After the pleasure of breaking down the UW offensive performance earlier this week in Film Study, we had the less-enviable job of diving into what the Huskies looked like on defense. There were some stops, there were some takeaways, and there was very good energy. But the tackling was too reminiscent of the past couple seasons, with guys just simply not wrapping up.
Kent State’s overwhelmed defense made the UW offense look probably better than they are. But the Golden Flashes have some absolute dudes on offense, including a running back and receiver that each topped 1,200 yards a year ago.
Collin Schlee is a mobile guy at the quarterback position, and pretty fast too. He will rush for a lot of yards this season (if he makes it though the Oklahoma/Georgia part of the schedule). But it seemed a little bit like the Huskies weren’t quite aware of how hard he would be to contain.
We saw plenty of two-high looks, but also some more aggressive scheming by Inge and Morrell.
Here’s a look at three plays that stood out.
1st and 10
The Husky defense got off to a hot start against KSU, but midway through the 1st quarter we got reminded that our new, aggressive coverage scheme is a double-edged sword. After rewatching the game and getting a better feel for how this defense actually works, it’s clear that Morrell’s coverages are rooted in modern defensive principles, but they do open things up for big plays at times.
Morrell prefers press and bail coverages because they take away the quick passing game that a lot of offenses are built around. However, its the back end of the secondary’s coverage scheme and alignment scheme that determines the risk he’s taking. We usually like to run quarters coverage (Cover 4) out of a 2-high shell to make sure we have enough numbers deep to cover 4 verts concepts, and at a minimum, there will be a safety nearby who can clean up for a CB who gets beat on their jam. However, staying static in one coverage or one coverage shell (1 or 2 safeties deep) is an easy way for the offense to find holes in your coverage, and that’s why Morrell doesn’t exclusively use 2-high shells. That’s where alignment comes into play.
Morrell wants to play our coverage numbers to the field and even numbers to the boundary. This means that we will always line up or adjust to have one more DB playing to the field side than the offense has receivers to that side. For example, if there’s 1 WR to the field, we will usually have 2 DBs to the field. If there’s 2 WRs, we’ll have 3 DBs. This ensures that we have a numerical advantage where there is more grass to cover, and its a core principle in modern defensive schemes. The tricky part is that this can take many different looks with varying degrees of efficacy. If it’s our typical 2-high safety shell against 2 WRs to the field, we’ll have our CB and Husky over the WRs with a deep safety behind them, but if we’re in a 1-high shell, we’ll only have the safety shaded to that side instead of true safety help. This is where we got into trouble.
Facing a 1st & 10 situation just inside our own territory, KSU comes out in a 2x2 shotgun formation with 11 personnel. Their TE is aligned to the boundary in a wing alignment, and their RB was aligned to the boundary as well. We matched with our base 4-2-5 personnel in a 1-high shell look. Prior to the snap we have Mishael Powell and Dom Hampton at the LOS covering the 2 field WRs and Asa Turner is shaded to the field. Prior to the snap, KSU puts their slot into jet motion, which forced us to rotate Turner down towards the boundary and Hampton back into the centerfield safety spot. Turner’s our best centerfield safety, so we try to keep him back there at all times, but the motion forced the rotation to maintain even numbers to the boundary. With Hampton rotating away from the field at the snap, he was in no position to help Powell on the go route and KSU’s QB threw a perfect pass under duress for the big TD.
This was a well designed play by KSU, and surely part of their game plan was to hunt for this look from our defense. Powell played pretty tight bail coverage on the play, but with no safety help and a perfect pass from Schlee, he wasn’t in a great position to win this rep. We should expect the defense to check into 2-high coverages against similar motion looks when facing better passing attacks in the future.
3rd and 15
Next up we turn our attention to the run defense. Facing a passing situation on 3rd & 15, KSU comes out 10 personnel in a 2x2 formation that we match with our pass rush 4-1-6 dime sub package (Trice, ZTF, Martin and Tunuufi on the DL & Fabiculanan as the dime back). We are also playing a conservative Cover 2 with both safeties at least 12 yards off the LOS to prevent the deep pass. Given the long down and distance, we weren’t expecting a run, but KSU saw the light box and decided to gamble on their run game.
With only a 5-man box, we never had enough defenders to cover every gap without 2-gapping, but KSU added to their run advantage by running G/T counter. On this one-back version of counter, the center, LG & LT all block down on ZTF and Tunuufi while the RG kicks out Trice and the RT pulls through the hole as a lead blocker. Martin is neutralized by the threat of a QB run to the backside, and Moll is put in a bad position to react to the play because he’s lined up on the LOS as a part of a simulated pressure. As we saw against KSU’s own defense, when LBs are lined up on the LOS, they aren’t able to flow with the pulling linemen and plug the new gaps that they create because they have to fight through the traffic at the LOS.
Regardless of our front’s reaction to the play, we didn’t have enough bodies, and KSU’s RB found the wide-open cutback lane on the backside. That right there was worth 8 yards, but no way should this have been a 1st down. What the staff will really focus on this week will be the poor clean up tackling that resulted in the 1st down. Both Alex Cook and Asa Turner came downhill quickly from their deep alignment, and both met the RB short of the line to gain, but neither made clean tackles that took him to the ground. Looks like both guys were trying to strip the football, instead of wrapping up the ball carrier. This was a theme through out the game once ball carriers made it into space, and we should for improvement next week.
3rd and 6
On our final play this week we wanted to take another look at how our defense adjusts to different looks from the offense. Static offense and defense is fairly straight forward, but it’s rarely something that we see on Saturdays. Facing a 3rd & 6 in the red zone, KSU comes out with 12 personnel in a balanced 2x2 shotgun look with the RB to the field. We match this with 5-2-4 personnel (counting the EDGEs as DL) and a shallow 2-deep shell.
Prior to the snap, KSU again puts their WR in jet motion to force our safeties to rotate. However, instead of attacking the backside of the rotation with an isolated 1v1 go route, KSU dials up a play action TE leak concept. Faking the jet sweep with both a RB lead blocker and a pulling guard, KSU gets the entire defensive front flowing to the field while the play side TE fakes a down block before leaking towards the backside of the play. Powell, as the lone boundary DB, should’ve been in a good position to cover the leaking TE, but he was drawn to the play side as well by the backside TE on a decoy crossing route.
Powell ends up making the TD saving tackle, but it was still a pretty big play for KSU. Similar to the first play we broke down, this has less to do with a specific coverage bust, but it was more a byproduct of our aggressive scheme. Our safeties being more involved in run fits force them to react more aggressively to backfield action, and our use of safety rotations to match the offense’s motion makes it easier for teams to manipulate certain aspects of our coverage. As the season progresses, we should expect to see our pre-snap adjustments to get smoother and our DBs get craftier with the looks the present to the offense.
Again, Kent State has a very good offense, and quite a bad defense. Both of those factors need to be weighed when assessing the performance of the Husky offense and the defense in week one. It is exciting to have a more aggressive scheme, if for no other reason that it is a change from what we have seen.
Will the defense be better in 2022? Jury is out.