September 8, 2012; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; Washington Huskies quarterback Keith Price (17) escapes from LSU Tigers defensive end Lavar Edwards (89) during the first half of a game at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE
Many offenses struggle for daylight in trips to Baton Rouge. But through two weeks, Washington's offense has been dreadful, even when you account for the opponent at hand. And by the way, more rough opponents are on the way.
As a general rule, it is typically not very productive to write a "What's Wrong With [Random Team's] Offense?" article the week after a team plays LSU. To an extent, the cure for what ails the team will come by simply not having to play LSU anymore. In the case of Washington, however, it bears discussion anyway. After brief success, the Huskies struggled mightily in Week 1 versus San Diego State, and while we probably didn't expect dominance from quarterback Keith Price and company in their trip to Baton Rouge, we did expect better than 183 yards and three points (scored on a four-yard drive).
Washington entered 2012 as a popular darkhorse pick, if not for Pac-12 title contention, at least for a spot in the Top 25. Quarterback Keith Price's performance in his final two games of the season (granted, against less-than-resistant Washington State and Baylor defenses) was incredible: 44-for-66 passing, 729 yards, seven touchdowns, no interceptions. In replacing star Jake Locker with Price, the Washington offense stayed exactly the same -- the Huskies ranked 35th in Off. F/+ in both 2010 and 2011. It wasn't difficult to convince yourself that Washington would be ready for a surge in 2012, even despite the loss of some key pieces, including offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
In my 2012 Washington preview, I glossed over a potential issue a little too quickly:
The losses of second-team all-conference tackle Senio Kelemete (to exhausted eligibility) and guard Colin Porter (to degenerative arthritis) could hurt, but while the line might regress, it shouldn't regress TOO much after ranking 36th in Adj. Line Yards last year. (This sentiment changes if guard Colin Tanigawa hasn't fully recovered from last season's ACL tear.)
Ho hum … banged up, inexperienced line … nothing to see here. Oh what's that? The line continues to get more banged up and has struggled desperately?
In the span of six months, Washington has gone from that original optimistic prediction to possibly finding itself with Schaefer as the sole remaining piece of that projected quartet at the opening of Pac-12 play. In April, Sarkisian confirmed reports that Porter, considered by many to be Washington's best lineman, would have to retire from the sport due to degenerative arthritis in both of his shoulders. Early in fall camp, Kohler (who shifted to right guard following Porter's retirement) dislocated his kneecap, and repeated that injury on Saturday during Washington's game at LSU; he's expected to be out for a month or more until the injury heals completely. Tanigawa missed the back nine of the 2011 season after tearing his ACL in the Oregon State game, and rumor has it that he missed practice today due to what the indispensable Bob Condotta calls "a serious knee injury." Add in the fact that new right tackle Ben Riva suffered a broken forearm in his first career start against San Diego State, and you end up with a unit that is in utter tatters compared to what fans originally expected it to be.
In two weeks, Washington has gained 511 yards of offense -- 97 (6.1 per play) in its first two drives of the season, 414 (3.7 per play) since. Price has been sacked seven times in 78 pass attempts, a rather woeful 8.9 percent sack rate (not Tino Sunseri-esque, but bad enough), and he has averaged a mere 4.2 yards per pass attempt (including sacks). Ballyhooed sophomore running back Bishop Sankey has rushed 30 times for 82 yards (2.7 per carry). In terms of line stats, the offense is averaging 2.32 Line Yards per carry, good for 108th in the country. Their sack rate? 111th. Star tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins has caught 15 of 20 passes for 133 yards (6.7 per target) … and everybody else has caught 27 of 51 for 246 (4.8 per target).
The short answer to "What's wrong with Washington's offense?" is, of course, "Just about everything." The slightly longer answer is, "The line has been dealt an awful hand." The long answer, though, speaks to more than just poor line play. Using charting data, we find that while the line has done Price no favors, Price has failed to execute when given the opportunity.
