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Opponent Defense Preview: Da Trees

The Cardinal took back The Axe. Now what?

Stanford v California Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Meh, it’s 2:something on a Thursday, who needs an intro.

Not I, certainly.

So let’s just get to Stanford’s defense.

Personnel and What to Expect

Let’s start off with the Stanford basics. While the program’s on-field performance has dipped steadily since their juggernaut 2015 year when CMC was a record-breaking sophomore and Kevin Hogan led them to an absolute demolition of undefeated Iowa in the Rose Bowl, one thing has stayed the same on defense: they change up their fronts. A lot.

Before I started doing these defensive previews in 2016, that was something I never really consciously realized, but it becomes clear if you watch just a couple games of theirs and go out of your way to note their front seven’s alignment before each snap. Not only are the Cardinal not afraid to play a variety of personnel — 4-2-5, 3-3-5, dime, occasional traditional non-nickel — they’re not afraid to change up the looks within those personnel.

Oh, and they’re not afraid to stack the box. I’m sure we’ll have fun discussing this in a bit.

Beyond the diversity of looks, the pass rush itself rarely is straightforward for opposing linemen. Already offensive lines have to deal with a multitude of looks with anywhere from two to four down linemen, and with those themselves aligned from 0 to 7 tech, and with the spacing between them anywhere from super tight to only a nose tackle and then a DE a whole continent away from him on the line with linebackers filling the space in between. On top of that, the Cardinal throw in a lot of stunts, try to throw off the scent of where pressure’s coming from via their pre-snap formations, etc. While Stanford doesn’t have a premier pass-rushing athlete like Solomon Thomas anymore, this approach has the potential to make up for that (to an extent, anyway) just by getting offensive lines and quarterbacks confused and off-balance.

As an example from last week’s Big Game: At one point Stanford was showing a six man blitz that was overloaded to the left side — possibly a seven man one even, it was hard to tell with how fuzzy the screen was — where they were clearly coming and didn’t even try to hide it. My gut reaction was that it was so obvious it must be a fake and the linebackers would drop back into coverage. But lo! It wasn’t a fake blitz, but rather a feint to get Chase Garbers to slide protection to the left where they were showing pressure, stunt to the opposite side post-snap, and get to him with minimal resistance.

Before we dive further into front seven stuff, some basics:

  1. Stanford’s defense gave up 35 points to Oregon and Colorado.
  2. They gave up only 23 points to Cal last week, but it can’t be overstated how much Cal’s special teams blew chunks and screwed them over, including one blocked field goal and a blocked game-typing extra point. So we can pretty much say Stanford gave up 27 points and Cal respectfully declined to take them.
  3. They’ve forced five turnovers in three games.

Okay, back to the personnel!

Starting up front since that’s where we left off-ish, they’re led by interior lineman Dalyn Wade-Perry and the versatile-on-the-line Thomas Booker who was named Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week and ended last year as an All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention. Booker’s currently listed as 6’4” 310 lbs, but he is a lean 310 lbs.

While the Cardinal had trouble generating pressure against Oregon and CU, last week was a moderate improvement against Cal — it’ll be interesting to see if they can continue that this Saturday. Furthermore, while Stanford hasn’t been dominant in the trenches for a few years unlike their identity of teams past, they looked to be getting halfway decent push on the line last week. Or at least weren’t getting pushed off the line — although for what it’s worth Cal’s offensive line has been depleted all year so who knows how big of a part that played.

As a half-decent but mostly forced segue between the line and linebackers, as a whole they’ve struggled at times to contain quarterbacks with mobility; Sam Noyer for Colorado had some chunk runs (including two touchdowns) both by design and as an escape valve, and Chase Garbers kept initially breaking free from poor contain attempts until Stanford started putting a spy on him to keep him from terrorizing them as the game went on.

Otherwise, one of the linebackers’ main issues is simply a lack of reliable depth due to injuries.

The leader of this unit and indeed one of the leaders of the defense as a whole is fifth year senior Curtis Robinson, a captain who was ended last year as an All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention. Per Twitter buddy of mine and Stanford Daily writer King Jemison, while the linebackers aren’t a weakness of the defense and are well-coached, their talent level just isn’t at the same level as the Cardinal have had in the past.

Illustrating this weakness, the linebackers have both PFF’s highest-graded Stanford defender Levani Damuni (who’s sixth among Pac-12 linebackers) and their far lowest-graded Stanford defender, OLB Gabe Reid, despite Reid starting their last seven games last season. (Insert obligatory “PFF grades don’t tell the whole story” here.)

