clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Film Study: Stanford Cardinal

Offensive bounce back. Defensive...?

NCAA Football: Washington at Stanford D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

Another week, another trap game. This time, it was Stanford who took a run at derailing Washington’s Pac-12 Championship and College Football Playoff hopes and dreams. UW got its offense back on track in a 42-33 victory over the Cardinals on The Farm, and Penix regained some steam on his Heisman campaign. Granted, the final offensive numbers paint a rosier picture than the sometimes inconsistent play that fans saw live.

The defensive effort was concerning, but with all of the injuries on that side of the ball, they were still able to get it done. These last two weeks proved that being a top 5 team in the nation means every opponent will throw anything and everything at you to pull off the upset, and the Pac-12’s depth this year means that even “bad” teams could have the pieces to make something happen on any given Saturday. This year’s rendition of the Huskies have thus far proven they can take care of business and withstand all the punches to still come out on top, unlike previous teams (see 2017, 2018). It is also almost like the team just wanted to give us fans an extra spook with Halloween around the corner.

To the film.

1st Quarter - 8:12 - 1st & 10 || 4th Quarter - 14:20- 1st & 10

To get things going this week, we wanted to take a look at a couple of offensive plays that caught our eye as Grubb tried to get our offense back on track after the abysmal ASU performance. Both of these plays utilize an RB Seam route out of the backfield that we’ve used once or twice earlier in the season but not regularly.

Here on the first offensive possession, our offense is just entering the red zone and sees an opportunity to dial up a set-piece shot play. Starting off in a 12 personnel 2x2 shotgun formation with Culp and Westover attached to the formation and Sam Adams aligned to the boundary, Stanford shows a 2-high shell that’s probably Cover 4 or man based on the shallow safety depth. Prior to the snap, Penix brings Polk across the formation in jet motion to the boundary from his wide alignment to the field. As with all of Grubb’s play calls involving tricky formations and motions, he’s looking to manipulate the defense’s pre-snap checks to get a favorable look for the offense or force a declaration of coverage from the defense.

In this case, he must’ve noticed that one of Stanford’s typical checks against motion when playing Cover 4 is to stay in Cover 4. Some defenses have auto checks to single high coverage shells when they see motion across the formation, especially a motion into a formation into the boundary (FIB). By bringing Polk in motion, Penix would be able to make a quick pre-snap read to identify the coverage. If the CB travels with Polk, then it’s probably man coverage. If the safeties rotate into a single high shell, then it’s probably Cover 1. If there’s no traveling CB or rotating safety, like it is on this play, then Stanford’s sticking with some form of Cover 4.

As I’ve mentioned every week on Film Study, modern defensive principles require a minimum of even numbers into the boundary and +1 defenders to the field where there is more space to cover. If not, you need some amount of man coverage mixed in to make conventional zone coverages to work. When facing a fundamentally sound defense, the wild card for the offense is figuring out how the defense is going to deploy those defenders. Based on Stanford’s pre-snap alignment and their likely Cover 4 call, Stanford would only be able to cover the four eligible WRs to the boundary with four defenders (the CB, boundary safety, EDGE/OLB, and boundary ILB) arranged in a 2-deep/2-underneath zone. With that in mind, Grubb knows we’ll have great match ups who can get 1v1 looks, and we can get away with a 6-man protection (OL + Culp) against seven potential rushers in the box since at least two will need to drop into coverage to maintain sound coverage numbers.

Grubb dials up a boundary-side 3 Verts concept with Polk on a Swing route off of his motion as a check down option. Rome is running a clear out Crosser route to back off the safeties, Westover is running a Wheel up the sideline to occupy the CB, and Adams has the Seam route as the primary read. He should’ve had a favorable match up against the ILB, but Stanford’s coverage broke one of the rules of modern defense. By bringing both ILBs on the blitz, Stanford was stuck playing three defenders against four receivers, and Adams was wide open for a nice gain. Even if Stanford didn’t completely blow coverage, if Penix had thrown Adams open to the inside, he might’ve been able to split the safeties for a TD.

Later in the game we ran the same concept out of different look to again pick on Stanford’s Verts coverage out of 2-high coverage shells. On this play, we’re again in 12 personnel, but this time were in a 2x1 shotgun formation that puts Nixon and Culp in the backfield. Stanford is again in their 2-high coverage shell, and based on their safety alignment, they could be in Cover 2 zone, Cover 2 Man/2-Man Under, or a version of Cover 4. On this play, we didn’t use motion to get the defense to tip their hand, so we’re leaning on Penix’s post-snap read, our game preparation, and the play design giving us enough options to beat all the possible coverages.

