The term “pro-style” offense can convey two different things. It usually refers to an offense that lines up under center, uses a tight end and a fullback, and looks to run on standard downs while mixing in West Coast passing concepts.
The other meaning: operating like an actual, modern pro team, which means emphasizing those West Coast passing plays while lining up with three receivers and a stud receiving TE. That’s the most deadly style in the modern game, as there’s just no great defense for a smart, accurate QB who’s in sync with a big mismatch TE in the middle of the field.
Texas A&M found that out when UCLA flipped its game plan from the older form of “pro-style” and unleashed QB Josh Rosen and TE Caleb Wilson in the modern style. That meant 17 targets to the 6’4 TE who produced 15 catches, 208 yards, and a lot of room for the rest of the Bruins receiving corps.
A&M watched in bewilderment as a 44-10 lead floated up to the clouds, joining the Atlanta Falcons’ Super Bowl lead.
1. The old-school offense just wasn’t working.
One of the question marks about this Texas A&M team was its linebacker corps, which struggled a year ago and was plugging in some new faces. Initially, UCLA OC Jedd Fisch tried to attack with old-school runs, like outside zone with lead fullbacks, designed to knock out LBs and create creases.
You can see a few things going wrong. One is that the Aggie defensive tackle not only avoids being reached by the guard, but also knocks into the fullback and keeps him from hitting the LB down the field. The RB is forced to cut up field early, and the Aggie safety and backside DL (also not reached) close in and knock the ball out.
These big UCLA formations invited downhill play from the athletic A&M defense, allowing the Aggies to feature sturdy DTs at the focal point. For about eight drives, the Bruins struggled to run, get ahead of the chains, or set up play-action opportunities for Rosen.
2. Then on drive nine, while down 38-10, they got into 11 personnel (one RB, one TE, three WRs) and threw a TE option route.
Rosen’s quick turn and release before throwing it to Wilson really threw off A&M safety Armani Watts and allowed the TE to get outside. For Rosen, it was simple to hit such a big target.
The Bruins weren’t able to finish the drive with points before the half, but they’d finally found what was going to work.
3. A few drives later, in the third quarter, Fisch committed to it and was off and running.
The Aggies didn’t appreciate the devastation that was about to be wrought. They started to figure that out when they brought a fire zone blitz that asked sophomore middle linebacker Tyrel Dodson to match up on Wilson running a stick route.
Wilson’s route breaks in the middle of the field, safely beyond anyone at LB or safety.
The Aggies responded by trying to handle him with star Watts, with nominal help from LBs to Watts’ inside or outside.
These route breaks, and Rosen’s timing and quick release, aren’t terribly common at the college level. This execution in the middle is a basis for some of the better NFL offenses, and the Aggies didn’t know what to do about it. So for a few drives, they were just roasted by Wilson or another receiver like Darren Andrews, who were operating in open spaces, thanks in part to Wilson drawing attention ... and in part by the Aggies’ attempts to blitz their way out of this dilemma.
4. When a team can attack you in the middle with an accurate QB, a matchup-nightmare TE, and a speedy slot, you need really creative solutions.
Andrews, a 5’10 slot receiver, feasted on the attention paid to Wilson, with 12 catches for 142 yards and two scores.
5. On top of all of this, Rosen had some luck, such as this prayer off his back foot that somehow landed in the arms of a Bruin.
This play featured effective bracket coverage by the middle linebacker and strong safety over Wilson, which bought time for the pass rush and encouraged Rosen to make a questionable decision. It worked anyway.
6. Throughout all of this, A&M couldn’t run clock, despite rushing for 382 yards on the day.
The Bruins were loading the box and setting the edges more aggressively with their DEs, forcing the explosive Trayveon Williams to pick his way downhill faster through LBs rather than bouncing runs outside. Every Aggie run that the Bruins were finally able to stop increased the chances of the Aggies calling a dropback pass, which Kellen Mond virtually never executed.
A&M converted more third-and-long plays in this game with runs than I can remember seeing in a long time, but Mond’s 3-of-17 day passing (following Nick Starkel’s 6-of-13 day) killed their chances of keeping Rosen off the field.
7. That led to a final drive for UCLA, down 44-38 with 2:39 left.
A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis emptied his bag of tricks. He brought a zero blitz that was beat with a quick crossing route to Andrews.
He bracketed Wilson some more with the safety and middle LB and got beat by another slant to Andrews, working in isolation against the nickel.
He used converted WR Kemah Siverand in a dime package to try and find an athlete who could hang with Wilson’s option routes.
There didn’t seem to be anything that could stop Wilson from getting loose in the seams without also getting torched by Andrews ... or beat by Wilson anyway, due to Rosen’s timing and placement.
8. The game resolved with the Aggies essentially tackling Wilson at the snap.
Chavis dialed up another zero-safety blitz while Watts pressed Wilson at the line of scrimmage and basically wrestled him to the ground. Rosen flipped the ball over the heads of the pass-rushers to RB Soso Jamabo.
The Aggies were essentially beaten. They’d have to stop Rosen on four straight downs to win, something few tired defenses should be expected to do.
9. But the Bruins dialed up the fake spike play and delivered the coup de grâce, despite the clock seemingly already being stopped.
It’s hard to stop a modern, pro-style passing attack, and the Aggies didn’t come into this game prepared to do so.
It should be pretty clear how the Bruins can attack the rest of their schedule. The Pac-12 is going to have to develop some pro-style defenses to handle it.