The rushing playbook has a nice variety to it - nothing that knocked my socks off but a good mix of the most efficient college offenses. We’ll see examples of the main plays in the following videos: power-blocked dives from under center, toss plays, off-tackle and stretch runs … there’s only one schematically interesting type of play worth documenting, which is the inside and outside zone-read options with which Oregon fans ought to be familiar:
See the pattern? #3 QB Browning never keeps the ball even if the “read” unblocked defender is crashing on the running back. Browning is a decent runner, but almost all of his rushes are scrambles when the pocket breaks down, with a handful of QB sneaks in short-yardage situations and only a couple of designed draws.
In terms of rushing efficiency, superficially it looks pretty good. Prior to garbage time in their last four games, I recorded 72 successful designed runs vs 55 unsuccessful (in terms of keeping ahead of the sticks given the down and distance); good for a 57% success rate which ain’t bad at all.
However, on 25 of those 72 successful runs (over a third of the time), poor run-blocking would have resulted in a failure if not for their secret weapon: #9 RB Gaskin’s ability to power through tackles for extra yards after contact. Some examples:
On the first play, #51 RG Kirkland isn’t pulling fast enough to block out the end, so he, the CB who changes direction but whiffs on the tackle, and the other end who comes all the way across the formation all get shots at Gaskin, but none of them can bring him down before converting this 3rd & long. On the second play (at :17), the defensive end gets inside of #88 TE Sample’s block to clog that lane and #76 LG Wattenberg seems surprised that the OLB hits him and then gets his arms around Gaskin, but the powerful RB drags multiple defenders across the line to gain. On the third play (at :37), the defense isn’t ready for the snap and yet still gets three guys behind the line of scrimmage, but Gaskin steps around all of them, accelerates away from the pursuers, and turns the shove out of bounds into a leap for the touchdown. On the last play (at 1:04), some kind of miscommunication between Kirkland and #58 RT McGary means not only two defenders are blowing past but nobody gets to the second level to block the MIKE … but Gaskin gets outside the former and stiffarms the latter to turn what should have been a loss or 2-yard gain into a touchdown.
Taking that into account, by my metrics I get an adjusted run-blocking success rate of only 37% in those three games, which is well below average for teams I’ve studied over the years. There’s been some rotation at left tackle and guard due to injuries or fatigue, but my tally sheet doesn’t show disproportionate problems from any one guy; it’s evenly distributed through all of them, including both tight ends and the right side of the line who never rotate … weirdly, the guy who almost never shows up on my tally sheet having problems in run blocking is #70 LT Hilbers, who replaced the injured #72 LT Adams to some media attention.
So the key is actually wrapping up Gaskin and #26 RB Ahmed and preventing those poorly blocked plays from turning into good yardage. That’s easier said than done, but it can be done. It might be strange to make a video to advertise the obvious importance of tackling fundamentals, but just to dispel any notion that these guys are unstoppable:
The passing game philosophy is pretty simple: throw to wide open receivers. These are created by a combination of scheme, skill talent, and an offensive line that’s generally excellent in pass protection:
The first play combines play-action, a rollout, and a TE running a shallow crosser to get #5 WR Baccelia in one-on-one coverage, and he’s fast enough to make it back on the comeback with enough time to adjust on a somewhat low ball. The second play (at :09) has seven guys in pass protection to give Browning enough time to find #20 WR Jones on the sideline after turning his man around on the in-cut. On the third play (at :26), having found an absurdly soft spot in the zone, #21 WR Pounds has the space to adjust on a ball that’s behind him and then re-accelerate to get extra yardage. On the last play (at :39), I’m not sure what the defense thinks it’s doing, but #2 WR Fuller has three whole seconds while he’s standing still and unmolested, watching the ball get thrown to him and making the needed adjustments.
