The biggest factor in the win over Stanford was a breakout game for the pass rush. UW was thin in the secondary, so it was extra critical to not allow Tanner McKee much time to throw. All offseason, the staff and the players have been talking about how much more aggressive the defense would be under Inge & Morrell, and although we’ve seen a more active front, this week was the first time the pass rush really changed the flow of the game. It’s true that McKee is not a mobile QB, but it’s clear that the Huskies have talented pass rushers. The real difference in this game was how UW didn’t solely rely on talent winning out.
To the Film:
3rd and 6
Facing a 3rd & 6 situation with Stanford past the 50 and in potential 4 down territory, we knew we needed to get some sort of impact play to force a punt. Stanford comes out in a 3x1 open trey formation with TE Ben Yurosek attached to the formation in a 2-point stance. We are matching this with a 2-high shell that already seems fishy given rule #1 of anti-spread defense: always have +1 in coverage towards the field (I’m assuming the defense declared the 3 receiver side as the field since Hampton always plays on the field side). Stanford could have up to 7 blockers in this alignment, but if the TE releases, we will at least have even numbers. At this point, prior to the snap, the personnel and alignment looks pretty generic on both sides, and if anything, it looks like we’re just playing conservatively against a deeper pass rather than trying to lock up the offense short of the sticks.
At the snap, we see a much different look from the defense. Stanford’s looking for a quick gain to either move the sticks or set up a short 4th down by calling a Levels concept to the trips side. The Cardinal had seen some success on quick in-breaking routes against our defense, so the three dig routes attacking 2 underneath DBs and a LB way inside the box was a fairly conservative play call. However, Morrell accounted for that perfectly with a Crossfire zone blitz. Zone blitzes are a great way to create pressure without overcommitting numbers to the blitz by simulating pressure and manipulating the pass protection and hot routes. In most zone blitzes, pressure is brought from one direction and a typical pass rusher (usually a DL) drops into coverage from the opposite side. The pass protection is usually set up to account for the anticipated rush threats, so if there’s a chance that the defense catches the protection overcommitting to one side and can overload a different portion of the front.
On this play, we are running a Crossfire zone blitz where we are attacking the middle of the OL by bring Tuputala and Bright into the A-gaps on crisscrossing tracks to pin the center with one LB in order to get a free rush lane for the other LB. With both LBs coming on the blitz, the underneath zones are an obvious soft spot for the offense to throw to on a hot read. To counter this, we drop Smalls into coverage with the TE and have a post-snap safety rotation that brings Fabiculanan into robber coverage underneath. With the post-snap coverage shifts, we end up with Hampton, Smalls, Banks, and Fabiculanan getting 4v3 coverage over Stanford’s Levels concept. With all of the quick routes covered up and Bright opening up an open lane for Tuputala to fly downhill, Zo was able to blowup the RB and get the sack on McKee.
This was a perfect play call to generate pressure and to keep McKee out of rhythm in pressure situations.
1st and 10
While schemed pressure is great on its own, it also has an effect as a force multiplier when running standard pass rushes. On this play, Stanford is working an RPO with an inside power run concept. Up until this point in the game, our defense had been focusing pressure up the middle with our LBs (like on the first play we broke down), so the Cardinal wanted to run RPOs with run tags that would keep linemen inside to block pressure up the middle if McKee pulled the ball. This left our EDGEs in preferential match ups on the perimeter.
Here, Jeremiah Martin is matched up against TE Ben Yurosek, and with Julius Irvin smothering the backside dig route, McKee wasn’t able to rip a pass to his primary target. These days, even in RPO situations, protections are designed to let the QB to make it to their second read, but our interior blitzes forced Stanford into favorable blocking match ups for our talented EDGEs. Smart use of focused pressure packages early let our EDGEs to make plays later in the game, and this was a great example of Inge & Morrell game planning ways to let the pressure take heat off of our depleted secondary.
2nd and 1
The pass rush stepped up for a defense that was lacking some of their usual playmakers this past week, and on the offensive side of the ball, it was the run game’s turn to help shoulder the load. Stanford made it a point to slow down our passing attack this past week with selective pressure mixed in with conservative coverages that were designed to be a bend but don’t break type of defense. In general, the strategy worked by mostly limiting our explosive passing plays, but we didn’t need the deep passing game when the quick passing and run games were so effective.
Here on 2nd & 1 we saw Wayne Taulapapa’s longest touchdown of the season on a very simple but well-executed inside zone play that was attacking a specific soft spot in the defense. In so many ways, this one play perfectly encapsulates everything that was wrong with our team last year and how its completely turned around under DeBoer. We are lined up in a shotgun quads formation with 11 personnel and an attached TE to the field. Under Donovan, anytime we lined up with the RB lined up towards the TE in a slightly offset shotgun alignment, you could count on it being a weakside inside zone play. However, this play actually works under Grubb because of how he is looking for a specific alignment from Stanford rather than just running the play into a brick wall.
Stanford is matching our formation with 3-3-5 personnel and a tilted 2-high shell that is hinting at a post-snap 1-high shell rotation. With all 5 of our eligible receivers aligned to the field side, Stanford was forced into shifting their boundary CB over to the field side and declare their coverage prior to the snap. The coverage aspect of this is irrelevant relative to the fact that Stanford had to shift their alignment and numbers so we could get a 6-man box working against our 6 blockers. To make matters worse for Stanford, we caught them in a blitz look to the backside of our play where we also had a 3v2 advantage at the point of attack on the run with the only run support was coming from a safety that was aligned deep and would be trying to make the tackle in space instead of in the hole (again, something that we saw all too much of last year from our own defense).
