Zach Wilson: Explain This Defense

In this article, we are going to explore some baffling decisions by the defenders that BYU faced this year.  Part of the negative outlook on Wilson from my viewpoint stems from the level of competition he faced in 2020, which props up his stats.  The main reason for the disparity in talent stemmed from the pandemic, which forced BYU to change their schedule drastically, but it also allowed for Wilson to face some sub-standard opponents. 

1)

The first problem that arises consistently on tape are defenses that don’t adjust for late movement because they have communication issues.  On this play, the right side of the formation starts off with two receivers, plus a tight end that is in-line.  The defense has three defenders in the area, with the cornerback having outside leverage.  Notice the linebacker on the other side of the formation, when the receiver goes in motion, because he takes over coverage for that receiver.  That aspect is well executed here, the linebacker took over for the receiver.  The miscommunication occurs when the right side is now unbalanced, where there is one receiver, and a possible route from the in-line receiver.  Thus, either the linebacker or the outside cornerback now has the responsibility to move with the receiver because it’s 3 on 1 (with the possibility of 2).  Instead, the linebacker stays static and monitors the tight end, while the cornerback floats backwards, and then tried to communicate with the safety while the safety is looking away.  Therefore, the defense lets a relatively simple deep crossing route run free right down the middle, for an easy completion.  To make matters worse, the defense got called for a penalty as well for holding, which was declined. 

The issue of late motion miscommunication comes up frequently with defenses this year, and this is for the most part well executed apart from the linebacker (or outside cornerback) that didn’t change their responsibility with the motion.  Once the receiver went in motion, and the linebacker on the other side took coverage, one of those two defenders should have altered their coverage responsibility to monitor the receiver.  Instead, they led him right to an open spot.  

On the positive side, Wilson moves around in the pocket, and doesn’t pull the trigger on the deep post route that was double covered, and gladly took the easy crossing route.  As far as Wilson is concerned, he did everything well here.   I mention this particular play in the article because it robs us of an opportunity to watch Wilson on a play where the defense actually communicated well.  The other aspect I want you to notice is the linebacker that switched into coverage, and how that was the right move on his part. 

2)

I don’t even know how to describe this one, because everyone but the safety (and field side corner) bites on the play action. 

1: The boundary side outside corner, what exactly is he doing? He’s in press cover with inside leverage, and jumps at the play action, and then basically waves goodbye to the receiver. 

2. The linebacker on the tight end also runs up to stop the run and completely ignores the tight end running right by him.  What’s his responsibility there?

The worst part of this is that, they basically dedicated 9 players to possibly stop the running back, yet the running back will be wide open for an outlet pass if Wilson waits.  Navy got beat like a drum on defense but they seemed completely outmatched. 

Let’s focus on the tight end that actually caught the ball.  The linebacker in that area comes up for the run, comes right into the passing lane.  He’s exactly where he needs to be to either stop this pass, or tackle the receiver immediately.  Instead, he literally runs away from the receiver he is responsible for defending, so Wilson gets some space to complete the throw.  Why run away?  What exactly is the goal to run away from the guy you are covering?  He comes back to miss the tackle as well, and then his teammate gets hurdled. 

A lot of the examples I show deal with communication issues, bad form, or an individual guy that just can’t play, where you can understand at least part of the issue.  I’m not sure how to even break this down. 

3)

This isn’t the article to focus on Wilson throwing this into double coverage, or missing an open crossing route that still is open after he runs into the official, because we’ve covered bad reads and bad throws plenty already.  If you do not see the issue with his processing at this point, I don’t think another example is going to sway you. 

Instead, we are focusing on the individual bad player here because what exactly is the safety doing here?  He’s going full blown Kyle Wilson here, and not even looking for the ball.  He’s just shoving the receiver with his arms extended right into his other teammate, basically throwing him to the ground. 

I love the reaction afterwards, where he cannot believe it’s a penalty.  Spent most of the route trying to push the guy into the ground, did not even bother looking for the ball that lands behind him, right in front of the refs, yet can’t believe it’s a flag. 

