USC has an efficiency offense that’s not particularly efficient. I’ve charted all 316 meaningful snaps they’ve taken from scrimmage this season, and they’re underwater in terms of their per-play success rate with 154 successes vs 162 failures, given the down & distance. Philosophically, they want to march down the field with quick, high percentage plays which maximize the value of their accurate quarterback and sure-handed wide receivers, while minimizing the danger presented by their porous offensive line. (The reader may wish to refer to my 2019 in-season preview of USC, which breaks down OC Harrell’s offense that’s largely unchanged in 2020.)
But for a variety of reasons, USC has been significantly less efficient than last year, and it’s resulted in falling behind in three games (and a longer battle than it should have been in a fourth), then needing a big 4th quarter comeback to secure the win. That’s when USC’s offense becomes terrifying: they move around personnel, start attempting explosive plays, and convert 3rd downs at an astounding clip.
Here’s a representative sample of what USC’s passing game looks like when it’s working:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to play them at ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - #9 QB Slovis does not wait around for a play to develop most of the time, instead pretty quickly getting to his checkdown or some other quick dumpoff and relying on the excellent skill talent around him to make a play.
- :10 - Slovis doesn’t usually make it very far down his progression because he has to deal with the line collapsing pretty quickly on a large percentage of plays (the o-linemen graded out at over an 11% error rate at pass-pro on average on my tally sheet), but again, superior athletes make a lot out of a little.
- :23 - Most teams like to take shots on obvious free plays from an offsides flag like this one, especially in an empty set. Not USC, because the quarterback virtually always follows the “programming” of the offense which dictates an immediate throw to the open receiver in the flat.
- :33 - Deep throws like this one prior to the 4th quarter are pretty rare, and they always look like this - a bafflingly open receiver who then humiliates the defense with his athletic talent for extra yardage.
About half of all USC dropbacks result in a throw that does not travel more than 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage - it is an offense utterly dominated by almost robotic quick throws, despite the fact that they’re far more efficient at intermediate routes. That results in, despite some pretty memorable big plays, a fairly low explosive passing rate - only 12.5% of passing plays outside of garbage time that gained 15 yards or more. But it’s inefficient as well, with 93 successful designed passes vs 107 failures, or 46.5%.
Part of the problem is the structure of the offense, but another part has been the remarkably poor pass protection the offensive line delivers, with 19% of all dropbacks resulting in a sack, scramble, or throwaway. Here’s a representative sample of failures in these aspects of the passing offense:
- :00 - Much of the playbook looks like this, with a bunch of relatively short options — a mesh concept, two out routes, and a checkdown well behind the line — that a zone defense can stymie pretty easily. When the RT breaks down (fairly common, he’s by far the least effective in pass-pro), Slovis dumps off for a loss.
- :19 - Both receivers are coming together, pulling all the DBs into the same area with no need for a deep safety in the redzone. Slovis has to make this throw early because any later risks the other two DBs covering the outside receiver picking it off, but that means no time for the targeted receiver to separate from his DB - that allows the pass break-up.
- :33 - There have been more screen passes in this offense than last year’s, though they’re similarly underwater as with downfield passes. They overcame an early problem of throwing them beyond the neutral zone and picking up OPI flags, but still suffered from structural problems like insufficient — or here, inadequate — perimeter blockers.
- :41 - Blitzing is not very effective against USC because they have so many built-in quick throw options, but it’s also not necessary. Plays like these are more typical, where the defense gets penetration and a throwaway rushing four against seven-man protection … meaning seven defenders against three passing targets.
Another problem in USC’s passing offense, and one for which I have no explanation, is that Slovis has just been off on a lot of his throws this year, and a lot more often than last year - I tallied about a quarter of all dropbacks when he’s either throwing a very wobbly ball or just processing the field incorrectly. So far he hasn’t suffered from one of these strange mental or mechanical breakdowns during the clutch moments at which USC is so effective, and on a good chunk of those plays where I think Slovis has made a mistake it doesn’t really impact the offense and they still pick up a decent gain. Indeed, the other three-quarters of the time when he’s making plays, he’s really making plays. Some illustrative, but not representative, examples:
- :00 - The 4th quarter, when his back is against the wall, is when Slovis is most dangerous. This is possibly the best rep I’ve seen any Pac-12 quarterback take this year - perfect sidestep of the rusher, mechanically perfect footwork and throwing motion, and pinpoint accuracy in traffic … and yet still it’s a weird, wobbly ball that the receiver almost bobbles.
