Washington is driven by their passing offense, with passing playcalls on about 66% of all meaningful snaps in 2023. Head Coach DeBoer’s offense, which I’ve been charting for the past four seasons going back to his time at Fresno State, doubled down on its passing tendencies between the 20s this year by calling pass plays on 73% of meaningful snaps outside the redzone, flipping to a balanced (53% run, 47% pass) play selection only once they get inside the opponents’ 20-yard line and defenses compress.
Pass efficiency has been championship caliber for the Huskies at 61.5% efficiency outside of garbage time – 72 successful designed passing plays vs 45 failed ones, given the down & distance. Yardage and explosiveness in the passing game have been truly elite, beyond what that efficiency number would typically predict in my experience: 11.1 adjusted YPA and 24% of passes gaining 15+ yards.
To the extent that’s a discrepancy at all, it reflects a somewhat higher than expected throwaway rate. But as I wrote about regarding last year’s team, this makes sense in the context of UW’s explosive and pass-heavy offense, and with the character of their excellent starter #9 QB Penix. He simply doesn’t put the ball in danger if the throw isn’t there, and when you’re getting eleven yards a pass and passing on nearly every play, 3rd & 10 is just another day at the office so occasionally getting rid of the ball on earlier downs is perfectly rational.
The offense uses a sophisticated system of pre-snap motions and route combinations to identify and manipulate defensive coverages, giving the QB clear shots especially against the types of zone structures that most defenses have tried to hedge their bets with. Here’s a representative sample:
(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)
- :00 – The formation and personnel group are bluffs here and the defense falls for it, with eight defenders pulled up on what was never going to be a run including the safety who lets one of the best receivers in America run right past him in zone, #1 WR Odunze, into wide open grass on the drag.
- :09 – The TE in motion not only reveals zone coverage but realigns it even stronger to the field, while the back moving the opposite way to occupy the flat for the checkdown draws off the underneath coverage. Odunze is the middle of a three-level read who occupies two defenders while multiple other backers stand around uselessly, and the excellent #2 WR Polk gets the high read and a spectacular catch against the late safety.
- :35 – There would normally be an opportunity for some pressure given the turnstile at left guard here but not with Penix, who’s identified Cal’s 3-deep zone pre-snap and knows exactly where to place this ball in the soft spot as the Bears will let Odunze right through the middle of it.
- :51 – Arizona doesn’t bite on the fake screen here, with the CB properly dropping on the deep route and DB staying with the releasing TE, and so gets a pumpfake out of Penix while he recalculates. The backer almost decides to cover the checkdown, but then bails out for who knows why, and Penix smartly catches it and instantly goes right back to the now vacated grass.
About a quarter of Penix’s downfield passes from the pocket (excluding throwaways) have been 20+ air yard attempts. Only a handful have been straight sideline go routes challenging the cornerback; the vast majority have instead challenged safeties – flag routes against man, the post or the deep drag against zone, and straight-go or sluggo from the slot. That’s about the same rate of deep shots as in 2022, while intermediate routes are down a bit to 28% and short routes are up to 47%, largely due to the non-garbage-time sample having so many plays from the week 5 game against Arizona in which the Wildcats’ 7-DB strategy caused Penix to frequently switch from mid-range passes to the checkdown. Screen passes make up about 11% of designed playcalls, again about the same rate as last year.
On the podcast, Gabey and I discussed at length Penix’s exemplary courage both in coming back from multiple season-ending injuries and in standing in the pocket to make deep and accurate passes regardless of pressure. Because of how effectively he reads the defense pre- and post-snap within the structure of this offense, and his remarkably quick and compact throwing motion, the ball is out of his hand well before the pass rush typically has an opportunity to arrive, but when it does it hardly matters at all – Penix simply doesn’t drop his eyes or scramble under pressure, he makes the throw he’s supposed to. And because the entire point of this offense is that the primary read is a big play, that often translates into long completions microseconds before a QB knockdown.
The offensive line has had to undergo some shuffling on the interior due to a few injuries, and Gabey and I have been discussing for several years now the issues I have with OL coach Huff’s short-setting system in pass protection as well as his roster management. A full history of the unit, going back to 2020 when an alternate path of playing time with this particular group of recruits might have been taken, is recounted on the podcast.
The upshot is that redshirt freshman #72 C Brailsford has taken over snapping duties, and is for the time being still a bit undersized. I think his technique is actually pretty good considering the circumstances and I look forward to seeing his tape next year, but for now he’s been thrown in ahead of schedule and he has the lowest grades on my tally sheet. #77 OG Buelow, who’d been part of a drive-by-drive rotation at the beginning of the year, appears to have been effectively benched, with #71 LG Kalepo and #56 RG G. Hatchett playing full time for the last two games. Returners #55 LT Fautanu and #73 RT Rosengarten have played every meaningful down.
