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Opponent Defense Preview: Stanford

Pretty much: Not terrible. Not great.

Oregon v Stanford

This is what I said last year about Stanford:

The thing that’s been the most consistent Stanford-ism across the years, even with their uncharacteristic struggles (relative) up front this season, is the versatility of fronts you see. Whether or not they have the personnel to depend on in any given look, they don’t really give a crap, they’re gonna do the fronts they wanna do and let it all play out.

Was that an aberration or a sign of the future? Well, now that it’s the future, we get to find out.

Personnel and What to Expect

For real, though, is it cheating to just copy what I wrote about the Cardinal last year and add the footnote, “This, amplified”?

Because this, amplified:

The main thing that stands out is that, for the first time since Pete’s been with Washington and then some, there’s nobody who stands out. In the past it felt like Stanford would lose a major havoc-contributor and then there would be someone you kind of remembered from last year and then all the sudden Mr. Oh-I-Kinda-Remember-You would become Mr. Oh-God-Dammit-They-Have-Another-One?, sliding into that role, and then he’d graduate, and so on and so on.

This year, that hasn’t happened. The closest thing to me would be junior DE Jovan Swann, but it’s telling when you look through the roster of Stanford’s defensive line and see names like junior DT Michael Williams and senior DE Dylan Jackson and go “Who?

That’s another thing I wrote down last year. While there’s a few guys that are memorable-ish, the vast majority of the defense are players that opposing fans aren’t really familiar with — and it’s not because they’re young and unproven; of Stanford’s listed defensive starters, seven are seniors. Otherwise, there’s two sophomores, one junior, and one freshman. So, now we can take away that not only do the Cardinal look down this year, they’ll likely be even worse next year.

And it kinda makes sense, given the players who left. Of last year’s defense, the departures particularly hit the linebackers (Bobby Okereke, Joey Alfieri, Mustafa Branch, Sean Barton) and secondary (Alijah Holder, Frank Buncom, and captain Brandon Simmons). So what I’m about to say shouldn’t be all that shocking.

The basics include the same as usual but with worse than usual execution. They’re mostly gonna line up in a nickel with a variety of fronts, combined with the occasional 3-4 or 4-3. They don’t blitz a lot but will change up their pass rush and who goes where frequently. That’s been the case for a while. But what you’ve come to expect from Stanford on defense is two things: physical dominance and consistency. This year, there is neither.

Funnily enough, on the eye test they don’t even look “bad” or anything, rather they just have bad moments, and that’s enough to blow it.

Up front, there’s senior DE Jovan Swann, a preseason All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention, sophomore DE Thomas Booker, and DTs Michael Williams and Dalyn Wade-Perry, a senior and junior, respectively.

They’re flanked by senior outside linebackers Casey Toohill and Jordan Fox, with junior Gabe Reid rotating in who’s shown in the past the ability to cause decent disruption from the edge.

I include the grade years simply to illustrate the situation — short-term and its long-term implications — that the Cardinal find themselves in.

These units on the line and outside are, by my assessment, probably Stanford’s least problematic group. They don’t create a lot of havoc and are usually asked to pressure quarterbacks by themselves, but they aren’t the source of problems for their team, either. For what it’s worth, they had a sequence against Oregon with at least three significant pressures on Justin Herbert including one forced fumble sack (recovered by the Ducks) and two subsequent near-sacks, one of which would’ve been except Herbert got, like, one yard beyond the line of scrimmage. I suppose this group can have trouble getting a hold on ball-carriers, but that’s pretty common for guys with gigantic offensive linemen in their faces.

So the bottom line on the front: not dominant, not scary — but they do their job fine.

And then there’s behind them.

On one hand, the secondary and inside linebackers are, individually, better than most. On the other hand, as a whole, they just don’t seem like they function at their potential.

It’s strange seeing Stanford as they are in 2019 because, the way people are talking about them, you’d think they were the worst defense alive. But mostly, they’re fine. They’re just, in the inside linebackers and secondary, completely mediocre.