Based on this play call, Grubb again must’ve seen something in the game planning that suggested that Stanford was going to play Cover 4, particularly this version, more often than not when they’re playing 2-high. We’ve got our outside WRs running outside release hitches, with the core Post-Wheel concept coming from Westover’s Post and Culp’s Wheel/RB Seam route (plus a Swing route check down option to the field from Nixon off the play action). This call is perfectly tailored for Stanford’s coverage, and it’s a great reminder of how hard it is to defend Grubb’s play calling when he has the pass protection up front to call every play on his call sheet.

As I mentioned earlier, we aren’t using motion to force Stanford into tipping their coverage, and Stanford isn’t giving away their coverage based on their alignment. Therefore Grubb must’ve known from game planning or in-game tendencies that they were in Cover 4. The version that they’re running is a Cover 4 Read call that’s commonly called against offensive formations with two RBs in the backfield. Basically, the CBs are locked in press man coverage to simplify the zone coverage for the rest of the defense, the safeties are both reading the WR2 to the field (Westover), and the field side slot defender (#11, Tevarua Tafiti, a fellow Punahou alum) and the field ILB are both reading WR3 (Culp). What these defensive reads boil down to are that the field safety has Westover on anything vertical and to the outside and #11 has Culp on anything vertical and to the outside.

Grubb’s play design attacks this by creating space for Culp’s Seam and a conflict for #11. The WR outside release hitches get the CBs’s back turned away from the play and keep them preoccupied in the flats, Westover’s Post clears out the field safety, and the combination of Culp’s Seam and Nixon’s Swing routes create the illusion of a high-low read for #11. Tafiti should be carrying Culp vertically (which would still be a mismatch in wide open space), but the combination of play action and Nixon’s release to the field holds him underneath way too long to have any impact on Culp’s route. It’s really a coverage bust, but it was all set up by a play design that would’ve put Culp in a favorable position anyways.

These plays were a core component in our offense early in the season when we were fully healthy and defenses were trying to play coverage and not pressure against us. Grubb still has these plays in his back pocket, but the pressure has forced him off his game plan and calling plays in reaction to what the defense is sending at us. Again, we need to sort out our protection to reach our offensive ceiling.

2nd Quarter - 5:23 - 1st & 10

Like I just mentioned in the two plays above, set-piece shot plays are a key component of our offense, and this play is a perfect example. These explosive plays compensate for offensive inconsistency when it comes to overall efficiency, bail us out of tough situations, and to a certain extent they help our offense play complementary football (playing against a one-dimensional opponent that’s pressured to score quickly would help our defense). There usually aren’t too many creative schematics, but we wanted to highlight a couple of key factors that contributed to the second-longest play in UW history.

First, the protection. Shot plays, especially this deep in your own territory, are always risky propositions. With so few options downfield, Penix doesn’t have too many options with the ball, and unless there’s a check down option built into the design, Penix would need to roll out of the pocket just to get rid of the ball. We have an 8-man max protection on this 2-route shot play. Max protection and play action protection designs are a niche specialty where it helps to have an OC with OL experience. You can line up your extra blocks in a variety of ways, but its a great play design when you can set up the formation to help your protection scheme and draw a favorable coverage structure out of the defense. By placing Moore and Westover to the boundary, we’re able get Stanford into a Cover 6 look (Cover 4 to the field + Cover 2 to the boundary), which helps our shot play routes (more on that in a minute). That TE alignment also helps sell our play action, which in turn set up our protection.

When we run the ball, one of our favorite play calls is Counter, especially out of Pistol. Counter is typically run to the weakside (away from the TEs). Because this is a known tendency, Stanford doesn’t try any of their more exotic blitz plays. Blitzing ILBs into Counter is a recipe for disaster because they aren’t able to flow laterally with the pulling blockers to plug the new gaps. We don’t run any Counter-like pulling blockers in this protection, but the formation was enough to back Stanford into a simple 5-man edge pressure-focused look.

Finally, even though we’re doing everything possible pre-snap to discourage interior pressure, we are also effectively calling a full slide protection. Now, our more astute readers will know that this isn’t a true slide protection, but to keep things simple, we will go with it for now. Basically, our OL is making their blocking assignment calls in such a way that they are responsible for all interior gaps and letting our weaker auxiliary blockers (TEs & RB) pick up the edge rushers so that Penix can step up into a clean pocket if the edge pressure gets through. There is a bit of interior pressure, but by and large this was a clean pocket for Penix to navigate.