Despite the disbelief and distemper it evokes whenever the plain video evidence of it is presented, protection from the line has been about Pac-12 average at best, and at spots notably below average, with pocket breakdowns not being uncommon events. Over the years of watching this team, my theory is that opposing defensive coordinators have seen something similar, and they talk themselves into blitzing as a solution to this lethal passing offense.
My opinion is that this is almost always a mistake. The ball is simply out of Penix’s hand on the primary read too fast for blitzing to be effective – 62% of passes this year were gone with 2 seconds of the snap with a 73% per-play success rate on such passes, and it was a higher frequency last year – and doing so eliminates defenders from coverage. Arizona’s defensive strategy was as effective as it was precisely because they went in the totally opposite direction, forgoing a heavy pass rush and dropping more assets onto the receivers in an attempt to double-cover the deeper targets.
Here are some examples of why blitzing has been so ineffective against UW’s offense this year:
- :00 – For some offenses this creates a worthwhile numbers tradeoff for the back end – committing five blitzers against seven pass protectors, so six in coverage vs three in the pattern. But #11 WR McMillan is just too good, and the blitz just can’t get home fast enough even with both tackles turned around against such a quick release from Penix, especially when the defense is wasting multiple defenders standing around in useless midrange coverage when they should have had a sky high safety instead.
- :18 – The RT and TE are both beat wide and the LT just refuses to pick up the looper on this six-man blitz, but even with three white jerseys coming right at him Penix has a perfectly composed and compact throwing form to throw this laser to Polk on the two-beat, which the coverage is undermanned to handle.
- :32 – Here the rush collapses the interior right up the middle and the d-lineman, hardly for the first time, literally has a hand on Penix as he’s releasing. It doesn’t matter at all, the defense has failed to cover a basic mesh-sit and Penix knows it, and fearlessly makes an accurate throw.
- :47 – Look I don’t even know what this is from either team. Arizona is blitzing from depth which is bizarre given their strategy, UW doesn’t notice (or care?) with the LG and LT not widening on basic pickup principles, then Arizona leverages three defenders on the boundary side of the mesh routes while leaving nobody (!) on the field one or the sitdown. The only consistent principle is that Penix properly reads the defense and instantly makes the correct throw so defensive advantages don’t matter and defensive foul-ups do.
Conversely, UW has only a 44% success rate on all designed passing plays in which Penix holds the ball for over two seconds past the snap so far in 2023. The distribution runs the gamut from throwaways to unproductive checkdowns to throws in which the defender has time to get in position to make a pass breakup, with no particular spike in the numbers in any one area, though we very rarely see negative plays such as sacks or interceptions due to Penix’s cool temperament.
Most failed passing plays for the Huskies fall into three general categories. First is when Penix gets too locked onto his initial read and ignores the coverage in favor of his receivers’ talents, instead of holding the ball a bit longer and going further down the progression. Some examples:
- :00 – Penix knows he’s got to get the ball out fast given the pressure the center is surrendering, but his laser-focus downfield is betraying him somewhat here on the multi-level read through coverage. The safer move would have been to drop down to the TE.
- :24 – One of the few things Cal did right in this game was secure the out-and-up, but Penix kept going back to it. Again, dropping the read down to the TE who’s breaking open against the lead-footed LB would have been better.
- :30 – It’s 3rd & 3, against a light box with seven DBs on the field, so most teams would run the ball, or try an RPO, or a package play. Not UW: for the Huskies it’s 30-yard flag route time all the time, and Penix goes for it instead of the easy crosser. The LB walks past the LG, and the CB knocks down the ball in man … both are low 3-stars from the 2022 class, incidentally.
The second category, which we saw a lot of starting on the third possession of their most recent game against Arizona but also a modest amount in previous games, is that the horizontal passing game is simply much less effective than the vertical passing game, in both yardage and success rate. Some examples:
- :00 – The offense had an uncharacteristically slow start in the opener and so downshifted the engine a bit to try and get some traction, with some of these four-hitch patterns. Penix selects McMillan in the flat, and the DB simply tackles him for a minimal gain.
- :07 – This is a pretty typical play for this tight end in his sixth year on campus.
- :12 – The LT loses his footing on this three-man rush, the first read is covered and so is the checkdown, so Penix gamely pivots and throws the other checkdown, who makes a rather heroic diving catch for three yards.
