On a night where the team’s first loss seemed inevitable, your underdog Washington Huskies squeaked by yet again to move to 11-0 with a 22-20 victory over the Oregon State Beavers. This game was a perfect storm of good fortune - very much the opposite of the actual storm that was taking place on this cold and rainy night in Corvalis. Just to name a few: a long running play that ended in a fumble near the goal line only to get negated by a fumble right back on the ensuing series, crucial first down conversions called back due to penalties and a snap over the head resulting in a safety. The offense is still not fully back to firing on all cylinders as evident of the goose egg dropped in the second half while the defense is still getting gashed by the run. But in the end, both sides did enough to secure the W and add yet another victory to the already impressive resumé.
To the film.
Acts of God can Stop this Offense, but We Allowed it
Acts of God might be a bit melodramatic, but there was certainly adverse weather in Corvallis that put the clamps on our typically high-flying offense. That might be why it was more frustrating to watch this week’s offensive performance than others this season. Against ASU, their interior pressure shut down our offense. Against Stanford, they followed a similar game plan and were just effective enough to make it a game down the final stretch. Against an Oregon State defense that was tied for the conference lead in sacks before the game, we held their pass rush to zero sacks, zero QB hits, and only four or five pressures by my count. That works itself out to mean that Penix was kept clean in the pocket on more than 80% of the called pass plays, so pressure wasn’t the issue. (Shameless plug - it should be noted that the half-roll + pulling iOL protection that we broke down last week as a potential key in the OSU game plan was featured prominently 5-6 times including Rome’s first big reception).
It was pretty evident to those that watched the game, but drops were the real issue. By my count, there were at least six drops on catchable passes (~20% of Penix’s passes). There isn’t much for me to breakdown on film when it comes to catching and drops, but we can take a look at why we put ourselves in a position where we were significantly hampered by the predictable uptick in drops due to the weather.
Against USC and Utah, we proved to ourselves that we can orchestrate an effective and explosive rushing attack if we stayed committed to it. Our coaches even pointed to those rushing performances and spoke to the need to run the ball effectively later in the season as the weather turns. So the question becomes, if we wanted to run the ball in bad weather, why didn’t we? We had a couple of good runs over the course of the game, but we were stuck in neutral in the second half while clinging to our pass-first mentality.
Let’s take a look at what worked, what didn’t, and what could’ve been done differently.
2nd Quarter - 11:35 - 3rd & 4
First play up this week is Dillon Johnson’s long run early in the second quarter. Most viewers, myself included, thought that this run was a positive sign early in the game that we would be able to lean on our run game. After starting the game with a 10-play touchdown drive, we had a two drives ending in punts that resulted in -2 net yards. Over those two series we called eight passes to just two runs. Something clearly wasn’t working, so a spark from the run game was much needed.
On this particular play, we were in a 3rd & manageable situation in fringe four down territory. Everything was on the table from a play calling perspective, so when OSU ran out their passing situation sub-package, Grubb had the perfect call dialed up. As they had done on a couple of our previous unsuccessful 3rd downs, OSU went with two true DL, four LB types, and put everyone on the LOS. Much like our defense’s MUG looks in passing situations, this look is designed to simulate a man blitz with the flexibility to drop into “spot drop” zone coverage (classic zone coverage where defenders drop to landmarks rather than play pattern matching assignments). As we’ve discussed in past Film Study articles, these looks can be extremely effective against the passing game because they force the blocking front to check into their most conservative and basic blocking schemes and force passes out to the perimeter (don’t want to pass into potentially dropping ILBs). However, these looks can also be susceptible to big runs.
Grubb dials up a One-Back Power play out of a 2x2 shotgun formation that puts Jack Westover in short motion to get a better angle on his defender. One-Back Power is very similar to the classic Power and Counter run concepts. The goal is still to have the play side (right side) down block towards the left to seal the inside of the run lane, and then there’s a pulling blocker from the back side (LG, Kalepo, #71) kicks out the unblocked edge defender to open the other side of the run lane. The main difference between One-Back Power and normal Power or Counter is that there isn’t a lead blocker in front of the RB to pick off the first defender in the hole. In theory, if you have good spacing from the formation or good downfield blocking from your WRs/TEs, then it doesn’t really matter if there isn’t a lead blocker.
On the replay angle, you can see the seas part for Johnson on this play. It’s a well-blocked play, but Johnson running free for a big gain (albeit negated by his later fumble) wasn’t simply because our OL was better than their defensive front. OSU’s defense is very well-coached and active against the run. Their DL can win 1v1s in the run game consistently and their LBs and safeties are fast in run support. What worked on this play was that we had the right defensive look for a particular run concept.