The second thing we wanted to highlight was Polk’s route running. On this shot play, Rome is being used as a clear out decoy to occupy the safety and create space for Polk to work a 1v1 with the CB. Polk is running a Out-n-Up double move that’s designed to get him free against the 1v1, but there’s more to it than that. Good route runners know how to tailor their routes to the coverage they’re facing. Immediately at the snap, the CB opens his hips to be able to keep an eye on the backfield and break on in-breaking routes. The CB knows that he has outside leverage and the sideline to protect him from out-breaking routes. Polk sees that and knows exactly how to attack that coverage technique. Instead of taking a hard break to the sideline before breaking back vertically, Polk takes just three quick steps after his first break into the CB to get him on his heels, and he doesn’t take a hard 90-degree break either. He knows that, as long as he maintains speed through his shallow breaks, all he has to do is get the CB on his heels to win vertically. The route is run to perfection, and the Stanford defender is left grasping at jersey on his way to touching grass.

3rd Quarter - 8:47 - 3rd & 4

One last offensive play this week. On this play we wanted to reiterate the point made in the last play that our offense works a lot better when we mitigate interior pressure. Our offense is in 3rd & manageable territory on our side of the field, so Stanford dials up a Cover 1 man-blitz. We’re running a Mesh-Rail concept out of a shotgun 2x2 look. At this point, Mesh has been broken down so many times that it’s not all that interesting for most. The key thing to note about the play call is that we’re running Dillon Johnson on a Rail/Wheel route out of the backfield, so we’re in a 5-man protection situation.

Stanford’s blitz design is dropping their two EDGE defenders into coverage, slanting their DTs towards the field, and then looping their ILBs around the boundary edge. Instead of running a Scat protection (combo man and zone slide protection), our offensive line is running a full slide protection to the left. It’s tougher to tell the zone slide protection compared to outside zone run technique, but you can tell based on Rosengarten’s blocking assignment. At the snap, he quick sets to read who is coming. Because of the alignment of the DT off his left shoulder, his blocking progression goes from the DT to the ILB then to the EDGE to his right. Unlike the Scat protection that we broke down last week on Film Study, we are making sure that we are getting our best blockers on the interior rushers and letting Penix take care of the edge pressure with a hot read. Obviously we got a little lucky that the EDGE on Rosengarten’s side dropped into coverage and the replacement edge pressure came from the far ILB on a slow developing blitz, but all that would mean is that Penix would have a quicker read to Johnson in a footrace to the sideline against an ILB.

Full slide protection isn’t ideal since it essentially concedes guaranteed edge pressure, but at least Penix would know where the pressure is coming from, and we can tailor our play calls to make sure we’re taking advantage of the hot reads.

3rd Quarter - 10:09 - 2nd & 3 || 3rd Quarter - 3:26 - 2nd & 6

Before we wrap up Film Study this week, we had to address the defense with these last two plays. We did not put up a good defensive performance against the Cardinal, and it has been a major point of discussion by many fans ahead of a big game against USC this week. If we couldn’t consistently stop Stanford, who has one of the worst records in the conference, then how are we planning on stopping the USC, who has the reigning Heisman trophy winner at QB? Well, let’s take a look at what actually happened against Stanford.

On these two plays against Stanford, our bend-but-don’t-break defense broke in a big way. On this first 2nd & 3 play, Stanford comes out in a 2x1 FIB look with a split backfield that we match with an interesting 1-high coverage shell that puts Esteen 14 yards deep in center field and Hampton and Powell 9 yards deep. It took me a couple replays to figure out what we’re doing in coverage on this play, but it appears that we’re MEG technique (Man Everywhere he Goes) on the solo WR to the field and playing Cover 6 over the rest of the formation. It’s a common coverage adjustment against certain FIB looks to simplify the defensive structure and give easier coverage assignments to LBs and safeties, but it does ask a lot of our CBs at times. What the MEG adjustment means in this context is that we’re assuming that Elijah Jackson in man coverage on an island is going to lock down his WR, and we’re playing 10v10 everywhere else. Everywhere else has Powell playing Cover 2 technique to the field side (ZTF dropping into underneath coverage off the zone blitz creates the high-low bracket over the field-side H-Back), and Esteen and Muhammad are playing Cover 4 technique to the boundary with Hampton and Ulofoshio taking underneath coverage. In theory this is a sound numbers distribution in coverage. We have two zone defenders against one remaining eligible receiver to the field (+1 defender for the extra space), and we have 4 over 3 coverage to the boundary. Where the wheels come off the wagon is Jackson’s MEG technique.

Our defensive structure is match up agnostic where we prioritize the ability to get set quickly against tempo offenses by lining up on specific sides of the field rather than lining up our best coverage defender over the toughest WR match up. That’s why Jackson was on an island against Stanford’s most dangerous vertical threat, Elic Ayomanor. We just got set, made the coverage adjustments per the defensive system, and we just ran with it. The assumption that Jackson had Ayomanor locked up in man coverage proved to be the issue.

