Last Week: UW 26 - Stanford 31
Welp, that was a bummer of a game this week. Like many of you out there, Saturday afternoon was an excruciating death by a thousand paper cuts to watch, and many of the concerns that had lurked under the surface all season finally caught up to us. Here’s a few of the things that stuck out to me this week:
- Donovan’s Offense Shook Off a Shuffled Line Up
- Stanford’s Anti-LB Game Plan
- Where to Look Next to Solve Our Problems?
Next Man Up
Before we dive into the weeds talking about our defense, I must point out how nice it was to see our offense shake off the losses of Puka Nacua and Terrell Bynum this week. Fortunately, it sounds like they won’t be long-term absences, but it’s not easy for a young QB to continue producing solid numbers with a largely new supporting cast. Obviously Ty Jones and Cade Otton aren’t new to Dylan Morris by any stretch, and Jalen McMillan and Rome Odunze have been seeing a lot of reps this season, but Jones and Odunze leading the receiving corps in production is a very positive sign. Jones starting to gain steam as Morris’ deep threat, jump-ball specialist is a huge bonus. Up to this point, many of our shot plays featured double moves on the perimeter or play action over the middle to Otton, but these are subject to defensive trickeration (I’m pretty sure that’s not a word but still). Jones was able to take advantage of his size mismatch off the snap with simple fade routes. If Morris can confidently dial that up on a consistent basis, our offense becomes will become so much more explosive as we won’t be so scheme-dependent to generate explosive plays.
Odunze getting a feel for attacking underneath was also a positive development. Bynum’s been solid for us out of the slot, but Odunze showing an early grasp of the nuanced position and soft hands makes me think he could be a 6-8 catch 80+ yard weapon, and an easy 1000+ yard receiver if he can gain touches in the offense. Until that happens, his growing role will allow us to field 5 credible threats on the field once Puka and Bynum return.
That being said, where were the touches for Otton, Newton, & Davis?
An Expanding Blueprint to Attack Our LBs
Stanford came out and attacked us exactly where we all thought they would, up the middle against our LBs, but they did so in a way that caught me off guard. Instead of pounding away up the middle and then chucking play action bombs over our heads, Stanford reversed course and leaned on an efficient underneath passing attack paired with a suite of effective draw concepts. Don’t get me wrong, Stanford still hammered away in classic Stanford fashion in short yardage and red zone situations, but a large portion of their yardage came using the pass and draw.
Given our LBs’ season-long struggles making reads and reacting to the play, this approach might actually be more effective than play action and accomplish serve several other purposes. Right off the bat, play action only works if you can get a defense to bite on it. As sad as it is to say, our defense as a whole (especially at LB) might not react fast enough to make play action effective. By faking the pass on a draw play, Stanford was able to play into our LBs’ natural tendency to stay static or drift away from the LOS, thus allowing the OL to meet the LBs at the second level rather than at the LOS.
There is also the added benefit that the fake pass keys trick the DL into running themselves out of their gaps in pass rush. After getting burned a couple of times pass rushing on draw plays, DL typically play more conservatively and take the edge off of their rush. With the threat of ZTF and our deadly blitz package, this approach has a lot of merit (although ZTF was still caught out rushing the edge instead of setting it on several occasions).
Finally, this pass-first (but not necessarily pass-heavy) game plan just fit Stanford’s personnel better. As I mentioned last week, Stanford just isn’t as deep or dynamic at TE as they once were, so rolling with 3 WRs got their best players on the field. Davis Mills is also a very talented QB that played within the system very well. The underneath check downs designed to befuddle our LBs in coverage were something that I’ve been surprised other teams haven’t keyed in on until now. Not to mention David Shaw’s gift for identifying and developing ways of attacking match ups with formations. The long pass over Jackson Sirmon in the first half was reminiscent of Simi Fehoko’s slot fades last year and Rob Gronkowski over KJ Wright late in Super Bowl XLIX.
At this point in the season, we should know our weaknesses. What are we doing about them?
Where to Go From Here?
This is where we are this season. We only have 2 weeks left in the regular season, and the division is on the line this weekend. We are who we are, and there isn’t a whole lot left for us to try this late in the game to shore up our rushing defense. What matters now is to finish out the season as best possible by hiding our weaknesses, but we are nearly at the point where we need to decide what we’re going to de about it next year.
I’d like to think that I present fairly reasoned opinions and tap the breaks on spur of the moment hot takes. The blame game is what kick starts the coaching carousel every winter, and while it gives me a lot to write about, I’m pretty hesitant to call for staff changes. Before doing so, I like to ask myself the questions “what’s the problem?” and “what can we do about it?”.