This unit appears to be particularly susceptible to well-executed power runs with pulling guards, centers, and tight ends; furthermore, they’re not averse to stacking the box — there’s instances of them putting eight dudes in there against 10 personnel i.e. no tight ends and one running back, i.e. four receivers, i.e. ballsy and/or stupid move, one could say. And subsequently, while the extent to which this next sentence is true varies depending on their aforementioned varying fronts, these alignments give the Cardinal a lot of difficulty on runs off the tackle. If there’s one thing that stood out to me for Stanford’s run defense, it’s that the C and D gaps are opposing running games’ friends.

Meanwhile the secondary, on paper, looks like the strongest group — they’ve only allowed more than 250 air yards once (to Colorado) and limited Chase Garbers last week to 151 yards, although you’re hardly gonna expect fat passing numbers from Cal...

Yet they’re routinely asked to bail out a leaky front seven and inconsistent pass rush, which they’re not capable of reliably finishing. Overall, the defensive backs are fine-not-great and, just like the other units, there’s a talent-development dropoff here compared to years past. Plus it certainly didn’t help to lose former First Team All-Pac-12 CB Paulson Adebo, who opted out to prepare for the draft.

In general they’re decently stout against longer throws. But short and mid-range throws, throws to the flats, checkdowns, etc., often get a lot of yards after the catch so it’s kind of 12 of one, half a dozen of the other. Granted, so much of this is due to the linebackers’ issues putting extra pressure on the secondary. Then you factor in that Stanford’s run defense outside the tackles is so... mediocre... and it’s no wonder the secondary can’t really get a solid rhythm going. I mean, their second-leading tackler against Cal was a cornerback — Kyu Blu Kelly.

They’re just asked to make up for a lot of deficiencies elsewhere.

Like back to Garbers’ only 151 air yards; that’s great, but then Cal’s run game had 241 yards on 35 carries — an average of 6.9 (nice) yards per carry with many runs that made their way into the DBs’ territory. So they have to defend against the pass with a not great pass rush all while having to really keep the run in mind because they can hardly trust the linebackers in front of them to do their own jobs comprehensively. With all that’s being asked of them, I’d be pretty blown away if this secondary was able to look great.

Names to watch for would include the safeties Kendall Williamson and Malik Antoine, the latter being a fifth year senior, captain, and former All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention.

The corners alongside the aforementioned Kelly — who came on the end of last year as a true freshman to take over a starting role — include Jonathan McGill, one of the higher-rated PFF defenders, and Salim Turner-Muhammad. You can also expect to see a bit of Zahran Manley; Manley grades out the highest of all of them, but has seen only less than 25% as many snaps as the others so who knows if that slightly elevated level of play would regress to the mean if he saw more playing time.

So, that’s the Stanford defense for ya.

Bottom Line

While this defense isn’t great, they’re also good enough that it’d be naive to overlook them. If the Cardinal can best Washington’s offense, I think it would come down to two things: A) John Donovan and Jimmy Lake being too stubborn to overly focus on up-the-gut runs and B) if the Cardinal are able to trick Dylan Morris and Luke Wattenberg into calling the wrong protection adjustments.

Regarding point (A), I actually wouldn’t hate to see some of the diversity of running we occasionally saw JonDon use against Oregon State — on the other hand, running into the A gap over and over and over... and over and over again like against Utah is proooobably a bad call. The Dawgs have the opportunity to create a very explosive running offense against Stanford, but that all depends on them showing different looks and emphasizing attacking the C and D gaps. Maybe throw the occasional sweep in, too — have some fun with it.

Also important is that regardless of which running backs get the most carries, they need to get to the line of scrimmage ASAP and be decisive in their bursts. Especially if JonDon emphasizes running behind the tackles and tight ends, getting into space behind their blocks should be a gold mine of yards before contact.

Otherwise, I also feel like this is a team that could be hit pretty hard by play-action; given their propensity for having a lot of players in the box, there’s already a lot of room for DMo to work with in the seams between the safeties and linebackers — pulling the latter further towards the line with play-action could open up a lot of space for Puka, Terrell Bynum, and Cade Otton.

Play-action or not, emphasizing this part of the field feels especially important since it’s not like Stanford gives up a lot of huge passing plays that travel far throughout the air, but they don’t necessarily have the ability to consistently stop yards after the catch. Those conditions are perfect for targets like Bynum, Otton, and Pooks.

Overall, power-running with an emphasis on the C and D gaps and a short-to-medium passing game with that trio of targets should put the Dawgs in a good position — just as long as DMo and Wattenburg don’t get fooled by Stanford’s pass rush first.

God that last sentence sounds ominous...

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