Expert Analysis: DBs vs. Arizona

In football, they say there's no substitute for experience. If that's so, it's hard to imagine who could better help us understand the performance of Stanford's DBs at Arizona than Nick Sanchez, a starting Stanford corner but two seasons ago. The defense had a tough week in the desert, giving up 43 points, and Nick explains drive by drive just what happened.

Overview:

Man, this was an exciting game to watch. It's too bad our boys didn't come out on top. It's always hard to watch a team fight so hard and play so well at times, only to not come out with a W. It seems every time we go down to face Arizona, we are in a war to the bitter end. Some of my favorite games of my career were victories in very close games out there in the desert night of Tucson.

We have to be able to win games where Andrew Luck and Toby Gerhart lead the offense to 38 points and almost 600 yards of total offense and the defense has got to find a way to stop Arizona in the second half. Ron Lynn, Andy Buh, and their defense have to be extremely happy with an offense that can put up that kind of production and completely dominate the time of possession throughout a game, like Stanford did against Arizona. They obviously are not happy that their defense gave up over 400 yards passing, and then let Arizona take the lead in the final three minutes of the ball game. That being said, this is a team that wins together and loses together, so this loss cannot be placed solely on the defense. I am here to give Stanford fans a closer look at how the DBs faired throughout the ball game against Arizona.

First quarter:

The defense started out great, causing a fumble on Arizona's first drive. Bo McNally, Kris Evans and a host of Stanford players gang tackle a WR on a short pass, and Bo makes a great play of ripping the ball out, so Will Powers can recover. Good things happen when you fly to the ball and gang tackle!

Sudden change. Stanford turns the ball over and the D is on the field again. Teams love to "take a shot" and go deep after a turnover in order to take advantage of a big momentum swing. What do you know, on third down Arizona goes deep and scores on a 43-yard post pattern from Nick Foles to WR David Douglas. Let me go in to a little more detail here. Stanford is playing a "fire zone" cover 3. In this coverage, we are blitzing a LB or nickel back, and playing three deep behind it, with Richard Sherman, Austin Yancy, and Kris Evans playing the deep zones. Sherman does a great job funneling his receiver to the middle, right where Yancy is playing. Yancy is in perfect position, makes a good break on the ball, but does not make the play. In this situation a DB usually decides to either take off the WR's head or go for the interception. It looks like Yancy hesitated on which option to take and eventually did neither, giving up Arizona's first offensive TD. Yancy is a great athlete and is strongest playing "centerfield" where he can read and react to the QB and make plays. A QB should not throw a deep ball into the middle of the field versus a cover 3, and we have to capitalize on these opportunities. Yancy was out all last year, and hasn't seen a lot of game action this year, so maybe he needs to shake off a little rust.

Second quarter:

On third down, Austin Yancy makes a great open-field tackle to stop Arizona RB Keola Antolin short of the first down. DBs have to have short memories, and Yancy does a great job of shaking off that last TD and coming up big for the Stanford defense. He has made great strides in his open-field tackling skills since I played with him back in 2007. What a way to start off the second quarter on defense.

Corey Gatewood gives up a 24-yard pass to Terrell Turner down the sideline on 1st and 10. The defense does not want to give up these big plays of over 20 yards. In this play, it simply looks like Gatewood took his eyes off of his WR at the last minute. He had his man controlled the whole way down the field, and I think Turner just cut his route off short. Gatewood kept drifting back, allowing the separation for the completion. Gatewood is also a player who has not seen a lot of game action the corner position, and he will realize that you can never relax out on the field. The kid has a ton of talent and will continue to improve over the course of this season. Thankfully, this play is not too costly as the defense holds and Arizona is forced to punt.

Final drive of the half:

This drive was frustrating as Stanford had opportunities to get off the field and into the locker room with a 15-point lead. Arizona QB Nick Foles makes a very questionable decision, throwing a floating ball down the sideline into Stanford's cover 2 defense. Kris Evans does a great job of jamming his receiver and sinking with him down the sideline because he has no threat in the flat. Bo McNally is playing the deep half of the field and is in good position over the top of the WR. Evans times his leap perfectly and makes a play on the ball, but he cannot come down with the INT. This would have been a huge turnover for the Stanford defense.

Just a few plays later, linebacker Will Powers does a great job of getting his hands up and deflecting a pass. Kris Evans dives for it and makes what seems like a drive-stopping interception. But, upon further review the officials overturn the INT and Arizona keeps possession of the ball.