That’s necessary for this offense, because Browning simply isn’t able to accurately hit a guy in coverage:
On the first play, Wattenberg gives up a bit of pressure and Browning’s throw is too high for Jones to stop, adjust, and go up to get it, considering that he’s got a man in tight pursuit. The second play (at :16) is a similar story, except with an unblocked corner blitz that leaves Jones working on a safety who he’s much taller and more athletic than, but he doesn’t have the time to gather himself to elevate for the ball. On the third play (at :33), Browning’s protection is pretty good with seven blockers, but the ball takes a weird twist on Fuller and he can’t adjust to it midair. On the last play (at :46), Browning has to thread the ball through underneath coverage to Jones, who at least makes a gamely dive for it.
Fortunately for them, Browning usually gets plenty of time in the pocket to go through his passing progression, and he’s smart enough to identify the open man:
On the first play, watch Browning’s head: he progresses from the slant to the deep route and finally the crosser to #6 WR McClatcher. On the second play (at :21), Browning’s entire body shows the progression - the CB is too tight on Fuller, there’s two LBs on Sample, the safety’s coming back for Jones, so he rolls a little to get around Kirkland’s struggle with the DE and lob the checkdown to Gaskin. The third play (at :30) is probably the most impressed I’ve been with Browning in this film study - he quickly eliminates his whole list of options (redzone defense helps bunch things up too tightly for him to get open receivers), so he rolls out, directs the receivers, and hits #87 TE Otton on the toe-tap in the corner. On the last play (at :52), Browning shows a lot of patience waiting for Baccelia to get open after noting how open Gaskin is, but also demonstrates knowledge of his limitations by rejecting the post route to Pounds who is even and breaking free before he releases - that throw is to deep for his arm.
There should be a pattern emerging here: they’re happy to take half a loaf, so to speak -- get maybe five yards every time, even if that means taking little dumpoffs -- and bet on the receivers breaking for extra yardage.
There are three main weaknesses here: first, an effective pass rush is pretty lethal to this offense. This is true of every offense so it’s not worth documenting, but to elaborate, Browning is inaccurate and makes bad decisions when pressured - he likes to play hero ball when flushed and has some memorable successes, but a lot more devastating failures. I’ll also say that the offensive line treats him like he’s a Fabergé egg -- priceless but fragile -- and can be induced to commit holding fouls with a quality edge rush ... and their offense is not built to operate well when they’re behind the chains.
Second, the offense’s eagerness for the wide-open man can result in getting baited into useless passes:
On the first play, the shallow crosser to Fuller winds up with a nice nine-yard gain, which would be great except it’s 3rd & 20. On the second play (at :09), Gaskin’s gotten a little spoiled at the checkdown and he’s not coming back for the ball, giving the CB plenty of time to read Browning’s progression and nearly pick it off. On the third play (at :16), Browning bets that a pass 5 yards short of the sticks on 3rd down will have enough room to turn upfield, but is wrong. On the last play (at :23), the offense has decided Browning needs two different guys camped out three yards downfield for Browning to choose from - he picks the easier one to bring down.
Finally, Browning just doesn’t have a cannon for an arm and this translates into a lot of lost opportunities:
I trust it’s obvious that these balls -- even the completed ones -- are low, outside, or otherwise off target, and require a heroic effort to haul them in that the receivers don’t always have in them.
Washington’s defense plays out of a pretty interesting base 3-3-5, although maybe it’s better understood as a 4-2 nickel since most of their outside linebackers are quite large and play up on the line of scrimmage - for a while they had me thinking they were just more stand-up defensive ends. The strength of the team is their excellent set of defensive backs, but I think their defensive tackles deserve some praise as well for anchoring the front-six so effectively.
This is clearest to see with inside rush defense, at which they’re excellent despite almost always playing out of a pretty light box:
On the first play, we’re seeing their typical configuration, with #96 DT S. Bowman penetrating into the backfield quickly and the enormous #99 NT Gaines cleaning up, while #8 OLB Potoa’e and #92 seals off the QB draw’s escape route. The second play (at :09) shows how they defend a power-blocked halfback dive which is almost impossible to prevent gaining a couple yards - Gains and #95 DT Onwuzurike pinch the running lanes and the linebackers and safeties all rush in to the gap to limit the gain. The third play (at :17) is especially impressive - the entire front-six gets off their blocks to position themselves to make the tackle no matter where the back bounces. The last play (at :25) is an example of how they combine both strengths - Gaines can’t be moved despite being double-teamed, and #23 CB Miller comes streaking in on a corner blitz to prevent a short-yardage pickup.
