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Season in Review: Passing Defense

Washington has become a modern day DBU ... but did it play that way in 2019? We take a look back.

Washington v Arizona Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Throughout this week we’ll be looking back at the 2019 season with a review of each phase of the game. We continue with the traditional heart and soul of the modern era Huskies defense: the pass defense.

What We Expected

Pass defense has been priority number one since the day that the Petersen regime took over at Montlake. It took Chris Petersen and Jimmy Lake two seasons of developing players, organizing their blitz packages and recruiting talent before that pass defense ascended to “elite” levels. But from 2016 through 2018, Washington set the benchmark for pass defense not only in the PAC but across the nation. During that three year span, they averaged less than 200 yards surrendered per game in passing offense. They racked up 47 interceptions. They had the best cumulative third down prevention rate in the PAC. They gave up the fewest explosive passing plays in the league each year ... by a significant margin. Even as the pass rush itself declined each of those years, the dominant nature of the pass defense endured.

Despite that domination, there was significant concern that the pass defense might take a step back in 2019. The moving on of key players - in particular CB Byron Murphy, CB Jordan Miller and S Taylor Rapp - meant that new players with less experience would be more relied upon. The uncertainty of the pass rush situation was an additional source of skepticism.

Even still, the fact that Jimmy Lake had recruited his DB room so well and that many of the players poised to take on key roles - guys like Keith Taylor, Dominique Hampton, Elijah Molden and Kyler Gordon - were all experienced in the system and had taken plenty of reps countered much of that skepticism and led many observers to believe that the secondary would be a strength that would help to buoy the overall pass defense. Another top three kind of finish with less than 200 yards per game on average surrendered, 12-16 interceptions and decent pass rush seemed like a typical expectation range.

What We Saw

All in all, the Huskies were what we expected they would be in 2019. The pass rush did improve ever so slightly from a horrible 2018 thanks in large part to both the breakout of Joe Tryon (8 sacks) and a more effective blitz scheme that featured more traditional forms of pressure as opposed to safety blitzing. Per Max’s snap count analysis, we saw UW’s DB blitzing reduce by nearly a third compared to 2018 and total DB sacks drop from 8.5 (Taylor Rapp was probably UW’s best pass rusher last year) to just 1 this season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Utah at Washington
Myles Bryant is the king of technique when it comes to tackling and was one of UW’s best players in 2019.
Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Schematically, the pass defense looked a lot like it did in 2018. The nickel was the base defense and, per Max’s snap charting database, UW had at least 5 DBs on the field for 97% of the defensive snaps. Against pass heavy teams - USC, WSU and Hawaii - Washington played the same dime defense as their base that we have seen utilized the last few years. Despite some hard to figure claims coming out of the athletic department that UW “played 6 DBs on the field for 76% of our snaps”, we know that number was actually much less at around 30%. Still, that is not an insignificant allocation of defensive resources to stopping the pass over the course of a season.

While the scheme was similar, the results were disappointing compared to years past. The secondary definitely took a step back as young players took their time to develop and as the linebackers struggled in their assignments. The true freshmen who earned considerable playing time - CB Trent McDuffie, S Cam Williams and S Asa Turner - each suffered through some hard knocks even as they experienced some breakout moments (especially McDuffie). Gordon had flashes of brilliance but also enough mistakes to eventually cede his starting role to McDuffie. Taylor demonstrated his physical skills often, but also struggled at times with the mental side of the game.

The net result was a mixed bag of stats. The Huskies surrendered 222 yards per game, their worst showing since 2015. Related to that stat was the regression in chunk passing plays surrendered. The Dawgs gave up 41 passing plays of 20 yards or more - also their worst showing since 2015. And while their 13 TD passes surrendered still was the fewest in the PAC, it was tied for their second highest number of TD passes allowed in the Petersen era. So, while it was fair to say it was still a good pass defense, it was not one of Jimmy Lake’s better units as compared to his past few seasons.

When you look at the individual performances, some clear conclusions pop out. First, the linebackers were the weakest link. Ulofoshio (who excelled as a blitzer with a ridiculous 35.7% pressure rate across all of his QB pressure attempts) and Wellington, in particular, really struggled defending the pass. Second, the pass D really leaned heavily on Molden and Taylor. Here are some interesting stats courtesy of Max’s snap charting efforts (a play was assigned to a defender if they were closest to the receiver or clearly supposed to be covering that receiver at the time of the catch):

Top Performers - Pass Coverage

player plays yards per play success rate
player plays yards per play success rate
Molden 84 6.74 40.5%
McDuffie 55 6.29 43.6%
Bryant 24 6.38 44.8%
Taylor 61 6.84 45.9%

Low Performers - Pass Coverage

player plays yards per play success rate
player plays yards per play success rate
Ulofoshio 14 7.64 71.4%
Wellington 40 7.1 70.0%
Manu 24 7.42 62.5%
Williams 19 9.89 52.6%

When you look at the Huskies and their disappointing 7-5 regular season record, it is remarkable to note that four of the five losses came against teams ranked in the top four of the pass defense’s worst efforts, mostly thanks to a passing attack that exploited Washington’s weakness in the middle of the field.

