clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Know Your Enemy: Previewing the Washington Offense

We delve into the playbook of Chris Petersen to get a better sense of Washington's strategy on offense.

The Washington offense could use a hug.
The Washington offense could use a hug.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Washington scored a major coaching coup during this past offseason.  First, Sark moved south to disappoint another school's fans week after week.  Then AD Scott Woodward managed the impossible: he lured Chris Petersen out of Boise State.  Washington looked to upgrade from mid-tier Pac-12 team to conference contender.  The Huskies even began the year ranked #25.  Then they struggled to defeat a Hawaii team that won one game last season.  Then UW allowed 52 points to an FCS team.  Sure, it was Eastern Washington, but when you're making excuses about the quality of the FCS team, you're in a bad place (see Cal 2012, 2013).  The Chris Petersen era was off to a rough start.  A blowout win over Illinois seemed to suggest that Washington had sorted out its issues.  Then they were booed off the field at halftime when facing 14-0 deficit to a program that has yet to defeat an FBS team.  A strong second half propelled Washington to a victory.  And then the Stanford game happened.

Washington's offense averaged 2.63 yards per play in an ugly, ugly game against the Cardinal.  After shutting out the Stanford offense in the second half, Petersen made an odd decision with about 8 minutes left in the game.  At his own 41 yard line facing 4th and 9, Petersen opted for a fake punt that failed spectacularly.  Six plays later Stanford scored the go-ahead touchdown.  On the ensuing kickoff, the Lobsterbacks kicked the ball out of bounds and were penalized for being offsides (ALAMAAAAR).  Instead of taking the ball at the 35 yardline, Chris Petersen elected to take the penalty yardage on another kick.  This would give the dangerous returner John Ross a chance to return.  And return the kick he did.  13 yards.  To the 16.  Washington lost and the honeymoon of the Chris Petersen era came to an end.

It's far too early for the for the Dirk Koetter or Dan Hawkins comparisons, but we're beginning to see those names mentioned in articles that discuss the Huskies' first five games under Petersen.  Koetter went 26-10 at Boise State before posting a 40-34 record at ASU.  Dan Hawkins' collapse was even worse.  He went 53-11 at Boise State before cratering Colorado with a 19-39 record.  Amid the Huskies' early struggles and some questions about whether Cyler Miles should retain the starting quarterback job, Chris Petersen has decided to pare down the playbook to reduce "mental strain" on his players.  Clearly the Huskies' bye week last week came at an excellent time.

When he arrived in Seattle Chris Petersen brought Johnathan Smith aboard as his offensive coordinator.  Smith was the quarterbacks coach at Boise State in 2012 and 2013.  Petersen's previous offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin remained at Boise State to become the Broncos' new head coach.  Washington's offense relies a philosophy that should sound familiar: they run to set up the pass, just like Tedford preached.  Unfortunately for the Huskies, they have not been particularly effective at running the ball.  The passing game has been much worse.  The offense has struggled to generate explosive plays and, so far, lacks the personnel to engineer long, sustained marches down the field.  Washington has 56 plays of 10+ yards (114th in the nation), 17 plays of 20+ yards (110th), and 6 plays of 30+ yards (111th).

These struggles are not entirely unforeseen.  Washington is replacing QB Keith Price, RB Bishop Sankey, TE Austin-Seferian Jenkins, and WR Kevin Smith.  They generated the vast majority of Washington's yards last season and accounted for 47 of the team's 64 touchdowns.  Replacing that production has been a challenge.  And until his team reaches an appropriate level of production, we may not see the full playbook.  That won't stop us from looking into Petersen's playbook, however.  Let's dig in.


