Washington’s Run Defense: Overcoming the Numbers Game

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]One of the top teams in the country entering the 2018 season, and the preemptive favorite to win the Pac-12, the Washington Huskies have boasted one of the best run defenses over the past few seasons and should continue to do so into 2018. They led the Pac-12 in points per game allowed, total yards allowed per game, rush yards allowed per game, and yards per carry per game. They’re talent on the defensive side of the ball is absolutely to thank for this, nose tackle Vita Vea went in the first round of 2018 NFL Draft for example, but there are other things at play here.

The Huskies run a 2-4-5 base defense on most plays, against heavy and spread personnel fairly equally. From this they’re able to stop the run routinely (they allowed 2.6 yards per carry against Pac-12 opponents) even when facing numbers disadvantages in the box.

Diante Lee did some work into box counts in the college game and found that offenses had a 64% success rate against “minus” boxes compared to a 36% stuffed rate. Against “even” boxes the rate 46% success rate, so fairly close to 50/50. Against “plus” boxes it was just a 29% success rate.

By no means is this the be all end of data or debate on when to run the ball. However, it shows there’s a fairly clear trend that running tends to work against undermanned boxes, fails against loaded boxes, and is hit or miss against even boxes.

The Huskies bucked this trend, a primary reason why their defense is so good. Watching the Huskies run defense on film was so impressive because they routinely stopped run plays while playing down a man (or even two) in the box. Meaning, they would be able to stop a run with one fewer defenders in the box than the offense had blockers. The result being more defenders able to sit back in coverage to stop some of the high flying passing attacks in the Pac-12.

The reasons for their success, even when at a numbers disadvantage, is threefold and really amounts to winning at all levels of the defense. Their 2-4-5 scheme relies on their 2 defensive tackles consistently eating up double teams. If they can do that with just 2 down linemen rather than 3 or 4, it allows them 4 linebackers with athleticism and run stopping potential to roam the field. These linebackers can shoot gaps on defensive run blitzes, which is the second big reason the Washington run defense is successful.

Finally, with 5 defensive backs on the field against different offensive personnel packages, those DBs better be able to tackle. That’s the third and final reason for the Huskies’ success, DBs who can drop their weight and hold the edge in the run game. These things aren’t overly impressive since tons of teams have pieces of these elements. However, because Washington threads these three abilities and strengths through their run defense they can consistently leave themselves in “minus” boxes and come away with a stop.

Defensive Tackles and Double Teams

This is really what builds the Washington defense.The consistent ability of their defensive tackles to occupy offensive linemen frees up so much of the rest of the Washington defense. If the Huskies stick to minus boxes, they need a defensive tackle to occupy two offensive linemen to give the rest of the D one-on-ones. If the DTs can be handled by single blockers, there are simply too many free offensive players to mop up linebackers.

The defensive tackles at Washington have long been their strength, as they’ve churned out NFL DTs in recent years. A recent Slack discussion at ITP had us thinking about position groups different colleges are known for, and Washington’s DTs immediately came to mind.

Let’s look at two plays to see how the Washington defensive tackles occupy doubles and free up their teammates for plays, even against minus boxes.

This first play comes from Washington’s game against Utah. It’s the very first play of the game with Utah on offense and they’re backed up to their own five yard line. This is a very basic outside zone run to the offense’s left from a seven man blocking scheme up front, with tight ends to each side of the OL. Washington is in their 2-4-5 defense with six men in the box.

This play has a good example of both sides of the internal offensive debate of doubling the defensive tackles for Washington. Offenses can either hold their double teams throughout the rep to totally eliminate the defensive tackles from making a play. This then leaves linebackers free from blockers. On the other hand, blockers can climb off the double team before it is secured to lock up the linebackers. If the tackle is agile enough, they’re then able to make a play. It’s a pick your poison type scenario for offenses.

Greg Gaines (#99), aligned as the defensive left 2i technique, will get doubled and prevent either of the right guard or right tackle from climbing to the linebackers. While Ben Burr-Kirven (#25) doesn’t end up making the tackle, Gaines occupying the right side of the OL allows Burr-Kirven to stay free throughout the play.

