole Miss. Because of pass protection issues, Ole Miss leaves in a tight end to help block, meaning three wide receivers are facing off with Cal’s back seven.
The good news for Ole Miss is Cal doesn’t really account for the running back after the run fake (there is a linebacker three or four yards off the screen below). Patterson never considers checking it down to the running back for easy yards, instead hoping three can beat seven, before scrambling. BONUS INFO: They did not.
Sometimes, Cal didn’t take elaborate steps to hide what they wanted to do. Before the snap, the safety’s position tips their hand.
Ole Miss actually leaves seven guys to block four, so one would think they were in pretty good position to give Patterson some time.
How did that assumption go?
Again, when a defense can rush four and Ole Miss has to leave in a running back or tight end to help block (in this case both), they are able to strangle Ole Miss’ passing game.
Cal wasn’t playing this particular coverage, but with only three receivers able to go into the pattern, Cal could theoretically double all of them, with one guy left to do whatever he wanted.
That play ended with Patterson scrambling to buy time, then throwing it out of bounds because no one could get open.
No critique of Ole Miss’ offense line and protection abilities would be complete without another team hitting them with a stunt or a delayed blitz up the middle. And, friends, Cal delivered the goods!
First, the stunt:
Second, a delayed blitz from a linebacker:
In a positive step, the tight end identifies him as a late rusher.
THE VERY NEXT PLAY.
Let’s try using the running back this time.
With a bonus whiff from the center and left guard.
Here’s how Shea Patterson saw it all go down.
Things look great here. Just gotta wait another second before a receiver gets into that window.
To close out the Cal game, it wasn’t just the offensive line/running backs/tight ends who couldn’t separate the rushers from non-rushers. Patterson’s interception was the result of him not being able to make the distinction either.
Moving on to Alabama (yay?), the Tide, fueled by their hatred for Ole Miss’ silent disrespect, also asked the visiting team to play the game of identifying which four players would pass rush.
Did Ole Miss pass that test?
About 52 screenshots ago, we saw Cal line up a safety outside the hash marks and directly over a slot receiver. This was a near-certain indication that the cornerback covering the slot receiver was going to go charging after the quarterback.
Alabama does the same thing here. So, pre-snap, you know you’ve got your best receiver on a safety and he has room to work. Now, the pressure is coming, so the ball has to come out quickly, but this should be a relatively easy throw.
A.J. Brown and Van Jefferson run shallow crosses behind the blitz and are available to receive a pass. However, Patterson locks on to Damarkus Lodge from the beginning, who has a much tougher battle to win.
If you recall, that battle did not go well! Instead of a first down, Ole Miss trailed 14-0.
On the next possession, Ole Miss has a little something cookin’, as they cross midfield (a feat I did not think possible). D’Vaugh Pennamon goes in motion beyond the numbers, while Alabama immediately brings a safety up to pressure because there is no back to protect Patterson.
Right now, Ole Miss has a 3-to-1 numbers advantage on the outside. Alabama has a 7-to-5 advantage in the box. They’re not bringing all 7, but there are 7 guys crowding the line.
As soon as the ball is snapped, it has to go to Pennamon. He’s open, has potential lead blockers, and a head start on any trailing defenders. It may not be a dynamic play, but that’s free yardage.
That feels like a simple check, but Pennamon was ignored, the safety was on top of Patterson within one second, and it was time to punt.
If you remember the drive which produced the field goal to allow Matt Luke to say he’s never been shut out as a head coach in Bryant-Denny, Patterson had a wild scramble and threw a tremendous pass (and the catch was pretty great, too) to Damarkus Lodge. This is that play, which should’ve been much easier.
A.J. Brown goes in motion around Patterson and Wilkins, which attracts the safety’s attention. This should let Patterson know there is no deep help for any defensive back.
As Patterson goes through his reads, he looks away from Lodge almost immediately, and never looks at Brown. This would be bad.
Lodge has position on his defender and a great chance to win a well-thrown deep ball. Brown has space in front of him and is looking at a solid gain to make it second-and-fine.
But Patterson is focused on Van Jefferson at the top of the screen, who is not open, and then the play breaks down.
Patterson ended up making a great play, but relying on FREELANCING AND STREETBALL (copyright: Ole Miss fans who hate Andy Kennedy) is not a great way to offense.
After the completion to Lodge and a dumb penalty by Van Jefferson, Ole Miss is still in business. It looks like they’re using a clever way to get a numbers advantage on the bubble, and thus a bubble screen.
I’m not sure what happened, but Patterson faked a pass to a wide-open Wilkins, who had room to work, as if it was a fake screen play. Yet, no receiver faked a block and ran a route. Regardless, a temporary advantage went straight into the toilet.
One final thing before this marathon comes to an end. I’ll conclude on a positive note because, believe it or not, there are things that are working.
They aren’t spectacular plays, but quality gains that prevent the third-and-long destruction machine that rips through the offense. Using the same formation as the cut block orgy play, Ole Miss slips out Dawson Knox on the bubble to create a numbers advantage.
Is it sad I’m touting a five-yard gain as a sign of hope on which to cling? YOU BET. But if Ole Miss cannot run consistently, quick-hitters and screens can help offset that. If I’m Phil Longo, I would bubble screen and do anything that reduced the time my line has to block until the opposing defensive coordinator rage-vomited through his nose.
On Monday, Longo said changes were coming. Whether it’s reducing wide receivers’ freedom in adjusting their routes based on coverage (which Patterson must recognize also) or going to plays that call for the ball to be thrown quickly, he wants to make it easier on Shea Patterson and the offensive line.
But the REAL TALK truth is, Ole Miss has pushed all its chips in on a sophomore quarterback who is wildly talented, but has played seven collegiate games. EVER (oh, and is in his second offense in two years, with vastly different responsibilities). I hate sounding like old #sprots writer, but that matters.
On top of that, and a much more serious problem, they’re asking him to carry the offense behind a line that can’t protect or run block, which wrecks almost everything, no matter who is calling plays (so, you know, the same problems as last year). And Patterson knows that he has very little time in the pocket, which means he has to quickly read what his receivers, who are in their first year of adjusting their routes,* are doing. IT’S A LOT OF PRESSURE (and unfair to him).
*This “they’re just running around looking for grass like STREETBALL” bullshit has to stop. They still run the routes they’re supposed to run, but they’re allowed to adjust depths and angles based on coverage. Not one of them is abandoning a corner route for a slant because he sees grass. That would be insanity.
Unfortunately for fans, the players, and coaching staff, getting this to click at game speed takes time, of which there is none. Whatever adjustments are made, it probably won’t matter this weekend because Auburn has the defensive personnel to overwhelm Ole Miss, but I am very interested in their development against the rest of the trash SEC.