Nota bene: Because Stanford didn’t debut their new offense against their week 1 FCS opponent, had an early bye in week 3, and got blown out in both FBS games, I have an unusually small sample to work with for an opponent going into week 5 – only 170 meaningful snaps on both sides of the ball. For context, I got 127 such snaps from just the Arizona – Cal game last week. The dataset is also complicated by significant offensive injuries before and during their second FBS game. So this preview will include much more of my subjective impressions than my usual data-driven approach.
Remarkably, Stanford brought out a new offense in week 2 against USC, having cribbed Wake Forest’s slow mesh RPO scheme. This isn’t the first change for the Cardinal on this side of the ball, as they’ve gradually incorporated more and more spread-option concepts over the last five years and been increasingly unable to operate their iconic power-run offense from a decade ago.
The core idea is to delay making a decision on run or pass until after the linebackers and/or safeties have declared how they’re going to play it, and always get to make the last choice on a play. It puts a premium on a QB who reads defenses well, a RB who can navigate a messy box, and an offensive line that can protect for the almost three seconds it takes to complete the mesh. The problem for Stanford is that they only had the first two of those things against USC, and against Washington last week they were out their starting back and the OL situation got even worse.
Head coach Shaw has announced that #22 RB Smith will be out for the rest of the season with an injury, and after talking to Jibriel it seems likely that we’ll see the same depleted OL as finished the game last week. In my opinion, Smith’s backup #2 RB Filkins is a fine replacement – he doesn’t have Smith’s raw talent or speed but he moves as intelligently and patiently through traffic – but the backup situation behind Filkins is inexperienced and lacks talent on paper. As for Stanford’s offensive line, I’ve been writing articles for years decrying how poorly this unit has been developed, and while the injuries certainly don’t help, I was hardly seeing a dominant performance when healthy.
The change to the Cardinal’s pass route structure has also reduced the efficacy of their most lethal weapons, which is a set of four very talented and sometimes undefendable wide receivers plus a good pass-catching tight end, who are healthy and together for the first time in over a year. The RPO scheme puts several of these guys on short inside routes, hoping that underneath coverage has cleared out chasing the run, instead of sending them down the sideline or to the post in one-on-one matchups on which they can box out the defender.
Frequent pocket collapses and in my opinion a less bold passing structure have contributed to very weak passing success rate across the sample: 23 successful designed passing plays vs 32 failures, or 42% efficiency given the down & distance. That’s a badly below average number and several percentage points below last year’s performance. Some examples of failed passing plays:
(Reminder – after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 – The QB strikes me as excessively focused on #81 WR Tremayne, this throw is forced into double coverage and he doesn’t have the chance to jump for the high pass. I think the throw here was probably to #84 TE Yurosek instead and the QB comes off him too quickly.
- :13 – This blitz was against both of Stanford’s starting centers.
- :23 – The read on the slow mesh here is correct, he pulls it to throw with all three second-level defenders coming up to play the run. But none of the receivers have gotten open in time and the QB just doesn’t have any escapability in a collapsing pocket.
- :31 – Same thing again (I have a lot of these on my tally sheet, Stanford has given up 13 sacks in two Pac-12 games), even with the TE staying in to protect and the RB delaying his release, the protection doesn’t hold up for the full delayed mesh and nobody’s open to throw to.
Jibriel and I talked about this at length on the podcast; he’s concluded that the wideouts have just been less impressive this year than their promise last year indicated, and when I asked him what scenario would result in a winning offensive performance from the Cardinal, he didn’t think a big day in the passing game was a likely part of it. Although it’s mostly a gut feeling, I disagree with that take because I still see some evidence of the potential NFL star in #18 QB McKee and some very dangerous remnants of the old offense. Even with all their pass-protection issues, Stanford is still passing for 7.5 adjusted YPA which is a perfectly average number, and 23.5% of their passes gain 15+ yards which is an excellent explosiveness rate. Some examples of successful passes:
- :00 – Throws like these are why I think McKee is a terrifying quarterback. There’s no gimmick here, just a pinpoint accurate throw with real heat between layered coverage on 3rd & very long.