And still, none of those issues are attributable to youth; all three linebackers in the two-deep — Andrew Pryts, Curtis Robinson, and Ryan Beecher — are seniors. Their safeties of Malik Antoine and Kendall Williamson are seniors, Paulson Adebo is a junior, and the one freshman on this defense is Kyu Blu Kelly.

Overall, the theme of these two units is inconsistency. Furthermore, both of these units have regressed from years past when it comes to tackling. That, to me, is the most glaring fundamental difference.

It feels to me like the secondary’s problems — more on those in a sec — originate with perhaps trying to overcompensate for the linebackers shoddy execution, although who knows if that’s true since I can’t read all their minds. Namely, in the passing game, it’s not uncommon to see the linebackers drop into coverage in ways that are clearly out of position or not aware of the developments on the field. Particularly against Oregon, multiple simple, quick RPO slants caught linebackers completely neglecting a vulnerable center of the field and ended up giving the Ducks huge yardage and a touchdown.

It also seems to me like the linebackers drift towards the line of scrimmage in general, regardless of the apparent offensive play. When this happens — and it happens more often than David Shaw would presumably like — it leaves a lot of space open.

And, when you look at the linebackers’ weakness in the run, this tendency makes sense too.

That is, in general, they’re not as good of tacklers as Stanford’s seen in the past. Not terrible, just not great. Related, they seem to have difficulty getting off blocks and have multiple times run pretty much right into blockers.

Which brings us back to the secondary.

Remember the whole “maybe they’re compensating for the linebackers’ weaknesses” line from like four paragraphs ago? Yeah, so... I could be wrong about that. I could be wrong, and the secondary’s weakness could just be a result of them being worse than usual. But, given their abilities in the past and the glaring issues in the linebackers, I don’t think I am.

Regardless, though, the results are the same.

Because the secondary has been burned many times on deep and long-mid-range throws this year. Like, quite a lot. Against UCF, there were multiple of those and two touchdowns at least (I couldn’t keep track) in the first quarter alone. Against USC, the same issues came up. And on and on. It appears there’s a pattern.

And I wouldn’t necessarily be so quick to think it’s a result of the linebackers’ weaknesses living permanently in the defensive backs’ brains except for the frequency with which these DBs bite on apparent curls or otherwise short or mid-range throws, only to then get burned on a go route or something similar. And it certainly doesn’t help that, against fast receivers, their corners and safeties can’t really keep up once left behind.

This tendency from the secondary is, realistically, probably a combination of their own issues compounded with subconscious attempts to over-correct for the linebackers’ issues in pass coverage. Who knows, really.

But in general, this defense’s lack of typical Stanford success this year seems to be the result of weaknesses begetting other weaknesses; linebackers don’t trust their ability to stop runners so they cheat up front so they leave holes in the middle of the field so the defensive backs try to compensate to cover those areas so there’s space over the top for receivers to, as I wrote in my original notes, “go route the shit outta them.”

This defense isn’t gonna be walked all over and will create some negative plays for offenses, but they can’t do that consistently and so give opponents golden opportunities when they screw up.

Bottom Line

The first thing that stands out for me is that it wouldn’t be shocking to see Jacob Eason throw a couple bombs. Also in the passing game, it would make sense for Hunter Bryant to have quite a bit of success in the mid-range and with yards after catch. (It feels like that’s becoming a theme of my takeaways this year...)

Generally speaking, I could see those two areas of the field becoming overwhelmed at times as the pass defense tries to make up for their deficiencies in both.

In the running game, I could see Salvon Ahmed having some pretty good runs too, along with Sean McGrew. Considering the defense’s propensity to get a hand on a ball-carrier and not bring them down, it feels to me like these two’s movement in space will be a more valuable commodity than Richard Newton’s short-yardage specialty. Regardless, it feels like overall the Dawgs’ running backs will go for zero or one yard a third of the time, then have five, six, seven yard runs for their other carries. And then, when the linebackers inevitably drift their direction, Aaron Fuller or Chico on slant routes have the potential to be wide open.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.