First things first: Washington's first two opponents have blitzed them a lot. Be it zone blitzes from San Diego State's weird 3-3-5 or more standard "bring five guys" blitzes from LSU's 4-3, Price and the line have been blitzed 46 times on 72 charted pass attempts, or 64 percent of the time. That's what happens when opponents a) stick you into passing downs quickly and b) don't fear the run.
- Against the zone blitz, Price has been sacked twice in 16 attempts and has completed 10 of 14 passes for 85 yards. Yards per pass attempt: 4.4.
- Against a man blitz, Price has been sacked once and scrambled once in 30 attempts. He has also completed 17 of 28 passes for 145 yards. Yards per pass attempt (not including the 17-yard scramble): 4.6.
- Of the 42 passes he has thrown versus the blitz, 28 have been thrown within six yards of the line of scrimmage. This is not rare; that is in some ways Blitz Handling 101. Price has completed 21 of these 28 passes for 149 yards (5.3 per pass). Not great, not terrible. Sefarian-Jenkins has been the primary target of these passes; passes to him have gone 6-for-8 for just 26 yards. As Mike Nixon wrote last week, the Huskies tend to use Sefarian-Jenkins, a former four-star tight end recruit, basically in long handoffs. They are punishing and high-percentage, but only so effective.
- When Price has had time to step up and step into a pass downfield versus the blitz, he has gone 6-for-14 for 81 yards (5.8 per pass). Obviously these are going to be lower-percentage passes, but when you have a chance to beat the blitz deep, you still want to average better than 5.8 yards per pass. On passes between eight and 13 yards from the line of scrimmage, Price is 5-for-6 for 63 yards. Passes further than 13 yards: a horrid 1-for-8 for 18 yards. Of those seven long incompletions, three were overthrown, two were underthrown and one was thrown out of bounds. Only one fell to the ground specifically because of strong defense. That cannot all be put on the shoulders of the offensive line.
- A couple of times per game last year, Price would tuck the ball and run with it. He averaged 5.1 yards over 30 non-sack carries in 2011, and he seems to have just enough athleticism that putting him in rollout and bootleg situations could be beneficial. They have not yet been in 2012. On designed rollouts and bootlegs, Price is 3-for-4 for nine yards and has taken a sack. When scrambling, he has gone 0-for-3 with an interception, been sacked once and has run twice for 11 yards. This is dreadful.
- Blitzes have been frequent but rather unnecessary. Under normal circumstances, with three to four pass rushers, Price is 14-for-24 for 140 yards and has been sacked twice for a nine-yard loss. On one of those two sacks, the tackler came completely unblocked. With (theoretically) time to throw and no blitzers coming at him, Price is 9-for-14 for 84 yards on passes thrown within seven yards of the line of scrimmage; on deeper passes, he is 3-for-7 for 56 yards, an actually solid average.
Price seems to have a nice skill set when he is comfortable in the pocket and, most importantly, his feet are set. When he throws on the run, off-balance or under any duress, things don't go very well, even on short passes.
Of course, a run game would help. The Huskies actually do alright when running out of the gun (5.1 yards per carry) or from zone read options (5.3), but in obvious power situations, it just doesn't happen; with Price under center, Washington averages 2.0 yards per carry. Rushes on second-and-short: 1.1 yards per carry.
We knew in advance that Washington's early schedule would be absolutely brutal. After last week's visit to Baton Rouge, Washington does get a small respite (Portland State this weekend, then a bye week), but Stanford's physical, impressive defense comes to town on September 27, then Washington goes to Oregon, then USC visits Seattle on October 13.
Rest and Portland State should help an increasingly battered offensive line at least a bit. But if they give Price more opportunities to throw downfield, Price still has to be able to deliver the ball. And if the Huskies couldn't run the ball against San Diego State, it is difficult to see them doing so against Stanford. We knew Washington's early road would be difficult; we did not necessarily know the Huskies would be this ill-equipped, through both injuries and iffy quarterback play, to handle the rigor.