It’s not a secret that the Air Raid offense under Luke Falk has struggled against defenses led by Jim Leavitt. 2016 was the most notable example, as Falk completed under 50% of his passes—that number is skewed a bit by drops, but only a bit—for “only” 325 yards, which worked out to a shade over six yards per attempt. In 2015, when the Colorado Buffaloes came to Pullman, Falk and Bender put up very similar numbers. The completion percentage was much better (40/57), but the yardage only slightly so at 332. That’s less than six yards per attempt.
This season’s tilt against the Oregon Ducks was not a whole lot better, despite the outcome being a whole lot better. Falk ended up at 57% in one of the rare instances of him throwing for less than 300 yards, and was once again around six yards per attempt.
This week, the Buffaloes—sans Leavitt—once again make the trip to Pullman. They bring with them a much less experienced and talent-laden defense this year, but their defensive scheme has largely remained very similar, if not exactly the same. Will we see the same struggles from Luke? And what exactly is it about Leavitt’s defenses that throws the Cougar offense for a loop?
At Colorado last year, Leavitt’s defense threw a lot more man coverage at the Air Raid. That was largely due to having superior athletes in the secondary—three of the four starting members of that defensive backfield are now on NFL rosters. Ahkello Witherspoon is with the San Francisco 49ers, Tedric Thompson is nearby on the Seattle Seahawks roster, and Chidobe Awuzie, the most talented of the three, has started a game for the Dallas Cowboys in his rookie season.
When Leavitt moved to Oregon in the offseason, he inherited a defense that underperformed for previous Defensive Coordinator, Brady Hoke. Depending on your choice of advanced statistics, Oregon’s defense usually ranked somewhere in the mid- to high-seventies, well below standard for a Power Five team with the expectations that Oregon now has. Thus, instead of relying on the talent of his players, he is having to rely on scheme to mask some of his defense’s shortcomings. That’s not to slight Oregon’s secondary. They’re decent, but they simply are not on the level of CU’s from a season ago.
Here’s a look at the first non-touchdown play from scrimmage for WSU against Oregon two weeks ago. It gives us a pretty good idea of what Leavitt’s base defense against the Air Raid is.
WSU Offensive Formation: Ace
Oregon Defensive Front: 32 Dime C.2 Combo
There are a couple things to note just based on alignment. First, the edge defender just outside of Andre Dillard at left tackle. This is the same technique Leavitt used last year at CU that I pointed out way back in the season preview. He’s there to take away leverage if Falk had wanted to check to a run play. Interestingly, once Falk gets into his cadence, he backs out into coverage. Leavitt’s likely just trying to force Falk into a pass read. Secondly, it looks like a basic Cover 2 shell: split safeties with corners walked up into press coverage. But it’s not C.2 after the ball is snapped.
I’m going to let the tape run first, and then we’ll break down what we see. Keep your eyes on the combination at the top of the screen, particularly the exchange that occurs between Troy Dye (#35) and Justin Hollins (#11).
As he’s taking his quick drop, Falk sees Hollins initially stick on the slot and Dye flies horizontally, looking like he’s going to chase Jamal Morrow into the flat. That would be advantage Morrow, as Kyle Sweet is going to run an option route right in his path, “accidentally” creating a natural rub. But here’s where Leavitt gets his guys to pattern match. Dye knows he has another defender to his outside, so as soon as he sees Morrow release outside of the slot receiver’s alignment, he lets him go, allowing Hollins to pick up coverage and switching onto Sweet. That subtle little exchange allows Hollins to come up and tackle Morrow at the line of scrimmage. If the Ducks had played it “straight,” having Dye chase Morrow, Jamal likely gets four or five yards.
That seemed to be a pretty standard exchange—if the back crosses your face, give him to the next defender over and switch on to a likely in-breaking receiver. The other standard coverage rule seemed to fall with the corners. If the outside receiver did anything other than run a shallow or mesh route, the corner locked on and turned it into essentially a quarters coverage. If the receiver ran shallow, as was the case on Isaiah Johnson-Mack’s touchdown that BA broke down in his One Awesome Play from that week, then the corner would drop off and play some sort of zone or robber coverage. In our example above, both Tavares Martin Jr and IJM ran a route with a vertical, creating the man lock on them.
When the Cougs went 3x1, it changed some of the assignments for the Ducks, but we still saw a very similar pattern matching attack.
WSU Offensive Formation: Early
Oregon Defensive Front: 32 Nickel C.2 Combo - pretty much the same, just a personnel tweak.
Outside receivers press vertical stem, so the corners lock on man-to-man. Renard Bell at the H runs a wheel, and the safety knows he has no outside help with his corner chasing the Z, so he essentially locks man as well. The exchange happens with the Y and the F. Morrow again shoots to the sideline, and Falk is expecting the inside linebacker to chase him to the flat. Instead, he drops off that coverage, exchanges with the outside linebacker, and sits right where Jamire Calvin is running a stick route. That’s likely where Luke wanted to go with the ball. It’s covered, so he holds, nothing else is particularly open, he’s flushed out of the pocket and eventually force feeds Martin and settles for a short loss.
Much like the Air Raid gives receivers options in the course of the route based on what the defense does, pattern matching coverage gives defenders options to defend different routes they may see. Leavitt gave his Duck defenders a relatively simple either/or decision. Simple in concept, but recognizing on the fly takes a lot of reps and solid coaching on the keys. Here’s a tip of the hat to Coach Leavitt for consistently being a thorn in Mike Leach’s side.