It’s been a few days now since the Nate Frazier news dropped. The team is moving on, as is Nate, although his first plan appears to have been derailed. There really isn’t all that much else to say on the subject, but it just feels like there should be more. Where’s the analysis? What’s the impact? The truth is that we’ll never really know. The one thing we do know is that whoever steps in at nose guard– whether it’s Chase Burge, Jordan Stephens, someone else, or most likely a combination of the three– is not only getting a tremendous opportunity, but is also going to be stuck with hearing “if Nate was here” from fans all season (see: Johnson, Paul). That’s unfortunate, even if it sort of comes with the territory. It’s hard enough to replace a player as good as Nate. It’s almost impossible to measure up to the mythical image of Nate that people are inevitably going to develop (if they haven’t already).
There’s a reason for that, of course. Navy doesn’t usually get players like Nate Frazier. The stereotypical Mid is undersized and overachieving, but at 6-3, 290, there is nothing undersized about Nate. That isn’t a lardball 290, either. Nate is as solid as they come. And last year, we started to to see the realization of the potential we had been told about since he was a plebe. He made the transition from mere block-absorber to genuine playmaker, especially in the second half of the season. Nate was going to be the anchor of what we all expected to be an excellent defense in 2009. Those are some big shoes to fill. Even with the loss of Nate, though, this is still going to be a very good defense. The secondary is deep, the linebackers are rangy, and the line is experienced. Whoever steps in at nose guard doesn’t have to be Nate Frazier; he just has to do his job. The team around him has plenty of playmakers. Maybe it won’t be an elite defense (by Navy’s standards), but it should still be very, very good.
Still, if there was a time that you wouldn’t want to lose a defensive star, it would be this season. Navy’s production on both sides of the ball has been fairly consistent since 2003. The exception was, of course, 2007. The 2007 offense was as experienced as they were talented, but the defense had new faces at almost every position. The end result was somewhat predictable, although maybe not to the extent that it played out. That year, the defense was atrocious, but the offense was virtually unstoppable; the two extremes averaged out to another successful, 8-win campaign. This season, we have the opposite; now it’s the defense that will presumably need to pick up some of the offense’s slack based on their relative experience. Of course, the coaches aren’t heading to Columbus resigning themselves to trying to win every game 14-13. They have a wildcard to play in their attempt to make up for the inefficiencies of inexperience. That wildcard is the passing game.
We don’t really talk that much about passing around here (for obvious reasons), but it looks like that’s going to have to change. It’s no secret that the Mids are going to throw more this year. Coach Niumatalolo said as much on media day, even though he downplayed it a little bit:
We are going to continue to do what we do. Ricky has a skill set that is a little different than some of our past quarterbacks and that will help us in the passing game, although we aren’t going to turn into Texas Tech or anybody. We will probably throw the ball a little bit more, but we know for us to be successful we have to run the ball and there is a whole plan behind it and why we do what we do and what we are trying to get accomplished. Our offense isn’t filled with bells and whistles and it isn’t real fancy, but we just want to win games.
Of course, the Mids don’t have to turn into Texas Tech for Navy fans to sit up and take notice; even passing 20 times a game would be a huge difference. While there’s no value in throwing more for the sake of throwing more, it wouldn’t make any more sense to leave your quarterback’s best asset underutilized, either. As we all know already, Ricky Dobbs has a great arm. The great experiment is to see if that shoulder-mounted rail gun of his can offset the growing pains that come with learning the finer points of the option game. I think it can… In theory, anyway. I’m not so sure that it will.
By now you’re probably sick of hearing all about how great this offense can be as a passing attack. You know the drill. This is a spread offense, right? Right. And in Navy’s base spread formation they have four wide receivers on every play, right? Right. But there’s more to it than that. While bringing running backs out of the backfield and into the slot puts pressure on a defense vertically, the real engine that drives the Navy passing game is, believe it or not, the option itself. It all comes back to assignment defense; defenses try to confound quarterbacks by mixing up coverages, but the option limits how much they’re able to do. The linebackers and secondary, in carrying out their option assignments, aren’t able to drop back into complicated zone and blitzing schemes that force mistakes out of quarterbacks. It results in a lot of one-on-one coverage, and nothing’s easier for a quarterback to read than man-to-man defense. So let’s take a look at one of the staple pass plays of the Navy offense– the wheel-post– and see these concepts applied
Here’s a somewhat crude diagram of a 3-4/5-2 look lined up against the base spread formation.
Note how the cornerback is lined up within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Harken back, if you will, to our breakdown of last year’s Notre Dame game. Remember how we talked about how the blocking assignments of the slots and wide receivers change based on how the defense is lined up? When the cornerback is lined up farther than 5 yards from the line of scrimmage, he is the wide receiver’s responsibility. When he is lined up 5 yards or less from the line, he enters the count as #3– secondary run support. The playside slot always is responsible for blocking the run support, so now the cornerback is his. So on this play, the blocking would look like this:
The wide receiver would block the safety, while the slot would arc block the cornerback.
