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Film Study: Stanford outplays UW in familiar fashion

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If you can’t bully ‘em, then out-execute ‘em. The Huskies did neither

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Back to basics. That’s what we’re doing this week here on Film Study, since it seems like the UW defense needs to sharpen up its fundamentals as well. We knew before this game that Stanford has our number, so it was going to be a matter of the UW staff out-scheming them, or the players out-executing them. The Husky staff didn’t really make any adjustments from last season’s game, and the struggles Coach B noted last year were on display once again Saturday.

And the execution by the players? Not good. At least not often enough.

To the film:

Play #1

3rd and 9:

First play up, we have a 3rd & 9, a long passing situation on the first drive. Look at Jackson Sirmon before this play. He’s looking around, unsettled. Kind of like we were all looking around at our family members, and screaming at the TV “Why is Sirmon all alone on a receiver? WHY IS SIRMON ALL ALONE ON A RECEIVER???”

3rd downs were a sore spot for UW against Stanford (we allowed 10/13 3rd down conversions), and this play really showed that we haven’t made adjustments to account for Stanford’s bread & butter passing concepts. Stanford comes out in a 5-wide look that screams pass all day, and we match with our usual 1-4-6 pass rush package aligned in a pre-snap 2-Man Under look. 2-Man Under is Cover 2 deep, but all the underneath defenders match up in man coverage. This is a pretty conservative coverage look that lets us get bracket looks on deep routes, and it is a good coverage against Stanford’s go-to Slot Fade shot concepts.

The problem is that we weren’t actually in 2-Man Under. Instead, immediately after the snap, we rotate our safeties towards the field (thereby bringing Alex Cook down to cover #4 man-to-man) and blitz Kyler Gordon from his slot DB alignment in a Cover 1 Man-Blitz. No idea why we are playing this coverage because Cover 1 is the coverage most vulnerable to Slot Fades because the deep safety can’t effectively help either 1-on-1 on the perimeter, so the QB can simply pick his preferred match up. Also, the Cover 1 blitz also doesn’t play into our pre-snap disguise. If Stanford audibled into a 2-Man Under beater (like All-Slants), our Cover 1 blitz would’ve still been vulnerable to the slant based on the DB alignments, so we aren’t doing much to bait an interception. Finally, we did Sirmon absolutely no favors by rotating the safeties away from him, which even if there was only 1-deep safety, a rotation towards him might’ve gotten the safety over him in time to bail him out. Either way, Stanford was ready for us. It’s pretty obviously man coverage because Sirmon is split all the way over into the slot over #81, which Davis Mills recognized, so he took his shot as soon as he saw the rotation. Even if he thought it was too risky, he had his inside slot receiver running wide open on a slant from his right.

This was such a ridiculous play call because Stanford killed us on this exact same concept last year (check out the breakdown of the slot fade in last year’s article). The coaches didn’t adjust, so don’t put too much blame on Sirmon, since he was put in a terrible position with no help from the scheme.

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Play #2

2nd and 4:

Here’s a solid example of one of Stanford’s draw plays that was noted in this week’s Coach’s Corner. The Draw plays into our LBs slow reactions at times by muddying up their keys in order to get blockers on them downfield. In this case, the fake pass keys got them starting their drops and a full 2 yards behind the line to gain. Stanford was able to get an OL on Sirmon and their slot receiver on Edefuan Ulofoshio right at the LOS, where a decent RB with any momentum would be able to pick up the first down through contact. That already gets us in some trouble getting the stop, but other LB issues compounded the problem. Neither of our ILBs were able to slip their blocks, which is understandable for Sirmon vs. an OL, but Ulofoshio’s blocker certainly got in the way of him flowing to the ball. For Sirmon, it’s disappointing that he wasn’t even able to get free enough to really even attempt an arm tackle, and our ILBs combined efforts still resulted on a gain of 9 for Stanford. We also can’t let the DTs off the hook either, because they certainly didn’t do a good job in shedding blocks to make plays in their gaps. Not great, guys, not great.