First, if you are not familiar with the site Smart Football, you should be.  Chris Brown (no, not that Chris Brown) runs a fantastic site with great insight into the strategies employed by NFL and college coaches across the nation.  Several years ago he posted a comprehensive guide to the Boise State offense and we're going to rely heavily on that for today's preview.  The article was written by a former New Jersey high school defensive coordinator Mike Kuchar who sat down with staff members of Virginia Tech as they scouted the Boise State defense.  Kuchar has since founded the company X and O Labs.  Together they reviewed four games and made note of several strategies employed by Petersen's offense.  Although Petersen has moved on to Washington, he has begun to employ many of these strategies as he opens up the playbook for his inexperienced offense.

Washington's offense is built upon a philosophy and a strategy we have already seen this season (albeit not concurrently).  The first is the numbers, angles, grass philosophy.  When using this philosophy, the offense's goal is to create numerical advantages at the point of attack, identify and exploit the best blocking angles when running the ball, and getting playmakers in open space by playing towards the open side of the field.

Petersen also relies heavily on pre-snap motion: sometimes for a purpose, sometimes as a simple distraction.  Kuchar explains:

Boise moves before almost every snap.  In the four games I broke down there were only seven plays (out of 162) that someone didn’t motion, trade or shift their alignment.  It’s not surprising that of those seven plays, their net yardage was a mere twenty-four.  They are comfortable moving.  Choate calls it "a show game to the defense," meaning that there may be no distinct reasoning behind their shifting at all.

Washington has not been moving as much under Petersen, but pre-snap motion is still a major component of the offense.


Washington is a run-first, run-second, and pray-Miles-doesn't-have-to-throw-on-third offense.  They run on 65% of plays and have about 25% more rushing yards than passing yards.  That they run often seems to be motivated more by their struggles passing the ball rather than their excellence at running the ball.  They're decent at rushing, but not spectacular.


Petersen's offenses use tight ends and fullbacks to achieve numbers advantages at the point of attack.  Below is a common pre-snap shift used to create more gaps than defenders.

[Note: these are not animated gifs.  They are merely gif images.  Forgive SBN's handling of the format.]

[Tight end H] will start in the fullback spot and move to a wing alignment as [the fullback F] moves from a wing alignment to the fullback spot, his natural position. While it may seem elementary to the normal football watcher, what Petersen is doing is intricately planned.  He is overloading one side of the formation with a tight end plus wing set, thus creating an extra gap to the strong side of the formation that the defense must worry about.  With the addition of a fullback who can be moved anywhere in the front, another gap is created and has to be defended, often too quickly for the defense to adjust to adjust to it.  By the time the ball is snapped, Petersen has created a defensive dilemma, too many gaps to cover in too little time, and he is able to run his base run schemes, like the Power O (Diagram 3) by gaining a numbers advantage in the tackle box.

Having created a vulnerability in the defense, Petersen attacks it with a power run.

If all the players on offense hold their blocks, they will spring the running back for a big gain.

Although not identical to the above play, Petersen employs a similar power run below.  Instead of running with 22 personnel (2 tight ends, 2 fullbacks), Washington uses 21 personnel with 2 TEs and a WR on the boundary side of the field in a trips formation.

I find the blocking scheme a little unusual in this play, as no one blocks the cornerback at the top of the screen.  Whether this is by design or a mistake by WR #2 Kasen Williams is not clear to me.

Fortunately for the Huskies, the CB whiffs on the tackle and the RB breaks the safety's block en route to a touchdown.

I wonder if Williams (#2) got an earful from his coaches when they reviewed film of this play.  He seems to give up on the play after making his initial block, even though he could have continued moving downfield.

Petersen will not always run towards the strong side.  If he is sufficiently successful with running to the strong side, the defense may begin to expect him to continue running towards the strong side and devote a safety to that side.  That's when Petersen will attack the weak side.

It’s a scheme Boise expects because of how defenses adjust to their motion.  It’s a called scheme, not a spontaneous cut by [running back T] Avery.  Avery knows he’s going there pre-snap.  Petersen and offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin make their adjustments from the sideline after seeing how a defense reacts to their movement.  "The way their offense is designed, there are plenty of schemes to cut the ball back," said Gray.  "When you have a back that is patient, and can change directions quickly, it works."