<tangent> Although you’d think that it would make sense for the wide receiver to just block the guy lined up right in front of him, there are a couple of reasons why that isn’t how it works. First, it takes time for the option to develop and read its way outside. It’s very difficult to engage in a block right after the snap, then maintain that block for the length of the play. That’s also why the A-back takes an arc path to the block; if he ran right at the cornerback and cut him immediately, he’d have time to recover from the block and get back into the play. You want to your block to be timed so that the ball carrier is running by when your man’s face is in the grass.
The other reason you don’t want the wide receiver blocking the corner in this situation is in case the corner decides to blitz. The receiver can’t move once he’s set on the line. The corner, on the other hand, can creep in all he wants. If he cheats toward the middle of the field in order to blitz, the receiver would never be able to get in front of him. The slot, though, is in prime position to see the blitz and stop it. </tangent>
Now, compare that blocking scheme to the wheel and post pass routes:
They look almost identical; the wheel route is similar to the arc path taken by the A-back, and the post sends the receiver towards the safety. Now put yourself in the secondary’s shoes. You have been carrying out your assignment on every play, and on almost every play you’re being met by the slot or WR. When the ball is snapped and you see one of these guys running at you once again, what do you do? Chances are you try to meet the block, then shed the block, so you can go after the ball carrier. So you step towards the blocker and square up to take him on… Only this time, he isn’t blocking you. Uh-oh. Now he’s running past you, and by the time you’ve stopped yourself and turned around to cover him, he’s running wide open. Take a look at how this corner expects to engage a block from Jason Tomlinson, who instead runs right by:
Different play, obviously, but it’s the same concept.
There really isn’t a bad time to run the wheel-post, which is probably why it’s been Navy’s go-to pass play over the last few seasons. It can be just as effective when the corners are playing deep; you still end up having man coverage in the secondary, which makes things simple for the quarterback. We often see it run with play action, too:
The play action can be particulary effective against overzealous cornerbacks. When the corner blitzes, the safety can cover the wide receiver, but it leaves the slot to be covered by a linebacker. Assuming your slotback doesn’t have a plow attached to his back, that’s going to be a speed mismatch. That’s what happened against Notre Dame in 2007. Late in the game, the Irish started blitzing the play side cornerback. In overtime, the Mids ran toss sweep play action to draw in the cornerback. This left a linebacker to cover Reggie Campbell, which isn’t something most linebackers would want to do.
OK, so we’ve seen how the option sets up the passing game so well. So why the concern for 2009? Well, in order to succeed on a passing play, you need three things. One, you need receivers to get open. Got that. Two, you need a quarterback that can deliver the ball. Got that. Three, you need to protect that quarterback. Got… problems.
Pass protection has been a real weakness for Navy over the years. Let’s dig into some stats. Navy is never in any danger of leading the country in total sacks allowed, but that’s because Navy barely passes compared to the rest of I-A. When it comes to measuring sack frequency— the number of pass attempts per sack– that story changes, and in a really bad way. Here’s how the Mids have stacked up the last 4 years:
Giving up a sack every 5-10 times you drop back to pass is bad. It’s really bad if you intend to drop back to pass more often. There are a few reasons why Navy is ranked at the bottom of the list every year. Navy has far fewer passing attempts than the average team. Navy might throw 100-150 passes a year, while others might drop back 300-400 times. So when Navy drops back, you know they’re trying to make the most of the attempt. That’s not necessarily the case with everyone else. Teams that throw 30-40 times a game incorporate a lot of dink-and-dunk stuff that Navy doesn’t bother with. Those kinds of plays– short-yardage quick-hitters where the quarterback gets rid of the ball sooner– are less likely to result in a sack than when the QB is holding onto the ball longer, waiting for his receivers to get downfield. The latter is the bulk of Navy’s passing game. Mix in that 1) the kind of offensive linemen ideally suited for blocking ankles aren’t really built for pass protection, and 2) Navy, who runs the ball 50 times a game, just doesn’t spend as much practice time on pass protection, and it’s no wonder that they give up a lot of sacks. So there’s the challenge.
No matter what the reasons are, they will have to be addressed if the Mids are to be able to make the most of Ricky Dobbs’ arm. Sacks are drive-killers, and QB pressure leads to turnovers. Will throwing more passes mean incorporating more short-range throws into the offense? If it does, it will help with the sack problem… But then the question becomes whether you’re getting the big-play value you were hoping to get in the passing game. The Mids averaged an amazing 17 yards per catch last year, second only to Georgia Tech. While the potential is there for the passing attack to boost a young offense’s production, it’s just as possible that throwing more just means trading one set of problems for another. The key for the coaches will be to manage risk vs. reward.