College News & Analysis

SEC Film Room: Bo Nix's struggles under pressure, Mac Jones' impressive start and more

It took only two weeks, but the SEC's best teams from the preseason have already proved they belong at the top. Georgia mashed Auburn, and Alabama handled Texas A&M. Florida’s offense has been on fire to start the year, and Mississippi State actually looks like Mississippi State. Arkansas secured its first win of the season, and the Tennessee offensive line put a whooping on South Carolina.

In this week’s SEC Film Room, we will talk about Mac Jones' development as a passer, the Georgia offensive line and, first, Bo Nix — who was hung out to dry against the Dawgs.

No Protection

Bo Nix looked like the 2019 version of himself against the Dawgs on Saturday night, posting a lowly 52.1 passing grade. After Nix came out of the gate hot with a 79.0 grade against Kentucky, all the improvements we thought he made in the offseason seemed to be fool's gold. Whenever Nix attempted a pass, it was to a tightly covered receiver and often inaccurate.

With that said, Nix had no support from anyone around him. The Georgia defense played tight man coverage the whole night, and Nix was pressured from the very first drive. The sophomore quarterback was pressured on 22 dropbacks out of 47. Those 22 plays led to him going 6-of-19 with an interception and two sacks. The 22 pressured dropbacks are tied for the fifth-most in a single game in the FBS this season.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and defensive coordinator Dan Lanning had their way with the Auburn protections and were able to get pressure without always having to send an extra player. When rushing four or fewer defensive players, Georgia was able to pressure Nix on 13 plays. Nix had nowhere to go with the ball because there are no hot routes or pressure outlets like there would be against the blitz.

Let’s look at this snap where Nix is pressured right off the snap and actually ends up creating a positive play in the second quarter with the Tigers already down 24 points:

You can see the Georgia defensive line shift from a tite front to an over front before the snap, but given how Auburn is protecting it, there should still be no problems.

It looks like the Tigers are half-sliding with the left tackle, left guard and center going left and the right tackle, right guard and running back going right. There are three defenders to each side of the center, so the numbers add up for Auburn. The center really needs to set back, help on the nose tackle but have his eyes on the linebacker. That’s his guy if he blitzes. Unfortunately, he slides way too far to the right and there is a free runner right into Nix’s lap.

All this pressure caused Nix to become anxious, and even when he did have some time in the pocket he rushed his throws, causing some inaccuracies. Let’s look at this seam throw against Kentucky last week.

It’s a clean pocket, so Nix can hitch up and deliver the ball. Watch his right leg during the throw. He’s able to easily pick it up, put it down and keep it relatively grounded during the throw. You can also see him stay upright and rotate around his spine. Look at the difference here in the second quarter against Georgia:

He’s almost jumping as he throws the ball. The right foot jumps back up just as he’s releasing the ball, which causes him to fall backward and not get enough power. The ball is underthrown.

There are still issues with Nix in his development, but after watching the masterclass Kirby Smart put on Gus Malzahn between the hedges, I’m willing to give Nix a slight pass on this one.

Dawg Pile

When Georgia was on offense, it was able to insulate quarterback Stetson Bennett with a grinding run game that mauled the Tiger defense. Without stars Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown returning on the defensive line, the run defense unit played well in its first game of the season against an established Kentucky offensive line. Kentucky averaged only 4 yards per carry, converted a first down or touchdown only 26% of the time and forced zero missed tackles on the ground.

This was not the case on Saturday night. Georgia averaged 5.1 yards per carry, converted a first down or touchdown on 33% of its carries and forced 13 missed tackles on the ground. Georgia had zero runs go for a negative play the whole night. And 16 of the team's 45 runs went for 1-3 yards, meaning that 65% of them runs went for over 4 yards. Just demoralizing.

The Bulldogs' most common run play was an inside zone look that produced 137 yards on 31 carries, and it went for nice yardage when the offensive line was able to bully the Tigers on double teams.

Let’s take a look at this inside zone split run:

Inside zone is going to work if the double teams are going to get push and allow one of the offensive linemen to move up clean to the second level. Look at the right guard mauling his guy and providing the right tackle easy access to the linebacker. Georgia, especially when running it with a split block by the tight end, wants the ball to go downhill as soon as possible. If the right tackle had to help his buddy out with the double team, Auburn could have created a pileup.

The other double team occurs from the right guard and right tackle. The guard picks up the defensive linemen and drives him back single-handedly, which allows the tackle to freely roam up to the second level. Now that linebacker can’t flow back and make a play on the running back when he gets through the hole.

It was a solid day from the Georgia offensive line.

Return of the Mac

Mac Jones continues to impress as Alabama’s starting quarterback. He showed promise last season when called upon to replace the injured Tua Tagovailoa, posting a 76.4 passing grade in 2019. With an offseason to himself as the Tide’s go-to shot-caller, he has sprinted out of the gates against Missouri and Texas A&M, posting back-to-back 91.8 passing grades. He’s yet to have a turnover-worthy play this season, and when you watch the tape, it’s hard to find a bad throw or bad read. In fact, among quarterbacks who have taken at least 100 snaps in this young season so far, he leads the country in negatively graded plays. Only 2.6% of his plays have been negative — the next best SEC quarterback is Feleipe Franks at 7.5%.

Jones’ accuracy has been startlingly good, but I wanted to point out a couple of reads he made on the same concept in the first half against the Aggies. Bama loves its “mesh wheel” concept where it has a triangle read to one side of the field.

The first read is on the cornerback. Against man coverage, the idea is that if he attaches to one of the bunched receivers, he leaves the deep outside quarter of the field unmanned. The wheel route has a one-on-one matchup with the running back against a linebacker who is trying to work through all the traffic. If the cornerback sits deep in zone, the quarterback is going to work through his progressions from the post route to the drag coming from the one receiver side.

In the first quarter, Alabama ran the play and Jones found Devonta Smith on the drag route.

On the telecast, color commentator Gary Danielson made a point that the Texas A&M cornerback, while he stayed deep, was so far inside with his hips pointed inside that the wheel route did eventually come open. Jones made the right decision to eliminate the wheel route from contention on the snap because early in the game, he didn’t have a read yet on how the cornerback would play the formation and route distribution. He settles for the drag route, which gets him a first down.

Now, what happens is that Jones will come back to the sideline and talk to his coaches, who will tell him that if the cornerback opens the same way the next time we call that play, he can still hit the wheel route. Alabama called the play again only 13 snaps later.

This time from a 2×2 formation, Alabama gets the Texas A&M cornerback to give them the exact same look. Jones sees the cornerback sitting on the hash mark with his hips pointed inside again, so he decides to throw the wheel route. The Aggie linebacker does a better job getting through traffic and doesn’t get beat over top by Najee Harris. It's no problem for Jones, who simply reads the leverage of the defender and throws a beautiful back-shoulder toss for another big play.

Jones has taken his game to another level, and it’s plain to see that if he keeps it up for the whole season, he can very much be considered a first-round NFL prospect. He’s been that good.

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