Hot Reads:  How TFLs Are Tripping Up the Nebraska Offense
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: How TFLs Are Tripping Up the Nebraska Offense

September 11, 2019

Nebraska has only had six touchdown drives so far this season. If you'd asked me to set the over-under for this number after two games, I probably would've put it at 9.5. The Huskers had key pieces to replace on offense, yes, but I thought they'd overcome that with the increased efficiency of a Year 2 offense.

That hasn't happened yet.

". . .[W]e had 13 or 14 possessions [against Colorado]," Scott Frost said on Monday. "We only had four without a sack, a penalty, or a tackle for loss. We scored on all four of those. So we’re just not efficient enough to be as consistent as we want to be, but a lot of good things happened in the game."

In addition to those four clean drives, Nebraska scored a touchdown on one that was a little messy. Its second touchdown drive against the Buffs included a tackle for loss––right before Colorado ran into the punter, extending the drive––and a false start inside the CU 5-yard line. The Huskers still punched it in for a touchdown.

But Frost's point is a poignant one. Putting penalties aside for a second, tackles for loss are more powerful than they're given credit for. That's why they're one of the key ingredients in what the Huskers' try to cook up on defense.

Here's the impact those plays had on Nebraska's 2018 defense: 

The Huskers had 50 TFLs a year ago that didn't come on a drive ended by the half. (I'm removing those from this calculation.) Of those 50 drives with a TFL, eight ended in field goals (16%) and nine ended in touchdowns (18%) for a total scoring percentage of 34%. On Nebraska's 107 defensive drives without a TFL, the Huskers' opponents tallied seven field goals (6.5%) and 38 touchdowns (35.5%) to score on 42.1% of drives. 
While the run-of-the-mill tackle of a running back 2 yards behind the line might not merit much notice, those plays have drive-stopping power, or at least damage-limiting capabilities when you look at the difference between the touchdown numbers. Get a tackle for loss and a defense's odds of getting stop go up. Simple as that.

And here is the impact it's having on the Huskers' offense in 2019. (Note: For the missed field goal against South Alabama, I counted it as a drive ending on downs. I also didn't include the overtime drive against Colorado.)

Touchdown 18.2% 26.7%
Field Goal 0.0% 6.7%
Punt 63.6% 26.7%
Turnover 9.1% 26.7%
On Downs 9.1% 13.2%

When it comes to punting, those drive outcomes aren't that surprising. When the Huskers suffer a tackle for loss (which include sacks), that drive has ended in a punt 63.6% of the time. Don't give up a tackle for loss and the punt percentage drops to 26.7. Again, tackles for loss are extraordinarily powerful.

But what's weird here is that the decrease in punts on drives without a tackle for loss isn't leading to a big increase in scoring. The reason? Turnovers. On those drives when the Huskers don't lose yards, they're scoring a touchdown, punting or turning it over at an equal rate. That has to be galling for Nebraska's staff. 

The Huskers' success rate on drives without a tackle for loss is 46.8%. They're putting good pressure on the defense by staying ahead of the chains. These are advantageous situations and it makes Nebraska's turnovers to date particularly ill-timed. There was the interception against South Alabama which happened with the Huskers on the brink of a scoring opportunity. There was the fumble against the Jaguars two drives later when Nebraska had finally gotten an explosive run (13 yards) and a first down on the drive. Against Colorado, the first fumble killed a scoring opportunity and the interception came after the Huskers already had one first down on the drive.

“When we get a first down going,” Frost said, “we are going to be on the field longer and then I feel confident about using tempo more, getting in a rhythm where you can set something up with something else.” To turn it over after that’s happened, then, feels like an even bigger loss.

Maybe this is a good news-bad news situation. The bad news, of course, is the turnovers. The good news is that they're happening at times when they should be less likely. That gives you a good idea of how inconsistent Nebraska's offensive execution has been so far this season.

There's another piece to this TFL discussion. It has to do with the length of drives. That's why explosive plays are so powerful. Make drives longer and a defense is increasing the opportunities for an offense to screw up. That may seem simple, but it's true. These are college offenses. They're not always finely tuned machines.

Nebraska's average touchdown drive this season has required eight plays. Remove Maurice Washington's 75-yard swing pass touchdown and the average is up to 9.4. That's a lot of exposure for an offense still trying to find its footing.

"You know, in this offense we need some big plays, too, and we got two really big ones today," Frost said after the Colorado loss. "But not what I'm used to getting in calling this offense and we've got to find ways to get some more chunk plays so we're not having to bring out 12-play drives."

It's a pretty simple equation. If TFLs are the landmines for offensive drives, would you rather take 12 steps through the minefield or something less? Nebraska has had that "more steps" problem early this season, but that's not all. The Huskers have also given the ball away too many times, and often after it has already picked its way through most of the minefield.

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