The Husky offensive line was pushed around all day by Alabama’s front four. The Dawgs were barely able to block the players in front of them, let alone get to the second level to block the Crimson Tide’s equally dominating linebackers. Running the ball was simply not going to happen.
In the passing game, UW was forced to keep extra blockers in to help give Jake Browning time to complete short passes. That often meant three or four receivers working against seven NFL-caliber defenders, while still only providing Browning a clean pocket for 2-3 seconds. UW doesn’t boast big targets like Clemson’s, to whom the quarterback can just toss the ball up, which made Browning’s task of finding receivers that much more difficult.
Film Study will dive into all of the offensive struggles in Part 3 of this series, but let’s look at some of the positives before wallowing in the mire. Film Study Part 2 will focus on the Husky defense. That unit played an outstanding game.
We’ll kick off the Peach Bowl Film Study series by taking a look at the Husky touchdown drive. In the background you can almost see Chris Petersen crossing off all the plays he thought might work against the Alabama defense as he used them on this drive.
1st and 10:
While this play did gain positive yards (around three of them), there was more to be had on this screen pass to John Ross. Here are the three main breakdowns that kept that from happening, in order of importance:
Aaron Fuller doesn’t get any sort of block on the safety. Fuller releases down the field, and the safety is initially playing him in coverage. Fuller stops at ten yards, and instead of engaging the safety, waits for him to come up and “be blocked.” The safety runs wide around Fuller, keeping wide containment and forcing Ross more toward the middle of the field. If Fuller had managed to occupy the safety, Ross would’ve continued up the sideline and been able to outrun Alabama’s pursuit.
Kaleb McGary doesn’t get much of a block on the inside linebacker (Reuben Foster). Like Fuller, he waits for his defender to come to him instead of stepping up and engaging him. Coupled with the safety’s wide containment, this missed block allows Foster to use his athleticism to ultimately make the play.
The pressure on Jake Browning has some influence, but this isn’t a great pass or a great route. Even before the ball is thrown, Ross is starting to drift backward instead of staying parallel to the line of scrimmage. Browning exacerbates this by leading Ross even further backward with the ball, but he possibly thought that was necessary to avoid the blitzing safety coming at him (but it wasn’t). The end result is that this lateral play loses some of its rhythm, and an Alabama defense that is excellent in pursuit is able to quickly close on the ball carrier.
This isn’t a play that’s going to end up on the John Ross 2016 Highlight Reel. It’s possible that he slipped at the end, but it looks like he’s trying to avoid contact here. He probably wasn’t going to be able to run through the tackle attempt, but it doesn’t appear that he tries very hard to milk this play, either.
2nd and 6:
This is a throw that Browning completed almost at will early in the season, and one that he has to make against a team like Alabama (and USC, and all of the better defenses the Huskies will face) in 2017. He actually has time to make this timing throw. But he hesitates, which not only allows the rush to close in on him and narrow his field of view, but shrinks the window available to make the throw to the wide receiver.
It’s a three-step drop out of the shotgun, and Browning needs to step into the throw the second his back foot hits the ground on his third step. Instead, he hitches and gathers, and cuts down his margin for error on the pass. Had he thrown on time, instead of the three-yard window he gave himself to get the ball to Dante Pettis, he would’ve had double that.
The other thing to note on this play is the violence on display from Alabama’s four-man rush. In particular, center Coleman Shelton and right guard Nick Harris aren’t just being moved backward, they’re being punched, shoved, pushed, and pulled with intent to cause bodily harm.
Browning had time, and the protection was good enough. But from this angle you can really see what killed this play: Browning’s footwork. Specifically, he never really gets over the top of his plant leg, and ends up falling away from the throw. He’s effectively throwing this ball off his heels instead of his toes. A sailing football is a common occurrence when this happens. Browning’s a tad late as mentioned, but the real reason this ball is off target is his feet. As Chris Petersen mentioned after the season, Browning may have not been 100% healthy the second half of the year, including this game. We don’t know how he was beat up, so it’s tough to say if this mechanical problem is a result of injury, or if it’s just bad fundamentals.
3rd and 6:
There are a couple of things to note about this play.
First, the benefit of having five receivers in the pass route, without keeping a back or tight end in to block: with a four-man rush and two high safeties playing center field, the remaining five defenders all have responsibilities that keep their eyes out of the backfield. If a quarterback can escape that initial rush and make a quick decision, he’s likely to have green grass in front of him, as Browning does on this play. When a tight end or back stays in to block, there’s a defender that doesn’t have coverage responsibilities, and can effectively cover that vacated middle of the field. Browning isn’t a real runner, but he had scrambles like this available on a couple of other opportunities against Alabama.
The second note is how one breakdown kills a play. Trey Adams blocks his man. So does Kaleb McGary. Nick Harris and Coleman Shelton negate the defensive tackle (albeit with a double team). Jake Eldrenkamp, though, stands up straight at the snap; he’s flat-footed, and when he makes those two mistakes, he’s simply not a good enough athlete to handle a much quicker, much stronger defensive tackle.
Browning may have been able to fit the ball in to Aaron Fuller on the quick out, or Ross on the corner route to the other side, but instead he makes the wise decision to tuck the ball. Alabama’s defense doesn’t find him until he’s well down the field.
