After a tough game against UCLA, the UW offense looks to bounce back against ASU down in Tempe. Figuring out what to expect from the Sun Devils is a little bit of a moving target since the dismissal of Herm Edwards two weeks ago. The systemic dysfunction covered up the fact that this is still a team with quality talent in their starting line up, a deep and experienced coaching staff with NFL backgrounds, and a homefield advantage to work with. USC looked like they were going to learn this the hard way through three quarters last week, and I’m sure that after our experience last week, we won’t be taking this game lightly.
From a scheme perspective, the bones of ASU’s defense should look very familiar. Much like our previous opponents, the Sun Devils primarily operate out of base 4-2-5 personnel with their nickel DB primarily playing in a slot corner alignment. Unlike some of our earlier opponents, ASU will lean very heavily on single-high shell coverages and man coverage to match up with our spread looks. First-year DC Donnie Henderson has an extensive NFL background, and although you can tell he want’s to add more variety and complexity to the ASU defense, he’s elected to only make small tweaks to the defense he inherited from former DC Antonio Pierce and Special Advisor to the HC, Marvin Lewis.
That defense was a pressure-oriented man-blitz defense that took advantage of good talent in the secondary to let the defensive front make plays. It was designed to let the athletes play fast and aggressively by keeping the rules very simple. There wasn’t some complicated set of checks, adjustments, rotations, etc. It was basic man-to-man coverage and pressure. The philosophy has shifted to include much more spot drop zone coverage underneath from the LBs, but overall its still a fairly basic scheme that is reliant on pressure up front. Pressure is something that we struggled with last week. While our OL has done a good job through most of this season, we found out that when under consistent pressure, Penix fails to consistently progress through his reads and will make unforced errors. We know we have better athletes on the perimeter, but it’ll come down to how well our OL can shield Penix from the pressure.
Key Players & Personnel
From a personnel standpoint, the defensive front continues to be the focal point of their defense. There was a lot of hype surrounding the front 7 heading into the season, and although injuries have sapped the depth of the group, it is still a team strength. Tautala Pesefea and Nesta Jade Silvera are big bodies holding down the interior of the DL, and they’d be even tougher to handle up front if star 3-tech DT Omar Norman-Lott wasn’t banged up. Behind the DL, 5th year LBs Merlin Robertson and Kyle Soelle are the core veteran presence on the defense and will be key pass rushers in passing situations. They aren’t known for their coverage abilities, but they also aren’t liabilities when they’re asked to do so.
The weak link of the defense is the secondary. After losing 4 starters last year, it’s a relatively in experienced group. According to PFF, transfer DB Khoury Bethley is the sole bright spot in the back end with the only overall defensive grade over 75. Elsewhere in the backend, the DBs struggle with average to mediocre coverage grades, and while they have graded out similarly to UCLA’s DBs, they struggle with tackling. The UW passing game relies on strong run after catch production to buoy the offense’ per play efficiency, and sound tackling was how UCLA slowed us down. If ASU’s DBs struggle in space, we might be in a good position to put points on the scoreboard.
Much like UCLA, UW’s match up against this ASU defense will come down to how we fare at the line of scrimmage. If we successfully protect Penix, or find some other way of taking the edge off of the Sun Devils’ pass rush, our WRs should win most of their match ups handily. From a schematic perspective, I’d look for increased use of our jet sweep package this week as ASU likes to travel their DBs in man coverage when adjusting for motion. Trying to match the jet sweep step for step through traffic is almost impossible, so we might get a boost in the run game from that portion of our play book. I’d also look for us to lean more heavily on double move shot concepts from 2x2 sets that usually force ASU into their single-high shells and create space along the sidelines for WRs to work their routes in 1v1 situations.
Regardless of how our own defense performs against ASU, we just need to make sure our offense keeps in rhythm and can string together possessions without major errors. We don’t need every play to be a touchdown, but we can’t turn the ball over.