Stanford is running a shot play concept that sent Ayomanor downfield on a Go route with a 7-man protection to buy their QB time. Watching the play live, it might look like Powell had his blown coverage and was playing too shallow, but in reality, he never had the deep safety help over Jackson. Powell was supposed to be supporting ZTF if the H-back released vertically, which is why he was playing at a shallower depth and came around to Ayomanor’s Go route late. We took the calculated risk of playing one match up aggressively to help shore up the rest of the coverage.

That risk in coverage was compounded by the fact that the pressure design was largely negated by Stanford’s max protection and their QB’s mobility in the pocket. Trice was a monster generating pressure against Stanford, but again, there’s only so much you can do against a mobile QB that can remain calm under pressure and deliver deep strikes downfield.

On this last play, we again gave up a big play on a Stanford shot play concept to Ayomanor. This time, instead of getting burned because of a calculated gamble and getting beaten man to man on the match up, I think we got burned playing bad technique on a base coverage call.

Here, Stanford’s playing in a condensed 2x2 formation that doesn’t trigger one of our coverage adjustments, so whatever coverage family gets called from the sideline is what is being run. It looks like we’re running base Quarters coverage, but so many of the details look off that I’m not 100% sure. On the field side, Jackson is playing off coverage with outside leverage and his hips open to read the his whole half of the field, which is consistent with Cover 4. Both safeties are playing tight in the middle at deeper depth than I’d expect for Cover 4, but post-snap, Hampton, Esteen, and Jackson are all dropping deep in the general vicinity of where I’d expect them to go if they’re running Cover 4. Jackson also picks up coverage on a Corner route instead of Esteen, which would be consistent with Cover 4 instead of Cover 2.

If the assumption is that they’re playing base Cover 4, then there are two key details that were missed and contributed to the big play. First, Hampton takes a false step up at the snap before bailing deep. In Cover 4, he’s reading the WR2 to his side (the second eligible receiver on his side as counted from the sideline) which is the TE. If the WR2 goes vertical, then Hampton converts his assignment to man coverage on WR2. If the WR2 does anything else, Hampton needs to gain depth, not drop down. UW’s staff teaches our DBs to read the route stem rather than the depth of the route, so this should’ve been an easy read given that the TE is staying in to block... What’s worse is that if WR2 stays shallow, then Hampton is supposed to be gaining depth to help on any vertical threat from WR1, and if none materializes, then he’s supposed to continue to maintain his drop and provide inside support on any routes coming from the opposite side of the field. Ayomanor is running the Post route on Stanford’s Scissors concept, and appropriate depth from Hampton would’ve squeezed the passing window for the QB and eliminated that threat. However, that false step prevents Hampton from having the appropriate depth to help Esteen, who his going through the same reads on his side of the field and is in man coverage against Ayomanor’s vertical route. The slot Post route is a known Cover 4 beater because it can match an offense’s best WR against a safety in 1v1 man coverage, and it works to perfection against undisciplined or preoccupied safeties that don’t communicate with each other well on cross field threats.

The second detail that looked off on this play, again assuming that it is Cover 4, was the underneath coverage. In Cover 4, the weak spot in coverage is usually underneath where there are only three dedicated defenders in the underneath zone. In most cases, the ILBs are taught to wall off any crossing routes underneath since the WR is likely to be running into open space as the OLBs or nickel defenders are flying out into the flats on the first sign of an outbreaking route underneath. However, because Stanford is in a condensed formation, there is less risk to the flat since the starting alignments on offense and defense are advantageous to the defense. What is still confusing though is that no one picked up #24’s drag route underneath at all. There’s no re-routing or walling off of his route. There’s no hand off in coverage between Tuputala and Powell, and #24 could’ve easily picked up the first down had he gotten the ball. How on earth are we supposed to play defense against better opponents when we’re letting receivers run wide open deep and underneath when the offense only has three routes called on the play against seven coverage defenders?

Big picture between these two plays, we need our defense to tighten things up heading down to LA this week. We need to be more cognizant of the match up situations on the play calling side, and we need our second and third level defenders to dial in their coverage assignments. Help from the DL would be good as well since the best cure for a leaky secondary is consistent pressure. I’m not seeing a magic bullet solution to the defense, but if there’s only one thing we can focus on this week, I’d hope that it’s getting our assignments down. We cannot give up the big plays because of mental and technical mistakes. Getting beaten 1v1 is one thing, but if we don’t have the scheme in place or the players on the field to be forcing turnovers or making impact plays, then forcing opposing offenses to march the field and execute 8-12 times gives us a higher probability of a stop than the guaranteed scoring position that one big play can concede. We just need to keep the lid on opposing offenses to give our offense the chance to win the game.

Awgs’ Bonus Play(s) of the Week

These plays have become a weekly occurrence but it leaves me in awe every time. They are very NFL-esque and makes me excited to see these WRs in the league. Who had the better back shoulder fade route catch for a TD this week - Rome or Polk?