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A bird’s-eye view of UW’s receivers

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One fan’s observations from a road game gone very, very badly.

The UK Basks In Summer Weather
From left: Skip Bayless, Adam Jude, Chris Landon
Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

UW fans are deep into their task of processing their own grief following UW’s awful 13-7 loss to Arizona State last weekend. Dogs have been kicked. Children have been disowned. Bosses have been screamed at. Friends have been unfriended. Alcohol sales have skyrocketed.

It is a good thing that UW is an urban school. Over in the Palouse, they’ve experienced all of the same grief-processing issues. But additional steps have had to be taken to protect the farm animals.

The reason that this cow is surprised is tastefully cropped out of this photograph.

Husky fans all over this forum (and everywhere else, I’m sure) have been trying to digest what was easily the worst offensive performance of the UW offense since Chris Petersen came to the program. When you consider that the Huskies had more success against Alabama with a one-armed QB at the helm than they did the Arizona State Sun Devils with a mostly-healthy squad, any idea that the opponent was some kind of buzz-saw that the Dawgs unluckily just happened to run into flies out the window.

The Huskies were bad on offensive. Putrid even. And it must be their own fault.

Cited reasons for the failures have literally spanned the entire gamut. Reviewing our comments sections, I’ve seen each of the following:

  • playcalling sucked
  • the QB can’t read the blitz
  • the offensive line couldn’t prevent base pressure
  • the running backs took the wrong lanes
  • we ran too much
  • we ran too little
  • the QB can’t make a decision
  • the QB overthrows everybody
  • the tight ends were not utilized enough
  • the three tight end sets were over utilized
  • the receivers are not very good

... and the list goes on.

While most of the items on this list are transient arguments somewhat specific to the ASU game, a few of these issues have crept up in just about every game this year. None has drawn as much attention as the status of UW’s receiving corps.

There has been much speculation that UW’s receivers are just not as good as a year ago. Well, duh, John Ross was pretty dang good. Nevertheless, 65% of you polled in August thought that UW’s receivers would actually be better this year than last.

So, what gives?

As Brad and John have noted in their Film Study sessions, it is really hard to assess receivers until after they’ve caught the ball because the televised feeds don’t often show all of the action. We can’t easily see what is happening as receivers run routes and, thus, the mere mortals among us are left to guess what is happening outside the television frame.

Coaches and analysts, however, have access to game cut-up videos comprised of so-called “All-22” views of the field. These films plus their bird’s eye view from the press box during live action help to fill in the gaps on overall performance of a team, including the play of receivers before the ball is thrown.

For ASU, I was afforded access to a highly-regarded analyst who had studied UW’s receivers using All-22 tapes from this season and a view of the game from the press box. Since I was not allowed alcohol (talk about being sober for the wrong football game) in the press box, I thought I’d take some notes and have some discussions focused on UW’s receiving corps so that I could pass them along in this forum. I was not able to capture any images or clips (these are somewhat controlled materials), but I am able to share some of the insights that came from this experience.

I had three big takeaways.


Jake is hesitating

Many issues with the receiving corps appear to be originating with the QB. In short, Jake is not on time or in rhythm on many of his passing attempts. This is an observation that many people have already made based simply on looking at Browning during his drop-backs and comparing that to whatever we all have in our memory-banks from last season. What is interesting to me is that the big problems don’t always occur on the plays he doesn’t throw at all. They often happen when he’s just a little slow in pulling the trigger.

Much of this hesitancy might be explained by all of the new bodies that Browning is trying to work into the offense. Many of us have speculated that he doesn’t yet “trust” many of the new receivers not named Hunter Bryant, especially with both Andre Baccellia and Chico McClatcher injured. There is clear evidence of this (though maybe not as severe as we’ve thought) and it was directly observed in the ASU game.

Surprisingly, the issue isn’t limited to just the new guys. The two top receivers - Dante Pettis and Hunter Bryant - have also been affected by this hesitancy. In fact, I noted on two different occasions that Jake had Dante open early and was looking right at him but, for whatever reason, did not pull the trigger. One such example resulted in the 1st quarter sack (at 1:21 on the game clock) that preceded UW’s blocked punt.

UWDP

In this particular play, you see Browning line up in shotgun and put Pettis into motion towards the boundary. The last thing you see in the TV feed is Dante and TE Will Dissly releasing, both covered by single LB. What you don’t see is that there is a clear window before the safety rotates over where Dante is open ... with Jake looking right at him. The route was effective, even if Dante was open only for a moment. It is a classic “throwing with anticipation” opportunity that we grew accustomed to seeing Browning deliver on last year. Only Jake didn’t make the throw. He instead pulled it back and took a sack.

