Yesterday, we took a look at Washington’s efficient offense. Today, we take look at the other side of the ball where we find the strength of this football team and a unit that Auburn’s offense better be prepared to attack.
This past offseason, the Huskies made a staffing change you don’t see everyday. In order to keep one of the fastest rising stars in the coaching profession on staff in Jimmy Lake, Chris Petersen’s longtime defensive coordinator Pete Kwaitowski agreed to give up play calling duties and share the DC title with Lake. That speaks to both the selflessness of Kwaitowski and the talent of Lake that Petersen would make that sort of change.
Despite the coaching switch up, chances are pretty good we wont be seeing any major changes schematically to this Husky defense in 2018. Honestly, why would they? According to S&P+, Washington had the 6th best defense in the country in 2017. That’s just one spot behind the Tigers.
Let’s take a look at what makes this defense so salty and how Auburn can attack it tomorrow.
First off, I probably bungled some of the position names on this defense but whatever. It should give you an idea of who does what in this Washington 2-4-5 scheme (more on that later).
The Huskies return the majority of their defense from 2017 but do lose two critical pieces. First, there’s 1st round draft pick Vita Vea. Vea not only looks like Maui from Moana but plays like I imagine Maui from Moana would play. He had the unnatural ability to take on double teams, hold his ground, toss aside both blockers and stuff a ball carrier. He was a MAJOR problem for pretty much everyone the Huskes faced and was a big reason why this defense ranked #11 in rushing defense according to S&P+. I am very happy that Kaleb Kim’s first start will not involve him trying to block this titan of a man.
The other is Washington 2nd leading tackler from their 2017 squad, Keishawn Bierra. Bierra finished the year with 60 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He provided a very physical presence in the interior of the defense. However, I do think he will be an easier piece to replace than Vea in 2018.
Pretty much everyone else is back, including a few key players that were hurt much of 2017. Up front, Vea’s partner in crime Greg Gaines is expected to take on an even larger role as unmovable boulder in the center of this defense. Gaines was outstanding in 2017 and him paired with Vea allowed the Washington defense to consistently occupy four blockers with two defenders at one time. It’s vitally important Auburn’s guards and center be able to handle him 1v1.
Joining him up front is Jaylen Johnson who had flashes of brilliance at times last season but also had a tendency to over pursue or get washed away in the run game. If he can become more consistent as a run stuffer, the Huskies should not see too big a drop off at defensive line. Levi Onwuzurike is another to keep an eye on. He’s got a bright future ahead of him.
Washington does a lot of different things at linebacker. Often times, their OLBs are actually just standup DEs ala Auburn’s Buck position. That’s probably where you will see Shane Bowman play more often than with a hand in the ground as a defensive lineman in an odd front. Tevis Bartlett is sliding back outside where he’s expected to cause even more havoc in 2018. The Huskies are also high on Benning Potoa’s ability to become a top notch pass rusher. There isn’t a guy in this group that necessarily scares me as an individual pass rusher but as a unit they can cause pressure due to the variety of stunts and blitzes they will run.
The strength of this defense though lies in the secondary. Both Byron Murphy and Jordan Miller are back from injury. They might end up being the best cornerback tandem the Tigers face this season. Murphy was tabbed a preseason 2nd team All-American by the Associated Press while Miller is veteran member of this secondary who has served his time behind now NFLers Kevin King and Sidney Jones.
Murphy isn’t the only preseason All-American in this secondary. Junior Taylor Rapp has a chance to hear his name called very early in next year’s NFL Draft and was a 1st team All-American according to the AP. He’s fast, possesses great instincts, hits like a truck and isn’t afraid to bloody his nose as a run defender. Rapp’s one of those guys that it’s always easy to know when he makes a play because his hits just sound different.
Rounding out the secondary is safety Jojo McIntosh and Myles Bryant. Bryant really jumped out on tape as an outstanding run defender on the edge. They ask him to do A LOT in this defense from covering big slot WRs to being a force defender in the run game. At only 5’8” 182 lbs he isn’t the biggest man on the block but he ain’t scared of anyone either. For Auburn to have success in their quick screen game, it’s vital they find a way to consistently block this kid. Otherwise, he’s gonna make a ton of tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Washington runs one of the more unique defensive schemes in college football. In order to combat the pass happy offenses they faced week in and week while out at Boise State and now Washington, Petersen and Kwaitowski were one of the first adopters of the nickel as a base defense that’s now common throughout college football. But they took it even a step further and elected to use a 2-4-5 package instead of the classic 4-2-5 you see many use or even the 3-3-5 that’s becoming pretty prevalent in the Big 12 these days.
Why? A lot of it has to do with the type of athletes Petersen could recruit at Boise and initially at Washington. Everybody would love 6’5” 320 lb beasts across the DL that can both rush the passer and stuff the run. But those guys don’t grow on trees. Instead, it’s easier to find that 6’1” 320 lber who can be developed into a consistent space eater in the interior. That’s exactly what the Huskies have done with great success.
By using two space eaters inside to clog up the interior run blocking assignments for opposing offensive lines, the Huskies are able to keep their inside linebackers clean and free to flow to the football. It should be no surprise that Washington’s top two tacklers last season were their starting inside linebackers. Washington is using the same methodology behind conventional 3-4 defenses but with different personnel that ensures they can stand up to 3-5 wide receiver sets and properly adjust on the fly to spread offenses.
To generate a pass rush, Washington likes to run a lot of different stunts and twists up front. They often will pair them with some sort of zone blitz as well. With Auburn breaking in a new offensive line, expect the Huskies to draw up a lot of different concepts to try and find a clear path to Stidham. We will find out real quickly if Auburn’s blitz pickup has improved or not.
On the back end of the defense, the Huskies run a lot of single high coverages (Cover 1/3). They are loaded with talented DBs that can match up 1v1 on opposing wide receivers. By doing so they can usually ask a safety to sit as a “robber” in the passing game or use their nickel/box safety as extra support in the run game. It’s a defense well built to handle a lot of offensive schemes without having to substitute.
So how do you beat them? Well there are two things Auburn must do if they want to move the football against this group.
First, Auburn’s interior offensive line must execute their double teams and get to the 2nd level. That’s easier said than done especially early in the season. Auburn’s interior OL must also be able to handle Washington’s run stuffers one on one long enough for the ball carrier to hit the hole. Penn State was very successful at doing both in the Fiesta Bowl as seen below.
Secondly, you have to win the 1v1 battles on the outside. Washington runs a lot of man coverage because they have NFL calibre DBs. But that also means that there isn’t a ton of help if they get beat. Both Utah and Penn State were able to exploit some favorable matchups in the passing game that lead to big plays. Auburn will need to do the same. Specifically, I think they could have success attacking Myles Bryant. A lot of teams went after him when he was matched up in man coverage and found success. Especially when he was matched up against a taller pass catcher.
To me, this game is going to simply come down to whether or not Auburn’s offensive line is up to the challenge of handling this Washington front. If the Tigers struggle to get to the second level, they are going to struggle running the football between the tackles. And if they are struggling to run between the tackles then they will be forced to throw the football around the yard which just plays into this defenses strength. Maybe Auburn has the horses to win that way but hopefully we don’t have to find out. If Auburn can establish enough of a run game that opens up some opportunities over the top, I think Auburn can score enough points to win.
It’s quite the test out the gate but it should make for some exciting football tomorrow. Both of these teams have the look of CFP contenders but only one will get a chance to make a major statement tomorrow afternoon.