Breaking Down the Washington Huskies Defense
The University of Washington’s defense has gained considerable notice as a top unit in the PAC-12 and the country since Chris Petersen took over as head coach in 2014. They have ranked 41st, 13th, 8th, 5th, and 5th from 2014 to 2018 in points per game, and produced high NFL draft picks such as Danny Shelton, Marcus Peters, Shaq Thompson, Kevin King, Budda Baker, Vita Vea, Sidney Jones, Byron Murphy, and Taylor Rapp. And while they don’t have the same reputation as schools like Texas, LSU, Florida, and Ohio State, they’ve quietly put themselves in the conversation for “DBU”.
The upcoming season will be interesting as the Huskies lost 9 defenders that were regular starters to the NFL/graduation, including Greg Gaines (4th Round Pick LA Rams), Taylor Rapp (2nd Round Pick LA Rams), Byron Murphy (2nd Round pick Arizona Cardinals), and Ben Burr-Kirven (5th Round pick Seattle Seahawks).
Like all top schools Washington does an excellent job recruiting and developing talent, and has young players ready to step up for the 2019 season.
2019 Defensive Line
The Huskies defensive line has a good mix of veteran starters and young depth. Levi Onwuzurike (R-Jr.) and Josiah Bronson (R-Sr.) will hold down the starting spots, with Benning Potoa’e (R-Sr.) rotating in after transitioning from outside linebacker to defensive tackle over the summer. Redshirt freshman Tuli Letuligasenoa and Taki Taimani should also get rotational snaps as big-bodied nose tackles that Washington loves to employ.
After watching the 2018 defense, I expect a big year for Onwuzurike, who showed flashes of being able to create disruption in the backfield in the ground game and as a pass rusher. I expect him to improve greatly on his 6.5 TFL’s and 3 sacks from last year.
The inside linebacker group will be an interesting position for the Huskies this season, as behind starters Brandon Wellington (Sr.) and Kyler Manu (R-Sr.), are only redshirt and true freshmen. MJ Tafisi (R-Fr.), Jackson Sirmon (R-Fr.), and Edefuan Ulofoshio (R-Fr.) all played and contributed during Week 1 versus Eastern Washington, and their continued growth as the season goes on will be important to track.
On the outside Ryan Bowman (R-Jr.) and Joe Tyron (R-Soph.) will be taking over for the departed Tevis Bartlett and the now defensive tackle Potoa’e. Tryon (6-5, 265) and Bowman (6-0, 277) had only combined for 2 sacks last year, and the Huskies will need them both to take major strides as pass rushers if they want to compete at a high level. Behind them are Ariel Ngata (R-Soph.), Myles Rice (R-Jr.), and Zion Tupuola-Fetui (R-Fr.). 4-star prospect and true freshman Laiatu Latu has impressed coaches so far, and could see an increased role through the season after playing with the 2nd team defense during week 1.
The new leader on this defense and the secondary is senior defensive back Myles Bryant, the team’s starting nickel corner last year, who will be at strong safety this year. He had a strong showing versus Eastern Washington, leading the team in total tackles with eight, including seven solo. Alongside him at safety will be true freshman Cameron Williams, with Brandon McKinney (Jr.) rotating in as the third safety.
Elijah Molden (Jr.) will return as the primary nickel cornerback after getting substantial playing time last year. On the outside the long and lanky junior Keith Taylor (6-3, 195) and redshirt freshman Kyler Gordon (6-0, 190) will try to fill the large shoes left by Byron Murphy and Jordan Miller. Behind them are the young and talented Dominique Hampton (R-Fr.) and Trent McDuffie (Fr.), who will also push for playing time.
This season the defense will look to replicate the success of last year and previous seasons. Washington’s 2018 defensive stats can be seen below:
One of these rankings sticks out relative to the others, total sacks. The team’s top two sack leaders from last year Greg Gaines, 4.5 sacks, and Taylor Rapp, 4.0 sacks, are both gone. The pressure will be on Levi Onwuzurike, Ryan Bowman, and Joe Tyron to generate a more consistent pass rush this coming season.
The pressure will also be on co-defensive coordinators Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatkowski. Kwiatkowski has been with Coach Petersen since 2006 at Boise State, following him to Washington in 2013. Lake, a rising star in the coaching world, was promoted from defensive backs coach to co-defensive coordinator this year in order to keep other teams from head hunting him for their own vacant positions.