The draw was a decent part of their game plan, even if the volume of these play calls wasn’t huge. By our count Stanford called draws 5 (?) times in some form, and most came early in the game. It served them well as it took some of the heat off of our pass rush early, and it sewed some uncertainty into our ILBs minds. The draw is an underutilized play concept that isn’t run all that often in the Pac-12, so kudos to Stanford for busting it out to play some mind games.

*Side note: It was pretty disheartening to hear the broadcast commentary note that Stanford’s RB played for Napoleon Kaufman immediately after he gashed us up the middle :(

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Play #3

3rd and Goal:

Welp, now we’re getting into what was a bad version of Groundhog Day against Stanford, and this play sums it up well. In classic Stanford fashion, once they got in Goal-to-Go situations, they pretty much just lined up in their jumbo package and hammered away at us running strong side power, directly at the open C-gap between Josiah Bronson and ZTF. Now, if you think that’s a pretty specific description, it is, but this exact situation occurred at least 6 times during the game by our count.

In this iteration of Groundhog Day on Montlake, Stanford is facing 3rd & Goal from the 3 yard line against our 4-3 (?) package that has 4 DTs, 2 OLBs, Ulofoshio, and 4 DBs. While it may nominally seem like a light personnel package for the goal line, we basically have 6 DL on the field that can match up with Stanford’s size. Even the DBs here aren’t really liabilities since they do well in flowing to the ball and playing contain. Our DTs also get some really solid push on the interior with Faatui Tuitele driving back his man, Taki full-on pancaking his guy, and Tuli submarining his guy to clog up the middle (not a bad technique in this situation). Where we failed on this play (and in most of the similar situations) was directly at the point of attack.

As some may have noticed over the season, Bronson can get bullied at the point of attack, and here he was washed pretty clear of the C-gap (outside hip of the OT) that Power is designed to be run through. That’s not a good look, but if that’s all that was, then we had enough numbers rallying to the ball that we may have been able to clog the hole, but that wasn’t the case. ZTF also blew his assignment here.

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From the other angle, you would think ZTF was being held. This angle shows otherwise:

Easier to recognize in this angle, ZTF does a bad job of setting the edge and squeezing the gap. He’s aligned head up (directly in front of) the TE #88, so he should’ve had a decent angle to either shoot the D-gap (to the inside of #88) and blow up the FB/pulling guard, or he could’ve attacked the TE’s outside shoulder, squeeze him down the LOS, and force the RB into the pile or bounce the run way outside into Elijah Molden’s flow where he can make a play on the RB in space. It looked like ZTF tried to attack the TE’s outside shoulder to squeeze the edge, but he used bad technique, got his shoulders spun around, and he wasn’t able to capitalize on his first-step positioning to create the pile. The pulling guard simply side stepped him and lead the RB into the endzone.

On other plays, ZTF would get blown off the edge by the FB/pulling guard or lose the edge to the TE, but the common theme was that he really lacks the anchoring power and technique that we need from our edge players. Funny enough (not really though) the one time he properly set the edge against Stanford on this type of play was when we forced the fumble. Something else to take away from this play is that there’s a reason why we do film study. We were was pretty certain that the LB play let us down, which it did, but a defense-wide issue, like run defense, usually has multiple causes, and our edge setting hasn’t been talked about enough.

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Play #4

3rd and 2:

Here’s a nifty play design that builds off of our tendencies and core concepts to get us a first down. We’re facing a 3rd & short situation (something seemingly pretty rare for us), so the playbook is wide open for us to mix things up. Based on how our interior run game has been performing, 2 yards to gain is no guarantee up the middle, so the pass was a pretty easy choice.

