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Film Study: Washington Huskies’ Defense Swallows Stanford

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How the hell did they do that?

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The Huskies played their game of the season last Friday night, and while they may not have such a near-perfect effort again, they dominated Stanford by simply playing sound, physical football. Before we begin clearing a space in the trophy case for the BCS crown, we should consider that Stanford may not have a terrific offense. Their QB came into the game 13th in passing yards in the Pac-12, and concerns about the Cardinal offensive line were voiced before the game.

Still, teams have not done what Washington did to Stanford in the David Shaw era. Today we’ll shed some light on why the Dawgs were so dominant on the defensive side of the ball.

2nd and 11:

This first play is an I-formation power lead. It’s similar in design to the power runs Lavon Coleman used against Arizona for so much success, in that there’s a pulling guard from the left side leading a back through the hole on the right. This particular version of it would have been something the Green Bay Packers used in winning back-to-back Super Bowls in the 1960’s.

This play, from this formation, is the height of Stanford’s offensive arrogance. I don’t mean that in a bad way, to be clear. Typically, the I-formation has two receivers (one to each side), with a tight end, and two backs behind the QB. In this case, Stanford has removed the receiver (the flanker) from the offense’s right side and replaced him with an additional tight end. What makes this play “arrogant” is that the second tight end is on the line of scrimmage, which makes the tight end inside of him an ineligible receiver (only the furthest-out man from the ball on the line of scrimmage is allowed to move beyond the line of scrimmage on a pass play). This play is a bludgeoning tool. Stanford is perfectly content to telegraph the run by formation and alignment, and then run this play over, and over, and over again until the defense stops it; and then run it a few more times to make sure that first stop wasn’t just a fluke. Somewhere in the middle there they’ll run the pass compliment out of it, which is a bootleg or half-roll to the right side, with the tight end, fullback and halfback running a multi-layered flood route to the right side, and the receiver on the left either running a post or deep drag back to the right. This is a play that is both mentally and physically draining on a defense (when it works); you know what’s coming, but there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

Two things make this play. The first is Sidney Jones’ willingness and ability to neutralize the lead block of the fullback, well behind the line of scrimmage. One of two things happened here with Jones; either Stanford ran this play in to a well-timed run blitz by the Huskies, or the defensive key on this play was for Jones to attack the backfield due to the formation, with the knowledge that the safety (Budda Baker) and the linebackers would be available and able to neutralize the threat of the pass. Either way, he takes out the lead blocker.

The second key is that Psalm Wooching is able to defeat the block of the tight end (#96) over the top of him, and then to suck up the block of the pulling guard as well, keeping him from getting to the second level linebackers and leaving them free to get the glory of making the tackle. Stanford’s right tackle initially gets a good block on Elijah Qualls, but Qualls keeps his feet and is able to assist on the tackle. Had the timing of the play been better from the standpoint of the offense, Qualls would’ve been a non-factor. Greg Gaines more than does his job by taking on the down-blocking right guard and pushing him backward into the hole, creating traffic for the running back to negotiate.

This was man-on-man football, and the Huskies won pretty handily.

Here you can really see the aggressiveness of the UW secondary in run support, and how stout Wooching was at the point of attack. Azeem Victor reads the flow of the play and takes away the outside run from McCaffrey. Great hustle by Qualls as well.

3rd and 11:

This play is an “end-tackle twist” on the left side of the Huskies’ defense, on an obvious passing down. Instead of rushing straight up the field on the snap, Elijah Qualls works to the outside and attacks Stanford’s right tackle. The right guard also steps out with Qualls, failing to notice Psalm Wooching patiently waiting on a looping upfield rush. As soon as the guard fully commits to double-teaming Qualls, he creates a lane for Wooching to cut inside and straight to the quarterback. Wooching is far enough upfield before coming back inside to the QB that he’s outside the fullback’s (#82) field of vision. The fullback notices him far too late to actually do anything to affect Wooching’s rush.

Wooching gets the stats on this play, but the key here is actually the rush ability of Elijah Qualls, and the respect Stanford shows his ability to rush the passer. Had Stanford’s right guard known that the tackle could handle Qualls, he would’ve held his position in the pocket, and been in position to pick up Wooching’s late rush.

Watch Stanford’s right tackle’s (#77) head; the outside rush of Wooching plus the outside release of Qualls puts him in stress. The right guard fails to engage Qualls in any meaningful way at the snap, and then chooses to follow Qualls up the field instead of looking for a rusher coming through his zone. You can see him realize that mistake, just a moment too late.

