How the Passing Game of the Huskies Can Bite the Ducks

DazeNconfused Analysis

Washington’s new coach Kalen DeBoer brings his transfer QB Michael Penix Jr. and the No. 1 passing offense in college football to Eugene to face the Ducks. What is DeBoer scheming up to attack the Ducks Cover-2 passing defense? Does Oregon’s Dan Lanning have some scheme surprises of his own? Can the Ducks slow DeBoer’s air attack down and stay undefeated in the Pac-12?

Many Duck fans were surprised to learn about the offensive prowess of Kalen DeBoer when I wrote a preseason warning article about UW that you can read here. He possesses a brilliant mind and the scheme he employs uses multiple formations, lots of motion and creates one-on-one matchups in space. Much like Oregon’s Kenny Dillingham, DeBoer attacks all parts of the field.

What’s Oregon’s Cover-2 Pass Defense?

The Ducks’ Cover-2 is a two deep safety set with five underneath defenders that include the corners, linebackers, and the Star position. In the Cover-2 the safeties set up at least 12 yards off the ball on each hash mark, each has the coverage on one deep half of the field. This makes it hard for teams to get over the top of the Ducks for long explosion passing plays.

The Oregon Cover-2, while taking away the deep explosion passes, gives up underneath routes. Oregon is using simulated pressures this year, and thus applied pressure rushing four, while keeping plays in front of them in the Cover-2 with our back-seven. Oregon has forced opponents into quite a few throw-away balls due to down field coverage, and QB pressures.

Oregon with their Two High Safeties.

Most teams have attacked the Ducks Cover-2 with bubble screens, slants, short to medium crosses and running back screens. This has allowed them to get the ball out of the QBs hands quick, and attack what Oregon’s giving up due to the shortcomings of the Cover-2.

But What If a QB Can Make NFL Throws That Attack Cover-2 Deep?

I don’t expect DeBoer to settle like other teams for the underneath passing game the Ducks give him. This is UW’s biggest game of the year, a rivalry game on the road in a tough venue to play at. Playing it safe and letting Oregon dictate his passing game isn’t going to win this game for UW.

DeBoer has a QB in Penix Jr. who has the arm to attack the soft seams between the corners and safeties in a Cover-2. DeBoer can play some cards that will allow him to attack the Ducks’ Cover-2 deeper than other teams have been able.

The first method of attack relies of Penix’s ability to make bigtime timing throws to the sideline from the opposite hash mark. Having the outside WR run a 18 to 24 yard post-out attacks the seam over the top of the corner and the safety on the sideline. There is a hole in this range where the safety can’t get over to the sideline before the ball. This ball must be thrown on a rope by Penix, before the WR comes out of his break on the post. This takes NFL type execution by the WR running the route along with an NFL type throw that is on target, and on time.

Above the video is qued to the play in an Oregon Spring Game…ten years ago where a future NFL QB could throw that difficult “in-between zones” pass as a redshirt freshman. It was against Cover-3, but you get the idea–not many quarterbacks are able to throw that pass, but Michael Penix Jr. of Washington can.

When the route is run into the seam and thrown on time it’s almost impossible to defend. Conversely if the route is run too deep or the ball is underthrown, it can be intercepted. This throw is one of the reasons why the NFL went to the Tampa-2 defense that has a middle linebacker take a deep drop to the middle deep third coverage zone. This puts the safeties having the outer deep thirds to cover, and lets them get over to eliminate the seam route on the post-out.

The second way DeBoer can attack the Oregon Cover-2 is with a combination of scheme, a good QB read and a bigtime throw. The scheme part is to get numbers deep on the Cover-2 scheme, (Overload the number of receivers in the deep zones) and try to create confusion. The confusion can be as simple as freezing a defender and causing a slow read, or it can be as extreme as a total coverage bust.

Cover-2 is a zone scheme where the defenders cover the WRs that come through their zone. There is route reading involved, and there can be switching of coverages as a WR leaves one zone and comes into another zone. One route read assignment option for the Oregon coaches is to have the Ducks corners in Cover-2 not release the outside WR if he runs a vertical route.

In essence if the outside WR runs a vertical route, then the corner stays with him in man-to-man the whole way and expects the deep safety to get over for help. DeBoer can use this principle of Cover-2 to attack deep, trying to get one-on-one matchups deep, or a coverage bust.

One play that does this would be a 2 x 2 WR set (two receivers on each end of the LOS) with a running back, and three of the WRs who are running verticals. The outside WRs both run verticals up the sideline while one WR runs a vertical that he breaks into a middle-post route. This causes multiple reads for the defense to happen with a chance for the slow read by a defensive back, or a coverage bust. If there are no wide open WRs due to a coverage bust, there are still two one-on-one matchups for the QB to choose from. Keep in mind a slow read by a defender can give the WR the step he needs for the QB to drop a dime in his hands for an explosion play touchdown.

Oregon will need more big plays from the Christian Gonzalez and the secondary.

DeBoer can use other plays like this to attack the Cover-2 with numbers down the field. But there is a catch to this; the UW offensive line must pass protect these plays long enough to give Penix a pocket to make these throws from. The other risk with these deeper balls is an off target throw that ends up as an interception.

I expect we will see DeBoer ask his offensive line to give his QB a clean pocket to take some shots down the field. UW has nothing to lose by letting it all hang out.

Does Lanning Have Something Up His Sleeve For Penix?

Lanning has been running lots of base Cover-2 with a Bend-But-Don’t-Break style, using simulated pressures to rush four and keeping plays in front of our back-seven. He is making teams drive the field, and avoiding one big play scoring drives. He knows his offense is going to put points on the board, and he doesn’t have to play a high-risk defensive style. Lanning’s offense has been efficient in its per possession scoring, allowing Oregon to shorten the game. He has an overall high-percentage game-strategy that has worked well thus far.

Against WAZZU, Lanning’s safer Cover-2 scheme saw Oregon record 4 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, three QB hurries and quite a few throw-away passes. Will Lanning stick to this formula on defense, or will he throw some twists at DeBoer and Penix?

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