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Film Study: The Hard to Watch Edition

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Jake Browning wasn’t good, but he’s not the only one

NCAA Football: Southern California at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The world is a better place when the Huskies win. That didn’t happen this past weekend, as they ran into a USC Trojan team that has great talent, was playing outstanding football, and knew how to play keepaway with the momentum of the game. Each time the Huskies looked like they might be able to push forward and seize it, the Trojans took it back.

Was USC simply the superior team? Did they just step on the field and dominate the best Husky team in more than 15 years? Or did the Huskies takes steps to get in their own way?

Let’s go to the film:

3rd and 3:

It’s 3rd and three, and the Huskies are running play action with a power run look to the offense’s left (note Shane Brostek pulling). Tight Drew Sample is coming back across the formation to show the kickout block on the defensive end on the opposite side of the play. It’s not technically a naked bootleg, because Sample is supposed to chip on the defensive end (#45) before getting to the flat, but the end has diagnosed the blitz prior to Sample getting in to position to block, and he deserves credit for that.

The two primary culprits on this play appear to be Dante Pettis, and Browning (we’ll discuss Pettis from the angle behind the play, below). This play wasn’t destined for big things, but Browning has to realize all he needs is three yards. He has the space and time available to stop and hit Sample for the necessary yardage right at the outset of the play. Instead, he holds the ball and drifts toward the sideline, eventually running out of time and has to throw the ball away. In this instance, Browning simply has to throw the ball to the tight end the second it becomes available, because USC’s defensive end has not crashed on the run fake and is in position to apply pressure.

From this angle, you can see that Dante Pettis doesn’t offer any help on the play, and it looks like he misreads the defense. USC’s linebackers have all bitten on the run fake, leaving the middle of the defense open. Had Pettis continued to drag across the middle of the field, he would’ve been open for a substantial chunk of yardage. Instead, he appears to be trying to occupy the safety on the defense’s left, and keep him from coming up in coverage on Sample by cutting upfield toward the post and attempting to run the safety out of the play. But the safety has already begun to come up to attack Sample. It’s hard to tell, but from this angle, it looks like Browning is trying to find Pettis, and that Pettis isn’t quite in the right spot.

1st and 10:

This is a breakdown of epic proportions by two of Washington’s safeties. It’s difficult to say for sure, but they appear to be Budda Baker and Taylor Rapp.

USC is running play action to their left, with a bootleg back to their right. At the snap, you’ll see Baker and Rapp both bite incredibly hard on the run fake, and effectively remove themselves from this play from the get go, as neither has any chance to get back into any semblance of coverage. Additionally, Psalm Wooching is sucked to his right by the run fake, and takes himself out of any chance to apply a pass rush.

Sidney Jones does an excellent job in man coverage, and neutralizes his receiver (bottom of the screen, offense’s right). Keishawn Bierria reacts very well to the tight end’s fake seal block look back across the formation, and picks him up in shallow flat coverage. USC’s receiver #80 is left alone running a drag across the field. He mistakenly looks to go deep because he’s so open. However, Sam Darnold’s throw is to the correct area, as a deeper throw likely would’ve been defended by Jojo McIntosh.

At the top of the screen (defense’s right), Kevin King is in man coverage, playing with outside-in leverage (meaning he’s taking away the outside of the field first), because he’s expecting to have safety help from either Rapp or Baker.

The coverage on this play is so poor that Darnold is able to throw a lazy broken route back across his body, and no Husky defender is within five yards of the ball when it’s caught.

These next three plays are linked together to show a common theme that existed on Saturday. USC was able to generate a substantial pass rush at times, but on several occasions, Jake Browning made overly dramatic responses to phantom pressure, and his antsy, happy feet cost the Huskies dearly.

3rd and 10:

USC is showing a four man rush, and one drops off at the snap. There is simply no pressure on this play. The closest thing to it is to Jake Browning’s right, which means that’s the one area Browning needs to avoid. Instead, that’s right where Browning goes, for a second. He realizes his mistake and stops, but that moment of indecision precludes him from being able to throw the ball. To Dante Pettis, who was wide open on this play (not visible from this camera angle).

If there was any move to be made by Browning, it was up in the pocket, not wide.