Lake played safety at Eastern Washington from 1995 to 1998 before becoming a defensive back coach, coaching at Washington in 2004, before heading to the NFL, then returning to Washington in 2014. He has consistently developed and coached some of the top defensive backs in college football.
Lake is taking over as play caller for Kwiatkowski, but the defensive scheme will remain the same as 2018. Lake and Kwiatkowski utilize a base nickel 2-4-5: two down linemen, two outside linebackers, two inside linebackers, a nickel (slot) corner, two outside corners, and two safeties. The Huskies defensive scheme is one of the more unique and exciting ones to watch in college football. Nickel defenses have become common in college football and the NFL as the base defensive personnel to counter the spread passing attacks used.
Since they do utilize a 2-4-5, the key to the Washington defense starts up front with their two down defensive linemen. Memorable names such as Danny Shelton, Vita Vae, and Greg Gaines have held this position in the past, and charged with being massive run stuffers who can clog up the middle of the offense. This allows the inside linebackers, like Ben Burr-Kirven last year, to run free and flow to the football untouched.
The linebacker group consists of a WILL and MIKE linebacker on the inside, and a JACK and SAM linebacker on the outside. The inside linebackers closely resemble the modern day NFL linebacker, slightly undersized by traditional standards, but with excellent sideline to sideline range and cover ability. Ben Burr-Kirven (6-0, 230) held down the position last year and led the team in tackles with 176, and Brandon Wellington (6-0, 226) will hold it this season. The outside linebackers are used primarily as pass rushers, but also in zone coverage, and in man coverage on tight ends and running backs.
Lake has his defensive backs extremely well coached, capable of playing multiple roles and schemes – zone, press, and off man coverage, in the slot and outside, in the box, and deep. The safeties and nickel corner play important roles in the Washington defense, utilized heavily in the box, as blitzers and in coverage against tight ends and slot receivers, as well as ranging deep over the top in coverage.
In order to gauge how Kwiatkowski and Lake like to call plays and use personnel, I watched the 2018 games versus Auburn, Stanford, Washington State, Colorado, and Cal (over 300 plays) and found the following:
Their most popular personnel use by far was their base 2-4-5, utilized almost three quarters of the time. Second most used was “dollar” personnel, a 3-2-6, that was primarily used on passing downs and versus the high powered passing attack of Mike Leach at Washington State. Dime personnel was also rarely used, but is a 4-1-6, used on passing downs when they wanted to have four pass rushers. The 3-4 base was utilized mostly in short yardage/goal line situations and to counter heavy personnel from the offense. Finally, the quarter personnel, 3-1-8, was also the only time Washington utilized three high safeties, was against hail mary attempts by the offense.
The Huskies primarily utilized a single high safety, dropping the other down into the box, but also liked to use two high safeties in cover 2 on intermediate and long passing downs. The only time three high safeties were utilized was on Hail Mary attempts.
Washington doesn’t typically have a premiere edge rusher like most teams, instead utilizing a heavy zone blitz scheme to bring defenders from multiple positions and confuse the offense. This allows Washington to rarely bring more than 4 defenders as blitzers or pass rushers, instead dropping seven or eight defenders into coverage. All of Washington’s inside and outside linebackers must be just as capable at rushing the passer as they are dropping into coverage. The same goes for Washington’s safeties and corners, who often blitz from the slot or from deep. This is further exemplified in that Washington had 12 different players record sacks last year, with safety Taylor Rapp and nickel corner Myles Bryant being second and third on the team with 4.0 and 3.5 respectively. Kwiatkowski and Lake do an admirable job scheming up pressures and sacks, but the defense ranking 100th in sacks clearly shows that the lack of a premiere edge rusher is difficult to overcome.
To get a better idea of how Washington’s defense is utilized we’ll look at some select plays from the 2018-19 season.
Washington’s run defense is predicated on having big space eaters in the middle of the defense that allow the middle linebackers and safeties to be aggressive, running free to the football to make plays. This first play highlights Greg Gaines playing the 0T, head up over the center for the Oregon State Beavers. The Beavers are going to zone block to the left, leaving the outside linebacker unblocked on a read option. The center and right guard combo block Gaines, before the center works up to the second level.