OSU having lighter personnel on the line helps to some degree, but it was their alignment on the LOS that really set this play up. MUG looks like this version of it are particularly weak against gap runs that involve pulling linemen because the LBs are on the LOS and are unable to flow as easily to plug gaps. If you include Westover and his defender into their respective fronts (blocking & defensive), then we are actually outnumbered on this play. We have six blockers to their seven defenders, but because we are pulling Kalepo to the point of attack and they can’t match it with flowing LBs, we actually have even numbers at the point of attack.
So what’s the takeaway? If we could get an explosive run off of this play, then why didn’t we stick with the run game? If you can do it once, surely we could do it again, right? Johnson finished the game with 5.6 yards/carry, so we should’ve run it more, right? Well, like I said, this play worked well because we caught OSU in a bad look to stop this particular run, and it illustrates the point that a consistently efficient run game is more important than an explosive one.
This one run accounted for 39% of our cumulative team rushing production. Take this play away, exclude Penix’s kneel downs and lost fumble yardage, and we averaged 3.6 yards/carry with Penix’s 11-yard scramble as our longest rushing play. You might look at 3.6 yards/carry and think that it’d be enough to power an offense, and mathematically you’d be right. However, 3.6 yards/carry provides zero margin for error. You can’t make up for penalties and down-to-down fluctuations in gains (like if you get stopped for no gain or a TFL on 1st down). Realistically, you’d need something closer to 5 yards/carry like OSU got (excluding their sack and punt yardage) to maintain a run-heavy offense. On the majority of our other run plays, when OSU was able to play their base 4-2-5 defense in a standard alignment where LBs could flow to the point of attack, they were able to consistently hold our runs to short gains. Any incompletions attempting to keep a balanced offense or penalties (there were many) put us behind schedule and forced our hand to keep passing. Long story short, it was a death spiral, and without mixing things up with change up run concepts, personnel (curiously, we didn’t run much 12 personnel), or formations to boost down-to-down rushing averages, leaning on the run game was never going to be sustainable.
1st Quarter - 10:00 - 3rd & 9
On a much more positive note for the offense, the Penix to Rome connection just couldn’t be stopped despite the rain, and in the end it made all the difference. More specifically, even though Grubb couldn’t figure out a way to gain traction on the ground, he did identify a good match up for Rome and set up four key plays to Rome that were pivotal to winning the game. Against OSU, Odunze had 7 receptions for 106 yards and 2 touchdowns, but on four vertical Iso concepts like this play, he was able to gain 3 catches for 63 yards, 2 touchdowns, a key DPI penalty that set up another touchdown, and the game sealing 3rd down conversion. This was our ace up the sleeve.
As you can see on the replay angle above, there isn’t a ton going on from a route combination/play design perspective, but we knew what we wanted and we set ourselves up with this preferred option every time we thought OSU would match with this look. On this play we are set up in a conventional 2x2 look with 11 personnel. The TE is on Rome’s side of the formation but stays in to block on a 7-man protection. We know that in MUG looks that it’s going to be either spot drop zone or man coverage, and if Rome is going vertical, its basically man coverage no matter what. If Rome gets enough space to work his routes, as he does on Iso concepts like this, then it’s game over.
This angle is an even better example of how Rome’s violent cuts without overcommitting on the in-breaking fake. He sells it just hard enough to get the CB to flip his hips inwards and then speeds past him to the open grass in the back corner of the end zone. The other key here is the slightly condensed split for Rome on this play. Instead of lining up directly at the top of the numbers (top of the numbers on the field as read from the nearest sideline), Rome lines up about two yards inside of the numbers. It’s a minor detail that often gets missed when watching it live, but that alignment tweak gives Rome a little more room to drift towards the sideline on over the shoulder or back shoulder passes. On one of the other Iso plays to Rome, we lined him up in the slot in an empty formation and ran a Slot Fade to him for the DPI. Slot Fades out of Empty, especially the way we use them where TEs and RBs are lined up outside on quick hitches, are another good formational/alignment trick to set up a deep play to Rome.
We didn’t want to take up too much of this week’s Film Study with every Iso play to Rome (not really a “concept”), but we wanted to highlight how important those types of plays were when the rest of the offense wasn’t working. Keep an eye out for Rome on a vertical route down the perimeter whenever you see him by himself out wide or a lined up in the slot with a TE or RB outside of him in an Empty look against a one-high safety coverage.
Making Sense of a Good but Flawed Defense
For the fourth consecutive week, I am here talking about our good but flawed defense. I sound like a broken record at this point whenever I have to remind folks that our defense is better than it looks during the game while still having glaring weaknesses, but here we are.