Now this happens to pretty much every team at some point because there will be always be some player that just can’t seem to avoid penalties.  We went through it with Kyle Wilson but I merely wanted to point out that defensive players not playing the ball was an issue for  Zach Wilson as well.  I didn’t want to focus solely on idiotic plays and communication issues.  

4)

If we pointed out an issue with Wilson on the last one, this is the opposite.  Wilson makes a great throw, stays strong in the pocket, and throws a perfect pass here.  A part of me thinks he expected the safety out of the play because he puts a lot of air on this pass making the play closer, but the read is perfect.  The placement is great, so it’s an elite throw by him.  

Saying all that, let’s focus on the defense because it’s another one where late movement causes a major miscommunication.  When the receiver goes in motion, the linebacker to the bottom of the screen (17) takes over as the primary coverage on that receiver.  You can see the change in positioning as the receiver goes in motion, pretty much as you would expect.  The issue here is that the safety to that side has no clue what he’s doing.  When that late motion occurred, the balance of the receivers shifted, at which point one safety moves to the middle of the field, while the second safety needs to move closer to the sideline.  Instead, the safety (4) is still under the impression that the linebacker (17) is going to take the tight end, when in reality, the linebacker has now switched his responsibility to the receiver in motion.  In this case, the safety (4) is now responsible for the tight end that eventually catches the ball, rather than the tight end running the seam route.  This miscommunication means the tight end is wide open down the sideline, for a relatively easy pass.  I think the only reason this is even remotely close is Wilson put air under it, because he has the arm to throw it on a much straighter line. 

This is probably the biggest issue I’ve seen on film with defenses, where they just don’t communicate well enough on late movement, leading to a breakdown in coverage. 

5)

This one is a bit more complicated, because the defense reverts to zone cover at the snap, and end up pretty much leaving everyone but one receiver wide open. 

First of all, I’ve pointed out this chip release routes by the tight end and running back consistently in BYU’s offense, and they are once again wide open again.  You will see this in every single game for BYU numerous times, they will run chip release outlets to both sides.  Yet, in every game you will find them completely wide open as well most of the time.  The issue stems from the level of competition and complexity faced by these defenses, where if they a player blocks first, the defenders react by abandoning that responsibility assuming they are staying in to block. 

The second aspect of this play is the safety in the middle of the field because he’s completely lost playing centerfield.  He has one route that is going to cross him, but he does not drive on that route.  Instead, he floats further to the sideline on the off-chance the outside receiver is running a post route.  On one hand, he has a confirmed receiver crossing him in front of him that is going to be open in the zone.  On the other hand, there is a slim chance the outside receiver may run a post or deep crosser, and he decides to take that chance.  He realizes it too late, at which point he is not covering anyone.  This is an example where there isn’t much discipline involved, it’s mainly just reacting, rather than playing proactively within the defense.  In this case, the safety has zero shot at most of the possible routes from the outside receiver, and that guy has two defenders dedicated to him, at which point he needs to engage on the crossing route. 

The third, and probably most egregious mistake is the outside cornerback to the top of the screen.  It’s zone coverage so he has outside contain on this play, but why is he running down the field here?  His receiver cuts off his route, yet he just jogs down the field for no reason.  The crossing route should be the first responsibility of the safety.  If you notice both cornerbacks end up doing the same thing, which is float about 10 yards away from the closest receiver, effectively taking them out of the play.  If they actually stayed relatively close to the receiver while still maintaining outside leverage, then it makes sense.  Instead, both of them run out of the play. 

The issue is exasperated when the chip releases are now out in the flats, at which point the linebacker has to react to that easy pass.  The linebacker runs to the running back outlet, and because the cornerback is floating 12 yards down the field, the receiver is wide open.  This is undisciplined defense where they aren’t reacting as much towards what is happening on the field, but rather the principle of the coverage they are in.  Yes, the defensive backs should be behind the receivers to cover their zones, but not running 12 yards down the field when the receivers ran curl routes. 

This is also a nice high low read from Wilson, where he recognized the linebacker abandoning the receiver for the outlet pass, thus it’s a good post snap read.

6)

Another example where late movement basically leaves the defense in shambles, and an easy pitch and catch, after which the receiver runs through about half the defense as well.

