Game Preview: The Tennessee Offense

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee, under new head coach Butch Jones, runs a variation of the spread offense, operating mostly out of 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight-end, and 3 receivers). They’re a run first offense, ranking 37th in the FBS in rushing, but only 109th in passing.

As has been the case with most of Alabama’s recent opponents, the Volunteers are weak at the quarterback position. It has been a struggle for first year starter Justin Worley, as he has only completed 55.8 percent of his passes, and his yards per attempts sits at a below average 6.2. He is talented, to be sure, but he struggles going through his progressions and is mistake prone. If his primary read isn’t there, it’s almost always an adventure. Worley has some mobility, but seems to be hesitant to keep the ball on read option plays – prompting the coaching staff to encouragement him to do more of that, if only to force the defense to respect it.

The strength of this offense is their running game, which features senior running back Rajion Neal. Neal has played very well this year, rushing for 693 yards (5.3 YPC) to go along with eight touchdowns. He’s also a receiving threat, having hauled in 16 catches to date. He’s mostly a between the tackles runner, but if the defensive ends and outside backers fail to contain the edge, Neal is a threat to turn the corner. Backing him up is junior Marlin Lane who is also off to a good start this year, rushing for 335 yards (5.9 YPC) and 4 touchdowns. Expect Neal to get roughly 65-70 percent of the carries, with Lane getting the rest.

Neal and Lane run behind what may very well be the best offensive line in the SEC, and is, at the very least, in the top five. Their best player is left tackle and preseason first team All-SEC selection Antonio Richardson. He’s widely considered to be a mid-first round selection in next April’s NFL draft. If you watched Tennessee’s most recent game you probably came away unimpressed with Richardson – Clowney ate his lunch and then some – but he’s a much better player than that and you can expect a stronger showing this week. At the other tackle is Ja’Waun James, an All-SEC second team selection. The interior of the line is also a strength, with another All-SEC second team selection Zach Fulton at right guard and Alex Bullard at left guard. All-SEC third team selection James Stone plays center. This will certainly be the toughest test for the Alabama defensive line since the Texas A&M game, and it may very well turn out to be even more of a challenge than that.

Despite losing a ton of talented and productive pass catchers to the NFL this past April, Tennessee still is solid at wide receiver. Sophomore Pig Howard is the player most deserving of Alabama’s attention on Saturday. Howard lines up exclusively in the slot, and is a threat in both the passing game and the running game. On the season Howard has 23 receptions for 251 yards (10.9 YPC), to go along with 3 touchdowns. He also has 72 rushing yards, and one huge fumble against Georgia in overtime when he was trying to stretch the ball over the goal-line. For an underclassman Howard’s route running is polished, and he’s a threat both in the short and intermediate/deep passing game. Tennessee will move Howard around a lot – something Alabama has seen their last two opponents do with their slot receiver.

In addition to Howard, freshman Marquez North is a major threat on the outside. North will line up at either the X or Z position, and will present a significant challenge to whichever Alabama corner opposes him. To date North has 21 receptions for 281 yards (13.4 YPC) and one touchdown, but he’s getting better as the season progresses. He had his coming out party last week against South Carolina, going for over 100 yards, which included a spectacular one handed grab on a deep ball to setup the game winning field goal. At this point in his development North’s route tree is still pretty limited, so look for him to mostly run deep routes (go routes, posts, and corners) and comebacks. Josh Smith and Jason Croom will see time at third and fourth receiver, while Brandon Downs is the primary tight-end. All three are solid players.

The Tennessee offense essentially breaks down into three parts. The first is their zone rushing attack, which features both inside and outside zone plays. Similar to Alabama, this allows their talented offense to exert their will at the point of attack, driving the defensive line off the ball and opening up creases for the running backs. I discuss the inside and outside zone in more detail HERE and HERE. To go along with basic zone plays, Tennessee will also mix up some read option plays, generally zone reads. The zone read essentially boils down to the quarterback reading an unblocked, backside defender – if the defender crashes inside, the QB runs to the area vacated, but if he stays outside, the QB gives the ball to the running back. There’s a bit more to it, of course, but that’s the basic version. Worley is usually unwilling to keep the ball himself on these plays, but if the defense completely fails to contain the backside you can bet Worley will take advantage.

The second part of their offense is Pig Howard, and all the different ways in which Tennessee uses him. On their third drive against Georgia, in their game a few weeks ago, we saw them use Howard as a focal point of five different plays, only one of which involved the ball being thrown to him. Lets take a look at all five, in order to better understand his versatility.

Lets start out with a play that features him as a receiver. The play begins at the 15:00 mark of the second quarter and at 0:40:39 of the VIDEO. Here’s my sketch of the play:

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In a rare moment Tennessee has their quarterback under center, one running back, a tight-end to the left, two receivers to the left (including Howard, lined up at the H), and one receiver to the right. Georgia counters with their 4-2-5 nickel package.

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Before the snap the X-receiver comes in motion, and Worley fakes the handoff to the running back …

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… and then fakes the handoff to the X-receiver.

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This essentially boils down to a two man route, an easy way for Tennessee to keep things as simple as possible for Worley on a first down play-action pass. The Z-receiver (the primary option on the play) is running a post pattern and the H (Howard) is running a crossing pattern. Georgia is in a deep zone, and they react to this route combination by taking away the Z. This allows Howard to run into the area cleared out by the Z, and Worley finds him for a nice gain on the first down.