- :12 – They’ve gotten away from doing it much but Tremayne can still perform this kind of undefendable box out, with the body control to fight off a hand inside his guard and get a foot down in bounds.
- :27 – Instead, most of the RPO passing offense are dink & dunks like this quick curl from a compressed formation, which is by far their most efficient play. I think the opportunity cost given Tremayne’s abilities is much too high but he certainly makes the play against a linebacker who’s very close.
- :32 – This is the ideal for the offense and what makes it potentially very effective if they can do it a lot more often – the backers and safety come up on the run, the pocket holds up long enough, and the very talented #4 WR Wilson has cooked UW’s walk-on corner in man without safety help.
From a statistical perspective, Stanford’s rushing offense is their most potent quadrant of football and the only one in which their efficiency rate is above water: 21 successful designed runs vs 19 failed ones, or 52.5%. They’ve rushed for over an adjusted 5.7 YPC, and 17.5% go for 10+ yards, which are both modestly above-average numbers.
However (and longtime readers must appreciate my difficulty in writing this) I think these data are misleading. Half the sample was taken prior to several salient injuries to run-game personnel discussed above and was against a DC who fundamentally fails to understand outside run contain, and the other half was against a run defense which was terrible for most of the last decade and I’m not convinced has turned it around. In my opinion the Stanford rushing attack that Oregon will actually face isn’t much of a threat, and I suspect a successful defense would almost always back out to defend the pass, induce the QB to hand off, and trust the d-line and OLBs on their own to contain the run.
Here’s a representative sample of all rushes:
- :00 – The defense drops two of three backers, both high safeties are bailing, and man coverage lets the WRs run off the rest, so the QB hands off during the slow mesh. Filkins patiently picks his way through the hole and even though the DT gets a hand on him by overpowering the center, he gets in a dive for a good gain.
- :09 – I think this is the right way to defend the slow mesh – back out, force the handoff, then simply defeat a weak line and prevent Filkins from finding an escape route by crushing the A- and B-gaps.
- :23 – This looks like a straight handoff to me without a read, it’s entirely dependent on Filkins’ vision to cut out of the collapsing hole and find the opening one.
- :28 – I doubt Shaw will ever entirely give up on the I-formation, but it remains as ineffective for the Cardinal as it was last year. This is the second time in as many games that the LG has failed to lead block properly, instead helping the TE with his block and allowing the LB to come in unimpeded for the tackle – there’s a nearly identical play against USC but with Smith getting stuffed.
The Cardinal ranked 103rd in defensive F+ last year, and every trend I noted in this Summer’s preview which I thought would cause that slide to continue has come to pass. DC Anderson is employing what he calls a 4-3 defense, but in reality is a 2-4-5, as they only have three scholarship interior defensive linemen and their “EDGE” players are all just lighter weight OLBs with a new title.
I’ve yet to see Stanford put all three true linemen on the field at once, and I don’t think any qualify to be a nose tackle … this is really the issue; Anderson wants to use a 3-4 but he’s entirely run out of 0-techs and has just three modestly talented 4-techs. When opponents go to 12-personnel, their “heavy box” response is to put in a third ILB, not more defenders on the line of scrimmage. One wrinkle I didn’t foresee back in May is that on several downs they pull even that second lineman, put a third OLB on the line, and play what I’d describe as a 1-5-5. Neither Jibriel nor I could come up with a great theory for what prompts this switch — a hazard of the small dataset — but we both suspect it’s simply the only way to keep the few linemen reasonably fresh in long games.
Predictably, the lack of size in the box has resulted in some of the worst rush defense numbers I’ve ever encountered. I’ve seen the Cardinal defend just seven designed rushes successfully in two FBS games prior to garbage time, vs 24 failures for an absolutely miserable 22.5% rush defense success rate. They’re allowing 8.2 adjusted YPC and just under 26% of designed rushes against them gain 10+ yards, which is pretty bad. Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 – Back in May, Jibriel and I both predicted that true freshman #23 OLB Bailey would win the starting job, an uncharacteristic move for Shaw but warranted given his obvious talent. Here he gets off the LT’s block and catches the back by the ankle while the rest of the front is getting easily washed out.