3rd and 9:

Again, Browning leaves the pocket before the pocket has broken down. And as it turns out, the offensive line does exactly what it was supposed to do to negate the end-tackle twist. To compound his misread, Browning doesn’t stop and reset, but instead continues to drift toward the sideline. In this particular instance, this is an especially bad decision, as Browning is moving to his right, and three of his five receivers are running routes on the opposite side of the field. One of the recievers on the right is Lavon Coleman in a flat safety valve, meaning Browning has moved toward a one receiver side of the field.

Had Browning not left the pocket, or at least elected to move left instead of right, he had two open receivers on this play, and either would’ve had a first down had Browning made the throw.

1st and 10:

Once again, there is no real pressure, and if there would be, it’s to Browning’s right, which is the direction he chooses to roll. And once again, all of the receivers where working on the opposite side of the field.

The point here certainly isn’t to cast all of the blame on Jake Browning for the offense’s ineffectiveness. He did face a significant pass rush from the Trojans. But he also contributed to his own lack of time to throw the ball on several occasions by leaving the pocket too soon, and leaving to an area that left him no chance to throw the ball if he were to elude the rush.

The other factor that you’ll note from each of these three examples was the lack of receivers scrambling back in to the picture to provide targets for their quarterback. In too many instances, the Huskies’ receivers responses to scramble situations were to run deep instead of back toward the ball.

1st and 10:

The Huskies are blitzing an inside linebacker. Conner O’Brien drops back into the hook zone, meaning the Huskies are still attempting to play zone behind the blitz. If this is the case, there’s a lack of communication between Sidney Jones and Budda Baker as to who is covering the deep zone, as both of them (along with Keishawn Bierria) are playing short. If the the motion of the running back to that side (the defense’s left) signals man coverage, then the culprit is Bierria for letting his man release deep without following him. Either way, this is a breakdown in the defense with a relatively easy fix. The apparent confusion of Jones, Baker and Bierria - the imprecise drops and coverages - suggest that someone was supposed to be someplace else on the snap.

The blitz is easily picked up, but the extra attention it garners from the offensive line gives Psalm Wooching a free path to the quarterback. Wooching takes a bad line, and as he bends his attack angle to parallel with the line of scrimmage, he allows Darnold to easily run around him. Bierria moves to his left with the motion of the running back, and initially covers the tight end (#82) lined up in the slot. When Darnold breaks the pocket, the tight end shows great awareness of the situation and releases to the open area of the field. Bierria doesn’t follow him (which he would’ve in man coverage) and there’s no one taking away that space in zone (either Baker or Jones, if that was the design). The easiest answer is that Bierria should’ve stuck with the tight end, but there just appears to be a lot of confusion and wasted motion at the snap - it just looks like someone was supposed to be doing something different.

Here you can get a feel for the first thing that goes wrong - Wooching’s rush. While he makes Darnold move, the defense simply couldn’t afford to waste free rushes like this one on Saturday. This is a play that Wooching absolutely has to make.

While you can’t see the DB’s actions at the beginning of the play, you can see that the end result is three men on short flat coverage, but not in great man technique. It’s possible that Baker’s actions are the result of seeing that his man is moving directly into Bierria’s coverage, and that there’s no need to follow (which would mean that Bierria should’ve been with the tight end).

Regardless of what the mistake was exactly, this was a coverage breakdown, with a solution that isn’t overly complicated. It wasn’t a matter of USC simply having better football players.

2nd and 11:

Watch the clock from the snap until the ball is thrown - Sam Darnold is given six relaxed, pressure-free seconds in the pocket to sit back and wait for someone to come open. What’s maybe even worse is that the Huskies are playing Vita Vea, Greg Gaines, and Elijah Qualls at the same time, and the Huskies’ four man rush has absolutely no effect. The Huskies’ line wouldn’t have gotten to Darnold if they’d had ten seconds. Or a minute. Covering that long is asking too much of any secondary. Against USC’s receivers, it’s grounds for mutiny.

The secondary is actually getting the job done, outside of covering #1, who’s open several seconds before the ball is thrown. Taylor Rapp fails to identify him in any meaningful way on this play.

Hey, Mr. USC tight end who’s working across the end zone from left to right - that’s a nice push-off there at the end of the play. A similar push by a USC tight end was a key play in USC’s touchdown right before the half - you can watch it here. It’s too bad they’ve never made interference by the offense a penalty. If I was on any sot of rules committee, that’d be my first suggestion. (Yes, the penalty had no impact on the play. The only reason to mention it was to show the one that actually mattered.)