Gaines reads the play and feels the double team coming. He drops his left knee to anchor himself against the double team, and maintains good pad level. He’s able to keep his chest and hands clean, to get the right guard from gaining position as the center works up. He clogs the gap and make the tackle.
This second play versus Auburn Greg Gaines is once again able to anchor in the run game, this time one on one with the guard. Gaines gets good extension to see the running back, and makes the correct read and shed to clog the gap, with the outside linebacker crashing down to help clean up.
The Stanford Cardinals have consistently produced some top level offensive line and running back talent in recent years, and were a great test for Washington’s defensive front in a PAC-12 North battle. This first play came early in the game on a 3rd & 1, and was a tone setter early on. The Huskies are in their 3-4, with three down linemen and two outside linebackers and an inside linebacker walked down onto the line. Stanford is going to run classic power, with the right guard pulling down the line.
A pileup is created in the middle, and Taylor Rapp comes flying down to fill the alley. On the other side Byron Murphy comes screaming down the line from the backside to trip up the running back and let Rapp clean up. The Washington defense executed perfectly. The play side corner does an excellent job attacking the fullbacks outside shoulder to hold the edge, the defensive line creates a pile up in the middle so that the second level defenders are free to flow to the ball. Rapp and Murphy read the play and fill their run fits perfectly.
The next two plays are nothing flashy, but just sound assignment football from well-coached players. Stanford comes out in heavy personnel with Washington matching in their 3-4 personnel. The defensive line eats space and allows the linebackers to flow outside. The running back sees the linebackers headed to cut him off, so he cuts back into the backside corner who is squeezing down the line.
Next, the Cardinals run power from the shotgun. Ben Burr-Kirven and Tevis Bartlett are kept clean and read the play to the outside. Bartlett does an excellent job scraping to the outside and submarining the pulling guard to keep the edge and slow up Bryce Love, so Joe Tyron can shed his block and finish the tackle. In both these plays the defensive line is able to occupy blocks and space so that the rest of the defense can just read and react.
This final play is one of the flashes from Levi Onwuzurike. Stanford tries to run a sweep to the outside from shotgun, and Levi is to fast off the snap for the right tackle to hook or the pulling center to wash down. He does a great job collecting himself once up field to make a tackle for loss.
There’s a reason Jimmy Lake was promoted to co-defensive coordinator this offseason and is one of the hottest names in the coaching world, and that’s the outstanding play of Washington’s secondary. Washington utilizes a variety of coverages: cover-0, cover-1, cover-1 robber, cover-2 man, cover-2, cover-3, and quarters. The corners are aggressive and play tight in press man coverage, and have the quick twitch athleticism and closing speed to make plays in zone and off man.
First, an example of suffocating man coverage from the 33rd overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft: Byron Murphy Jr.
Washington is in dollar personnel, with three down linemen and linebackers Ben Burr-Kirven (#25) and Brandon Wellington (#13) showing double-A gap blitz. Taylor Rapp is off the screen playing single high, with safety JoJo McIntosh rolling back to a double high look before the start of the play. Burr-Kirven blitzes on the snap, with Wellington reading the running back, coming late as the back stays in pass pro. The Stanford offensive line does a good job in pass pro, but every receiver is blanketed in man. Murphy from off coverage is patient, and does a good job “catching” the receiver at the top his route. KJ Costello forces a tight window throw, and Murphy is aggressive at the catch point, stealing the ball away.
In this next play versus Colorado, Washington is playing quarters coverage in their dime personnel. The top slot defender, Myles Bryant, is playing off, and on the slot goes into a steady backpedal reading the quarterback, Steven Montez’s, eyes the entire way. Colorado is running a simple pattern with the outside receiver running a go route and the slot receiver running an out route to the soft spot in coverage.
Bryant sees the receiver break out and sees Montez stare him down. He’s a little high and on his heels in his pedal, but he still has the reaction quickness to make a break on the ball for the PBU. And you have to love him chirping at Montez a bit after the play is over.
In third and long passing situations, Washington often ran a soft cover 2 zone, with the underneath defenders sinking to the sticks, and safeties Rapp and McIntosh playing deep. Lake and Kwiatkowski trust their players to be able to come up and make tackles in space if the throw is short of the sticks, forcing the quarterback to make tight window throws between the safeties and underneath defenders.
