After four dominant wins to start the season, the Huskies’ trip down to the Rose Bowl was a rude reminder that this is still an imperfect team. Facing a Bruins team that actually had enough offensive firepower to keep up with our offense, the wheels fell off the UW wagon last week as the defensive struggles led our offense to press too hard for big plays to keep up. Some of the schematic tendencies that were mere speed bumps to this point turned into serious issues against a similarly talented opponent, and we didn’t have ready answers to compensate.
To the Film:
3rd and 4
First thing up this week that we wanted to focus on was how Jake Bobo torched our secondary. If you hadn’t watched the game, one might think that he was simply beating our DBs on 50/50 jump balls. It would’ve made sense to make that assumption based on his 6-4 frame, but there was actually one particular look that set up Bobo to make plays on the UW defense.
Here on 3rd & 4, UCLA lines up in a shotgun 2x2 formation with no TEs attached to the formation and a pre-snap motion flaring Charbonnet out to the field. Bobo is on the LOS as the up man in a stacked look to the nearside of the boundary. The offenses’ formation does two things that set up Bobo. First, the balanced 2x2 formation draws us into our single-high coverages. All season long, when facing 2x2 sets, our defense’ default alignment would be a single-high coverage. Usually that would mean a single-high look prior to the snap, but sometimes we would do a post-snap rotation. Either way, we would end up in a single-high coverage. Against a true spread look without players attached to the formation, a single-high look makes a lot of sense. It keeps DBs in tighter coverage alignments over the slot receivers, and by shading the free safety towards the field, it maintains a +1 advantage over the field side of the offense against the eligible receivers; the first principle of anti-spread defense. The downside is that it moves the free safety back into a deeper alignment and makes it harder for him to provide coverage support to any single DB underneath outside the hashes.
The second way UCLA set up Bobo was by stacking him with another WR. We hadn’t seen too much of this specific stacked WR look before this game, so UCLA didn’t have a lot to go off of when game planning. However, there are only so many ways to defend this. By stacking WRs, you force the defense to pick their poison. The defense can’t key in on the WRs’ alignment to figure out potential route combinations or determine who is covering who, so they have to sort it out post-snap. They can either align their coverage players inside/outside of the stack and let the inside guy take any in-breaking routes and the outside DB take outbreaking routes, or they can do what UW did here and do an over/under alignment where one guy jams the up WR at the LOS and sits in the flat and the other takes care of any deep routes.
In theory, the over/under alignment is preferable in a pressure package situation because it allows the CB to jam at least one WR at the LOS and hopefully throw off the timing of the route. However, it’s not true press coverage if the up WR (Bobo) is taking a vertical stem because he’s getting handed off to the deeper DB. That coverage hand-off is the schematic weak link.
As you can see on the replay angle here, Bobo is able to run through the half-press with relative ease and gets to work on Cook out in space. Cook, being a safety, isn’t able to keep up with Bobo in 1v1 coverage, especially on a sharp breaking dig route. With no help from Fabiculanan due to his single-high alignment, or from the LBs who were blitzing on the play, Bobo had plenty of space inside to work with, and DTR was able to connect with him for a big play.
1st and 10
To reinforce just how big this one part of the game plan was for UCLA, let’s take a look at an almost identical play that resulted in a TD for the Bruins.
With UCLA driving deep into our red zone in the second quarter, Chip Kelly dials up a very similar 2x2 formation with Bobo aligned in a stacked look to the boundary, and again we match with a single-high shell and align Perryman and Cook in the same over/under alignment over the stacked WRs. This time, with a shorter field to cover, we keep Fabiculanan in a shallower alignment in the middle of the field, and we bring Cam Bright further out over the slot to give a 3v2 look to the boundary. In theory, we are lined up better to cover this alignment since Bright could provide some inside help against a similar levels dig concept that we got torched on earlier from this look, but it’s never that easy.
As you can see on the replay angle, Bright is held in place by the play action towards the boundary, so he isn’t able to drop to a depth that helps Cook to his inside. Bobo sells the fade and cuts inside Cook on a skinny post, right into the open void behind Bright for the TD. With no inside help for Cook past 6 yards, he’s essentially on an island with Bobo, and a safety vs WR in 1v1 coverage is a match up that OCs will take all day every day. It’s tough not to blame Cook for consistently getting beat, but the coaches didn’t do him any favors or make any adjustments.
3rd and 7
Moving over to the offensive side of the ball, the second quarter wasn’t any better there either. On 3rd & 7, deep in our own territory and with UCLA’s offense getting rolling against our defense, Grubb dials up a 3-verts out-n-up shot play out of a 2x2 shotgun set. We had called a similar play earlier in the game on Odunze’s TD (2x2 mirrored out-n-up with seam routes occupying the safeties), but this time the defense was ready for it.
It’s tough to tell from the broadcast and replay camera angles, but UCLA is lined up in a 2-high shell with their base nickel personnel. However, instead of playing their more conventional nickel personnel alignment with the 5th DB playing slot corner, UCLA has their nickel (#22) play from an ILB alignment. This change in alignment is what throws off Penix’s pre-snap reads. Seeing a 2-high shell, most QBs would assume that it’s Cover 2, Cover 4, or the safeties would need to rotate post-snap to play middle of the field closed (MOFC) coverages like Cover 1 or Cover 3. However, the Bruins are playing a more exotic look that isn’t obvious pre-snap unless you identified #22 in a new alignment.
