Death by a 1,000 Formations: University of Washington’s Offense

Be they simple or complex, offensive formations are critical to beating defenses, and, as Ted Nguyen explains, something which University of Washington Head Coach Chris Petersen knows how to do in seemingly endless ways.

University of Washington head coach Chris Petersen earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from my alma mater UC Davis, where he played quarterback and later coached. He has been known to put his formal education to use with his own team by implementing his process for team building and bonding. The Huskies went through a tough season a year ago, and afterwards, Petersen said:  

Those kids bought in and they kept working and there was never any finger-pointing. They listened and they went to work.

Although the Huskies finished 7-6, Petersen kept them poised and united. This year, they are returning a lot of talent and are ranked 14th in the preseason polls.

Petersen not only uses his knowledge of human behavior to strengthen his team bonds, he also uses it as a weapon against his opponents with the sheer volume of formations, motions, shifts and usage of trick plays he deploys.

Petersen keeps defenders continually off-kilter by forcing them to adjust to new, exotic formations play after play. Defenders are forced to change their alignment with each new offensive formation. When combined with the tempo that the Huskies play at, it can be extremely disorientating for opposing defenses. To get a feel for Petersen’s formation frenzy, we will go through one of UW’s scoring drives in a bowl game against Southern Mississippi.

Put yourself in the defense’s shoes as we go through the drive. Imagine that you have to figure out each formation, and then properly adjust to it while Washington is playing uptempo. This poses quite the mental challenge and if defenders are busy thinking, then they aren’t playing at their full capacity. This 12-play drive starting at Washington’s own 37-yard line with 10:13 left in the 1st quarter is an excellent demonstration of that.

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The drive begins with a relatively simple formation: Trio right (1 TE 2 WR to the right, 1 WR to the left). The defense already is having difficulty adjusting, as you can see the middle linebacker moving one of the defensive tackles. The Huskies use a run / pass option (RPO) and the quarterback makes the correct decision by throwing the ball to the screen for a nice gain.

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18 seconds later, the offense snaps the ball in another simple formation, a 2X2. There seems to be some confusion as there is movement until just before the snap. They run a concept with two seam routes attacking the middle of the defense. The linebackers fail to drop deep enough as Huskies quarterback, Jake Browning, connects with Joshua Perkins in the vacated area.

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Unfortunately, the broadcast did not pick up the third play until wide receiver Dante Pettis was being wrapped up after a one-yard gain on this play, so it is unclear how Washington lined up pre-snap.

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This is when things start getting weird. The Huskies line up with four players to the left of the formation, three wide receivers split out wide and a defensive lineman attached to the line as a tight end – all to the left. Even though there are no eligible receivers to the right side of the field, the defense has two defensive backs on the right side, either because they have never seen this formation before or because they simply could not adjust in time. Browning sees a numbers mismatch to the left and throws the bubble screen for an easy 6 yards.

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Now the Huskies replace Browning with backup quarterback, Jeff Lindquist, only to line him up as a wide receiver in a wildcat formation. The opposing defense must be feeling the confusion and pressure take over as they are likely receiving so much stimuli, while also unsure what stimuli is real and necessary to process and what is superfluous deception. It is 3rd and 3 and running back Myles Gaskin lines up under center. He runs a wildcat power and picks up the first down.

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The next play, Petersen puts Browning back into the game and lines up in a double tight formation with trey on the right (1 attached TE, 2 Wrs) and runs a sweep RPO. The defense must be aligned incorrectly because they have a cornerback accounting for the C gap.

You usually don’t want corners to be responsible for inside gaps because they aren’t as physical and can be easily overpowered by linemen executing their run blocking responsibilities. The CB backs up instead of playing downhill and that leaves a hole for the running back to scamper through for an 8-yard gain

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Before the defense can blink the offense is lined up again in double tights this time with receivers on each side. One of the receivers orbit motions over to the right to fake a bubble screen. The offense runs a Statue of Liberty play, picking up another first down. So, in addition to having a new formation on each and every play of this drive, the defense now has to think about staying disciplined because of possible trick plays.

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The offense seems to have confused even themselves on the next play by only having 10 players on the field. The play is stopped for negative yardage.

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On the previous play the Huskies were in a tight formation with two backs and a tight end. On this play, they are in an empty set which is basically the complete opposite of the last formation. Again, place yourself in the defense’s shoes. It is extremely difficult to get into a mental flow when faced with such chaos. The defense has no one near the B gap and even though Browning is surprised by the snap, he finds the opening and scrambles 14 yards for another first down.

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The offense comes out in a H-back right stack right formation. The defense is still in its base formation even though the Huskies are near the goal line. There is still late movement, which seems to be the defense just lining up late because of late recognition. UW runs another RPO and Browning hands the ball off to get closer to the goal line.

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The offense motions into another unorthodox formation with quads (four receivers to one side) to the right but gets stuffed.

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On the last play of the drive, the Huskies come out in some sort of strange quad bunch formation. I’ve never seen anything like it, so I’m not even going to try to name this formation. But they are able to outflank the defense on a toss play and running back Myles Gaskin bounces off several tackles to score the touchdown.

Death by a thousand cuts is an ancient torture technique that is true to its name. Petersen torments his opponents similarly with a nonstop blitz of different formations, motions, and well-timed trick plays. He is slowly wearing down the opponent’s mental state by having them constantly think and adjust in under 40 seconds, thereby preventing them from getting into the flow of the game. Petersen’s psychological warfare is a huge reason why Washington could be on the cusp of a breakout season.

Follow Ted on Twitter via @RaidersAnalysis. Check out his site and his other work at ITP, such as how Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey seems an omniscient back and on the evolution of the counter trey rush.

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All film courtesy of DraftBreakdown.

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2 thoughts on “Death by a 1,000 Formations: University of Washington’s Offense

  1. Good analysis. It was interesting seeing the variety of formations. S. Miss helped UW by missing a lot of tackles and often playing 10 yards off receivers, even in the red zone. Several of these plays didn’t make that much yardage or wouldn’t have if S. Miss had not missed tackles. Might be tougher sledding against Alabama.

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