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Previewing WSU’s Defense

What do they do, and where are they vulnerable?

This week I didn’t have time to do one of my usual video breakdowns, but I did get a chance to look at some film of WSU’s defense. WSU’s offense is a known commodity under Mike Leach, and the Bears’ chance to win will depend at least partially on their own ability to move the ball and score points of their own. Because of this, in this post I’m going to put together a viewing guide that identifies some key things to watch for when Cal has the ball this Saturday.

Cal’s Personnel Choices and their Impact on Coverage

WSU’s defense has a few broad looks that you should watch out for, and the one they use is at least partially determined by Cal’s personnel grouping and formation. If the Bears try to go big, using two TE’s in the run game, then they’ll see a lot of the following look:

On this snap ASU is playing with two TE’s toward the top of the screen, in an effort to compress the formation and create extra gaps in the run game. Defensively, the big takeaway is that WSU is playing very aggressively with both of their Safeties. All 22 players are in the frame here and none of the Cougars’ DB’s are more than nine yards off the ball, giving them a very strong presence in the box. If the offense splits out only one WR to each side, as ASU is doing here, then WSU will leave those WR’s one-on-one with off-CB’s, and will pull both Safeties into the box.

ASU had a pretty tough time running against this particular look, and this is the kind of thing that Cal’s offense had a lot of trouble with last season. In my opinion, the worst thing that we could do would be to line up with multiple TE’s and try to run into this kind of defense. If we do this, then our running game will probably look a lot like it did against UNT, who presented some similar issues.

Although the defensive look above puts a lot of defenders in the box, the Cougars aren’t running a straight, man-to-man Cover-0, and this becomes apparent when the offense starts splitting additional WR’s out of the box, as we can see here:

This is a good comparison with the last play because, to one side, ASU is still playing with a TE/blocking back in the backfield. We can notice that, with no additional WR to this side, WSU is going to play with their Safety at a shallow depth, just like we saw in the previous look. They want to use that guy to sew some confusion, and they’re going to jump him around from play to play, jumping him both into and out of the box and hoping to force the QB into a bad decision. For example, as we can see in that last image, the Safety is starting the play in tight to the box, and this could tempt the QB to throw something like a Slant to the WR at the bottom of the screen, since he appears to only be only covered by an off-CB:

After the snap, however, that Safety is jumping out to the hash, putting him in good position to cut a Slant route while the CB stays over the top of anything vertical:

Alternatively, they can start the play with that Safety out wide, hoping to bait the QB into handing off for a run before blitzing the Safety as an extra run defender:

When Cal has only a single WR to one side of the field, watch for that Safety to move around a lot pre-snap. Watch where he’s ultimately ending up, and see what the QB is doing with the ball. If that guy jumps down inside, is the QB pulling the ball and throwing to the edge? If that guy sits outside, is the QB handing off for the run? This will give you a good diagnostic for figuring out how well the QB is seeing the field/reading the defense.

At the top of the screen in that look, we’re seeing something different, and this is the second look that you’ll want to look out for. At the top of the screen ASU has spread the field a little bit by playing with a Slot WR split out away from the core of the formation, and this fundamentally changes what WSU is going to do with their Safety:

As we can see here, the Safety to this side is no longer playing tight to the line of scrimmage. Instead, when the offense splits out two WR’s like this, WSU will often defend them 3-on-2, with a CB sitting outside, a NB sitting inside, and a Safety playing over the top, often starting the play ~12 yards deep.

In this look, the confusion is going to come from the NB; he can either stay in coverage, giving WSU a true 3-on-2 look against those two WR’s, as we saw above. Alternatively, he can blitz off the edge, leaving the CB and Safety to play 2-on-2:

Both of these options open up some more possibilities in both the run game and the passing game. The blitz option is going to leave WSU most open to big plays, and we can see the potential on this play:

Here, the Cougars are lining up with a NB walked out toward ASU’s slot WR, but he’s ultimately blitzing off the edge. When WSU runs this blitz, however, they usually leave their Safety deep, creating a TON of space open to the inside:

ASU didn’t hit a pass in this area against this particular coverage, but if they would have, it could’ve been a massive play, and WSU leaves themselves open to this relatively often.

When that NB sits wide, on the other hand, WSU often leaves themselves open in the run game. We can see that on the following play:

Here, ASU has a TE at the bottom of the screen. As we now know, when the offense plays with a TE/blocking back to a side, WSU is going to bring their Safety in tight to the box, where he can play as an extra run defender.

At the top of the screen, the Sun Devils have split out a Slot WR, and so WSU is in that 3-on-2 look that I discussed above. When their NB sits outside, however, we can see that it leaves the Cougars pretty soft in the B-Gap between the RG and RT:

When WSU plays any of the looks that we’ve seen in this section, they’re basically begging to be RPO’d. They want to play an aggressive, run-stuffing defense that creates confusion by jumping guys into and out of the box, but they aren’t particularly sound, and they leave a lot of things open with all of their movement. Any decent RPO team should be able to destroy this kind of defense, since a good RPO QB makes his decisions based on what the defense does after the snap, not based on how they line up pre-snap. If Cal’s QB (whoever it is) can make his reads and throw with some accuracy, then the Bears will be able to move the ball. Unfortunately, since Garbers went down, we haven’t seen this happen.

The Passing Game

We’ve already talked a little bit about how WSU plays in coverage, but there’s one more look that’s a little different from the system that we’ve been discussing. On some plays, WSU will spin their Safeties to put themselves them in Cover-3. They’re not great at playing this, and their DB’s can be a liability. We can see that on the following play:

Here the Sun Devils are just running a Slant underneath the off-CB at the bottom of the screen. That CB is (1) going to get pushed too deep to make a play on the throw, and (2) is going to take a horrible angle to the WR:

This is a 10-yard reception that turned into a 33-yard TD, and this didn’t just happen one time; earlier in the game ASU ran this same play, and it turned into an 86-yard run-and-catch for a TD.

WSU’s DB’s also have trouble sorting out their zone pickups in Cover-3, and we can see a good example of that here:

The context here is especially important. On this play WSU is leading by 3 points with :50 seconds to go in the game. ASU is lined up in a compressed formation, and they’re running a high/low concept, with the outside receiver running to the Flat, and the inside receiver running a Corner route behind him. WSU is very-well situated to stop this play; they have a CB outside, and he’s going to run with the Flat route. When the outside receiver runs to the Flat, it should make life easy for the FS, who’s playing the deep outside third; he’s only got one vertical threat and, as the deep defender, it’s clear that he should pick it up. Instead, though, he gives way too much cushion, and ASU’s receiver makes an easy grab in a ton of space underneath him:

This put ASU in FG range, and they would go on to score the winning TD a few plays later.


Schematically, WSU’s defense has a lot of holes, and most of their recent opponents have succeeded against them to the tune of 500+ yards and >30 points. If Cal’s going to win this game, then they have to take advantage of these weaknesses, and their ability to do so will be a direct reflection of how well the coaching staff has prepared their QB over the bye week. This season the OL hasn’t shown that they can handle a stemming, stunting front like WSU’s, and expecting them to suddenly be able to do this might be unrealistic; WSU’s coverage presents fewer problems, however. If the QB has been well-trained in what to look for and in who they’re trying to conflict, then the offense will have a good chance of giving the Bears’ defense the support that they need to win the game. If the QB doesn’t know where to go with the ball and holds onto it, then WSU’s high-motor front is going to get a lot of sacks. The openings will be there, but can Cal find them?