As I mentioned earlier, defense, and especially the rushing defense, is the area that needs the most improvement this off season. That’s a problem, but what is the problem? Our DL isn’t as stout as our Qualls-Vea-Gaines era DLs, but those are three guys that made it to the NFL, and it’s not realistic to expect All-Conference level of play every year. Plus, our DL is depleted by opt outs, and yet they are still holding it down in the trenches by almost any reasonable standard (that is, making tackles and stuffing runs when not facing consistent double teams). I’m of the opinion that it is our ILBs that are the weakest link in the defensive front.
What’s the going on with the ILBs? I’m going to eliminate a scheme/play calling adjustment immediately because we have largely been running modern schemes that we’ve found success with for most of the past 6 years, and we aren’t seeing anything new or innovative that is flummoxing our defense. Plus, if its not about scheme, then any change in scheme is just covering up symptoms but not curing the cause.
There’s also the question of if we aren’t playing our best guys for whatever reason. This idea doesn’t make any sense to me given Lake’s record when he was coaching the DBs, but it does make some sense if we look back to last year and how long it took Ulofoshio to overtake Manu and Wellington. If Lake mantra of meritocracy isn’t flowing down through the staff, then that’s something that Lake will have to address, but if these are the best guys we have, then we still have serious issues in player development or recruiting.
In my opinion, the most granular issue with our ILBs is that they are slow to react to plays. This either means that they don’t understand their responsibilities well (a coaching issue), they aren’t prepared for the opponents that they are facing (again a coaching issue), or they just aren’t athletic/talented enough to handle their responsibilities (a recruiting issue). So how do we address these issues?
Well now we find ourselves at a crossroads. If it is a coaching and/or recruiting issue, this all goes back to Bob Gregory, and the only way you improve (hopefully) at this point is to fire him. He’s been with the program during periods of great LB play. How much of that is attributable to him is difficult to say, but there has certainly been a recent decline, and special teams isn’t a whole lot better, and it is also one of Gregory’s responsibilities. A major benefit of promoting Lake was that he would retain the foundation that Petersen built, but the key to sustained success is knowing when to make changes to the foundation.
Next Week: Who Can Fall Backwards into a Divisional Title?
For as much bemoaning I just did criticizing our defense, we are still in control of our own destiny. Somehow if we manage to win this week against our rivals down south, we will be able to claim the Pac-12 North divisional title. Oregon is a completely different team than the conference champion juggernaut that they were last year, and that the media thought they’d be this year.
Similar to our trajectory, Oregon’s been slumping as of late with progressively tighter games as the season progressed with stunning losses to Oregon State and Cal. It’s tough to pinpoint the exact cause for their slump, but there are several factors that are worth noting. First up, the Oregon run defense hasn’t been spectacular all season, averaging 184 rushing yards per game. OSU took advantage of this most notably, with Jermar Jefferson & Co. racking up 269 rushing yards after both Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell got dinged up in the game. Sewell has since returned, but Flowe is out for the season. Isaac Slade-Matautia (shout out another 808 kid) remains as a stable feature in the middle of their defense, but there is certainly some instability to take advantage of. We might have a chance to get renewed traction on the ground, and the Oregon LB corps is very aggressive, so our play action concepts should see good returns as well.
Second, ball security has been a challenge for Oregon with 8 fumbles this season (5 lost) contributing to their -5 turnover margin. Some of this is on the ball security of individuals, but some of it is also due to how frequently they ask Tyler Shough to leave the pocket on option plays and boot legs. Our defense has been very good at swiping at the ball this year, so winning the turnover battle is a realistic goal on the defensive side.
Finally, teams seem to be figuring out Tyler Shough and Joe Moorhead’s offense. This version of the Moorhead offense has been built on option concepts and screens as the foundation, but it is predicated on Shough’s penchant for deep shots to turbocharge the offense. Many of Shough’s passes come on hybrid RPO/bootleg concepts, and nearly all have incorporated run action. While Shough has serious arm talent and mobility, he has seen his QBR decline every week this season, and his counting numbers have gone down as well. The Oregon run game isn’t as efficient as it was last year, and a much greater emphasis is being placed on explosive plays keeping things on track, so limiting the big plays can stall out their offense pretty quickly. What I’m a bit concerned about though is our defense’s ability to contain the plethora of option and screen plays that are the foundation of their offense. A lot of stress will be put on our LBs, but we may get saved by Oregon’s passing game.
This’ll be an exciting chance to see how our team bounces back from a loss and to finish out the season on a high note.
That’s all for now folks, and as always,