Donovan dials up a play action bootleg play that sneaks Devin Culp out into the flat for an easy pitch-and-catch. Hopefully by now you’ve picked up from this Film Study series that play action design is more than just the QB faking a hand off, so maybe you noticed how we are selling the fake. The run action is designed to look like an inside zone look to the weakside, and we’ve written previously about all the reasons why we prefer to run inside zone to the weakside. An additional reason is that it allows us to set our TEs towards the side of the pass to avoid having to sift through traffic near the LOS. Culp simply sells the block then is immediately ready and open for Dylan Morris’ pass.

Against Stanford’s single-high coverage look, and with their CBs playing so far off, we knew we had room to work underneath for the first down. Jalen McMillan runs off the playside CB to open up space for Culp, Culp sells the block to get his LB coverage defender sucked into the play action, and even if he was covered, Rome Odunze was running wide open on a crossing route from the backside with a clean release and 15 yards of green grass around him where the ILBs vacated on the play fake. Solid play all-around.

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Play #5

1st and 10:

Here’s a play for those of you who don’t think we were too stubborn with our personnel groupings. This is just an example of our standard response to Stanford’s jumbo package when they ran it outside of the redzone, which is a 3-4 over front with the safety opposite of Turner being swapped out for another DT and Molden moving into the defensive backfield. ZTF plays a little more off the ball than he typically does, but he’s still the force player on the edge, and again we see him get taken advantage of. Here Stanford runs what we think is Duo (again, a Stanford staple that Coach B broke down last year), and it is essentially Power without the pulling guard. Instead ZTF needs to set the edge against the FB, and again he gets worked. It’s not an egregiously bad play like some of his other reps, but he isn’t able to anchor against the FB, squeeze the gap, and he was unable to disengage the block to be able to make the play on the RB that ran right past him. There isn’t much to it other than simple execution at this point.

Other than ZTF on the edge, the rest of our front did well to anchor and even drive the OL off the LOS (shout out to Taimani and Bronson for a nice rep here). You wanna know why Taimani and Bronson looked so good there? They were facing 1-on-1s. You wanna know how they got them? Our ILBs triggered downhill quickly (props to Ulofoshio and Sirmon). Hopefully you’re seeing how ILB and DL play in the run defense is connected, and hopefully you are also seeing how one missed assignment in run defense also negates the rest of the defense’s good work.

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Play #6

2nd and Goal:

Deja vu?

In case any of you blocked the play out of your memory already, this is almost identical to Play #3 up above. Stanford comes out in their jumbo package (6 OL, 2 TE, FB, RB), and we match with our 4-3 goal line package that puts 4 DTs and both OLBs right on the LOS with an open C-gap between Bronson and ZTF. Again, Stanford runs Power directly at the open C-gap, which I’m almost certain we are baiting them into since that’s exactly where Ulofoshio shoots to at the snap. The problem here is again that ZTF doesn’t really do anything at the point of attack.

If you just focus on ZTF, you can see he is getting worked by #88 again. He doesn’t utilize any recognizable technique, and he doesn’t really work towards any number of possible objectives that he might have. He didn’t shoot the C-gap and disrupt the pulling guard, and instead he kinda just stood in the gap while getting blocked. He didn’t fight for the outside shoulder as if he was supposed to be the outside force defender (the guy funneling everything inside), and he didn’t stack head up on the TE like he was supposed to 2-gap (C & D-gaps). Not only that, but he just completely failed to use any sound run defense technique by trying to spin through a run block, and he completely loses sight of the play.

In spite of all of this, Ulofoshio still almost makes the play by knifing past the pulling guard, but the RB was still able to fall forward into the endzone. Simply bad fundamentals on an individual level.

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Play #7

1st and 10:

Not that much to dissect here schematically. This is just a bad rep from Henry Bainivalu, but we are running a zone concept that doesn’t do him many favors. We are running a pretty straight forward outside stretch zone play, which is a change up from our standard perimeter run plays, and pre-snap it looks like a pretty simple set of blocking assignments with everyone picking up the guy in the gap to their right. Victor Curne gets #11, Bainivalu gets #90, Luke Wattenberg gets #34, and Ulumoo Ale gets #2, but zone blocking is all about post-snap reaction.