At the end of the game my instant reaction was that our defense got shredded but came up with timely stops down the stretch. It was too close for comfort, but a win is a win. After watching the game again for Film Study, I started to drill into the specifics of what happened and why. As expected, our run defense was the problem, but by-and-large our passing defense was actually very effective in most situations. The difference for us on defense was our turnover margin and passing situation defense making up for our complete inability to stop the run on standard downs. Excluding the sack yardage and the bad snap on OSU’s punt-safety, the Beavers racked up 197 yards on 38 carries and 2 TDs while averaging ~5.2 yards/carry. To put that into perspective, OSU’s QBs averaged 5.1 yards/attempt passing for no TDs and 2 INTs, but it doesn’t stop there. We’ve discussed over the last few weeks that the eye tests suggests that our defense is quite good once the offense is in a one-dimensional passing situation, but the problem is getting offenses into those passing situations. I wanted to get a gut check on that thinking against OSU, so I went back to the film and charted OSU’s pass plays. Here’s what I found:
- 57 yards on 3 screens/RPO
- 47 yards on 4 bootleg play action plays
- 65 yards on 26 other pass attempts
Obviously, most defenses can stop an opponent when they know what’s coming (*cough Michigan *cough), but that’s why we need to figure out our early down run defense. We can’t wait for the offense to make a mistake in order to get a stop in the post-season.
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of what we tried, why it didn’t work, and what made our pass defense so good against OSU.
2nd Quarter - 8:01 - 2nd & 1
First play up we have a 2nd & short situation where OSU could call anything. This puts the defense in a pinch. We can’t sell out to stop the run because of the threat of play action, but we also haven’t done a good job of stopping the run either. You can either roll the dice to stop one or the other, but that’s a quick way of letting your opponent punch above their weight and lose control of the game. Instead, we stick with a base 4-2-5 alignment with a Cover 4 umbrella against OSU’s 11 personnel condensed formation. Fundamentally, this is an appropriate personnel group, alignment, and coverage call. Against 11 personnel, most defenses would match with nickel personnel, we don’t have any glaring misalignments as this is our base alignment, and Cover 4 can in some cases be a very effective coverage against the run if you have your safeties play their fits aggressively from a shallow alignment.
So what went wrong? Well it all comes down to how we are reacting to OSU’s Outside Zone run call. Outside Zone (abbreviated to OZ moving forward) is similar to other zone run concepts in that the entire blocking front takes steps in unison in the direction of the play. They set their blocking assignments post-snap and block whoever ends up in front of them in that particular zone. On OZ plays specifically, the OL is looking to reach block (get onto the play side of their assigned defender) their blocking assignment so that they can seal the edge for the RB to run around. Now in most cases, the OL isn’t able to make the reach block because it is one of the hardest blocks for an offensive lineman to execute, so instead they are taught that once they realize that they won’t be able to seal their defender on a reach block, they’re to convert their block into a drive block to wash them further to the play side. The RB’s job is to aim for the play side edge but read the whole blocking front. Reach blocks and drive blocks are both blocks that impact the defensive front’s ability to mirror the OL’s horizontal movement towards the point of attack and maintain gap integrity. Depending on the combination of reach and drive blocks up front, there may be an open gap on the backside that forms and it’s the RB’s job to read it and make the cut.
OSU’s offense is built around this OZ concept, and it’s because they run it very well. On this play, they are running OZ towards the field while we are trying to run a blitz right into the offense’s point of attack. We have our DL slant towards the boundary while Bruener (#42) loops around the field side edge and a field side DB off the wide edge for good measure. The beauty of OZ is that it doesn’t really matter what the defense does because if they aren’t disciplined in their gap integrity, there will be somewhere for the RB to go. In this case, Martinez (RB, #6) presses the play side edge but then cuts all the way back to the backside B-gap for a big gain. This gap opened up when Ale (DT, #68) got drive blocked to the play side and Tunuufi (DT, #52) slanted towards the backside TE per the blitz design. Goforth (LB, #10) would typically be there to plug the gap, but he instead flowed hard towards the field, again, per the blitz design. With poor gap integrity at the LOS due to the play design and no LBs available to plug the gaps, Martinez was able to gain the first down before even getting touched.
Now what’s the takeaway? Unlike gap plays like Power and Counter where there is one defined gap for the RB to run through, you can’t just overwhelm a blocking front at the initial point of attack if they are running a zone run concept. In fact, sometimes you don’t even want upfield penetration from your defensive line against zone runs because if they miss the TFL, they’ve now opened up a massive gap in the defensive front. Contrary to some of the things I’ve seen and heard on the internet from fans, there’s no silver bullet to stopping OZ. We tried using 3-4 personnel in a 5-man bear front against their 12 personnel groupings and we had the same issues against the run.
