Thursday, September 20, 2007

San Jose Mercury: Cal football: Putting out an APB for the passing game

Through three games, it’s tough to find fault with Cal’s offense. Tough, but not impossible.  The Bears are averaging 40 points per game (3rd in the Pac-10), 6.6 yards per play (2nd) and 230 rushing yards per game (3rd).  Those numbers are fine — more than enough, actually, to handle Tennessee, Colorado State and Louisiana Tech.  But what about the next nine games, the games that really count?  Against Oregon and ASU and USC, and to make a run at the conference title, the Bears will need to add a dimension to their attack: the downfield passing game.  It’s not that they can’t complete the long ball, only that they haven’t. Nor is it a problem now, but it could be later on.  The Bears are 7th in the conference in passing yards per game (205.7) and 7th in yards per pass (6.6), which is one indication that the aerial attack hasn’t hit its stride. Here’s another, and this is what really caught my attention:  Cal’s longest completion to a receiver is 25 yards. TWENTY-FIVE YARDS! For Cal. (Nate Longshore to both DeSean Jackson and Lavelle Hawkins)

The Bears can handle Arizona without hitting its deep passes, but they had better get the long ball game in order before heading to Eugene next weekend. The problem certainly isn’t speed. Cal has plenty of that. And although Jackson has been limited by a sprained thumb, he was able to catch five passes against CSU — it’s just that all of them were short passes. So I asked Jeff Tedford on the Pac-10 coaches conference call if the lack of long balls was the result of:

1. How defenses were playing Cal (ie: give up the short stuff, prevent the deep stuff), or

2. The plays being called (ie: don’t open your playbook until conference).

“Neither, really,'’ he said. “We’ve had some guys open on deep balls and just haven’t hit the hit deep ball. We’ve thrown plenty of long passes and had guys open and not connected with them yet.  “Not think it’s a function of not throwing deep. It’s just a matter of not hitting them.'’ That’s not a problem for the Bears — yet — but it should be a concern. Longshore has been sharp with the short passes and made sound decisions (only one INT), but his timing/accuracy/touch with the long passes just isn’t there. If the problem persists, it could ripple through the offense. Cal doesn’t have big, strong possession wideouts who excel at catching 6-yard passes in traffic. Jackson, Hawkins and Robert Jordan can do that, but they’re at their best in space, on the move, blazing through seams in the defense.  (Jackson, the best big-play threat in the conference, is averaging just eight yards per catch.) If Cal can’t connect on the deep balls, then the perimeter speed loses some of its effectiveness. And if Cal can’t connect on long balls, then it could also shorten the field and allow defenses to concentrate on stopping the Bears’ prolific running game. Lanes for Justin Forsett could narrow, or close altogether.

And without the need to provide safety help deep in (some) passing situations, defenses could send an extra man at Longshore, who’s not a scrambler.. Like I said, it’s not a problem this week for the Bears, but it could be a problem next week, and for many weeks to come.

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