Conversely, Vita Vea (#50), who is aligned as the right 2i technique, is not double teamed through the entire rep. Center Lo Falemaka (#69) will shove Vea to help the left guard secure him. However, the left guard cannot secure Vea alone, which allows the massive DT to make the tackle on his own.

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These two approaches to the two defensive tackles highlight the struggles offenses will face when running against Washington. Holding the double teams against the DTs and not climbing to the second level (as done here with Gaines) prevents any sort of blocks on linebackers and leaves them free to attack the running back. However, if you do try and get to offensive linemen off the double teams to the linebackers (as in the case of Vea) then the strength of the Washington defense, their defensive tackles, can mop up and make plays.

If the Washington defensive tackles continue to occupy double teams, Washington can continue to play in minus boxes without sacrificing any run defense.

One other play that shows the defensive tackles as the strength of the Washington run defense comes from their game against the Colorado Buffaloes. This play comes against what is on the edge of being a minus or even box, as you can see below.

Linebacker Azeem Victor (#36) is on the edge of being considered in the box. While he’s likely counted as “in the box,” the run for the Buffaloes will go to the right side and Victor is too wide to really make a play on the ball.

Colorado will run a power run to the right side by asking the right tackle and right guard to work a double team on Vita Vea (#50), the center and left guard to double Greg Gaines (#99), and the left tackle to pull and lead block for the running back.

Both Vea and Gaines will totally overwhelm their respective double teams and prevent any of the offensive linemen involved in the blocks to climb to the second level. So even though the Huskies have just one linebacker in position at the second level to make a play, he’s the defender who ends up making the tackle because he was kept so clean by the two workhorses Washington had up front.

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As I mentioned earlier, and these two plays serve as good examples of this, playing with just two defensive linemen could certainly pose risks to the Washington run defense. If they are blocked more often than not by just one player, then the numbers game is just too much to overcome at the second level of the defense. However, if one DT can occupy a double team like they so often do for Washington, then the numbers game is suddenly an even one. With the talent the Huskies have on their defensive front and at linebacker, they win more than they lose those even matchups.

Linebackers and Run Blitzes

Moving to the next level of the Washington defense we can see how their linebackers influence a lot of their success against the run. Obviously cleaning up when left free thanks to double teams is a big part of the Washington linebackers’ role. But, one schemethe Huskies utilize with their LBs on defense is the idea of run blitzing to force blockers into conflicts (especially when they are looking to double team the DL).

This first play illustrates this concept perfectly. Arizona State is lined up in 12 personnel with tight ends to either side of the formation. They’ll run a split inside zone run, with jet motion from the wide receiver to try and hold the eyes of the linebackers. Washington is in their 2-4-5 defense with six defenders in the box and a safety hanging underneath but just outside the box.

Once the Sun Devils begin the run play, Washington executes a run blitz with linebacker Keishawn Bierria (#7). He’ll shoot the A-gap between the center and right guard to force the center into a bind.

If the center (who is doubling Vea with the left guard) stays on the double team then the gap is open for Bierria to blow up the run. Since that’s a huge negative, obviously, and the center should try and come off the double team early to block the linebacker. But as we saw above, trying to block the Washington defensive tackles alone is a task in its own right.

Here, the center for Arizona State will try and get to Bierria but does so too late in the play. Bierria’s quickness and burst wins the rep and gets him into the backfield early on. He’s able to get across to the running back and make a big tackle for loss early in the drive.

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This play shows another great example of what I mentioned above, double teams freeing up linebackers. Ben Burr-Kirven (#25) is left free by Greg Gaines (#99) being double teamed. While Burr-Kirven doesn’t make the tackle itself, he’s right there to mop up the play if necessary.

This other play is another good example of linebackers run blitzing, but shows the flip side of the situation above. Here, against Stanford, Washington blitzes a linebacker (Burr-Kirven) and puts the right guard in the same bind the center had in the play above. Stanford runs a counter run to their right, pulling the center and right tackle. Burr-Kirven will fly into the gap vacated by the center here on a run blitz.