At the snap, the boundary safety (#4) immediately widens out over the numbers, and my guess is that Penix read that as Cover 3 Cloud, especially after he saw the field CB back off the LOS right before the snap (out of the replay angle). If the field safety is coming away from the far side, its reasonable to assume that #4 would be held a beat longer by Odunze’s seam route to let the other safety take over coverage. That would leave the hole shot to McMillan open long enough for him to make the throw. However, that’s not in the cards. Instead of Cover 3 Cloud, UCLA looks like they are playing split field Cover 6, which is a hybrid coverage where its Cover 2 to one side and Cover 4 to the other side. With #22 bailing deep at the snap and locking in on the boundary side WRs, you can tell he’s playing on the Cover 4 side of the play and would be in the perfect position to take on Odunze’s seam route. This lets #4 play McMillan’s out-n-up more freely and he’s able to make the play on the ball.
I suspect that Penix saw this right before he threw the pass based on a slight hesitation, but with pressure bearing down on him, he still tried to rip the pass into the baited window resulting in the pick.
1st and 10
It feels like a broken record at this point, but yet again we were beaten on an extremely basic play that attacked our rotating safeties by motioning receivers across the formation. This time, UCLA starts in a tight 2x2 formation with 11 personnel that draws a 2-high shell from our defense. Prior to the snap the Bruins motion #0 across the formation towards the boundary triggering a safety rotation that drops Dom Hampton back to the field safety spot.
So far this season, we haven’t discussed the specifics of the coverage adjustments when the offense motions receivers across the formation (other than the safety rotation), but when the offense motions from a 2x2 to a 3x1 formation, our defense checks into what is known as Cover 4 Lock. This is a type of hybrid man/zone coverage that puts our CB in man coverage against the single side WR. In this case, that puts Jordan Perryman in man coverage against Jake Bobo. This adjustment allows the field safety to shade his coverage towards the new passing strength of the formation. The weak spot in this adjustment is that the single-WR side flat now has to be covered by an LB coming from the box. UCLA has Charbonnet run an arrow route into the vacant flat zone with Bobo running a slant to create a pick on Tuputala who had the unfortunate task of running with Charbonnet while fighting through traffic. Its an easy completion to Charbonnet who then gets to work on our DBs in space by forcing a few bad tackles in space before getting dragged down for a big gain.
1st and 10
Unfortunately for the Huskies, the 2nd quarter house of horrors wasn’t done yet. Here on one of our last possessions of the half, Penix throws his second interception of the game. Coming out in a 2x2 formation, UCLA matches with a 2-high shell once again. However, this time the Bruin defense is showing a more obvious Cover 6 look. With a single deep safety splitting the distance between the boundary numbers and hash and two DBs playing deep off the LOS to the field, its likely Cover 2 to the boundary and Cover 4 to the field. Against this, Grubb dials up a box corner Smash concept (a Cover 2 beater) to the boundary and a double post concept (a Cover 4 beater) to the field.
UCLA is ready for the Smash concept and plays the routes perfectly. We’ve run the box corner version of the Smash concept enough this season that we’ve actually broken the concept down here on Film Study once before, and UCLA made it a point to teach their defense the keys on the play as a part of the game plan. Playing in a 2-high shell, UCLA’s defenders know that they have to worry about a few of our favorite Cover 2 beaters, and even with Wayne Taulapapa towards the boundary, most of our Cover 2 beaters are 2-route concepts (like Smash). OLB #21, understanding our tendencies and knowing that UCLA was playing a top/down coverage that provided safety support deep, jumped the box corner from Polk as soon as he saw Culp release inside into another LBs zone.
This was a great play by the defense, but it also highlights Penix’s tendency to lock onto one side of the field when being pressured and trying to play too much hero ball. At no point after the snap did Penix look to the field side of the formation where McMillan was wide open on a post over the middle, and Penix compounded that mistake by not actually reading the concept. Not only did #21 lock onto Polk’s route, but the underneath CB who was supposed to covering the flat zone did as well. No one was remotely close to Taulapapa on the swing route, and he could’ve reasonably gotten 5 yards on the play and out of bounds to preserve time on the clock. With over 2 minutes left in the half and only on 1st down, its tough to explain Penix’s decision to force a pass into double coverage other than he was feeling the pressure of the situation and was trying too hard to make a play.
1st and 15
Not to leave you with too bad of a taste in your mouth, but we have one last bad beat on defense from the exact same stacked WR look from Bobo and the UCLA offense. Again playing from a 2x2 formation, UCLA puts Bobo on the LOS as the up man in the stacked WR look. This time Bobo is aligned to the field, and instead of Perryman and Cook we have Dom Hampton and Julius Irvin in coverage with the overall defense in a single-high shell. Hampton is the underneath DB and Irvin is the deep man over the top. Since the WR stack is on the field side, Hampton elects to play off coverage instead of a press alignment against Bobo. While we don’t get a jam on Bobo, Irvin does account for his vertical threat and immediately drops in anticipation of a deep play. Its not clear, but it seems as though Bobo has an option route where he can break his route off depending on the coverage he’s seeing. In this case, Irvin is bailing with his hips flipped inside, so Bobo sells an inside break before making a cut into Irvin’s blind spot on a deep out.
The main take away here is that it wasn’t just Cook that was getting picked on in coverage. No matter who was out there in coverage on Bobo, UCLA’s stacked WR look caused us fits by getting him matched up in space against DBs with no help inside or deep. It didn’t help that we did a poor job of tackling once he made the catch, but there’s definitely something that needs to be tweaked this week to make sure other opposing offenses don’t pick on this defensive adjustment.
The Huskies head down to Tempe for a second straight game in hostile territory this week. ASU is a program that is trying to right the ship after a few dysfunctional years under Herm Edwards’ lame duck leadership. With an interim staff sorting things out, it’s easy to forget that there is still quality talent at the top of their depth chart, so this won’t be a sure thing. The staff needs to circle the wagons and get our team refocused to learn our lessons from last week. We’ll find out quickly if DeBoer’s culture reset has sunk in enough for a quick rebound from the disappointing loss in Pasadena.