The Renfrow Effect?: What has happened to middle of field for offense?
|Tuesday, October 1, 2019, 2:51 PM- -|
What has happened to the middle of the field for the Clemson offense?
The Clemson offense has been good this season, ranking 21st nationally in total offense. One complaint seen on social media has been the lack – or the perceived lack – of using the middle of the field. Too many screen passes, not enough deep shots for a team that has a smorgasbord of deep threats and one of the best quarterbacks in college football.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney was asked about that on his Monday conference call, and he said the UNC defense took away the middle of the field in the Tigers’ 21-20 victory Saturday.
"They did a pretty good job for the most part. We had a couple of communication issues. We had some negative plays but averaged about four yards a carry. They were playing four down (linemen) but tried to take away some things over the middle. We had some really good things there. Look at some of our drives ... seven plays, nine plays, 10 plays and then come away with nothing. Just efficiency ... not good, not like we need to be and we lacked rhythm."
As for the screens, which Clemson fans love to hate after the Rob Spence era, the coaching staff uses the wide receiver screen game as an extension of the running game. On the first drive Saturday, three of the first seven plays were wide receiver screens and they gained a total of four yards.
However, the Tigers attempted just one more wide receiver screen in the half, a pass to Diondre Overton with a little over five minutes remaining that gained no yards. Three screens were called in the third quarter, with two of those going to running back Travis Etienne for a total of three yards. The lone wide receiver screen lost a yard when Cornell Powell fell down with a ton of running room.
Clemson ran just six offensive plays in the fourth quarter with the game on the line and none of those were screens. In all, there were five wide receiver screen passes and they gained three yards on the day.
How different is that from last season? In the last five games last season, 34-of-169 pass attempts were screens. In the first five games this season, 29-of-136 pass attempts have been screens. So, 20.1 percent of the passes in the last five games a year ago were screen passes, and that number is at 21.1 percent this season (data per ESPN Stats & Info). Not a ton of difference.
Swinney said against UNC, there was no intermediate passing game allowed.
“There wasn't anything intermediate with these guys. They were taking that away,” Swinney said. “The throws were outside. We missed an opportunity on the slant, the ball got batted down. That was a poor protection call on us as coaches. We had Tee open on another play but our protection wasn't good at running back. We've been pretty good. And Trevor hasn't played in all those games. The Georgia Tech game ... we just ran the ball for 400 yards because that's what the game dictated.”
With the middle of the field is taken away, the Tigers used 11 sideline passes against the Heels. Four of the first five went for chunk plays and big yards (over the first 25 minutes) but the Tigers were held without another big completion to the sideline the rest of the game.
It is interesting to note the stats on Clemson’s passing game to date – on slants or seam routes with Lawrence in the game the Tigers are 5-of-11 with one touchdown in five games. That is once again similar to the final five games of 2018 when Lawrence was 6-of-13 with a touchdown.
But that intermediate passing game is where the struggles start. In passes 1-10 yards downfield, the Tigers had a 7.4 net yards/attempt in 2018 and it’s just 2.7 yards/attempt in 2019. On passes 11-20 yards downfield, it was 12.1 NY/A in 2018 and just 8.2 in 2019.
What is the big difference in that part of the field? Hunter Renfrow? Renfrow was always a weapon in the middle of the field, especially on third down, and came away with circus catch after circus catch with the game on the line. The stats show Clemson is fine on passes down the field and the passing game behind the line of scrimmage is on par with the end of last season. But on passes from 1-20 yards down the field, it’s been a struggle.
Swinney, however, just wants the Tigers to make the layups and he thinks the offense will be ok.
"We can't just look at stats and make assumptions," Swinney said. "Every game is a season of its own. That game those throws weren't over the middle because the safeties were down low. We had JC Chalk and No. 8 (Justyn Ross) wide open for a touchdown and missed that throw. We hit Ross down the middle and again and those were big plays. One was a crossing route. They tried to play press man outside, which is why Tee (Higgins) had a big game.
"We had the right plays. We just didn't execute very well and we couldn't get into rhythm. We didn't make the layups. It was like a comedy of errors, to be honest with you. They also kept the ball."