The final category of unsuccessful passing plays, and by far the most common throughout the year, has come from defenses simply playing man coverage. Man defenses without blitzing have resulted in incompletions at a 2:1 basis compared to zone, and that goes up nearly to 3:1 when dropping eight into coverage for additional underneath and over the top pass defenders. Some examples:
- :00 – Here’s an empty set with five in the pattern, the defense plays cover-2 man plus a spy against them and holds up well for three seconds, which is enough time for the three pass rushers to get past both tackles and the center to flush the QB and earn a throwaway.
- :11 – Another out-and-up that Penix is locked onto against Cal, this is zone underneath but one-on-one down the sideline against Polk and the end jamming the TE off the line. Given the LT getting beat by the OLB and the RG getting walked back by the DT, there’s no time to find the back on the checkdown to the other side.
- :23 – Once again UW has gone empty on 3rd & long, by now the defense has figured out there’s no need to blitz, just play man and rush four. Coverage is more than adequate to make Penix hold the ball for over two seconds and therefore the line has collapsed against a basic E-T stunt on the left side to produce a sack.
Last year, the Huskies ran the ball at a relatively consistent rate regardless of field position, but they disproportionately saved designed rushes for short-yardage situations, which provided a bit of an artificial boost to their per-play efficiency rate I thought was worth noting as potentially misleading. That effect has disappeared in 2023, as they’ve flipped it around – they have a closer-to-typical distribution of the down & distance situations of when they run, but it’s almost all reserved for the redzone. So when they’re outside of the opponent’s 20-yard line, even in short-yardage situations, they still vastly prefer the pass to the run.
Overall, rushing efficiency has been slightly underwater at 48% (29 successes vs 31 failures), though it’s so infrequent and desultory in this offense I can’t break out down & distance or field position splits with good intervals. The field position effects also mean that the yardage and explosiveness figures are potentially misleading: they’re averaging 4.9 adjusted YPC and 10% of designed rushes gain 10+ yards, which I would normally describe as fairly poor numbers, but since the vast majority of runs happen in the redzone where available yards are curtailed, that may simply be an artifact of the offense.
So I’m left with just film analysis on the run game for observations, and I think they have a couple of pretty good backs they’ve settled on after some injuries and early unavailabilities in #7 RB D. Johnson and #8 RB Nixon – I certainly don’t think UW’s choice not to run so often has to do with deficiencies in the ballcarriers. Here’s a representative sample of their successful rushing plays:
- :00 – This checks all the boxes for a typical run: it’s in the redzone, it’s to the strongside out of 12-personnel, and all the blockers wind up on the ground. The pulling LG’s depth off the line gives the play away before the snap, and he’s slow enough lead-blocking that the backside end can chase Nixon down from behind to prevent the touchdown, but not before they’ve brute-forced four yards.
- :07 – Another heroic play by Johnson here, shaking off multiple defenders in the backfield to produce nine yards as inept tackling exceed the blocking issues.
- :24 – The boundary ILB is reading this properly but whiffs in the backfield when Johnson cuts back outside nicely.
- :33 – This outside toss is by far UW’s most effective on a per-play basis, it lets Nixon do the hard work instead of the line, and lining up multiple receivers inside the tackle box then running backside freezes much of the defense.
On my tally sheet by far the biggest cause of failed rushing plays have been breakdowns in offensive line blocking, particularly on the left side, along with poor tight end blocking grades from most of that unit except #37 TE Westover. Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 – This WR sweep has gotten a several touchdowns, though the majority in garbage time. During meaningful play it’s always been #4 WR Bernard running them, with pretty hit-or-miss results. Running it out of tight formations like this usually is the “miss” variety because the blockers just can’t get wide enough fast enough to set up their blocks with leverage.
- :07 – This was the fourth straight redzone run in what was becoming an illustration of Zeno’s paradox of dichotomy, until the Huskies finally gave up and just threw for the TD against a pretty poor defense. I ran out of fields on my tally sheet to note all the failed blocks on it; counting them is left as an exercise for the reader.
- :14 – I’m not sure but I think this has an RPO tag on the backside, even if not it got Cal to act like it does and keep four defenders to the boundary. Defenses are well advised to give run reads to UW in such circumstances regardless; they hardly need additional personnel to stop the run.
- :21 – Recognizing the outside toss simply requires identifying the strongside and playing the DB wide to the outside and forcing it back inside, and once the defenders have a step advantage they can beat the pullers’ footspeed to the play.