- :21 - Another charmed 4th quarter play, Slovis calmly steps out of a sure sack, rolls away from the pocket, and sets up for a mechanically sound throw. They tell quarterbacks never to throw late to the middle across your body, but I guess those rules don’t apply to this offense, since I have several such throws and big completions on my tally sheet.
- :34 - The defense gets pressure rushing only three, and this time Slovis’ weird wobbly ball almost costs him - it hangs in the air forever, giving the DB time to make a play on it and his safety to come over to help.
- :51 - UCLA’s peculiar pre-snap shifts and exotic pressures gave USC a hard time through most of their last game. Here the back on check-release properly stays in to deal with the rusher, but Slovis should know that means the CB has no other responsibilities on that side of the field and can play the WR tight. He throws it anyway, and underthrows it at that, resulting in a predictable interception.
Formationally, USC isn’t very diverse - they have essentially two personnel packages, one with a tight end in as an H-back or on the line of scrimmage, and another that’s 4- or 5-wide. They try to be balanced out of the former, running about 52% of the time, but out of the latter they really give it away - it’s a passing play 87% of the time.
Situationally, they’re fairly predictable in most down & distance categories. It’s 70% pass on 1st downs, 83% rush on 2nd & short, 71% pass on 2nd & long, and 93% pass on 3rd & medium or long, and are predictably underwater at those times. Poor 1st down efficiency is the biggest problem in this offense, since it sticks them with long yardage in subsequent downs more than half the time, and their efficiency falls off further in those situations. Where they’re balanced are 2nd & mediums and 3rd & shorts, and like most teams with good running backs and a quick passing game they pick those up at about a 60% rate.
The rushing attack is so desultory that it doesn’t bear a lot of attention. It’s a little above water in efficiency - 61 successes vs 55 failures, or 53%, which is mostly propped up by it being reserved for short-yardage situations where they’re 59% efficient running the ball. They have a particularly low chunk-yardage rushing rate, with only 14 runs on the year going for 10 yards or more outside garbage time.
USC is a bit more effective running outside behind their tight ends than up the middle through the line, but I noted no significant difference in power vs zone blocking effectiveness … though that’s not saying much, since each o-lineman was over a 14% error rate at run-blocking on my tally sheet, with the interior particularly poor at over 25% each for the guards and centers. Most successful runs required the backs, who I think are some of the most powerful in the league, breaking tackles. Here’s a representative sample of the run game:
- :00 - Per above, USC runs on about 30% of 1st downs, and many of the successful ones look like this, where the box clears out expecting a pass.
- :08 - Blocking this tragic is not uncommon, but neither are good plays by the back like this one, who reverses field and breaks a tackle for a decent gain on 2nd & medium.
- :18 - Here’s a blocking assignment error: the pulling guard hits the WR’s man instead of continuing around to clear the backer or DB. The backside blocking is similarly problematic.
- :25 - I spent some time trying to figure out if there are any actual read-option or RPO plays in this offense, and ultimately concluded that there aren’t, largely because of plays like this one.
This is a breathtakingly aggressive defense. Every offseason it seems we hear coaches talk about simplifying the defense and becoming more physical and attacking, but my stars, new DC Orlando really meant it.
USC’s defensive efficiency numbers are slightly above water, 147 successes vs 137 failures, given the down & distance. But that belies what a boom or bust defense it is: their negative-play forced rate is significantly higher than the Power-5 average at 15%, but so is their explosive-play surrendered rate at 17%.
What’s clear from their rushing defense is how much the linebackers, and frequently DBs who play in the box or even up on the line, are making aggressive pre-snap guesses about where the play is going and attacking it immediately, instead of flowing to the play as it develops. Overall I tallied 62 rush defense successes vs 59 failures, or 51%. They’re certainly not lacking for talent and hard-hitting bodies in the defensive front, and have dealt with a lot of personnel unavailability over the season pretty well. Here’s a representative sample of their successful rush defenses:
- :00 - This is what most of USC’s wins against the run look like: an immediate victory over a blocker at the line, blowing up the play before it starts.