Two plays from the same formation: this is a common theme in the Petersen playbook.  He will run a play until he baits the defense into overcompensating to defend it.  Then he strikes with the counter-attack.  He employs the same strategy in our next example.

Yesterday LiffeyBear highlighted a variety of plays, including movement by the WR across the formation.  With a mobile QB, this play can easily turn from a simple sweep into a triple option, inside zone read, or outside zone read.  Determining which variant UW is running will be key to maintaining discipline for the defenders.

Petersen does not necessarily have to achieve a big gain with the sweep.  Sometimes the goal is merely to determine how the defense will react.  Recall that Petersen likes to run to set up the pass.  This play is a perfect example of how that works.  If the defense devotes too much attention to the motion man X, the QB can throw a post route to Z, who will be flowing in the opposite direction.  That play is illustrated below.

As demonstrated in these plays, Petersen is constantly building plays off one another.  He'll run the same play multiple times to bait the defense into committing too many resources to stop that play.  Once the defense plays into Petersen's hand, he will take advantage of the defense's aggression by using misdirection, playaction, or a combination of the two.


Before we get into the statistics we need to keep in mind that UW has one of the weakest OOC schedules in the nation.  Their OOC FBS opponents have combined for 5 wins and 11 losses.  Hawaii, Illinois, and Georgia State are 69th, 107th, and 119th in scoring defense.  Accordingly, we should recognize that these statistics may be slightly inflated (though it may not matter against a defense as dreadful as ours).

Washington has a productive rushing offense, but this is mostly due to the fact that they average running the ball 48.4 times per game, which puts them at 16th in the nation in total rushing attempts per game.

  • 207.6 rushing yards per game (37th)
  • 4.29 yards per carry (67th)

When we look at their yards-per-carry numbers that productive rushing offense becomes merely average.

  • RB #22 Lavon Coleman: 68.8 yards per game, 4.35 yards per carry, 1 TD
  • RB #12 Dwayne Washington: 38.8 yards per game, 3.96 yards per carry, 3 TDs
  • QB #10 Cyler Miles: 28.75 yards per game, 2.74 yards per carry, 3 TDs
  • LB #7 Shaq Thompson: 16.8 yards per game, 9.33 yards per carry, 1 TD

These statistics are not particularly frightening.  Although Shaq has an impressive YPC, it is driven primarily by a 3-carry, 66-yard performance against Eastern Washington.


Washington's top back is freshman Lavon Coleman.  The 5'11", 217lbs back is a big, physical runner with decent patience.  Dwayne Washington, another big back at 6' 2", 219lbs will spell Coleman.  Quarterback Cyler Miles will run about 8-10 times on Saturday, mostly in the zone read.  Miles has not been a very effective quarterback through the air, but he is mobile and effective when operating UW's zone read.  Finally, Shaq Thompson may get a few carries.  In three games this season he has received three carries each.  Other than a strong performance against Eastern Washington, he has not been particularly effective.  I would not be surprised if Chris Petersen decides to end the experiment of using Thompson at RB.

Up front Washington returns all five starters, who have a combined 114 starts among them.  The experienced offensive linemen average 6'5" and nearly 300lbs, but their blocking has been merely adequate so far this season (as suggested by the average YPC numbers).  Poor blocking from the receivers has also held back the Husky running game.


Without a dominant running game to open the passing lanes, Chris Petersen's team has not been passing as much as he would like.  They only pass on 35% of plays and attempt 25.8 passes per game (109th in the nation).  This is great news for our defense.


These schemes require effective reading of the defense by Miles.  Can Miles actually do this?  We will see...

Below is Petersen's 4x1 formation.  Once again, the goal is to get a numbers advantage, per his philosophy.  The key defender for the QB to watch is the safety on the side of the field with the single receiver.  If he cheats towards the side with 4 receivers, the QB will hit the single receiver with a slant.  Slants have been killing our defense all year.  Hopefully we do not get burned too badly by this play.