In the play above verse Cal they do exactly that, and quarterback Chase Garber tries to fit the ball to his slot receiver coming over on a crossing route between the two levels of the zone. Ben Burr-Kirven does an excellent job reading Garber’s eyes to get a hand on the football, and McIntosh drives down to ensure the pass breakup.
This strategy was best seen in action countering the air raid offense of Washington State. The Huskies utilized their dollar personnel with two high safeties and primarily three pass rushers. They played soft cover 2 zone, playing a “bend don’t break” style of football, trusting their players to come up and make open field tackles, and make quarterback Gardner Minshew be patient. This strategy (and a snow storm) held the Cougars to 15 points in a season where they averaged 37.5 points per game. The Washington secondary played smart, instinctive, and fast thanks to the coaching of Lake, which allows them to make big plays despite playing simple coverages.
As mentioned above, Washington primarily rushed three and four people, relying on scheme and misdirection to confuse the offense and create pressure and sacks. Washington likes to alternate blitzing and dropping different defenders from multiple spots in order overload and confuse the quarterback and offensive line. In the play below, Washington comes out in quarter personnel, with two down linemen, an outside linebacker playing the 0T, safety Taylor Rapp, and nickel corner Myles Bryant showing a possible blitz.
The 0T slow plays the pass rush and drops into coverage, with the rest of the defense playing a robber cover-1 man. Rapp and Bryant come on the blitz from wide out, with both defensive ends also rushing from the wide 9. Rapp and Bryant loop back inside, and Levi Onwuzurike and Benning Potoa’e are able to get free for the sack.
Finally, these next two plays are sacks created from the rare time when Washington blitzes more than 4 defenders. On the first play Washington is in their dollar personnel, showing man coverage from the pre-snap motion. Rapp is showing blitz, and takes a hard step forward before looping all the way around to come through unblocked for the sack.
On this next play Rapp looks like he is once again walked down near the line of scrimmage as if he is going to be playing man on the tight end. Ben Burr-Kirven is also walked up to the line of scrimmage showing blitz.
On the snap Burr-Kirven drops back into coverage with Rapp coming in on the blitz instead. Although he initially misses, he’s able to recover and get the second effort sack. I expect Jimmy Lake to be more aggressive with blitz calls this season, as the young secondary will benefit from added pressure, and Washington has had their most productive games rushing the passer when they were more aggressive with their zone blitzes.
Eastern Washington and Looking Forward
The Washington defense had a decent first outing versus Eastern Washington to start the season with the following stat line:
The first touchdown came on a big play right before the end of the first half, a 64 yard touchdown pass by the Eagles, and the second touchdown was a 4 yard run to cap off an impressive 14 play – 75 yard drive. However, outside those two drives and another 18 play – 75 yard drive that ended in a missed field goal, the Huskies forced five 3 & Out’s, a turnover on downs, and scored on a safety. It was an overall nice first outing for the Husky D, with most of the highlights coming for Jacob Eason and the offense, and the younger 2nd team defense getting valuable playing time.
The safety came late in the game, but was brought on by two promising true freshman Laiatu Latu (#56) and Trent McDuffie (#22). McDuffie does a good job using his speed to undercut the tight end and slow down the running back, while Latu is able to split his double team and finish the play for the safety.
Today, the Huskies will take on Cal, who they suffered a tough loss to last season. Last year they only surrendered 6 points, shutting down the Golden Bears for most of the game. I think the Washington defense will have another strong showing, with Jacob Eason and the offense helping them maintain a strong lead.
The Washington defense is extremely well coached and plays fast, smart, and tough. They rally to the football, tackle well, and are assignment sound. Defensive Coordinators Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatkowski do a good job scheming pressures and sacks from all over, but the lack of a premiere pass rusher and replacing nine regular starters with a younger core will be tough to overcome if the Washington defense is going to play to the same level as in previous seasons. I expect Lake to be more aggressive as a play caller, blitzing with 5+ defenders more often in order to help out his young secondary and increase the team’s sack total. If the new defensive leaders like Myles Bryant, Elijah Holden, and Brandon Wellington can help elevate the play of young risers Levi Onwuzurike, Joe Tryon, Kyler Gordon, and Cameron Williams, then the Huskies defense should be just as highly ranked as in past seasons.