Thursday, September 26, 2013
LSU opens up its offense
By Kevin Weidl
I will be in Athens, Ga., on Saturday to take a close look at LSU and Georgia. Being two of the premier SEC programs, it comes as no surprise that there will an abundance of prospects at Sanford Stadium. A pair of senior quarterbacks squaring off, Georgia's Aaron Murray and LSU's Zach Mettenberger, is one the bigger storylines. Both are off to hot starts but face their toughest challenge to date. Scouts will undoubtedly be taking a thorough look at this tape as the draft process progresses.
I should note that there will also be an absurd collection of talented running backs on one field. While none of them are draft eligible, Georgia's Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and LSU's Jeremy Hill should all be playing on Sundays in the future.
In preparation for the game, I had a chance to sit down and take a peek at the coaches' copy tape of the LSU offense. Below are some things I found during my film study.
LSU OFFENSIVE BREAKDOWN -- Coaching
Coach Les Miles' success during his tenure at LSU has been predicated on a formula of taking a conservative approach on offense while relying on a strong defense and big special-teams plays and having a riverboat gambler's mentality during critical parts of games. Based on an early look, the Tigers offense appears to have a more aggressive approach and is off to a strong start to the 2013 campaign.
Admittedly two (UAB and Kent State) of their first four opponents have been inferior, but the Tigers are taking more shots down the field and rank 33rd in total offense (480 yards per game) and 16th in scoring (43.3 points per game). A few factors appear to play a role in this aggressive tactic on offense.
LSU OFFENSIVE BREAKDOWN -- Personnel
From a personnel standpoint, the Tigers are experienced at quarterback with senior Mettenberger and have one of the better wide receiving duos in the country in Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.
On defense, LSU needed to replace eight drafted players from last year's team. While there is no shortage of young defensive talent, Miles has clearly taken the approach of attempting to put up more points to relieve pressure on an inexperienced defense that needs time to acclimate and jell in game situations.
That said, LSU's baseline really has not changed this year. It remains one of the few true pro-style offenses predicated on the run game. Up front, the Tigers have a massive offensive line. This group doesn't have elite athleticism, but it is physical and plays with an edge. It is better suited in the run game than in pass protection at this point.
Left tackle La'el Collins and right guard Trai Turner are the most talented of the group. Against Auburn last week, Turner left the game with an ankle injury but is listed as probable for Saturday. Left guard Vadal Alexander (6-foot-6, 350) has an enormous frame and appears to be a much better fit inside after lining up at left tackle in 2012. He lacks ideal lateral mobility but has a strong inline power base to get movement on interior defenders. At 6-4, 300 pounds, center Elliott Porter is the lightest of the group, which is common for the position. However, he plays with quality leverage and has strong instincts and awareness as the quarterback of the offensive line.
For a team that runs a lot, it comes as no surprise that LSU's deepest unit is at running back. The Tigers have a stable of big backs in Hill, Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee.
Hill has emerged as the premier back of the group. At 6-2 and 235 pounds, he is a workhorse who can handle a heavy load. Hill has natural power along with nimble feet and adequate lateral agility for a bigger back. He lacks elite top-end speed but has been a nightmare to bring down when catching a head of steam and getting into the second level.
The X factor for the Tigers' success on the ground this year has been FB J.C. Copeland. The 270-pound fullback has been a hammer as a lead blocker. He reads his keys well and locates his targets quickly before entering contact without hesitation. Copeland flashes savvy as a blocker and has a natural feel for when to change it up and execute cut blocks on defenders. He also brings versatility as a pass-catcher, and his game draws comparisons to Ravens Pro Bowl FB Vonta Leach.
LSU OFFENSIVE BREAKDOWN -- New philosophy
LSU QB Zach Mettenberger has used the play-action pass to perfection this season.
Hiring offensive coordinator Cam Cameron this offseason appears to be paying dividends for LSU. His philosophy has always been based on taking vertical shots outside the hashes, and the playbook is filled with routes of 15 yards or more from his receivers. Cameron is taking a run-first approach but has kept defenses honest by using play-action on early downs. This has played a significant role in Mettenberger's improved play and efficiency this season.
Last week against Auburn, this approach worked effectively. Of the 32 first-down snaps, the Tigers were in a pro-style set with 21- (2 RBs and 1 TE) or 22-personnel (2 RBS and 2 TEs) in 26 of them. Cameron dialed up 18 runs and eight play-action passes from those personnel packages. All eight play-action attempts were out of 21 personnel, which is a tendency to monitor against Georgia.
Cameron has done a great job keeping Mettenberger in situations to succeed by tailoring to the QB's strengths. He was able to simplify Mettenberger's reads against eight- and nine-man boxes on early downs last week while using the quarterback's big arm to push the ball vertically and take advantage of the several favorable one-on-one situations Landry and Beckham created on the perimeter.
Beckham is explosive, has the ability to stretch the field vertically and can be dangerous catching the ball with room to maneuver after the catch. Landry is the more polished receiver and has the more reliable hands of the two. He has a natural feel for the position and shows above-average body control and hand-eye coordination adjusting to throws outside the frame. Landry isn't as explosive after the catch as Beckham but is a strong, savvy runner who can pick up yards.
GEORGIA DEFENSIVE BREAKDOWN -- Against the Tigers
Spinning forward to Saturday's matchup, the Georgia defense will have its hands full. Similar to LSU, the Bulldogs also had to replace eight starters, including seven NFL draft picks, from last year. As expected, the Bulldogs have shown some inconsistencies to start the season.
Georgia must find a way to win the battle on early downs. First and foremost, the Bulldogs will need to keep Hill and the Tigers' run game in check. This will be easier said than done. Mettenberger's effectiveness off play-action this year will force defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to think twice about consistently dropping a safety or two near the box to get an extra defender in run support.
If Grantham does elect to load up the box, look for Cameron to try to target freshman cornerback Brendan Langley early and often. On tape, Langley has been late with recognition, failed to keep quality leverage and been caught out of position. This was exposed during the South Carolina game, in which he was beat on a handful of plays, including two where he surrendered touchdowns.
On Saturday, watch for the cat-and-mouse game between Grantham and Cameron on first and second downs to play a big role in the success or failure of each unit. Cameron will look to keep Mettenberger out of uncomfortable third-and-long situations. On the flip side, Grantham will have to be smart about when to put Langley or corner Damian Swann on an island against Landry or Beckham, who have been able to consistently exploit single coverage to start the season.