Worst Team Performances - Pass Coverage

opponent plays yards per play success rate
opponent plays yards per play success rate
Stanford 33 8.79 57.6%
Utah 30 8.63 46.7%
Colorado 33 8.09 42.2%
Oregon 39 7.18 43.6%
BYU 45 5.76 40.0%

What We Learned

To me, the three big lessons we learned from the 2019 UW pass defense are a) that as goes pass defense so go wins and losses, b) that there is plenty of talent on hand, in particular in the secondary and c) experience still matters.

Washington State v Washington
Husky fans are hoping the 2019 breakout of Joe Tryon turns into a monster 2020.
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

I think the stats cited above tell the story about Washington’s pass coverage nicely. While we all lament the failures of the offense and the struggles the middle of the D had in stopping the run, the correlation between UW’s success in pass coverage and wins versus losses is too great to ignore. This was a team whose identity was predicated on taking away opposing passing attacks as its primary strategy. When they did so, they generally won. When they failed to do so, they lost.

From a talent perspective, it is hard to find a team in the PAC that boasts a better depth/mix of body types and capabilities in both the pass rush and in the secondary than does UW. Joe Tryon, Latu Laiatu and Ryan Bowman are a good combination of speed, strength and hustle as pass rushers. On the back-end, the sizes of guys like Taylor, Hampton and Turner combined with the speed of guys like Gordon, McDuffie and Wililams gave the Huskies plenty of options to work with in rolling out their pass defense.

Nevertheless, it probably isn’t a coincidence that the three most consistent actors for the pass defense were all the most experienced players. Elijah Molden was probably the best player not only on the defense but on the team in 2019. Myles Bryant, the only key player in the pass defense that exhausted his eligibility this season, had a fantastic year with 43 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, a sack, a forced fumble and 3 INTs. Bowman was second on the team in both TFLs and sacks and was probably the most consistent provider of pressure on opposing QBs playing mostly with this hand in the dirt this season.

On the flip side, we saw the younger players struggle with mistakes and mental lapses that translated into gaffes on the field. Tryon, who really surged late in the season, struggled early in the year when put into coverage. Both Turner and Williams grappled with a few coverage mistakes that resulted in the kinds of long TDs that we don’t typically see surrendered by UW DBs. Taylor, who probably was asked to take on more isolation than any other Husky DB, also had a couple of glaring mistakes. Gordon, who I thought shined on special teams all year, lost his starting job to the true freshman McDuffie but earned back more snaps as the season went on.

The good news is that almost all of those players will be back in 2020 and with another year of experience under their belts.

What Should We Expect to See in 2020?

The Huskies clearly project as one of the two or three top defenses overall in the PAC. The pass defense should be the anchor unit, in particular the defensive secondary. Molden’s return is the key as he provides UW with a clear cut 1st team all PAC 12 star and a likely preseason All-American to build around. McDuffie, Taylor and Gordon project as the top CB combination in the conference both in terms of playmaking ability and combined experience. Williams and Turner will have a spirited competition in the spring that will likely result in an interesting regular rotation of two very high-ceiling players. For depth, the Huskies have a couple of experienced veterans in Hampton and Julius Irvin just waiting for their chances not to mention a plethora of high-upside young players such as Kam Fabiculanan and Jacobe Covington coming on.

The pass rush also looks like it should see a boost in productivity as Tryon makes that ever-important sophomore-to-junior transition and as younger guys like Latu, Zion Tupuola-Fetui and Bralen Trice all find their ways into the rotation. Husky fans are also extremely excited about 5* uber-recruit Sav’ell Smalls and the impact he might be able to bring as a true freshman.

I can see that all translating into a return to form for the Husky pass defense in 2019. Putting numbers to it, I’d anticipate in the realm of 190 yards / game surrendered, <10 passing TDs given up, a top two in the PAC finish in third down stops and somewhere in the realm of 30 sacks on the season. On top of that, I’m expecting to see Molden, McDuffie, Tryon and Taylor, at minimum, show up in the PAC 12 all conference teams.