If the safety stays too close to the single receiver, one of the four receivers on the right will run a seam route into the empty space in the middle of the field.

UW has a particularly quick receiver John Ross who could complicate things in the above formation if he lines up as the lone receiver.  He's too fast to be left on an island with a corner, but double covering him with the safety could pose the risk that we get seamed to death.  How Kaufman defends this could be interesting.

Of course, this section would not be complete without mentioning how Petersen uses motion.  In the above formation Petersen may motion the tailback from a receiver position to his natural position in the backfield.  If the defense shows man coverage in response, Petersen will attack with a jailbreak screen.

If he gets what he wants, he’ll run the jailbreak screen to [the running back T] (Diagram 12).  If everyone handles their blocking assignment, it’s usually Avery in a one on one situation with the defender assigned to cover him.  It’s a win/win situation.  "Jailbreak is such a scary play," said Gray.  "Once you realize it, the linemen get on you and they hit that thing in the alley and you have problems."

Below is one final illustration of how Petersen will run multiple plays from the same look, depending on how the defense responds.

Since most defenses declare their strength to the tight side, they may have some players playing out of position on the trips side.  The "stressed" defensive player in this set is the trips side alley player, usually an outside linebacker.   If Petersen sees that that innermost receiver to the trips has a leverage advantage on him, Moore will just take the snap out of gun and throw a bubble screen to him (Diagram 14).  

Once again, the play here is predicated on reading a single player on defense and making him feel bad.  If the LB gets too close to the side with the trips formation, Petersen will run in the opposite direction.  Below illustrates an option, but an outside zone read here is possible due to Miles' mobility.

Fortunately for us, the passing offense hasn't come close to achieving the production Petersen enjoyed with Kellen Moore.


Washington will undoubtedly have a better-than-average day passing the ball on Saturday, but I would be surprised if they manage to be as effective as Arizona, Colorado, or Washington State.

  • 162.6 yards per game (112th)
  • 6.3 yards per attempt (96th)
  • 128.21 QB efficiency (71st)

Their efficiency numbers are better than their total production numbers, which are deflated due to UW's heavy reliance on the run game.

  • QB #1 Cyler Miles: 155.8 yards per game, 6.2 yards per attempt, 6 TDs, 0 interceptions, 135.13 efficiency rating
  • WR #10 John Ross: 60.0 yards per game, 26.7 yards per reception, 3 TDs
  • WR #4 Jaydon Mickens: 46.4 yards per game, 10.1 yards per reception, 2 TDs
  • WR #19 DiAndre Campbell: 27.8 yards per game, 11.6 yards per reception, 0 TDs
  • TE #15 Darrell Daniels: 13.8 yards per game, 8.6 yards per reception, 0 TDs

Miles is neither productive nor efficient.  Fortunately he adheres to Chris Petersen's emphasis on ball protection.  Miles' 0 interceptions contribute to a decent pass efficiency rating.

We will need to keep a close eye on John Ross.  He does not touch the ball much, but he is a home run threat every time he catches a pass.  Mickens is slightly less productive than he was last season while Campbell is somewhat more productive.  Fortunately their TE Darrell Daniels has the size but not the production of Austin Seferian-Jenkins.


The focus of the Washington passing game, for better or for worse, has been Cyler Miles.  He has not been particularly good this season.  He has yet to throw for more than 200 yards and has not attempted 30 or more passes in any game.  Fortunately for Chris Petersen and Johnathan Smith, he does not turn the ball over much.  He hasn't thrown a single interception, although he fumbled the ball once.  He does not have much pocket presence or awareness and tends to scramble if he feels the slightest hint of pressure.