The first part where the linebacker switches to the receiver in motion works once again, as you can see him shift his coverage.  It bears to mention that this is a good way they get matchups on linebackers covering receivers with late movement.  That’s about the only thing that the defense does on this play. 

Once the receiver goes in motion, the responsibilities of either the boundary side cornerback or safety should change because there are less players on that side.  The safety (or defensive back) needs to rotate more towards the middle of the field and take the crossing route with the tight end.  Instead, both the safety and cornerback stay in the same area, bite on the play action, and take themselves out of the play. 

The linebacker on this play tries to cover the crossing route by actually taking away the deeper option.  It may look like he’s running away from the eventual receiver, but he’s trying to take away the bigger play, which is commendable.  Wilson completes the short pass, and then the tight end (or fullback) does the rest. 

A simple late motion (something Adam Gase seemed allergic to) created a wide receiver on linebacker match up, and took the safety and cornerback out of the play.  These are the types of plays where NFL defenses are going to be much more disciplined, and I worry about the transition for Wilson.  BYU was just on another level than the defenses, thus they were able to set themselves into much more favorable situations, simply because the defenses weren’t disciplined. 

7 & 8)

For this one, we’re going to focus on one player, #26, on UTSA here.  He is the field side outside cornerback on both plays, and the receiver makes the catch in both instances.  I’m not even looking at the rest of the defense, just focus on this guy. 

Can someone explain his defense here?  I understand having your hips turned to the inside on a play, as you will often see this in zone defense, where they want the ability to drive inside on any routes that move in.  However, almost always they have outside leverage so they can keep everything in front of them. 

In this case, the defender is lined up with inside leverage, and then turns his hips to the inside, which is redundant.  In cases where defenders turn their hips in, they maintain outside leverage because the receiver needs to turn 90 degrees for an in route, while the defender is already facing in that direction, thus allowing them to save time and make up the difference.  If you already have inside leverage, you don’t need to turn your hips inward because you don’t need that extra advantage because you are already in the inside position.  If you maintain outside leverage, you can see the receiver make an out cut, but you have a slight advantage in positioning, thus when the receiver turns 90 degrees, and you turn 180 degrees, that outside leverage helps ensure you are still close. 

However, what it does accomplish is putting the receiver in your blind spot.  The receiver is essentially running in your blind spot, and leaves you wide open for the out route.  On the first play, the defender runs 5 yards down the field AFTER the receiver cut outside.  There’s just no way he can defend this because he’s at a complete disadvantage.  Earlier, we mentioned why you maintain outside leverage because the receiver has to turn 90 degrees and the defender is already in position to drive inside, thus helping to shorten the gap.  In this case, the receiver still needs to turn 90 degrees, but the defender needs to turn 180 degrees, and then top of that, because he had inside leverage, he’s even further away from the intended direction of the play.  He’s losing leverage and momentum by taking this stance.  On the second play, the same guy runs about 7 yards down the field AFTER the receiver made his cut outside. 

This happens a few times in this game, and at times with different players, albeit BYU didn’t always go to it.  This is a major indication of the level of competition faced by the defense.  Notice that in both instances, the ball is snapped at the far hash mark, thus making both of them field side outside throws.  Therefore, the defense is essentially saying we don’t think the QB can make the far hash mark throw for an out route.  Most of the QBs they face likely can’t make that throw, thus they employ this defense.  In essence, they are using the limited abilities of the opposing QBs as a defense because they are crossing off the out-route here as an option to even defend.  Think of it as similar to playing off-ball defense against a basketball player that can’t shoot the three, because you know their own limitation acts as the defense.  You get so comfortable at that defense, that when you do face a 3-point shooter, you give up wide open looks. 

This brings back to the constant harping on Wilson for field side outside receiver throws as being a pattern.  How much of that derives from the defense not being ready to handle that pass at this competition level?  I don’t think the other teams were quite on the UTSA level of bad, but how much does it impact them, if they also don’t face QBs that can make that throw? 

Overall, the level of competition faced by BYU this year is a major concern.  BYU not only had better players, but their system completely overmatches some of these defenses with late movements.  You have to wonder how much of Wilson’s production comes from the defense just not being qualified to handle someone with a strong arm, which allows him to get away with risky throws more often than not. 

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