Film Review: Looking at Gardner's Struggles in the Pass Game

Jim Rogash

Michigan has had it's share of struggles on offense lately. None have been more clear than Gardner's struggles passing. We will look at Gardner's struggles and see if they are correctable.

Introduction
Michigan showed some recurring issues on offense against UConn, and none crept up more obviously than Gardner's lingering problems with throwing the ball accurately. My presumption has been that he is mentally affected, and this has caused him to struggle with his timing and his mechanics. Since the last quarter against ND, he has looked markedly differently. He is staying on reads longer, he is aiming his passes, and he is really trying to fit the ball into areas even when he has other receivers open. In this article, we will narrow the look to UConn, and see what it will take to get DG back on track.

Play 1
This play is going to be Gardner's first INT against UConn. Michigan is going to put two receivers on each side of the formation and run a simple mesh concept. I discussed the mesh concept a bit in my preview of PSU. Gallon, correctly reading zone, sits between two zone defenders. Gardner comes of his first read, which appears to be Funchess, and comes down to his second read in Gallon.

But watch Gardner's feet. When he steps deeper into the pocket, his front foot opens up his body and he is pointed near the sideline. On top of that he doesn't step into the throw. By throwing across his open body and not stepping into the throw - his body weight fails to transfer forward to bring his release point to a proper angle - it causes the ball to sail. He's double compounded things that will cause the ball to go high. His lapse in footwork has forced the ball high.

Play 2
Here is the little PA pop pass that I've referenced in several areas. It is supposed to be a quick pass off of weak PA, intended to suck up the LBs enough to hit Gallon in the seam between levels. Note the wheel route being run behind it, if the secondary crashes down on Gallon, Gardner can pump and hitch and then hit the wheel behind it.

Now, Gardner does a good job planting at the end of his drop to prepare to throw immediately. However, his body weight is too forward on his last step, and to compensate he over steps on his throw. Overstepping will bring your release point at a lower angle than normal, or in other words, it will cause Gardner to turf the ball. Furthermore, he steps directly to where the ball ends up going. You step to your target. Well Devin didn't step to his target, he stepped too far inside. Whether he thought Gallon would flatten his route or something, I'm not sure, but his mechanics still would have forced this to be an inaccurate pass.

Play 3
Here, Michigan is simply running a quick slant in an effort to get DG going again. We see a recurring problem and a new problem.

Again, Gardner doesn't step into his throw, and the ball goes high. Now the new problem is miscommunication. Dileo feels the defender riding his upfield shoulder with proper technique, so he flattens the route in order to get separation. But Gardner fails to make this read, and that's just enough to make this pass go off target. The timing and communication forces him to try to put the ball in the wrong spot, but his mechanics are also poor. This is something that Gardner should see - the tight coverage - and even if Dileo doesn't flatten his route, Gardner should throw it as to force Dileo to flatten his route and put the ball in a spot the corner can't defend the ball: low and in front.

Play 4
Gardner has now missed on a few passes, and is starting to look mechanical. His drop footwork seems exaggerated. Gallon is running a simple hitch.

Gardner is clearly over stepping on his release. He also pushes the ball from his ear hole and releases across his body like a baseball throw. These two things combine to force the ball to sink. He's forcing the ball, he's really aiming it in there. You see this with QBs all the time. They start aiming and trying to push the ball to an area rather than relaxing and throwing how they are capable. Gardner isn't immune to this either, but he needs to be confident in his reads and his throwing ability so that it doesn't resort to this. But it is certainly mental.

FWIW, the sinking motion is a common consequence of throwing a football like a baseball, with your arm releasing across the body. It's why I often stress the arm motion after the release. Even if you learn to throw accurately like that, you are taking power off your throws and putting extra stress on your arm strength to push the ball down field or to the outside.

Play 5
Devin has now hit a few passes and is starting to get into it a bit more and loosen up. Note, this is still against UConn and later in the game. This is a half roll off PA, it puts receivers in Gardner's run lane so his eyes can naturally go through his progression and gives Gardner very easy reads on his passes, and if he feels uncomfortable he can naturally scramble. The FB is taking the flat, the TE a corner route. It's a flood concept with Gallon settling in the vacated area behind it (the reason it is a half roll is so Gardner doesn't end up throwing across his body to his third read in the progression).

Garner's footwork take his eyes through the progression: he reads one and it's covered, hitches to two and it's covered, then comes back to three. By the time he's on Gallon, his feet have taken his shoulders and aimed them at his target. He comfortably steps into it, allowing his weight to transfer from his back foot to his front foot, and his arm releases down, with good elbow and wrist snap, his hand ending back in his throwing arm side. This allows the ball to be put very well on target and get on Gallon quickly.

Conclusion
Gardner's mechanics started improving again in the second half. They still weren't perfect, but once he started getting comfortable again he stopped over-thinking the situation. His mechanics got more natural rather than mechanical, his footwork was more relaxed, and he went through his step and release properly and naturally to put the ball directly on target. He had other issues in the game: coming off the pass play early to take off running because he perceived pressure; feeling tense in his throwing motion causing him to aim and over step; not stepping to his target or not stepping into his throws. These are the things that great QBs can occasionally get away with and make passes. Gardner can get away with this at times as well. But you can't compound matters and on top of that feel tense and tight and expect to look good in the pass game. It's a work in progress with Gardner now. It's a work getting back even to where he was at the start of the ND game. But he's making his way back and regaining confidence. It just takes time. It takes reps. It takes completing some passes against another defense. But if Gardner can get his head right, he can hit any pass and get through any progression correctly, to add to the threat of running with his feet, and to help remove defenders from the box to help the run game.

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