- :08 - Ideally, this is what the defensive philosophy produces - a correct guess as to which way the play is slanting with multiple aggressive defenders overwhelming the blocks and punishing the ballcarrier.
- :29 - Stretch plays like this one are particularly ineffective, since USC’s talent lets them string it out and get their hats playside.
- :36 - I haven’t seen an offensive line good enough to win inside power plays against USC’s interior front - the bodies are just too big for most Pac-12 o-lines to impose their will on.
But if they guess wrong, it’s bad news - they gave up 23 runs of 10+ yards, which is 19% of rush defenses, and they were particularly poor in short-yardage rush defenses, stopping only 32% of them. Some examples:
- :00 - Outside runs like this one are often successful because of the quick jump USC likes to make - they rarely have the discipline to properly set the edge, so the back can get to the corner without opposition. Here the ILBs are crossing each other and the DBs are charging the interior.
- :09 - Unlike inside power runs, outside power has given USC a lot of trouble if they can’t get upfield immediately to disrupt the block formation. Here the d-linemen and inside backers are turning their shoulders perpendicular to the line of scrimmage instead of staying square and retaining their base, making them easy to block.
- :27 - This is a different kind of aggression - when USC decides you’re going to pass, they double down on it, empty the box, and put in only one down lineman. Opposing offenses have been strangely reluctant to call them on it, but when they do it’s free yardage.
- :34 - In my offseason preview, I detailed the potential personnel problems implementing Orlando’s defensive structure. One of them was forcing players like the excellent #99 OLB D. Jackson out of his natural position in a 4-down front into an all-purpose edge player with pass coverage responsibilities. Clouding option plays and making quick turns against a fast QB just isn’t in his wheelhouse.
The pass defense shares a similar philosophy, and similar strengths and weaknesses. Overall they’re slightly above water as well, with 85 successes vs 78 failures, or 52%. They have some pretty impressive disruption numbers to go with it: more than 26% of opponent dropbacks end in a sack, scramble, or throwaway, which is excellent. In obvious passing situations, their success rate jumps nine points to 61%. That’s largely due to an eager blitzing strategy - they bring five or more on about 39% of opponent dropbacks, and get a successful outcome 62% of the time they blitz.
Here’s a representative sample of passing play defensive wins:
- :00 - Here’s an ideal rep for this pass defense: pressure with both ILBs and a DB immediately charging the play, with quick penetration resulting in a quick throw for minimal gain after a hard hit.
- :08 - When Jackson is allowed to simply rush off the edge against poor OTs, he tends to eat them alive.
- :17 - I think #2 CB Griffin is their stronger corner, and has done a good job all season of locking down his side of the field, as in this play where he maintains downfield position the whole way and earns a shot at the pick.
- :27 - USC’s best option to contain mobile QBs is simply to beat both tackles.
Like the rush defense, USC’s over-aggression in pass defense is its biggest source of problems. In five games outside of garbage time they’ve given up 25 passing plays of 15 yards or more, and eight of those were for 30 yards or more. Bringing so many pass rushers also means that while they tend to flush the QB more often than many teams, they frequently don’t have anybody left to actually tackle him - USC succeeds on only 36% of plays in which the QB breaks the pocket.
Unlike the rush defense, which has been mediocre in every game this year, the pass defense is inconsistent week to week - in three games they were nearly elite, totaling a 62% success rate. But in the other two — against Arizona and UCLA — they were shockingly poor, with only 37.5% success. From film study I attribute this to the very different passing structures of those teams, with the Wildcats and Bruins preferring to attack space rather than matchups. Some examples:
- :00 - The backers make this choice too easy for the QB, with a slant route over a crosser they need to be handing off in zone coverage, but instead let the big slot receiver get behind them.
- :09 - I think that #8 CB Steele is the weaker of USC’s corners in coverage, and his grabby play results in a lot of flags.
- :33 - Oddly, only about 8% of plays against the Trojans have been screen passes, which is well below the typical Pac-12 number. I’m not sure why that is, since they’re a great way to punish an over-aggressive defense, as in this tunnel where once the DB misses there’s nobody to catch the ballcarrier.
- :50 - USC’s frequent DB blitzes often leave them short-handed against vertical plays, and the inside backers are just not assignment-sound enough to prevent explosive passing in that vacuum. Here Jackson has the back covered and so the ILB should be dropping immediately into deep coverage, but he remembers that much too late.