The passing game's most dangerous player is 5' 11", 179lb speedster John Ross.  5' 11", 174lb WR Jaydon Mickens may be looking to have a big game after a career high 180 yards and 2 TDs against the Bears last season.  He was the team's second-leading WR last season with 688 yards and 5 TDs.  Washington has a couple players who could give our DBs issues with size: 6' 2", 206lb WR DiAndre Campbell and 6' 4", 235lb, sophomore TE Darrell Daniels.  They only combine for 40 yards per game, however.  Speaking of 40 yards, Kasen Williams was UW's leading receiver in 2012, caught 421 yards and a TD last year, and only has 47 yards this season.  He ended the 2013 season with a foot injury and has not been a factor so far this year.  He is a good possession receiver and could be due for a breakout game against our generous defense.  Overall, the receivers have generally struggled to gain separation from DBs, except for John Ross.

Although UW returns an experienced offensive line, they allowed 2.31 sacks per game last season (81st) and have not been great in pass protection this season.  The running backs' pass protection has also been lacking.


And now for the statistics that could not fit elsewhere in the post.

Total Offense

UW has the opposite problem that Wazzu and Colorado had; instead of struggling to turn yardage into points, their yardage numbers are subpar but they're scoring efficiently.

  • 35.6 points per game (38th)
  • 370.2 yards per game (97th)
  • 4.99 yards per play (105th)

A +11 turnover margin and 4 touchdowns from the defense have contributed to UW's surprising scoring ability. Playing the likes of Georgia State and Illinois also helps.


Again, the scoring numbers may begin to make more sense when seeing these red zone conversion stats...

  • 40.00% third down conversions (78th)
  • 73.68% red zone TD conversions (21st)

UW has been surprisingly good at turning red zone possessions into points.  One caveat to this stat is that UW has only 19 red zone trips, third-fewest in the Pac-12.  By contrast, Washington State leads the nation with 35 red zone trips.  Fun fact: UW did not get into the red zone at all against Stanford.

Negative Plays

Chris Petersen's emphasis on ball security has clearly paid dividends.

  • 1 turnover (1st)
  • 1.80 sacks allowed per game (56th)
  • 5.80 tackles for loss allowed per game (66th)
  • 69.2 penalty yards per game (103rd)

Washington's +11 turnover margin is second in the nation.  Can they sustain that through the Pac-12 slate?  They move backwards at a roughly average rate, although they get penalized heavily because they play in the Pac-12.

Clock Management

Washington does not hold onto the ball very long or run very many plays.

  • 27:53.20 avg. time of possession (103rd)
  • 22.55 seconds per play (moderately fast pace)
  • 64.8 plays per game

Cal has faced an average of 104 plays per game over the last three games.  UW should not come anywhere close to that.  Hopefully.


Although Petersen's offense has many moving parts, reading it should not be particularly difficult for the defense (defending it is another matter).

No matter how you slice it, Boise will come out with one of four types of formations, each based on eligible receivers:  2×2 (four wides, three wides and a tight-end, two wides and two tightends, etc), 3×1 (trips), 3×2 (no backs), and unbalanced sets.  After studying Boise’s film, I noticed that only their fullbacks and tight ends shift and motion on each play, which limits the teaching (for the offense) to just focusing on those players.

Like RichRod, Petersen follows a numbers-angles-grass philosophy.  He likes to attack the portion of the field where he creates a numbers advantage.  He uses two strategies to achieve this advantage: motion and repetition.  He moves players across the formation to clear defenders out of one part of the field, which the offense will then attack.  The repetition aspects works the same way Tedford's old (i.e. good) offense operated: run a play with success until the defense over compensates to defend that play.  When the defense creates a strength in one part of the field, it weakens its presence in another part of the field.  Petersen finds that weakness and attacks.  Or, he will when the Washington offense finally gets rolling.  They've been decent at running the ball this year but the passing game has struggled.  Cyler Miles has a great opportunity to get the passing game going against an anemic Cal pass defense, but he has not been productive against a lousy Illinois pass defense or a Georgia State pass defense that is somehow worse than ours.  Can he have a breakout game in his first start on the road this season?