At the snap, Stanford’s DL slants away from the run, so the OL boys are supposed to adjust their assignments accordingly. #11 is still covering Curne, so that’s still his guy. #90 & #34 shoot the B-gap & backside A-gap respectively, so Bainivalu is now uncovered to release up to the LBs (#2), Wattenberg should switch his assignment to #90, and Ale now picks up #34 because he’s now in his zone. Bainivalu should’ve then chipped #90 to help Wattenberg before releasing, but instead he gets completely spun around and doesn’t block anyone. A better blocking “handoff” would’ve allowed McGrew to cut inside of Curne’s block, and follow Bainivalu upfield. Bainivalu doesn’t really block #90, nor does he release up field to #2, so McGrew is essentially facing a 1 vs. 3, blockers vs. defenders situation in front of him.

Outside zone runs, like the one here, are flexible and effective. But by design, they always force the OL to reach the outside shoulder of a defender to make the seal block, or the OL has to drive them down the line and open a cutback lane. Consistently making those blocks and adjustments on the fly are pretty challenging, and its not a core strength of our OL.

Throughout this season, Donovan has tended towards running tosses, pitches, and sweeps rather than stretch zone plays like this. The advantage to this approach, and all power/gap run concepts, is that we can leverage angles and blocking mismatches in the play design. Because we usually utilize pulling linemen on perimeter plays, we are able to ask the frontside blockers to downblock and keep defenders away from the point of attack. This is a much easier assignment because the defender would have to go around or through our blockers, and a quick hitting pitch play might only require a downblock to slow down the defenders. This is also why we use condensed formations. They let us use WRs to effectively block DEs on a lot of our tosses and pitches.

This is a bad play, but it shows why our condensed formations and perimeter tosses/pitches are better play designs than originally thought.

Play #8

2nd and 4:

One last play here in Groundhog Day, and its finally a good one. We aren’t in our 4-3 alignment since we aren’t on the goal line, so ZTF is aligned outside of #88, but all other facets of the Stanford look are the same. They are dialing up strongside power at the C-gap between ZTF and Bronson, and we still get to see ZTF make a play at the point of attack.

Our different alignment changes up some of Stanford’s blocking assignments. Instead of blocking ZTF with #88, Stanford’s play design dictates that they block him with the FB’s kick-out block. I’m almost certain that ZTF was the force defender on all of these power runs against Stanford’s jumbo package, but the different blocking assignment lets him show off much better technique. Here he gets a chance to square up on the FB, meet him in the hole, and squeeze the C-gap. This forces the RB to bounce to the outside. ZTF also does a good job of stacking the block so that he’s in a position to attempt a tackle through the block, which is unsuccessful, but it forces the RB even further off track. This sets up Trent McDuffie to force the fumble as the chase down defender, and we have a shot at tying the game up.

This is pretty much the only time we properly executed our run responsibilities against Stanford’s jumbo package running power, but you can see why it’s a full team effort. Even the LBs that we’ve been down on lately did a decent job on this play. Of course they are going to do a little better reacting to the play in such an obvious run situation, but their reaction still spurred early releases from the OL. This then set up 1-on-1s for the DTs who almost made the play in the backfield themselves (well, Taimani and Tuli more than Bronson).

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If this was the Huskies’ last game of the season, well, then it’s a stinker to end on. Throughout this abbreviated season, the LBs and DL continued to improve from their early season struggles, only to be reminded that it’s a team effort. Pass rush is important, but we also need strong run defenders on the edge.

We got a nice look at Dylan Morris, and the freshman WRs Odunze & McMillian were impressive; the way they shot up the depth chart, and the way they made plays (sometimes) when given opportunity. While this team has been frustrating to watch at times, one thing is clear: They don’t stay down on themselves, and they fight. Give credit to Lake and his crew for that.

Lots to work on for this team and the staff. They know what we saw last Saturday is not what Washington football fans expect to see, or what they expect of themselves.

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