Graham: 'Simple mistakes' to blame in ASU secondary breakdowns

Slant routes and basic motion gave Arizona State's defensive backs trouble in a fashion that surprised their coach Todd Graham against Washington State.

Visibly frustrated in his post-game press conference following his team’s 38-24 loss to Washington State, Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said Saturday’s second half effort might have been the worst defensive outings his team has played. 

After watching game film, Graham admitted Monday he was probably exaggerating with that statement due to his high emotions, but still emphasized ASU’s seven critical defensive errors throughout the game – errors which Graham called “simple stuff” and those the team “shouldn’t be making.”

“It's frustrating because I thought we defended their offense very well and gave up stuff that you shouldn't give up, and it was really slant routes,” Graham said on Monday.

Playing in WSU head coach Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” offense, the Cougars throw the ball a vast majority of the time, but against ASU it wasn't long throws that caused any problems. Instead, they scortched ASU on slant routes and motion plays due to breakdowns in the Sun Devils’ secondary. 

“On the slants, they motion a guy across and we both (two ASU defenders) cover the motion guy,” Graham explained on Tuesday. “It wasn’t the slants that were so hard it was leaving the slants uncovered which is just absolutely, that can’t happen and we practiced it. I don’t understand why it happened, but that’s kind of what happened.”

On the one play Graham talked about, the Cougars had a third and 6 at the ASU 45-yard line and WSU’s slot motion lead to mix up between senior safety Jordan Simone and senior nickel corner Solomon Means as to who had the existing slot receiver on the boundary, where the other slot receiver had just motioned to as a decoy. 

But while Simone told Means to switch, Means didn't and the boundary slot receiver was left uncovered. WSU sophomore quarterback Luke Falk then proceeded to find that uncovered receiver for a 32-yard gain. Freshman safety Kareem Orr had a shot to tackle the receiver but missed and the ball ended up down at ASU’s 13-yard line. 

“Sometimes you'll have critical errors, you leave a guy uncovered and they won't throw it to him or they won't find him.” Graham said. “We're not having any of that. When we make a mistake they're right on it.” 

Another instance of an ASU defensive breakdown was WSU’s first touchdown play – otherwise known as the “fifth down play.” With the Sun Devils in nickel defense as WSU executed a slot motion from the field side to the boundary, Means followed the slot player, leaving Orr as a help option to the field side. 

But when senior field cornerback Kweishi Brown didn’t get set quick enough and the receiver released inside of him, Orr was out of position and the receiver slipped past Brown and Orr and into the end zone. 

“He (Orr) has just got to be able to make adjustments and he’s able to, he’s a smart player, he’s just got to be direct and run,” ASU safeties coach Chris Ball said. “He’s the quarterback (of the defense) and he’s got to be more vocal and better with communication and that starts with me. I got to get him communicating better.”

But while Orr’s lack of awareness lead to some of the critical errors, some of the blame also falls on Brown and senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington when they didn’t execute the correct leverage, get a jam at the line of scrimmage, weren’t back on their heels, or just weren’t in the right position to make a play. 

While playing inside leverage -- which is more common on third and fourth downs -- Carrington and Brown are supposed to steer their man to the sidelines and have opponents try to beat them with fade routes or passes vertically up the sideline, which take longer and are harder to complete in part due to quarterback being rushed more on passing downs. When using outside leverage – something Carrington and Brown were doing on early downs against WSU – the goal was to steer their man inside towards the safety help in the middle. 

“Really the main thing is I say stay square in front of the receivers,” Carrington said. “Executing our footwork and hand placement and jamming and pressing guys on the line of scrimmage and at times playing at outside or inside leverage you may get different angles depending on the routes, but our main job is basically to play within the scheme of the defense and execute at the top of the route.” 

But when Brown and Carrington were playing inside leverage on third and fourth downs, they still gave up inside releases for slant throws and that shouldn’t of happened with how ASU’s defensive backs are taught to defend plays. Part of the issue was several instances of the corners trying to get a jam on receivers to stun them at the line of scrimmage and missing. 

“Oh there was leverage issues on the slants,” Graham said. “Obviously we’re supposed to be taking away the inside and (were) sitting back on our heels. That’s what I mean by critical error. We are supposed to be stepping, being firm with the inside hand and taking away the inside and our guys are backpedaling. And they didn’t do it all the time, just in the critical times when it was vital.”

Carrington in particular had two almost identical leverage issues at two critical junctures in the game, mistakes he very rarely made in the first eight games of what has been a good individual season. 

With the Cougars facing fourth and inches on the first play of the fourth quarter, Carrington was playing inside leverage in man bump coverage, missed getting a jam at the line of scrimmage, and allowed the receiver a clean inside release for a 14-yard gain.

Then, with the Cougars down 24-31 with 4:13 left in the fourth quarter, Carrington was playing inside leverage again since he didn't have any help inside, missed his jam, the receiver got inside of him and took a five-yard slant for a 75-yard touchdown.

Carrington said fundamentally he knows what he did wrong and the main thing for him will be to “understand the situation and execute when the time comes.”

With that 75-yard completion and a previous 47-yard completion in the fourth quarter for the Cougars, they made up the two longest plays of the Cougars’ offense all season. WSU’s previous season-high was a 43-yard completion. 

But while critical errors are occurring more often this year than in years past, and have led to ASU giving up a league-worst 8.1 yards per completion, Graham said on Tuesday he doesn’t question his team’s lack of effort. 

“It (critical errors are happening) in the very critical times and that’s when it counts,” Graham said. “We aren’t playing undisciplined, we aren’t not giving effort, our guys are giving effort. We are a good team. You got to do it 100 percent of the time, not 94 or 93 and we got to put that together and a lot of that, you can’t operate outside of the system and just trust what you’re doing.”

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