At the end of the day, it’s all about gap discipline and controlling your 1v1s so that you can make the play at the LOS. This can be done with 2 on the LOS, and it can be done with 6 on the LOS. It doesn’t matter how many people you put on the LOS, but it does change your risk profile. The more bodies you put on the line, the fewer you have to keep at the second level to read the RB and flow to the gap once he commits. That being said, the more bodies you put on the line, the fewer opportunities there are for the OL to get a double team to get vertical movement, but if you can’ win those 1v1s for a stop at the line, watch out for a big run... like on this next play.
3rd Quarter - 9:00 - 3rd & 10
It’s a bit of an extreme example here, but this is what happens when you try to stop an OZ run when you have your entire defensive front on the LOS. For context, it’s a 3rd & 10 passing situation from near midfield. It’s midway through the third quarter, and OSU’s down by 12, so it’s probably four down territory. That being said, this is also a prime passing situation, so we have our pass rush sub-package on the field aligned in our usual MUG look. Seeing an good opportunity to try and bully a lighter defensive personnel grouping for a few easy yards, OSU dials up another OZ play with a read option tag out of a 3x1 shotgun look. The personnel isn’t really the issue here though.
Where this goes wrong is our poor gap integrity. With Tunuufi (#52) lined up on the nearside edge, directly over the LT, he’s not actually the LT’s blocking assignment and is instead the read defender despite Bruener being further outside of him. Tunuufi plays contain and DJU hands off to Martinez on the option. Because Tunuufi plays wide, and the DL to the inside of him gets drive blocked towards the boundary by the center, there is a yawning chasm for Martinez to run through, and because Bruener is lined up outside of Tunuufi, he has to fight through a block from the LT at the second level just to make the shoestring tackle.
Given the defensive alignment, Tunuufi should’ve pursued the RB option rather than play outside contain since Bruener was in a position to defend the QB run. That one mistake, even if it was on how to defend an option play, is what I’m talking about when I say gap discipline. We need every defender in the front to know their assignment and play their assignment, but if we had Bruener playing from a conventional LB alignment, he would’ve been in a better position to make a play regardless of what Tunuufi did.
2nd Quarter - 0:24 - 2nd & 10
Wrapping things up on Film Study this week, we wanted to take a look at how well our pass rush package looked against OSU. On this play and the next, OSU is in a clear passing situation with less than a minute left before halftime, so we start throwing various change ups at them from our MUG looks. On this first play we start in a MUG look but drop 8 into a Cover 3 with 5 under and rush just 3. The pass rush doesn’t get immediate pressure, but the pocket starts to get tight around DJU, so he tries to rifle a pass into a tight window underneath to his lone mid-field option. Because we dropped five defenders into underneath coverage, we have three defenders that immediately break on the targeted receiver, and Ulofoshio breaks up the pass at the last minute.
It’s important to note that we don’t have our full on pass rush sub-package on the field on this play and are instead using more conventional base downs personnel, but we are still able to generate some pressure and play excellent coverage on the underneath route.
2nd Quarter - 0:11 - 4th & 10
Finally, on this 4th and long play from the same series, we put in our pass rush sub-package with Trice, ZTF, Tunuufi, and Lane on the field. Lane has been a revelation once he broke into the rotation in this sub-package. His athleticism and ability to close on long looping stunts have made a huge difference. On this play we are running a TT stunt that I haven’t seen get run out of this package before. This rush design features our EDGEs crashing into the B-gaps to draw the attention of the OTs like on the ET stunts we broke down last week, but instead of the tackles looping around the EDGEs on the same side that they lined up on, Tunuufi and Lane criss cross and loop around the far side EDGEs.
Lane very nearly gets the sack on this play, and the pressure directly in DJU’s face forces an off target pass. Lane isn’t the only player to highlight on this play. Bruener also made an incredibly athletic and heads up play to break off his coverage assignment once he saw the pass go away from his coverage assignment. He was able to locate the ball and tip it into the air for Muhammad to snag for an interception. This is where the spot drop zone coverage that we run out of our MUG looks can be so dangerous. When we get good pressure from our front four, having all of these coverage defenders’ eyes on the backfield makes it easier for us to make a play on the ball and force turnovers like this. It’s a cool play design up front that gets executed well by Lane and both Bruener and Muhammad capitalize on an opportunity.
Awgs’ Bonus Play(s) of the Week
Another big time win = more than just one bonus play for the week.
Just like the announcers were mentioning, DJ owes Bruener a nice dinner for this play as Carson added to his best game as a Husky and proved he can do more than just lay the boom on kickoffs.
The only reason Bruener did not win Defensive Player of the Week is because Jabbar had an even better performance, locking up and doing his best (insert your favorite NFL shutdown corner here i.e. Sherman, Revis, Bailey, Sanders, Woodson) impression.
Lastly, we got Penix doing his Magic Mike (not the NSFW kind) thing.