Last year, it seemed clear that the biggest factor preventing the Huskies from having a better defense than they otherwise might was a hollowed out secondary left by some pretty shocking mismanagement by the previous staff, compounded by a run of unfortunate injuries. This year they’ve also faced a couple of injuries, but improved depth and experience in the backfield have let UW deal with them significantly better.
Several interesting aspects have emerged from the Huskies’ more robust secondary which Gabey and I discussed on the podcast, because we both agree it’s the key to understanding this defense and what looks to be significant improvement so far on last year’s 70th ranked squad in F+ advanced statistics. Structurally, the nature of the defense is to play back and prevent big plays, rather than hyper-aggressively trying to take everything away and risk letting something get past them by missing. The DBs will play down in the box in run support and actually have a higher tackle rate against the run than the linebackers do.
Better coverage from some new faces – Oklahoma St transfer #1 CB Muhammed, Juco #9 CB Dixon, and converted deep safeties #7 DB Hampton and #13 DB Fabiculanan who were hybrid linebackers last year – plus some more experience for returners #25 CB E. Jackson, #24 DB Esteen, and #28 DB Nunley, have produced the fourth best interception per game rate nationally in raw stats (as we talked about on the podcast, some of that has been inflated by a few real dumb throws by poor quarterbacks, but a lot were genuinely earned by quality DB play). On the flip side, UW has the highest rate of pass interference flags in the conference, and is the only Pac-12 team to be flagged for DPI in every game … but as we only half-joked on the podcast, last year they weren’t even close enough to receivers to interfere, so in a way that too is an improvement.
The secondary seems to be counterbalanced, however, with some issues in the pass rush, which previously had been a real terror. They’ve lost a couple of very talented players from last year’s roster, and the starters this year, #8 OLB Trice and #4 OLB Tupuola-Fetui, simply haven’t been nearly as effective as in earlier seasons. I’m not sure why that is, I doubt it’s related to some hidden injury since their run defense grades are right where they usually are for me. On the podcast, Gabey suggested it might be fatigue since they’re carrying more of the load now … that’s a strong possibility, as the only backups I’ve seen are a redshirt freshman, an unrated Juco, and a DT/Edge “tweener” (and actually the last of those, #52 DL Tunuufi, grades out best on my tally sheet of any of the pass rushers, starters inclusive).
Overall, the Huskies’ pass defense has so far made it back above water at just a bit shy of a 52% defensive success rate (72 successfully defended designed passing plays vs 67 failed ones), up by around three percentage points compared to the entire 2022 dataset. Where they’ve really seemed to improve are the yardage and explosiveness figures – allowing just 6.2 adjusted YPA, a very good number, and about 15% of opponents’ passes to gain 15+ yards, which is about FBS average but down significantly from what they were giving up last year.
Here’s a representative sample of successfully defended passing plays:
- :00 – Just crazy that the QB chose to throw this instead of the skinny post since he’s got the time to go through his progression. Muhammed is absolutely mugging the receiver off the snap with great coverage and gets the PBU.
- :11 – Here’s Tunuufi in action, who’s lined up on the edge here as he does on about 68% of his plays. It’s clear his body type is neither a traditional speed rusher nor an inside plugger so the defense uses him both ways depending on the down & distance.
- :28 – Cracking the snap count and getting a quick jump shows up all over Tupuola-Fetui’s film; he’s gotten flagged for being offsides a couple times on it but here he panics the QB into making a stupid decision after pulling the string when the TE slips (something I noticed happening a lot to both teams in Seattle).
- :40 – UW plays a one-down front in either dime with or an additional backers on the line on about 21% of 3rd downs, and otherwise crowds the line with no backers at depth on more than 35% of them, which they did a little of last year but have significantly expanded this year. Here #5 ILB Ulofoshio loops around and helps hurry the QB, and as typical to the defense multiple DBs and LBs come down to kill the play before it can convert.
The easing up of the pass rush has put extra pressure on the coverage to be absolutely perfect, and the chief causes of pass defense failures simply come from that being probably an unrealistic goal in the personnel recovery from such mismanagement by the previous staff. There’s no single unit or player whom opposing offenses have picked on, rather a fairly even distribution of coverage issues (and penalties) across all the corners, safeties, and linebackers, both in zone and man coverage. There are two interesting play selection-related notes that statistical regression produces, first is that a successful play type within the same game tends to remain successful throughout the game rather than diminish as the model anticipates, and second is a disproportionate vulnerability to in-breaking routes over the middle. Here’s a representative sample of failed pass defenses:
- :00 – This is possibly the most sophisticated offensive playcall I’ve seen the Huskies defend all year, from former UW OC Bush Hamdan of all people. The fake jet into two underneath routes plus play-action gets eight in the box plus two DBs pulled down, so there’s just single coverage on the deep over by the corner who’s getting outpaced. All four starters are in on the pass rush.