- :09 – There’s no resistance here by the line, and they’ve only got one backer over the middle of the formation and he makes the wrong choice.
- :23 – Just not enough beef to stop an obvious run situation and they need the ILBs to hit gaps immediately to help the interior. The read OLB has to stay outside on the QB run and doesn’t have anyone behind him to catch the back cutting inside him.
- :28 – Here’s the 1-DL front as #15 OLB Herron and #9 OLB Armitage are in the regular rotation at EDGE, and #0 OLB DiCosmo is the usual replacement for an interior lineman when they go to this look. With Herron out wide as a 7-tech and nobody else between him and the 0, the ILB has to fill this B-gap but he gets creamed by the LG and the safety takes a bad angle.
I think that Stanford has some individual pieces in the secondary with real talent: #17 CB Kelly who came on strong last year, #24 DB Fields who transferred from Oklahoma and stood out as pretty bright in my film study of last year’s Sooners, and #21 DB Williamson who’s a longtime veteran and reliable tackler. And I also think that the front, despite the run game issues, has flashed from time to time at rushing the passer or at least confusing the offensive line with its lightweight approach. So I wasn’t surprised that their pass defense efficiency number is better (though still well below average) than against the run: 18 successful designed pass defenses vs 26 failures, or 41%. Some examples:
- :00 – I don’t think very highly of the OL coaching at Stanford’s two Pac-12 opponents so far, and Bailey and Herron have gotten past some poorly developed tackles to flush the QB on a decent number of plays.
- :15 – There are a couple of plays on my tally sheet where Stanford’s 1-DL look seems to baffle the OL because they don’t re-adjust blocking assignments when DiCosmo switches sides, but on this one he’s just gamely occupying a double-team while Bailey and Herron again embarrass the tackles.
- :32 – Stanford uses a four-man rotation at ILB, I haven’t been enthusiastic about any of them over the years but this is some good man coverage of the back on the wheel, working him out of bounds legally prior to the catch so it’s an incomplete (the deep wing indicates this by dropping his hat).
- :43 – A timely A-gap blitz here against a goofy protection scheme. There are some pretty clear coverage problems of the other pass targets but the QB is forced into an inaccurate backfoot throw to his well covered first read by the pressure.
But I’m seeing frequent assignment breakdowns in coverage, particularly in the middle of the field against linebackers and safeties, and an awful lot of the pass defense is left on islands because the rush isn’t getting home. They’ve faced two of the most prolific passing offenses in the Pac-12 and so I think these numbers are somewhat inflated right now compared to where they’ll probably finish, but still they’re eye-popping: allowing an adjusted 11.2 YPA with 29.5% of passing plays gaining 15+ yards. Some examples of pass defense breakdowns:
- :00 – Fields is telling the corner to get into position but his message isn’t received, the corner doesn’t seem to know his assignment here. Williamson at least cleans up to save the TD.
- :12 – He’s covering the right guy here but Fields gets flipped around by the outside move and doesn’t have his hips aligned right during his backpedal to recover from biting on the false step, something that I documented the Oklahoma secondary do extensively last year and seems to have carried over.
- :32 – The entire defense is in the initial frame on this clip and so you can track the entire secondary across both angles – there’s nobody at all covering the field side, UW #2 is wide open for a touchdown pass. The Huskies’ QB doesn’t see him and throws low and away given the separation on the other drag, still getting an easy completion but for no extra yards.
- :45 – Bizarre miscommunications like this show up on my tally sheet a lot, the DB over the slot is bailing deep and I think the high safety is supposed to spin down to cover him, but he’s real late. The corner to whom the nickel is pointing seems to think he’s in man coverage when everybody else is in zone.