However, despite effusive praise from the media, I was underwhelmed with the performance of the linebackers, especially as it relates to their schematic responsibility to contain outside runs:
The first play displays three things that show up repeatedly in my notes - the read defender #92 DE is flat-footed and doesn’t do enough to string the run out, #30 ILB Manu is a step slow in recognizing the play is going outside, and #7 S Rapp comes in fast and hard to keep a successful play from turning into a touchdown. On the second play (at :07), the entire left side of the defense gets turned inside even though this is an obvious outside read, #25 ILB Burr-Kirven is slow in recognition and winds up behind the play, but Rapp again keeps the run from exploding. On the third play (at :15), the offense gets a hat on a hat across the board, including #17 ILB Bartlett getting crunched by the H-back and #14 S McIntosh letting the slot receiver get inside his shoulders … but once more Rapp is there to prevent a huge gain. The last play (at :31) is almost identical to the previous one, but with a couple tweaks - the OL is able to wall off the DTs with some combo blocking and can pull both the RG and RT around, and without needing an H-back they can split out three wide and occupy Rapp, while McIntosh’s hesitation in going for the tackle lets the back add an additional 10 yards.
Of course, those DBs’ primary responsibility is pass coverage, and they excel at it:
The first play shows off #1 CB Murphy’s specialty: instead of getting run out of the play, he comes back to hit the receiver from behind with such force and perfect timing that he jars the ball out without drawing a flag. On the second play (at :22), Miller breaks free of the flanker’s block (which actually might be offensive pass interference) and comes back quickly enough to delay the slot receiver and give time for Bartlett to get over for the tackle short of the sticks. On the third play (at :36), check out the typically excellent man coverage across the board, including #52 OLB Ngata on the checkdown and the nickel #5 S Bryant on the slot man running a flag route. The last play (at :49) shows that, contrary to some claims, they do have some semblance of a functioning pass rush, as Gaines makes it around the formation to hurry the throw and Johnson earns a holding flag.
That said, it’s true that the pass rush rarely gets home (you’ll have to trust me, dear reader - I can’t make a video of something not happening), and that leaves the DBs to keep everything locked down for a while with some inevitable breakdowns:
The first play looks like a communications breakdown on a switch route, as both Murphy and Bryant take the out route and leave a Heisman-caliber receiver completely open … and with no pass rush to speak of, it’s a lucky thing that ASU has been spontaneously overthrowing him all year. On the second play (at :07), they back out of the LB blitz but send Bryant instead … this doesn’t get home, and Burr-Kirven is slow to take up Bryant’s responsibility which is the TE on a slant (this is also another poor angle by McIntosh that lets a big play go bigger). On the third play (at :26), Ngata’s weird decision to blitz late leaves the TE wide open, the ILB doesn’t make it over in time, and while Miller reacts quickly enough he can’t bring down the big man. The last play (at :46) is just one of several examples in their most recent game of a bizarre and inexplicable change to a soft cover-3, which allowed receivers to just camp out in a soft spot between zones and exploit coverage confusion - here, there are three boundary defenders and three receivers, but no one is actually covering anybody, and Murphy gets caught in a bind without any help either underneath or over the top.
The combination of these three factors -- not committing to the pass rush, slow-footed LBs playing back, and DBs deep downfield usually in man coverage -- combine to allow for one big structural weakness … QB scrambles:
I won’t annotate these as I’ve already highlighted each of the elements in these breakdowns, but I will note that the surprising nature of these plays often leads to defenders getting clobbered, sometimes by their own teammates.