- :16 – They’ve switched to dime here but one of those DBs is blitzing; it’s not getting home but the defense still has a numbers advantage in coverage. The DB in coverage just gets outrun and the high safety is pinned between two verticals on his side of the field.
- :28 – Well that jam didn’t work; former UW receiver Taj Davis walks in to the endzone. Rushing an ILB and dropping an OLB like this took place on about 11% of opponent dropbacks; it had no appreciable effect on havoc or coverage outcomes.
- :44 – This in route has been Arizona’s bread and butter for the last year and a half with their presently constituted receiving corps so it was surprising that UW didn’t have a stronger coverage plan against it, allowing their top target to split the second and third level of the defense repeatedly. Again, no pressure from the four starters in the pass rush.
On a per-play basis, rush defense has gotten even worse than last year and now sits at under a 35% defensive success rate (25 vs 47), a six and a half point falloff from 2022’s already poor numbers. This hasn’t mattered much for two reasons: first, once opponents fall behind to UW’s offense they abandon the run almost entirely (the one team that didn’t, Arizona, still didn’t run enough; Gabey and I discussed that team’s lack of playcalling guts on the podcast), and second, the DBs are doing a great job of limiting extra yards after the RB breaks through the line, such that opponents are only gaining 4.0 adjusted YPC and just 9% of runs gain 10+ yards.
Here’s a representative sample of successful rush defenses:
- :00 – Over the years I’ve been pretty vocal in my opinion that senior #91 DT Letuligasenoa is UW’s best interior lineman and for the last two seasons has been their most talented defensive player, period. The core strength and flexibility he demonstrates here to dismiss the LG from inside leverage and then get outside to help with the tackle is absolutely incredible.
- :07 – Mostly winning with appropriate numbers here, but smart play by Ulofoshio to close off the sideline and by #11 ILB Tuputala to beat the second level block to get to the play.
- :15 – I don’t know how Cal is ever going to win a running play without blocking second level defenders, but UW certainly doesn’t let them with the line pinching the playside gaps, the DB coming down to set the edge, and the backer scraping over properly.
- :20 – Here Arizona is comboing Letuligasenoa but single blocking the other starter, #68 DT Ale (a former converted offensive lineman whose d-line technique has improved significantly since last year). He and Trice effectively have this play shut down at the line of scrimmage, though USC transfer #10 ILB Goforth is effectively contained and Tuputala is in the wrong lane.
I’m at a bit of a loss to explain the falloff in performance against efficiency rushing, given that the interior of the defensive line is essentially identical to last year and the edges and inside backers are largely the same guys albeit with a couple of losses. I think they could have been more aggressive in the transfer portal in replacing or even upgrading over the offseason but not doing so wouldn’t explain this big of a fall; I suspect it has more to do with injuries to the starters up front and the long-observed dropoff to the backups.
At any rate, stopping the run has been an issue for the Huskies for at least five years now and nothing about this year’s team has done anything to fix it. In 2023 outside of garbage time, UW has only stopped one 3rd down designed run (a 3rd & 6 by Tulsa); otherwise running the ball has been a guaranteed conversion for teams with the guts to do it.
Here’s a representative sample of failed rush defenses:
- :00 – Every defender is in on this run except for the high safety and one of the corners. It’s a basic off-tackle gap scheme every player knows from his Pop Warner days so I’m not sure why the entire front is diving to the backside and running themselves out of the play. If the ballcarrier had followed the pulling TE wide to the sideline he could have picked up huge yardage.
- :07 – Here UW is in their bear front, which we saw more often in the first three weeks against heavy sets on obvious run downs but became very rare the last two weeks. The ILB sticks his nose in too early and the OLB declines to set the edge, allowing the conversion regardless.
- :12 – The offense is in 11-pers but the defense has eight in the box, correctly guessing a 3rd down run. The DTs go wide and allows the backers and DBs to fill, but they get run over.
- :19 – The meaningful reps for the backups on the defensive front have gone up as the season has gone on, but there’s a notable falloff on my tally sheet in their block-destruction grades. The playside DT looks a little silly here, the backup OLB (in a recurring problem with the starters as well) gets too deep to properly set the edge, and the playside ILB is contained by the OL’s second-level block for a chunk-yardage run.