2nd and 6:

Stanford tries to get fancy, and it blows up in their collective faces.

The Tree really try to sell the run to their left, pulling both guards as lead blockers. But this play is dead from jump street, as Conner O’Brien gives a clinic in “How to Play Outside Containment While Not Getting Blown up by a Quarterback’s Block” that he may autograph and send to Arizona’s unfortunate defensive end

O’Brien is smart and patient; he diagnoses the play and instead of simply attempting to defeat the block of Ryan Burns, he strings out the play laterally by keeping himself parallel to the line of scrimmage and waits for the cavalry. This is the smart play, because attacking Burns could’ve potentially created a cutback angle.

By quickly and correctly diagnosing the play, and then maintaining the outside containment instead of attacking the ball carrier up the field, O’Brien makes this play. It’s just a matter of who’s going to get the glory for actually making the tackle and for how many lost yards. Keishawn Bierria whiffs at the first attempt, and then in a bit of poetic justice, O’Brien finishes the ball carrier off.

Look at how quickly Bierria reads this play, and then closes on the ball carrier. That’s great speed. Vita Vea also reads the play, and is one of the four Huskies working in tandem to hem in this play.

1st and 10:

This is an inside power run to the offense’s left, and Stanford is pulling both its center and right guard. But then Elijah Qualls happens.

Stanford’s right guard absolutely whiffs on his down block attempt on Qualls, who is lightning-quick off the snap. His penetration negates any opportunity of the play succeeding to the left.

But the running back is Christian McCaffrey, and he frequently makes big plays in this situation, and as we’ve previously documented in this film study, the cutback to the opposite side of the field is frequently available for a big gain out of this play (although typically more fluid than on this play).

Credit is due to Stanford’s QB Ryan Burns on this play. He sees the cutback by McCaffrey, and then works up the field as a blocker. And he actually gets a decent block on Jojo Mathis.

What turns this potential broken-play big-gainer into a mundane gain of two is the recognition and patience of Sidney Jones. Jones doesn’t bite on the receiver’s attempt to run Jones out of the play, and has the awareness to see McCaffrey cutting back against the grain. Instead of attacking the ball carrier and potentially creating a cutback lane, Jones squares himself to the line and simply waits for McCaffrey to come to him. Jones, McCaffrey and Keishawn Bierria all arrive at the same point in time and space, and it’s an easy tackle.

There’s nothing highlight-worthy on this play outside of Qualls incredibly quick reaction off the ball. But it’s the perfect example of the Washington defense playing smart, patient, assignment-sound defense in bottling up what has been an electric offensive player.

Nice job by Mr. Burns (EX-cellent). But when you watch McCaffrey, he just doesn’t have anyplace to go. Mr. Jones and me, we tell each other fairytales.....

All-American Sidney Jones, doing All-American things. Enjoy him while he’s here, because the countdown is on for this man to be a millionaire.

3rd and 10:

This play ended up as a personal foul penalty (and phantom holding by Jones) against the Huskies and a Stanford first down, but it’s worth looking at for a couple of reasons.

First things first. If I was an offensive lineman, I’d probably pee my pants at the thought of having to block Elijah Qualls lined up in a four-point stance two feet away from me. But Elijah Qualls with a perfectly-timed five yard run at me? No thanks. I quit.

This is an end-tackle twist, with Qualls lined up as a blitzing linebacker. He runs through Stanford’s right guard, and straight at the right tackle. Conner O’Brien is the twisting end on this play (instead of Wooching from the first example), and you’ll notice he doesn’t get as far up the field as Wooching. The right guard recovers from Qualls’ bull rush, and is able to slow O’Brien’s free rush down. O’Brien ends up hitting the quarterback in the face for a penalty. It’s an effort play on his part, so it’s tough to be too upset with him. But the real beauty of this play is the different ways the defensive coaches found to deploy Qualls in this game, and the willingness of Qualls to give himself up as a decoy so his teammates could enjoy the glory.

The second part of this play worth watching again-and-again-and-again is the simple joy of appreciating Sidney Jones in man coverage. Jones was called for holding on this play, but you can see the penalty was actually on Taylor Rapp in coverage of the tight slot man coming across the field. The receiver gets an inside release on Jones, but Jones knows he has Jojo McIntosh in deep help (this is a Cover 1 defense, with man underneath and a single free safety “helping” from a very deep position). Really though, Jones baits this throw. He knows he has the speed to essentially recover from his trailing position at will. Ryan Burns throws a good-but-not-great pass, and Jones easily cuts in front for a huge interception.