There was another play that told this story. It happened in the 4th quarter (around 7:24 on the game clock) on the pass to Hunter Bryant from the ASU 21 that sailed high and through the end-zone. If you watch the play on TV, you’ll see a little shuffle from Browning before he uncorks the throw. What you cannot see is that right as he shuffles, Bryant got a step on the LB with clear room to be led.

UWDP

Again, this is only just a moment in time. And it could well be the case that Jake either felt like he didn’t have a lane or he wanted Bryant to get further behind the coverage. Regardless, the open window passed without Jake pulling the trigger. In fact, when he finally did decide to throw it, you see him trying to strongarm the ball into the spot. My colleague noted that Browning has had a number of overthrows this season. Presumably as a result of him trying to put a little extra pepper on the ball as he tries to “catchup” to an open guy.

To be fair, this hasn’t been happening all of the time. There was one back-shoulder pass to Pettis (see the gif below) in the game that was thrown with great anticipation even if the throw was a little off target. On this first down pass, Jake gets good protection on a four-man rush and steps into the throw before Dante makes his break. It was exactly the right throw on the right timing.

UWDP

Jake’s rhythm and trust in his receiver’s routes, I think, is as much an issue as any other aspect of the receiving corps in explaining the decline in pass game performance so far this season. But it isn’t such a glaring issue that it can’t be addressed at practice. That we’ve seen Jake make these throws should encourage fans that this is a fixable problem.


It is true, the receivers are not getting much separation

This was apparent during the ASU game and was testified to by my colleague who had been looking at all of UW’s tape from the season. Unfortunately, I don’t have the ability to put up any good GIF shots on this as the television broadcasts don’t accommodate such evidence.

It is apparent from my review that Browning really wants to attack downfield. It is clearly his instinct to do so and you can see it in his eyes when he drops back to pass. While there are clearly moments when guys do get separation, they don’t have the speed to maintain it or the size to give them a catch radius advantage over a closing defender. John Ross created huge open windows and, as a result, often gave guys like Pettis and McClatcher opportunities with single man coverage to do the same. You just haven’t seen any of that this year.

It’s probably no surprise that Browning has grown a little gunshy. He is trying to balance his instinct to want to go down field with his coaching to protect the ball (his three INTs are second among P12 QBs with 200+ attempts). He knows that he doesn’t have a rocket arm, so he has to be careful. His receivers are not making it any easier for him.

It’s hard to know what to do about this. The most important thing in getting open is route running. That probably explains why guys like Aaron Fuller keep getting snaps despite speed and size limitations while guys like Brayden Lenius and Ty Jones don’t. It’s easy to clamor for a two-deep shake up among receivers, but it doesn’t really matter if the receiver isn’t in the spot that the quarterback expects him to be at a particular moment in time.


Scramble drill opportunities are not getting hit

If you go back to the 8:55 mark of the 3rd quarter (it is the play just after the 1st and Goal play that John and Brad broke down in the Film Study), you’ll see the Huskies run a 2nd down red zone play that resulted in an incompletion out of bounds towards the field side of the play. It’s a two tight end set with Pettis on the left and Fuller lined up on the right.

UWDP

On this play, both tight ends stay home to block (as does Gaskin - talk about not trusting your o-line) on a standard 4-man rush where ASU showed but did not send a blitz. Kaleb McGary gets beat pretty quickly while Jake is flushed out of his pocket and sent scrambling to the right. Classic scramble drill.

Except where are the receivers? You can’t see them in the television feed. I can tell you that Pettis is a complete non-factor. I couldn’t tell if he actually knew that Jake was scrambling, but he made no attempt to get into the play whatsoever. Fuller did eventually realize that his QB was in trouble, but he seemed late to break in the direction that Browning was running. Whether or not he went where he was supposed to go based on the coaching staff’s scramble rules is an open question. It would seem unlikely that either receiver did so appropriately given how Browning reacted to what he saw.

If you abstract out of just the ASU game and think about the season as a whole, it is hard to recall too many plays that have been generated out of the scramble drill. It might be confirmation bias on my part, but it certainly seemed like Browning had more success on pressure plays a year ago. Perhaps that has something more to do with the discipline that John Ross and the other receivers brought at the time or maybe that is on Jake. I couldn’t really tell you.

In any case, my conclusions here are that UW’s passing game woes really are rooted in execution and that there isn’t really anything we are seeing on tape that would lead one to believe that coaching and repetition cannot have a positive impact. Our talent is not ideal in that the players ready to play don’t give Jake Browning the ideal amount of separation or catch radius to target. But even just a little more assertiveness by the QB paired with more focus on scramble rules could add a couple of clutch plays per game and give time for some of UW’s younger, high upside receivers to get more development.