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Worley’s progression is very easy on this play, and it allows Tennessee’s skill position players to make plays down the field. We’ll see more of this later.

On the next play Tennessee gets to the line quickly without substituting, as they often do following a first down. This is a fly-sweep for Howard. The play begins at 14:42 mark of the second quarter and at 0:41:11 of the VIDEO. Here’s my sketch of the play:

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For Tennessee the only difference is that Worley is back in shotgun, they’ve flipped the X and Z receivers, and the Y is now on the right side. Georgia is forced to stay in the exact same formation.

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Before the snap Howard comes in motion and takes the handoff from Worley.

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The play is blocked up nicely, with the backside offensive tackle, center, play-side offensive guard, and play-side offensive tackle taking care of all the defensive linemen aside from the play-side defensive end, who reacts to the fly-sweep by widening out. The backside guard moves up to the second level, but isn’t quick enough to take care of either backer. The tight-end blocks the aforementioned play-side defensive end and the running back blocks the play-side backer.

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Howard’s target point is the outside shoulder of the tight end, and while Georgia strings the play out to the edge and prevents a big gain, Tennessee still manages to stay ahead of the chains.

A few plays later, on a first down, Tennessee still has their same personnel on the field. This is a reverse. The play occurs at the 12:54 mark of the second quarter and at 0:43:39 of the VIDEO. Here’s my sketch of the play:

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Worley is in the shotgun, but this time Howard is in the slot to the right of the formation. Georgia is still in their 4-2-5 nickel formation.

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Worley takes the snap and hands the ball off to Neal, running right, while the entire offensive line zone blocks to the right. At the same time, Howard, who had initially taken a step forward, reverses direction and starts back to his left.

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Neal flips the ball to Howard, who’s in full stride. Left tackle Antonio Richardson, who had originally been zone blocking to his right, leaks out to his left and acts as a lead blocker for Howard. Worley is also out there as well. The entire Georgia front was fooled, having flowed in the wrong direction.

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Howard has open field in front of him, and he picks up a big chunk of yardage. Only the speed of the Georgia backers in pursuit prevents an even bigger gain.

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Howard then gets subbed out, only to be subbed back in immediately after the next play. This time Tennessee uses him as a decoy. The play begins at the 11:41 mark of the second quarter and at 0:45:00 of the VIDEO. Here’s my sketch of the play.

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Tennessee has four wide receivers, in a 2X2 formation. Howard is lined up in the slot to the left. Georgia is in their 4-1-6 dime formation.

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Before the snap Howard comes in motion, so immediately it looks like another fly-sweep. But this time it’s a fake handoff, and a play-action pass.

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This isn’t a screen play (there are no lead blockers for Neal), but it’s essentially a one man route, with Neal being the only option. The other three receivers are simply running fly patterns, in order to clear out space underneath. Unfortunately for Tennessee the Georgia backer (#52) makes the proper read almost immediately, and blows up the play.

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Had that not happened – and in a lot of situations it wouldn’t – Neal is going to easily pick up the first down and will be in a position where if he makes one defender miss in space, it’s a walk-in touchdown.

Following a facemask penalty on Georgia, resulting in a Tennessee first down, both teams substitute. Again Howard is used as a decoy. The play occurs at the 11:14 mark of the second quarter and at 0:46:02 of the VIDEO. Here’s my sketch of the play:

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Tennessee returns to 11 personnel, with the tight-end to the right and Howard in the slot to the left of the formation. Georgia counters with their base 3-4, with the backers shifted over to the strong side of the offensive formation.

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Before the snap Howard comes in motion, but this time it’s a simple inside zone play for the running back. Neal’s target is the outside hip of the left guard.

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Once again this is a good play by the backers, who only hesitate for a moment before flowing to the play-side. But had an offensive lineman reached the second level in time and sealed off the backside, that moment of hesitation would’ve resulted in a Tennessee touchdown. Instead the right guard is too late, and play results in a minimal gain.

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At this point it should be pretty easy to imagine the sort of issues that this series of plays presents for the defense. First, Howard is a dynamic and versatile player, effective both as a receiver and runner. Second, the defense is constantly shown similar looks, all with built in traps that the offense is hoping the defense falls into. As is the theme with facing these spread offenses, gap control is absolutely essential. If one defender over-pursues any aspect of the play, that typically means a sizable gain for the offense.

The third part of their offense is their newfound vertical passing game, centered largely on Marquez North. Had I written this preview a few weeks ago I would’ve stopped after the first two parts, but North’s recent production is impossible to ignore. At this point in the freshman’s career there’s little diversity in his game, but his physical skills make for a very tough cover. He’s long and physical, with excellent ball skills and an impressive catch radius. No play breakdowns are really necessary here, but I just want to show you three examples of North’s ability.

First, skip to 1:03:26 of the VIDEO – this is a simple comeback route where North shows off his skills after the catch.

Second, skip to 0:21:38 of the VIDEO – this is a fly pattern where North makes a tremendous adjustment to the ball and shows off excellent footwork on the sideline.

Third, skip to 0:46 of the VIDEO – this is the one handed grab I mentioned earlier.

What holds the Tennessee offense back is the same thing that holds back so many of the other offenses Alabama has faced this year – quarterback play. But outside of Texas A&M and maybe Ole Miss, this is the best group of skill position players and offensive linemen that Alabama has seen to date. So if Worley gets hot and the Alabama defense doesn’t play with the discipline that we’ve come to expect – admittedly, two big ifs – this could turn out to be a closer game than I’m sure many of us are anticipating.

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