Alabama’s defense is in a cover 5, which is a man-to-man defense underneath and two high safeties. You can really see how the pass defenders are eyes-on with their receivers, and not in position to find the quarterback. You can also see the breakdowns of Eldrenkamp: he’s on his heels, his base (feet) are too wide, and he’s too tall. He was beaten on his first step.
1st and 10:
This is an extremely well-designed throw-back screen.
The Huskies use play-action, and pull Jake Eldrenkamp for a power look. Myles Gaskin fakes a counter run back away from the trap block action, and then fakes sealing the edge for the “obvious” throw to the offense’s right on Browning’s sprint-out action. All of the offense’s action is to its right, and Alabama follows it.
The left side of the line gives a fake on the pass blocking, and Alabama’s defensive line buys the pass action and rushes—fruitlessly. At the last moment, Browning turns and wheels back to his left, and targets a wide-open Myles Gaskin. Trey Adams and Jake Eldrenkamp do a great job of being patient on their downfield releases. If Nick Harris had gotten any sort of block on Foster, there was more to be had, as Gaskin could’ve gotten upfield sooner and not had to run so wide. As it was, the offense used Alabama’s aggressiveness against them, and turned this little screen into a twenty-yard gain.
1st and 10:
This is smashmouth football from the UW offense: the familiar power run, toward the strength of the formation, but with no success. There are three primary failures here, in order of importance:
Nick Harris is the pulling guard. The Huskies are “trapping” the defensive tackle, #93. Harris comes around, with a head of steam, toward a man already engaged by Trey Adams. This should be easy pickings. Instead, Harris is thrown out of the way by a dominant interior defensive force like the undersized one-year-removed-from-high-schooler he is.
Out of deference to the ability of Alabama’s defensive line, the Huskies pay much more attention to the defensive tackle than they have all year. Typically, Trey Adams would merely chip the tackle on his way to the playside inside linebacker; in the Peach Bowl, he fully engages him for a beat prior to releasing to the second level. Maybe partly due to that fact, Adams doesn’t get any sort of block on the inside linebacker (Foster, #10), who is able to assist on the play.
This wasn’t going to be a big play no matter what, but Lavon Coleman doesn’t hit the hole well. He sees traffic, and stutters instead of attacking. Had he run the play as designed (inside the tackle, instead of trying to dance outside him), he may’ve picked up a positive yard or two. He may have gotten exactly what he got: tackled for a loss. But the dancing of the running backs (instead of just hitting the hole) helped play a role in the lack of a running game.
2nd and 10:
This is a good use of motion to get the play the Huskies want. Chico McClatcher starts outside of John Ross, and comes across the formation. Chico’s and John Ross’s defenders “switch” players, and the corner that winds up over Ross ends up straight over the top of him (as opposed to playing inside or outside leverage). He’s also a couple of yards deep, which is pretty much giving a guy like Ross the slant, if he wants it. And that’s what happens; Browning hits Ross for a gain of nine.
One other thing worth noting on this play: this catch by Ross exemplifies perfectly one of the biggest things he’ll need to clean up by the NFL combine and at his pro day at the UW to improve his draft stock. John Ross is a “body catcher,” as he typically uses his body to assist with the catch instead of just reaching out with his hands, and making them the tool in making the catch. In this case, Ross actually leaves his feet in order to get his body up to the ball. In traffic, that’s a major no-no; being in the air sets him up to take bigger hits than he needs to, and also slows him down in getting up the field.
3rd and 1:
This is an inside zone run with Drew Sample used as the man to create a double team at the point of attack.
The offensive line mostly does its job, considering this is a 3rd and 1 play. Trey Adams is eventually defeated, and his defender makes the tackle, but not until Lavon Coleman is beyond the first-down marker.
A zone play like this is designed to be a one-cut-and-up-the-field run. In this instance, Coleman sees the outside cut and gets himself in position to pick up the yard he needs. He probably should’ve stayed outside once he made his first cut, but in this case, getting the first down is the critical task.
1st and 10:
Once again, formation and motion pay off for the Husky offense. Dante Pettis starts in the backfield, then comes wide to a flanker position to the offense’s right. The shift causes Alabama to have to think and react, and Pettis’ position off the line of scrimmage makes pressing him at the snap difficult at best.
Pettis gets a clean release off the line, and runs a stop-and-go route. The deep safety is occupied by the seam route of tight end David Ajamu while also keeping eyes on Aaron Fuller, and never sees Pettis come out of his break on the fade. Jake Browning throws maybe his best pass of the day.
Since TV won’t show us cool shots like this, the Film Study boys created this awesome “in-sync” view of the play. On the left, you can see the deep safety identify Ajamu as the biggest threat, as he’s going deep while being covered by a linebacker. On the right, you can see Pettis’s move buy him time and space, and see the safety’s late reaction to danger. Browning throws this ball the moment Pettis is even with the corner and makes a perfect toss. Touchdown, Washington.
The Huskies succeeded by running three deep routes into Cover 5 (man underneath, with two deep safeties). They successfully made Alabama think and react, they provided the quarterback time to throw, and they had a great route from the receiver. All at the same time. It was one of the few times they were able to put everything together on the same play. A lot of mojo was used on this one drive, and it was mostly gone the rest of the game.