3rd and 2:

This is a “naked bootleg,” as there’s no one blocking the defender that’s given a free rush at the quarterback. The idea is that the defensive tackle will bite on the run fake, and take himself out of the play.

The offensive line is showing a zone play to the left side, all blocking down. Nobody blocks the defensive tackle (#94). Unfortunately, the tackle does a fantastic job of reading the play, and isn’t fooled by Jake Browning’s ball fake. Instead, he charges straight at the quarterback and makes the play.

Maybe Browning and Gaskin could’ve done a better job of selling the fake. Sometimes, though, you just have to tip your cap to the opposition. This was a great play by the defense, and it forced the Huskies into settling for a field goal.

The Huskies ran bootleg action several times against USC, without much success.

2nd and 10:

This touchdown drive was the one that hurt the Huskies the most. After kicking a field goal to cut the score to 10-6, the Huskies gave up a touchdown in the final two minutes of the half that firmly gave the Trojans momentum and confidence going in to the second half.

Jojo McIntosh blows his coverage on this play. He’s over the slot receiver, and simply lets him run down the field, as if McIntosh is playing flat coverage in a zone defense. The result is that Sidney Jones is left trying to cover two men running down the field right next to each other, and the single high safety is far too far away to offer any assistance.

Conner O’Brien isn’t rushing on this play, and has instead left to cover the flat. The same flat that McIntosh is covering, in this case. There’s no logical coverage that could’ve been called here dictating McIntosh not stay with his receiver man-to-man. Jones is left in an untenable position, and USC picks up an easy 20 yards on a single assignment breakdown.

1st and 10:

When the running back goes into motion on this play, USC has four receivers to their right, and the Huskies only have three men to defend them. There’s at least one assignment breakdown on this play, and possibly (probably?) a few of them.

DJ Beavers starts the play over the H-back, and presumably could cover him. Beavers follows the running back’s motion out of the backfield, though, and is covering him man-to-man. The Huskies’ ability to run any sort of zone coverage to that side of the field is negated, and the only people that could now cover the H-back with the alignment of the defense are the other inside linebacker, who has almost no chance of covering any outside route, or the deep free safety, who is way too far away to do anything but make a tackle. Well after the snap, Keishawn Bierria leaves to cover the H-back, but has no chance to affect the play.

One of the following likely should’ve happened:

1: Jojo McIntosh should’ve aligned himself on the three-receiver side of the field when the offense showed its formation; as it was, he left himself with no real responsibilities on the play.

2: Bierria should’ve adjusted over the H-back with the motion of the running back, and McIntosh should’ve come to the middle of the field to assist with QB draws and crossing routes.

3: Taylor Rapp should’ve come up in coverage, and McIntosh should’ve replaced Rapp as the deep free safety.

And maybe more. The fact is, the Huskies broke down defensively, and USC was able to make them pay.

3rd and 7:

This play looks like a good example of how the physical part of the game was affecting Jake Browning mentally. In the face of the rush, and without a lot of success, the cool, calm Browning that was as likely to throw to his third option on a given play was almost completely locked in on a single receiver each play much of the game.

On this 3rd and seven play, Browning’s eyes never leave Dante Pettis. With a clean pocket and plenty of time, Browning ends up forcing a ball into a receiver that’s not only well-covered, but has a safety shading him over the top.

And John Ross is open on this play. The corner over him is giving a huge cushion, and Ross runs a (somewhat lazy) square-in at 12 yards. Had Browning seen him and delivered the ball on Ross’ break, it’s an easy first down and goal to go, if Ross doesn’t score himself on the play. Instead, the Huskies last, best chance to seize momentum turned into a blocked field goal and a long, slow countdown to the first loss of the season.

The Huskies were beaten physically on Saturday. The problem was that they let the physical losses turn into mental ones as well, as the team made mistakes on both sides of the ball that were entirely out of character. The mental mistakes turned in to other physical errors, which were compounded by subsequent mental errors, and so on and so on. The game turned in to a snowball of negative momentum, and neither the coaches nor players could come up with anything to stanch the bleeding. USC won the game, no doubt. But Washington didn’t lose with anything close to its best effort. A team that had impressed with its maturity and poise all season suddenly looked young again, and seemingly unable to cope with the moment. Two more very important conference games remain; let’s see how Browning and the Huskies respond.