It was all for naught, but still an example of great defensive design and execution.

2nd and 7:

The Huskies are in their 2-4-5 nickel, and this play is “bullets” rush from the two ends. The goal is to meet at the quarterback. And that’s what happens.

Psalm Wooching makes a great move on this play. His initial rush is thwarted by Stanford’s left tackle. Instead of just continuing to bull the tackle, or to run around him, Wooching gives what’s known as a “push-pull” move to get the tackle slightly off balance. Wooching attacks the left shoulder of the tackle and gets him leaning in that direction. He then quickly pulls the tackle back to his right (Wooching’s left) to get him off balance. Wooching is then quick enough to use that slight gap to get around the tackle and to the quarterback. And the secondary is able to cover long enough to make the rush pay off.

On the other side of the line of scrimmage, Elijah Qualls is aligned as a four-technique end (over the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle). Jojo Mathis has aligned himself as a nine-technique end (outside of the tight end). Mathis is in a speed rushing position. He’s easily quick enough to duck underneath the attempted block of the right tackle, and strong enough to blow through Christian McCaffrey’s half-hearted attempt to assist.

Hopefully this angle gives you a better visual of Wooching’s move; as he’s working upfield, he pulls the tackle off balance and back to the inside.

This is just great effort by Mathis, even though he doesn’t make the play.

3rd and 13:

Most 3-4 teams struggle to find one true fire plug to clog the middle of the line and demand a double team on each play. The Huskies have three guys that can legitimately get that job done, in Qualls, Greg Gaines, and Vita Vea.

On this play, the Huskies have two of them in the game. Qualls is lined up as a three-technique tackle on the defense’s right, between the guard and tackle. Gaines is lined up as a two-technique tackle, over the right guard. Stanford’s center ends up helping the left guard block Qualls, leaving the right guard one-on-one with Gaines. But at the snap, you’ll notice in the gif below that the center isn’t really doing anything of any real value, until Qualls spins to the inside. Gaines is slanting to his right, and is quicker off the ball than the guard - who actually should have the advantage here. Credit the crowd noise for making a voice cadence almost impossible Friday night.

You can really see that Stanford’s center offered no real value to the offense on this play. He doesn’t recognize Gaines’ inside slant.

Welcome to Ryan Burns’ world. Seeing that much humanity coming at him right off the snap has to be frustrating. Great effort by Gaines.

4th and 2:

The first amazing thing about this play is the concession Stanford is making here. It’s 4th and 2, and Stanford is going to throw the ball.

Psalm Wooching is showing coverage on this play head up on a receiver in a tight slot. He’s on a delayed rush, which allows him again to pick his rush lane. In this instance, Elijah Qualls and Greg Gaines are in the same alignment they frequently show in this nickel defense (it’s essentially an “under” front, with Qualls on the offense’s weak side in the 3-tech, and Gaines is in the 2-tech). Gaines is slanting to the inside, and Qualls is working up the field in the same twist we’ve already seen. Wooching pauses, and then takes the route unencumbered to the quarterback. Had he not been there to make the tackle, Qualls almost undoubtedly would have. Wooching’s initial alignment in coverage means that the offensive line doesn’t account for him in its pocket protection.

Credit again to Qualls; he’s off the ball at the exact moment the offense is. He’s working upfield to create the lane for Wooching, but gets pushed inside toward the QB. So, he decides he might as well go ahead and make a play....

Ryan Burns just didn’t have much fun out there on Friday. He does an admirable job of keeping his eyes down the field, but you can tell that he’s feeling the rush long before it actually gets home. Let’s also credit Bierria on this play; the guy leads the nation in fumble recoveries (4) and there is a reason. How often do you see defensive players attempt to pick up the ball or just dive on it. Bierria uses perfect technique of sliding to the ground and gathering it into his body (in this case, swiping it out from under the 300 lb ass of RT Casey Tucker). It was 4th down so the recovery was academic, but he has done this throughout his Husky career.

This was an incredible defensive effort for the night, both for the fact that it was mostly simple in design (which makes it imminently repeatable), and that it was such a total team effort. To a man, the Huskies simply did their jobs play in and play out. Psalm Wooching ended up with the individual rewards in the game and in the media afterward, but the plays that he made were in large part due to efforts of his teammates.

The Huskies dominated Stanford by being more physical along the line of scrimmage. Oregon presents a much different type of challenge; they aren’t a physically dominant offense, but instead are built to create and attack space, with speed. It’s a good thing the Huskies physically dominating defense also happens to be exceptionally fast....