This now puts Stanford’s right guard in the same bind that the Arizona State center was above. The right guard and tackle are doubling Vita Vea (which seems to be the smart thing to do when running the ball) so the right guard has to make an adjustment. The right guard leaves the right tackle alone to handle Vea to chip Burr-Kirven on his way into the backfield.

As the right tackle leaves Vea alone he does a good job of stopping the immediate threat of Burr-Kirven. However, this is exactly what Washington is hoping for by designing this scheme. It leaves their first team All Pac-12 defensive tackle in Vea one on one against the run.

The future first rounder is gonna make that play.

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This play is a perfect example of why Washington designs run blitzes into their defensive scheme. Sure, it’d be great if the linebacker gets home and stops the play (like the Arizona State play). Of course. However, the double teaming offensive linemen, who need to climb to that linebacker in the first place once the block is secured by one player, are forced off their block and will pretty much always leave the defensive tackle.

But, because the linebacker forces them to leave the double team early, the block is not secured by the single blocker remaining on the DT. That leaves blockers (like Vea against Stanford) in position to beat one on one matchups up front and stop run plays.

Forcing the issue as a defense and making the offense pick their poison is Washington’s goal and the biggest reason for their success while playing in minus boxes. Letting the offense dictate the terms can allow them to overwhelm Washington from a shear numbers standpoint. However, forcing them into disadvantageous positions with linebacker blitzes is an ideal way to wrestle back control of the run game from the offense.

Defensive Backs Tackling

The last piece to Washington having such a successful run defense is how well their defensive tackles are able to tackle. This includes safeties of course, both as a last line of defense and in the box, but also cornerbacks stepping up on the edge to hold defenses to short gains. These plays focus less on scheme and more on overall team philosophy and coaching. These final two plays are a few of many examples where Washington DBs put the team first, hustle past blocks, and make big plays in the run game.

These two plays are quick examples from the Arizona State game. First, watch nickel corner JoJo McIntosh (#14) in the slot to the defensive right. He takes on a cut block from the slot receiver, moves aggressively forward to defend the run, and gets outside leverage to set the edge. Then, he unloads with a big hit and a great wrap up tackle to limit the play to just a one yard gain.

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Then, later in the game, Myles Bryant (#5) gets involved in the run game as well. On this play he’s the slot corner, this time to the defensive left of the formation. He reads run quickly and sees the gap forming on Arizona State’s counter run.

Rather than engaging with the slot receiver just to stay engaged he shoots inside of the receiver to get to the line of scrimmage. He drops his hips really well to stay under control and drops his shoulder low in the hole for the tackle along with LB Ben Burr-Kirven (#25).

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Burr-Kirven had initialized the tackle, but he was engaged with a lead blocker in the hole. Had Bryant not screamed forward there would have been room in space for the RB to operate for sure.


As I mentioned at the beginning, scheme is a big piece of Washington’s success on run defense, but talent is another important part of the equation. So much of the plays above (and the ones not shown in this piece) are because of the talent on the Washington defense. Coaching and scheme are both super important to design a system that puts your talent in a place to succeed, but to design your run defense around defensive tackles who can take on double teams you need, well, defensive tackles who can take on double teams. That isn’t a skill every defensive tackle possesses and it’s even tougher to be able to do it on a down to down basis while also providing enough against the pass to stay on the field all three downs.

The really impressive thing in researching and watching tape in preparation for this piece was how seamlessly all of the different levels of the Washington defense works together to stop the run. As I touched on above, linebackers can make plays if defensive tackles are doing their job.

Those same linebackers can only be aggressive in the middle of the field if they trust that the defensive backs on the edge can hold their own. Same for the DTs in the middle. On sweep runs they’re only helpful in eating double teams if corners can step up and make a play on the outside. Otherwise, offenses can scheme around your strengths to neutralize them and exploit your weaknesses.

Washington is the perfect mix of strength up front, quickness in the middle of the field, and toughness on the edge. That’s why their run defense should continue to dominate the Pac-12.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @DBRyan_Dukarm. Check out the rest of his work here, including his look at what Chip Kelly’s run game will look like at UCLA and his study of what effect making a pre-draft visit has on being drafted.

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