A simple question: What is wrong with Iowa’s passing offense?

The easy answer; just about everything.  However, it’s not as simple as that.

Iowa’s passing attack has fallen to a level of ineffectiveness never seen under Kirk Ferentz. It has a quarterback who posted respectable numbers in his junior season, but you’d never know it by watching this year. Do you blame the coaching staff?  Do you blame the offensive philosophy & strategy?  Do you blame the old faithful of ‘lack of execution’?  We’ll take a look at some trends and numbers to see what is at the root of Iowa’s passing woes.

Lack of a vertical passing game

I posted a flurry of tweets earlier this week detailing the numbers of Iowa’s passing game this season vs 2011. The summary of these tweets is below.
Short: x < 10 yards
Intermediate: 10 yards<x<20 yards
Deep:  x >20 yards

The below table shows the breakdown of passes targeted in each zone.

Year Short pass % Intermediate pass % Deep pass %
2011 66.5 20.5 13
2012* 75.8 17.8 6.4

*Throw-aways have been removed from the 2012 numbers to match the 2011 numbers

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The first thing that jumps out at you is the increase in short passes this season. The other trend is the huge drop off in terms of deep targets this season. It was known going into the season that new Offensive Coordinator Greg Davis preferred a catch and run style offense. I expected less vertical passes, but not quite the drop off we’ve seen so far, which is over 50 percent.

Year Short pass YPA Short pass Comp % Intermediate pass YPA Intermediate pass Comp % Deep pass YPA Deep pass Comp %
2011 5.57 61% 13.37 68%  17.20 54%
2012 4.41 63% 9.33 46%  15.93 43%

This table shows the completion percentage and YPA for each area. Most noticeable here is a huge drop off in the YPA and completion % in the intermediate zone. Despite completing more passes in the short zone, the YPA is dramatically lower there as well. The issue in 2012 is clearly the lack of effectiveness on throws targeted over 10 yards. However, it isn’t clear if the root cause of the struggle is due to the scheme, or just plain poor execution from the QB and WRs. I would attribute the issues on the intermediate throws more to execution issues than scheme related problems. I don’t think the the scheme is helping things there, but the facts are Iowa was far more effective on their intermediate and deep throws a year ago.  As far as the deep targets go, over the last four games on passes over 20 yards, Iowa has completed 6/9  for 223 yards and a TD . The lack of additional deep targets despite them being successful would point to the scheme or game-planning.

QB-Receiver communication issues

This is a topic that has been covered at length and in the seventh game of the season you’d expect to see less of these. However against Penn State there were numerous throws that showed timing issues or ineptness. Don Shumpert got in the game briefly and was targeted on a 12 yard comeback route, and the throw was 5+ feet off target and arrived before he was even out of his break. Later in the game Jordan Cotton ran a curl route that JVB threw way back inside as if he was expecting Cotton to run a square in, or at least stem the curl further inside. These kinds of issues are what plagued the Iowa passing game early in the season and it seems they still haven’t shaken it completely. The comeback route worries me the most because it is normally a statically called route. JVB hit that throw routinely last season, no matter who was running that route. If you can’t hit the most basic throws, it’s very difficult to connect on the read-routes and sight adjusts.  I have been inside a Greg Davis play-book and it is pretty complex and has a lot to process for both the WRs and QB on most plays. I don’t see a complex system as a problem in and of itself, but clearly there are still issues with getting everyone on the same page. This one feels like it’s more on the players than the scheme.

Lack of variation in formations & game planning

Seven weeks in into the season and we’re seeing very little formation variety from Iowa. This is something that I used to critique Ken O’Keefe for but apparently it’s an issue that survived the coaching change. We have seen almost no wrinkles added to Iowa’s passing game in terms of formations. I keep waiting for Iowa to come out with a 3 TE bunch formation, similar to what Stanford uses, but it hasn’t happened. Early on we saw Iowa use TE across and all the way out motion from 2×2 to create a mismatch in the slot, but we haven’t seen that since Central Michigan. There have been no bunch formations, few stack formations,no multiple shifts, and no variations in formation of Iowa’s Ace and 311 personnel groupings.   This allows opposing defenses a huge advantage by not varying the placement or even the personnel in their formations. Iowa has also gotten fairly predictable from certain formations. Really in terms of the passing game, from any formation there’s a 75% chance the ball is going to come out under 10 yards and as a DB you have to like those odds.

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From their Ace-Trips set Iowa has too often run their double out with the TE and the slot WR and the outside WR is on a run off. They’ve run it in nearly all of their games this year and in most games they have run it multiple times. It nearly ended up as a pick 6 when PSU LB Gerald Hodges read the play and undercut the route. Iowa has has not shown an out and up out of that set this season and that lack of respect for any deep shot lets teams sit on those short routes. Iowa also tends to run that play on 1st downs and they tried it one too many times this week. I believe it’s an issue that’s compounded by the lack of fear of a vertical passing threat as well.

Another area where I look at Iowa’s scheme and am dumbfounded is their lack of constraint plays. Constraint plays can be defined as plays that force a defense to respect and defend the whole field. An example is the bubble screen play call when teams fail to walk out a linebacker over a slot WR. Iowa has allowed many teams to do this for years and continually run the ball into the teeth of the defense in these situations. The defense is not putting themselves in good position to deal with bubble screen when they do that and as an offense you must enforce that constraint on them or they will continue to clog up the run game inside. Iowa does occasionally throw a smoke screen when a CB is giving a big cushion and the WR physically outmatches . The most recent example was Keenan Davis’s TD catch against Penn St. Penn St had a 5’10 161lb CB out on an island with Davis and this was a no brainer to call if you’re an offensive coordinator. In Greg Davis’s offense, Iowa has been awful at running bubble screens when they’ve tried it and that makes it very tough on an offense when you can’t keep the defense honest.

It’s not been all bad though;  there have been some good play calls and schematic adjustments at times. The heavy use of screens on 1st down in the Michigan St game was an excellent piece of game-planning and created the opportunity for some big plays. The problem is Iowa simply didn’t complete those screen passes and that is something that’s on the execution, not the scheme. The flea-flicker was a brilliant play call and worked to perfection. Numerous times this season JVB has missed open targets down the field and failed to find the vacated zone or favorable match-up vs the blitz. Is the scheme too complex for the WR & QB to get on the same page, or is it just simply just not getting it done by JVB and the WRs? Again I don’t see it as a clear cut, black and white issue, but this one feels more like the scheme than the players.

Looking across the issues we just covered there is definitely plenty of contributing factors to the passing game’s unprecedented struggles. There is no question in my mind James Vandenberg’s poor play has been front and center, but there have been other significant contributing factors. The lack of a consistent deep passing attack, communication issues, system complexity, lack of constraint plays, and predictable formations all add up to a very ineffective passing game. The only real change I would implement at this point is to attack down the field more often and see if it opens things up underneath. As has been said by everyone; it can’t be any worse. An interesting note is that two of Vandenberg’s worst games last year were against Penn St and Michigan St. One of his best games last season was against Northwestern and with their injuries in the secondary it may finally provide the passing game an opportunity to get off the ground. It can’t get any worse, can it?