clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

30-Day Countdown - Day 23: A Defensive X’s & O’s Refresher

What to Watch for in UW’s Defense This Season as a Scheme Nerd

Washington v Colorado Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Prior to last season, I did my best to breakdown Inge & Morrell’s version of the base 4-2-5 defense, and it’s a good place to start our refresher. However, every good coaching staff adjusts to the talent on the roster, and after a full year getting to know their players’ strengths and weaknesses (and a full year for me to digest and familiarize myself with the scheme), let’s take a look at a couple of areas worth focusing on this season when the defense takes the field.

Redefining the EDGE & Husky

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 30 Washington at UCLA Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

At a high-level, we run a base 4-2-5 nickel personnel defense. This means we will typically have 4 DL-type players on the line with 2 linebackers behind them. In the defensive backfield we will have 2 perimeter CBs, 2 safeties, and a 5th DB who will typically align over the slot at CB depth. This type of personnel and personnel grouping is common throughout college football these days, and it is an evolution of the conventional 4-3 defense.

Under Inge & Morrell, we further differentiate our personnel with the EDGE and the Husky. Having been familiar with Pete Kwiatkowski’s similar 2-4-5 defense, I had assumed going into the 2022 season that the EDGE role would be fairly similar despite the rebrand. However, this season, we should look at the EDGE as basically a DE. There are still some 3-4 OLB influences, such as when we occasionally drop the EDGEs into coverage and ask them to run pass rush stunts, but our EDGEs will still often be 6’4”+ and 250+ with a primary focus on pass rushing and run stuffing. Given the emphasis on DE-like responsibilities for EDGEs within this scheme, we may need to elevate our expectations for individual pressure stats.

Washington v Oregon Photo by Tom Hauck/Getty Images

As for the Husky, heading into the 2022 season, the thought of putting a freak athlete like Hampton near the line of scrimmage to shore up a porous run defense was very attractive. Under Coach K, we had smaller DBs like Myles Bryant man the slot corner position, and I had come to the conclusion that an added “big” body near the LOS would help compensate for not having two NFL DTs anchor the defense against the run. Contrary to this initial thought, the Husky role ended up being less of a hybrid safety/LB role and more of a slot corner/safety role with some flexibility depending on personnel. What I failed to understand at the time was how we pieced together our run fits within a Quarters-heavy coverage structure and that Hampton’s size worked more to his detriment than to the defense’s benefit. Our pattern match coverage rules asked Hampton to cover a lot of ground laterally and often gave the field safety clean up duty in spill run fits.

With that in mind, when you’re watching the defense this season, keep an eye on how field side route combinations on RPOs influence the Husky and field safety. Depending on the routes that the slot receivers run, either our Husky or safety could pick one up in coverage. Vertical routes go to the safety and certain underneath breaking routes go to the Husky, Typically, coaches teach route depth rules to determine when this coverage handoff is made. Our DBs are taught to read route stems rather than the depth of route in order to gain an extra half second of processing time during the play. A fast and aggressive vertical stem tips off a vertical route that the safety would pick up, thus freeing up the Husky to look around for other run or pass threats.

Adjustments & Checks to Offensive Formations/Motion

The other key area to watch schematically this season is how our defense adjusts to offensive formations and motion. Sound defensive schemes are largely about having effective checks for the various looks that an offense can give. Static offenses with generic formations are easy to defend because those are the base looks that all defenses are designed to defend against. However, unique looks like “formation into boundary” (FIB), where the offense places the majority of their receiving threats to the short side of the field, and stacked WR alignments like you see below, contradict some of the basic assumptions that base defensive coverages and alignments are designed around. Stacked alignments were something we struggled with all of last year because our DBs were not able to apply their pattern match techniques in the same way. Instead of safeties only being responsible for a vertical route, our check against stacked alignments gave the safety both vertical route responsibilities and breaking route responsibilities with no support, which led to a major mismatch. For as solid as Alex Cook was last year, man coverage is not his strong suit, and the lack of coverage support was a glaring deficiency in our defensive checks.

Motion/shift checks were also a challenge last year. In general, our coverages are designed to maintain at least a 1-to-1 ratio between coverage defenders and receiving threats and an extra coverage defender on the field side to account for the extra space. Some teams ask DBs to travel with WRs to maintain their numbers, but our defense rotates the backfield instead. The thinking is that it allows us to flip our coverage call to mirror the offense if the passing strength changes. However, this rule can be used to manipulate our defense.

The big play below from the Kent State game is a perfect example. Not only did they use motion to shift the passing strength, but they were also motioning into a FIB look. Knowing how we rotate the backfield to match the motion and that we want to maintain at least even numbers to the boundary, Kent State was able to isolate the field WR in an easy 1v1. They caught us in a Cover 1 man coverage look, and even with our rotation into a 2-high shell, they pulled Hampton towards the middle of the field away from the Go route on the boundary with the motion into the boundary.

Powell’s shift to Husky and Hampton’s shift to safety may improve the overall coverage abilities of our secondary and mitigate some of the match up specific issues we faced with last year’s defensive checks against certain offensive looks. If that isn’t enough to resolve some of our struggles, we could also see different checks that seemed to work better later in the season.

Adjustments like the one above where we went with a 3 over 2 coverage to the boundary against a stacked alignment was a departure from our typical preference to keep the extra defender over the field side, but it better protected our DBs from bad match ups where WRs also had 2-way goes for their routes. We may also see more of an emphasis on getting LBs out in space in certain passing situations to add to our coverage numbers. While we want to avoid putting LBs in bad match ups themselves, a “box coverage” (4 defenders over a bunch or stacked WR alignment) limits each defender coverage responsibility so significantly that it let’s them adjust their technique to protect themselves in coverage (such as heavy leverage against the 1 or 2 routes that they may have to pick up).

Adding new adjustments and checks to the call sheet in year 2 of this defense will give the team a lot more options to account for whatever opposing offenses throw at us. I’ll be sure to break those down in this season’s Film Study series, and you should also check out last season’s Film Study articles to refresh yourself on the situation-specific ins-and-outs of last year’s defensive scheme.