Two plays later, Foles connects with Turner for an 11-yard TD on a slant pattern. This pass was caught between CB Richard Sherman and LB Will Powers. Sherman is playing the "flat" in this cover-2 defense forcing his receiver in to the middle of the field. Will Powers is dropping into the "curl" and slips and falls down just as the WR is passing thru his zone. Powers has got to keep his feet and make this play, forcing Arizona to settle for a field goal. Now, Arizona goes into the locker room feeling good, with the momentum on their side.

Halftime thoughts:

Overall, this was not a bad half of football for the DBs. We just have to capitalize on the mistakes that the opposing QB makes and create some turnovers when we get the chance. Too many missed opportunities for big defensive plays left on the field in the first half.

Third quarter:

In a sign of things to come, the defense struggles on the first drive of the second half, allowing Arizona to march down the field on running plays and short passes. Our DB's need to take better angles and keep the ball contained to allow the pursuit to help on these open-field tackles.

On second and short, Arizona tests Richard Sherman deep on a fade route into the corner of the end zone. Sherman looks a little gimpy on this play, as he is playing with a deep thigh bruise, and gets lucky as the WR drops the ball. Second and short is often referred to as a waste down as teams like to "take a shot" at the end zone with nothing to lose. On the next play, Arizona comes back to the exact same play. This time Sherman challenges the WR at the line of scrimmage and has excellent coverage in the end zone. Pass interference is called as Sherman gets a little too aggressive with his hands before the ball gets to the WR. At this point, Sherman should either look back for the ball, or be a little bit more patient before using his hands so much to knock the ball down. This penalty sets up a field goal for Arizona. You never want to give up points but this was a good red-zone stand for our D.

Quinn Evans replaces the injured Sherman and is immediately tested. A young DB should be aware that the opposing offense will come straight at you when they realize who is out on the field. Evans is in good position against the fade route, but is outplayed in the air by veteran receiver Terrell Turner. Evans is a young player and as a former DB, I will tell him to shake it off, everyone gets passes caught on them, it is how you respond on the next play that is most important.

Sherman is back on the field, obviously playing through pain, and makes a great play knocking down a pass in the red zone on third down. UA goes for it on fourth down and scores on slant pattern caught by Douglas. Nickelback Michael Thomas is in man-to-man coverage and simply gives up the inside lane for the slant. In man-to-man coverage, especially down by the goal line, you have got to take away the inside because it is such an easy throw for the QB. Thomas must make the WR go around him and force a longer throw to the outside. Thomas is a young player who I really like, he is getting better each week and I know he will learn from this play.

Fourth quarter:

Not a lot to comment about on the DBs for the fourth quarter, other than we gave up another big play through the air. Foles connects with Juron Criner for a 37-yard gain down the sideline. Upon further review, Kris Evans just loses the battle at the line of scrimmage. I would say that he lined up a little too far off the line in his "press coverage" alignment and was not able to get his hands on Juron Criner. After that, it is a good pass by Foles and a good catch by Criner. I would like to see strong safety Bo Mcnally take a better angle and help Evans over the top. He is playing a cover-4, or quarters coverage, so when he has no threat to his zone, he becomes a "free" player. This is a tough play for a safety to make, but I have seen Bo make it before.

Arizona did a great job of setting up the run with the pass in the fourth quarter. Both of UA's long TD runs occurred when Stanford played "zero" coverage and challenged the WRs in tight man coverage. UA sprung long runs for TDs up the middle twice, with no DBs in sight, because they were covering their men with their backs to ball carrier.

Takeaways:

To summarize the performance of our DBs, I would say that we need to do a better job of recognizing the three-step drop and breaking on the short passes and screens with more aggression. UA uses a spread attack that makes it hard to get a lot of pressure on the QB. In our zones, all of the LBs and DBs need to be breaking on the ball as the QB starts his throwing motion. This will negate a lot of the YAC that we saw against Arizona. We need to tackle better, and most importantly, we need to start making plays. There were very few instances when the DBs had bad technique or were out of position, we just have to capitalize on the opposing QB's mistakes and outplay the WRs for some balls out there. If we capitalize on the few opportunities we have to make plays every week, this will be a very tough defense to play against. I have the utmost respect for Ron Lynn, Andy Buh, and Clayton White, and I know they will have this secondary ready to play next week against Arizona State. I am looking forward to watching them learn from this game and move on to next week!

Before graduating with the Class of 2007, cornerback Nick Sanchez (#2) was one of Stanford's top cornerbacks in recent memory. In his final game on the Farm, his two interceptions sealed the Cardinal's first Big Game victory in far too long, 20-13 over Cal. Look for much more from Nick in the weeks to come!


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