With everything in our favor prior to the snap, it was simple execution after the snap. Kirkland did a good job sealing off the frontside DE, Luciano locked up the NT, Fautanu carefully navigated being an uncovered OL by helping to chip the NT and then taking out the frontside ILB, and Wayne took it the rest of the way. It should be pointed out that while Wayne’s long speed and explosiveness has been called into question early in the season, he is capable of these types of long runs because his footwork and vision are so disciplined. Everyone could see that there was going to be a huge lane behind Fautanu pre-snap based on the defensive alignment, but Wayne forced the defense to respect the cutback by pressing the A-gap until the last minute. This drew the safety up towards the interior and gave him a poor angle for when Wayne finally bounced his run through the B-gap.
If football is as simple as attacking where the defense isn’t, this was a master class in doing so simply and efficiently.
3rd and 4
While the run game, and offense in general, was humming along between the 20s, we have regularly stalled out in the red zone this year. Here on 3rd & 4 with a commanding 20-point lead, we are again failing to capitalize on a prime scoring opportunity with 3 straight passes that come up short.
There are a couple things here that we wanted to unpack. First was the big picture game plan when it came to red zone play calling. Now this is more of a philosophical issue because its not difficult to see both ways. Our normal pass-heavy offense that had been effectively moving the ball all game, so why would we suddenly shift into something else in scoring position. However, it is rather frustrating that instead of trying to line up and run the ball against a Stanford front that had already been proven could be pushed around and manipulated, we decided to keep passing when we should’ve been trying to chew up the clock.
Now even if we wanted to stick with our normal passing game in this situation, why did we think that this call was the right choice in the red zone? Empty sets have been a common look for the offense under Grubb, and its been effective so far, but Penix isn’t the type of runner at QB that forces the defense to respect the run when we’re in an empty set. With only 25 yards to work with vertically (including the end zone), there isn’t much for us to work with when it comes to maximizing route spacing for 5 WRs, and without the possibility of play action or some other backfield action, we don’t have a way of manipulating the the defense post-snap. If we wanted to pass, keeping the illusion of a run threat would’ve been nice to see.
Finally, there’s the play selection itself. Out of 3x2 empty formations we have a few core passing plays that we like to dress up with different motions and personnel, but the concepts themselves are fairly consistent. This play is no different. On the trips side, we like to run slot fade Smash concepts with the #1 and #2 guys. This is usually because we put our TEs and RBs out wide at #1 to this side and can give them an easy hitch route with this concept. The #2 spot is usually one of our perimeter WRs (Rome or Polk), and we like to put McMillan at the #3 spot to work option routes against LBs as Penix’s dump off option. On the backside of the formation, we like to either mirror the slot fade Smash concept or run a slot out concept. This was almost the exact same play call that we ran earlier in the game when Rome caught his TD, and its a great shot play when we know the slot fade is drawing a favorable match up. However, we went to the well one too many times and in a much tighter spot on the field. Stanford kept McMillan locked up in double coverage, the outside guys were non-factors on their hitches, and the two vertical slot routes were so constricted by the short field that Penix didn’t have time to rifle in a pass if his first look wasn’t immediately open. In this situation, a play call with a few more crossing routes that could work their way open later in the down might’ve been a smarter move.
Penix ended up making the smart play and throwing the ball away, but it felt like a missed opportunity that could’ve bitten us late in the game if Stanford’s offense got going a little earlier in the second half.
2nd and 12
For as frustrating as the stalled red zone possessions were, we did have a few creative plays that resulted in points and are totally worth highlighting. Here on the last UW score of the night, we get a new and creative formational look from Grubb with Giles Jackson lining up as the sole RB next to Penix. We had already seen a lot of split back looks earlier in the game where Wayne was paired with a receiving threat (either Nixon or Giles), and we had even seen McMillan lined up in the backfield before motioning out into the slot. Up until this point, all of it was just window dressing or a new way to get better receiving match ups for underneath stuff. However with this play, we see proof from Grubb that he’s willing to get his best playmakers the ball in space in as many ways as they can handle.
To this point, Giles has done a lot of work this season to prove that he is more than just a gadget player, and his game against Portland State was his best as a WR since arriving on Montlake. His skill set as a versatile offensive weapon is something that needs to be featured alongside his receiving skills. Jet sweeps have been the primary way we’ve gotten him involved in the offense outside of his WR duties, but we haven’t seen him get featured in more traditional RB roles. Here, he’s lined up as the RB in a pistol set before bumping over into a shotgun alignment. Jackson’s presence in the backfield should’ve made the defense pause, but there didn’t seem to be any extra attention on him, which is good because runs a quick Tex route to set up a slip screen that the OL blocks perfectly for a big TD.
Giles hits a higher gear in the open field than most of our RBs have to date, so getting him the ball in some of the ways that we get our RBs the ball in space would be a good move as the season progresses. We’d have to be selective in when we use him in this role because defenses will key in on it, but there is still a lot of room for this to get worked into the weekly game plan.
A theme in Film Study so far this season has been Penix and his ability to fool the defense with his eye manipulation. Here, this play is designed to go to the middle with a player coming from the left of the formation. So, naturally, Penix gives a nice long look to his right. No one from Stanford was even close to sniffing out this little screen.
Not visible in this angle, but it’s clear that Odunze has his man locked down in the endzone.
Great call, perfect execution.
Friday night, Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Chip Kelly pose a new challenge. A very mobile QB who will throw a lot of short passes. UW will have to tackle well. Zach Charbonnet ran all over the Dawgs a year ago. Can the Defensive line continue to win at the point of attack?